Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Off The Shelf: A City Upon a Hill

I've been reading Larry Witham's A City Upon a Hill, a history of how the sermon has shaped public life in America. I picked it up because it was one of Al Mohler's top 10 books for preachers for 2007. I've not been disappointed.

Beginning in Puritan times, Witham's work functions as a snapshot of Christian history in the United States all the way up to modern times. He covers his history through the lens of various preachers and their famous sermons that shaped a given era. Some major overarching themes jump out after reading the book:

1) Religion has always had a voice in public affairs in the United States....always.
2) Pastors have struggled with defining the sermon. Is it a crafted work of oratory, or is it a supernatural event (I tend to think both).
3) The themes of providence, the special design for America, and judgment for faithlessness has run throughout all eras of American history.

Witham also gives some lovely historical tidbits that caught my attention....for instance
* In colonial America, the published sermon was the most popular form of rhetoric. Indeed, the average person would hear 7000 sermons in their lifetime during this era. Even those who weren't members of churches regularly attended.
* Cotton Mather, famed for preaching persecution of witches, was actually a little liberal...he advocated liberty of conscience in preaching style, a "generic" public religion, and scientific exploration and advancement (he was one of the early proponents of vaccination using inert forms of viruses).
* In the early 1800s, Cincinnati was the place for religious oratory: “If preachers wanted to dispute America’s fate, Cincinnati was the place.” (101)
* In the early 1900s, many ministers jumped onto the eugenics bandwagon (but fundamentalists like William Jennings Bryan opposed eugenics from the start)
* TV Preacher Fulton Sheen had higher ratings than the opposing shows on the other major networks: Milton Bearle and Frank Sinatra

Overall, it's an interesting read. Of course, there are reviewers who differ. Allen Guezlo writes in the Wall Street Journal that the book is a bland disappointment, not really addressing the essence of what a sermon actually is:
Mr. Witham does not, so to speak, preach. In fact, he tells the story in a carefully bland tone that damps down even the fiery energies that drove sermons
about slavery and the civil-rights movement. He yokes together all this preaching, across four centuries, by arguing that the principal task of the American sermon has been to articulate the country's "civil religion." Having given his book the subtitle "How Sermons Changed the Course of American History," Mr. Witham asserts that the pulpit has been the point of origin for a host of what he considers particularly American traits and values. These include: "America as a chosen people," "manifest destiny" and even "the battle between good and evil." Which is strange--I always understood the task of the sermon as the exposition of the Sacred Word. Over five decades of sermon-listening, I have never once heard anything that sounded like a rallying cry for Mr. Witham's "American civil religion." Perhaps his experience is

My my... I wouldn't quite say the book is so much tapioca. Perhaps for those who are well versed in the broad sweep of american religious history, it is a bit of a bore, but I found it quite interesting to follow the development of the sermon in the United States.

Soli Deo Gloria