Sunday, December 31, 2006

Skilful engine of torture

I’m reading a book called “The Most Famous Man in America” the biography of Henry Ward Beecher by Debby Applegate. Henry grew up in a very strict and severe home, and as I read about it I find myself wanting to run to his rescue.
Let me quote a pharagraph or two.

“Adding to the physical hardships of life in the Beecher household was the heavy weight of orthodox religion. Every day began and ended with family prayers, Bible reading, and hymn singing. Every child past seven attended a heavy schedule of prayer meetings, lectures, and religious sevices in the drafty meeting house, as well as regular religious instruction at school. Undue frivolity was discouraged, so they did not celebrate Christmas or birthdays. Dancing, theater, and all but the most high-toned ficton were forbidden. Sundays were spent in quiet contemeplation---
a special torment for fidgety children.
But this sour picture tells only half the story. Although the Beechers were plain and pious, they were not stuffy or stodgy. They brimmed with high spirits, quick enthusiasm, and an almost eccentric disregard for social conventions. “There is” as Lyman’s youngest daughter noted, “ the strangest and most interesting combination in our family of fun and seriousness.”
Lyman, the father, was truly a rare father. Impulsive and emotional, he was blessed with a “passionate love of children,” as Catharine, the oldest put it, treating his children with “all the tenderness of a mother and the untiring activity and devotedness of a nurse, father and friend. He loved to romp with the kids, and had a knack for making hard work fun--- telling stories as they peeled apples on autumn evenings, making a game out of stacking firewood, and leading them on expeditions into the woods to pick berries or collect nuts or catch fish.”

When I read that I thought that his good nature and love towards the kids would surely balance out the severity of doctrine. But it did not. To a child, they all suffered feeling unworthy and never knowing if God really loved them or if they would be damned.

“The burden of original sin was compounded by the capriciousness of salvation. In the Calvinist universe of the day, salvation was considered a supernatural act, a testament to God’s sovereignty and mercy, not merely a reward for good behavior.
So how would a person know if he or she had been saved? Of course no one could be certain of their fate until they caught sight of the pealy gates, but revivalists like Lyman Beecher believed that the saving grace of God would descend like a lightning bolt, in a moment of intense visceral revelation. If you did not experience the anguish and the crisis, if God did not choose to make you one of his special “elect” then it didn’t matter how good or faithful you had been, chances were you were going to hell. A famous jingle neatly captured the paradox:

You can and you can’t
You shall and you shan’t;
You will and you won’t
You’re damned if you do,
And damned if you don’t.

“Thus was this system calculated, like a skilful engine of torture,” Harriet, one of the daughters, concluded, “to produce all the mental anguish of the most perfect sense of helplessness with the most torturing sense of responsibility.”

When I read the last lines about the skilful engine of torture producing helplessness and responisbility, my heart just bled for those in a belief system like that.
The circumstances of my salvation; where I was in the world and God came into it through secular music and drew me out by opening the word to me, has always caused me to see Christ as my rescuer, and I have had a sense of security all my Christian life. In Hannah Hurnard’s book Hinds’ Feet On High Places, there is a familiar passage that describes my concept of God, I’ll begin the quote where Much-Afraid has been decieved by Pride who has her in his grip saying –

“Come back, Much-afraid,” Pride urged vehemently. “Give it up before it is too late. In your heart of hearts you know that what I am saying is true and that you will be put to shame before everybody. Give it up while there is still time. Is a merely fictitious promise of living on the High Places worth the cost you are asked to pay for it? What is it that you seek there in that mythological Kingdom above?
Entirely against her will, and simply because he seemed to have her at his mercy, Much-Afraid let the words be dragged out of her. “I am seeking the Kingdom of Love,” she said faintly.
“I thought as much,” sneered Pride. “Seeking your heart’s desire, eh? And now, Much-Afraid, have a little pride, ask yourself honestly, are you not so ugly and deformed that nobody even in the Valley really loves you? That is the brutal truth.
Then how much less will you be welcomed in the Kingdom of Love, where they say nothing but unblemished beauty and perfection is admitted? Can you really expect to find what you are seeking; no, I tell you again that you feel this yourself and you know it. Then be honest at least and give it up. Turn back with me before it is too late.
Poor Much-Afraid! The urge to turn back seemed almost irresistible, but at that moment when she stood held in the clutch of Pride, feeling as though every word he spoke was the hideous truth, she had an inner vision of the face of the Shepherd. She remembered the look with which he had promised her, “ I pledge myself to bring you there, and that you shall not be put to shame.” Then it was as though she heard him again, repeating softly, as though looking at some radiant vision in the distance:

Behold, thou art fair, my love; thou hast dove’s eyes.
Thou art all fair, my love, there is no spot in thee.

Before Pride could realize what was happening, Much-Afraid uttered a desperate cry for help and was calling up the mountain.

“Come to me, Shepherd! Come quickly! Make no tarrying, O my Lord.”

There was a sound of loose rattling stones and of a prodigous leap, and the next moment the Shepherd was on the path beside them, his face terrible to look at, his Shepherd’s staff raised high above his head.
Only one blow fell, and then Pride dropped the hand he had been grasping so tightly and made off down the path and round the corner, slipping and stumbling on the stones as he went, and was out of sight in a moment.

So, in Much-afraids temptation she was confronted with the same issue as the Beecher’s --
“Are you not so ugly and deformed that nobody even in the Valley really loves you?”
Of course the answer is yes, but in the Shepherd’s eyes we are “altogether fair and there is no spot in thee.”

No comments: