The Spiritual Practice of Remembering
By Margaret Bendroth
Eerdmans, pp. 142, $16

Review by Mark Michael

Margaret Bendroth’s job surely manages to be among the most fascinating and frustrating in American Christendom. She is the director of the Congregational Library, a venerable institution on Boston’s Beacon Hill that houses the story of New England’s flinty, pious Puritan clergy and their high-minded, social reforming congregations. She also must help modern-day Congregationalists understand and see the relevance of their heritage. Most of them today are part of the United Church of Christ, the most progressive of American churches, which proudly touts its slogan “God is still speaking” and its unstated subtitle, “and in the past, She was usually wrong.”

The Spiritual Practice of Remembering opens with a tale that perfectly illustrates the difficulty. Invited to give a talk at an old (but now rather trendy) New England congregation, Bendroth had prepared notes about one of its foreboding colonial-era ministers, who brandished an oversize tricorne hat to intimidate the assembled sinners (rather like the Rev. Mr. Hooper in Hawthorne’s The Minister’s Black Veil). Upon arrival, Bendroth and the gathered congregants were both surprised to find the notorious hat in a Plexiglas case in the Narthex. What in the world, Bendroth wonders, could the centuries-old hat mean to people like this?

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Bendroth spends more than half of her book lamenting about how difficult the conundrum has become. Americans have lost touch with the past. We move often and fail to learn the stories of our communities. We delight in flouting convention, ignore the calendars of Church and nature, and critical history and Biblical interpretation destroys our heroes and magnifies the distance between us and our ancestors. Bendroth’s catalog of grievances mounts, with forays to joust with consumerism, tourist kitsch, and a blind faith in progress.

A particularly gloomy section closes with this perfectly true jeremiad: “American religion itself is a major source of the problem. The way that Protestants in particular have learned to “do church” in this country has militated against a strong and nurturing connection to the past. It has kept us from participating in that great conversation that has been going on among Christians for more than two thousand years” (80).

It was not always so, she recalls, even for American Congregationalists, with their natural suspicion of relics and sacramental bonds. Bendroth looks back wistfully to Puritan divines who urged their congregations to “live ancient lives” and enthusiastic Sunday school pageants in 1920 that marked the tercentenary of the Pilgrims landing.

But unlike the black-hatted preacher, Bendroth doesn’t seem to have enough fortitude to frighten her charges to repentance or to reveal the way of salvation. She patters blandly about Christianity being a historical religion, suggests that a dose of humility would do us good, and mentions that the creeds talk of a “communion of saints.” Jaroslav Pelikan, Rowan Williams, and Wendell Berry are summoned to offer a good word.

But her pointers for a better future are hedged with nervous prevarications. The Bible, for Bendroth, remains trapped in a historical-critical cage. She’s given up trying to supply her husband with sermon illustrations from Congregational history because the figures always fall afoul of one modern taboo or another. She misses opportunities to explore a more dynamic view of biblical anamnesis, a deeper sacramental theology, a robust place for tradition in shaping doctrine.

Remembering, for Bendroth, surely must be a spiritual practice. She seems a woman of sincere piety who, despite her best judgment, retains an affection for these distant divines whose sermons fill the shelves of her library.

But it’s achingly difficult for her to convince her readers that there is much of the Spirit here for anyone who doesn’t share her hobbyist’s interest in old things. The book closes with an exhortation to “travel lightly,” rooted in Benedict’s counsel to “forget the ephemeral.” If only Bendroth could discard a bit more of her trite modern Protestantism, she could find a more vibrant and meaningful way of remembering.

About The Author

Fr. Mark Michael is the editor of The Living Church magazine and rector of St. Francis Episcopal Church, Potomac, Maryland. A native of rural Western Maryland, he is a graduate of Duke University and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.

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