Ramsden Balmforth.

The ethical and religious value of the novel online

. (page 1 of 10)
Online LibraryRamsden BalmforthThe ethical and religious value of the novel → online text (page 1 of 10)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook






Ex Libris



Ethical and Religious

Value of the Novel



Author of "Some Social and Political Pioneers of the Nineteenth

Century," "The Bible from the standpoint of

the Higher Criticism,' etc.





jill Rights Reserveci:



The various chapters in this httle book were
originally given as Sunday evening discourses
to my congregation in Cape Town. They
were prepared witli the object of showing
that ethical and religious teaching concern-
ing such grave questions as Sui, Heredity,
Will, Atonement, and the spiritual destiny of
man should be universal in its scope, and that
it should not be confined, in its illustrations
and subject-matter, to the experiences of the
Jews and the early Christians, or, in other
words, to Biblical literature. Ethical and
religious problems face us every day and
hour of our life. They may be illustrated
from the best literature of every age, but
especially fi-om literature which brings us
mto close contact with the conditions of
modern thought and life. Fundamentally,


etiiical and religious problems, the relations
of man to the Infinite, are much the same
for every age. They differ mamly in their
appeal to our differing temperaments, to our
strength or weakness of will, our varyuig
knowledge, our spiritual experience, and
our courage in the realisation of our aims
and ideals. The call which came to Isaiah,
to Jeremiah, and to Jesus, comes also to
the thoughtful modern mind, differing only
in form, in circumstance, in strength and

The novelist sets himself to deal with
these various problems as they manifest
themselves in human life and character.
Like the poet and the dramatist he is a
critic and an interpreter of life. He stands
between the poet and the philosopher. He
tries to hold the mirror up to Nature, and
the greatest novelists — Meredith, Tolstoi,
Thackeray, Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Char-
lotte Bronte, George Eliot — show us life, not
only as it is, but as it might be. That too,



is the aim of the preacher. But I am in-
chned to think that the novehst and the
dramatist exercise a much wider influence
than the preacher. It is no use burking the
fact that the vast majority of the people, in
many countries, are falhng away from organ-
ised rehgious worship and no longer go to
Church. Of those who do, only a proportion
listen attentively to sermons, and of that
proportion a considerable number forget all
about the sermon in a few days or a few
hours. Very frequently, indeed, the theme
of the sermon has to do with matters which
lie far away from the every-day interests of
the worshipper. On the other hand, the
novel, in some form or other, appeals to
most thoughtful, and to many thoughtless,
people. It deals with incidents, situations,
feelings and circumstances, in which we have
a real and lively interest. It takes hold of us,
fascinates us, and often leaves a lasting
impression upon the mind and feelings. In
describing .the clash of Will, Soul, and


Circumstance, it shows us the dread or the
jo}'ful result, and, in moving us to higher or
to lower levels of life and feeling, exercises a
more or less powerful spiritual influence upon
us. It moves us by pity, by fear, by joy, or
b}^ sorrow, as the case may be.

The novel has also an advantage over the
didacticism of the pulpit, and even over
other forms of art, in that it is more uni-
versal in its appeal. It appeals more directly
to our ideas and feelings than does the
frequently dry literalism of the pulpit, or
than music or painting do, for these require
for their appreciation educated and cultivated
emotions. The mind is more open to receive
moral impressions from a picture of life in
the concrete as we find it in the novel, than
from abstract representations of beauty as
we find these in music and painting. The
novel is really a parable. Hence the neces-
sity for some kind of moral selection or
rejection by the novehst of the material with
which he works. The great novelist seizes



by instinct, by the insight of genius, upon the
strongest forces and elements in human
nature — lieredity , emoti on, passion, will — and
shows them to us as they manifest themselves
in strong or weak personalities. Whether he
intends it or not the effect of his work, in so
far as it is good work, is distinctly ethical.
Those who preach the theory of Art for
Art's sake, who say that the artist must
depict life as he sees it simply to please and
to give enjoyment, without any thought of
any ideal purpose, forget that the world of
real life is always in process of being trans-
formed by the ideal, always in process of
becoming something other, and, let us hope,
something better than it was and is. It is
that process which the great novelist helps
forward, and he helps it forward by illustrat-
ing this great principle which runs through
all human life : that in so far as our life is
not guided by, and subordinated to, great
ideal ends, or in so far as we pursue our ends
at the cost of the well-being of others, in so



far does our life become ignoble and evil in
its influence, and tend towards disaster and
moral ruin. Meredith, Tolstoi, Dickens,
Thackeray, George Eliot, all illustrate this
great principle. Dickens and Thackeray
show us the man and woman of the early
Victorian era in the street, the cottage, the
drawing-room, and in fashionable society,
exaggerated types perhaps, types which repel
and types which attract us, and insensibly
our sympathies rise to the higher level.
Meredith and George Eliot show us the
psychological development of the self-centred
man and woman — a Willoughby Patterne,
a Tito Melema, a Grandcourt, or a Bulstrode
— but they show us also the development of
a Richard Feverel, an Evan Harrington, a
Dorothea, a Romola, or a Farebrother, and
agam we rise by admiration and love of the
higher. The great novelists preach with a
purpose indeed, and their preaching is all
the more effective in that the purpose is
concealed. This, I think, should be the test



of every novel : Does it make us better,
stronger, for having read it ? Does it make
us think more ? Does it enlarge and deepen
our sympathies ? Does it make us more
deeply indignant and impatient with in-
justice ? Does it cause us to modify or
suspend judgment where we have been too
ready to condemn ? If it does these things
it serves its purpose as well as or perhaps
better than the most eloquent sermon, be-
cause it has a more lasting influence.

The supreme value of the best type of
novel then lies in this — that it raises us
above the sordid and the common in life ;
it introduces us to a larger world than our
own ; it shows us how that larger world is
viewed by a higher mind than our own.
These bundles of sensation and experience
which we call the '' soul " or " personality "
consist of vague indefinite yearnings and
desires, of passions and emotions more or
less undisciplined and raw. It is the func-
tion of the novelist, by the portrayal of a



multitude of experiences working on char-
acter or personality, to give definite shape and
direction to these blind and almost uncon-
scious emotional forces, to widen and deepen
feeling, to link us to the larger life of
humanity and of the universe, and so give a
definite meaning and purpose to our life.
And that is religion.

The aim of the preacher, fundamentally, is
the same as that of the great novelist, the
poet, and the philosopher — to give us deeper
insight, and, with deeper insight, greater
courage, and strength of will, and more
abundant life. Why, then, is the influence
of the preacher waning while the influence
of the novelist is increasing ? It would be
both short-sighted and unjust to blame the
preacher alone for the present widespread
faUing-off" from public worship. There are
many causes at work. But the preacher,
and the ecclesiastical organisations which
order and control the life of the preacher,
must bear their share of blame. There



cannot be the least doubt that the average
preacher and the average sermon are often
hopelessly out of touch with the realities of
life. To listen to them must frequently be a
weariness both to the spirit and to the flesh.
To read them is impossible. They deal, not
with a Kingdom of Life and God, but with
a Kingdom of dead and dying things. To
remedy this state of things should be the
earnest endeavour of everyone who has
the cause of religion at heart, for the Church
should be the most powerful spiritual influ-
ence in every country. It cultivates and
strengthens the instinct of fellowship in
ways the novel cannot do. True, there is
an awakening going on, and there are signs
that the best men in the Churches, ministers
and laymen alike, are anxious to make religion
a more widespread livhig force in individual
and social life than it is at present. But
there is much leeway to make up. The
pulpit and the theological college must be
free — free to follow Truth whithersoever it



may lead, free as the Drama, without any
Lord Chamberlain in the shape of wealthy
local landowner, capitalist, or tradesman to
veto the utterances or the social activities of
the mmister. The training of every minister
should include a course of study in ethics,
economics, politics, literature, and philo-
sophy, especially in their relation to modern

Not only this. There must be a consider-
able alteration in the conditions of the
mmister's hfe and work. Let the reader
consider for a moment the many calls which
are made upon a minister's time. In addi-
tion to attendmg to the spiritual and
ceremonial needs of his flock — marriages,
baptisms, funerals, visitation of the sick, etc.
— he has the oversight of all the various
institutions in connection Avith his Church —
the Sunday School, Literary Society, Young
People's Guild or Class, League of Helpers,
Temperance Society, etc. He is also ex-
pected to represent his congregation at all


civic functions. If he takes an interest in
social politics, as he ought to do, he has to
sit on various educational, temperance, and
charity committees. He is expected to lec-
ture occasionally for neighbouring Churches
and societies, and his time, at any hour of
the day, is naturally at the disposal of any
member of his congregation who is suffering
any particular hardship through illness,
poverty, misfortune, unemployment, or the
like. In addition to all this, much of which
requires considerable time for preparation,
he is expected to keep abreast of modem
thought and literature, and to prepare two
sermons a week ! Is it any wonder that
instead of taking up the great masters of
literature, or looking up the necessary
material for dealing with some ethical or
social problem in which his hearers are inter-
ested, he turns to his commentary and hastily
prepares an out-of-date sermon on the
exploits of Samson or the prophecies of the
Book of Daniel — things which have as much



to do with tlie struggles, cares, and anxieties
of our modern life as have the legends of the
Hindoos or the folk-lore of Iceland. The
multifarious work of a town minister in
charge of an institutional Church is a hind-
rance to good and thoughtful preaching, if
indeed it is not rapidly becoming a physical
impossibility. In addition, the life of the
minister is made a burden by financial
worries, for in thousands of cases his salary
is lower than that of the skilled artisan. I
shall be told that the Master chose a life of
poverty and had not where to lay his head.
True, but on the other hand, it must be
remembered that the Master had no family
to bring up, and that the conditions of
modern life are very different from those of
pastoral and hospitable Palestine of eighteen
hundred years ago. Most ministers are pre-
pared to suffer hardship at call, but not to
suffer hardship perpetually, or to live under
conditions of worry, anxiety, and nervous
strain which make life a burden, and which



deprive them of the time and capacity for
doing their best work. I shall be told that
mortality statistics show the clergy to be
a long-lived class. That may be true of the
leisured country clergj^ but I doubt whether
it is true of the town clergy. And even if
it be, it is not length of life but quality of
life that matters. I should like to know the
proportion of town ministers who are incap-
acitated at sixty or earlier, the brain past
work and the body-machine slowly running
itself out automatically — a condition worse
than death.

But from the point of view of religion the
spiritual and intellectual freedom of the
minister is the most urgent question of the
hour. The college and the pulpit must be
free, for behind freedom lies the greater
thing — Sincerity. To square modern thought
with ancient creeds has become a thing im-
possible for many. I look forward to a time,
though it will certainly not be yet, when
the salaries of ministers will be paid by an



interdenominational Board, M'hich will rise
above all local narrowness, ignorance, bigotrj^
and tyranny, and which would thus make the
position of every duly-accredited minister
secure so long as he could retain the support
of a decent-sized contributory congregation.
Such a Board would leave each denomina-
tion, and indeed each congregation, if
need be, to formulate its own articles of
faith, and frame its own ceremonial and
order of worship, recognising that the Ufe of
the Spirit is of greater importance than the
intellectual interpretation and formulation
of its relation to the Infinite, seeing that
this interpretation, at best, can embrace but
a microscopic fraction of the whole. After
all, the mtellectual interpretation of things
always comes lagging behind the spiritual
experience of them, to confirm the ** ven-
tures" of faith and experiment, and such
interpretations should always be held subject
to revision.

That the reader may not imagine that



these remarks are animated by any personal
motive let me say that the members of my
own congregation are tolerant, and more
than tolerant of my views, and that I am
indebted to them in more ways than I can
say for their kindly considerateness.

In the following chapters I have not con-
fined myself in every case to the greatest
novels. Still, those that I have dealt with
have won a recognised place for themselves
in the world of imaginative literature. I
selected those which seemed to me to lend
themselves most usefully to the illustration
of the spiritual struggles of men, or to the
emphasising of certain important aspects of
moral and religious thought and life.

R. B.

Cape Town.




Introductory : Literature
AND Religion .... 1

I. — George Eliot's " Adam Bede "
AND THE Supreme Moral Law 21

II. — Hawthorne's "The Scarlet
Letter" and the Law of
Retribution . . . .40

III. — Victor Hugo's " Les Miser-

MENT . . . . .63

IV. — Mrs. Lynn Linton's "The
True History of Joshua David-
son " AND the Law of Sacrifice 90

V. — Dickens' "Hard Times" and
the Law of Service . .1X5



VI. — Oliver Wendell Holmes
" Elsie \'exner " and the Law
OF Heredity . • . .140

VII. — Mrs. Humphry Ward's
"Robert Elsmere" and the
New Conception of Christ . 161

VIII. — James Lane Allen's " The In-
creasing Purpose" and the
Law of Development . . 190





Literature and Religion

From the time when the art of writing was
invented, the thoaglits and the doings of the
A\ise, the good, and the brave among men
have been embodied in hterature. Nay,
before the art of writing was invented, we
may be sure that the thoughts of the wise
and the deeds of the brave were stored up
in the memory of men and women, and
passed on, often to children at their motlier's
knee, from generation to generation, after-
wards taking form in those old sagas, myths,
and legends which form no inconsiderable
part of literature to-day. As ci^dlisatio?l


advanced however, life, and therefore litera-
ture, became more refined, more subtle,
more complex, dividing itself as it were into
great areas or departments of thought and
activit}^ — industry, art, science, philosophy,
religion, war. The priest, the prophet, the
poet, the historian, the artist, the man of
science, arose to point the way which
Humanitj^ must follow if it would attain to
higher and nobler life. Literature, along
with life, took on this infinite enlargement,
until now^ it embraces the whole world of
past and present thought, life, and deed, in
so far as these are worthy to endure in the
mind of man. Such parts of this literature
of the past as has dealt with man's religious
hopes, aspirations, and strivings, has been
called " sacred " literature, but, in reality,
all literature is sacred in so tar as it ministers
to man's highest hopes and j'^earnings, and
helps him to do or to endure, or gives him
quietness, strength, steadfastness, and pur-
pose with which to meet the ^^cissitudes of


life. Hence, as Carlyle so finely says:
*' Literature, so far as it is Literature, is an
' apocalypse of Nature,' a continuous revela-
tion of the God-like in the Terrestrial and
Common. The God-like does even, in very
truth, endure there ; is brought out, now in
this dialect, now in that, witli various degrees
of clearness. The dark stormful indignation
of a BjTon, so wayward and perverse, may
have touches of it ; nay, the withered
mockeries of a French sceptic — his mockery
of the False, a love and worship of the True,
How much more the sphere-harmony of a
Shakespeare, of a Goethe ; the cathedral
music of a Milton ! . . . What built St.
Paul's Cathedral ? I^ook at the heart of the
matter, it was that divine Hebrew Book — -
the word partly of the man Moses, an out-
law tending his Midianitish herds, four
thousand years ago, in the wildernesses of
Sinai ! . . . The noble sentiment which a
gifted soul has clothed for us in melodious
words, which brings melody into our hearts,


is not this essentially, if we will understand
it, of the nature of worship ? There are
many, in all countries, who in this confused
time, have no other method of worship. He
who, in any way, shows us better than we
knew before that a lily of the fields is beauti-
ful, does he not show it us as an effluence of
the Fountain all Beauty ; as the hand-
writing, made visible there, of the great
Maker of the Universe ? He has sung for
us, made us sing with him, a little verse of
a sacred Psalm. Essentially so. How much
more he who sings, who says, or in any way
brings home to our heart the noble doings,
feelings, darings and endurances of a brother
man I He has verily touched our hearts as
with a live coal from the altar. Perhaps there
is no worship more authentic."

There are three great mysteries around
which the thoughts of men, and therefore
the great literature of the world, have per-
petually surged. First, the mystery of the

relation of man to the Invisible and the



Infinite, that Infinite Spirit fi'om which he
emerges, to which he ever " draws again
home." Second, the mystery of sin and evil,
branching out into the connected mysteries
of Fate and Heredity — the battle of the
individual soul with circumstance and
destiny. Third, the mystery of the after-
life and the Beyond, the Spirit-realm, that
bourne from which, it is said, no traveller
returns. The Bible, and indeed all the great
Scriptures and religions of the world deal
especially with these great mysteries, but,
as a matter of fact, nearly all great literature,
and certainly all great drama and poetry, is
concerned with some phase or aspect of one
or other of these mysteries.

Let us take an illustration of the first from
one of the old Sagas of the world — that litera-
ture which seems to have been built up, no
one knows how or by whom, out of the old
folk-tales and legends which sprang out of
the fresh morning air of the world when life

was rude in its simplicity, individuality and



character colossal in tlieir proportions, and
incident direct, dramatic, and thrilling, to a
degree that stirs the blood and thrills the
nerves — an age when the childish mind of
man was struggling towards the light. Car-
lyle, with something of the Norseman in him,
tells how the great Norse giant Thor, with
one or two companions, set out on an expedi-
tion to Utgard, the central seat of Jotunland.
** They wandered over plains, wild unculti-
vated places, among stones and trees. At
nightfall they noticed a house ; and as the
door, which indeed formed one whole side of
the house, was open, they entered. It was
a simple habitation, one large hall, altogether
empty. They stayed there. Suddenly in
the dead of night loud noises as of thunder
alarmed them. Thor grasped his hammer ;
stood in the door prepared to fight." But
their alarms were groundless, " for lo ! it
turned out that the noise had been only the
snoring of a certain enormous but peaceable
giant, the Giant Skrymir, who lay peaceably



sleeping near by." Thor, however, did not

like Skryniir, had his suspicions about him

though it was the first time he had seen him,

so " he determined to put an end to him as

he slept, liaising his hammer, he struck

down into the Giant's face a right thunderbolt

blow, of force to rend rocks. Tlie Giant

merely awoke ; rubbed his cheek, and said,

Did a leaf fall ? Again Thor struck, so soon

as Skrymir again slept ; a better blow than

before ; but the Giant only murmured, ^^''as

that a grain of sand ? Thor's third stroke

was with both his hands, and seemed to dint

deep into Skrymir's visage ; but he merelj^

checked his snore, and remarked, There

must be sparrows roosting in this tree, I

think ; what is that they have dropt ? At

daybreak Thor and his companions journeyed

on and Skrymir went with them, but at the

gate of Utgard, Skrymir went his wdya-

Thor and his companions were admitted ;

invited to take share in the games going on.

To Thor, they handed a drinking-horn ; it



was a common feat, they told him, to drink
this dry at one draught. Long and fiercely,
three times over, Thor drank ; but made
hardly any impression. He was a weak
child, they told him : could he lift that cat
he saw there ? Small as the feat seemed,
Thor with his whole godlike strength could
not ; he bent up the creature's back, could
not raise its feet off the ground, could at
the utmost raise one foot. Why, you are
no man, said the Utgard people ; there is an
Old AVoman that will wrestle with you 1
Thor, heartily ashamed, seized this haggard
old woman ; but could not throw her. And
now, on their quitting Utgard, the chief
Jotun, escorting them politely a little way,
said to Thor : * You are beaten then ; yet
be not so much ashamed ; there was decep-
tion of Appearance in it. That Horn you
tried to drink was the Sea; you did make
it ebb ; but who could drink that, the bottom-
less ! The cat you would have lifted, why,
that is the Midgard-snake, the Great AVorld-


serpent, which, tail in mouth, guides and
keeps up the whole created world ; had you
torn that up the world must have rushed to
ruin. As for the Old AVoman, she was Time,
Old Age, Duration: with her what can
wrestle ? No man nor no god with her ; gods
or men, she prevails over all ! And then those
three strokes you struck, — look at these three
valleys ; j^our three strokes made these ! *
Thor looked at his attendant Jotun : it was
Skrymir ; it was the old chaotic rocky Earth
in person. But Skrymir vanished ; Utgard
with its sky-high gates, when Thor grasped
his hammer to smite them, had gone to air ;
only the Giant's voice was heard mocking :
' Better come no more to Jotunheim I ' "

What is this old legend from the child-
hood of mankind but what all the scriptures,
poets, and prophets of the world have taught
us — that this world of Earth and Nature

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Online LibraryRamsden BalmforthThe ethical and religious value of the novel → online text (page 1 of 10)