Thursday, February 12, 2015

Book Write-Up: Love's Pursuit, by Siri Mitchell

Siri Mitchell.  Love’s Pursuit.  Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2009.  See here to buy the book.

Love’s Pursuit is set in seventeenth century Massachusetts, the time and place of the Puritans in America.  I decided to read this book for two reasons.  First of all, I enjoy reading about the Puritans.  And second, I recently read another book by Siri Mitchell, Like a Flower in Bloom, and I found it to be a worthwhile read (see my review here).

Love’s Pursuit is narrated from two perspectives.  The first perspective is that of Susannah Phillips, a young woman in the Puritan community who follows the rules, while her sister Mary is more on the wild side.  The second perspective is that of Smallhope Smythe, the quiet and timid wife of the blacksmith, Thomas Smythe.  The book does not explicitly mark when Susannah is narrating and when Smallhope is, so readers pretty much have to intuit that themselves.  If Susannah is mentioned in the third person and Thomas is a central character, then you can be fairly sure that you are reading Smallhope’s account!

I could describe the plot to you before I offer my impressions, but that is not really what I feel like doing here.  Rather, I want to mention the parts and themes of the book that were especially meaningful to me.  In the course of that discussion, I will mention elements of the plot, but my focus will be on the themes.

The most meaningful part of the book, for me, is the question of how one should see God.  Should we boldly assume that God passionately loves and pursues us and has given us grace, since Christ died for us, or is that stance too presumptive on our part?  Should we instead have a hopeful uncertainty about whether or not we have God’s grace or God loves us?  Should we look inside ourselves for signs of transformative grace before we can have any assurance that we are part of God’s elect?  Or is it enough to seek God for spiritual help, to believe that God is the only one who is truly good (whereas humans are all imperfect), and to trust in God’s goodness?

In this book, the more uncertain stance is that of the Puritans, whereas the more positive stance is that of Daniel—-an official of the hated king of England who comes to Massachusetts—-and, eventually, of Susannah, leading to her being ostracized by her fellow Christians.  The positive position is probably the view of Siri Mitchell herself.

In the course of reading this book, I was asking myself if Siri Mitchell was being a bit unfair towards the Puritans.  She seems to portray Puritanism as an attempt to be righteous and to impress God by good works, while, for her, the proper position is to trust in God’s grace through Jesus Christ.  Based upon my reading of the Puritans, I would say that they believed in God’s love and grace.  And yet, at the same time, many of them were uncertain about whether or not they were saved, and they emphasized good works and looking for signs of inner transformation in their search for some measure of spiritual assurance.  Such issues were a significant part of the antinomian controversy.  I would say that, here, Siri Mitchell’s portrait of the Puritans is fair, but I would also say that there is more to the story.

I would say that about other elements of Mitchell’s portrayal of the Puritans as well.  She portrays them as hardworking, whereas Daniel was trying to encourage Susannah to enjoy a sunset and to take time to smell the roses.  Granted, the Puritans did believe in hard work, but they also had a fun side, as Bruce Daniels argues in his book, Puritans at Play.  I also think that the Puritans could enjoy nature as God’s creation.  Jonathan Edwards came later than the seventeenth century, but he partook of Puritan thought, and he spent a lot of time in nature, which played a significant role in his spiritual epiphanies.

The book had other interesting parts.  There was the part in which a child in Susannah’s house was dying, and Susannah was clinging to Psalm 91:10, which states that no plague shall come to your dwelling.  Susannah was questioning whether she truly believed in that verse, since a plague had come into her dwelling!  Yet, she did not know what else to do, so she continued clinging to Psalm 91:10 for hope.

There was also the debate between Daniel and Susannah’s father about Christmas.  Daniel wanted to celebrate it with all of the trimmings, whereas Susannah’s father, a typical Puritan, was treating it as any other day: no ham, just the usual porridge!  The rationale of Susannah’s father was that the Bible does not tell us to celebrate Jesus’ birth. (Daniel’s response was that the Bible does not command us to do a lot of things that we do, even though Daniel later presented himself as the believer in Sola Scriptura and the Puritans as the ones whose theology had non-biblical aspects).  This interested me on account of the reasons that my family did not observe Christmas when I was younger: we believed that it was pagan in origin and that Jesus was most likely not born on December 25.  Susannah’s father, however, seemed to concede that Jesus was born on December 25, but he was against Christmas because the Bible does not command us to observe Jesus’ birth.  According to this article, Puritans disliked Christmas because it was non-biblical and they believed it to be pagan.

Overall, I enjoyed Love’s Pursuit.  The book gets into other issues that I did not talk about, such as abuse, and it has a bittersweet ending.  There were times when I was not particularly comfortable with the book: I was not always following the plot, or I did not understand what exactly people were saying when they were responding (I thought to myself, “Huh?”).  But the book had plenty of gems.

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