Monday, July 30, 2007

Thirza; or, The Attractive Power of the Cross

Thirza; or, The Attractive Power of the Cross, originally written by Hermann Ball as Thirza, oder die Anziehungskraft des Kreuzes, in 1840 or perhaps somewhat earlier. The English translation appeared in 1842. The translator, who I think deserves some credit, was Elizabeth Maria Lloyd. The story of Thirza is also included in the book Narrative of the Conversion and Suffering of Sarah Doherty and the Wonderful Conversions of Two Jewish Maidens.

Thirza's story begins with a female visitor entering a church during the season of Lent. The clergyman talks about the Paschal Lamb and the blood of Christ. He also speaks of Matthew 27:25 ("His blood be on us and on our children"), and the "fearful crime of Israel, in rejecting their King; and contrast[s] their ingratitude with the love and sympathy of the Saviour, who, notwithstanding their rebellion and hardness of heart, still loved them with an everlasting love" (p. 9).

The stranger becomes agitated and starts to weep. The preacher continues with his sermon, talking about the "curse" upon the Jews that culminated with the destruction of Jerusalem and the dispersion of the Jewish people. Thus, the preacher continues, we have this "dark and melancholy picture as a warning to the Christian world" (p. 10). The stranger lets out a shriek and falls senseless to the ground. The parishioners carry her out to the parsonage.

Maria, the pastor's wife, tries to comfort the disturbed woman, but then suddenly realizes that she is a Jewess. "A closer inspection of her features confirmed this" (p. 13), the narrator says. Of course. No doubt about it.

Maria shares the gospel with the poor woman and offers her peace through the grace of Jesus. The woman responds: "What! Will you not look upon me with hatred -- with abhorrence -- when I tell you to what people I belong? Can you love a poor child of the curse -- a daughter of Israel -- a Jewess?" (p. 16). Maria assures her that she loves her and that she considers her as a sister, not a stranger.

Her name turns out to be Thirza, with the same last name as a prominent (and rich) banker in the city. And apparently she has had a recent change of heart concerning her religious beliefs. "I must tell you freely, that I believe with all my heart, that the Jesus whom you worship is the promised Messiah, the King of Israel.... It is now the chief desire of my heart, that he might be my Saviour also. Oh! that I had been born a Christian...!" (p. 17). Thirza states that her father is a "strict Israelite" and "bears the most bitter enmity to Jesus and to the Christian faith" (p. 18). When she was young she attended a Christian school and read the New Testament, but later forgot about it.

Yes, this recurring theme again rears its ugly head, that of the fictional Jewish child who goes to a Christian school, absorbs the gospel through osmosis, and later (as an adult) becomes a full fledged Christian. The (unintended) moral of the story should be clear to all Jewish parents reading this.

Back to the plot: Thirza had been taught the traditions of Judaism (along with her Christian school education) but her "heart remained untouched" (p. 19). But then her mother died after a short illness and that was five months earlier. Maria comforts Thirza by telling her: "[The Lord] took away your earthly joy, in order to lead you to the true joys both of time and eternity" (p. 20). Maria's husband, the pastor, also joins the conversation.

Thirza tells Maria about "the blindness of my people, and how great a hatred and aversion to Jesus and the Christian faith, is implanted in us from our very infancy" (p. 22). Thirza recalls how in her time of grief she recalled the words of Matt. 11:28 ("Come unto me, all ye who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest") and vaguely remembered that they were from the New Testament. She describes how she found a copy of the New Testament and secretly read it. As she read she realized that the New Testament was the fulfillment of the Hebrew Bible, especially such passages as Isaiah 53. "It was not long before I was clearly convinced that Jesus was the promised Messiah, and King of Israel... my sins appeared every day more heinous and fearful; for though I firmly believe that Jesus can take away both the guilt and the power of sin, yet I cannot realise that he has shed his blood for me also" (p. 28). Maria and her husband encourage Thirza to believe in Jesus and take advantage of the grace freely offered her, and she does.

But then Thirza is greatly saddened by the thought of her mother having died without Christ, and her father with his "implacable hatred to the Crucified!" (p. 32). On the other hand, she feels guilty when she remembers verses like "whosoever denies me before men...." and "he that loveth father or mother more than me, is not worthy of me."

She tries after dinner one night to tell her father, Eliezer, who is an old man, but she cannot and starts to weep. Her father pronounces the priestly benediction over her, and, in trying to comfort her, quotes from the Psalms: "The Lord perform all thy petitions." Thirza replies: "Amen; for the sake of Jesus Christ" (p. 41). Well, yes, that's one way to tell your father you've converted.

"Her astonished father started, and recoiled as if stung by a serpent. His deep-rooted hatred to the Nazarene, his blind and pertinacious adherence to the religion of his fathers, completely mastered his spirit.... "What!" he exclaimed, "and who has done this? That accursed name from the lips of my daughter! Cursed be ___." "O my father, my father, do not curse!" entreated his weeping child -- "Blaspheme not the name of my Lord and Saviour. Dear, dear, father, do not curse Jesus the Messiah of Israel" (p. 41-42).

Eliezer continues cursing the name of Jesus, and then says: "I have no daughter now; the apostate is for ever cast out of my house. Get thee hence, thou accursed one; never shalt thou see me again, till thou abjure the Nazarene" (p. 43). For the next eight days her father avoids her, but Thirza "did not cease to mourn over her father's alienation from her, and to implore God for the salvation of his soul" (p. 47).

Eliezer, meanwhile, is conflicted. He knows he should "examine what the Prophets had spoken concerning the Messiah," (p. 48).... but his bitter hatred of Jesus stifled these feelings. His conflicted emotions lead to a serious illness. Thirza prays for him and finally approaches him in his bedchamber. Eliezer asks her to renounce "that accursed faith" but she refuses (p. 55). Gradually her father becomes more cordial with her as she sits with him for several days through his illness (though it's a sacrifice for her -- she is quite sad that she must miss Good Friday services!). On Easter Sunday she finally decides to leave her father's side and go to church. (you gotta draw the line somewhere!). Her father gets somewhat better, and the doctor attributes this to Thirza staying with him night and day through it all.

A few days later Thirza sits reading the New Testament, and her father (not knowing what she is studying) asks her to read to him. When he discovers that it is the Christian Testament he calls it "all fable and lies," (p. 65) but he allows her to read a little more (John 14 and 15 and the story of Jesus comparing himself to Moses and the bronze serpent in the wilderness). Eliezer is surprised to hear the Hebrew Bible quoted in the New Testament. When Thirza tells him that Isaiah 53 is one of the passages that convinced her of the truth of the Christian faith, he replies that "it is presumptuous for an ignorant girl to interpret the Law and the Prophets. It is the business of the learned, and they have explained that chapter in a very different manner" (p. 69).

Later Eliezer confesses to Thirza that he had heard the words of the New Testament on the lips of her dying mother: "The blood of Jesus Christ his Son, cleanses us from all sin" (p. 72). He is in agony over thinking that his wife may have become a Christian in her dying moments, but of course Thirza is overjoyed to hear it. After many days of conversation, harsh words (from Eliezer toward Thirza), and conflicted emotions, Eliezer finally becomes a Christian and is baptized (along with Thirza) at the church where the story had originally begun.

Perhaps this novel should be entitled "The Attractive Power of the Curse." The story opens with the preacher talking about "the curse of the Jews." Thirza calls herself a "poor child of the curse." And Eliezer can't stop cursing Christ and those darn proselytizers. (Until he finally takes the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" approach).

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