The Scarlet Letter and the Power of Confession

Wishing You copyWhile Hester Prynne bears the shame of her sin in a crimson emblem, there is more than one scarlet letter in Hawthorne’s tale. Comparing the lives of Hester and Arthur Dimmesdale, the other bearer of the scarlet letter, the reader learns of the power of sin to wreak havoc in our lives, and the greater power of confession to overwhelm the shadow of sin.

Hester pays daily for her sin in the form of her shame, the ridicule of others, and in watching her daughter grow up the scourge of society. Though Hester was forced to face public condemnation for her sins, her daily response to this sin is a decision that Hester makes of her own accord. When Governor Bellingham threatens to have Pearl taken away, Hester explains how her response to her sins can effect positive change in the future:

“ ‘I can teach my little Pearl what I have learned from this!’ answered Hester Prynne, laying her finger on the red token.

“ ‘Woman, it is thy badge of shame!’ replied the stern magistrate. ‘It is because of the stain which that letter indicates, that we would transfer they child to other hands.’

“ ‘Nevertheless,’ said the mother calmly, though growing more pale, ‘this badge hath taught me,-it teaches me,-it is teaching me at this moment,-lessons whereof my child may be the wiser and better, albeit they can profit nothing to myself.’ “ (Hawthorne, 76)

Because Hester has confessed her sins to the Lord, she is able to look at her sin as an event of her past that she can learn from and teach her child. Hester is not bound to the shame of her sin, but through it is able to see truth.

Dimmesdale, however, harbors the shame of his sin because he has not confessed it. Daily, he wallows in his guilt, unable to realize the mercy extended to him by the Lord, nor the invitation to walk in new life. Dimmesdale expresses his misery while he meets with Hester in the woods:

“What can a ruined soul, like mine, effect towards the redemption of other souls?-or polluted soul, towards their purification? And as for the people’s reverence, would that it were turned to scorn and hatred! Canst thou deem I, Hester, a consolation, that I must stand up in my pulpit, and meet so many eyes turned upward to my face, as if the light of heaven were beaming from it . . . and then look inward, and discern the black reality of what they idolize? I have laughed, in bitterness and agony of heart, at the contrast between what I seem and what I am! And Satan laughs at it!” (Hawthorne, 131)

Because Dimmesdale bears the scarlet letter of sin on his soul, he cannot walk in the light of Christ’s redemption. His focus is on the irreconcilable difference between what people perceive him to be and what is in his heart. Unlike Hester he has not learned to cope with the sin of his past, but instead bears it on his own soul, a weight not can bear.

God promises us that when we confess our sins to Him, he will take away the burden of our shame and give us the lightness of living in His light.

“This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:5-9)

Wishing YouGot knows that in our sinful nature, we will make mistakes. That is inevitable. But what He calls us to do is to recognize the gift of redemption He has given us in His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus took our sins to the cross so that we could have life. Refusing to give our shame over to Him limits our ability to recreate us.

Are there sins in your life that you’re still allowing to shame you? If you’ve confessed your sins to the Lord, He will forgive you and cleanse you. Pray that God would help you to realize that forgiveness and walk in the newness of His life.

Thanks for stopping by, friends. Happy Reading!

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The Great Gatsby and the Meretricious American Dream

4Interestingly, Fitzgerald wrote his masterpiece The Great Gatsby in 1924 when he and his family moved to France. With trans-Atlantic displacement and the author’s stage of life, having achieved reputational and monetary success, Fitzgerald was able to reflect on his experience of pursuit of the American Dream and his culture as a whole, a theme that anchors the events of the novel.

It is important to begin our discussion by considering what we mean by the American Dream. Through generations, I believe the definition has changed drastically, but here is a basic definition from Merriam-Webster.com:

“An American social ideal that stresses egalitarianism and especially material prosperity; also: the prosperity or life that is the realization of this ideal.”

Years ago, I believe that social idea tended toward the egalitarian component by which individuals sought a comfortable life for their families and their communities. As time went on, the pursuit of “material prosperity” became the chief objective. People realized their capacity for advancement as individuals, and measured their success in terms of monetary gain, thus sacrificing communal good to outpace their neighbors and even losing sight of the motivation behind this pursuit.

In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald offers great insight into the pitfalls of this pursuit. While Nick Carraway’s character offers a great study for this discussion, Jay Gatsby embodies the fall of the American Dream. We learn through Nick that Gatsby, originally James Gatz, came from humble beginnings and forged his way to success. Nick relates:

“I suppose he’d had the name ready for a long time, even then. His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people-his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all. The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God-a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that-and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.” (Fitzgerald, 98)

This passage describes Gatsby’s early conception of the American Dream. He envisioned a future version of himself, an affluent self, and discarded his past self to become this person. Through his endeavors, he remained faithful to bring this person into being. He was regimented in his plan to evolve into Jay Gatsby, creating a stringent schedule and personal goals to tailor himself into that personage (Fitzgerald, 173). He is, by all accounts, successful in becoming Gatsby and all his character entails, except for one missing piece.

As we considered last week, Daisy was part of Gatsby’s dream. Gatsby constructed the image his perfect existence, and believed that Daisy was a part of that. We discussed how she was part of his process of self-actualization, of seeking identity. Another way of looking at Daisy is to think of her as the object of Gatsby’s American Dream. After five years of separation, the two are reunited and Nick reflects on the afternoon:

1“There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams-not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.” (Fitzgerald, 96)

Here we see Daisy-as Fitzgerald’s conception of the American Dream-falling short of what Gatsby believed her and his dream to be. In the end, he cannot win her. After all his toiling, Gatsby finds what he believes to be the missing part of his dream and realizes it isn’t what he imagined it to be, and was not worth the pursuit. All the fame, fortune, and success leave him feeling empty. Incomplete.

Carraway offers a stunning visual of the culmination of the American Dream. While reflecting on his experience, he considers his view of the East as the region of affluence and achievement, and how he took his own turn at pursuing that dream.

2“Even when the East excited me most . . . even then it had always for me a quality of distortion. West Egg, especially, still figures in my more fantastic dreams. I see it as a night scene by El Greco . . . In the foreground four solemn men in dress suits are walking along the sidewalk with a stretcher on which lies a drunken woman in a white evening dress. Her hand, which dangles over the sides, sparkles cold with jewels. Gravely the men turn in at a house-the wrong house. But no one knows the woman’s name, and no one cares.

“After Gatsby’s death the East was haunted for me like that, distorted my eyes’ power of correction.” (Fitzgerald, 176)

Because of Gatsby, Nick realizes how the flawed ideals of the American Dream, and gives us this memorable image to embody his realization-a woman completely drunk on success, dripping with jewels, and still, a woman who has no worth in this world because she is not known by anyone.

I think that Fitzgerald hits a powerful note with his observations. It is possible to achieve reputational and monetary success, just as he did with his literary career, but to come to the culmination of his dreams and realize how empty it all is. Every labored step on the path to glory was a waste because one can never reach the pinnacle of success. There is no fulfillment in the actualization of the American Dream.

In our culture, there is a strong push toward the individual experience, the New American Dream. Be all you can be. It’s your life, your journey-make life what you want it to be.

But what is all that you can be? Can this goal be quantified?

How can one determine what one “wants” life to be without some sort of standard to measure success by?

Here, we find our way back to one of the inherent questions of humanity. If the satisfaction level in reaching the end point discounts the journey, then he flaw must be in the motivation for the journey. Hence, what is the purpose of life?

I will not presume to answer this question with a few tidy paragraphs, but instead, turn to God’s word for direction to continue this discussion with a Christian lens.2016

Firstly, the flawed idea of the American Dream implies that our lives belong to us, that our lives are lived for our own happiness and comfort. When we commit our lives to Christ, we give up our selves. Paul says in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”

When we decide to follow Christ, we relinquish authority and choose to live our days as Christ-an impossible pursuit for our selfish nature, but a goal nonetheless. Jesus is our standard, our benchmark for success in day-to-day life. God doesn’t expect us to reach the pinnacle of Christ-likeness–to do so would be impossible–but His desire for us is to live lives that are characterized by love. Love for God, and love for people.

Fitzgerald, while he did not connect the flawed American Dream with a higher calling to follow Christ, understood that his society was pursuing a goal that could never be actualized because our own satisfaction is insatiable and vapid. In our last discussion, we considered what our “green lights” were, what things we hold up in our lives as the epitome of success. Today, I would like to consider what our lives are characterized by.

When people think of you, how would they describe you?

Perhaps more importantly, what do you desire your life to be characterized by?

With these questions in mind, what steps can we take to live as Jesus lived, to show love in our daily walk? Perhaps it’s something as simple as providing an act of service for someone you encounter regularly, or praying for a friend. Maybe it’s speaking words of encouragement. Let God inspire you with new ways to share in His love, today.

Do you have an idea or question about today’s discussion? Please share your comments below to keep the discussion going!

Happy Reading, Kindred Spirits!

“Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck

of-mice-and-menSummary

Over the years, Lennie and George have traveled California together looking for work. They share a dream of owning their very own piece of land and living off of its abundance, a dream that seems well within their grasp when they find a job at a ranch in the Salinas Valley. George worries that as close as they’re getting to obtaining the dream, Lennie will ruin things by accidentally getting in trouble like he did in his last job. Lennie, over-sized and slow-witted, loves petting soft things like mice and rabbits, but often kills them in his over zealous affection. He promises George that he won’t get them into trouble so that George will let him tend the rabbits at their dream farm. Most of all, Lennie promises he won’t fight Curley, the instigating ranch hand, and he won’t talk to Curley’s flirtatious wife who keeps hanging around. But these are promises that Lennie is unable to keep.

A Christian Perspective

Reading this story with a Christian lens, I was struck by the brotherly love George has for Lennie, a man whom George has no obligation to help. While George grumbles that things would be much easier if Lennie weren’t around, that he would be able to find work and have no trouble, he still chooses to take Lennie with him across the state. He knows Lennie has nobody else. Later in the story, George tells one of the ranch hands how he used to tease Lennie by telling him to do things that would hurt him, and how he would laugh when Lennie unflinchingly obeyed. But as time went on, he had pity for Lennie, and realized how vulnerable he was. Lennie needed someone to take care of him, and George stepped up. One could argue that George gains something from the relationship—camaraderie, and financial assistance in the land purchase—but George gives up much more by taking Lennie with him, having to run away from well paying jobs when Lennie causes a ruckus.

Reflecting on this sacrificial relationship, I asked myself if I would be willing to care for someone so sacrificially. If someone needed help, had nobody else, would I take responsibility or simply pass them along to someone who was more “qualified” to help? James 1:27 comes to mind, which says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” While George doesn’t help Lennie in light of God’s love, and though Lennie isn’t an orphan or a widow, this verse speaks to their situation: Lennie is a vulnerable person in need and George provides guidance and friendship for him. This story is a beautiful picture of friendship and love that is genuine and sacrificial.

The ending of the book makes a Christian reading more controversial; how is George showing love through his actions, and was it his responsibility to take matters into his own hands? George wants to save Lennie from certain torture, and he believes that Lennie is his responsibility. Still, the delineation between right and wrong is very grey at the climax of this story.

Cautionary Note

Written by a secular author, this book is full of cursing and some innuendo. In addition, Steinbeck deals with some emotionally disturbing scenes which may not be suitable for younger readers.

Conclusion

Having read Of Mice and Men as a high schooler, I was eager to re-read the slim volume with the Christian lens. I was not disappointed. This story and reading forced me to ask some hard-hitting questions about love, friendship, and sacrifice, well worth the time and reflection.

What do you think?
What aspects of the Christian walk do you see or not see depicted in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men? Are George’s actions at the end of the story justified? What have you learned about life from this story? Please comment below with your ideas and questions!

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