Friday, December 9, 2011
Great Literature: A Daily Dose of Religious and Human Perspective
While visiting with a young man many years ago about the task of raising children, he explained that when the time came for him to marry and have children, he would raise them without the restrictions and compulsion of religious laws and principles and let his children choose for themselves once they were grown and ready to live in the world on their own. He touted that it is not fair to expose a child to a worldview when they are not able to defend themselves from beliefs they may disregard later in life. Often I have pondered upon his lenient goal and wondered of the result. Common sense tells me that his children floundered in confusion precisely as a foundationless home eventually collapses. Inasmuch as a builder employs a blueprint, a wise parent employs a formula for guiding children to happiness. God instituted that formula.
We come to know the formula through statutes and laws. God told Moses, “And thou shalt teach [the laws and statutes] diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up”. Later, God enlightens Joshua of the blessings for obeying the laws and statutes contained in the Holy Writ, “This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success.” Continual teaching and learning of the laws and statutes of God bring abundance and happiness. Additionally, the ideals God describes in His laws and statutes can effectively be supplied by literature.
Great literature acquaints the reader to stories and characters that shape such ideals and the more stories the more the understanding of the ideal. Furthermore, stories exhibit an array of human qualities and deficiencies from the best to the worst and the acceptable to the unacceptable. The ideal endows us with a tool to measure correctly in our quest to become happy individuals. Consider, reader, three literary works that define God’s laws and offer a superb foundation for a happy life.
Little Sister narrates her post-Civil War story, in the book, Laddie, about growing up with Mother and Father on their Indiana farm with the last of twelve children still at home. Hard work, faith in God, and a rich education shaped the semi-ideal Stanton family into a happy, charitable, and exemplary collection of characters. Father and Mother devoted every moment to the teaching and rearing of good values. When sorrow came, not infrequently, they faithfully knelt at the side of their bed and then hand in hand prayed for divine help and guidance. “Sometimes the clouds loom up pretty black,” Father declared, “and mother and I scarcely know how to go on, save for the help of the Lord.” Father taught them that God would take care of each and everyone. Daily morning devotionals played a tremendous role in the holistic education. Little Sister recalled, “Father always read a [chapter] before breakfast—no wonder I knew the Bible quite well—then we sang a song [and prayed].” Hard physical work determined character. Getting the house and yard ready for Sally’s wedding was reminiscent to regular work throughout the year. Little Sister remembers the occasion, “There wasn’t a single spot about the place inside or out that wasn’t gone over; and to lots of it you never would have known anything had been done if you hadn’t seen, because the place was always in proper shape anyway”. If not the most profound theme in Laddie, then one of the most profound is Laddie’s far-reaching counsel to Little Sister, “The way to be happy is to be good.”
In an artist’s painting, the shadows define the light, giving depth and perception. Similarly, stories that portray darkness, devoid of law and principle, bestow deeper understanding and a greater desire for goodness. Tolstoy portrays the darkness artfully in his book, Anna Karenina. Major themes depicted include adultery, lasciviousness, broken families and deceit. The book’s namesake seeks love outside her marriage and abandons all truth. In her pretense, Anna justifies living her life based on love, albeit deceitful love. She claims her main dilemma is that she wants Vronsky, her lover and Seryozha, her son by marriage, but she cannot have both together. She must choose one, only to give up the other. Sister-in-law Dolly feels revulsion and disgust by the unnaturalness of Anna’s pretentious life with Vronsky, “all alone without children, playing at a child’s game”. Eventually, Anna’s chosen path leads her to utter despair and then destruction. “That’s what reason is given man for, to escape from what worries him,” Anna hears the words of a woman speaking to her husband in the carriage. Anna, repeating the words in her mind, considers them the answer she has been seeking and throws herself at an oncoming train to “escape what worries” her.
Tolstoy’s famous first line prepares his reader to solve the mystery of what creates an unhappy family. He writes, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. He seems to conclude that avoiding certain rules of measure bring varying levels of unhappiness to families. Moreover, he assumes that the reader knows the rules of measure for happiness. Levin may have said it best when after his lengthy search for truth and light he declares, “The one unmistakable, incontestable manifestation of the Divinity is the law of right and wrong, which has come into the world by revelation”.God is our true ruler to measure our actions and rectify our wrongs.
Struggling to do what is right in a world of wrongs is Jane Eyre’s greatest achievement. Jane characterizes John Bunyan’s struggling Pilgrim as she progresses from the possible “City of Destruction” to the “Celestial City”. Her laws and principles move her forward beautifully in the most trying scene where she shuns adultery and chooses freedom and peace of heart. Jane promises, “I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad – as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation; they are for such moments as this when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth?” Jane’s unshakable knowledge of God fuels her persistence in keeping His laws and principles throughout the novel. Again she refuses another’s offer of marriage because, “I felt how—if I were his wife, this good man, pure as the deep sunless source, could soon kill me: without drawing from my veins a single drop of blood, or receiving on his own chrystal conscience the faintest stain of crime.” The marriage promised no love, only a life of missionary service in far lands under the heat of sun and toil. Jane clearly and wholly understood not only the evils of adultery, but also the sanctity of marriage; a union between man and wife founded on love and not just for position and convenience.
Jane remained steadfast and strong in her trials, Little Sister learned to be good, and Anna shrunk from truth and light. Anna was devoted to self, Little Sister was devoted to good and Jane was devoted to God. These stories provide the ideals and the ideas to help us see the possibilities for self-improvement and growth. They teach the statutes and the laws of God to effectively convey the tool for which to measure our actions and build a solid foundation. God’s word is the formula for happiness.
If I could go back in time and face that young man with the knowledge I now possess, I would tell him that parents who avoid teaching ideals for the sake of freedom are enslaving their children. Exposure to religious laws and principles contained in great literature increase the healthy decision quotient. For long after reading the story, we ponder in solitude as we solidify thoughts and resolutions, likewise a child plays “make believe” within the walls of the playroom acting out the stories and the characters as she solidifies her thoughts and resolutions. There is no restriction, no religious compulsion; only stories of foundational truths and portraits of human nature, of which the reader can choose for himself the path he will tread, whether it be happiness or unhappiness.
 Deuteronomy 6:7, Bible KJV
 Joshua 1:8, Bible KJV
 Gene Stratton-Porter, Laddie, (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1988), 356
 Ibid, 6
 Ibid, 106
 Ibid, 374
 Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (Simon & Brown, 2011), 778
 Ibid, 771
 Ibid, 924
 Ibid, 14
 Ibid, 984
 The reference here is to Paul Bunyan’s Christian allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress and tells the story of Christian’s progress through mortal life escaping the Evil One’s destruction and progressing to God’s Celestial City.
 Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (New York: Doubleday Book & Music Clubs, Inc), 325
 Ibid, 423