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.

Waiting For The Lord

Psalm 130:6
my soul waits for the Lord
    more than watchmen for the morning,
    more than watchmen for the morning.

Waiting implies a relationship with a person.

If we are dealing with the internet – with robots and artificial intelligence – we – if things are working right – don’t have to wait.  We ask Siri how many years Babe Ruth played for the Boston Red Sox and the answer is instantaneous  – six.

But dealing with a human being is not like that.  And dealing with God is even less like that.  It’s true that God loves us, but He knows us better than we know ourselves and He knows what we need and even what we desire better than we know ourselves.  We lie to ourselves, deceive ourselves, for many reasons: to cover up for wrongs and failures we don’t want to face up to; to keep up appearances, even to ourselves.  Our self-deceptions are epic in both width and breadth.  It takes work to undo them.  It takes effort to see these deceptions or what they are – to remember why we concocted them in the first place and to at least get to the point where we might honestly assess what the truth might actually have been.

Donald Miller, who makes his living giving counsel to writers, says that everyone has a story and it is not the story that they are telling.  When we talk with another – even with our closest confidant and even in the strictest confidence and even about the matters that our deepest in our soul – we don’t tell the whole truth.  God wants the whole truth.  Not because He wants to embarrass or punish us or to prove to us that, in spite of our protests, life was fair; He wants the truth – wants us to get to the bottom of things and tell ourselves the truth about ourselves – because this is the only way to get the ship righted.  He doesn’t want to let us go on wandering down this dead-end road we’ve created for ourselves.

Jane Austen gives us a dramatic example of this process of “coming clean” in her great novel, Pride and Prejudice.  Elizabeth Bennett receives a letter from Mr. Darcy that contains enough information to convince her that the “reality” or “truth” that she has constructed for herself – that she made her decisions, big decisions, based on – was completely, utterly false.  Here is Elizabeth’s confession:

How despicably I have acted!” she cried; “I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable mistrust! How humiliating is this discovery! Yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind! But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself.”

If that is our natural tendency and bent – and it is – then our relationship with God won’t be one of instant gratification, but, rather, one of long and deep searching and confession.  Thus, “waiting on the Lord” as we hear about it in the Bible and as we think about it may really be more God waiting on us!  That is, waiting on us to “come clean” so that the conversation will be meaningful and not just some feel-good rambling about the person we pretend to be and the wants and needs that we have half-convinced ourselves that we have.

I am not for a minute saying that God will have no help for us until we’ve gotten it all together.  Nope.  I am right there with the Reformers and Protestant tradition in saying and believing that God initiates.  That is, He comes to us – saves us, accepts us – “just as we are,” self-deceptions and all.  What I am trying to say is that the relationship that follows is one that depends on honesty and, given the fact that this is such a task for us – letting go of our precious smoke screens and delusions – there is some waiting involved; maybe a lot.