George M. Marsden: A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards

A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards (Eerdmans, 2008) is, as the title suggests, a much briefer telling of the story of the life of Jonathan Edwards than the encyclopedic behemoth that George M. Marsden also published in 2004 for Yale University Press. The latter work, entitled Jonathan Edwards: A Life,  stands at over 640 pages, and enjoys the privileged status of being the definitive scholarly treatment of Jonathan Edwards biographies.

So, if you have read the much longer work, complete with its voluminous and copious footnotes and references, you are probably asking yourself these questions: First, is this simply a 150-page synopsis of what Marsden already wrote? Secondly, what else could Marsden say about Jonathan Edwards that he hasn’t already written elsewhere?

I asked myself those same questions.

As to the first question, I can say definitively, “No,” this is not a mere abridgment of the larger book. It is a complete rewriting and retelling of the life of the Puritan divine. As to the second question, I have to admit that the answer lies not so much in the fact that the books are radically different in content, as much as in the fact that the approach the author takes in the tiny volume is so fresh.

Let me explain.

I recently dove into the shorter work having already owned and mined the treasure in the larger work for several years. I liked the bigger book exceedingly and thought, “This is probably going to sound familiar – a deja vu.” I was skeptical at first. But as I began the very first chapter, I found myself enchanted by Jonathan Edwards and the story of his life all over again. The pages turned quickly. They were less filled with footnotes and marginalia. In fact, those entrappings, so appreciated by scholars and historians, do have a way of interrupting the flow of the story.

Clearly, the shorter work does not read like an academic treatise. Actually, that is its greatest strength. Instead, it reads much more swiftly, and almost sounds to the ear like a story being told in a classroom setting, or perhaps even around a coffee table discussion, or a campfire. One could probably even read this book aloud and keep a group of friends largely attuned for blocks at a time.

When describing this work, I want to keep using words like “charming” and “fascinating” to describe the tale as Marsden presents it here, even as I must make it clear that A Short Life does not lack the refined historical research which has become the hallmark of Marsden’s writing. It’s just not weighed down by it.

This work, much more so than it’s bigger brother, makes a good beach read or vacation paperback. It would also make an incomparable first introduction to the life of Edwards for laypersons. My guess is that people who read A Short Life will feel just as well baptized into the historical period in which Edwards lived as those who read other helpful introductions. At the same time, they will feel more as if they have heard a story well told. They will see Edwards as more than just a two-dimensional research interest, but as a three-dimensional man who struggled to be faithful to God in his own day and time.

I particularly liked the way that Marsden compared Edwards to Benjamin Franklin throughout the book. This foil between two strikingly different men works through the storytelling as the thread which binds the whole narrative together.

So should an Edwardsian read A Short Life even if he or she has already read the larger work? My answer is, “Yes.” Read it for pleasure. Read it for a refresher or first-time introduction. Read it on the back porch with a cup of sweet tea and prepare to be enchanted by Edwards’s story of fidelity, piety, and mission all over again.

 

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