I'm reading Jane Eyre... again.
I'm not someone who's generally enchanted with "The Classics," yet here I am. And it's a needed companion in the wake of tragedy.
I’ve been reading and re-reading Jane Eyre for more than 20 years. The only other book I can say that about is the Bible.
Each time I re-read it, I walk away with some aspect of my life illuminated in a fresh way, challenged by the vision of the righteous and just life Bronte offers her readers, or simply encouraged to keep going on my pilgrimage through this world.
I started reading “Jane Eyre” this time around in the wake of the Uvalde shooting. Similar to when I was finishing my reading of Jane Austen’s “Emma” on the day of George Floyd’s murder, I asked myself “What utility does this book offer our modern world? Is it a cultural artifact worth revisiting and sitting with, or should I give my attention elsewhere?”
Obviously this is a bit of a false dichotomy because it’s not an either/or.
But I realize now, my questions actually get at a deeper question. Are these classics forming me to be a more virtuous person? Or, put another way, do they push me toward greater public and private righteousness and justice, or do they distract me with nostalgia that leads to self-absorption and a minimization of the suffering and injustice of our current world?
And honestly, I think the answers to those questions vary by reader. But as I’ve sought to listen to perspectives unlike mine from a posture of curiosity and compassion instead of self-righteous smugness, I’ve found the classics to be companions in this journey of living virtuous life.
As George Floyd was murdered, I was (very likely) listening to the final chapters of “Emma” where Austen brilliantly illustrates that our daily conversations have the power to form how we view and treat people. Austen’s story sobered me, challenged me, illuminating James 3:4-5…
“Take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.”
While I was overwhelmed by the injustice of George Floyd’s murder and the unveiling it brought, I wasn’t sure how it should shape the minutia of my life. Emma’s story met me. “Watch your tongue and the conversations you enter," her story whispered. So, I shifted how I talk about people with whom I disagree or I view as “other” than me. I created boundaries about what conversations I’ll enter into and how I’ll respond when image-bearers of God (whether they’re to my political/theological left or right) are mocked, made fun of or demeaned in conversations where I’m present.
And as I began my recent reading of “Jane Eyre” while weeping over the loss of the innocents in Uvalde, these words from Bronte’s preface (emphasis mine) echoed loudly in my head:
Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns.
These things and deeds are diametrically opposed: they are as distinct as is vice from virtue. Men too often confound them: they should not be confounded: appearance should not be mistaken for truth; narrow human doctrines, that only tend to elate and magnify a few, should not be substituted for the world-redeeming creed of Christ. There is — I repeat it — a difference; and it is a good, and not a bad action to mark broadly and clearly the line of separation between them.
I don’t have a tidy way to wrap this reflection up, and I’m still sitting with these words of Bronte, letting them read my life and my times as I read them. And in them and the story of Jane Eyre, I’m finding a companion, yet again, for this particular time of my life in our weary world. And it’s companion I sorely need.