Scarlett Letter Today

Inspired by an analysis of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlett Letter, on NPR’s All Things Considered, my friend Nathan Lewis probes beyond the literary and sociologic interests offered from the program.  Nathan asks two striking questions:

  • “Have we learned from Hawthorne’s scathing presentation of hypocrissy?”
  • “Would Hester [Prynne] be welcome in our community of faith?”

I want to think through both of these questions.

Nathaneal Hawthorne grew up at a time when New Englanders were still trying to strip the last traces of Puritanical influence from their culture.  Hawthorne himself had roots reaching back to the last days of Puritan rule in New England. In fact his roots extended directly into probably the worst expression of Puritanicalism, to Salem and the Witch Trials.  The nearly indelible scab on the Hawthorne family psyche is revealed in the bitterness against both Puritanism and the church, evident through Hawthorne’s writings, several generations after those horrible events.

Some might notice I used two different phrases regarding the Puritans. That is intentional.  The Puritan movement is one of the most glorious in the history of the Modern church.  But, sadly, as J.I. Packer points out in his book, A Quest for Godliness, the Puritans are “victims of bad PR”.

Two reasons exist for the view most Americans have of Puritanism. First, as Packer laments, is that most people’s perceptions have been shaped by Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.   But Miller presents a mere caricature of what the Puritans were; or rather a caricature of what some had become.  Second, many of the Puritans fell from the high & humble ideals of their forefathers. Rightly or wrongly, I use the word “Puritanism” to refer to the whole scope of the Puritan movement. I use the phrase “Puritanical” to refer to those dark days of Puritanism in late 17th Century New England.

It is because of this second reason, the decay of Puritanism, that the Puritans get the bad PR. And this is directly related to Nathan Lewis’ question: “Have we learned from Hawthorne’s scathing presentation of hypocrissy?”

No doubt Hawthorne, and some of his ancestors, had seen ugly displays of hypocritical self-righteousness by those claiming to be in the Puritan tradition.  What might they have seen that we need to learn from?

Wrong View of Sin

These later Puritans seem to have viewed sin as something “out there”, while assuming themselves to be essentially clean.  They failed to remember that sin is a condition and part of our fallen human nature. It is the evidences of that nature that are expressed through various actions –  like adultery, in Hester Prynne’s & Arthur Dimmesdale’s case.

Likewise, they failed to remember that sin is a condition of the heart, and that sometimes we can act outwardly in all the right ways, yet still be corrupted by the effects of sin.  Like David, in Psalm 51, we would be wise to confess: “I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.”

Sometimes we may not be able to put our finger on just what our sin is.  In such cases we may need God to perform an inspection on our hearts.  (Psalm 139)

Some of Puritans were no doubt aware of their own sinful condition, and perhaps even the specific expressions of sin they constantly wrestled. Most of this was probably private, known to no others.  But, I suspect, some expressions of sin were known by others, in fact probably even shared by others.  But somehow they came to the conclusion that these sins that were “common” were not such a big deal.  In fact, it was easily rationalized that these sins (like gossip, coveting, unexpressed lust, etc) were really pretty minor.  It was the “BIG Sins” that must be avoided.

The fact is we sometimes develop an informal pecking order of sins.  We view some as serious, and others (our own) as minor.  But the truth of the matter is sin, in any flavor, is an offense to our Holy God.  Failure to recognize this is the clearest expression of hypocrisy.

Jerry Bridges deals with this subject in his recent book, Respectable Sins.

NOTE: This is getting long. I’ll have to finish this in a series of posts.

One thought on “Scarlett Letter Today

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