Monday, December 13, 2010

Was Jane Austen a Christian? and Other Thoughts

There is an attitude that annoys me, one that seems closely akin to the same mistake, to quote Douglas Wilson, that assumes the True Church was begun in a revival tent in Alabama sometime in the 1870s. Like that attitude, this specific mistake fails to give the long ages of previous Christians their due. For 1,500 years the Church has transformed whole countries, resulting in centuries during which every last person in a given country was baptised and (nominally, at least) Christian. During those times when everyone said they were Christian, no doubt there were also times of great hypocrisy and formalism and all the other evils we read about in The Pilgrim's Progress. But how many times have you heard that Constantine converted (ahem, “converted”) to Christianity for political reasons? And what about the lovely Christian lady I spent fifteen minutes trying to convince that Jane Austen was a Christian? “She was a vicar's daughter!” “That doesn't prove anything!” “Some of her best characters are clergymen!” “That doesn't prove anything either!”
It's the same when you want to talk about Shakespeare. Or the Brontes, or even Edmund Spenser. And it drives me a little crazy.
When a person says he is a Christian, when he worships with the Bride of Christ, defends her in argument, extols her in story, obeys her laws, is baptised and married under the shadow of her steeple, and is finally buried by his family in the hope of resurrection, I think we should believe him.
Yes, only God knows the heart. Maybe your minister is secretly a hypocrite too, but you will of course be inclined to doubt this, given the sound Biblical teaching dished out every Sunday from his pulpit. I feel the same way about many of these old authors, from Charlotte Bronte to the Beowulf poet. And here is why I believe we should take these people at their word:
First, let me introduce you to a sociological phenomenon called the plausibility structure. It's a fancy name for what happens when everyone you talk to believes X, making it hard to disbelieve in X. So, for example, one fairly strong plausibility structure we have right now protects the theory of climate change. Everyone says it's happening, and ridicules skeptics. It is hard to disbelieve climate change, not because the data supports it (it doesn't) but because nearly everyone else believes it and takes it as a given.
Two hundred years ago, before the Origin of the Species rendered it unnecessary to believe in a Creator God, there was an overwhelming plausibility structure in place around Christianity. Even people who hated the idea of a God could not liberate themselves from the fact that life had to come from somewhere, and that divine creation was the best explanation (it still is, but the plausibility structure no longer supports it). Consequently, all people were raised in an atmosphere where the existence of God, whether as loving Father or as impersonal deistic Prime Mover, went largely unquestioned by serious thinkers.
When a strong plausibility structure exists, it becomes very hard to deny what that structure asserts. While acknowledgement of the existence of God is not the same thing as salvation, there are two things to say about the relation of this plausibility structure to salvation: First, a plausibility structure that strong would not have been built on unbelief, but on a sincere and loving relationship with God. Accordingly, we find the structure weakest when the Church is at her least vital—just before the Reformation, for example, or just before the Great Awakening. Second, protected by a strong plausibility structure, weak faith may survive where, if it was suddenly transplanted to a modern university philosophy course, it might die. No, I'm not slipping into Arminianism here: those who are saved are elect, and nothing can snatch us out of God's hand. But surely God can effect the salvation of the little in faith by planting them into a strong plausibility structure at a time when they will be protected?
Second, Romans 10:14 says: “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?
For thousands of years in western history we find a society full of preachers, preaching like billy-oh. These people heard the Word early and often. Again, there were seasons (just before the Reformation or the Great Awakening) when the preachers were often as ignorant or unregenerate as their congregations. But everyone went to church somewhere. Nearly everyone heard the Gospel in some form. And this would go on for their whole lives. If they didn't hear the Word from one minister, they would hear it from the next. This text doesn't say that if you have a preacher, you'll believe—but these were the most assiduously preached-to people of all time.
Third, think of the tremendous peer pressure to study the Bible, discuss the sermon, and brag to your neighbours about how much better your minister is than theirs. Almost like biggest youth group in history. Yes, a great breeding-ground for hypocrisy and other faults. But even better, especially during times of vitality in the church, for sincere faith.
Fourth, I would urge you to remember that even Christians are imperfect. A person can be a bad Christian, still in the nursery of sanctification, but justified all the same. William of Orange, “the Silent”, is one of the great Protestant heroes. He faithfully served the country of Holland during their fight for independence from Spanish Catholic rule, giving glory to God for his victories. And he had an illegitimate son. That he was a sinful man does not mean that he was not a Christian, or that his faith was in vain.
These four reasons are not conclusive, alone or together, but I believe they are strong enough to raise a general presumption of sincere Christianity for everyone who lived within Christendom I. This presumption can be rebutted in, for example, the case of Catherine de Medici, who poisoned and massacred her way to power and then died screaming that devils had come to drag her to hell. But in most cases, when people identify themselves with the Church, I believe our operating presumption—to be proved or disproved as soon as possible—should be that they are truly a member.
However I think we can also conclusively determine whether a person is saved or not, by considering these two things:
First, many of these people identify as Christians. This may be explicit or, more likely, implicit. When Charlotte Bronte has Jane Eyre reject a life of sin as against the moral law, when Jane Austen's epitaph says that “She departed this Life […] after a long illness supported with the patience and the hopes of a Christian,” when Handel cries in tears that he thought he saw Heaven opening before him as he wrote the Hallelujah Chorus, when Edmund Spenser writes a whole epic about the importance of serving God virtuously, or when Shakespeare constantly comes out with things like, “Why, all the souls that were, were forfeit once; and He that might the vantage best have took, found out the remedy,” --why doubt them? Why second-guess someone that preaches and speaks and--mostly--lives like a Christian?
And why in heaven's name do we disown and hand over to the world some of the greatest Christians, the greatest artists ever known?
Second, as Christians, we are all temples of the Holy Spirit, and Christians can often recognise the Spirit in each other. It is usually possible to recognise faith in the words of a long-dead author.
This is often an intellectual exercise. Does what the author say agree with Scripture? Does the author sincerely wish to give God glory, not man? Does the author declare the good news faithfully and enthusiastically? Do the author's characters testify the advantages of living a faithful life—or the disadvantages of not doing so?
I believe that a book can be a Christian book even if it never mentions the name of God or never states its moral. Jane Austen is a great example. Her letters show that she was a faithful, committed Christian as plainly as ever words could. Yet in her books, her characters never pray, call upon God, or discuss His laws. Instead Austen uses them subtlely to teach wonderful things. I highly recommend Miniatures and Morals by Peter Leithart, available in toto from Google Books, as a study of the Christian themes of Austen's books.
Correspondingly, I believe that a novel that does not try to teach will be far more revealing of the author's true beliefs than if he had sat down with a message in mind. What gets out when he isn't paying attention? What presuppositions, what unchallenged assumptions does he have? Often it can be possible to see that a person has areas of his life—or his whole life—that he hasn't completely turned over to God, simply by what he says in his books. Look at Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's books—where unaided human reason is capable of finding out the truth about everything (as in Sherlock Holmes) or where the Church is seen as full of fanatics (as in The White Company) which the heroes forsake in favour of a moderate humanism and personal honour (as in The Refugees).
Of course, in order to recognise Christianity in the writings of a long-dead author, it is necessary to to read those writings. We cannot always trust what others say about those authors; we need to be able to have a good laugh at the expense of (for example) the author of Shakespeare the Atheist. As Christians, we need to be well-educated. And we need to be very suspicious of people who will tell us that great Christians like Austen or Constantine were not Christians at all.


ChristianVictorianLiterature said...

This is an awesome post, I agree wholeheartedly. I plan on reviewing Leithart's book on my blog as well. I have also found myself defending Austen's Christianity as well. It would help if they stocked Austen's books at Christian bookstores.... I have always wondering why this wasn't the case.

Suzannah said...

Austen wrote deeply Christian books, I believe, but her themes were deeply encoded in her plots on a level that's far from superficial. Most people today never even read on that level, so the deeper meaning goes over their heads. I do hope to see a good deal more storytelling maturity in future generations!


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