Friday, October 30, 2009

Adam Bede (Remember Him?)

I began many months ago to read and comment on George Eliot’s Adam Bede. After only one post a few chapters in, I became so annoyed by the moralizing put into the mouth of Dinah, that I put the book down and only picked it up at points of extreme necessity: long waits in airports, mostly. I finally finished a few weeks ago.

It is not Eliot’s fault that Dinah’s moralizing bothered me so much. In fact, I was very pleased that Eliot did not present Dinah as a hypocrite. She practiced what she preached. I was bothered, nonetheless, because of my own history: Dinah reminded me too much of myself in a certain season of my life.

As a young Charismatic Evangelical, I used to sound terribly similar to Dinah in my moralizing words and thoughts, only I didn’t have the godly life to back it up. It was not that I didn’t what to live a holy life—I followed scrupulously all of the don’ts and whatever do’s I could find. It was that in the Charismatic Evangelical world in which I lived there were no saints, no real living Dinahs. The nearest thing to saints and lives of saints I had in those days (as far as I could make out) were missionaries and missionary stories, which I devoured. Bonnie and I for years were sure we were called to be missionaries, if for no other reason than the fact the we wanted to give God our whole lives and, it seemed to us at the time, missionary endeavor was the only recognized way to do that. Missionaries were the heroes of the faith, the saints.

Bonnie and I encountered two hurdles in our attempt to become Evangelical missionaries. First, we could not figure out where we were called. God “put on our heart” a different country or even a different continent every two or three months. The second problem was that we got to know various missionaries and missionary endeavors through short term mission trips. As far as I could tell, the formula was the same: enthusiastic singing, inspiring preaching and moralistic strictness. The only difference was the country. Gentleness, humility, self control, and kindness: the odds of finding these traits were no better in Bogotá than in Los Angeles.

Although Dinah’s penchant for personal revelations fit right in to my Charismatic Evangelical expectations, her self-sacrificing service to others evidences a saint-like quality that I had never encountered until I started reading, well…, the lives of saints. I don’t know if turn of the (19th) century Methodist theology could actually produce people with the self-denying holiness evidenced in Eliot’s Dinah. One thing I must give Eliot (and the Methodists) credit for, however, is that at least they held such holiness up as an example, whether or not there were actual Methodist saints. Holding up such an ideal is much better, in my opinion, than the cynical tendency of many novelists in the 19th century and almost all in the 20th of presenting all seriously religious people as hypocrites, fools or mad men.

1 comment:

Michelle said...

Most of my cynical grrr-ness about missions, you've already been exposed to in conversation, but I wanted to make a different comment ...

I think George Eliot is endlessly fascinating because she had already given up her Christian faith entirely, more than a decade before she wrote her first novel - and yet, so many of her stories show Christians like Dinah in, if not perfect, at least sympathetic lights.

It seems that early in her career, she worked on translations of two German treatises, both criticisms of Christianity. (The introduction to my copy of Adam Bede is where I'm getting all this from ... and there's a particularly good intro to my copy of Daniel Deronda if you didn't see it before when Bonnie was borrowing it ... ) This apparently disillusioned her out of her "ascetic evangelical" phase ... I feel like I "grok" this about her. I wish she could have found her way back to something more substantial than an observer's admiration for what faith could produce in a human.