Thursday, August 30, 2007

Oliver of the Mill: A Tale

Maria Louisa Charlesworth wrote Oliver of the Mill: A Tale in 1876. The title character is Oliver Crisp, a somewhat nominal Christian who is married to Naomi, the daughter of a Jewish woman who had converted to Christianity (Naomi's father is described as a "Jewish missionary" but it is not clear if he is a Jewish-Christian or a Gentile Christian). Naomi dies in childbirth, and Oliver names his infant son "Oliver" (though he had considered other, more Jewish sounding names).

An old Jewish peddlar named Benoni appears in the story, at the infant Oliver's baptism. But then the story flashes back in time to when Naomi was alive and indeed before she and Oliver were married. They had grown up together and had gradually fallen in love with each other.

"When Benoni first travelled his rounds, Naomi was a child; her Jewish features caught his eye as he called at her mother's door. The widow welcomed him; asked him to her frugal meal; pressed him to come whenever he returned; and as his visits became regular, the Christian Jewess spoke to him of hopes fulfilled; which to Benoni lay in the far distance. Benoni listened, but never received the earnest teaching of the widow's faith. But Benoni grew close to Naomi and her mother, even though he did not share their beliefs. He mourned greatly at Naomi's death, for she brought light to his lonely life."

Benoni ends up having a few adventures with young Oliver. Benoni thinks to himself at one point,

"It was true that Naomi and her husband believed in a Messiah rejected by the Jews; and rejected, as the Jews believed, by God; yet Benoni could never resist the feeling that of such as Naomi and Oliver Crisp, Jehovah was the Father! And now, when, after nine years, he heard those petitions again from the lips of Naomi's child -- heard them mingled with the child's natural feelings and words, ... he fell on his knees, and longed, like him, to say, "Our Father!" But he could not! His tears fell like rain, and he could only groan to the God of Israel in his darkness, and help in his utter sense of need" (p. 217).

"All the love he had ever met, glowed in hearts that enshrined the Name of Jesus as Messiah -- the Name he had been taught as a Jew to despise and dishonor" (p. 219).

Clearly, Benoni is conflicted. He is miserable, and his friends are happy, but he cannot join them in their joy, for they worship a foreign god. But then it hits him squarely between the eyes. The answer to the question of why he and apparently all other Jews on earth are unhappy is easy: It's their own fault! Read his amazing revelation:

"Then Benoni thought again, "Why have I no home? Why does the Jew wander homeless on the face of the earth? Why have these Gentiles who follow Jesus of Nazareth, a man forsaken of God! whey have they such homes as might have been in Paradise; while we, the favoured People of Jehovah, wander helpless and homeless -- our very name a curse and a by-word? As he thought on these things, the solemn words that Naomi had read rose to his remembrance -- "His Blood be on us and on our children!" Is it possible that that Blood can be a curse on our heads, which these Gentiles claim as their deepest blessing? (p. 222).

It's obvious that Benoni isn't the brightest bulb in the room, since he appears unable to think of any reasons for his "tsuris" other than "Blame the Victim." And really, it's not quite "blame the victim" but rather "blame the victim's ancestors." It's the "blood curse" again ("his blood be on us and on our children").

With the young Oliver by his side, old Benoni thinks of all the Scriptures that Naomi used to read to him, and thinks of all the love that she showed him, and with young Oliver's help (reciting the Lord's Prayer) he prays for forgiveness and believes in Jesus as his Savior. From then on he lives a life of Christian faithfulness, and he becomes quite close with the Crisp family throughout the rest of the novel.


The "blood curse" is found is several other evangelical conversionary novels of the 19th century. For example, see Adonijah, Thirza, and even Charlotte Elizabeth's The Glory of Israel.

We see in the story the repeated motif of the child missionary leading the old, lonely, bitter Jew to Christ. It is not unreasonable to think that a lonely old man, befriended by a young child, might change his religious outlook (which apparently wasn't that strong to begin with) in the face of love and affection. But it is offensive to see this kind of emotionally weak, psychologically vulnerable character (old Benoni) portrayed with theological acumen that his former religious and ethnic compatriots obviously never had, all for the sake of the author pushing a religious agenda (that Judaism is inferior to Christianity, and not only that, but that Jews are going to hell if they don't confess Christ as Savior). That's not only bad literature, it's also bad theology.

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