Updated: Nov 1, 2019
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."
Not exactly This is Us, is it? These fancy words 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, focusing in 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. You begin to think and breathe 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.
Being a fan of Austen taught me to pay attention to quotes, double-checking them even when I'm pretty sure. 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.
Reading Jane Austen taught me that my 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 just doesn't go out and get a job so she can afford something better!
If you were to try to modernize Mansfield Park you'd run into an even bigger hurdle. While marrying your first cousin was perfectly acceptable in 1818, it is against the law in 2018. Reading Mansfield Park in a modern setting turns a beautiful love story into something disgusting. It would distort the whole story.
Have you ever read scripture like that? Transposing teachings on slavery, eating food sacrificed to idols, tattoos/cuts for the dead, or head coverings into the modern-day without making adjustments for culture and societal norms? I know I have been guilty of this. This isn't about bending scripture to sound better for modern culture, it's looking at the heart of teaching that was given to a people who lived in a much different time.
If we want to be responsible with scripture, we will first try to see what the teachings meant to the people they were originally written for, before we apply them to ourselves.
Jane Austen taught me the beauty of learning the background history. Understanding how courtship, engagement, and dowries worked is pretty essential for any of Austen's books. Knowing levels of societal class, what a pelise, a curricle or a barouche helps the reader understand even more. Knowing the culture of the Bible helps us understand what is being said, especially when it something totally foreign to us today.
Learning about the first century Passover feast helped me understand what Jesus was doing for the people on the cross.
We need to become scholars of the Jewish beliefs and way of life in the time of Jesus if we want to get to the deepest depths of understanding what he taught, and what he did for the world as the Christ.
(A fellow blogger, Diane, writes at Worth Beyond Rubies. She is a Jewish Christian and her insights and teachings are amazing. I highly advise you go check out her articles on Passover and Festivals.)
The last way that reading Jane Austen helps me understand scripture might seem a bit strange. If I want to know why Elizabeth rejects Mr. Darcy, I should first look in Pride and Prejudice before I go investigate the other books by Austen.
You might say, “well, of course!” but how often do we come across a passage in Matthew that we don't understand, and the first thing we do is go to Mark and Luke and John and ask them what Matthew is talking about. Mark and Luke and John are all equally good books, full of truth and teaching, but they have their own stories to tell. If we are struggling with what Matthew says, we need to listen to Matthew before we go ask around town. If we don't, we might miss an angle or viewpoint Matthew was trying to show us. Understand Matthew as best you can before you compare him to others.
So, to recap, how does Jane Austen teach me to read scripture?
She teaches me not to be afraid to immerse myself in the language and nuances of a book world.
She shows me that things quoted as source material, sometimes aren't. We need to learn and know for ourselves so we can tell what is the truth and what is an outside opinion.
She teaches me that culture and context matter in understanding something written to an original audience that lived long ago!
She teaches me to really listen to what each book has to say, before comparing them or asking our question to others.
Want to learn more about the culture the New Testament was written in?
Two books that I've really enjoyed for understanding the culture of the first century are The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology by Bruce J. Malina and Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson. I've personally read both these books cover to cover and recommend them whole-heartedly.