The artistic black and gilt designs flowing over the green cover of a volume published in 1869, led more than anything to my reading of Westbrook Parsonage. This appalling Christian romance novel by Harriet B. McKeever confirms the old warning not to judge a book by its cover. The writing was atrocious.
The ho-hum story follows the entire history of a family at Westbrook Parsonage. The plot (if it had one; I don't remember) was boring. I don't usually disparage writing styles—one monkey should not deride another monkey's fleas—but this was painful to read. Here is a specimen of the author's abrupt, present tense style (if style it can be called):
“Warren is impetuous and self-willed, daring in his nature... He is standing at the gate, with Alice, his darling pet: she is a beautiful child, with deep blue eyes, and a profusion of golden curls; she is a sparkling little girl, very fond of brother Warren, who is proud of his lovely sister.” Imagine an entire book that goes on like that. The world would be a better place if some of those punctuation marks were omitted, a few periods substituted, and lastly, a wholesale alteration of tense and syntax were effected. The character's conversations are little better. They too are abrupt and and contain none of that small talk expected in a normal exchange. Take this artist's rendering of a typical dialogue:
Question. (Serious and troubled).
Answer. (Compassionate and fatherly).
Reply. (Relieved and at peace).
End of conversation. As can be seen, such dialogues are short and to the point.
As if this defect in writing were not enough, the heated defense of protestantism is enough to make one cringe. While it claims to defend Protestant freedom from Roman Catholic ritualism, what it really does is defend one type of ritualism from another type. I was rolling with laughter when one of the heroines asked where such popish formality was to be found—no, not in the Bible—in the Book of Common Prayer! After thus repeatedly invoking the authority of the Book of Common Prayer and Protestant church tradition (not Biblical tradition), I lost all remaining respect for the book.
Why did I waste time reading the entire thing? I have no idea. Sadistic curiosity I suppose. But here is the thing, this author, unknowingly, is a very great teacher. Looking at a long forgotten doctrinal conflict about ritual from a 150 years away can shed light on the dubious traditions of our own churches. McKeever has her fictional characters react to the obviously unspiritual practices of her time but is strangely blinded to her own extra-biblical additions to the faith. It is worth pondering what there is in our Christianity that is merely inanity and not Christ. Even though it looks different from 19th century ritual, we are not exempt from extra-biblical tradition either. We may take pride in boasting we are not like Rome or like the unknowingly hypocritical characters in a 19th century didactic novel, but have we really reached the true core of God-centered spirituality? We peal away and discard those things that it eventually becomes clear are absurd, but underneath? Like Eustuce the-boy-turned-dragon of C.S.Lewis's Narnia story, we may peal off dragon skin after dragon skin only to find a smaller version of the same dragon underneath. Only with the help of Aslan is it possible to get down to the real boy within and discard the heavy exterior that only gets in the way. But beware, his claws are sharp, and his clause is that we obey only him.
“See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.” Col. 2:8