Friday, April 5, 2013

Jane Eyre and Religious Abuse

I have reencountered two works of literature this week and both encounters have left me disturbed and reflective. The questions that they have raised dovetail with the issues raised by Danielle's post on visiting an old slave fort, as I wrote about the other day.

A few nights ago my wife and I watched the 2011 film version of Jane Eyre, starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender. I do not aim to write a review of the movie here, but will say that my wife and I both found it enjoyable and well-done. I had not read the book in many years, so although I was familiar with the basic plot trajectory, many of the details had faded from my memory. I will not attempt a thorough explanation of the plot here so if you are unfamiliar with it, you may find it difficult to understand some of my comments.

As I watched, the role of religion in Jane's life struck me quite strongly. Jane is a strong-willed child, a girl who refuses to simply acquiesce to the expectations of those around her. This trait brings her much trouble. (And the feminist in me asks whether a boy demonstrating such behavior would have experienced the same response. Probably not. But we shall set aside examining the story from a specifically feminist perspective.) Sent off to a school for orphans, she enters a world that is disturbing in the manner and degree to which it seeks to crush the vitality of each girl sentenced there. This alone would be troubling, but more troubling still, this school, called the Lowood Institute, is run by a minister who believes that he operates it in a manner consistent with instilling godliness in its subjects. As such the girls there are deprived, abused and dehumanized, all while being preached to and indoctrinated with the Bible. Religion becomes a tool of oppression to Jane and the other girls of this prison.

Later, after a period of life in which she experiences happiness and love for the first time ever, Jane's world falls apart again and she flees the situation which is crumbling around her. Her flight brings her to a remote region where, facing death from exhaustion, she is taken in by another minister, Mr. St. John, and his two sisters Mary and Diana. In their home she experiences grace and kindness in the name of the Gospel. At this point my heart lifted, for I saw faith portrayed at least in some degree as it should be lived. Through their kindnesses and help Jane's well-being if not happiness is restored and she resumes life in new circumstances. However, her fortunes again change, this time for the better when she inherits a large sum of money. Because of their kindness to her Jane shares this inheritance with the St. John family, which allows Mr. St. John to fulfill his own desire of going abroad as a missionary. At this point the ugly side of religion shows itself again as he tries to persuade Jane to join him in his mission, not as a fellow laborer but as his wife. He insists that he knows what God has called her to and scorns her offer to travel and work alongside him as a sister but not as a wife.

This second abuse in the name of religion is not as severe on the surface as that given at the Lowood Institute, but it strikes me as abuse nonetheless. Although Mr. St. John is well-intentioned, by asserting his claim to know God's will for Jane and by expressing scorn for her when she offers an alternative demonstrate, he discounts her individuality, her wishes and her own relationship with God. As a man, he assumes that he knows what is best for her as a woman. As a pastor, he assumes that he has the spiritual insight and authority to tell her what she should do. But what gives him this right? And why can he not consider her viewpoint, her wishes and her desires? What he proposes strikes me as another form of imprisonment, likely far more benevolent than what she experienced at the Lowood Institute, but a form of bondage nonetheless since she would be pressed into it against her own will.

I recognize that Jane Eyre is a work of fiction and that there is far more to this story than the role that the Christian religion plays in her life. Nonetheless this particular aspect disturbs me, because it reminds me once again of how faith, religion and the Bible are too often used to abuse others rather than to liberate them and restore them to the fullness of their created humanity. Jane finds this restoration, but not specifically through the grace of Jesus Christ expressed through his children. Although Mr. St. John and his sisters do demonstrate this grace, Mr. St. John then contradicts it through asserting his own power and will over Jane.

I do not think this is what Jesus asks of us. I do not think he wants us to exert power and control over others, regardless of whether we think and believe that we are acting in their best interests. In most cases, we must earn the right to speak into the lives of others. (There may be at times a place for a prophetic word, but prophetic words in Scripture most often challenge the abuse of power, privilege and authority, which is not how we most often think of them in modern Western culture.) We should also consider carefully whether in our actions which we believe to be in the best interests of others we are truly affirming and upholding their dignity. Thankfully I think we have come a long way from the days of places such as Lowood Institution, but that doesn't mean we should not continue to examine our beliefs and our actions, lest in the effort to do good we actually do evil and destroy the image of God in another person.

I don't think Charlotte Brontë set out to write a critique of religion, but her novel certainly challenges me to think again about how I live out my faith. I would grieve to find when I stand before God that my well-intentioned actions were in fact abusive and destructive of human dignity, grieving God's heart. We can easily deceive ourselves, so we need to listen to the voices of others, both those who affirm us and those who critique us (both inside and outside the Church), seeking always to demonstrate the kindness and grace of God through our actions, rather than to exert power and domination over others in God's name.

In a future post I shall write about my other recent experience, this one with Arthur Miller's The Crucible.

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