Tag Archives: English

#historymajornotes Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God; Anne Bradstreet needs some lovin’

20 Sep

This is not an online comic.  Once, I had dreams of fame for my Protestant Reformation doodles, but I gave that up when it quickly became apparent that:

1. I can’t draw.  And

2. Protestant Reformation comics kind of have a limited audience.  (For the record, when I told my Reformation/Counter-reformation professor that I thought he looked like Johann Froben, he thought it was hilarious.)

But I still draw things in the margin of my notes, and I’m just conceited enough to put them online for the world.

Today, in the American lit class that feels like a history class (because the literature we’re reading is pretty much a bunch of Puritans griping about how hard it is to save people’s souls), the prof informed our class that, quote: “When I was your age, I thought Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God would be a really cool name for an indie rock band.”  Probably not what Johnny Edwards had in mind.  And cool, of course, is used in a very loose sense.

I’m an atheist, and that sermon still provoked some serious existential dread.  Let me share a passage:

If you cry to God to pity you, he will be so far from pitying you in your doleful case, or showing you the least regard or favour, that instead of that, he will only tread you under foot.

And though he will know that you cannot bear the weight of omnipotence treading upon you, yet he will not regard that, but he will crush you under his feet without mercy; he will crush out your blood, and make it fly, and it shall be sprinkled on his garments, so as to stain all his raiment.

So… what happened to “Jesus loves you”?  Anyone?  Anyone?  Buehler?

Meanwhile (and by meanwhile I mean mid-17th century), Goody Bradstreet the poet’s missing her husband, absent upon public employment.  The prof says it’s as close to Puritan erotica as you’re going to get:

… My Sun is gone so far in’s zodiac,
Whom whilst I ‘joyed, nor storms, nor frost I felt,
His warmth such frigid colds did cause to melt.
My chilled limbs now numbed lie forlorn;
Return; return, sweet Sol, from Capricorn;
In this dead time, alas, what can I more
Than view those fruits which through thy heat I bore?
Which sweet contentment yield me for a space,
True living pictures of their father’s face.
O strange effect! now thou art southward gone,
I weary grow the tedious day so long;
But when thou northward to me shalt return,
I wish my Sun may never set, but burn
Within the Cancer of my glowing breast,
The welcome house of him my dearest guest …

Which is all nice and sweet, but we know what she’s really saying is:


Letters from Hell: Mark Twain and “Satan” (part 2 of 3)

3 May

Sinner though he was, Mark Twain had no patience for hypocrisy.

Noting the shock of his fellow pilgrims at the supposed immorality of the Turkish Sultan, Twain comments ironically: “They say the Sultan has 800 wives.  This almost amounts to bigamy.  It makes our cheeks burn with shame to see such a think permitted here in Turkey.  We do not mind it so much in Salt Lake, however” (Innocents 368)—a criticism of American assumptions of moral superiority as applicable on the Yearning for Zion ranch today as in 1869.

Even when the writer only comments on foreign practices, he draws a clear parallel between sinful pagans and the self-righteous pilgrims.  Twain’s condemnation of Constantinople’s moral climate could apply just as easily to a great number of American Christians as well—the general level of morality, he writes, is bad: “There is no gainsaying that.  Greek, Turkish, and Armenian morals consist only in attending church regularly on the appointed Sabbaths, and in breaking the ten commandments all the balance of the week” (Innocents 369).

This perhaps universal tendency to distort true morality while upholding only the outer appearance of religion received Twain’s most biting criticism in The Innocents Abroad.

Throughout the book, our correspondent continually returns to the issue of false relics and money-making shrines—exposing what one scholar described as “the mercenary-mindedness and hypocrisy of the clergy” (Enson 9).

In Genoa, for instance, the vaunted chapel of John the Baptist failed to impress as “we had seen St. John’s ashes before, in another church” (Innocents 165); likewise with Christ’s cradle and the many crowns of thorns across Europe.  “Isn’t this relic matter a little overdone?” Twain asks impatiently—“We find a piece of the true cross in every old church we go into, and some of the nails that held it together.  I would not like to be positive, but I think we have seen as much as a keg of these nails … As for the bones of St. Denis, I feel certain we have seen enough of them to duplicate him, if necessary” (Innocents 165).

Interestingly, Twain’s criticisms of extortionate devotional practices echo—a couple hundred years after—the disgust of sixteenth-century Protestant reformers.  Rather than teach the true faith, Martin Luther and his coterie cried, the Catholic Church promoted superstition and darkness—a position Twain seems to have sympathy for in his treatment of “the overshadowing Mother Church” (Innocents 267).

In Genoa, the clerics making a living off of doctored relics embody the corruption of religion Twain criticized—“every now and then one comes across a friar of orders gray,” he writes, “with shaven head, coarse robe, rope girdle and beads, and with feet cased in sandals or entirely bare.  These worthies suffer in the flesh, and do penance all their lives, I suppose, but they look like consummate famine breeders.  They are all fat and serene” (Innocents 164)

The description of the fat, flushed friar comes straight from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and Twain’s insinuation is hardly more flattering—these ecclesiastical authorities, he seems to suggest, probably aren’t wearing hair shirts on their off time. Most ridiculous, perhaps, is the burial shrine of Adam that Twain finds in Jerusalem—a site where “there is no question that he is actually buried … because it has never yet been proven that the grave is not the grave in which he was buried” (Innocents 567).

But tautology, Twain suggests, is not what faithful Christians really need.

Across the world, common people of all religions truly do suffer and starve—in an asceticism not of their choosing.  Imagining himself a modern Roman on a pilgrimage of his own to the United States, Twain writes: “I saw there a country which has no overshadowing Mother Church, and yet they survive … In American they do not plow with a sharpened stick.  If I dared, I would say that sometimes they used a blasphemous plow that works by fire and vapor and tears up an acre of ground in a single hour” (Innocents 271).

Twain is not one to pen a blindly-patriotic panegyric to American values—the smugness of the American Christian comprises a great number of his jabs at religion—but the satirist does address this conflict between old and new:

The Holy Land’s religious quackery enraged him.  The Biblical sites—Adam’s tomb, the grave of Lazarus, the manger of Christ’s birth—left him cold, for it was patently absurd to his rational eyes that such things existed.  This fraud, coupled with the squalor and misery of the Holy Land’s peoples, proved to him that the iron hand of superstition and priestcraft was still too strong in the Old World.  (Morgan 12)

Continuing on this theme, Twain later compares such “quackery” and “priestcraft” to the example of Jesus Christ’s ministry to the poor: “Christ knew how to preach to these simple, superstitious, disease-tortured creatures: he healed the sick” (Innocents 474).  As a satirist, Mark Twain’s humor often had a more fundamental goal than making readers laugh—improving the world, representing “the optimist as pessimist” (Morgan 1).

In The Innocents Abroad, Twain’s optimism surfaces in his account of his friend the Doctor’s “impromptu hospital” set up in a small Syrian village.  “I believe they thought he was a god,” Twain describes; “What reverent and worshiping looks they bent upon that dread, mysterious power, the Doctor! … His reputation is mighty in Galilee today” (Innocents 474).

By comparing the Doctor in his charitable acts to Christ, Twain only widens the chasm between true morality and the practices of organized religion he contemns at in The Innocents Abroad.

This is part 2 of 3 excerpts from a paper I wrote for a University of Alabama American Studies course.  My works cited will be included at the end of part 3, so if you use any of these, please cite me–not only because I have a lifelong dream of being cited in a bibliography (because I do), but because there’s a special circle of hell just for plagiarists where you’re forced to edit inaccurate Wikipedia articles for all eternity.  Don’t go there.  Please.

“Step Aside, Shakespeare” ?

31 Aug

Don’t mess with the Bard.

So, maybe we don’t know if “Shakespeare” was an alias, or whether the writer of the plays and poetry was Sir Francis Bacon or Edward de Vere or really and truly the son of a farmer from Stratford-upon-Avon.  What we can agree on, however, is that he was one of the greatest (heck, he was the greatest) writers in English history.

Or at least, I thought we could agree on that.

Apparently not, according to my lovely university student newspaper, which ran an article today stating that the consensus of the editorial board wants a “reform” of English education.  “Learning,” they say:

Should not be a chore.  Rather, it should be a pleasure.  It’s time to reform the way we teach people to embrace reading.  Make way for education, not anguish.  Step aside, Shakespeare.

Now generally, I have little to complain about when it comes to the Crimson White.  Mediocre writing on moderately interesting topics usually makes for a thoroughly mild reading experience.  There’s the occasional angry letter to the editor, of course, and the self-important guest column from some student luminary, but overall—there’s just not much to say about the Crimson White.

Which is why I’m not too surprised to find contempt for “a thick classic filled with incomprehensible prose and old-fashioned themes” within its pages.

I agree with the editorial board that English education in most high schools and elementary schools doesn’t always instill a ravenous hunger for knowledge in its students.  But don’t fault the material for that—fault the completely undeserved stigma that you, campus journalists, are perpetuating in your own columns.

Shakespeare was a friggin’ genius.

You might not understand some of his “incomprehensible prose,” but did anyone ever tell you just how much of the prose we use today, in our most prosaic conversations, was invented by good ol’ Bill?  Here’s a small sample:

“All that glitters is gold” (Merchant of Venice)

“The be-all and end-all” (Macbeth)

“Best foot forward”  (King John)

“Dog will have his day” (Hamlet)

“Eaten me out of house and home” (Henry IV)

“Jealousy is the green-eyed monster” (Othello)

“Kill with kindness” (Taming of the Shrew)

“In a pickle” (The Tempest)

“There’s a method to my madness” (Hamlet)

“Neither rhyme nor reason” (As You Like It)

“Too much of a good thing” (As You Like It)

“Wild goose chase” (Romeo and Juliet)

And that’s only a small selection.  Along with common turns of phrase we use, he coined words as well:  accused (n), accommodation, amazement (n), bachelorship, bandit, birthplace, cold-blooded, coldhearted, to compromise, dauntless, deafening, dexterously, to educate, enthroned, eyeball, eyesore, fortune-teller, gloomy, hoodwinked, housekeeping, invitation, lackluster, leapfrog, majestic, manager (n), multitudinous, obscene, puppy-dog, bedazzled, and many many more.

(Yes—you can thank William Shakespeare for the name of that staple of infomercials with which you can stick rhinestones on your jeans, or whatever.)

So while the sentence structure might be difficult for us today, just think: people in Shakespeare’s time didn’t know what the heck he was talking about either.

But not only this (and this is no small matter, to essentially reinvent the English language into its modern form), Shakespeare also wrote some of the most beautiful poetry in this language:

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts  (As You Like It)

This is by no means the best example, but it does refute the Crimson White’s assertion that “classics” deal only with “old-fashioned themes.”  Read the lines above and tell me that they don’t apply just as well today as they did in Elizabethan England.

Not to mention that Shakespeare was way ahead of his time dealing with issues such as race (Othello) and gender (Merchant of Venice, As You Like It), which a lot of Americans didn’t start thinking about until the 1960s and 70s.

Even the structure of his plays show how far ahead in the game Shakespeare was: Antony and Cleopatra, for example, switches between wildly different settings– Rome, Alexandria, Messina, Syria, on board a ship at sea.  And he didn’t have CGI, either.  Shakespeare was anticipating the screenplay.

Yes, I agree that English education is not always inspiring, but that doesn’t mean we should take writers such as Shakespeare off of the pedestal they very rightfully deserve.  Don’t lower the bar and erect a monument to Averageness: show students that there already are monumental works of literature, and that they are understandable, and that they are incredibly relevant even today.


Coined quotes and words from: