Friday, August 6, 2010

Revisiting Jonathan Edwards

I first read "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" when I was 16. We were discussing Puritan-era American literature in English class, and Jonathan Edwards' infamous sermon was one of the pieces we looked at. At the time I was the kid who was always listening to Marilyn Manson and bashing organized religion, so the Puritans provided plenty of evidence to back up my "Religion = Bullsh*t" philosophy. And boy did I have a field day with Edwards! I thought it was the most self-righteous holier-than-thou piece of crap ever. Even when I became a Christian a year later, I still held Edwards as an example of all that was wrong with religion.

A few years ago, I noticed something strange: Jonathan Edwards became popular again! With the rise of the so-called Young, Restless, Reformed movement, Christians began reading old-school Calvinist theologians like Karl Barth, Charles Spurgeon, and Edwards. You even saw some kids wearing "Jonathan Edwards Is My Homeboy" t-shirts (pictured above). I wondered if maybe I was wrong about Edwards, so this past week I picked up A Jonathan Edwards Reader from the library.

Turns out he's more than just a doom-and-gloom preacher; he was also quite the philosopher and theologian. For example, there's "The Freedom of the Will," one of his most famous works. It's not an easy read (most philosophical/metaphysical books aren't), but the ideas in the book are intriguing. According to Edwards, we are free to choose based on what we most desire. Unfortunately, since we are sinful by nature, we don't desire the things of God, so we are unable to choose good on our own. It is only through God that we desire godly things, and are therefore able to choose good.

Which probably explains why I keep effing things up!

There's also the sermon "A Divine and Supernatural Light," where Edwards explains how true knowledge and revelation comes from God alone, and not from mere human understanding. Which is kind of an ego-bruiser for me because, in my post-Enlightenment mind, I kinda like to think that I can/have to figure all this stuff out on my own. Thanks be to God that I can't!

Of course Edwards had some whacked-out ideas, too. In "Notes on the Apocalypse," for example, he suggests that the Pope is the Antichrist. Then there's "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," which, reading it now, isn't as bad as I remember it, but some of the language is a bit over-the-top:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.

Boy, ain't that a good pick-me-up!

Overall, though, I wouldn't consider Jonathan Edwards my "homeboy," but I do have a lot more respect for him.

1 comment:

  1. While I disagree with a lot of Edwards' ideas, he was INCREDIBLY intelligent and led a very interesting life. "A Divine and Supernatural Light" is actually a really good read - I had to read it my senior year of college for my Early American Lit (read: colonists and before) course. I'm glad you got the change to revisit him, and actually took the time to consider what he has to say.