Reflections on Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables and Hawthorne: A Life (Part One of Two)

IMG_3178.JPGOver the last few weeks I reread a book by an American writer I have admired for many years, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and his novel The House of the Seven Gables. But I also read a lengthy biography of Hawthorne by Brenda Wineapple. I have provided a threefold approach to the novel and the biography using the following format: Summary, Analysis, Assessment. If you are a reader of serious literature and/or of its masters, I hope you benefit from what follows. I hope you will read (and or reread) Hawthorne’s works yourself. I recommend reading his short stories first, then moving on to The Scarlet Letter and other novels. There is much more to Hawthorne’s works than Hester Prynne’s scarlet A.

The House of the Seven Gables:

 At the risk of oversimplification, the novel explores the power of the past, and some people’s attempts to preserve it, pervert it, yield to it, and/or manipulate it. The “house” of the novel’s title is a house with seven gables, yes, but also a symbol for creation itself—once beautiful but now decaying due to the fall of the universe and all mankind. Does beauty exist anymore? If so, by what standard is beauty to be understood? Is love possible? What worldview best explains the way the world is—chaos or Christianity?

A few quotes from the novel may help to reveal what the novel centers upon:

Nothing gives a sadder sense of decay, than this loss of suspension of the power to deal with unaccustomed things and to keep up with the swiftness of the passing moment. It can merely be a suspended animation; for, were the power actually to perish, there would be little use of immortality. We are less than ghosts, for the time being, whenever this calamity befalls us. (141)

Intellectual honesty requires readers know up front that this novel is not light fare. Hawthorne was a serious thinker and writer; his canon of literature attests to that. In the above passage, the issue is how to capture the fleeting nature of human experience. How can the artist arrest motion and present his art to a world swept up in the quick, fast, and silly? Artists labor to speak to the deep things of life, but the trivial things invariably occupy most people’s time. More accurately stated, most people fill their free time with silliness and distraction.

A second quote from the novel may further illustrate Hawthorne’s concerns:

It seemed to Holgrave—as doubtless it has seemed to the hopeful of every century, since the epoch of Adam’s grandchildren—that in this age, more that ever before, the moss-grown and rotten Past is to be torn down, and lifeless institutions to be thrust out of the way, and their dead corpses buried, and everything to begin anew.

As to the main point—may we never live to doubt it!—as to the better centuries that are coming, the artist was surely right. His error lay, in supposing that this age, more than any past or future one, is destined to see the tattered garments of Antiquity exchanged for a new suit, instead of gradually renewing themselves by patchwork; in applying his own little life-span as the measure of an interminable achievement; and, more than all, in fancying that it mattered anything to the great end in view, whether he himself should contend for it or against it. (157-58)

Summary: As you can tell from the above quotes, the novel is concerned with the past. (Notice how Hawthorne capitalized it.) How we view the past is crucial. What are the standards we should bring to bear when thinking about the past? What should we preserve and what should we erase and/or deemphasize? (I’m thinking in terms of architecture here.) And what about literature? Should we preserve the Classics by Milton, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Sophocles, Homer, Dante, and Tolstoy, for example? Or should we consign these thinkers to “the past” written by those “oppressive white males,” and instead only read today’s writers, many of whom focus on race, class, sexual proclivities, and gender and neglect what Faulkner called “the human heart in conflict with itself”? Hawthorne’s novel explores these underlying issues.

Analysis: How does Hawthorne demonstrate the questions posed above? In short, he explores them via Hepzibah, Holgrave, Clifford, and Phoebe, four of the major characters in the novel. In my view, these four characters embody an angle from which Hawthorne explores how to view the past. Does it cripple us via family and generational curses? That is, are we helpless to overcome the power of the past? Should we seek to carve out a present by neglecting the past and the so-called lessons of history? Should we tiptoe along the surfaces of life, pretending all is well? Contemporize it for a moment: In selfies, isn’t the message most often, “I’m so happy!”? Hawthorne’s characters from the 1800s would not have known the meaning of “selfies,” but some of his characters embodied their takers’ worldviews. If man is the measure of all things, in other words, what you get is, well, man. Don’t curse the heavens if you worship at the altar of man.

Assessment: It will come as no surprise that I am still reading Hawthorne’s fiction—thirty years after I discovered his fiction. Where does Hawthorne fit? He has been called a Dark Romantic, like Edgar Allan Poe. He disavowed Thoreau’s pantheism and Emerson’s paganism. Feminists celebrate Hester Prynne as a brave woman, a martyr for women’s sexuality in a man’s world. Some angry self-professing atheists see Hawthorne as an author who called out some Puritans for their hypocrisy. Where do I fall in my view of Hawthorne’s oeuvre? In sum, I would agree that he is a Dark Romantic. His view of man—his anthropology—is realistic. He sees that man is a sinner by nature, by inclination, by deed, and by choice. I do not see evidence, so far in my studies of Hawthorne, at least, that he was a Christian. He seemed to disavow biblical Christianity several times, in fact (I will explore this more in Part Two). An issue that fascinates me is this: If Hawthorne acknowledged sin, man’s fallenness, the fallenness of the universe of all of mankind, what prevented him from embracing the gospel? Hawthorne was a master, at least in my view, of exploring our sinfulness, but he was less ready to explore the Redeemer. As a result, his writing profoundly explores man’s problem but without proposing a solution, one he would have found in the gospel.


(Part Two coming soon)



A New Civil War

I heard someone say recently that the West is in a civil war. But this civil war is not over states’ rights or slavery, he said. It is a war of worldviews, and at stake is the human soul. That sounds overstated, doesn’t it? A war of worldviews, and at stake is the human soul. But I wonder if he may be right.

This morning at work, a friend and I were talking over breakfast. He’d stopped on his way into work and bought us both breakfast. When we were together a few minutes later at a table in the office, he flicked on a nearby TV and we began eating our biscuits and taking in some of the day’s news. Today’s news included three main issues: 1) violence at our schools as recently evidenced in Parkland, FL; 2) another Islamic attack, this one in Montenegro; and 3) the death of Rev. Billy Graham.

My friend and I ate our biscuits and shook our heads at the state of events we saw splashed across the screen: 17 dead and 14 injured in Parkland, FL, and the community and nation reel; another Islamist hurls a grenade into the U.S. Embassy in Podgorica, Montenegro, then blows himself up; and 99-year-old Reverend Billy Graham, arguably the most effective Christian evangelist since the apostle Paul, has died. All three stories shared at least one theme: death. Death by violence in FL; death by suicide with the Islamist; and the death of Reverend Billy Graham, and how some secularists rage against his message of the Christian gospel—that Christ has come for sinners.

But how different are the worldviews? Strikingly. The young man who murdered his classmates and teachers in FL ripped life away from Cara, Chris, Gina, Alex, Joaquin, and more than a dozen others. Violence, death, suffering, and lots and lots of finger-pointing. I cannot read the soul of the murderer in FL. I cannot read the soul of the Islamist who threw a grenade into the American Embassy in Montenegro. I cannot read the soul of Rev. Billy Graham. But is the West in a type of civil war? Is there not a war of worldviews for the human soul?

Will more government intervention in our lives prevent murders like in Parkland, FL? Many on the political left emote that America needs more laws, more restrictions on guns, and some even argue for relinquishing American’s Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Many on the political right point out that thugs don’t obey laws; hence, more laws and restrictions would not have prevented this. It’s not the millions of Americans who own guns, and who are law-abiding citizens, that we need worry about. Instead, we should enforce the laws we have, screen people for psychological health, and possibly arm some government school employees. But AR-15s (originally named for the ArmaLite-15) don’t discharge on their own. Human will is involved. Human responsibility is involved. I, for example, own several weapons; they don’t own me. Human volition and responsibility are always involved. What worldview better assesses what we are witnessing? Is more government the answer? The political left wants bigger government and more laws. The political right wants smaller government, enforcement of current laws, and personal responsibility.

What if one proposed that there is a worldview out there that assesses this, and that man’s problem is not a primarily political one, but a moral and theological one? The biblical worldview posits that men and women are created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27), that we are fallen creatures (Gen 3) because we chose (and continue to choose) to trust ourselves rather than God’s revealed will, and that we suppress the truth that God graciously gives us (Rom 1:18). The NT puts it this way:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools (Rom 1:18-22 ESV).

In short, the biblical worldview diagnoses man’s root problem: he is a sinner. We are rebels against holy God. And our behavior is that characteristic of fools. We won’t prevent murder by banning AR-15s. We won’t prevent Islamic terrorists from murdering civilians by failing to call the reality of evil what it is. We won’t stop the raging mouths of secularists who inveigh against Rev. Billy Graham and his Christian message by forfeiting free speech.

I think what I overheard was right: there is a civil war in the West. I even think he may be right that there’s a war of worldviews over the human soul, and what it means to be human. We see what happens when we reject the biblical worldview. Names of victims scroll across our screens. Pundits point fingers. People bypass civility and rage at one another instead of reason. We prey instead of pray. We become, in short, darkened and increasingly foolish. Might we consider the biblical worldview? Rev. Graham was not a perfect man, to be sure, but he faithfully brought a message that not only assesses man’s problem but also includes God’s solution: the Christ.


The Big Picture

imgresThe big picture. We ruin ourselves by neglecting it. Information is important. Facts are even more important. More important than both, however, is understanding the big picture.

Stated another way, it refers to the crucial role of understanding worldviews. Not only ought we to understand our own worldview, but the worldviews of others, too. Why? Because life is explainable when we understand that life is a battlefield of ideas/worldviews.

Worldviews collide. And there’s no shortage of evidence for how those collisions make history.

Worldview is a grid of interpretation. We all impose on reality a grid for making sense of experience. In theology/philosophy, the term is Weltanschauung. It’s one’s philosophy of life. It allows for the interpretation of ideas. It enables one to grasp the big picture.

 One’s worldview is evidenced in how we answer some fundamental questions:

*Does God exist? If so, what is his nature? That is, his attributes?

*If God does not exist, how do we explain the cosmos?

*How is non-existence a thing? That is, how can no-thing be referred to as something?

*How would non-intelligence create intelligence? That is, how does nothing give rise to something?

*How do you explain the irreducible complexity we see in life? By chance? Really?

*If God does not exist, why trust our own “knowledge”?

*If God exists, what does he require?

*What is man?

*Where does meaning come from?

*Where did man come from?

*How do we come to know things (epistemology)?

*What is ultimate reality (matter only, as naturalists claim?)?

*How are ethics and morals determined? Who determines right and wrong? Who sets the rules?

*What happens after death?

*Is it possible that God exists, and that he has spoken by way of general and special revelation?

How you answer these questions reveals your worldview. These questions are not exhaustive, but they serve as a primer, a foundation for thinking. Just knowing how we answer these questions goes a long way in determining how we think and behave.

Think with me about how worldviews are being played out in our politics, in our culture, in our wars, in our neighborhoods, in our families.

Filter them through your worldview:

*Is gender a fluid category? If so, in what worldview? (Witness the transgender movement.)

*Is it possible that God created human beings as either male or female, and pronounced it good?

*Is a baby a person inside the womb or not? If not, how does worldview play out in the remainder of said life? If it is a baby in the womb (the lengths to which some people go to deny this reality strains credulity and intellectual honesty), on what basis is the boy or girl denied human rights?

*If naturalism/atheism/secularism are true, then why complain when those worldviews produce violence and “evil” acts? Example: If there’s no God, how can anything be objectively good or evil?

*Why do some academies teach situational ethics but then demand “justice” when defrauded?

*What does it say that in many organizations we have to teach “sensitivity” and heretofore common courtesy? What worldview has been marginalized? What worldview dominates today’s discourse?

The big picture. To use a biblical analogy, we know trees by the fruit they bear.

How our representatives vote and lead; whether we remain free to worship in accordance with our constitutional rights; whether life inside the womb is viewed as a baby or detritus; whether it’s right to enforce current border laws or to sanction libertinism, etc. are all issues that are being fought over based upon the worldviews held by the combatants.

Having a worldview is inescapable for a thinking person. The question is, which one? If you want to see the results of where worldviews lead, look no further than the culture on display.


Spiritual Resumes

Some hard looks. That’s what I received recently as I began teaching through the New Testament book of Galatians. The theme of Galatians goes to the heart of the gospel message: there is only one way to please God; sinners are justified only when they repent of their works and cast themselves through faith alone upon the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. But when I worked my way verse by verse through chapter one recently, I got a taste of what Paul (and scores of other biblical messengers) invariably received—some hard looks.

I began as I usually do—by asking a question. My question was simple: What is our biggest problem before God? As the small group mulled that over, I asked some related questions: how is anyone justified, and secondly, what does God require of us? These questions go to the heart of the gospel. Several in the group answered, “God requires obedience.” Others said, “We are to trust God.” Still others said, “We are to love.”

All of those answers certainly touch upon the heart of the matter. But what Paul labors in his letter is the necessity of faith alone in the person and finished work of Christ. But that goes against our nature. We are wired for law. We are wired to assume we can do enough to somehow infuse righteousness or merit rewards through doing certain things or not doing certain other things.

All worldviews except Christianity teach works-based systems of justification. Some teach you must uphold dietary laws and obey litanies of laws. Except for Christianity, all other worldviews teach your good works must outweigh your bad works in order to merit justification. If we’re baptized in a particular worldview, do missions work, observe certain ordinances, tithe, etc., will that suffice? Must you face certain directions when you pray, give alms, make a pilgrimage, recite creeds, and make converts? Are those sufficient? If people deny themselves, renounce desire, and follow the Four Noble Truths, will those works suffice? Others teach their followers that their works follow them via reincarnations. The pattern is simple: our works can somehow merit righteousness. But not in Christianity, and that is what Galatians is all about.

The bad news is this: our spiritual resumes will damn us. No work we do suffices to forgive our just punishment for our sin. No diet, no law, no work, no pilgrimage, no tithe, no holy day, no spiritual one-upmanship, etc. will do. Why? Because they all smack of human pride, and that’s our problem.

However, in Christianity alone, there is redemption. And it comes one way—by faith in the person and finished work of Christ: “yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16 ESV).

If we do not repent and cast our faith completely in the person and finished work of Christ, we’re believing “a different gospel” (Galatians 1). The Bible teaches that if anyone believes or preaches any other gospel besides the atoning substitution death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, he/she is accursed. Anathema. Under God’s wrath. That’s how important it is to get the gospel right. Why? Because any human work smacks of works righteousness and our works are polluted garments/filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6).

Our spiritual resumes or Christ? Yes, I got some hard looks, but truth is worth it.

Religion and Politics, Part two:

In about a year from now, America will have a new president, and the differences between political parties and worldviews could not be clearer. Many Leftists/liberalimgress/Democrats are calling for more government, more taxes, the redistribution of wealth, political correctness, and socialized health care. Conservatives/Republicans are calling for less government, lower taxes, wealth creation via private enterprise, freedom from political correctness, and free market competition in health care.

I was born in the late 1960s, so I didn’t really begin to understand political worldviews, or take much of an interest in government, until high school. Then I was working my first real jobs, where I’d look at an actual paystub. I learned the hard way about taxes. Federal, state, and local taxes were taken out. Social security taxes were taken out. Insurance costs, etc. I learned, painfully, about the difference between gross and net income. And I learned that the way voters thought (the worldviews) affected the ways they voted.

Several weeks ago, I wrote about how Christians should vote. Specifically, my concern was the question of criteria. What parameters should Christians bring to bear upon the ballot box? A few fundamentals I suggested included character, the sanctity of human life, and respect for the U.S. Constitution.

Now that we have witnessed the Leftists debate (Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley, and Bernie Sanders) their worldviews are quite similar. Homosexual rights (sexuality now is akin to one’s race in Leftism; it can even be changed); women should be able to abort their babies at any time they want; wealthy individuals and their companies should be taxed as punishment for their success; more taxes should be levied from working Americans; climate change (it used to be called “global warming”) is crouching at the door of the planet if we don’t leave off using fossil fuels; Islamic terrorists will somehow quit slaughtering the non-Islamic world if we just have more meetings; and America does not really need to enforce current immigration laws. We don’t need borders, after all, as that could hurt people’s feelings. Borders might suggest that we’re a nation of laws. And of course, only certain lives matter. Cops’ lives apparently don’t matter as much as other lives.

We’ve also witnessed the conservatives/Republicans debate. They, too, dovetailed in many areas. Strong national defense, the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, immigration policies should be enforced, as their lack of enforcement undermines the very essence of law and the U.S. Constitution; lower taxes; Islamic terror should be defeated, not placated; and all lives matter. As to “climate change,” they agree that the science is anything but monolithic in demonstrating man’s impact upon the planet; therefore, we should research clean energy, but not cripple the world’s engines that run on fossil fuels.

There are nuances among both parties and both worldviews, but no honest person can deny the collision of worldviews represented by those on the Left/liberal side of things vs. the Right/conservative side. I do not know of a more polarized time in our culture than what we’re witnessing.

Has America been “fundamentally transformed”? If you had told me as a boy that in my lifetime, women would marry women, I would have been incredulous. If you had told me that men would be vying for legal sanction to marry boys (yes, it’s true), I would not have believed you. If you had told me that the U.S. Capitol would have been lit in celebration of the nation’s Supreme Court legalizing what has always been deemed abominable, I would have said you were in jest.

But I would have been wrong. Polygamy, pederasty, fluid gender identity, etc. are all in the cultural discussion today. Infanticide and Planned Parenthood videos don’t even shock us into repentance. What does that say about the worldviews some of these candidates have?

I hope to vote for righteousness next year, but I submit to you that all worldviews are not the same. May we at least be honest enough about the worldviews at stake.