Christmas reading: Some holiday ideas ranging from Christmas to religion in America
This week letÕs peruse three unrelated books whose only commonality lies in the fact that they were either written by Southerners or were published in the South. The first is an interesting volume about Christmas in America, which might be most profitably read before Christmas Day. The other two books are about religion in America, always a topic of great interest even among unbelievers; as one of the authors, Dave Shiflett, reports, É writing about religion is a lot more interesting than writing about politics or sports. This is the Big StoryÉ.
Joanne MartellÕs American Christmases: Firsthand Accounts of Holiday Happenings from Early Days to Modern Times (Winston-Salem: John F. Blair, 2005, $24.95) gives us Christmas narratives in chronological order from Colonial America to the present. Though all these narratives are relatively interesting Ñ they range from war-time Christmas letters to a childÕs Depression-era letter written to Eleanor Roosevelt ÑÊthe most intense are those journals and letters centered around the Civil War, the Christmas memories of Northerners and Southerners alike. Here we see Americans who suffered privation during the Christmas season, soldiers like the correspondent to the Rutland Herald of Vermont who wrote, after visiting a battlefield near Chantilly, Virginia, on Christmas day:
"a number of bodies had been rudely thrown, with nothing but a scant covering of earth which the rains had already washed away, leaving their bleached skeletons partially exposed. We found the skeleton of some poor fellow lying at the roots of an old oak tree, wholly unburied."
Western North Carolina readers may be particularly interested in reading the account of an early Christmas at the Vanderbilt House, where on Christmas Day, 1895, the house was officially opened and A Christmas Tree donation was given at 11 oÕclock today to all the employees on the estate, numbering between three and five hundred. Employees were also given decorations, presents, and a dinner.
Though not a Christmas book, This Silent & Soft Communion: The Spiritual Narratives of Sarah Pierpont Edwards and Sarah Prince Gill (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2005) might make an excellent Christmas present to a believer or to anyone interested in colonial or religious history. Edited by Sue Lane McCulley and Dorothy Z. Baker, this thin book contains two conversion narratives Ñ that is, personal, written accounts of a deepening of love for Christ, a popular genre for the day Ñ by women in the 18th century.
Sarah Edwards, one of the writers, was the wife of Jonathan Edwards, a renowned theologian of the century who we now remember as a leader in the Great Awakening, the enormous religious revival of that time. She set down her narrative at the behest of her husband, giving us a document that shows us her deep love of Christ and the immense joy she found in the practice of her religion. The second narrative by Sarah Prince Gill gives us insight into the principles and beliefs of a second Calvinist believer, journal entries that are shorter and more to the point, but which still make for remarkable reading in terms of style and depth of perception.
This Soft & Silent Communion is a fine book both for the academic and the general reader. By giving us these narratives, McCulley and Baker reveal the interior lives, the religious beliefs, the very spirits of two New England women whose daily lives brought them both joy and sorrow, triumph and frustration.
Finally, Dave ShiflettÕs Exodus: Why Americans Are Fleeing Liberal Churches for Conservative Christianity (ISBN 1-59523-007-6, $23.95) gives us a fascinating look at the dying churches of our day ÑÊmany of the mainline churches ÑÊand the growth among evangelicals and Catholics in this country and in other areas of the world, especially in South America, parts of the Far East, and Africa.
Shiflett, a Virginian who for years has written editorials and commentary for publications ranging from the Washington Post to National Review, brings to this latest book the clarity and the fine writing that have served him so well as a journalist. He doesnÕt take up the sword for any one side in the religious battles that he reports. He is, as he says, an itinerant Presbyterian, and not a particularly devout believer,Êbut he does hold that these divisions in Christianity and the differences of opinions regarding religious belief, even among members of the same denomination, have a tremendous effect on our society and on cultures throughout the world. The closer one looks at modern faith, Shiflett writes, the more shattered it often appears.
And yet Shiflett opens and closes his book with a note of hope for the future of Christianity, particularly for those of orthodox belief. He examines famous conversions over the last several decades ÑÊBob Dylan, Keith Richards, and Charles Colson, among others ÑÊand devotes an entire chapter to the Columbine shootings and the faith of the people involved in that tragedy. Here he writes:
And still the Tomlins believe. On Sunday mornings they sit in OudemolenÕs church, perhaps near a woman who murdered her two children, all pursuing Truth in the shadow of an ancient cross. These are not frivolous people. They are worthy of their God.
American Christmases: Firsthand Accounts of Holiday Happenings from Early Days to Modern Times by Joanne Martell. John F. Blair, 2005. $24.95
Exodus: Why Americans Are Fleeing Liberal Churches for Conservative Christianity by Dave Shiflett. $23.95