Friday, November 26, 2004

The Puritan Origins of the American Self
Sacvan Bercovitch

I’m not nearly done with Bercovitch’s book, but I think I need to stop and consider his ideas for a bit before I continue reading; it’s a very difficult book. I read Paul Reuben’s website just now – not Pee Wee Herman, but an amazing English Professor at California State U, who has probably the most extensive website I have ever seen about American literature. A Google search in a quest for some study questions that might help me understand Bercovitch a little better took me to Reuben’s Calvinist acronym, TULIP, which I remember vaguely from Christian Reformed junior high.

Here’s what Reuben’s website says (verbatim):

1. Total Depravity - through Adam and Eve's fall, every person is born sinful - concept of Original Sin.
2. Unconditional Election - God "saves" those he wishes - only a few are selected for salvation - concept of predestination.
3. Limited Atonement - Jesus died for the chosen only, not for everyone.
4. Irresistible Grace - God's grace is freely given, it cannot be earned or denied. Grace is defined as the saving and transfiguring power of God.
5. Perseverance of the "saints" - those elected by God have full power to interpret the will of God, and to live uprightly. If anyone rejects grace after feeling its power in his life, he will be going against the will of God - something impossible in Puritanism.
[from: Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 1: Early American Literature to1700 - A Brief Introduction." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. WWW URL: (26 Nov. 2004). ]

So I think it will help to know this. First, each person is axiomatically born into sin. I must comment here that Eve here seems perfunctory, particularly if we think of her in the context of Lewis’s book—there isn’t any mention of an Eve in his world. But I digress. Anyway, to begin with the assumption that all of us are sinful is to begin with a view of humanity that makes an expectation for the worse.

The second on the TULIP list is another grim thought, and it’s one that doesn’t match well with the 20th century big-city God we’re sold: this one says that not everyone may be redeemed—just the ones that God predestined in the first place. Having attended a Calvinist school, I’m acquainted with this doctrine, and I remember my distaste for it even then. If it’s all mapped out for us, then what’s the point in making an effort to do well or improve one’s life now? If I’m banished to Hell for all eternity, why not make a party of it here on earth, in other words? This seemed like an awfully foolish doctrine to invent, to my mind. It almost guarantees anarchy on the part of 2/3 of the parishioners.

The principle of limited atonement goes along with that one before, and it is particularly disturbing to anyone who believes in another doctrine, the much more appealing promise in the book of John, 3:16, where it promises that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” I took it always to mean that the “whosoever believeth in him” part meant anybody and not just the chosen ones.

The Calvinists got it right, though with the idea of irresistible grace, which is just that we don’t get to choose grace and we might not understand why it seems to be given or not given in certain cases. Dante deals with this so well in the Divine Comedy. We see characters in Purgatorio and Paradiso who might not have been expected to wind up there otherwise, but their winding up in a better place is the result of God’s immeasurable and probably incomprehensible grace. We can’t fathom it.

Finally, this idea of the “perseverance of the saints" means that God picks certain souls to interpret his will and live as exemplars; anyone who rejects the power to live like a saint, though, is “going against the will of God,” which is forbidden in Puritanism.

I thought these ideas were important to consider when I think about Bercovitch’s book because they would help me to think about the ideas behind Puritanism that remains in our modern society. If Bercovitch believes that American culture still exhibits characteristics of Puritanism today, then I have to be able to quantify just exactly what Puritanism would look like today.

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