Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Mine; or, Darkness and Light

Charlotte Maria Tucker was a prolific British writer and missionary of the 19th century known to her readers (mostly children) as "A. L. O. E." ("a Lady of England"). In 1858 she wrote The Mine; or, Darkness and Light, apparently her only conversionist novel dealing with the Jews.

Early in the book we are introduced to a Jewish boy named Asahel Da Costa. His parents are dead, and his grandfather, with whom he lives, is Mr. Salomons, a kindly but not very warm gentleman. Asahel is friends with Arthur, a Christian boy, but a nominal Christian, and not a very devout one (though apparently he would defend the Christian creed to the death, even though he doesn't really know much about Christianity). However, despite his allegiance to (though ignorance of) Christian doctrine, we are told that "Arthur was not one to attempt, in the slightest degree, to influence the religious belief of another" (p. 63).

Thus, in the evangelical mind, Arthur is not only a nominal Christian, he is a bad Christian as well since he espouses the "live and let live" philosophy of religious adherence.

Asahel has been reading bits of the New Testament, and he asks many questions about life and death, and about theology and spiritual beliefs. Arthur doesn't really know how to answer these questions, and feels ashamed about that. In actuality, Asahel is struggling with the idea that Jesus might be the Jewish Messiah. He wrestles with questions of why Jesus had to suffer, etc. until finally one day he hears a voice beside him, perhaps that of an angel, who says "Free Forgiveness."

"Some being stood beside Asahel whose face he could not see; a mantle of light appeared to hide it. All that Asahel beheld in his dream was a hand, which held out to him a parchment signed and sealed. "Free forgiveness" was written on that scroll. A thrill ran through the veins of Asahel. The parchment was signed in blood! A light fell on the hand which held it forth, -- that hand was pierced and bleeding! Asahel fell at the feet of his Deliverer, clasped his knees, bathed his feet with his tears, and with the cry, "My Lord, and my Saviour!" he awoke to find himself alone and in darkness" (p. 78).

Note the subtle use of symbolism in the final sentence of the paragraph just quoted.

Soon we meet Phemie, a girl who is a friend of Arthur's. When she hears about Asahel and his conversation with Arthur concerning matters religious, she says:

""No wonder, poor boy, for he is a Jew! It must be very painful to hear him, he must be so sadly, so very sadly in error!" "I'll tell you what, Phemie," said Arthur, "Asahel has ten times more religion in him than I have, or you either!" .... "But Asahel does not know the truth, he has not learned to believe in our Lord." "He has learned to love Him!" said Arthur.... "Oh, Arthur! Do you think that he is a Christian?" "I do not know, I don't believe that he knows himself. He is like some one groping about in the dark, feeling on all sides for something to guide him"" (p.94).

So at this point it's a bit confusing, since at first we think that Asahel had experienced a spiritual conversion with the dream about the angel and the appearance of Jesus. I mean, what more does it take to become a Christian, right? But after hearing the conversation between Phemie and Arthur, we realize that Asahel is still fumbling in the darkness, spiritually speaking. For my part, I have to think that Arthur, with his religious pluralism and his defense of Asahel, is the better Christian. But from the fundamentalist point of view, Phemie is the noble one, since she's very clear about Asahel's eternal damnation (without Christ) and her need to start proselytizing the young Jew who is "so very sadly in error."

Phemie gets the idea that she should start preaching the gospel to Asahel and his grandfather, although she is very frightened at the prospect. But she knows it must be done. She likens Asahel's situation to someone drowning: "If I saw any one drowning, should I look on and not care? or shut up in a burning house, should I not long to open the door to them?" (p. 95).

And of course, this makes a great deal of sense from the evangelical perspective. Until you start to think about the metaphor. It completely falls apart if you analyze it at all. [Begin rant.] For one thing, there's the timing of the matter. If someone is drowning, they will die in a matter of a few minutes, or less. The same with someone in a burning house. So you have to take drastic action. Drowning victims sometimes have to be subdued by violent means, since often they will resist the efforts of their rescuers. They must be dragged into shore, and fire victims must be carried from the burning house. But the "unsaved" are not in an analogous position. Unless they are on their deathbeds, they may have fifty or sixty years to be rescued from their state of unbelief. And the rescue isn't done by human means, but by God. Humans are just messengers. So I say, whatever your religious persuasion, even if you are the most evangelical of Christians, cut out the drowning man or burning woman metaphor. It just doesn't fit. End of rant.

So Phemie, still deluded by her drowning man / burning woman metaphor, starts to pray incessantly for Asahel, and tries to think of ways to use the Bible to show him the error of his ways.

"Asahel was full of ignorance and error; this was indeed the inevitable consequence of his position. He had been like one shut up in a dark tower, the thick walls of prejudice built up around him. .... The Old Testament Scriptures, like a golden lamp, had shed sufficient light to show him some of his nearest and most obvious duties, while they directed his hopes towards a Messiah. [He tried to obey the commandments], though from no principle of love towards the awful Being whom he had learned only to regard with fear. The few leaves which he had read from the Gospel had suddenly poured upon Asahel a beam of bright, transcendent lustre" (p. 102).

As an aside, Asahel is continually referred to as "the young Jew." His grandfather is referred to as "the Jew" or "the old Jew." Undoubtedly this form of third person address was common back in the day. While most of us in the tribe today would take offense at this type of writing, I don't think that was the case in the 1850s. So however much I am offended by A.L.O.E.'s conversionist tendencies, I'll give her some slack for "the old Jew" bit.

The plot gets a bit more interesting as clarity is shed on the title of the novel. (And for those of you blessed with denseness of brain, be on the lookout for some heavy spiritual symbolism).

Asahel, Arthur, and Phemie get adventuresome and end up lost in an underground mine. Asahel is afraid of what comes after death, Phemie is secure in her knowledge that she will go to heaven if she dies, and Arthur just thinks of his present misery. (Again, maybe it's just me, but I think Arthur is the practical one in the bunch).

""Do you believe," said Asahel very solemnly, "that He, He who suffered at Calvary, lives yet, and can hear you when you pray?" Phemie clasped her hands and replied, "I know that my Redeemer liveth." "And do you believe that your prayer can reach Him?" "He is beside us now," whispered Phemie; "darkness cannot hide us from His eye, and death can only bring us nearer to him." .... "Oh! Phemie, if I could but share your hope!" "You would, you would if you could but read my Bible!" exclaimed Phemie."

Asahel relates his dream to the other children, and Phemie responds:

""Oh, Asahel, why not do that now which you did in your dream, fall down at the feet of your Deliverer, and cry, "My Lord and my Saviour?" "Would He not reject me?" said Asahel. "Oh, no! never, never!" cried Phemie. "He never rejects any who turn unto Him." "We may come in our darkness, we may come in our sin, the blessed Lord has mercy for all!" "But I am so ignorant -- so dark!" exclaimed Asahel; "my heart believes, but my mind lacks knowledge. I have been brought up amongst those who do not accept your gospel. Where could I find proofs that your Lord is the Messiah?" "In the Old Testament -- in your own Scriptures!" cried Phemie, eagerly; "from the beginning to the end they bear witness to Him.""

Then Phemie begins to preach to Asahel from the Old Testament concerning messianic prophecies, etc. And apparently it hits the mark, because Asahel finally concedes:

""Oh, Phemie, I must -- I do believe! Like the poor wretch on the cross, I turn to the Saviour at my dying hour. He is my last, my only hope: may He be merciful to me, a sinner!"" (p. 134).

And later the conversation continues....

""Yes, yours -- ours is a beautiful religion!" said Asahel, "and oh! so different from what I had deemed it. Religion seemed to me to belong only to the conscience, and now I feel that it is the life of the heart! God is so terrible when we look at him only as a Judge, so unspeakably glorious when we behold him as a Saviour!" "But you always had part of the Scriptures," said Phemie, "and there is so much about God's love in the Old Testament as well as in the New." "I am afraid," replied Asahel, "that I would rather read the Scriptures for the beauty of the poetry and the interest of the stories, than really to gain knowledge on religious subjects. But what I have heard since I entered this gloomy place [the mine] has thrown a new light upon all which I have read. In every part of the Old Testament I find something to remind me of the Lord"" (p. 174-175).

The children are rescued from the underground mine (as would be assumed if the spiritual metaphor was to be continued).

"Asahel found courage to tell Mr. Salomons the next morning, with downcast eyes and a glowing cheek, that he had learned to love the faith of the Christians, and to believe in Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah.... Mr. Salomons looked certainly surprised, but neither angry nor distressed at the communication. He treated Arthur's new belief as a childish fancy, a light spark that would soon die out of itself, if not fanned by opposition. But Asahel was not to escape altogether from the burden of the cross, --the painful trials which await a convert. When the tidings of his change was bruited abroad amongst the members of the Jewish community, a fierce spirit of persecution was aroused, and though Mr. Salomons took little part in them, many and strong efforts were made to shake the young Christian's constancy" (p. 185-186).

Over time, and because Asahel becomes a more obedient and loving grandson, Mr. Salomons begins to think that "as long as the youth continued to give him satisfaction by his conduct, he was free to believe what he chose, and to be called by what name he liked best" (p. 187).

Mr. Salomons seems to be a rather liberal and tolerant soul, don't you agree? But I wonder, does Asahel get to change his name now? Perhaps to something like, oh, I don't know, George? Because if he thinks that he is experiencing persecution now due to his faith in Christ, well, that's nothing compared to what he'll get from the neighborhood bullies when they discover his strange and unusual name. Yes, Asahel, when you get baptized, be sure to get a proper Christian name. You'll be glad you did.

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