Volume 35 - Issue 2
Not in the Public Interest
Suffering, marginalization, and the abuse of power are now the stock in trade not only of literary theorists but also of many theologians, of whom the Liberationists of the sixties and seventies are but the most obvious examples. Indeed, the influence of such academic emphases now finds its place frequently in the classrooms of Protestant theologians of more orthodox and traditional bent. One example that came my way recently was from one of my students who recently commented to me that he had heard a lecture by a certain African American scholar who claimed that the Puritans had little grasp of suffering or what it meant to be marginalized. The comment had intrigued the student, and he asked me what I thought.
My instinctive reaction was to be utterly dismissive of the claim; and while my instinctive reactions are not always correct, they are generally pretty good when it comes to boneheaded comments that others make about my chosen field of expertise. Indeed, as my boneheaded forays into the scholarly territory of others usually merit instant derision, so I am happy to return the favour when opportunity presents itself.
In this instance, I not only thought the comment by the lecturer was wrong; as I reflected upon it, I also realized it gave important insights into the different priorities or sensibilities of the world in which we now live and that of the seventeenth-century Puritans.
Contrary to what this lecturer claimed, the world of the Puritans was one peculiarly marked by suffering. Of course, their lives would have been subject to all of the typical physical difficulties of the time: medical conditions untreatable by anything approaching modern medicine; illnesses from poor hygiene; dentistry of a kind which would have made even the British Dental Association of my childhood an object of envy; no antibiotics, analgesics, anesthetics, or flushable toilets, with all of the resulting physical horrors. Thus, the typical life of a seventeenth-century figure would probably have been marked by far more natural physical suffering than would be the typical experience of even the poorest members of society in the developed world.
To this medical nightmare we can then add the matter of persecution. Certainly in the decades following the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Puritans had two basic options: get on board with the program of a vigorously enforced Anglican conformity, or face the consequences of losing status and property, and quite possibly jail. Many chose the latter option, with men like John Bunyan and Richard Baxter being only the most high-profile men to suffer imprisonment for their stands against the Establishment. Then there were the decades of social marginalization—decades that turned into centuries—where English non-conformists were prevented from attending university, sitting in Parliament, or holding civil service positions. Indeed, if Catholics were legislated to the margins of society until the early nineteenth century, the same went for Baptists, Independents, Quakers, Presbyterians, and anyone who refused to conform.
On these grounds alone, I think we can generally assume that the typical post-1662 Puritan knew more about suffering and marginalization than the typical 2010 professor, with tenure and a full benefits package, in a bog-standard Lit. Crit. or Minority Studies Department at a common or garden University. What makes the difference, it seems to me, is not that these men did not know about suffering and about being on the wrong end of terrible abuse of power; it is rather that they did not see the need constantly to refer to their sufferings in their public ministries, whether from the pulpit or on the printed page.
One of the most notable examples of this silence is surely John Owen. Owen had eleven children. Ten of them died before adulthood. The daughter who did survive was then involved in an unhappy marriage, returning to the parental home and then dying before her father. In other words, Owen lived to see the funeral of every single one of his eleven children.
It beggars belief to think that such trauma did not have a huge impact on his life and thought: indeed, man-made persecution, horrible as it is, is arguably somewhat easier to accommodate than terminal illness within the context of faith since God is at least not the obvious, proximate cause; but death from illness has that random quality to it where God sometimes seems to be the only available culprit. Yet traumatic as these eleven deaths must have been, Owen makes no substantial reference to them in any of his major writings, and the reader can only speculate as to how exactly they may have caused him to rethink or revise his theology.
Why is this? Why the silence, or at least lack of emphasis, on the biographical details and impact of such personal suffering that not only marks the works of those like Bunyan, who suffered imprisonment, but also of Owen who, humanly speaking, saw more of the dirty work of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune on his family than most if not all of those who read these words?
The pious answer, of course, would be some version of the following: these men had such a vision of the glory of God in Christ that their own sufferings were of little account. This may indeed be the correct answer; but I am just suspicious enough of human nature to believe that these men probably had their dark moments the same as any other human being; they probably asked the question ‘Why me and why mine?’ as often as we would ourselves in similar circumstances; and they were probably as tempted to despair as much as the next man. Indeed, if they did not do so, they would arguably be less than human, at least less than the humanity portrayed in, say, the Psalms.
My inclination is to read their silence in another way: they simply did not regard their personal and private struggles, hurts, and tragedies as fulfilling any useful role in their public ministries. The death of Owen’s children must have been devastating to him, but life went on, he had a job to do, and whatever tears he and his wife shared and whatever cries of anger and confusion he sent God’s way in prayer, these were private matters and of no significant use in the public domain. Sure, they shaped him as a person and thus did have an impact on his public ministry, but not in terms of their immediate, personal particularity. They probably made him more sensitive when preaching on death or counseling a bereaved couple, but he saw no need to use himself as an illustration at every opportunity. Private grief and suffering was just that—private—and constantly talking about it from the pulpit was not in the public interest.
In my experience, this seems quite a contrast with the church of today. Talking recently to a former student about the preaching at his church, he commented that the preacher always seemed to work some anecdote into every sermon that indicated how hurt he had been by the church or by church people in the past. Apparently, the occasional person had said the odd unkind word to him, he had not been stroked in the way he thought he deserved, and he was not as universally liked and admired as he assumed he should be. It is clear that such a preacher not only had a very high opinion of himself and of the didactic value of his life for others, but he also felt it quite appropriate to parade the trivial slights and inconveniences he had experienced before the wider world. Indeed, one might say that his suffering appears to be what authenticates him, an unsurprising phenomenon in what is arguably the Age of the Victim and an era where the public parading of private matters through blogs, Tweets, and online social networks means that the very distinction between public and private, and what fits appropriately into each sphere, is now up for grabs. The contrast of the content of this person’s public ministry with that of the former prisoner, John Bunyan, and of the eleven-times-bereaved John Owen could not be greater.
The bottom line for me is this: private suffering is generally not for public consumption. It just is not that useful in the public sphere. There are exceptions—Joni Eareckson Tada springs to mind—but they are the exception, not the rule. The personal suffering of most of us does not serve to point people in general to Christ and, while it may have on occasion a function in one-to-one counseling or in the local church, its role in public ministry would seem to be dramatically limited compared to the place it now often fills. Paul, after all, usually alludes to his suffering only in passing or when he has been goaded into underlining that he too is a serious apostle; it is not an essential part of every gospel presentation or edifying address to the saints. This is not to say that personal suffering is insignificant, painless, or trivial; but it is to argue that talking about it should not be a major factor in our public lives as Christians. That can lead too quickly to self-pity or even, in an age where victimhood is close to being the greatest virtue, to self-importance. My suffering matters to me; but frankly, it is of no interest or significance to anyone else but my immediate loved ones. Suffering and grief are generally private matters; so let’s keep them that way in order that we can use our public ministries for talking about God and the gospel.
Other Articles in this Issue
Parallels, Real or Imagined? A Review Article of Jeffrey J. Niehaus, Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology
When I came to Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia as a young student in the 1960s, two things struck me...