What Jane Austen Taught Me About Scripture

Updated: Nov 4, 2020

I love Jane Austen. Her books are some of the first I turn to when I need a mental break. I go back and forth between my favorites. Right now Persuasion is my top pick. I'm going to suggest what might seem like a strange idea: Reading Jane Austen can help YOU study the Bible!

I don't read Austen's books as a scholar, I read them simply for enjoyment. I know I'm not the only one! Why can Austen fans enjoy what some people find too snooty for recreational reading? We enjoy the story simply because we are used to the way Austen talks, and are somewhat familiar with the world she's writing about.

Austen teaches me to read things in context

Here is an excerpt from Persuasion, just to give an example of her style, if you aren't familiar:

"As Mr. Elliot became known to her, she grew more charitable, or more indifferent, towards the others. His manners were an immediate recommendation; and on conversing with him she found the solid so fully supporting the superficial, that she was at first, as she told Anne, almost ready to exclaim, 'Can this be Mr. Elliot?' and could not seriously picture to herself a more agreeable or estimable man."

These fancy words and lengthy sentences can hide what is actually being said. Do you know what helps? Reading the wordy bits in context. When you're following the flow of the narrative, it makes so much more sense! How does this translate to reading the Bible? If you take a tricky passage in the Bible and zero in on it, with the determination to make it make sense, you may be there for a while. Sure, you might get there in the end, but maybe it would have been faster to read the chapters before and after your tricky part, or better yet, the whole book!

Being a fan of Jane Austen is an immersive experience

After spending time with Jane Austen, you begin to think and breathe the Regency language. Does this sound like the ideal way to experience the Bible? It should! Do you ever find when you read a book of a different style you slip into the vernacular? Do you read a story about a southern belle and start saying, "fiddle-dee-dee!" I am terrible for doing this! Once, years ago, I had a customer walk up to me and ask where something was in the store. Without thinking (and with a head full of Austen!) I replied, “I confess, I do not know.” Yikes! Talk about embarrassing.

The Bible often has the same influence on people, even just in our culture. Certain quotes have worked their way into everyday language like “turn the other cheek”, or calling someone a “Judas” for example. Sometimes though, there are some serious misquotes.

My love of Austen teaches me to know my subject so I can weigh the accuracy of quotes

As an Austen fan, I have to be wary of misquotes, especially when there is so much fan fiction, movies, and pop culture around her work. When I was preparing this post, I went to copy down a quote from Sense and Sensibility. I checked the book, and, well, it wasn't there! I was remembering a line from one of the movies instead. How often do we quote something that sounds "right", but it is not from scripture?

“God helps those who help themselves.”

“God will never give you more than you can handle.”

Neither of those famous phrases people attribute to the Bible is actually in the Bible! The first quote has been popular since Benjamin Franklin used it in his Poor Man's Almanack in 1736, though the quote is older than that. The second one has been changed from its original language about temptation, to refer to life and trials in general. (See 1 Corinthians 10:13 for the true verse.)

They both sound good on a surface read, but a deeper look shows self-sufficiency apart from God. Can you see how both of these “scriptures” could lead people to believe things about God's nature that are just not true? It is important for us to READ and KNOW scripture for ourselves so that we can recognize when something that is being taught as truth, is actually just opinion.

Knowledge of the Regency world makes a huge difference in understanding what is happening in Austen's books

If Sense and Sensibility were transplanted into the modern era, keeping all the language and actions of the people, it wouldn't make any sense. When Elinor is lamenting over the cost of renting a house, we would wonder why she doesn't go out and get a job so she can afford something better!