Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Book Review: Worldly Saints, by Leland Ryken

As one who has not been exposed to the Puritans perhaps beyond quotations in sermons, I found this book to be very insightful, thought provoking, and encouraging. Based on formidable research, Leland Ryken has demonstrated clear understanding of the thoughts, attitudes, motivations, and passions of the Puritans.

Much of what we hear regarding the Puritans from the public sector is filtered through the values and morals of a secular mindset. In this book Ryken has allowed the Puritans to be understood on their own terms. Throughout the book Ryken goes beyond the external manifestations and seeks to uncover the foundational values and worldviews that provide the motivations for their actions.

If one were to ask what was the most prominent fact about the Puritans that stood out to me I would quickly reply how pervasive the Bible was in their daily lives. Without arguing over particular interpretation and application, one cannot fault the Puritans for their pursuit to understand and apply Scripture in every area of life. Ryken soundly debunked stereotypes popular in public education that the Puritans were strict broods for the sake of it, that they lacked mercy, compassion, and anything we would consider fitting to decent human beings.

One of the biggest strengths of this book is the proliferation of original source quotes. While it would be very easy to proof text and make points from a few isolated phrases, the abundance of quotations on virtually every subject make it clear that the views expressed therein ought to be taken as representative of the whole, unless otherwise noted. It is important to note that the quotes are not taken from a few select authors who meet the criteria, but by a massive slew of authors. Taking a look at the Index of People in the back of the book makes even one who has just finished the book astounded at what they have just read.

Another strength of the book is its organization. With each chapter covering one of the major aspects of life everyone faces (e.g. work, marriage, money, family, etc.), Ryken was able to go in depth with each topic and view it from various angles and perspectives. He often brought in the perspectives of the reformers, the Catholic Church, and Anglicans to show how the Puritans differed (in the case of Catholics and Anglicans) or were in continuity (in the case of the reformers) with them.

The biggest weakness I found in the book was that in chapter eleven where Ryken addresses some of the negative aspects of Puritans, it almost undid everything he wrote in the first ten chapters. Because he covers the major faults in one chapter, he isn’t able to get into much detail as to how the faults weigh against the positive aspects. I think it would have been better to temper all the positive statements throughout the book with some minor qualifications along the way. Reading the first ten chapters you get the feeling that the Puritans more or less were the ideal Christian culture. Then chapter eleven leaves one wondering if the idealism was completely lost in practicality.

A related weakness that I found interesting is that chapter eleven focused on the Puritans’ weaknesses with the view to what we could learn from them. The majority of the book speaks descriptively about the Puritans, yet in the chapter on their faults, the focus changes slightly to an instructive tone. Perhaps one could make the argument that Ryken is not giving the faults a fair representation among the massive amount of positive recognition. To be fair, he is trying to swing the pendulum away from a complete focus on the negative and often false representations.
Overall I enjoyed the book and found it be inspiring in how Christians should be living as a body of believers, sharing their possessions out of care for the poor, using their riches to further God’s kingdom, instructing children in the Lord, educating from the foundation of Scriptural truth, and working in a way that glorifies the Lord. It makes me look forward to reading some Puritan books I’ve recently received.