Thursday, October 19, 2017

Almost persuaded


“That to the heighth of this great argument I may assert eternal providence, And justify the ways of God to men…” John Milton, Paradise Lost

“Mansplaining” reaches dizzying height of hubris with poet John Milton, who figured several walloping stanzas of his epic poetry should sufficiently “justify the ways of God to men.” Really? The very idea of trying to justify God’s ways—as if we could ever truly figure out the Creator of the universe with our puny human brains—is borderline nuts. Nevertheless, Milton dove in headfirst and was lauded for his efforts. He had a 19th century apprentice in James B. Walker, D.D., author of “The Philosophy of the Plan of Salvation” (1889)—the CLSC book under discussion here. Walker’s goal: explain God’s plan in a way that would knock the legs out from under his era’s highly literate critics of Christianity. That first generation of Chautauqua logisticians must have wrestled mightily with this assigned text; I know I did.

 Walker attempts to lay out, in sequential logic, exactly what God had in mind when He constructed His plan of salvation. He tackles his subject with supreme confidence, building arguments and presenting conclusions with literary flourishes worthy of the courtroom “…it follows, therefore, legitimately and conclusively…” (pg 118). While I admire the Victorian philosopher’s zeal for corralling dogma and doctrine (not to mention the Old Testament’s ferocious bloodletting) into fitted-and-bolted frameworks, I struggle with its inevitable reverse engineering aspects.

Starting with his era’s elaborate “scientific” anthropology, for example, he posits that God orchestrated the grand scheme of holiness, priesthood, sacrifice, and temple worship because the ancient Jews could best understand God via object lessons and displays of power (i.e. Mt. Sinai, parting of the Red Sea, et al.). He called them “preparatory steps that led...to the light” (pg 116). Tribal Judaism, in his theory, wobbles along on religious training wheels until evolved enough to understand the “perfect system of religion.” (pg 109). Enter Jesus. We don’t require these sorts of spiritual pyrotechnics now, because we’ve culturally progressed. No miracles needed, thanks. We’ve got enough intellectual prowess in the new dispensation.

For me, Walker’s book somehow reduces the wondrous passion of God’s heartfelt redemption to a series of inescapable logical steps. His respectful, emotionless discourse perhaps anticipates the predictable Victorian recoil against overly emotional religious sentiment (labeled, with disgust, “cant”).

His tightly woven arguments do force conclusions—but only if the reader accepts certain baseline truths and cares about cohesive, rational deductions. “The preceding premises being established, the following conclusions result...” (pg 139) Alas, his cherished conventions of ordered logic are nowhere to be found in today’s highly subjective, post-Truth society. His arguments may have been compelling in the 19th c. (“..and so you see”, “…you must admit,” etc.), but today’s skim-and-scan readers dismiss logical progression as belonging to a stodgy egghead crowd. Logic isn’t the final authority—one’s feelings are. As a result, in our day, the antiquated structure of formal logic is lumbering inexorably towards the sheer cliff of “who cares?” Walker is essentially preaching to the choir and writing in a sealed chamber—each logical argument is based on the precarious belief that there’s a one-size-fits-all human behavior pattern. Ergo, God created a system of religion to maximize its effectiveness based on that predictable and in fact, God-designed pattern. It’s all a fine-tuned, inevitable cosmic cause-and-effect where God Himself is logically constrained by His own decrees and creation.

Most cornered atheists would probably admit they’ve never taken the time to construct experiential proof for their belief system. Their spiritually null state often stems from shattered illusions, painful family trauma and/or a hedonistic discarded of the repressions that represent God. It’s a “Santa suit in the basement” moment for many. Once setting forth on a godless sea, no amount of rational discourse is going to turn that ship around.

The problem isn’t a lack of logically presented information—Walker’s stance notwithstanding—it’s spiritual deafness. 1 Corinthians 2:14 clearly states: “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.”

Convincing someone they need a Savior via higher criticism, as the apostle Paul discovered, can be disappointing work. After listening to Paul’s irrefutable logic, King Herod Agrippa witheringly remarked, “You almost persuade me, Paul.” Another rationalist listener, Judean governor Festus, reacted less calmly. “You are out of your mind, Paul!" he shouted. "Your great learning is driving you insane." (Acts 26:24)

Let’s see if the 21st century rationalist approach of Ravi Zacharias, the foremost Christian apologetic of the age, fares better. I’ll be reviewing his response to the foremost contemporary atheistic text in my next post.

 “Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” Acts 26:28

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Laws of attraction






One of the major justifications for the Chautauqua CLSC scheme was to allow non-collegiate types to live, move, and have their being in an extremely restrictive, stultifying-ly caste-bound Victorian society. The reasoning went thusly: if we can provide a sort of Cliff’s Notes version of a college education—but one that resulted from actual study and earnest work—the student would be able to stand around at a gathering, say, of actual college folks and hold their own in a conversation. Rather than blink stupidly and yawp when Joe College whipped out the latest on Einstein’s theory, our CLSC student would be able to respond with intelligence, thus, hopefully, gain status, reflected glory, and, perhaps, some opportunities heretofore closed to them. The gates of respectability swing wide to welcome the cultured person in that era. You might assume that up-by-ones-bootstraps mentality has disappeared in this Googly age of handheld knowledge, an era when even the dullest high-schooler expects, nay, fights for his right to party with the frat boys at the college of their choice. So, education, not such a big deal these days (check the SAT scores…you’ll see a sad bell curve these days), right? Not so fast, buddy.
My 21st century counterpart to 1882’s Studies in the Stars, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson, tells me otherwise. This highly entertaining slim little volume (it vies for cute points with my pocket pal Studies) has page after page of bite-sized info-snippets, marketed and designed for the contemporary reader’s well-documented flitting and fitful attention span. It’s a sort of highbrow Cliff Notes, designed to be enjoyed while swaying on the subway or tucked in a Christmas stocking, a cerebral box of Godiva chocolates.
"
In this slim volume,” Tyson cheerfully declares in his introduction, “you will earn a foundational fluency in all the major ideas and discoveries that drive our modern understanding of the universe. If I’ve succeeded, you’ll be culturally conversant in my field of expertise, and you just may be hungry for more.” (p12). That sentiment is eerily similar to ones made by Chautauqua founder, Dr. Vincent, as he advocated that familiarity with the great themes of world literature, a good grasp of history's march, the rudiments of fine art and music, the ability to discuss the wonders of science, do some algebra, and speak at least one foreign language were the keys that unlocked opportunity for the left-behind Victorian worker population. 
I genuinely enjoyed Tyson's book and, like many liberal arts majors, find it absolutely impossible not to draw intriguing parallels between scientific phenomena and everyday life on earth. How can you NOT see the link between how lopsided orbits reveal an invisible star’s existence and the way your crazy co-worker behaves in certain trigger situations? And, I’ll bet I’m not the only Christian who reads spiritual truth in the phrase: “When something glows from being heated, it emits light in all parts of the spectrum, but will always peak somewhere.” (pg 50) Isn’t that just like our daily devotional encounters with Jesus? Just coming in contact with Him will produce a glow, but, depending on our receptors and our personal bent, it will definitely peak somewhere specific. This book is FULL of juicy little object lessons like that. Ooh, ooh, or this one: Describing Einstein’s mathematical placeholder for calculating dark energy Omega (Ω), Tyson says, “Nobody had seen the dominating presence of cosmic dark energy, nor had anybody imagined it as the great reconciler of differences.” (pg 110). Well, gee, that reminds this believer of a certain Alpha and Omega who is, indeed, the greatest reconciler.
The coolest part to me, hands down, is Tyson’s candid, nearly continual admission that we, as a race of observant, intelligent, curious beings, have no idea what the heck is going on 90% of the time. Even if you're a Brainiac.This book has so many good-humored admissions of ignorance I lost track. “Their origin continues to be a mystery…”, “…we are essentially clueless.”, “…what remains the longest-standing unsolved mystery in astrophysics…”, “…whose nature we have yet to divine…”, and my favorite: “Scientists are generally uncomfortable whenever we must base our calculations on concepts we don’t understand, but we’ll do it if we have to. And dark matter is not our first rodeo.” He gives an admiring bow to the 19th century, saying “Also in the nineteenth century, we observed stars, obtained their spectra, and classified them long before the 20th-centure introduction of quantum physics.” I really like this guy.

Scripture streaks through Mr. Tyson’s wonderfully clear prose like a random, brilliant comet. Many of Tyson’s chapter heads are subtly or blatantly religious: The Greatest Story Ever Told, Let There Be Light, On Earth as in the Heavens; “In the beginning…” (his kickoff sentence in chapter one…either an across-the-aisle handshake or a territory grab of the Genesis story). Inter-textual references ditto. He even quotes Isaiah 40:4, explaining that a certain gravitational phenomenon sounds “...almost Biblical, in preparing the way for the Lord (his capitalization, not mine).

So, basically, if you’re not biblically literate, you won’t get many of Tyson’s clever, well-written Scriptural allusions. And Mr. Tyson, I smell a church upbringing here; it’s tough to casually sling around biblical verbiage if you’ve never been exposed to it. Not to mention, you can’t appreciate the manifold manipulations of that language if you’ve been sheltered (as so many have in this culturally confused and bereft generation) from the base concepts and Biblical record of the Judaeo-Christian faith.

Tyson enthusiastically lauds Isaac Newton (a devout believer in God) as the brain of the millennium; Einstein comes in second. Now, I happen to know that Newton never found anything that shook his faith, in fact, his discoveries only solidified it, from alpha to omega. “Every few years, lab scientists devise ever more precise experiments to test the theory, (Einstein’s), only to further extend the envelope of the theory’s accuracy.”(pg 96). Sounds to me like Tyson is hinting, sometimes, the truth is Truth. It’s indisputable, even when you grab it by the ears and shake it around. Which begs the question: if Newtonian concepts are the ABC of astrophysics, and Newton was right about gravity, couldn't he be right about the Prime Mover, too? Stands to reason. Especially if, as Tyson repeatedly admits, we're pretty cosmically clueless.



Tyson quotes a ditty by Einstein:
Look unto the stars to teach us
How the master’s thoughts can reach us
Each one follows Newton’s math
Silently along the path..”
Newton would have capitalized the M and said the stars trace a path laid out for them before the world began by the One who called them out, all by name. 



"Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament; and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars forever and ever." Daniel 12:3

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Dancing with the stars




"The universe is God's name writ large. Thought goes up the shining suns as golden stairs and reads the consecutive syllables, all might, and wisdom, and beauty, and, if the heart be fine enough and pure enough, it also reads everywhere the mystic name of love. The stars speak the oldest language. The morning stars sing together...How can God write his name more widely or plainly, hold the open page before all men more constantly or how can we read the message in more impressive language? Some have asked whether the myriads of distant worlds were inhabited. It is not known. Perhaps it is a sufficient cause of their being that they should testify so effectually of God to every man, whether savage or sage, in all ages of time. Let us learn to read the hieroglyphics, and then often turn to the blazonry of the page." (Studies in the Stars, Henry W. Warren)

Someone asked me why I'm reading 19th century books for my year of Chautauqua Literary & Science Circle--see above. I’m not sure I can explain the wellspring of joy that rises up in me when I sashay through the introductory chapter of my 1883 CLSC text Studies in the Stars, by Henry White Warren, DD. Unlike today’s jargon-rich, slightly arch introductory science texts that sometimes seem to derive more from Seinfeld than Einstein, this teeny Victorian “Chautauqua Text Book” reverently, joyfully, and unapologetically declares that the heavens declare the glory of God and are, indeed, His handiwork. And in case you don't get it at first glance, each chapter opens or concludes with Scripture celebrating the mystery and marvel of the starry hosts who move at God’s command.

There’s a nasty rumor around that the Victorians were fussy, uptight, narrow types, but when you do a little digging beyond the stereotypes, you find wide-eyed enthusiasts who fairly bristle with curiosity, zest for life, and an unquenchable appreciation for their surroundings. You might expect era-driven conflict between Science and God—nothing could be farther from the truth, because, it’s all about the Truth for Victorians. Since God created the world and everything in it, from microcosm to galaxy, exploration and discovery only lead you closer to your Maker. 

This pocket-sized text assumes you’re studying to gain knowledge, not taking a stroll through the starry skies for mere entertainment. Planetary characteristics, meteoric systems, star-to-star distances, discussions of how light years were discovered (it involves the tides and gravity—no kidding!!)—each brief chapter is jammed with information, but it’s all predicated on the foundation of God as Creator. There’s no debate; it’s a settled fact. To readers worried about exploding novas just discussed, William soothingly says: “We are not living under a government of chance, but under that of an Almighty Father, who upholdth all things by the word of His power, and no world can come to ruin till He sees that it is best.” Whew!  

Reading this tattered little book (obviously well-worn from functioning as some 19th c. Chautauquan's iPhone) has given me a deep sense of appreciation for Chautauqua’s educational outreach and wide-ranging scope. But more than that, it offers the 21st century reader an odd sensation of navigating a completely harmonic cosmos, a place where the poetic and the scientific embrace in a waltz of surprising lyricism. Orbits and arcs, parabolas that loop and return, wheeling asteroids that follow invisible hierarchies—here, we dance with the stars. 

When I turned over the book's final, slightly brittle leaf, two things lingered in my befuddled mind. One: I am incredibly stupid about astronomy--enthralled, sadly uneducated, and totally embarrassed. Two: I'm stunned at the sheer number of complicated, often obtuse factoids the reader was expected to memorize. Who cares about the weight of Mercury? Why cudgel your brain about the connection of gravity to light years? Because Chautauqua's founders believed knowing such things and being able to speak the language of the mind opens doors to a higher level of existence. You are no longer a low-browed barbarian, squinting fearfully at an eclipse. You are an educated child of the One who orchestrated this brilliant, celestial waltz.  In Warren's words..."we pass innumerable evidences of that motion that makes the heavens alive."  

"When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained, what is man that You are mindful of him?" Psalm 8:3-4

Monday, August 28, 2017

Emancipation Eclipse








We just experienced a "totality" eclipse…the moon and sun rolled across the sky, locked in an embrace, entrancing and spooking a new generation of sky-watchers. This celestial happening is the perfect onramp for my final August discussion and premiere cross-century duet: The Hall in the Grove (1881) and Hidden Figures (2016).



If you’ve been under a (moon) rock for the past year, you might not be familiar with Hidden Figures, an inspiring chronicle of NASA’s heretofore unknown black women mathematicians who helped the US win the space race. Their story is a contemporary echo of the social-barrier-busting power of education that’s celebrated in The Hall in the Grove. Isabella Alden’s Hall in the Grove examined the elite-fostered social pressures that kept ignorant slackers and illiterate factory workers firmly entrenched in their “proper” places; Hidden Figures author Margo Lee Shetterly deftly explores the tragically familiar phenomenon among 20th-century African-Americans who struggled their way up academic and government corporate ladders towards respectability and peer-recognition.


(We interrupt this post for a brief shout-out and testimonial: Huge thanks to the author of Isabella’s tribute page blog…she suggested this book would be the perfect counterpoint to The Hall in the Grove and she was dead right! I LOVED this book and highly recommend it to anyone—it’s wonderfully well-written, truly inspiring, and offers a peek into a hitherto unknown chapter in aerospace history. Run out and read it! Now, onto our regularly scheduled blog post…)


Both books drive home the crucial role played by social advocacy champions. Isabella’s CLSC scholars and Shetterly’s “unlikely” math whizzes were sponsored by superstar advocates for higher education for previously ignored populations. Isabella makes real-life Chautauqua founder Dr. Vincent a character in her book; he tirelessly promoted equal-access higher education in Chautauqua’s open-air, lakeside forums and campaigned vigorously for “daughter Chautauquas” across the nation to open even more doors. Shetterly introduces us to dozens of fascinating, unsung black advancement advocates and activists like 1868 teacher Mary Peake, who taught freed slaves in the open air under the shade of antebellum Virginia’s majestic Emancipation Oak.


Emancipation, the release from spiritual, mental, or physical bondage is winsomely embodied by plucky, attractive females in these volumes. The first of Shetterly’s cohort of amazing women we meet is sloe-eyed, brilliant Dorothy Vaughn (pictured above). Dorothy is remarkably akin to Caroline Raynor, Isabella’s educationally ambitious, humbly bright maid-of-all-work. Both are encouraged by wise and watchful mothers to take advantage of every open door. A virtually illiterate washerwoman mother gives Caroline her life motto; “Pick ‘em up, Car’line” when she urges baby Caroline to learn the alphabet from the discarded blocks of a wealthy playmate; it’s the beginning of Caroline’s catch-as-catch-can “pick up” education. Dorothy’s stepmother, also a charwoman, encourages young Dorothy to go as far as possible with her education. Shetterly’s description of Dorothy’s trademark characteristics: “…her intelligence, her work ethic, her naturally kind disposition, and her humility” are shared by the fictional Caroline.


Mirroring personalities and youthful circumstances—poverty, innate intelligence, working class but ambitious mothers—are the springboards to these women’s eventual fulfilled adulthoods. Like Caroline, Dorothy trusted that her brave, often sacrificial hard work and determination would enable her to better her lot (very Horatio Alger-esque!), an unthinkable attitude for any Victorian black women. Unlike Dorothy, Caroline relied on her deep-seated faith in Christ as the key that unlocked her future. Human effort, however admirable, cannot outstrip or overturn God’s will in Caroline’s worldview.


Prejudices against 19th century low-born/working class whites crippled employment and educational opportunities in ways that rivaled the underground and flagrant racist attitudes that flourished then and provoke violent outcroppings that horrify our self-satisfied society even today. Today’s web-based info glut tantalizes with the allure of universal accessibility but the daily headlines indicate there’s a need beyond mere cultural instruction, no matter how mind-boggling the results.


Higher education certainly offers greater prospects of glory, but Isabella’s heroines avow it can’t supply the moral foundation or framework necessary for the human soul to flourish. That suffocating stone won’t roll away without divine intervention. The not-so-hidden figure revealed in Pansy’s works? The nimbus-rimmed shadow of Jesus, His blinding radiance no longer occluded by Death and the frailty of human flesh.



The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun. It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, like a champion rejoicing to run his course. It rises at one end of the heaven and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is deprived of its warmth. Psalm 19: 1-6







Monday, August 21, 2017

Meek is not a dirty word




Leaning-in rainmakers and change-agents charged with spiritual ferocity, adopters of controversial social platforms…which century brought forth Christian women like this? If you’re thinking 21st, think again. The female Bible-believing Temperance workers of the 19th century could teach their contemporary sisters a few things about tenacity, courage, and determination. Isabella Alden celebrated such women, only a very few of whom made it into the history books. But Pansy’s lowly, unsung, Spirit-led female Christians only care that their names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.

For all their meekness, however, Isabella Alden’s heroines are constantly crossing invisible social barriers, led on by their unconventional Master. They pray aloud in coed meetings (gasp!). They kneel in prayer in filthy saloons, beseeching the Lord to close the doors of this den of vice and imploring angry, mocking men to go home to their wives, mothers, and children. They make themselves conspicuous by calling out sin where they saw it (a definite no-no in that age). They brave drunkards in full tide of violence, invading unspeakable slums to rescue destitute innocents within. They mop the fever-wet brows of dying urchins with their immaculate hankies. They rejoice when prodigals return, even if God uses terminal illnesses to foment delayed conversions.
 
Every time I read one of Pansy’s books, Temperance-centric or not, I get a humbling education on what it means to truly be a Christ-follower. Caroline Raynor in The Hall in the Grove is such a one. She, like all Pansy’s serious 19th century sisters, walks out her Christian experience in the simplest, most sincere ways imaginable. For Jesus, Caroline joyfully sews patches or arranges dinner dishes neatly and attractively. For Him, she ignores hateful taunts from upper crust snobs, not ashamed to be thought meek. Why? Because Scripture tells her giving in to temper is a sin. Yes, a sin. When was the last time you heard THAT from the pulpit?

These women inhabit a spiritual world so far above our current self(ie)-promotional one that it’s barely recognizable. And save your stamps; her heroine’s attitudes are not cultural mandated just because she’s a Victorian. She’s deliberately taking God’s word for what it says—Biblical inerrancy was a hotly debated subject even in the 19th century! These are concepts and convictions our generation of Christian women has all but forgotten in our quest for more “likes.”

Earnest believers in Pansy's books, rich or poor, follow Jesus to the Cross and there lay down their ambitions, their goals, their lives. Because Jesus laid down everything for Caroline, she rises above the petty torments and trials of this life. Caroline has been crucified with Christ.

This dedicated, wide-awake Christian life, even though lived out in fiction, inspires me to regard my obnoxious neighbor in a different way—I see a soul that is perishing. An opportunity, not just an annoyance. The straightforward, beautifully committed sisters in Isabella's works reroute me from self-satisfaction to the humility of the Cross. The view is pretty different from there.

 “Take My yoke upon you and learn of Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart…” Matthew 11:28

Monday, August 14, 2017

Nature, nurture or new nature?


Education was the 19th century engine that transformed the American Dream into reality for many. So, it’s no wonder that the era’s Horatio Alger fan club whole-heartedly adopted Chautauqua’s mission of bringing the social and personal benefits of higher education and culture to the masses. Heralded by some as the salvation of the nation, these bootstrapping idealists were feared by those who sincerely felt untrammeled social reform was harmful to all involved. Why raise hopes in a chambermaid’s heart when, no matter how well-educated and culturally trained, she’d never be accepted in the right circles? (My Fair Lady, call your office). In 1881’s “The Hall in the Grove,” author Isabella "Pansy" Alden’s heart for the invisible underserved is delicately bleeding all over the pages. But rather than pooling in sticky sentiment, her pen’s blood pumps vivid, beautiful life into 19th century stock characters, like the small-town slacker. Let’s look at Paul Adams, today’s case study. (Backstory for Pansy's marvelous books--and my project--here.)

Nature
Chronic loafer Paul joins the CLSC at the invitation of Dr. Monteith, a childhood friend of Paul’s now deceased father. Paul stuns everyone, including and especially his bewildered mother, when his trademark mule-headedness is directed towards plowing through the massive, impenetrable Merivale’s History of Rome. No one is more shocked than Paul to discover a raging thirst for knowledge waking in his sleepy mind and shambling heart. Pansy delicately hints this could be a heritage from his scholar father, but leaves it uncertain as to why some low-born folks have an innately ravenous curiosity and simply MUST study. It’s a mystery.

Nurture
Attending the Centerville CLSC meetings in nicely decorated parlors with finely cultured people leaves its mark on Paul. To earn money for texts, Paul hires on to the local carpenter, a job that sands off rough edges in his soul while providing the opportunity for him to travel to Chautauqua. As he studies, Paul’s attitude toward life in general changes and he comes to respect others—and himself. He becomes the pet project of several Chautauquans, including his boss’s. He takes Latin, daydreams of greatness in the Hall in the Grove, and eventually scolds his benevolent, godly patron, Dr. Monteith, for de facto indicating that CLSC texts are more foundational than the Bible. Dr. Monteith is horrified to have given that impression and begs Paul’s forgiveness, wisely assessing Paul’s motivators by challenging him to read the Scripture with the same zeal he brought to his secular texts. (And if you think creating a zealous character named Paul whose boss is a carpenter isn’t intentional, you’re not yet hep to Isabella’s MO.)
Divine nature
Friend, family, and foe alike acknowledge that Paul’s unquenchable drive and remarkable mind betoken genuine genius. But it’s only after the young man’s spiritual awakening that he’s universally recognized as belonging to a new social stratum. Unlike Dr. Monteith, Isabella makes it crystal clear that secular education can only go so far. Without the light of Christ shining on every subject, the mind is only stocked with information, not truly enlightened. Created by God, for God, humans can only achieve their full potential as they look to the pure radiance of Christ. And that’s only accessible by divine regeneration and renewal. 




“And be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your minds, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” Romans 12:2

"If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature. Old things are passed away, behold all things are become new." 2 Corinthians 5:17

Monday, August 7, 2017

Sneaking into Mrs. Fenton's parlor



The historic CLSC kickoff, “Reading Day,” is October 1 (aka “Bryant Day,” celebrating American romantic poet and literary lion William Cullen Bryant’s support for the premiere CLSC of 1878), but last year, the reading list was announced in late August. So, I feel somewhat excused in setting my own inaugural date for commencing my own reading—which is right now.

I’m starting my year of 19th C/21st C crossover literary exploration (see my first post for more details on this little project) with the book that started it all for me, Isabella “Pansy” Alden’s wonderful 1881 novel, The Hall in the Grove. This riveting, beautifully written page-turner was chosen for the CLSC Class of 1881-2 booklist—quite a high honor, given the limited number of choices and the rigorous selection process. The Hall in the Grove lovingly and captivatingly describes the elevating, ennobling effects of Christ-centered higher education in the lives of several disparate characters who gather around the lamp of learning and light of Christ’s love.

The book opens in a tidy living room where we encounter Mrs. Fenton, mourning that her limited schooling will soon build a wall between her intelligent, better-educated 14-year-old son and herself. The crisis comes when young Robert asks when a certain Roman general rebuilt a wall (Brava, Isabella!) with no real expectation that Mother can help him. She unexpectedly finds an answer to her worries in the form of a small pink CLSC book at her friend Mrs. Chester’s house, property of visiting Chautauquan booster Katie Wells. The light begins to dawn for Mrs. Fenton; she needs a CLSC in her town!

It’s also at Mrs. Chester’s house we meet my favorite character Caroline Raynor, deft-handed, gray-eyed maid-of-all-work: she’s studying the CLSC booklist as her meager means and minimal leisure permit. We meet “the Butler girls” next, two featherheaded young women and their equally witless, dandified brother, Jack. Mrs. Fenton urges them to help her launch a local CLSC, but they regard literary clubs as the apex of all that is dull, dreadful, and dreary. (All these folks show up again, if you’re keeping score.)

Somewhat daunted, Mrs. Fenton forms her modest circle with her own family and Caroline. Not for long, thanks to the Rev. Gilbert Monteith, DD, eminent professor, linguist, preacher/teacher, scientific man, well-traveled, deeply cultured…and a hometown hero. He asks to join her circle and invite some friends. Stunned and delighted, Mrs. Fenton eagerly consents. Enter our final major characters: The Ward boys—Jim and Joe—and their buddy, Paul Adams. Pansy trots out scathingly subtle Victorian insults for these boys, noting their downhill progress towards being “common street loungers and loafers.” But even while making her readers’ lips curl in disgust, Isabella knows how to evoke sympathy. We learn the Ward brothers are motherless; Paul, fatherless. They all receive invitations to Mrs. Fenton’s parlor for the first CLSC gathering; the boys’ from Mrs. Fenton (who worries about their influence over her son) and Paul’s from Rev Monteith, who knew Paul’s father and wishes to save the son of his boyhoodfriend. We’re introduced to Paul’s surprising stubborn streak—once he makes a decision, it’s done. He’s going and by golly, so are the Ward boys. What kind of mischief are they up to?  Will Mrs. Fenton’s first CLSC meeting be wrecked upon the shoals of Victorian class war?

It’s fascinating to watch the delicacy with which Pansy’s crusading characters navigate the quagmire of the rigid 19th century class system. They reach into that murky world, holding out a hand of help and love, but somehow remain untouched. Pansy attributes it to Christ’s protecting and keeping power; as they are doing His work, He allows them to move among these social lepers—drunkards, loose women, the desperately poor—without besmirching their innocence or compromising their characters. While the upper crust snobs in Pany’s works fret that lower class folks are venturing dangerously outside their proper spheres, her Christ-following heroes and heroines extend God’s grace to everyone in their path, keeping each divine appointment with grace and graciousness.

“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” Ephesians 2:10