Welcome! This is where it all began. I no longer post on this website and some of the content reflects former convictions and understandings. Some of these posts are hard core on issues that I am softer on these days. I deleted many posts that I feared would lead people into legalism, so if you find a missing hyperlink that may be why. These days I write at Covered By His Hand.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Though your sins be as scarlet

I finished reading Nathaniel Hawthorn's The Scarlet Letter yesterday, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I rarely take time to read secular literature, because my home library is full of great Christian books I have yet to read. (And, because I am very impressionable...) But, for some reason I wanted to read this book. I studied the book in high school (though I did not read it then), so I knew of its themes. I knew the book (and author) to be heavily biased against the Puritans. I read the book purely for entertainment, BUT (you know me) this book plunged me into deep spiritual reflection. This post is intended to be half literary analysis and half spiritual analysis, because the only thing better than reading a good book is telling others about it!

(Disclaimer: I love the puritans. My enjoying this book does not mean that I have suddenly turned my back on some of our great American founders of the faith. The book is fiction, and I acknowledge it as such. There are, however, some dark times in Puritan history, that I do not completely understand.)

Literary Content:
Hawthorn is a phenomenal writer! His style makes me think of Henry James, because you are constantly evaluating whether some action really happened, or was it the product of an insane mind. I LOVE the symbolism and metaphor of this book! Every character represents some exaggerated personality within the Puritan community. In this way, the whole book is a hyperbole, and I appreciate the mind that orchestrated it.
Having been written in the mid 1800s, the book had long sentences and unfamiliar words. I LOVED having an excuse to dig around in my dictionary. I learned a lot of new words! (Are you like me? Do you intend to look up one word but spend an hour looking at the whole page, because you refuse to put the book down until you read every word that has the same root? If only I could have been so studious in high school when I was supposed to have read this book! What a difference it would have made to my GPA!)
I could go on, but I am even more eager to get to my spiritual analysis of the book!

Spiritual Content:
Though the characters in the story are more like caricatures, every Christian can likely still identify with one or more of them. I am going to look at one character at a time and briefly say how we often are like them, and how we should not be like them.

Hester Prynn -
What Christian has not been made to feel like one who wears a scarlet letter? In a true Christian community there should be confession of sin, accountability of sin, and then reconciliation. We see the reconciliation aspect completely missing from Hawthorn's imaginary Boston community. Once marked with the scarlet A, Hester is forced to live a life of isolation. This very disciplinary tactic serves to push Hester further into darkness and sin. She ceases to go to church, because when she goes she is used as a sermon illustration. It is not that she is the only one in the community who has sinned, she is just the only one who has been caught. Yet, everyone else is pleased to insult her and curse her. We find this little Puritan community to be those who have forgotten what Jesus taught regarding the woman caught in adultery, that He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. (John 8:7 KJV)
Hester was not stoned, instead she bore a lifetime of insults and isolation. No forgiveness is granted to her, there is no attempt to share the Gospel with her. In this exaggerated community, the gospel is merely severity of rule-keeping without grace.

Pearl- Pearl is the child of an unwed relationship, and as a result she is forced into a certain mold. Everyone in the community (including her own parents) think her a demon-spawn child. People talk openly of the child's "father the devil." She takes in all of these curses and begins to live them from infancy. She indeed rises to their low/diabolical expectations. Again, the role of the community is exaggerated, but I wander how often this really happens. If a good girl from a "covenant family" was to become pregnant before marriage, how would we treat the newborn babe? Would Christians be tempted to believe that this child does not have a chance at salvation or grace, because of their "illegitimate" birth? I certainly hope not! Fortunately, near the end of the story Pearl's life is "redeemed", but not in the spiritual sense (but maybe, to Hawthorn, in a more important sense?). She receives a large inheritance and moves to Europe to live a new prosperous life.

The Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale - The poor pastor... so revered, yet so fallen! He lives a lie for 7 years, before his body can no longer bear this pressure and he dies young. He wants to confess his sins publicly, but never gathers the nerve. Hawthorn's hatred for preachers comes across loud and clear in the life of the good reverend! Over and over, the pastor chooses to keep his public image rather than admit he is a sinner. He thinks that he wants to confess, but we are left thinking that he is deceiving himself as much as everyone else! (His lies were to his whole community, to God, and to his own self... no wander he went mad!)
Still, I have to acknowledge that there are a lot of Pastor Dimmesdales out there! I ache when I think how many pastors (whether married or single) have committed adultery, lusted for their parishioners, or are enslaved to pornography all the while preaching grand sermons. Perhaps their congregants believe them to be the most sincere and devout of men, but really the poor pastor is living a lie... in bondage to secret sins. How do we view those pastors who publicly confess sins? Do we offer grace, remembering that God extends grace to us? Or do we all gather around to condemn them and hurl insults at them?

I think that all of our Christian communities (that is local church bodies) resemble, at least in part, this exaggerated community of puritans! I think that all too often we, like the good reverend in the book, ascribe more power to Satan than to God! In the book, the characters often speak of Satan's plot to ensnare them, but never of God's plan of redemption. In the book, Satan is all-powerful and all-knowing, but God is left in the shadows. Maybe we are not superstitious, believing more in strange rites and penances, than God's very salvation... but then again, maybe we do! We are so steeped in our traditions that we rarely give them up, even if someone can reasonably show us that they go against Scripture. Then, there are some folks who are so concerned with keeping all the laws of God, that they forget about His grace that covers a multitude of sins.
Though Hawthorn's book is meant as entertainment, I think we can glean more from it! I think we can read these exaggerated characters and attempt to avoid their sins.

Hester had to wear a scarlet letter, and I love the imagery of her sin being worn about in scarlet! Read what our Lord says to us:
Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. Isaiah 1:18 (KJV)
Let us also remember these words:
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. 1 John 1:8-10 (KJV)
We are all sinners. We all need to confess to our heavenly father. And, sometimes we need to confess publicly. And, we need to be merciful to others as they confess their sins.

Let me know if you have any questions about God's mercy. I guarantee that any sin you have committed is NOT too big for God to forgive! The characters in the book were never freed from the bondage of their sins, but YOU CAN BE! Let me know if you need more information on how to be cleansed from your sins. I would love to share with you how you can find forgiveness for even the darkest of sins in your life!


homespun mommy said...

I have always wanted to read this book but never took the time. For the same reasons as you. I actually rarely get to read fiction. After your post I am definately going to the library! Thanks, Bethany!


Mama Hen said...

It has been since high school that I read this and I didn't really appreciate it then. I think I might pick it up at the library and reread it now!

Anonymous said...

I don't know if this book is translated on my language. I watched movie but I heard that is not faithful to this book. I like your observations.

Ruby said...

Hi Bethany,
I haven't ever read the Scarlet Letter. Thanks for the insights.
The few movies I have seen about the Puritans seem to have the same themes of darkness, unforgiveness etc. which does not line up with their beautiful writings and personal glimpses of family life, but reflects their superstition and excesses..
You are right that these characters are mirrored in our churches and we need to get back to biblical confession, repentence, discipline.

Re Pearl: I was comforted when stricken by the stigma of illigitimate children born in my family. My pastor gave me much to think on and great comfort. He used the example of the Israelites in the wilderness, a whole generation died out there for their idolatry and unbelief and yet God never withdrew his covenant promise from their children.

Bethany, thanks your comment on my blog too. It's been a tough couple of weeks one way or another but things are looking up again now.