Wednesday, 28 May 2014

The Wisdom of George Eliot (1)

I have just finished reading Middlemarch by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans, 1819 - 1880). Set in a Midlands town similar to Nuneaton, where Eliot's family home was, or Coventry, where she went to school, the novel masterfully explores the different strata of society in the early 19th century when a new middle-class was emerging, many of its members embracing evangelical faith. Eliot is incredibly perceptive about many things, but I found her insights into the evangelical soul particularly thought-provoking. 

'Bless the Lord, O my soul' or 'Bless my soul, O my Lord'?
The leading Evangelical in the novel gradually unravels as his past catches up with him. Eliot focuses on one aspect of his psyche that makes him no different to another character, a spoilt, pretty woman: he perceives the universe to revolve around his own prosperity and happiness. When wrapped in theology, this leads him to make some very suspect decisions.

Bulstrode's course up to that time had, he thought, been sanctioned by remarkable providences, appearing to point the way for him to be the agent in making the best use of a large property and withdrawing it from perversion. Death and other striking dispositions, such as feminine trustfulness, had come and Bulstrode would have adopted Cromwell's words - "Do you call these bare events? The Lord pity you!" The events were comparatively small, but the essential condition was there - namely, that they were in favour of his own ends. ... He was simply a man whose desires had been stronger than his theoretic beliefs, and who had gradually explained the gratification of his desires into satisfactory agreement with those beliefs.

It is absolutely true that God's love never fails, and as evangelicals we revel in the personal love of God and his involvement in the details of our lives. But I sometimes fear that it is not a big step to move from singing "You work all things together for my good" (with the emphasis on 'my good') to justifying actions centred on 'my good' rather than on the glory of God. There is strong scriptural warrant for the lyrics, but the 'good' that God has in mind is the fulfilment of his purpose and making us like Jesus, which in my experience can sometimes not feel very good at all! I love the song because it is a song of faith and trust when we go through hard times, but when we sing it (and others like it) maybe we should imagine that George Eliot were in the congregation!

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