Review of Marilyn McEntyre's book Reading Like a Serpent

by Guest Blogger September 10, 2012

by William Jolliff

I’ve often suggested to my literature students that if there seem to have been a plethora of great nineteenth-century American novelists and a paucity of similarly great American theologians, it may be because the best American theologians were writing novels. If I say that again, Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter—accompanied by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s Reading Like a Serpent: What the Scarlet Letter A Is About—will be my best example. McEntyre’s depth of thought, lucid literary reasoning, and engaged Christian perspective remind us of just how edifying it can be to read a great book (whether Hawthorne’s or her own).

McEntyre’s preface states that her book is “not primarily intended as a work of literary criticism or scholarship”; instead, she calls it “a series of personal reflections on how Hawthorne’s literary techniques serve purposes whose urgency we still have reason to recognize.”  I’ll accept the first part of her statement, since I can hardly argue her intention; but while it may not be “primarily” so, hers is a finely argued piece of criticism. Her second phrase is still less likely to do the book justice; and it certainly doesn’t if the term “reflection” connotes any kind of casualness, or if “personal” implies a range of pertinence that may not go beyond one’s immediate sphere. Granted, there’s a good bit of McEntyre mingled with the Hawthorne (hence “personal”), but her so-called “personal reflections” demonstrate the best traits of accomplished literary argument, even while offering broader applications to the life of faith.

The negative side? I can’t quite imagine how Cascade Books will accurately and successfully market this work in the current publishing arena: it’s a difficult book to fit in a slot. For now, I’ll suggest that it’s a collection of weighty devotional writings or—why not say it?—sermons for an audience with a strong and practiced literary interest and more than a little familiarity with great American fiction.

At the risk of reducing McEntyre’s creative literary criticism, theological acuity, and devotional depth to a kind of formula, let me suggest how her chapters work. She begins with a scriptural principle, then demonstrates how that truth plays out in The Scarlet Letter. The novel itself becomes something of the “text of the day” for a practical application, direct or implied. In the chapter “Judge Not,” for example, she takes Jesus’ admonition and demonstrates how Hawthorne develops the concept in each of the book’s four main characters, paying keen attention to the particulars of the text. But because this is not a piece of criticism, quite, she allows herself the right to be free with her own commentary on the contemporary church and on how Christians try and fail to live up to that principle. The result is a sermon for contemporary Christians that is grounded simultaneously in Hawthorne’s text and the Bible, replete with potential applications.

While the book does make the cumulative effect of a monograph, each chapter stands alone, following something like the method above. “Not By Bread Alone” deals with the difficulties of language, the fluidity, the potential for good and evil, the fact that language must necessarily stop “at the threshold” of those things we most fervently desire to know. Inevitably, then, the chapter is a lesson about biblical hermeneutics, good and bad, not only the hermeneutics implied by Hawthorne’s desperately pointed attention to language in the novel but also about the role the scripture and its interpretation play in the church and the lives of believers. To Hawthorne and to T. S. Eliot she attributes the idea that “We live and move and find our meanings . . . in a fluid medium.”  And she necessarily discusses, not only as an historical practice but with the pertinence of truth, Hawthorne’s romantic view that nature itself is a language.

Like a traditional preacher, McEntyre begins the chapter “Become as Little Children” by posing the problem of defining the words in the text: “If, indeed, we are to become like them, it behooves us to inquire further into what, exactly, that invitation might mean.”  But unlike that preacher, she won’t tell us exactly; instead, she uses Hawthorne’s treatment of Pearl to heighten our awareness of the complexity and significance of the question. McEntyre’s exploration centers on the wildness (a typical theme for the American Romantics) of Pearl, and how Hawthorne uses that emphasis throughout the novel. Her lessons for our church via Hawthorne are many, but one is certainly this: “To read Pearl’s story as a parable is to see it as a teaching about respecting the complexity as well as the innocence of children: children know more than they can say. The Spirit dances and prays within them.”

“Render Unto Caesar” may be one of McEntyre’s most sermonic, least literary-critical chapters, but it’s certainly one of the most engaging “devotionals.” She uses Jesus’ paradoxical response to his interlocutors to demonstrate the inability of civil government and institutional Christianity to permit, let alone embrace, the deeper truths of such a teaching. In doing so, she speaks plain truth to our time. This is clear when she notes Dimmesdale’s failure to restore “the radical message of the Gospels or the awful mystery of Jesus’ life and acts to a people living on the starvation rations of domesticated and compromised message filtered through a fine mesh of political negotiations held taut by the brokers of power.” One doubts that Hawthorne was preaching a message quite so appropriate to the state of the twenty-first-century American church, but we can be glad that Hawthorne-McEntyre does. The solution to such a dilemma, embodied in McEntyre’s reading of Hester, suggests the starting point for a response in our day as well: “What [Hester] learns in her solitary years is what may perhaps be learned only when one stands a bit outside the laws and institutions that dictate social, political, and theological norms”; since, like Arthur and Hester, we too live in a culture “that has largely succeeded in making the church a collaborator in a statutory order mostly advantageous to those in power.”

“Confess to One Another” is most engaging in the way it makes what is, for most readers, a counter-intuitive argument: Dimmesdale may have been morally correct—or, at the very least, have had good reasons—not to confess publicly and join Hester in her shame. And McEntyre’s literary argument simultaneously delivers a difficult message for practical theology: the institutional church does not create a context in which something like public confession is beneficial for the individual or the community. She concludes that Hawthorne believed “it is nearly impossible in this fallen world, and especially in a religious culture of hidebound legalism, to utter a true confession or to make ‘confessing our sins one to another’ an efficacious act of reconciliation and healing.”  She suggests instead that if we are to confess, “we would do well to seek out those souls and circumstances that can tolerate the kind of truth that sets us free.” And she adds, “They seem to be rare. We may not find them inside institutional walls.”

“Into the Wilderness” is the author’s reading of the much discussed “forest” chapter of the novel, the scene in which Hester, Dimmesdale, and Pearl are alone together—and almost speak frankly to one another. More importantly, McEntyre uses that chapter to explore the role that nature and humans’ relationship with it plays in Christian understanding—a dominating idea among Hawthorne and his contemporary Transcendentalists. She suggests that the institutional church has been unable to perceive the place of nature theologically—and for good reason: this role must ultimately be understood by intuitive, non-rational means, “foregoing our need for explanation in favor of a deeper kind of experience that addresses heart rather than mind.”  She insists that we all must take a “journey into the wilderness” for full moral development.

In “Those Not Against Us” McEntyre addresses the timely issue of inclusion, inclusion as it is directly represented in Scarlet Letter, and, by implication, the problems in the church today. In doing so she plays on the tension between the often overlooked title verse and Jesus’ counter-statement: “He that is not with me is against me.” Her discussion demonstrates that people in power inevitably exclude for the sake of maintaining their dominant position in the culture (whether civil or ecclesiastical), noting that instead of seeing those two verses as a complementary paradox, the second scripture inevitably dominates the conversation. As a result, exclusionary readings of the Gospel prevailed in Hawthorne’s day as in our own, so commonly so that “inclusivity” is often perceived “as a kind of spiritual erosion”—a misperception that comes with a high cost.

Taking seriously Jesus’ words about not only hearing the word but also doing it, the chapter “Sick and in Prison” forces us to revaluate the character of Roger Chillingsworth. Typically, most readers are too quick to cast Hester’s husband in something like the role of a stock villain. Though McEntyre demonstrates how aspects of his character do decay throughout the novel because of his obsession with vengeance, she focuses new attention on the fact that it is he who comforts Hester and Pearl in prison, and who, in fact, treats them with some grace even when his own character has reached its nadir. This reading casts him as a much more complex character than a single-dimensional villain; too, this reading gives the author the chance to remind us that anyone—even an old man driven mad with vengeance—can become an instrument of divine grace for those willing to receive it.

“A Great Price,” the book’s conclusion, centers on the painfully complex relationship between Hester and Pearl. McEntyre casts Pearl as the “teacher” who forces Hester to deal with who she is as a woman and with her place in the Puritan community. As the author states, “Hester has no precedents, no language, no tradition to pass on to her daughter but those that have been her own stumbling block.”  Certainly such a situation forces Hester to reckon with the most fundamental life questions, and in doing so, it is clear that she has learned much. McEntyre speaks not only Hawthorne’s message to his readers but her own to us when she states that “perhaps only those who dwell outside the systems of law and regulation that quench the Spirit are in a position to assess the ways they erode their own ends.”  And, ultimately, Hester finds her “hard-won understanding of how far grace extends beyond the law.” McEntyre ends with an admonition to practice true freedom, and “to learn in that practice a largeness of heart not often enough exemplified in the institution [the Church] whose mission is to protect and proclaim the good news of divine love.”  That’s a powerful and appropriate mandate for people of faith in our time.

McEntyre’s perceptive and passionate readings of The Scarlet Letter should engage anyone who has loved—or tried to love—Hawthorne’s classic. Fellow critics will find themselves newly engaged by her readings. Moreover, they’ll appreciate her consistently lucid prose. She uses the terms of theory only as any craftsperson chooses just the right tool for the job at hand; as a result, students could find no better introduction to the most meaningful critical questions the novel offers. Too, readers who pick up the book for more devotional purposes, and I hope there are many, will be heartened to find that there is rigorous, edifying work being done in the apparent desert of contemporary devotional literature. Most importantly, McEntyre has allowed Hawthorne’s text to present poignant and sometimes painful messages to a contemporary church. When she refers to Hawthorne as recognizing “the enormous social consequences of oversimplified, legalistic biblical literalism,” and notes that he “bent his own considerable intelligence to teaching readers to read more complexly, imaginatively, and audaciously,” she is clearly using his words to address our own times—and her own intentions.

Reading Like a Serpent: What the Scarlet A Is About, by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre (Cascade Books, 2012). 




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