Tag Archives: Religion

Interlude: Mary Crawford & Religion

I am rereading Mansfield Park and I am very much enjoying the character studies Jane Austen provides. One more thing that interests me is how religion and especially Mary Crawford’s dislike of clergyman is such a prominent feature in the book. When Mary remarked the following, I could not help but think how very modern we would think such notions today. And how I think if you ask the general population, her ideas of former times are exactly how we think about Jane Austen’s time. I know that our conceptions of religion, the idea that you could be secular, originated at the end of the eighteenth century, but somehow I never expected to find it in the work of Austen.

At any rate, it is safer to leave people to their own devices on such subjects. Everybody likes to go their own way – to choose their own time and manner of devotion. The obligation of attendance, the formality, the restraint, the length of time – altogether it is a formidable thing, and what nobody likes: and if the good people who used to kneel and gape in that gallery could have foreseen that the time would ever come when men and women might lie another ten minutes in bed, when they woke with a headache, without danger of reprobation, because chapel was missed, they would have jumped with joy and envy.

Religion in Jane Eyre

Another misunderstanding. I think this one came with my idea that the Brontës were quite patriarchal in their religious attitudes. Or maybe it is because her father was a clergyman and in my mind that turned into “strictly religious”. Prejudices all around, on my part.

"I said my evening prayers" - F.H. Townsend, http://janeeyreillustrated.com/

But how could I ignore the religious themes in this book? Or, how could I have missed them before? In my first reading of Jane Eyre, I must have been too occupied with the love story and the gothic qualities of the book. Knowing the story, at least a little, reading it for the second and third time, I think I had more patience to look at the other aspects of this novel. And religion is a big aspect, or at least, it seemsd to be so to me. Maybe it is because I’m a religious studies student? But really, it is everywhere in Jane Eyre.

Intermixed with humor, when Mr. Rochester exclaims:

In the name of all the elves in Christendom, is that Jane Eyre?

Humor, but not mocking humor. No glaring disrespect for anyone who as a Christian still has a sense of these ideas. Later on, when Jane hears Rochester’s plea for her, through nature, or somehow, I could not help but wonder if part of this isn’t Brontë’s worldview as well. Or at least, she understands it enough to have Jane Eyre feel that way. And I was left wondering how this idea of religion back in the nineteenth-century works. Is it the influence of the Romantics? It is so easy to forget that there were other takes on religion, apart from the stricter line that came with the (re)awakening of pietism, the line I so often have to study.

There is prejudice as well. Catholicism is something that Jane Eyre, or is it Charlotte Brontë? (we’ve discussed this before), clearly does not respect. When her cousin explains that she will go into a convent, Jane says:

“You are not without sense, cousin Eliza; but what you have, I suppose, in another year will be walled up alive in a French convent.”

But when Protestantism is taken up, or rather, when Catholicism isn’t mentioned and there is talk of religion, I admit I’m fascinated. Since I study missionaries, the observations on St. John were very interesting to me. Somehow, I always assumed that people would be in awe of missionaries back then. These were people who were so convinced of their faith, of their calling, that they abandoned their home and went “into wild and unknown land” (that is not a quote from Jane Eyre, btw). And St. John is seen as a good man, a very Christian man, a man with a calling. And yet, through his righteousness he forgets to love the people that surround him, really love them, really feel. He only feels and loves his calling, so it seems. He is painted as an incomplete person. You could almost pity him. Almost, if he hadn’t suffocated Jane as he did.

And there’s Rochester’s redemption. Which is truly redemption, in a sense. He suffers, he loses his sight and his arm, and then when Jane returns to him, slowly, ever so slowly, he recovers his sight. When I read Jane Eyre for the first time in high school, I admit I couldn’t really deal with this. And in a way it still gets to me: why did he have to lose his arm and his sight? But I understand it better now, I understand the message. It might not be my worldview. I do not share it a 100%. But I do respect it for what it means to Jane Eyre, as a character. And that is such an important part of the story.

There is one more thing. In the preface to Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë defends her portrayal of a person who tries to commit bigamy, she defends her novel against those who feel that such works will always be sinful. If only for this, I feel for Charlotte Brontë, and respect her. I think I haven’t read something written in the 19th century before, by a woman, that is so forceful, so clear in its intentions, so much an opinion, on such a big topic as religion.

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.

These things and deeds are diametrically opposed: they are as distinct as is vice from virtue. Men too often confound them: they should not be confounded: appearance should not be mistaken for truth; narrow human doctrines, that only tend to elate and magnify a few, should not be substituted for the world-redeeming creed of Christ. There is – I repeat it – a difference; and it is a good, and not a bad action to mark broadly and clearly the line of separation between them.

There must be books written about the Brontës ideas on religion, right? If not, please, someone, write that book. I, for one, would love to read it.

An Impromptu Interfaith Solidarity Readathing

Even though the burning of the Koran seems to have been called off (or is it? I can’t seem to keep up with the changing opinions on this one), I still want to share this Librarything initiative because I like the idea so much: An Impromptu Interfaith Solidarity Readathing that is being held this Saturday. There is never too much reading about each other’s religion going on, so please consider joining.

Thoughts: Reading and Writing about Religion

I don’t know about any of you, but writing about religion or books concerning religion always makes me feel a bit hesitant and nervous. The main reason being that I don’t want to hurt anybody, nor do I want to get into endless debates on what religion is & isn’t and what it is or isn’t supposed to do. I’m always scared that people will take my views on religion (and the related topics of culture and politics) the wrong way.

I tend to embed religion in its context, because I believe the time, place and other interactions in the milieu religious people live in (culture, politics, etc) influence religious attitudes. Fundamentalist (by which I do not mean terrorist, but people who take scriptures literally) always make me feel a bit uncomfortable. Maybe that’s because I was raised by parents who were both brought up in a strict catholic family and ‘escaped’ these surroundings during the 60/70′s, they subsequently raised me with an atheist/agnostic outlook on life. Or maybe it has to do with my education: both my religious classes in high school and my university classes have focused on a post-modern and/or anthropologist approach. This might lead to views that could be offensive to some people who are highly religious and I’m just never sure how to deal with that. I get that to some people I might be touching their most important convictions and I wouldn’t like to be told that “it’s all relative” either. Actually, I have a deep respect for people who are religious and are able to feel thus supported by their beliefs. Also, I know that not all religious people are offended by contextual thinking and many  share views on religion being defined by historical and cultural context.

It’s just.. You see how many things you might need to say to make sure you’re not offending anyone? To explain what your perspective is and why? This is what scares me about writing about religion. I think it might be an even more “controversial” subject than politics. A group of freemasons gathers in a building across the street from my parents, and they once told my father that there are two subjects they never discuss, religion and politics, because it can only lead to arguments and hurt. It is sentence that I’ve memorised well and it pops into my head every time I am about to publish something about a book on religion.

Yet, books about religion seem to gather a lot of attention (only look at the debates surrounding Philip Pullman’s new book) so I’m guessing there’s a world of people out there who does like to read and write about (and discuss?) religion. Some recent talks with Nymeth and Violet on twitter led to Violet’s interesting point that even (or dare I say, exactly those) self-proclaimed atheist enjoy reading about religion. Somehow, this cannot but cheer me. I’ve  a bachelor in history and an (almost) bachelor in religious studies and yes, us students hear a lot about how religion is not dead, but there isn’t a lot of interaction about it outside of the classroom. Book blogging had made me realise that there are a lot of people who might not consider themselves religious, but still like to read and learn about the subject. And I have to admit that I really enjoy reading everyone’s reviews and thoughts on books about religion.

Still, that little sentence that any discussion on religion or politics might inevitably lead to arguments and hurt seems to be stuck in my mind forever. This does not mean that I will not write about it, it’s an inevitable subject to me anyway, since I’m currently doing a master on religious studies from a historical perspective.

Not so much as an afterthought, but as something I’ve been thinking about ever since I started blogging, I am joining the World Religion Challenge hosted by BiblioFreak . I´m taking the Unshepherded Path (Also Known As: The Don’t Tell Me What to Do Path), which means you get to “read as many books as you would like about whatever religions you want.”. Why this path, as it might seem the easier? Well, I’ve just explained that I’m doing a 2-year master programme at a religious studies faculty (master is the equivalent of graduate school, I’ve been told) which means all the required reading I do is on religion. I’d like to keep the challenge-reading fun for myself and thus decided not to make myself read a book on every religion, but just read books on religion that look good to me at that time. I’d like to read at least 5 though, so that’s a goal I’m adding.

Two Abondoned Books in One Day

Exhortation to the Crocodiles - António Lobo AntunesI never thought I’d be posting this today, but here it is: two books that I abandoned in one day.

First of all, I started reading Exhortation to the Crocodiles by António Lobo Antunes. The first chapter was really confusing, but promising. When I started thumbing through he book, I noticed that my copy has a lot of blank pages in it. I am not sure if this is a production failure, but it sure looks like it. I simply do not want to read 200 pages before realising that I will not be able to read all of the book. Which is why I abandoned it. Thus, I did not abandon this book because I didn’t enjoy reading it.

Other than that, I abandoned The Caged Virgin, by Ayaan Hirshi Ali. I was hoping to be able to finish this book, despite my dislike of her approach to Islam in general. I wanted to make sure that I knew what I was talking about when I say that I do not agree with her The Caged Virgin - Ayaan Hirshi Aliviews (apart from watching her performance in several television shows and some of her articles in newspapers years ago, I had never read anything by Hirshi Ali). I think you might say that everyone who knows me a little could’ve told me in advance that I was going to dislike this book, including me. I just wasn’t expecting it to be this extreme, right at the very start. After finishing the introduction and 3 chapters, I had to get up and remove her book from my ‘currently reading’ list. I find it hard to put into words my extreme dislike of the material Ayaan Hirshi Ali presents in this book. I want to try and be as ‘objective’ as possible about this, but I have to admit that I was very frustrated with the content.

To put all of this into perspective: Ayaan Hirshi Ali has been a somewhat controversial figure in the Netherlands for quite some time. She was raised in Somalia, than later moved to Kenya with her family. When her family decided she was to be married off she escaped the country to the Netherlands, where she was granted citizenship. She worked in several organisations, including ones that tried to help women who were beaten or abused by their husbands. Later on, she became active in politics in the social-democrat party, leaving the party for the liberals at the beginning of the 2000s. She is best known for the controversy surrounding her movie “Submission 1″, which she produced together with Theo van Gogh, who was murdered by an Islamic fundamentalist later on. His body had a death-threat to Ayaan Hirshi Ali pinned to it.

All in all, the woman has been through quite some social upheavals and yes, I can see where she’s coming from. Reading about her opinion on Islam and women, will sound interesting to many, I am sure. So what is it that made me thus hesitant to keep on reading?

It is her approach to Islam. Yes, it is true that some Muslim women suffer from abusive husbands, yes it is true that this needs to be dealt with, but not in the manner Ayaan Hirshi Ali proposes. Her argument seems rather to heat up the discussion in an unhealthy manner, than to try and solve it. The main problem to me is that she sees Islam as some sort of big repressive entity that exists outside of the people that act upon it, instead of viewing culture and religion as something that people make themselves. They apply some of the things a tradition provides, and leave some things out. It is all about people making culture to me. Culture is not something that exists outside of people. This does not mean that certain aspects of what people make of culture cannot be oppressive to women or any other human being. Certainly, this is what happens in lots of situations. I simply mean to say that it is not the Islam that oppresses women and not the Islam that is inherently violent. So when Hirshi Ali asks whether “the aggression, the hatred [is] inherent in Islam itself?” and starts answering the question in the affirmative every step of the way, I was shouting: “No” “Unbelievable” etc. in my head. Sadly, her opinions are shared by many people. And sadly, to most people this message coming from someone who was Muslim herself once, makes it all the more true.

I am not saying that I agree with terrorism, but it simply cannot be equated to something inherent in Islam. Although there is some recent discussion that violence is part of most religions (on which I have no clue whether to agree or not), Islam is not specifically worse. Also, I’m not saying I agree with the oppression of women, either out of religious arguments or not, but I’m saying that these are religious arguments, made and carried out by people.