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A Reluctant Poet

How does a Puritan wife and mother in the 17th century become a published poet?  Faith Cook, in her book Anne Bradstreet, Pilgrim and Poet tells us.

Anne Bradstreet was a busy mother of five, living in Ipswich, Massachusset when tumultous events erupted in her home country, England.  The start of the Civil War was a cause for concern to the colonists in the Massachusset Bay area.  Amid these international changes, Anne was going through personal changes, this time in the form of a move away from Ipswich.  Her husband, Simon, was extending his business affairs, and that required a move fifteen miles upriver.  Even in the midst of all of the change and uncertainty, Anne continued to write poetry.  No doubt her personal circumstances were reflected in her poems.

Anne's brother-in-law, John Woodbridge, was asked to return to England to take part in dialogues with Charles I, who was imprisoned.  Parliamentary forces were in charge of the country, and these Puritan men, many who supported the monarchy, were going to make an attempt to reason with Charles.  When John Woodbridge went to England, he asked Anne if he could borrow the manuscripts of her poetry.  She agreed.  I don't know as if she was aware of what would happen with them, but I have to say that if that had been me, and especially in an era of no photocopiers or hard drives, I would have been quite reluctant.  There was also the possibility that Woodbridge would die at sea, and the manuscripts be lost.  She obviously trusted him.

While Woodbridge was in England (and finding that reasoning with Charles was a rather fruitless exercise) he determined to have Anne's poems published.  In a day when women were not usually afforded such assistance in these endeavours, this was quite a task Woodbridge was taking on.  Obviously, he thought highly of the poetry and the writer or he would not have sought to do this.

Woodbridge, with the help of Nathaniel Ward, Anne's former pastor, found a publisher for the work which came under the title The Tenth Muse.   Faith Cook says:

In July 1650 The Tenth  Muse - lately sprung up in America took the English reading public by surprise.  Measuring less than six inches in height and with diminutive print, this first volume to be given over entirely to a woman's poetry began to circulate.  But John Woodbridge had a problem.  He had acted without Anne's permission, and might well face his sister-in-law's indignation.

Cook comments on the success of the book:

The reception of The Tenth Muse was euphoric.  War-weary, uncertain of the future and troubled, the English people were both diverted and encouraged by the novelty of a woman who coul write excellent poetry.  Better still, Anne's strong Christian faith shone through her lines, even though she had not set out to write religious verse.

Anne's reaction was one of mortification; mortification, because the verse had gone to print unedited.  The volume contained not only mistakes of her own, but of the printer.  I don't think many writers like the notion of having their work published in an unedited format.  However, seeing as the work was published beyond her control, it is not surprising that she had not opportunity to voice her opinion.  I rather sympathize with Anne.  Considering the way other intellectual women were regarded, it was perhaps frightening to her to have this attention on her.  Anne looked forward to putting out a corrected edition.

She did get over her embarrassment, and could not have been to upset with her brother-in-law; she named her eighth and last child after him.

Published poet that she was, there was some hardship in Anne's future.  Tune in next week if you're interested.  Either that, or buy the book.  You could have the whole thing done in a week!


Teach me to pray

I'm sure many can relate to my sentiment when I say I don't think I'm good at praying.  Prayer is such a difficult discipline to develop.  It requires time, concentration, and proper foundations.  I remember being told when I first became a Christian that praying was just talking to God.  Shortly after becoming a Christian, I went to university, and I can remember laying in my bed at night, talking to God in my head.  It was the start of a prayer life, but I still feel like I'm so far and away deficient in that area.

D.A. Carson's book A Call to Spiritual Reformation points out ways to develop a solid prayer life.  In the chapter entitled "The Content of a Challenging Prayer," Carson talks about how Scripture shapes our prayer lives:

The study of the Scriptures with a view to strengthening one's prayer life has two foci.  the first is general and comprehensive:  the more we learn about God and his ways and his perspectives, the more we improve our grasp not only of elemental theology but of prayer as well.  All praying presupposes an underlying theology; conversely, our theology will have a decisive influence on our praying.  Of course, the direction of influence is not just one way:  it is also true to say that our prayer (or lack of praying) will also influence our theology.  Even so, deepening our grasp of Scripture is bound to have a reforming influence on our praying.

The second focus is narrow and powerful:  the study of the prayers of Scripture.  Learn to argue in prayer with Moses, to sing with David, to be farsighted and expansive with Solomon at the dedication of the temple.  Think through what it means to pray the prayer taught us by the Lord Jesus himself.  Learn to pray with Paul.  Such study will help us identify what to pray for, how to approach God, the proper grounds for our petitions.


The value of contemporaneity

I think one of the things that makes a book really good is if it causes us to evaluate things.  I must admit to liking it when I'm reading a book, and I am thinking to myself, "Yes, that's exactly right!" or "I see exactly what you're saying."  The book Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns was a book a lot like that for me.  But it was also a book where I was thinking, "Okay, I see the point, but ..." and I could hear objections that could be raised from another view.  But, in the end, the point caused me to evaluate what I think about certain things.  I think that is the mark of a good book.  There were a few occasions in reading Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns when I didn't agree as vigorously as on other points, but I could see how Gordon arrived at his conclusion.

One of the things I found most intriguing about this book, and which caused me the most pause for evaluation was the chapter called "Contemporaneity As Value."  Contemporaneity, as a value system prefers that which is new as opposed to that which is past.  The past is rather out of step, out of date, and not really worthy of attention.  Twenty-first century North America values contempraneity. 

Gordon provids some contributing factors to our love of the contemporary.  First, technology.  Technology naturally makes current modes of doing things seem obsolete, and not nearly as good.  When something new comes along, it is implicit that the old model is not as good.  Societies without the same level of technology as ours seem primitive.  Digital technology is even more of a contributing factor, beause it is image-driven.  Gordon points out that image-driven technology distances us from the past more than other forms of communication.  In looking at old photographs, with their faded colour and outdated modes of dress, we feel very removed from the past.  However, a piece of literature written from the same time as the photograph doesn't create the same kind of immediate distance.   Secondly, commercial concerns contribute to the love of contemporary.  The consumer culture is continually bringing forth new products; and not to make life easier, necessarily.  It is done for the value of making money.  The carrot used to encourage people to buy is that the product makes life easier.  Commercial forces, in their very existence, contribute to contemporaneity as a value system, because new equals "better," and we all want what is better.  Thirdly, a contributing factor is media.  The word "media" means more than news media, but that has become pretty much what we think of when someone says "media."  Strictly speaking, the word can refer to any number of ways of communicating.  However, news media has taken over what that means; and news is continually new.  Just think of CNN with its continual stream of updates running across the bottom of the screen.  There was a time when newspapers may have only published a few issues monthly, because any more than that was not necessary.  News has a lot of content that is just trivial.  If there are no natural disasters or military skirmishes in the Middle East to report, well, the latest foolhardy behaviour of some adolescent singing star becomes "news."   It has become the case that what makes something "news" is not its seriousness or its possible long term consequences, but rather its newness.

There were a few philosophical contributing factors which Gordon outlined, but I won't go into them here.  He talks about the contribution of Marxism (for Marx, the norm for society was change), progressivism, and historicism.  The point Gordon makes about historicism is worth an entire post of its own.  At any rate, our society has become a lover of the contemporary.  It isn't even that we hate the past; we just find it rather uninteresting, and not really "relevant" to where we are today.  Contemporaneity makes anything that is not current seem outdated, antiquated or foreign.  This is an important observation, because contemporaneity seems to be a criterion (if not THE criterion) employed in the selection of worship music.

Gordon states that to reject what is past is not consistent with Scripture.  He points out that in Scripture, we can observe an emphasis on passing down that which we know know.  Paul, the apostle, talks about passing down the Scriptures in I Corinthians 15:3:  "For I delivered to you as of first importance that which I also received:  that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures."   Paul received the word, and he passed it down.  One only needs to read the Old Testament to see the repeated exhortations to remember what God had taught and the need to pass it to subsequent generations.  Gordon even goes so far as to say that anti-traditionalism is un-Christian.  You'll have to read the book to find out the specifics of that point.

I think a very significant point to be drawn from this discussion of contempraneity is that we need to evalute why we choose the worship music we do.  What are the reasons for picking a particular song?  Is contemporaneity a good criterion?  Should we abandon it all together?  If contemporaneity is a criterion, then hymnody will change continually, because every piece of music eventually becomes something from the past.  How can musical forms become passe?  Just because a musical form is not as popular, does that mean it is not suitable or even superior in the creation of hymns?  This whole discussion of contemporaneity as a value system really opened more questions in my mind.

I really did relate well to Gordon's views on tradition and its importance, although some of his views did cause me to feel a bit skeptical.  But, as I said, if those words make me evaluate what I belive about this whole issues, then that's a good consequence of reading this book.


Thoughts on applause

In D.A. Carson's A Call to Spiritual Reformation, he discusses Paul's prayer to the people in Thessalonica.  Carson points on that in 3:12-19, Paul not only thanks God for the growth he sees in the people, but he also tells the people that he thanks God for them.  Carson reminds us that it is a source of encouragement to someone if we tell that person that we are thankful to God for the growth we see in him.  And of course, there must be balance in that.  He comments further:

So what we need, then, is a prayer life that thanks God for the people of God, and then tells the people of God what we thank God for.

This obvious lesson may have a bearing on the rising incidence of applause in many Western churches.  Applause used to be unknown.  Then it came to be deployed after special music.  Now it is sometimes heard punctuating sermons.  This is, I think, a regressive step.  True, some might consider this to be a kind of cultural equivalent to a voiced "Amen!"  I take the point, and would not want to introduce new legalism by banning applause outright.  But the fundamental difference between "Amen!" and applause must be noted:  the "Amen!" s directed to God, even if it serves to encourage the person who is ministering, while applause in our culture signals approval of the performer.  God is left out, and the "performer" may the more easily be seduced into pride.  This is one of several ways by which the rules of the entertainment world have subtly slipped into corporate worship and are in danger of destroying it from within.

Of course, Carson's sentiments would be soundly objected to on many fronts.  Applause is not really seen as "harmful."  I am reminded, though, that while things may not be "harmful," they may not be helpful, either.


Warfield Wednesday

I'm reading from the volume "Biblical Doctrines" in the collected writings of B.B. Warfield.  The first doctrine he deals with is predestination.  He spends quite a bit of time reflecting on the fact that predestination is a biblical doctrine that did not just pop up in the New Testament.  It is in the Old Testament.  He talks about the emphasis in the Old Testament of divine choice:

In every aspect of it alike, it is the sovereignty of the Divine choice that is emphasized, - whether the reference be to the segregation of Israel as a nation to enjoy the earthly favour of God as a symbol of the true entrance into rest, or the choice of a remnant out of Israel to enter into that real communion with Him which was the joy of His saints, - of Enoch who walked with God (Gen. v.22), of Abraham who found in Him his exceeding great reward (Gen. xv. 1), or of David who saw no good beyond Him, and sought in Him alone his inheritance and his cup.  Later times may have enjoyed fuller knowledge of what the grace of God has in store for His saints - whether in this world or that which is to come; later times may have possessed a clearer apprehension of the distinction between the children of the flesh and the children of the promise:  but no later teaching has a stronger emphasis for the central fact that it is of the free grace of God alone that any enter in any degree into the participation of His favour.  The kingdom of God, according to the Old Testament, in every cirlcle of its meaning, is above and before all else a stone cut out of the mountain 'without hands' (Dan. ii. 34, 44, 45).