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Eyre and grace

When I finished primary school, my all-time favourite teacher gave me Cranford and Jane Eyre as a leaving gift. It's taken me until now to realise that, as much as seeking to further my literary education, she was almost certainly trying to gently nudge me into feminist awakeness. Well, after a two-decade-long lie-in, I'm finally rubbing my eyes (sorry I'm late, Miss).

I've not read either book for ages – it's impossible enough keeping pace with the 'to-read' list without appending the many worthy 'to-revisit's. But I was recently delightfully surprised by the stage adaptation of Jane Eyre in its second run at the Bristol Old Vic. I say 'surprised' ... it's a grumpy habit of mine to routinely and volubly disapprove of adaptations of anything, especially fiction to stage or screen. Too often (I maintain) it becomes an exercise in plot narration, neglecting all but the surface layer of the original material as well as the unique opportunities and constraints of the output medium.

Sally Cookson's richly visual, emotional, physical, musical, thought-provoking feminist exploration of Brontë's convention-challenging masterpiece was as strong a proof of how wrong one can be as one could wish for. Theatricalness-wise, it made abundant innovative use of a relatively small, sparse stage, a limited cast, and an astonishing songstress; literaryness-wise, it riffed, to great effect, on the theme of male domination and Jane's determination not to 'lose' herself in dependence and/or brokenness of spirit in submission to the many men that seek to control her.

I was especially exercised by the conspicuous instances of religious manipulation. Mr. Brocklehurst, the manager of the Institution to which Jane is exiled by her aunt, aggressively invokes scripture as the basis for cruelty, harsh punishment and impoverished living, and does his utmost to frighten his young charges into compliance using threats of hellfire. And later, in her adult life, the missionary-in-training St. John tries to manoeuvre Jane into marriage and co-ministry via sententious exhortations about 'Christian duty'.

These examples ring all too familiar. The prevailing picture of God for many is of an angry man in the sky who wants to control us – to prevent us from having fun and/or expressing our free selves, and to punish us when we do. In our 'enlightened' times He is presumed to be the convenient invention of angry men on the earth, who nurture similar ambitions. I mean, it's so obvious when you think about it, right? All that wrath and vengeance stuff in the Bible – clearly a fabrication of the powerful in order to manipulate the weak and vulnerable; to quite literally 'strike the fear of God' into fragile hearts.

Except ... that assumption breaks down somewhat on actually reading the Bible, which not many people get round to these days. (I empathise: it's big, and diverse, and confusing in places, and hard to know how to embark on, and everyone's heard tell already from someone or other who once heard from somebody else what it says, more or less, anyway, so why bother?) Some of the 'wrath and vengeance' bits especially would come as a surprise to some Bible dismissers – and to some Bible wielders, I suspect, should they dare to read more carefully and less self-interestedly. "With whom does God get angry?" is a question worth exploring...
O LORD, God of vengeance,
     O God of vengeance, shine forth!
Rise up, O judge of the earth;
     repay to the proud what they deserve!
O LORD, how long shall the wicked,
     how long shall the wicked exult?
They pour out their arrogant words;
     all the evildoers boast.
They crush your people, O LORD,
     and afflict your heritage.
They kill the widow and the sojourner,
     and murder the fatherless;
and they say, “The LORD does not see;
     the God of Jacob does not perceive.” (Psalm 94:1-7 ESV)
And while we're at it, "With whom does Jesus get angry?" (contrary to popular opinion, the New Testament has plenty of scary expressions of wrath of its own)...
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. [...] “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people's faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. [...] “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matthew 23:1-4a, 13-15, 27-28 ESV)
These are just two examples. Of the many more, lots (but not all) fiery outbursts make explicit a similar concern (e.g. Amos 8:4-8, Isaiah 1:1-4, Micah 2:1-3, Luke 12:41-48James 5:1-6). The Mr. Brocklehursts of this world lend us to suppose that the God, in His wrath, is aligned with the powerful and self-righteous against the weak and the faltering. Whereas, when I read the Bible, I see Him time and time again take up the cause of the weak and the faltering against the oppression of the powerful, the hypocrisy of the self-righteous. For me, then, the 'wrath and vengeance' bits – far from being off-putting and distasteful (though they often are, and should be, personally challenging) – become a rich resource of reassurance that God Himself is in active opposition to the prevailing forces of (sexist and other) oppression and injustice [1]. Psalm 94 (quoted above) has been particularly on my heart lately as a prayer of God-trusting anger against the onslaught of manifestations of these forces encountered directly or via the media (Twitter, e.g., turns out to be quite the eye-opener).

Meanwhile, God's response, in the Bible, to 'everyday sinners' – human persons caught up in (that is, complicit with and afflicted by, to varying degree) these systems of control – like Jane Eyre, like Mr. Rochester, like myself – seems one of patience, mercy, conviction (He is not indifferent to unholiness), restoration, and life-long transformation. (Psalm 103, Psalm 107, Job 26:1-3John 4:1-42, Luke 19:1-10, Mark 2:13-17, Luke 15, John 8:1-11). And actually, going back to Brontë, both the play and the book balance Brocklehurst et al.'s representation of God with this alternative ('truer'?) picture, and offer, alongside the negative portrayals of domineering religiousness, contrasting expressions of ('true'?) Christian faith. In particular, the transforming power of Christ-like forgiveness, contentment and trust is memorably realised in the character of Jane's gentle childhood friend Helen Burns, whose positive influence on Jane's actions and attitude continues long after her early death.

The corruption and perversion of religion by those who wield it as a tool of coercion and self-promotion does not then, I hope you'll agree, nullify the claimed life-giving truth and beauty of Christ-centred devotion – that remains a matter to be assessed on its own merits. Brontë, for one, seems to have had no trouble holding the two in tension: "Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns." (Charlotte Brontë, preface to the second edition of Jane Eyre, 1847).

[1] And the 'angry bits' that don't obviously fit this pattern? I don't want to be unmindful of, or glib about, God's outspoken intolerance for disobedience say, or idolatry. The extended subject feels too big a one for now, but I do find it instructive to reflect on these other aspects of God's wrath in the context of His concern for justice and ending oppression.