Saturday, April 18, 2009

George Eliot

Kh. Krista West, in her podcast, The Opinionated Tailor, mentioned once her love for the novels by George Eliot, particularly Adam Bede. Since Bonnie and I are rather addicted to 19th century novels, we are always looking for recommendations. We went out and bought most of her novels (btw, “George Eliot” is the pen name for Mary Ann Evans Cross). I started with Middlemarch and was mesmerized. Bonnie tried to begin with Middlemarch too, but found the vocabulary a little tough, so went to Mill on the Floss, which deals with less educated characters and consequently less obscure, Latinate vocabulary and almost no literary allusions except to the Bible, and they are abundant. After Middlemarch I took an Eliot break and read Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy while Bonnie went right on to Eliot’s Adam Bede—I do have a point coming up; thanks for hanging in there through this wandering set up.

Bonnie couldn’t put Adam Bede down. She kept reading sentences to me, summarizing snippets of plot, and suddenly uttering under her breath, “Oh, this is good.” I rushed through the last chapters of Return of the Native so I could start Adam Bede as soon as Bonnie finished. For anyone who’s interested, like the other Hardy novels that I have read, Return of the Native is delightfully melancholy and depressing stuff: slowly watching human weakness destroy a life on the backdrop of bleak English countryside. Yes, choices have consequences, eventually.

I am now five chapters into the fifty-five chaptered Adam Bede and I see why Bonnie loved it so much. One of the early characters (whether or not she is a main character remains to be seen) is a young Methodist open-air preacher; and her sermon and her technique and the description of her feelings could have exactly described me twenty-five years ago. I was an occasional street evangelist, emotionally charged, conversionist who was sure everyone was going to hell who had not experienced conversion the same way I had. I was not of the puritanical bent, in that I did not condemn anyone; rather, I was of the earnest, pitying bent: I was worried about the afterlife of those around me. I wanted others to be sure that they were saved, as sure as I was; and my certainty lay in my emotionally overpowering conversion experience and my regular booster shots of emotional high, administered at regular intervals by evangelists and praise bands.

It wasn’t until my thirties that I got a steady job and developed enough routine in my life raising a young family to take deep breaths and think a little more deeply about life, God and the universe. Then a terrible thing happened: I began to listen to Bach. Surprise is to weak a word to describe my becoming aware that “the Holy Spirit” was in Bach’s music just as strongly as it was in Bible preaching and worship songs. I struggled with this awareness for a couple of years, noting with growing concern that Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, and, much to my shame, even really good football games seemed to have “the Holy Spirit” too. Then a small light began to shine. Maybe what I have been calling “the Holy Spirit” was really just my being excited about something.

When I look back, I must again and again give thanks to God, that patient Fisher of men. He caught me in his net using the bait I needed, emotional certainty. Or as my Baptist foster mother put it, “to know in your knower.” God used what drew me to draw me; as the troparion of the Nativity states, “Those who worshiped the stars were drawn by a star to worship you, the Sun of righteousness.” Here I can quote George Eliot too, who is clearly no fan of late 18th century Methodism: “Still—if I have read religious history aright—faith, hope and charity have not always been found in a direct ratio with a sensibility to the three concords [i.e. grammatical logic], and it is possible—thank God—to have very erroneous theories and very sublime feelings.” Then Eliot goes on to cite an example of someone who selflessly gives up the best parts of her own food in the false assumption that the extra food will help heal the “fits” [epilepsy?] of her neighbor’s child. Although the remedy is “inefficacious…the generous stirring of neighborly kindness that prompted the deed has a beneficent radiation that is not lost.”

For hurting people, the religious certainty of fundamentalism, be it of the emotional Pentecostal variety or the more cerebral Reformed type, goes a long way to helping them find peace with God and with themselves. It provides a larger-than-life story in which their (my) miserable little life has a place and has meaning. But more than a narrative, Christian religion of almost any sort introduces people to Jesus Christ and the possibility transformation: the possibility that I might come to love as He loved, serve as He served, give as He gave. My own experience (and yours too, I am sure) is sufficient to confirm that not everyone who comes into Christian fundamentalism develops “very sublime feelings” such that they are willing to go hungry to help their neighbor’s sick child. Yet, I think the percentage of Pharisees and hypocrites is no larger among Protestant fundamentalists than it is among Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Orthodox—it’s just that the Protestants may be a little louder than the others.

Elliot has really got me thinking. I can’t wait for chapter six.


Barbara said...

Christ is Risen!

Dear Fr. Michael,

I'm intrigued by the notion of God using what draws us to draw us to Him. I can definitely look back on my life and see how God has used my needs and interests to draw me. It also made me think about a conversation I had recently about how God reaches us in so many different ways. I was a little uncomfortable with the conclusions being affirmed by this knowledge - that therefore all ways of knowing God, worshipping God, experiencing God are equal. I'm not convinced that all of the ways he draws us necessarily lead us to Him. Sometimes they lead us to what we want God to be. We create our familiar idols and delusions. Another version of the troparion you quoted says, Those who worshipped the stars were TAUGHT by the stars to adore You...

Would you say there was a difference between being drawn and being taught? Isn't there a step that takes us from the familiar and comfortable to the humility of recognizing that God is completely other than us and that even what drew us to Him may need healing?

Your comments about the methodist preacher also reminded me of a book I just read called, "Talking about God is Dangerous." It was written by a Russian woman who chose exile from Russia in the 1980's because of her Orthodox Christian beliefs and activism. It was either exile or imprisonment. So in that sense, her talking about God was dangerous. But she actually uses the phrase after being in the West and watching a Sunday morning TV evangelist. So many layers of danger :)

Interestingly, what drew her to God was a Yoga master giving her the Jesus Prayer as a mantra.

I hope you are enjoying the joy of Bright week!


Fr. Michael said...

Truly He is risen!
I agree that we often create idols out of what has drawn or blessed us in the past. I think "teach" is a good word, but I also think that movement towards what draws us puts us in a new place to see what we hadn't seen before. Idolatry is always a temptation: even as we long for and need a God who holds the universe in his hand, this God scares us. We want a tame god, that we can hold in our hand.

Moosh said...

You have no idea how happy I am to see your take on George Eliot. :D

Paul said...

I read this! Keep them coming!