Jane Austen and The Book of Ruth

 

 

Hey, summer comes along and you switch gears and – in accordance with much protestant tradition – head for the Old Testament to slow things down a bit for the vacation season.  I’ve gone straight for the Book of Ruth.  I am perhaps more of a literary type than lots of Baptist Sunday School teachers.  I am a sucker for Jane Austen and I always keep one of her novels on my nightstand to dip into as I fade off into sleep mode.

You would think that after the first few ( twenty?) times through a Jane Austen novel the reading would be all relaxation and pleasure.  You know – all the real meat of the story already long understood and digested.  No surprises left.

But that’s not my experience.   To steal a phrase from John Sebastian, “the more I see, the more I see there is to see.” In just the last few evenings I’ve been reading middle chapters in Emma.  Chapters where Emma is infatuated with Frank Churchill and is weighing his every word and action as she considers whether she’s in love with him or not.  About this same time, Emma is working to bring poor old Harriet Smith back to her right mind after her ill-fated romantic attachment to the perfidious Mr. Elton.

Austen gives the reader all kinds of clues as she goes along about what’s really going on in Frank Churchill’s mind as he dallies with Emma; clues I missed in the first (and second and on and on) readings.  This book is psychologically dense and sophisticated.

But it is also shot through with standards.  You know – those things that nobody seems to agree about today and that the righteous marchers are now claiming are the remnants of patriarchal oppression, etc.

Here is what Emma finally tells her little friend Harriet to encourage her to stop moping and pining for the lost Mr. Elton who has gone his way and married another (monied) woman:

I have not said, exert yourself Harriet for my sake; think less, talk less of Mr. Elton for my sake; because for your own sake rather, I would wish it to be done, for the sake of what is more important than my comfort, a habit of self-command in you, a consideration of what is your duty, an attention to propriety, an endeavor to avoid the suspicions of others, to save your health and credit, and restore your tranquility.

Oh, yeah.  All of that stuff.  Who can doubt the importance of any of it?  And is this not what the rising generation ought to learn?  A bit of an aside here, but how much of the world’s problems are due in the final analysis to a failure to mature sexually?  I am out of school here, I know, but it sure looks to me like a lot of this terrorist business is fomented among men who, you know, can’t make it work with a woman.  This guy Q’tub or whatever his name was – the guy who was the philosophical inspiration for Bin Laden, et al – his life story (as told in the great book, The Looming Tower) shows that the turning point in his life , the beginning of his radicalization, was when he was rejected by the young woman who was his childhood infatuation.  In popular American culture, we would think of Teen Angel, the black-jacketed, duck-tailed youngster who rebels (motorcycle and all) because “Betty Lou done me wrong. . . .”

Teen Angel ends up with an arrest record or dies one midnight in a railroad crossing accident.  But in the case of the Islamists, all that frustration and rage fits rather squarely into their religion and the result is something like this:  If I have failed to get what I wanted and if I am unhappy, it can’t be my fault.  It must be the world!  It must be that the prevailing system gives women too much freedom – freedom to tempt and to reject men, for example.  Better start blowing stuff up until we can put them all under burkas, where they belong, so we can be pure and happy as men.

Okay, that’s off of my chest.  Now back to Jane Austen.  Look at how Emma considers the action of Frank Churchill in deciding to travel some thirty miles round trip to get his haircut.  Doesn’t really sound like something anyone should get their noses out of joint about, even though thirty miles (by horseback at that time) was much more of an extravagance then than it is now.  But look at the complexity and subtlety of Emma’s analysis:

It [the journey for the haircut] did not accord with the rationality of plan, the moderation in expense, or even the unselfish warmth of heart, which she had believed herself to discern in him yesterday.  Vanity, extravagance, love of change, restlessness of temper, which must be doing something, good or bad; heedlessness as to the pleasure of his father and Mrs. Weston, indifferent to how his conduct might appear in general . . . .

In the story, of course, the trip for a haircut was really a cover for Frank’s trip to London to buy a piano for his secret love, Jane Fairfax.  So, his real motives were more complex than Emma knew or could judge.   But that takes nothing away from the validity and perspicuity of Emma’s initial reactions based on what she then believed.

Given such sensibilities, such standards, who among us can stand?   Who could please and satisfy such a woman?  Well, someone who is educated, maybe.  Someone who has learned (been taught) a thing or two about selfishness and the fall of man.  Someone who has read Jane Austen, even.

And all of that points to just those things that the righteous marchers now tell us are the problem.  The education that Frank Churchill – and every man – ought to have is right there in the books and culture that it is now vogue to reject.  The Bible.  The church.  The classics.  In the extended and natural family.  And nowhere else.

And, speaking of the Bible, back to the Book of Ruth in the next post – coming soon.

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About Last Sunday . . .

 

 

As so often happens, the best parts of last week’s class were the questions raised.

 

There were several good ones, but the two that stick with me most were raised by Terry and Don.  Let’s take Terry first, for his question is a little more definite.  Although this isn’t a perfect, word-for-word quote of the question, I think it is fair to say that in essence Terry asked whether there is evidence in the Book of Ruth that our protagonist, Ruth herself, had converted to Israel’s God – Yaweh.

That is an important question – the ultimate question, actually – in any circumstance and it is particularly important here – to our consideration of this little Book.  For we are concerned with Ruth’s motives and with the results of her decisions.  We won’t really understand the Book unless we understand what moved Ruth to act as she did and unless we understand the reason for her great good fortune.

So the question – and we’ll be discussing this next Sunday – is what, if any, evidence is there in the text that Ruth had – or had not – converted to Israel’s God before she left Moab?

The second question is broader and not so well defined, but is of ultimate importance for our study.  It was something like this:  “What about the God part of this story?”

Well, yes.  What about that.  I am reminded of our Lord Jesus Christ’s admonition to a group of Pharisees who were (as was their bent) trying to trip Jesus up on the scriptures.  Jesus – as was His bent – stops them dead in their arrogant tracks with this statement:  “You study the scriptures because in them you think you have eternal life, and they are they that testify of me.”   Eugene Peterson, in The Message, translates Jesus’ admonition this way:

“You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you’ll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me!

John 5: 39

And our Lord’s words here are certainly words to us as we take up the study of this beautiful little Book of Ruth.  It is a poignant and romantic story, full of heroic and heart-rending acts.  So much so that we might be tempted to take our eye off of the ball here and consider the story only for its human content.  If so, then we might as well be in the public library and not the church.  We read the scriptures because they testify of Jesus Christ and the life we are offered in Him.

Given that, the next, obvious question becomes this: “Where do we find Jesus Christ in this story?”  The short and glib answer would be this:   At the very back of the book where he is mentioned by name as a direct descendant of Ruth and Boaz.  That’s correct of course and also very important; but let’s consider the whole book.  Where do we see Jesus Christ in the story as it unfolds?

Where do we see His character?  And what part of His character do we see?  What in this story is Christlike?   What do we see of His grace?

Getting Ready for Love

 

Philippians 2: 12-13 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,  for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

 

This is my same old coat
And my same old shoes
I was the same old me
With the same old blues
Then you touched my life
Just by holding my hand
Now I look in the mirror
And see a brand new girl
I got a brand new walk
A brand new smile
Since I met you baby
I got a brand new style
“Brand New Me” by Kenneth Gamble, Theresa Bell, and Jerry Butler

 

 

When I thought more about my last post – the whole business about our relationship with God depending on our own honesty, our willingness to recognize and let go of the delusions that we’ve created to protect our own egos – I thought maybe I had made things appear like “Okay, you’re saved, but I’m not having any more to do with you until you get it all cleaned up here.  No more light and no more word from Me until you get your act together.”  I didn’t really say that in the post, but, nonetheless, today I want to actively disabuse any reader of any such notion.

The honesty on our part that is essential to a growing relationship with God is not some bar that God wants to see us jump over before He rewards us with His presence.  Rather, our dishonesty – our false face – is at bottom a withholding of our true self.  This, of course, is a profound impediment to any real relationship.  But even here, God initiates, provides and empowers.  This taking off the mask and the drawing out of our true, vulnerable self is also the work of God.  He will not override our personality and our coming clean involves the exercise of our own will, but God provides the means and the energy.

As I thought this over, I remembered a passage in Rod Dreher’s wonderful book How Dante Can Save Your Life.   What I remembered, unaided by a review of the book or my notes from the book, was his recounting of his years of living according to the sexual morays of the modern, secular world.  In other words, of his being promiscuous.

When he began his relationship with God, he started to understand that what he’d been doing was wrong and he embraced – though not perfectly, at first – the discipline of chastity.  It’s a beautiful story, all in all, and he tells how this resolution – this effort – wrought changes in his life and outlook that prepared him to meet and then wed the love of his life.  His “coming clean” prepared him for a relationship – made entering in to that rewarding and fulfilling relationship possible for him.

Yep.  I was going to talk about all of that.  But when I went back to Rod’s book, and particularly to my kindle notes and highlights, I was a bit overwhelmed.  It’s not that there is something here or there in the book about opening ourselves to God.  The whole book is about that very thing.  I said earlier, quoting Donald Miller, that everyone has a story to tell and it’s not the one they’re telling.  But in Rod Dreher’s case – in this book at any rate – he’s coming very close, I think, to telling his true story.  Close enough to make the book a captivating and worthwhile read.

Joy About Judgement

 

I wrote a couple of days ago about those places in the Bible where inanimate creation is encouraged to – or even seen to – engage in the active praise of God.  You know – where trees clap their hands and where the rocks cry out. Today’s Psalm – Psalm 98 – contains one more instance of this – one that I was not aware of before this morning’s reading.  Here it is:

Let the floods clap their hands: let the hills be joyful together before the Lord. . .

And, once again, this ecstasy is inspired by coming judgement:

. . . for He cometh to judge the earth . . . .

This psalm tells us more about the kind of judgement the earth is anticipating.  As I argued before, it is not the kind of judgment that sentences someone to jail or to the gallows. Here is how Eugene Peterson, in his translation, The Message, renders the verse:

He’ll straighten out the whole world

He’ll put the world right, and everyone in it.

Meditation on Psalm 69

 

“Reproach hath broken my heart; and I am full of heaviness.”  Psalm 69: 20

“Some say the heart is just like a wheel: when you bend it, you can’t mend it. . .”

Anna McGarrigle, “Heart Like A Wheel”

Yes, there is value in reading the old translations of the Bible.   It is true that in many places the old translations are obscure.  The English language has changed so much in the time between the King James Version and now that sometimes the meaning is completely lost on a modern reader.  On another day I will argue for the poetic value of the old translations – how they sound and stick in the mind:

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed . . .

Okay, that doesn’t really convey exactly what was going on.  It was not really a tax as we think of it today, it was more like a census.  But what a beautiful, direct sentence;  what cadence.
But all of that is a subject for another day.  Today I want to consider that the King James Version of the Bible is actually, in and of itself, a part of our history and culture.  So many of the words and phrases there have been plowed into our consciousness.
As I read Psalm 69 this morning I heard again the familiar themes of grief and trouble and cries for salvation and justice.  All quite dramatic and sincere, but in a sense, just more of the same.  Then I came to verse 20 and to this phrase: “Reproach hath broken my heart. . .”
“Broken my heart?”  What a cliché.   It almost sounds like the Psalmist has been listening to country music.  But, of course, it is actually the other way around.   Right here in this little Psalm is the only place in the Bible that this phrase is used.  I’m willing to bet that this is the birthplace of this idiom, this figure of speech, which has pervaded our culture for generations.  Point number one: that’s how important the Bible is – even from a secular point of view, it is impossible to have a deep understanding of our culture and, indeed, our language, without a familiarity with the Bible.
Point number two is deeper.  Let’s meditate for a moment on the meaning or poetic value of the phrase.  Forget for a moment the overuse and the cry-in-your-beer connotations that country, blues and rock music have given it and think anew what the words mean.
The Hebrew might also have been translated something like this:  “My inner life – the soul of me, my hopes and aspirations, my confidence – has been crushed, extinguished.”
Why has this little phrase so taken hold in our culture?  Let me venture a guess.  Because this is what actually happens to us.  All of us.  Yes.  Our inner lives, our inmost hopes and aspirations are crushed.  Not always – as in the country songs – by an unrequited love or an unfaithful lover.  Sometimes that; but there are a thousand ways hearts are broken, and all of us know intimately at least one of them.
And the phrase does not say “wounded” or even “deeply affected.”  It says “broken.”  That means that the thing is rendered useless.  It means that the thing doesn’t work any more.
How can you mend a broken heart?  Is Anna McGarrigle  right when she says that the heart is like a wheel – when you bend it, you can’t mend it?
If the heart is the inner strength, the inner life, and it for whatever reason is not merely injured but actually broken, that means it can no longer raise the will.  It cannot will itself back to health, back to where it actually operates to motivate us through life.  Some outside help is needed;  and that is the mission of Jesus Christ:

Luke 4:18

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted . . .

Meditation on Romans, Chapter 5

 

I think I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again.  I find things – meanings, light – in Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Bible (The Message) that I don’t find or get in the more traditional translations.  I’m not saying get rid of the old translations.  I love the meter and rhythms of the King James.  Has anyone ever improved on “The Lord is my shepherd?”  or “they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk, and not faint?”

 

 

But look at the fifth chapter of Romans, for example.  Here is Peterson, starting at verse 1:

By entering through faith into what God has always wanted to do for us – set us right with him, make us fit for him – we have it all together with God because of our Master Jesus.  And that’s not all: We throw our doors open to God and discover at the same moment that he has already thrown his door open to us.  We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand – out in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory, standing tall and shouting our praise.

At the risk of sounding juvenile or cliché, all I can say to this is “wow!”  How immediate and existential he makes it all sound.  That faith in Christ is not just something that changes our metaphysical status.  It’s not an abstraction.  The change is not simply a changing of the books in heaven.  It’s right now.  And it’s . . . well, it’s overwhelming.  Again, Peterson, Romans 5:  10-11:

In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged.  Quite the contrary – we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit.

Deep and Wide

Doesn’t this sound immediate and dramatic?  Doesn’t it sound fulfilling?   Almost operatic!  Big life!  A few verses down the page and Peterson translates:

. . . just think of how our lives will expand and deepen by means of his resurrection life!

Hoo-boy.  Isn’t this what we really want?  The expansion and deepening of life?  I know that there are more chapters in this epistle and language there that may seem to put something of a damper on all of this enthusiasm.  You know – the evil that I would not, that I do and the good that I would . . . that sort of thing.
But.  But.  But.  Is it still not a fair question to ask ourselves?  That is – is my life deepening and expanding?  Wow.  Big question.  No doubt, the bible teaches us that some – maybe even most – of this deepening and expanding goes on in ways that we are not immediately conscious of while it is happening.  But still.  How are our lives being deepened and expanded?  To meditate on this is to maybe come to some appreciation about aspects of our lives that we have maybe ignored or taken for granted.  On the other hand, such a meditation may call us to assess our lives.  If we are not deepening and expanding, what is wrong?  What are we stuck on?  What idols are we giving our precious energies and attentions to?