Friday, September 26, 2008

Amazing Grace: Eighteenth Century Evangelical Protestantism in its Proper Context

A few years ago I was privileged to attend Rabbi Aryeh Klapper’s Summer Beit Midrash program in Cambridge MA. It is a combination of a traditional yeshiva and a think tank on matters of Jewish law. Rabbi Klapper encourages his students, at least in the narrow theoretical framework of his program, to come up with creative approaches to Jewish law based on a critical analysis of textual sources. Each summer is devoted to one specific topic. During my summer with him we dealt with the issue of divorce and the legitimacy of the argument that a marriage was entered into on false premises and if one of the parties had known the truth they would not have agreed to wed. A topic that he did in a subsequent summer was on the status of Christianity in Judaism, particularly Christian holy places and Christian hymns. One of issues that he had his fellows write on was whether it is permissible to sing Amazing Grace. The fellows had to do some research into the back story of the song. It was written by John Newton, an ex slave ship captain turned Anglican preacher and abolitionist. Another issue that his fellows had to confront is what does the word “grace” mean in the context of the song. Take the hymns famous opening stanza:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

From a Jewish perspective there does not seem to be anything wrong with these words nor with any of the subsequent stanzas. There is no mention of Jesus or the Trinity. The problem begins once you have to define what grace means. If grace simply refers to a general sense of mercy or favor, which is how most people think of the word, then there is not a problem. The problem is that we are dealing with an Evangelical Protestant and in Evangelical Protestantism grace means something very specific. There are the saved, who have been granted grace as a free gift from heaven, and the unsaved, who do not have grace and are therefore condemned. One cannot earn grace. Grace is simply something granted by heaven to an elect few. Grace, understood in these terms, becomes a highly problematic issue, one that most Jews could not accept.

This hymn, and the story behind it, plays an important role in a recent film, appropriately titled Amazing Grace. The film focuses on someone whom John Newton mentored both as a Christian and as an abolitionist, William Wilberforce. It was Wilberforce, a close friend of William Pitt the younger, who led the fight in the British Parliament to ban slavery, a struggle that took decades and took an incredible physical and emotional toll on him.

In a sense the film also has its struggle with how to understand grace and to place it within its Evangelical context. It would have been very easy and tempting for the filmmakers to have turned William Wilberforce into a modern liberal. He was a social crusader for all the “right” things; in addition to his opposition against slavery, he pushed for free education and fought against cruelty to animals. He was a gentlemen botanist, who took an active interest in studying the natural world. The film, though, does not pull any punches when it comes to Wilberforce’s evangelical beliefs and places it at the front and center of his struggle against slavery.

The film does a wonderful job at capturing the mindset of eighteenth century radical Protestantism, which Wilberforce is an example of. We are at the dawning of a new age of enlightenment in which mankind shall gain knowledge that would have astounded earlier generations. Since one is taking part in this new era of enlightenment it is only natural that one takes an interest in, one, the natural sciences and, two, in the creation of a new and more just society. The reason for all of this is that, through grace, one has come to know Jesus and accept him as the one and only true savior. It is Jesus who is revealing all of this new knowledge to mankind and it is Jesus who is opening the eyes of all believers and is guiding them to create a new godly society worthy of his grace. The kingdom of God is coming and everyone has best be ready. Slavery is not just a bad thing it is an affront to God and it is holding back his kingdom. Slaveholders are not just sinners they are enemies of God and are going straight to Hell. Fighting slavery is not just a fine moral thing it is a necessity in order to achieve the salvation of a person’s immortal soul. This is not modern liberalism. On the other hand, though, this is not modern Evangelical Christianity. Modern Evangelical Christianity is as much of a product of modernity as modern secularism. Eighteenth century Evangelical Christianity is something that existed in its own time and place and most be understood on its own terms. It had the luxury of the naive optimism of not fully appreciating the consequences of what they were about to unleash.

Now, as moderns, we know that in the end Wilberforce’s brand of social activism will create modern secular liberalism. We know that Wilberforce’s brand of nature study is going to lead to modern secular science. We as moderns can appreciate how all this could so easily turn into modern secularism. All one has to do is take away the parts about Jesus, the kingdom of God and all stuff about hellfire and the salvation of one’s immortal soul. We understand how easily eighteenth century natural theology could be stripped of its religious moorings and become secular naturalism once one is willing to contemplate the possibility that nature does not require a metaphysical first cause. It would be so tempting to turn the people in the film into moderns, to have them be aware of where things were heading and make them more like us. Thankfully the filmmakers resisted this temptation and kept everyone in period not just in costume but in thought as well.

What we have here is a film that is not only an exquisite piece of work in terms of its acting, writing and costumes. This film is an example of responsible historical thinking. While the film takes its fictional liberties, something that is necessary given the demands of trying to create an engaging coherent film that is less than two hours, the film remains true to the spirit of the times. It neatly captures the mindset of eighteenth century England, how its distinct brand of religious fundamentalism came oppose slavery and eventually brought it down. It is willing to face up to what grace truly meant to those who first sang Amazing Grace.

No comments: