Monday, February 20, 2012

Jane Austen and the Sermon on the Mount

I have two almost completely written posts from the last few days trying to figure out what I want to say, and I'm not getting anywhere.  They're about what I warned you was coming a couple of weeks ago-- time to dive back in to the faith of my childhood.  The last time I did this, I was analyzing what was wrong, what drove me crazy, why I left.  I'm good at that.  It comes naturally.

This time I'm trying to figure out what's worth keeping.  That does not come naturally.  I was burned, badly burned, and I don't want to think about the positives.  I want to keep being cynical, snide, and bitter. (even though I keep going to church. It's weird.)  Also-- and probably more to the point-- I don't want my readers to think I'm a religious fanatic.  But you know what?  I need to do this.

So if religious stuff bores you to tears, feel free to tune out.  Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent) is this week, so after this one I'll put "Lent" in the title somewhere for this topic so you'll be able to tell. 

So... back up to last spring, which is when this started (that's how long I've been putting this off).  I took that seminar on Jane Austen where we read all of her novels, some juvenilia, and some of her letters.  The prompt for our seminar paper was a quotation on Austen from a famous critic that was something like:  Austen was the first major writer to present secular morality, a morality that is based not on religious tenets, but on what is socially acceptable.  "Austen's fiction," continued the prompt, "seems to constitute as much of a departure, as a continuance, of Christian ethics."  Agree or disagree, using examples from her work, in 15-20 pages.

The question fascinated me.  I wish I'd had a couple of months to work on it.  (to which you could respond, and rightly so, that I did have a couple of months, if I'd started as soon as he gave us the prompt, but I had a few other things to do at that point, which I started to list but that would get me way off track.)  First of all, it pissed me off that some critic thinks he gets to decide whether or not Austen is Christian.  Austen gets to decide that (or speaking from certain theological standpoints, I guess God would get to decide that, but whatever, not the critic anyway).  and Austen clearly considered herself to be Christian.  Read her letters, the prayers she wrote for family devotions, the things that other people said about her.  Just because what she believed doesn't match up with what some critic considers to be Christianity doesn't make her not Christian.

Obviously I have a personal stake here, because I still consider myself to be a Christian, but my beliefs are not the standard ones.  if I were to write a list of things I believe (my own statement of faith), probably most Christians, even members of my family, would say that I am not Christian.  So when someone sets themselves up as the arbiter of what is and is not Christianity, my back is already up before we've even started.

But I've run into the problem of inserting my own beliefs into academic papers before (see this post).  It doesn't work.  So even though I started with the point that Austen considered herself to be a Christian, I still had to figure out some way of defining Christianity that would be acceptable academically, and then show whether or not Austen matched up.  I started out looking at Anglican creeds (Austen's father and closest brother were Anglican clergymen).  But creeds are too abstract for what I needed. 

So I ended up at the Sermon on the Mount, which is a sermon Jesus preached outlining his ideas about moral behavior (although it seems likely that it was actually a collection of his teachings, and not just a single lecture).  Some version of it appears in all four of the gospels, so it is pretty much the standard statement of Jesus' ideas about morality.

(The paper becomes mostly irrelevant at this point, but just in case you're interested, I thought I made a pretty good case that in her novels, there are many examples of Christian morality as it is presented in the Sermon on the Mount.  For example, Jesus says, "Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them," (Matthew 6.1) and Mr. Darcy does his best to save Lydia without letting anyone know about it.)  

But what surprised me, since I hadn't read the sermon on the mount in years, was how much of my own ideas about morality come from it.  And one of the things that turned me off about Evangelical Christianity is how little they follow it.  I had a bunch of examples here, but I just deleted them, because this wasn't going to be about analyzing the negatives, remember?  It's about what's worth keeping. 

So first on my list of things worth saving would be the sermon on the mount.  It seems to me that one of the main points of the sermon on the mount is that what looks like winning isn't always winning; the person who looks big and important and powerful is not worth any more than the homeless guy under the bridge; looking all holy and righteous in public is pointless if you're not practicing what you preach in the small, private moments that really count.  It's not a description of the way the "real" world is; it's a way of thinking and seeing that prompts you to look past the glitter and the trappings of power and see the human heart underneath the facade.  and those are ideas worth thinking about.

And it's taking all I can do to not launch into an analysis of the parts of the sermon on the mount that are problematic (like, when does 'turning the other cheek' become 'enabling an abuser'?) but that's not my point at the moment.  maybe we can discuss that another time.  and p.s.:  I only described as much of my JA paper as I needed to set this up, so it doesn't sound like a very convincing argument.  We can argue discuss further in the comments if any of you made it this far and are so inclined.


  1. If I had not been hit with a particularly egregious bout of insomnia last night, I could go on and on with this discussion. Unfortunately, not only is my brain toast but I have to take the kids to the Shrove Tuesday pancake dinner at church which they are working. Tomorrow, I'll be back.

    1. oh, pancake dinner! sounds yummy. Our church just does Ash Wednesday, which is a potluck tomorrow. I'm trying to decide whether to fix something plain in the spirit of the day or go with something decadent so I could have a few bites but it wouldn't be hanging out here at the house. Yup, focused on the spiritual, that's me.

  2. Um...okay. Here's my take (please don't get your back up). If you are a follower of Christ, you are a Christian. Whether or not you believe there is such a thing as a Christ or that Jesus was it is a different matter. But, yeah, who the hell is that guy to say Austen wasn't one? Malarky.

    Also, I love the Sermon on the Mount (we call them the Beatitudes). I've always found them to be so full of hope. Oh, and it's your blog. There's no need to apologize for the content. :)

    1. ha! well, that's sort of my take, too, so you're safe. :-) I've borrowed a line of Bono's that I read years ago in an interview-- "I am a follower of the teachings of Christ." and "so full of hope" -- good point, I hadn't really thought of them that way.

  3. For The Bible: The Good Parts Version I would keep the Sermon on the Mount. As well as the fruits of the spirit. The first two commandments, or even just the second. Anything that goes against the idea of Love, I would toss. It trumps all else, no matter what the Bibble says. (Which is why I consider myself a Christian and believe there's nothing wrong with homosexuality.)

    In re turning cheeks: Jesus may not have been putting forth an idea meant to be carried into a marriage. Possibly this was more about Living Under the Romans. Here's one take on it, that my dad once sent me.

    But generally I think the best thing we can do in trying to discern God's Will is ask: What's the most loving action I can take? In the case of spousal abuse, it's to seek help, which is loving towards the spouse, and ourselves, and of course to any children involved.

    1. great link, London, thanks. I was going to post some further thoughts about this tomorrow (lots of thinking time in the car today), but maybe now I don't need to!