The Religion of Mrs. Clenham, Part 1

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Mrs. Clenham broods over Dickens’ novel Little Dorrit with her brutal Christless, graceless religion. Her heretical “Christianity” in the end is spurs the trouble which the Christianity of Amy Dorrit (“Little Dorrit”) resolves.

We are introduced to the religion through its effect upon her son Arthur. He has just returned from 20 years in China. It is Sunday morning and we hear the bells through his ears:

Mr Arthur Clennam sat in the window of the coffee-house on Ludgate Hill, counting one of the neighbouring bells, making sentences and burdens of songs out of it in spite of himself, and wondering how many sick people it might be the death of in the course of the year. As the hour approached, its changes of measure made it more and more exasperating. At the quarter, it went off into a condition of deadly-lively importunity, urging the populace in a voluble manner to Come to church, Come to church, Come to church! At the ten minutes, it became aware that the congregation would be scanty, and slowly hammered out in low spirits, They won’t come, they won’t come, they won’t come! At the five minutes, it abandoned hope, and shook every house in the neighbourhood for three hundred seconds, with one dismal swing per second, as a groan of despair. 

‘Thank Heaven!’ said Clennam, when the hour struck, and the bell stopped. But its sound had revived a long train of miserable Sundays, and the procession would not stop with the bell, but continued to march on. ‘Heaven forgive me,’ said he, ‘and those who trained me. How I have hated this day!’

Arthur sees the paradox of his response: he thanks “heaven” that the call to church has ended; then he begs pardon that he hates the call.

The churches themselves abandon hope and continue in despair.

Dickens will later make plain that it is not Christ but this distortion which earns the rebuke. 

But what is this distortion; how was Clenham “trained” so?

There was the dreary Sunday of his childhood, when he sat with his hands before him, scared out of his senses by a horrible tract which commenced business with the poor child by asking him in its title, why he was going to Perdition?—a piece of curiosity that he really, in a frock and drawers, was not in a condition to satisfy—and which, for the further attraction of his infant mind, had a parenthesis in every other line with some such hiccupping reference as 2 Ep. Thess. c. iii, v. 6 & 7. 

We see first it is a religion of judgment of condemnation without redemption; justice without mercy. 

The Scripture tells us to forgive as we have been forgiven. Ephesians 4:32. But there is no forgiveness in Mrs. Clenham nor her religion.

Dickens continues:

There was the sleepy Sunday of his boyhood, when, like a military deserter, he was marched to chapel by a picquet of teachers three times a day, morally handcuffed to another boy; and when he would willingly have bartered two meals of indigestible sermon for another ounce or two of inferior mutton at his scanty dinner in the flesh. 

There was the interminable Sunday of his nonage; when his mother, stern of face and unrelenting of heart, would sit all day behind a Bible—bound, like her own construction of it, in the hardest, barest, and straitest boards, with one dinted ornament on the cover like the drag of a chain, and a wrathful sprinkling of red upon the edges of the leaves—as if it, of all books! were a fortification against sweetness of temper, natural affection, and gentle intercourse. 

There was the resentful Sunday of a little later, when he sat down glowering and glooming through the tardy length of the day, with a sullen sense of injury in his heart, and no more real knowledge of the beneficent history of the New Testament than if he had been bred among idolaters. There was a legion of Sundays, all days of unserviceable bitterness and mortification, slowly passing before him.

Dickens lays the charge upon “her own construction” of the Bible. He charges construction with being only legal demands which could not be met and could not be escaped.

Moreover, it was not judgment on sin but on happiness and love!

as if it, of all books! were a fortification against sweetness of temper, natural affection, and gentle intercourse

These are no sin – quite the contrary- but these are condemned by Mrs. Clenham’s religion.

Thus, Arthur had

no more real knowledge of the beneficent history of the New Testament than if he had been bred among idolaters

Her sin was condemned by Jesus in Luke 11:52:

“Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.”

Not only did Mrs. Clenham not convey true knowledge; she used the Bible to prevent such knowledge.

One consideration more humbling than another

If there is one consideration more humbling than another to a spiritually-minded believer, it is, that, after all God has done for him, – after all the rich displays of his grace, the patience and tenderness of his instructions, the repeated discipline of his covenant, the tokens of love received, and the lessons of experience learned, there should still exist in the heart a principle, the tendency of which is to secret, perpetual, and alarming departure from God. Truly, there is in this solemn fact, that which might well lead to the deepest self-abasement before Him.

Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul

Octavius Winslow

Book Review: Now My Eyes Have Seen You

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9780851114989-Fyall-NSBT-Now-my-eyes-have-seen-you-Job

Fyall lays the crux of Job as the question of which and why the evil? More precisely, he lays out two related questions. Is God Job’s advocate or his Satan (accuser) is God for Job or against him:

Here Job comes close to reconstructing the scene of the heavenly council in the Prologue; but he turns it inside out. He identifies God as his enemy rather than his advocate. At this crucial point he is tested to the ultimate. From his perspective he is led to wonder if God in whom he trusted is not in reality his satan.

Page 43, quoting J.E. Hartley. A related question is the presence of evil in creation. To Job, there seems to be a dualism in creation: an equal evil power to the power of God, a power which lies in contrast to God but which operates on the same plain as God.

To combine the questions: Is this affliction the power of God or is it the power of something God cannot control?

To develop this question, Fyall looks to the nature of the evil powers as presented in the language of ANE mythology.  There is way in which the allusions would be understood. This is not to say that Job believes the ANE mythology but rather that the allusions give detail and personification to the evil:

My argument is that personification is necessary because it corresponds to a profound reality. The reality is that the universe is not a mechanical system as envisioned by a rationalistic deism (which, incidentally, is a metaphorical view as any other) but a vast series of complex relationships involving not only God but other powers. It is, in other words, the metaphor of the heavenly court that brilliantly embodies this idea.

Pages 125-126.

Working through this thesis, Fyall explains the manner in which God’s speech to Job answers the question: and thus leads to Job’s statement,

Job 42:5 (ESV)

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,

but now my eye sees you;

Job realizes there are no powers beyond God’s control; Job learns to understand God more clearly.

In addition to working through this issue, Fyall develops various themes and makes observations which help us to understand theology and the Scripture well beyond Job. For example, the discussion of Jesus and the sea opened up a whole new way to understand Jesus walking upon and Jesus stilling the sea.

 

Spirituality as Neurology and Movement

The New York Times has a story entitled How to Hack Your Brain (for $5000). The article discusses the psychological states of “flow” and a man named Wheal who sells his technique for “hacking” the nervous system, to create a physical, psychological, spiritual state which he prefers to call “ecstatis.” I found the following elements of the story particularly interesting:

All of these undertakings were in the service of honing a crucial element in flow, what Mr. Wheal refers to as “embodied cognition”: integrating our whole minds and bodies through specific exercise, based on the science showing that physical movement directly affects how we think and feel.

“They are tapping into spiritual intelligence that before now was only really talked about in a religious context,” Kristen Ulmer said, sitting outside the Dojo Dome one morning. Ms. Ulmer, formerly the top ranked extreme skier in the world, has also written a book, “The Art of Fear.”

She went on: “A lot more people are saying they’re spiritual but not religious — but what does that really mean? I would say sports and movement are the most oft way we access a spiritual experience and transcend our ego, but they’re the least discussed and least understood.”

It also quoted Kristen Ulmer:

She went on: “A lot more people are saying they’re spiritual but not religious — but what does that really mean? I would say sports and movement are the most oft way we access a spiritual experience and transcend our ego, but they’re the least discussed and least understood.”

God is God in all places

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It is a curious thing, but true that even we professors (those who profess, not teachers) Christ can more easily be frightened of the knowledge of other people rather than the knowledge of God:

Examine what affections we have to God: for it is affection that makes a Christian. Single out some few that we are most offending in. As, first, for fear, it may shame us all. Indeed, a Christian upon his best resolution is better. But the ordinary carriage of men is, they fear men more than God; they fear everything more than him that they should fear above all. For instance, is the retired carriage of men to God such as their carriage is to the eye of the world? Will not they do that in secret ofttimes that they will not do openly? In secret they will commit this or that sin, and think, Who seeth? There are secret abominations in the closet of their hearts. They will not fear to do that in the eye of God, that they fear to do in the eye of a child of six years old, that is of any discretion. Is this to make God our God, when we fear the eye of a silly mortal creature more than the eye of God, that is ten thousand times brighter than the sun, that is our judge? Is God our God the whiles? Undoubtedly, when God is made our God, there is an awe of the eye of heaven upon a man in all places. Therefore this is the condition of the covenant, ‘Walk before me,’ or ‘Walk as in my sight,’ 1 Sam. 2:30. How do we walk before God as in his sight, when there is such a great deal of difference in our carriage secretly, and before the eyes of men? when we labour more to approve our carriage to men, than we make conscience of our spirits to God? This may shame us. Even the best of us who are in covenant with God, and have made God our God, we have cause to be abased for this: and surely one of the best ways to make God’s children abased and humbled, is to compare the different proportion of their carriage; how they carry themselves to men whom they respect, and to outward things in the world, and how they carry themselves to God. If God be our God, there will be an universal fear and care to please God in all times and in all places, because he is everywhere; darkness and light are all one to him.

Richard Sibbes, The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 6 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; W. Robertson, 1863), 10.

How flight affects consciousness

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A study reported by the BBC discusses the many which in which travel by airplane can affect our consciousness and perception:

Anxiety levels can increase with hypoxia,” explains Valerie Martindale, president of the Aerospace Medical Association at King’s College London. Anxiety is not the only aspect of mood that can be affected by flying. A number of studies has shown spending time at altitude can increase negative emotions like tension, make people less friendly, decrease their energy levels and affect their ability to deal with stress.

“We have shown that some aspects of mood can be altered by exposure to cabin pressures equivalent to altitudes of 6,000-8000ft,” says Stephen Legg, professor of ergonomics at Massey Univeristy in New Zealand, who is studying the impact of mild hypoxia on people. This may go some way towards explaining why passengers often find themselves crying at films more mid-flight, but most effects in scientific studies seem to only occur at altitudes above those that commercial airline cabins are set to. Recently Legg also showed the mild dehydration that might be expected on a flight can also influence mood.

 

How to become humble

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Humility flows not from thinking badly about oneself (that is still pride that I am not better); rather it flows from not thinking of oneself. It is not obtained by looking to oneself, but is obtained by looking one greater.  True humility before God and worship are inextricably linked:

Poverty of spirit is born of the conscious meeting with God. It lives by the constant daily, hourly realisation of God. Therefore it keeps a man strong, it makes him stronger than all the self-asserting vaunters who trust in themselves, or in their brains, or their rank, or their money, or their power of making a noise—it makes him strong, because he is always feeling the true source of his strength, always in touch with his Inspirer. He is not casting about wildly to find support in other men’s appreciation of him; the sources of his strength are present to him—they are ever with him; he is and God is—and in his case the unforgotten Voice ever says, “Fear not, for I am with thee, I have called thee by thy name, and thou art Mine.” He cannot vaunt himself, he cannot push himself, he is but an instrument, and an instrument that can only work as long as it is in touch with its inward power; the ‘God within him’ is the source of his power. What can he be but poor in spirit, how can he forget, how can he call out ‘worship me,’ when he has seen the Vision and heard the Voice, and felt the Power of God? Poor in spirit, emptied of mere vain, barren conceit, deaf to mere flattery he must be, because he has seen and known; he has cried “Holy, Holy, Holy,” he knows God, and henceforth he is not a centre, not an idol, but an instrument, a vessel that needs for ever refilling, if it is to overflow and do its mission. His is the receptive attitude; not that which receives merely that it may keep, but that which receives because it must send forth. And so he accepts all merely personal conditions, not as perfect in themselves, but as capable of being transmuted by that inward power, which is his own, yet not his own—his own because God is within him, not his own because he is the receiver, not the inspirer. His cry is ever, “Nevertheless I am alway by Thee, for Thou hast holden me by my right hand. Thou shalt guide me with Thy counsel: and after that receive me with glory. Whom have I in heaven but Thee: and there is none upon earth that I desire in comparison of Thee. My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever.”

Robert Eyton, “The Benediction on the Poor in Spirit,” in The Beatitudes, Second Edition. (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co. Ltd., 1896), 18–19.

In the burning of the universe

 

In the burning of the universe, we find a representation of the vanity of the present world.

What is this world which fascinates our eyes?
It is a funeral pile that already begins to burn, and will be entirely consumed;
it is a world which must end,
and all that must end is far inferior to the immortal soul.

The thought of death is really a powerful movie to us to place our affections on another world; for what is death?
It so every individual what, one day, the final ruin will be to the generality of mankind;
it is the destruction of the heavens, which pass away with a great noise;
it is the dissolution of the elements;
it is the entire conflagration of the world, and of the works which are therein.

Yet vanity hath invented refuges against this storm. The home of an imaginary immorality hath been able to support some men against the fear of a real death. The idea of existing in the the minds of those who exist after them, hath, in some sort, comforted them under the miserable thought of being no more.
Hence pompous buildings, and stately edifices;
hence rich monuments and superb mausoleums;
hence proud inscriptions and vain-glorious titles, inscribed on marble and brass.

But behold the dissolution of those bonds.
The destruction of the world deprives us of our imaginary being, as death deprives us of our real existence.
You will not be shortly stretched out in your tombs,
and cease to use the houses and fields and palaces which you inhabit;
but these houses, these palaces, these fields will be consumed
and the memory of all that is fastened to the world will vanish with the world.

Since then, this is the condition of all sensible things, since all these sensible things must perish; immortal man, infinite spirit, eternal soul, does thou fasten thyself to vanity and instability?

Dost thou seek for a good more suitable to thy nature and duration?

Seeing all these things must be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be, in all holy conversation and godliness?

The Attributes of God, Rev. James Saurin,
trans. Robert Robinson, 1834, p. 102.

What happens in counseling

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When one person offers any sort of answer to another in person to a circumstance, there is an offer of counsel: you hear a problem, you make an answer, you are offering counsel: thus, whether you realize it or not, you are doing theology:

What sort of sense should would-be counselors make of the life problems they encounter and address? That is the third foundational question. What’s really happening in lives? What ought to change? What ought to be encouraged? What’s the True story? This question recognizes that all counseling is value-laden. Systems differ. Counseling is inescapably a moral and theological matter. To pretend otherwise is to be naïve, deceived, or duplicitous. Whether implicit or explicit, theologies differ. All counseling uncovers and edits stories; what is the true “metanarrative” playing in the theater of human lives? Stories differ. All counseling must and does deal with questions of true and false, good and evil, right and wrong, value and stigma, glory and shame, justification and guilt. The answers differ. All counseling explicitly or implicitly deals with questions of redemption, faith, identity, and meaning. The redemptions offered differ.

David Powlison, Why I Chose Seminary for Training in Counseling, Journal of Biblical Counseling, Vol XX, no. 1.