By Derek L. Duncan
When I was young I thought I knew it all. Not all in the comprehensive sense of understanding every idea and value of the universe, but all in a specific sense. Give me information, a book to read or a television show to watch, and I didn’t need anyone else’s help to interpret it.
I would like to blame this arrogance on my parents, but it is a problem deep within my heart. I make quick judgments and think I know what I am talking about when I don’t. I don’t take time to check my ideas, and therefore I make mistakes. This sometimes leads to terrible consequences in my life and the influence I have on other people. Have you ever heard the saying, “The blind leading the blind”?
An example of this shortcoming was when my eighth-grade teacher asked me to read The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I was dutiful in my reading and even produced a fine paper. However, it didn’t change or affect my life.
I thought the book was boring. I didn’t realize I had no context to understand pre-Civil War, 19th-century America. I had no life experience or patience to walk through some of the difficult phrases. I made the quick judgment that Hawthorne had nothing of value to say to my life.
A funny thing happened as I grew older. I realized there were situations in life I couldn’t understand no matter how hard I tried. I discovered I didn’t know as much as I thought, as evidenced by some of the mistakes I was making. I was confronted with death, poverty, injustice, and suffering that I could not explain. My know-it-all attitude was coming up with fewer and fewer answers.
I started to understand a terribly frightening word called humility. This led me to seek understanding by reading the Bible and other types of literature. The foundational truth of the Bible, along with some challenging and creative fiction works, began to open my eyes to a new reality.
As I read and wrestled with different philosophies in these books, I realized many of the authors’ philosophical propositions were flawed. The answer to all of life is not found in my own self-understanding, but in the humble truth of Jesus Christ.
The other day I stumbled on a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The bells and whistles in my head said, “Warning, do not read. Boredom is sure to follow.” Then I was reminded I am not the source of all knowledge in the universe. So I jumped in and started reading, all the while hoping to learn something that would enhance my faith.
The story introduces us to a scientist who has great power over the things of nature. He believed that through experimentation he could cure people of all ailments. His life focus was science . . . until a beautiful woman caught his eye and his mind switched gears from science to love. Could he marry this woman and still be a great scientist?
There was only one problem. This woman was perfect except for a facial birthmark shaped like a little red hand.
At first he thought, Don’t argue with perfection. One little mark is no big deal. But, the longer they were married, the more he fixated on it. The ugly birthmark caused him to detest and ignore his wife’s other good qualities. His obsession led him to develop a medicine that would get rid of the unsightly blemish.
What he didn’t understand, however, was the birthmark was connected to the woman’s heart. By erasing the blemish, he also squelched the life out of his love.
There’s a point in this for you and me.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was a transcendentalist. Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, and others were very cynical about the traditional orthodox beliefs taught in Scripture. They argued against beliefs such as the Trinity and predestination. They thought genuine truth was not rational, traditional, and objective, but was intuitive and enhanced by experience. They basically believed you could solve all problems by looking inward and not getting sidetracked by outside revelation.
Emerson put it this way: “We will walk on our feet, we will work with our own hands, we will speak our own minds, a nation of men for the first time exists because each believes himself inspired by the divine soul which also inspires all men.”
Seeking to discover truth through self-reliance is inconsistent with Scripture. Ultimate truth comes from outside ourselves through the life of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. I can attest from my own experience that self-reliance and independence always leads to disaster.
That’s why we need Christ. His life, death, and resurrection provide forgiveness. Left to our own devices, we destroy our lives and the lives of those we love.
This story gives us a picture of how much we need Jesus Christ. Nature, good works, and knowledge are empty without him. We need to worship the creator, not the created.
This story also highlights the importance of focus. The scientist was so absorbed with the tiny, negative birthmark that he lost all awareness of the “whole’’ woman. Focusing on negative things can drastically influence our outlook on life. If I don’t turn to Christ, I can lose hope, joy, appreciation for the good in my life, and God-given discernment.
This leads us to the helpful words of Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
Reading literature strengthens my faith convictions and my ability to relate to others. “The Birthmark” introduces us to a powerful metaphor that, with the help of the Holy Spirit, leads us to Jesus Christ.
Understanding the philosophical and secular ideas of the world puts me in a dilemma. Where do I want to place my faith? The God of the universe, who revealed himself through Jesus Christ, or my own nature, efforts, or ideas? Reading the Bible against the backdrop of great literature causes me to rethink and clarify my convictions.
So, have you read or reread any good books lately? Are you open to reading new and different things? When was the last time you tackled difficult books in the Bible like Leviticus, Numbers, Revelation, or 1 and 2 Peter? How about entering the world of Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Hawthorne, Ernest Hemingway, Ralph Ellison, and others? Reading each of them helps us follow the example of Paul to learn everything we can to introduce the gospel to a lost world.
Are you up for the journey?
Derek L. Duncan serves as senior pastor with East 91st Street Christian Church, Indianapolis, Indiana.