Sunday Is ...

Are traditional holy days still something more than just any other day?

By Martin E. Marty|January 13, 2020

“Sunday Is Not the New Monday” shouted the headline of the “Success” section in a recent edition of our Chicago Tribune (Monday, December 30, 2019). Having many reasons—cultural, theological, traditional, personal, etc.—to care about Sunday (or analogues to it in Judaism, Adventism, Islam, and more) I took the bait and read on. Author John Boitnott opens the article with a description of what Sunday used to mean—or what he thinks it used to mean—and how it served: “Sunday used to be for relaxing, spending time with family and friends and catching up on personal tasks.” Boitnott says that he associates with “entrepreneurs” and authors of advice columns who encourage their readers to “stay available for work outside traditional business hours.” 
Boitnott offers four clusters of advice in settings where “work” casts its shadow on Sundays: “Stop the guilt,” “Remove yourself from the work environment,” “Set limits and retrain those around you,” and “Plan for Monday on Friday.” So far, so good, if “workism” or “workaholism” is your problem. But is that all that is at stake and all that is to be offered to face the problem? We Sightings columnists are charged to notice those overlookable stories wherein religion or the religious may in fact be significant. Reread the Boitnott sentence again, the one about how “Sunday used to be for relaxing, spending time with family and friends and catching up on personal tasks.” Yes, but for tens of millions of North Americans, among others, Sundays (for Christians; Fridays for Muslims; Shabbat for Jews; etc.) were also for helping people tend to general and specific matters of the spirit and the soulful flourishing of life. 
Stop! Hold it, M.E.M.! Two hazards face us. First, we are not to be given to nostalgia and to fancying ideal past occasions that never prevailed in times that “used to be.” Second, the cultural features of the historic uses of Sunday are not vivid or available to, again, “tens of millions.” Let me toss in a third note: if we are implying that a valid use of Sunday was or is for assembly and worship, we may be buying trouble in a pluralistic society. There, “matters of the spirit” can easily become subject to sectarian and particularistic resorts to banal, exploitative, and many impoverishing “uses of Sunday.” Boitnott’s points of advice may not address all that is needed, but, as far as they go, they may very well serve up benefits to readers and the public at large. 
His article fired my curiosity about how widespread his absence-of-the-spiritual writing in this case is, and it inspired me to investigate whether or not other writers think Sunday is something other than the “new Monday.” Do others also overlook what we are calling the “spiritual” or “religious” dimensions of Sunday-as-the-new-Monday? Yes, and yes, indeed. We checked with Google, who helped us turn up scores of “Sunday is…” columns that echoed Boitnott’s. For most of them, the positive values of what Sunday did or was designed to do are also overlooked and rarely considered as even an option. Yet, there are today many places where Sunday (and Friday and Saturday) is still a moment of meaning and renewal for the spiritual lives and imaginaries of religiously inclined people, and what Sunday “is” and “means” is being creatively reimagined in every corner of our world for such religious purposes. 
I, along with colleagues of mine, have documented throughout my career the ever-expanding and ever-changing nature of Sunday (Friday, Shabbat, etc.) “worship” or “observance,” whether “traditional” or “contemporary,” aesthetically rich or just artistically passable, crowded or sparsely attended, “high” and refined or “low” and populist worship cultures, countless people serve and are being served. What we’d like to see from advice-givers like Mr. Boitnott are observations about what our contemporaries find at Sunday (etc.) worship that may help them experience lives transformed, vistas opened, and hearts inspired to serve others in their Monday and on worlds.  ♦

Sightings is edited by Joel Brown, a PhD Candidate in Religions in the Americas at the Divinity School. Sign up here to receive Sightings via email. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Marty Center or its editor.


Martin E. Marty

Columnist, Martin E. Marty (PhD’56), is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at