Friday, June 29, 2012

Book Review: John Calvin's American Legacy - Chapter 8 - "Strange Providence": Indigenist Calvinism in the Writings of Mohegan Minister Samson Occom (1723-1792)

Chapter 7 review here. Chapter 6 review here. Chapter 5 review here. Chapter 4 review here. Chapter 3 review here. Chapter 2 review here. Chapter 1 review here. Introduction review here. Initial thoughts here.

This is the first chapter from Part III, concerning Calvin's legacy in American letters. Denise T. Askin is the author, and she provides a thorough and thoughtful analysis of both published and unpublished writings (sermons, sermon notes, journals and personal reflections, etc.) by Samson Occom, who lived during the eighteenth-century and was an Indian and an ordained Presbyterian minister.

Occom is a fascinating character, and equally fascinating is, as Askin refers to it, his "Indigenist Calvinism". But the true jewel of captivation in this article is Askin's careful attention to the literary nuances found on the fruitful pages preserved from both Occom's pen and pulpit. Askin analyzes that literary fruit, and presents in a concise, well structured article the unique style and voice resident in the writings of Occom, the Calvinist Native American. Also, she provides abundant examples of the literary tools put to good use by Occom in his writings, e.g., his use of "irony and Pauline paradox" -- what Askin refers to as "earnest irony"-- and prophetic voice, which "Measuring Christian society by its own standard--the gospel--Occom finds it wanting" (210).

After inspecting Occom's sermon style, she then "[traces] the scripture-based narrative that Occom evolved over a lifetime to unify his responsibilities and his identity as both Native American and Christian," a two-fold narrative which emphasized, on the one hand, the Creation account, that is, the Genesis narrative, and, on the other hand, the narrative of "Isaiah's prophecy of the regeneration of Israel"; Occom emphasized this over the archetypal Calvinistic narrative--the "covenant narrative". Askin points to this practice in order to illustrate Occom's indigenist Calvinism, which she believes "[served] a typological purpose as significant for the continuance of his people [Native Americans] as Exodus was for the Jews and the errand into the wilderness was for the earliest Calvinists of New England.

To conclude, Askin says,
Occom's writings reveal that he, like the Puritans, also looked through the lens of scripture and saw human events as eloquent both of God's will and of God's interaction with the community. He forged for his people a narrative that paralleled that of the founders of the New England colonies. . . . Occom's indigenist Calvinist imagination saw in the flat surface of life many layers of meaning that connected his present moment to the biblical past and project it forward toward an apocalyptic future. . . . The words of Occom--in sermons, letters, and diaries--reveal the complex nature of his "strange providence" as a Native American and a Calvinist in a fragile and changing world (215).
My Thoughts: Askin's article is great. Occom is such a fascinating character in American Church History, but what makes this article especially enjoyable is viewing Occom from a literary perspective. Oftentimes a Theologian or Church Historian will approach things from within their discipline and with what are more or less ready-made questions. However, when you change your approach, when you are challenged to view and approach a familiar subject matter from a different perspective, then, oftentimes, you find yourself asking different types of questions, or at least asking questions differently. (I'm replaying in my mind a scene from the movie Dead Poet's Society, "I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.") And so, I think that is what Askin has done with her article. She looks at things in a different way, asking new questions and asking old questions differently.

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