Written by Karl Johnson

Karl Johnson


Karl Johnson received his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from Cornell University. Karl previously served as the Dan Tillemans Director of the Cornell Team and Leadership Center, a division of Cornell Outdoor Education. Karl was recognized as a 1999 Academy of Leisure Sciences Future Scholar and has received several writing awards, including the 2014 Literary Award of the Christian Society of Kinesiology and Leisure Studies. His interests include human relations with the natural landscape, from wilderness to urban environs. Karl currently serves as Chief Strategist for The Octet Collaborative, the center for Christian study at MIT.  Beginning in January 2021, he will serve as the Director of the Consortium for Christian Study Centers.

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Jan 4, 2012

Last summer I attended the National Vacation Matters Summit. Sponsored by Take Back Your Time, an organization that advocates for more paid time off for American workers, it was a good place to learn about everything simple, sustainable, and slow—including slow food, slow money, and slow parenting. For the record, I am a fellow traveler of this movement. I bike to work, don’t have a cell phone, and lament that “organized” sports have eclipsed pick-up games. But if slow and simple are solutions, what exactly is the problem?

The problem is our disordered relationship to time. “Always-on communication” results in “continuous partial attention,” “volitional chronic sleep deprivation,” and “vacation deficit disorder.” Wired Magazine defines “social jet lag” as “chronic exhaustion due to persistent conflict between your scheduling software and your body clock.” The paradox of modernity, according to theologian Colin Gunton, is that “a world dedicated to the pursuit of leisure and of machines that save labour is chiefly marked by its levels of rush, frenetic busyness and stress.”1 Liberals and conservatives, secularists and persons of faith all seem to agree that time poverty is a modern malaise.

Hence renewed interest in the Sabbath. You might think we’ve had enough books on this topic in recent years, but you’d be wrong, as evidenced by Judith Shulevitz’s The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time, every chapter of which is a wise and winsome meditation on yet another aspect of this inexhaustible topic. Shulevitz, a Jewish writer who contributed a much-discussed article on the Sabbath to the New York Times Magazine several years ago, frames Sabbath World with the familiar concerns of our cultural disorder. “Like anyone else trying to get ahead,” she writes in the opening chapter, “before I had children I logged late hours and weekends in the office, then complained proudly to my friends. When my children were little, I rushed irritably through every diaper change, every walk, every meal. There seemed no other way to retain economic independence, professional viability, a feeling of competence, the faith that I would continue to exist once I stepped outside the house.” Shulevitz likes the idea of keeping the Sabbath, “but at the thought of actually doing it, I am knocked flat by a wave of anticipated boredom.” Sabbath World is thus about her—and our—ambivalence about the Sabbath.

In subsequent chapters, Shulevitz asks all the right questions. When does the Sabbath day first appear? At the very beginning of the Israelites’ wilderness wanderings. Why then? Because it is part of the larger narrative of God consecrating the Israelites as his Chosen People. How does it contribute to that process? By promoting a distinctive culture (the Sabbath was not tied to the lunar calendar), community spirit (coordinating time off from work forces people “to turn toward one another”), and self-restraint (the Sabbath day and the manna alike require “the self-restraint without which collective life would be impossible”).

As with the manna, we must ask of the Sabbath, What is it? In addition to being a profoundly social institution, it is also a holy day. In order to get a better grip on holiness, Shulevitz asks, Why did God rest? “It seems an odd thing to do. As endings go, it’s pretty muffled.” Or is it? That God “finishes” his work on the seventh day of Creation means that “Sabbath rest is not just a nothing, a not-doing, but a something that requires creating.” And what he creates is rest itself. The Sabbath is thus for ceasing and feasting. Although Shulevitz doesn’t explicitly contrast biblical and modern notions of rest, she correctly identifies the former as inner rest or tranquility, which suggests biblical rest is best understood as the opposite, not of labor, but of restlessness. Here, as elsewhere, the author’s gentle prose disguises the depth of her insights.

No such work would be complete without a discussion of blue laws, and Shulevitz doesn’t disappoint. She summarizes the economic and psychological explanations of Puritan Sabbatarianism offered by Christopher Hill and Michael Walzer respectively, which she judges reductivist. To Shulevitz, Puritans were “people of the book” for whom reading was a sacred act, and Sunday was “the day of the Word’s dominion,” during which it was “preached in sermons, sung in Psalms, read in Scripture, meditated upon in private, and discussed in public.” Perhaps, she suggests, we should think of the Puritan Sunday as a matter of biblical re-enactment. Keeping the Sabbath, in this view, is a mimetic activity designed “to recreate the requisite atmosphere.” For Puritans, the Sabbath was neither boring nor oppressive, but rather “crackled with high drama and sensual joy. It’s just that all these things happened inside the soul, not out in the world.”

This is treacherous territory, and Shulevitz navigates it with skill and grace. Still, this is a surprisingly sympathetic rendering of a day that many diarists documented as joyless indeed. Similarly, she depicts 19th century Sabbatarians as friends of working men and women, which they were, but they were also often nativists motivated by anti-Catholicism. What makes this overcorrection to the historical narrative especially curious is that generations of Jews (among others) have relished depicting Sabbatarians as illiberal enemies of the freedom of religion.

Shulevitz’s sympathy for Sabbatarians is grounded in a conviction worthy of attention: Renunciation is not merely negation, but also, at least potentially, a positive and creative act that makes new things possible. The American Sunday “honored life beyond duty and the imperatives of the marketplace. . . . We had fewer choices, but that lack of choice, in retrospect was liberating.” This ancient wisdom is not entirely forgotten today: the same logic undergirds the parks to be found in virtually every American city. The strict behavioral codes that govern our parks (no rowdiness, no motors, no commerce, etc.), like the rules of any game, simultaneously restrain and enable. For whatever reason, the less-is-more argument has been more persuasive with respect to space than to time; even as preserving parks became popular in the 19th century, Sunday laws became unpopular. Renunciation with respect to time, however, is making a comeback. Slow food, voluntary simplicity, and Take Back Your Time all assert, as does the Sabbath, that there is more to life than producing and consuming. All of which raises the question: Are trips to the spa—or weekends in general—really functional equivalents of the Sabbath? Shulevitz doesn’t want to become “that dreadful thing, a religious person,” and so she resolves to celebrate a day of rest without cutting herself off from the world, only to discover that, well, it’s complicated. Secular or “neo-Sabbatarian” movements have real limitations, she concludes, in part because resistance movements require substantive solidarity. Slow and simple are not sufficient solutions because restlessness runs deeper than mere overwork. Precisely because our disorder turns out to be not just cultural but rather part of the human condition, holiness matters.

How shall we then rest? A first glance, Shulevitz falters at this crucial juncture. Religious Jews welcome the Sabbath into their home as if it were personified, infusing it with almost salvific significance, and Christians personify the Sabbath in the person of Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath. Believers who rest in Christ, as one scholar put it, “will not need to worship their work or work at their play, but there will be an inner liberation, a genuine leisure in the way in which they go about both the work and the play of the week to the glory of God.”2 Shulevitz, by contrast, reiterates her ambivalence about liking the Sabbath more in theory than in practice. As endings go, this seems pretty muffled.

Or is it? At least in one sense, Shulevitz is closer to the Sabbatarians of old than are most modern Christians. What she has understood is not only the value of renunciation, but also that, when it comes to the ever-encroaching world of work, resistance is greatly aided by legal proscription. She thus favors European-style vacations (longer) and workweeks (shorter), suggests we incentivize the coordination of social time by taxing off-hours labor, and—get this—she calls blue laws “underrated.” Indeed the irony is that those most sympathetic to blue laws today include secular and religious Jews, neo-Marxists, and even atheists such as Sam Harris. Although such legal advocacy would have been familiar to Christian Sabbatarians from William Bradford in the 1620s to William Jennings Bryan in the 1920s, Christians today speak of Sabbath-keeping in terms that are essentially experiential and therapeutic. As Shulevitz trenchantly puts it, Christians are no longer Sabbatarians in part because they are busy on Sunday rushing from their megachurch’s ATM machine to the mall.3 If Shulevitz is right about the church’s captivity to consumerism, then perhaps the Sabbath is a feast that will be preserved not primarily by those who have been invited, but by those who are hungriest for a different order of time.

1. Colin E. Gunton, The One, the Three, and the Many: God, Creation, and the Culture of Modernity (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993), p. 73. 2. A.T. Lincoln, “From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical and Theological Perspective,” in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Investigation, ed. D.A. Carson (Zondervan, 1982), p. 405. 3. Judith Shulevitz, “Bring Back the Sabbath,” in New York Times Magazine (March 2, 2003).

This review originally appeared in the July/August 2010 issue of Books & Culture

Chesterton House Painting