The Book Club

What Can Keep the Sabbath From Being Just Boring and Lonely?

Dear Dahlia and Mary,

Wow! I’m stunned by all this. Thank you for your kind words, but also for gently prodding the discussion in directions the book didn’t go in, or didn’t go far enough in, anyway. Dahlia, you’re right to want more on the difficulty of unplugging, because it’s both impossible and increasingly necessary; it’s at the very heart of the Sabbath problem. (Have you seen this video on the National Day of Unplugging, which happened on Saturday the 20th?) Mary, you hint that there is much more to the Christian Sabbath than I’ve put in the book, and all I can say is, I know. I’d like to hear more.

Dahlia, I would never have imagined a point of convergence between a Puritan minister and a yoga teacher (OK, Jon Kabat-Zinn is also a professor of medicine, but you know what I mean), but the Puritan minister would have agreed heartily that the Sabbath is a practice death. There’s nothing whimsical at all about the notion. The rabbis thought so, too; they called the Sabbath a foretaste of paradise. Thomas Shepard, the first great Puritan preacher on this side of the Atlantic and still one of the greatest theorists of the Sabbath, said that you prepared for the Sabbath as you prepared for heaven, and when the Sabbath came, you died for a day. This was to him a good thing, which shows you how different the Puritan vision of death was from ours. If you “died” right, you got to rest with Christ and “lie in his bosom all the day.” My own take on all this is that however enticing heaven must have been, dying was still an unnerving thought for a Puritan, who could never be sure of his own salvation, and the weekly practice death must have been a welcome way to master his anxiety.

The flip side of this amusingly morbid metaphor, however, is that to practice death, you have to remove yourself from life. The Puritans withdrew from the worldly pleasures, and we withdraw into the eerily silent world of the unplugged household. You disconnect from everyone you talk to all week long, and then … what? The 4-year-old, the cat, the dust motes? They’re wonderful, but not enough. Soon your electronics-free Sabbath grows lonely and boring, and you’re back on the BlackBerry. But this is because the Sabbath is not supposed to be an experience of social isolation, neither nor adults nor for children.

On the contrary. One of the things the Sabbath “does” is make community—I have a riff on the laws of the Sabbath as a “four-step program for forging community spirit”—and thank goodness for that, because it’s unbearable without some. The Puritans had meeting houses in which the whole town gathered one day a week. What do we have? Now that Sunday as going away as a civic holiday, where do we go to keep our unplugged Sabbaths if—as I’m guessing about you, though I could be wrong here—we don’t really want to go to religious services? Unplugging has, in my opinion, untold benefits. You can’t calculate the social capital you’d accumulate if every single member of your family put away his or her mobile communications device one day a week and agreed to give everyone else his or her undivided attention. But even tight-knit families will have a hard time continuing to unplug if they aren’t part of a larger society of fellow unpluggers.

In short, the Sabbath, Jewish and Christian, is not just the day of rest. It’s everything that goes into making that day of rest happen, and not just for the few but for the many. It’s the ensemble of texts, the laws, the customs, the meals, the songs, and the buildings in which the meals are eaten and the songs are sung. And the Sabbath is also the political idea underlying all these social artifacts: that a society has the right to organize its time such that everyone gets to—and is given incentives to—not just rest, but rest together.

This brings me to the question of, as you put it, normative laws. I am over my word-limit here, but you’re the legal analyst, Dahlia, so I’d rather turn this over to you anyhow. Do you think we should bring back blue laws in some form, and if so, what form would you be able to tolerate?

Mary, I would love to hear more about what Sunday was like for you when you were a child growing up in the Catholic Church, and what it’s like in the different churches you’ve been, such as the African-American ones that, as you say, really celebrate it.


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