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Sundays With The Christianists: Why 'The Scarlet Letter' Is Bad For Jesus And America
It's Pearl Harbor Day, so what more fitting time to talk about an attack on America? Only this isn't an attack from some evil foreign empire (redundant, since all foreigns are evil) but from within. As we're learning from wingnut radio preacher and homeschooling advocate Kevin Swanson, we're under attack by our very own cultural touchstones -- at least those that aren't the Holy Bible.
We've been making our way through Swanson's attempt at Thought-Leadering, his 2013 e-tome Apostate: The Men Who Destroyed the Christian West, which lays bare the anti-Christian agenda of various philosophers and writers, and this week we'll finish up his dissection of Nathaniel Hawthorne. In our last installment, we learned that the Puritans were actually just about the best Christians America ever had, but that no one thinks so today because of the hatchet job Hawthorne did on them. This week, it's on to the pernicious message ofThe Scarlet Letteritself, with more reasons why Hawthorne was totes unfair to the Puritans, and the very real likelihood that the Salem Witch Trials were simply a reaction to an actual incursion of demonic influence in colonial New England.
As we noted last week, Swanson's main beef with the Salem trials was that they didn't follow biblical rules of evidence, and if they had, then some real witches might have been found and everyone would recognize what a necessary thing the witch trials were. And darned if Nathaniel Hawthorne didn't make matters worse in his fiction, presenting the Puritans as some kind of paranoid religious fanatics in other matters as well. Swanson notes that Hawthorne truly is a subtle monster, "a master at pointing out hypocrisy in the lives of Christians while at the same time quietly excusing the more egregious evils of witchcraft and adultery" -- and remember, those are both equally real things. Swanson scoffs at a scene from "Young Goodman Brown," explaining that it is mere sophistry. When the Devil meets Goodman Brown in the forest, Brown hesitates to go with him, saying,
“We have been a race of honest men and good Christians since the days of the martyrs.” The devil replies, “I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem. And it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth to set fire to an Indian village.”
Oh, like that counts for anything, retorts Swanson:
Practically every two-bit atheist and community college skeptic of our day has used this all too familiar argument to discredit “religion.” The argument is usually stated thus: given that there have been a few Christians who have perverted justice and fought Indian wars (justly or unjustly) in the history of the world, all Christians then must be hypocritical fools.
Besides, Swanson explains elsewhere in the chapter, the Puritans had some very good reasons for whipping Quakers:
Hawthorne finds it absurd that the Puritans would limit religious freedom. And it is true that the early colonists preferred that certain denominations such as Quakers, Congregationalists, and Baptists settle their own colonies. When proselytes from certain denominations would attempt to disrupt or to disunify other churches and communities, the magistrate would be forced to act.
You know, the community had to protect itself from outside agitators stirring up trouble. Swanson doesn't actually provide any rationale for whipping Quakers or dragging them naked through the streets, but he doesn't have to, because those blasted troublemakers brought it on themselves. And then, with some two-bit illogic that would do any community college crusader proud, Swanson explains that the colonists' enforcement of a godly moral code only seems extreme because we've been poisoned by an unbiblical perversion of the U.S. Constitution:
This makes little sense to the modern mind where there is almost absolute separation of church and state. Yet, Americans still limit religious freedom when it comes to practices like human sacrifice, smoking peyote, and Muslim jihad. Nevertheless, the bounds of religious liberty are never completely obvious. Does a Christian country prosecute human sacrifice, for example? Should the Immigration and Naturalization Service extradite all Muslims from the country or just those who are committed to religious Jihad? Most Americans seldom consider these sorts of nuances, and Hawthorne took full advantage of this confusion in order to condemn the Puritans for their stance.
Those are some real nuances, all right. No wonder Paul Reiser never trusted that word. And of course, this is also one of those passages that seems so deliberately clueless -- smoking peyote? -- that almost make you wonder if Swanson's actually a performance artist of some kind.
Besides, maybe the early Puritan colonists had some legitimate concerns about demonic incursions, did you ever consider that? Just look at the evidence, says a man who rejects evolution as being an entirely too-fanciful interpretation of the natural world:
The spiritual situation in New England in the late 17th century is worthy of consideration. Could there have been a serious demonic attack upon the colonies at this time in Christian history? In retrospect 300 years later, it appears that something very bad happened at the beginning of the 17th century in this country. Harvard almost instantly turned against Christ and embraced liberal, Latitudinarian thinking. Within 75 years, the entire nation moved towards liberalism, Unitarianism, and Deism. Humanist doctrines of socialism, communism, and feminism followed in the 19th century while witchcraft became an accepted norm in American life. (Today, the old Puritan East Church in Salem on the corner of Hardy and Essex Streets is a witch museum. ) In addition, during the 19th century, many cults found their way into the country, and the Christian faith lost significant cultural standing. Suffice it to say that something significant occurred in New England at the turn of the 18th century... and it had to be something of a spiritual nature.
Somehow, that last line just reminds us of the detective from Plan Nine From Outer Space: "But one thing's sure. Inspector Clay is dead, murdered, and somebody's responsible." Probably Satan!
Finally, we get to Swanson's analysis of The Scarlet Letter itself, entirely too much of which consists of Swanson complaining that Hawthorne gets Christian doctrine all wrong. Swanson makes much of Hawthorne's description of having written the novel "as if under compulsion" and of a letter in which he called it a "positively hell-fired story," because no one ever uses metaphors without the aid of Satan. Swanson also provides a disclaimer for the tender reader at home, warning that even his summary of the novel may be too much to bear:
What the reader is about to review is a tale fired in hell according to the author’s own admission. It is possible that this story has done more harm to the spiritual condition of America than any other single work of fiction. For Christian leaders, teachers, and parents to ignore its content and its influence over the direction of society would be a fatal miscalculation of the highest order. How could anyone understand the historical underpinnings of the worldviews that dominate in schools today without a right assessment of this critical book? Let me say that this study is not for the faint of heart or the undiscerning spirit. It is for those who are willing to do battle in the literary war of the worldviews.
It isn't quite "We urgently recommend if you have a heart condition, or if you are with a young and impressionable child, that you leave this auditorium," but it's close. And what is so horrifying about this novel? It gets Puritanism all wrong. Worst of all, says Swanson, for a book supposedly about Christians, it doesn't even mention the Lord even once:
Years ago, when I set out to study The Scarlet Letter for the first time, I did a computer word search of the text for the words “Christ” and “Jesus.” I remember the eerie, sinking feeling that settled in my stomach as I came to realize that Hawthorne could only configure a Christ-less Christianity!
In a section headed "Internal problems with the story," where you might expect some discussion of problems with the plot, we instead learn that Hawthorne's Puritans don't give Hester a proper trial under biblical law, because she is:
not convicted on the basis of two or three witnesses as would be required by Scripture (Deut. 19: 15, 2 Cor. 13: 1). In fact, from what we can tell there are no witnesses at the trial at all. Hester even refuses to testify. None of the townspeople are aware of the man with whom she has committed adultery, and for all they knew, she could have had the child by her husband. Technically, the story should have ended here. There was no legitimate civil case, and no basis for a story.
Duh, Hawthorne. Worse, why doesn't she just come forward and admit that Dimmesdale is her baby-daddy? Probably because she's been reading Betty Friedan:
she never comes across as humble, submissive, or repentant. We see in her behavior the developing persona of the 20th century feminist -- a woman without law, completely free to act as she wills.
And of courses there's the whole adultery thing and Hawthorne's portrayal of Hester as somehow better than the hypocritical Puritans, which is just an attack on God and so on. Her failure to truly repent of her sin is obviously the book's most pernicious flaw, and Swanson laments that this attitude has spread into mainstream Christianity (which of course, is not really Christian at all):
It is this very separation of faith and repentance which has done immeasurable damage to the church over the succeeding 150 years. Today, most churches prefer to preach a faith without repentance, which may be a knee-jerk reaction to Hawthorne’s imbalanced pseudo-Puritans.
Swanson also libels Christianity by describing the Bible as "the 'Hebrew' Scriptures," which Swanson takes as a claim that the Puritans read only the Old Testament -- not that modern day Puritans spend more time citing Leviticus and Paul than they do the Sermon on the Mount or anything.
For Swanson, the most dangerous part of The Scarlet Letter is this refrain in Chapter 24:
“Be true. Be true. Be true.” This becomes the highest ethic for the humanist. There is nothing here about obeying God, believing in Christ, and loving God with heart, soul, mind, and strength. The humanist ethic is simply, “Don’t hide who you really are. Be yourself. Be true to yourself. If you are a cannibal or a murderer or adulterer, just admit the fact. Don’t pretend to be somebody that you are not.” However, Jesus Christ opposes this unbridled human autonomy. For Christ, the highest ethic for the Christian is to love God and keep His commandments (John 14: 15, 1 John 5: 2). It is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever (1 Cor. 10: 31).
Yes, again with the cannibalism. Swanson is concerned that it may be pretty common, which perhaps suggests more about his German porn-viewing habits than his awareness of modern culture. As he wraps up, Swanson finds in Hester the model for modern feminism, which of course is one more affront to God:
From the beginning to the end of the story, she is the archetypal woman rebel of the 19th century. She bows to no one, and she opposes the old order with everything that is in her. This woman rebel is vividly reincarnated 60 years later in the form of Margaret Sanger, Margaret Mead, and other feminists. The modern independent woman is looking for “sex before marriage, and a job after marriage,” to use Gloria Steinem’s familiar words. In order to advance sexual independence for women, the floodgates opened to abortion on demand and the abortifacient pill (producing about a billion dead babies worldwide since 1980).
And here we come full circle in Swanson's own derp. Remember, he doesn't believe that the Pill prevents ovulation; he believes that it actually kills little babbies, which are then left embedded in the murderous lady's womb to gnaw on her insides forever. So don't take the Pill, and don't read that awful Scarlet Letter, lest you end up a godless whore.
Next Week: Kevin Swanson finds demons everywhere in Mark Twain. We've been looking forward to this -- wonder if he knows Sam Clemens actually worked as aprinter's devil?