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Re-reading an American Classic

February26

SLEvery other year I set myself the task of re-reading The Scarlet Letter. Why do I choose to read again this “tale of human frailty and sorrow”? This 150-page novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne is part of the American literature curriculum that I am teaching, but I could easily substitute another equally important book. Instead, I continue to teach The Scarlet Letter because I admire Hawthorne’s genius in producing this great American novel and I appreciate his insights into the souls of his fellow men.

The story concerns Hester Prynne, a young Puritan woman in 17th century Boston, who commits adultery and gives birth to a child. The authorities, acting as both church and state, punish her by ordering her to wear a scarlet letter A. For the rest of her life she is isolated from the community because people no longer see her as a person, but as a symbol of her disgraceful sin.

Hester’s offense, however, is not the only wrongdoing Hawthorne explores. Her partner in sin, the Reverend Dimmesdale, agonizes over his guilt, but is unable to admit to his congregation that he is the father of baby Pearl. His sin of hypocrisy torments him both physically and emotionally, and eventually leads to his premature death.

Perhaps the worst sin, at least in Hawthorne’s eyes, is committed by Hester’s husband, Roger Chillingworth, who vows to discover Hester’s partner in sin and get vengeance. When he is quite certain that Dimmesdale is the man, he finds diabolical ways to torment him, using his knowledge of alchemy. After Dimmesdale dies, Chillingworth shrivels up “like an uprooted weed that lies wilting in the sun” because there is “no more devil’s work on earth for him to do.”

The Scarlet Letter is not primarily a book about adultery; instead, it is a timeless story about sin, guilt, hypocrisy, and vengeance. Hawthorne accurately depicts the universal condition of fallen man, but without the redemption offered by God in Jesus Christ.

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The Edification of Man

August5

“I doubt whether we are sufficiently attentive to the importance of elementary text-books,” begins one of my favorite books by C. S. Lewis. As an English teacher, I am conscious of the importance of the books I and my students read, and this awareness leads me to re-read The Abolition of Man every few years.

The title of this short classic, published in 1947, might lead the prospective reader to think Lewis is writing another of his science fiction works or perhaps a prediction of the doom of mankind by nuclear war. Instead, he is writing a warning that educators can subtly—or not so subtly—remove their students’ seat of emotion or heart, destroying their ability to value what is good and true and to detest that which is bad and evil. Leaders who reject traditional values seek to numb or destroy the heart and create a generation of “men without chests” who are not truly men (human) at all. If they succeed, they will achieve the abolition of man.

Lewis begins by discussing an English textbook that criticizes a tourist viewing a waterfall for saying that it is sublime. The textbook writers instruct their young readers that although the tourist “appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall,” he was actually making “a remark about his own feelings” (14). At first sight, this might not seem to be a critical distinction. In fact, I might tend to agree with the textbook writers. But as Lewis continues his critique, it is clear that such thinking can destroy mankind.

The truth is that the waterfall is sublime. Intrinsic to the waterfall is something that deserves an emotional reaction of sublime feelings. After explaining the truth about this particular waterfall, Lewis goes on to explore other universal values common to all cultures. Certain actions and experiences by their very nature arouse in us approval or disapproval. The starry sky produces a sense of awe and wonder. Showing respect for parents and elders just feels right. Murder by its very nature calls us to respond with condemnation. Child abuse naturally shocks and appalls us. It is the goal of educators to see that the young develop these appropriate reactions to the universe around them.

This, of course, is where Christian education excels. As Christians, we hold traditional values—in truth, the only values anyone can rationally live by, as Lewis goes on to explain. Christian educators may without embarrassment or reserve explain to their students the magnificence of mathematics, the splendor of science, and the poignancy of a poem, as well as the ugliness of sin in human history. Christian teachers actively work to instill in their students proper responses to our world. Christian teachers strive for the edification of man, not for his abolition.

Lewis, C. S. The Abolition of Man. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1970.

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I am a Christian, a mother and grandmother, a sister, a daughter, a teacher, a widow, a friend. . .  My life is first of all defined by relationships–to God, to my family, to my students, to my friends. Of course, I am many other things: a reader, an e-mail writer, a piano player, and a somewhat reluctant traveler, for example.  And now I am a blogger.  I’m not sure why, except it seems to be a logical next step for someone addicted to e-mail.

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