Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Motherless child

Believe it or not, I have an M.A. in English Literature. I don't mean through the internet or anything like that. I actually had to go to classes for two years and take sixteen hours of comprehensive exams and everything.

And that's why it might appall you to know some of the things I haven't read. Moby Dick, for instance. Got through the first ten pages or so and just gave up. Paradise Lost? Why would anybody actually read that? There's a summary at the beginning of each chapter. That's all you need to pass the test.

But one thing that really bothered me that I never read was Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe's anti-slavery novel that's often credited with helping to ignite the American Civil War.

But guess what. I read it. A couple of weeks ago. I guess it's never too late.

And then earlier this week I was listening to Nina Simone's version of the old spiritual "Motherless Child," and I never really understood the significance of that expression "motherless child" before. To me it was just a figure of speech.

But it dawned on me as I was listening to the song that the motherless child was a very real part of the American slave experience. That's a theme that comes up in Cabin repeatedly, slave children sold off and permanently separated from their parents.

Now, not to change the subject, but here's something that has always puzzled me in the Gospels. Jesus says "I am the Way and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me."

I want to say "Wait a minute, Lord. You're going to need to find a higher-tech method to get that message across. Just telling a handful of people in ancient Palestine ain't gonna cut it."

You know what I mean? How many people since the time of Jesus have lived and died without ever hearing that message? That's got to be a problem for you, whether you're a Catholic or a Presbyterian or a "born again" evangelical. You've got all these people out there who have no way of working out their salvation.

And that's a theme in Cabin too. All these slaves who live and die without ever hearing the Gospel message.

But what that puzzling saying of Jesus' has always meant to me is we live in a world that is so corrupt, that the example of Jesus is the only way to overcome all that corruption. And when we live out that example, that is a kind of salvation. Not an individual salvation. Not you got your ticket punched, so you get to go to Heaven salvation, but a salvation that happens on a grander scale than that, a salvation for the whole world.

Your salvation is salvation for the whole world. For China, Burma, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan. For that motherless child who lived and died without ever hearing the gospel message. I think that's what Jesus meant.
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Norm! said...

No offense, but word books are sooo over-rated. :) I stopped reading when I stopped taking the bus to work. Good to know about the summaries in Paradise Lost though. I might try reading that.

Jesus may not have been high-tech, but he did have his traveling magic show to help get the word out. Today, I doubt he would rely too heavily on high-tech methods such as e-mail spam ("@dd 3tern1ty to y0ur af3terl1fe") or televangelism.

I'm sure many Christians have some mystery-of-God or Holy-Spirit-works-in-mysterious-ways method of explaining away the problem of those who haven't heard Jesus message. For me, I don't buy the theology that a loving God would damn folks for being ignorant or choosing the wrong religion brand.

And yet, the fact that Jesus' low-tech message is still inspiring and profound two millennium later is amazing to me.

grace said...


This is a beautiful post. Makes me want to read that book...but...I sitll haven't read "Travels with Charlie"....I need to read both of those this summer.

Brady said...

Great post, Grace! And, Uncle Tom's Cabin was one of my favorite books when I read it in HS. Maybe I should pick it up again ;-)

Anonymous said...

actually I HATE fiction "books with a message". I hate reading something that I know that the author is trying to sneak in an object lesson, even if it sacrifices the story. If i want social analysis, I will read something nonfiction. Real life is rarely so single issue focused that it creates a nice story line. I would rather have straight up editorial that plainly states what it is rather than carefully crafted emotional manipulation masquerading as entertainment. The only way this EVER works is if telling a good story comes first and foremost and somehow the author almost inadvertently slips in a social message (think Stephen King...he never sacrifices a good story to push his political opinions, even if they do manage to sneak in there from time to time..I can even overlook the fact that I disagree with him because the freakin' good). Honestly, I think most fiction sucks and is a huge waste of time. Not what an English teacher wants to hear, I am sure.

grace said...

Actually, being an English teacher doesn't make me want to hear anything in particular from folks about their personal reading preferences. Whatever floats your boat as far as literary style is fine by me. ;)

kurt_t said...

Yeah. I'm with Pam. I don't feel like anyone has a moral obligation to enjoy a particular literary form or genre.

Uncle Tom's Cabin is so heavy-handed with the moralizing that it reads like kind of a cross between a novel and an editorial.

A similar book from the same period and with the same theme is Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Except that one is an autobiography where the ghost writer intrudes from time to time with a lot of heavy-handed commentary.

But that was just sort of a convention in the mid-19th century when it came to that sort of literature. The narrator was allowed to break down that fourth wall from time to time.

Readers have different cultural expectations these days. And that's fine. You're entitled to your cultural expectations.

Anonymous said...

well thats good Pam:) Actually when my first kid was in elementary school they had to read twenty minutes a night. Anything they wanted just so long as they were reading. she went through a long stretch there for years where she read nothing but cookbooks.

grace said...

oh my gosh...that totally cracks me up....and i can relate...i used to read them like crazy as a kid! funny!