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Studies In Puritan American Spirituality by Michael Schuldiner

Studies In Puritan American Spirituality by Michael Schuldiner

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Michael Schuldiner
Edwin Mellen Press
Date of release
Unknown Binding


Studies In Puritan American Spirituality

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Book review

Roxanne Harde "Then Soul And Body Shall Unite": Anne Bradstreet's Theology Of Embodiment It pleased God to keep me a long time without a child, which was a great grief to me and cost me many prayers and tears before I obtained one, and after him gave me many more of whom I now take the care, that as I have brought you into the world, and with great pains, weakness, cares, and fears brought you to this, I now travail in birth again of you till Christ be formed in you. (241) Anne Bradstreet, To My Dear Children; A theology of embodiment does not seek to develop a new theology, but it does seek to open up a forgotten place which is important today, from which there can be theological thought and action: the human body. [...] A theological return to embodiment recalls the distinctive feature of Christianity, that God became body and in so doing has confirmed and healed all our bodily nature. (104) Elizabeth Moltmann-Wendel, I Am My Body; "Rapt were my senses": Writing Poetry, Writing the Body In the personal narrative written towards the end of her life, Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672) remembers her immigration to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 as an event that provoked a crisis of faith, but a faith understood through her body: "I found a new world and new manners, at which my heart rose" (241).1 She then describes the end of her rebellion and return to faith as a theologically reasoned conformity: "But after I was convinced it was the way of God, I submitted to it and joined to the church at Boston" (241). Resistance, emotional and bodily, subdued through a theologically reasoned assurance of faith forms a pattern that was repeated frequently throughout Bradstreet's life, a pattern that reveals the tension caused by being a devout Puritan woman. On the one hand, Calvinism taught Bradstreet that her soul was as important as a man's, that she was as worthy of education in order to better understand the scriptures, and that her time must be spent on self-scrutiny in order to explore and articulate her relationship with God. In granting authority to Bradstreet's soul and conscience, the self-consciousness of Puritanism made possible her meditative poetry. On the other hand, Puritan women were forbidden to participate publicly in scriptural interpretation and the theocratic governance of the colony; the excommunication of Bradstreet's sister, Sarah, and the excommunication and banishment of Ann Hutchinson for sedition provided clear examples of the consequences for women breaching cultural codes. Overall, the Calvinist ethos that explicitly denied Bradstreet any public role implicitly authorized her personal and poetic theologizing. A thoroughgoing Calvinist and a woman who lived largely within the restrictions of her culture, Bradstreet must be read in those terms. She did not write poetry or personal narrative to change her religion and her world, but to live more fully, as a woman, within them, and for that reason she should be seen as part of a usable past that prefigures feminist theology, especially in light of the religious underpinnings to everything she did and wrote.2 Paula Kopacz points out the widely held Puritan belief, best articulated by Bradstreet's contemporary John Cotton, that everything one does receives divine attention and all writing is equally devoted to the service of God. Kopacz makes this point to argue that all of Bradstreet's poems, public and private, "are forms of prayer, whether explicit or not" (177). To that, I would add that whether Bradstreet's poems/prayers are written as confession, worship, intercession, petition, or thanksgiving, they are aesthetically expressed examinations of lived experience, offered up to God. Pamela Dickey Young provides insight into the creation of devotional art, noting that aesthetic value is part of the Christian tradition, because "creation of the aesthetically pleasing is part and parcel of the desire to experience life satisfyingly or well, to experience life to its fullest" (109). She suggests that women seek satisfaction in religious aesthetic experience for "the embodiment of value in the self or in the creation," and "because traditional religions have not taken women's experiences seriously" (111, 117). Following the Calvinist tenet that all creative acts are devotional, and inspired by Young's connection among the aesthetic dimension, embodiment, and religious poetry, I contend that writing provided Bradstreet a space within which she could examine seriously her experiences as a woman and a believer, where she could theologize her embodied self as part of God's creation. Her writing thus can contribute to a fuller history of women taking part in their religious tradition; her aesthetics are inseparable from cultural determinants. While Bradstreet did not, as do today's feminist theologians, publicly work to "lay to rest the pernicious dualisms about sex and God, sexuality and spirituality, body and spirit" (Heyward Touching 4), her writing shows some private resistance, in part by regenerating the place of the female body in her religious understanding. Bradstreet's experiences, as Rosemary Radford Ruether writes of all women's experiences, were "created by the social and cultural appropriation of biological differences in a male-dominated society" ("Feminist" 113). While she argues that "women experience even their biological differences in ways filtered and biased by male dominance," Ruether also points out that even in the face of dualism, "women have historically always found some measure of empowerment and freedom through religious belief" (113). She supports this idea with close readings of the Bible and argues that "wherever women have heard the good news as the setting at liberty of those who are oppressed, they have applied it to themselves as women as well" (122-23). In a reading of Bradstreet's use of biblical texts, Rosamond Rosenmeier makes the same type of argument. She points out that Bradstreet "has disrupted, switched, reordered, or curiously combined texts in a design that reexpresses and gives new voice to the original. In so doing the original is reaffirmed while the writer claims, possesses, owns it" (5). While Rosenmeier does not go so far as to call Bradstreet's exegesis a form of theologizing, she does note the power Bradstreet gains through incorporating a reshaped biblical voice into her poetry. I see in Bradstreet's work a developing theology that is rooted in bodily experiences. Her focus on bodily nature emerges even in her biblical exegesis. For example, in "Meditations Divine and Moral," the seventy-seven maxims with which she closes To My Dear Children, Bradstreet includes a theology of embodiment in the midst of writing that dictates the physical, political, economic, parental, and religious actions of her children. Meditation 75 uses the terms of embodiment to discuss the power of faith as tough and immediate. Bradstreet describes faith as a physical power that has "made the water become firm footing for Peter to walk on," then makes explicit that faith seems an embodied power, using the example of Moses's interventions with God (Ex. 32.7-14, Num. 14.13-19), "as if Moses had been able by the hand of faith to hold the everlasting arms of the mighty God" (290-91). Since Moses's interventions do not include bodily contact between the human body and divinity, Bradstreet turns to the story of "Jacob himself when he wrestled with God face to face" for her most persuasive analogy (291). This meditation concludes with her conclusions about the necessity of faith for salvation, but in describing faith as "potent" and seeking biblical examples that show faith emanating from and empowering body and soul, Bradstreet can be read as one of the women Ruether discusses. Her writing reveals her struggles with the conventions and constrictions of her faith - the examinations of her rebellious heart are the most obvious - and though she always submitted to religious and social expectations, she gained religious understanding and empowerment through the development of a theology of embodiment. The claims of Carter Heyward, that "we have been stripped - spiritually, physically, emotionally, and intellectually - of our capacities to delight in ourselves, one another, the creation, and its holy wellsprings" (Touching 4), and Mary E. Hunt, that "centuries of disembodied writings [...] have shaped the Christian ethical tradition" (102), elide the fact that women have in the past gloried in those capacities as connections to the sacred. Even in light of the religious and cultural inscriptions on the colonial female body, Bradstreet recognized her bodily experiences as a source of religious knowledge, and that being a sexual and maternal body influenced her understanding of herself and of God.3 This essay examines how embodied experience becomes, for Bradstreet, the matrix of the theology that she develops in her poetry and personal narrative. There are several readings of Bradstreet's acuity with religious thought and sacred texts. Beth Maclay Doriani discusses Bradstreet's experimentation with a full range of psalmic techniques. Raymond A. Craig reads Bradstreet's poems as psalms that rely on biblical allusion for their power. Eileen Razzari Elrod argues that biblical literature and thought was the greatest influence on Bradstreet's poetic voice and authority, even to the point of allowing her to overcome some of the misogyny of her culture. Although Bradstreet does not write fully articulated theological systems, the structured coherence of her religious writings, her sustained and developed arguments and conclusions, deserves to be called theology. To support my claims, I will first survey some of the relevant criticism, historical and literary, and the early, public poetry from The Tenth Muse to demonstrate that issues of embodiment and women's experience were never far from Bradstreet's purview. Historian Marilyn J. Westerkamp argues that Bradstreet theologizes, but only in her private poetry with its four themes of "childbirth, sickness and death, family members and engagement with God" (28). Even in early work, such as "Contemplations" and "The Flesh and the Sp...

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