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Memoirs of John Urquhart
Appendix M


ON FICTION, AS A MEDIUM OF RELIGIOUS INSTRUCTION.

Every age has its prevailing taste. And if we may judge of the mental appetite as we do of that of the body, from the food that is most relished by it, we should say, at present, novelty is the rage of the day. Whether we examine the tables of our drawing-rooms, or the shelves of our humblest circulating libraries, we find the greater proportion of the books, and perhaps nearly all those that bear the marks of frequent perusual, to be works of fiction. Nor is this to be wondered at. We have arrived almost at that state of intellectual luxury which characterized the Athenians when Paul visited their famous city. And it is just what might be expected, if the description given of them be applicable to our own countrymen in the present day. But we confess it does surprise, and in some degree alarm us, to find that this love of coloured fiction, in preference to sober fact, has infected the Christian part of our community too, and has exerted so wide an influence on the character of our religious publications.

We know that religious tales have been written by persons of eminent piety, and with the best of motives. We have even heard that real spiritual benefit has been obtained by the perusal of them. But allowing all this to be true, there is still room for the question, what is the tendency of such productions?

There is a general objection to common novels, that they give false views of the world; and the same thing may be said of all works of fiction. The sketches of Christian character contained in these religious tales, have no counterpart among living Christians.

It seems, indeed, essential to the nature of fiction, that everything should be overdone. Truth stamps a worth upon other productions, which must be made up here by something else. The volumes of Hume or Robertson are held in estimation as histories; but they would make but a sorry figure as novels.

Now, if this be true, here is the very serious evil in the works we are considering. Truth is wanting, and the judgment cannot be interested. To make up for this, the fancy must be entertained; and this is generally effected by over-wrought descriptions, and unlikely coincidences. What must be the effect of this on the mind of an unbeliever? He reads the lovely description, and he admires the picture. He turns to the world of reality around him, and sees nothing like it. And the too plausible conclusion is, "Well, if this be Christianity, these people, after all, are not what they pretend to be."

Equally pernicious must be the influence of this ideal perfection of Christian character, on the mind of a young disciple. He who has formed his notions of Christian society from the New Testament, will be prepared for the trials he may meet with, in his intercourse with Christian brethren, and in his fellowship with a Christian Church. He will lament that good men should differ in some of their opinions; and that sometimes there should spring from this, debates and strifes that are most unseemly. But he will not be stumbled by it; for he has read of a "contention so sharp" between two most eminent evangelists, that it caused their separation. He will be grieved that the love of many should wax cold; but he will be prepared to expect it. It will distress him much, if the faith of some be overthrown, who seemed to be the people of God. Still he will not be stumbled. He knows that there were similar declensions even among the first disciples, who professed the name of Jesus, at the peril of their lives. And in the midst of all these discouragments he will be sustained by the consideration, "Nevertheless, the foundation of God standeth sure."

Not so he who has overlooked the salutary lessons of these instructive facts, and has gathered his ideas of the religious world from the pages of some interesting fiction. When he comes in contact with realities, the beautiful vision that delighted him must vanish. Disappointments and discouragements will come thick upon him. His zeal must be damped, and his ardour quenched, and in all human probability his faith will be shaken.

It is a still stronger objection to works of fiction, that they place their reader in an ideal world, where he can enjoy the luxury of tender or sublime emotions, without undergoing the toil and the self-denial, which are inseparable from the conduct that usually produces such feelings. He forgets his own character, and identifies himself with the hero of the story. And if he but succeed in supposing the generous or benevolent deeds of this character to be his own; he succeeds to a certain degree in actually appropriating to himself the feelings which spring from such actions.

It is a strange paradox that men of the basest and most grovelling characters can sympathize with such feelings. It is strange, indeed, that a man who can be ravished with the beauties of nature should be capable of turning from the elevating contemplation of the work of God to the gratification of his grossest appetites. And yet such characters are to be found. The lives of some of our most illustrious poets furnish us with too conspicuous examples. The readers of fiction present us with a similar paradox; and the explanation in both cases is the same. The poet, in phrensy, forgets for a while the real world, and forgets his own real character, and so does the reader of fiction, though in a less degree. The only difference is, that the novelist does for his reader what the poet does for himself. The truth is, that the class of feelings to which we allude, are highly productive of pleasure; and no wonder that even the vicious love to indulge in them, when they can do so at a cheaper price than virtue. In a region of fancy such emotions can be cheaply purchased, and hence the universal charm of novels. Even the miser can dissolve in tenderness over a tale of suffering, when he knows that his gold is safe. And the narrowest spirit can dilate with generosity, if self interest be not at stake. And finally, the most degraded profligate can admire and sympathize with virtue, if his vicious passions may still be gratified. Let any one who wishes for an exemplification of these remarks, read Rousseau’s Eulogium on the character of Jesus Christ.

These general remarks, we think, are quite applicable to the religious novels of the day. We have not alluded to the pernicious principles contained in common novels: our observations have a regard to those qualities alone that are common to all works of fiction. Now it is indeed a serious evil, if by the process we have described, those delightful emotions which attend the deeds of philanthropy, can be stolen without paying their fair price in benevolent actions. But it is an evil more serious still, if, in this way, we can work ourselves into a state of sentimental excitement, and mistake this for that hallowed ecstasy which the faith of the gospel can alone afford. A mistake here is fatal, and we cannot help thinking that the class of publications we refer to make such a mistake easy. If an unknown author may be allowed to refer to his own experience, he can well remember perusing with intense delight, the fascinating pages of "No Fiction," and giving the sympathy of his tears to some of its affecting passages, when his whole soul was in direct opposition to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

There are many who look upon evangelical Christianity as a beautiful system, and who can delight to contemplate it, so long as it interferes not with them. They consider an eloquent sermon as a high intellectual treat. If ever they are offended with the preacher, or his doctrine, it is when conscience whispers that this may be all a reality, and may have an influence on their own destinies. The preacher is to them "as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well upon an instrument." Give such persons religion dressed up in the form of a fiction, and it is just the thing they want. The song which charmed them remained in all its loveliness; and the truth which excited their alarm, is alarming no longer, when so closely wrapped with what is known to be fictitious.

If we may be allowed to add a single remark to a discussion already too lengthened, we would observe, that the style of the inspired writers seems to pronounce tacit condemnation on these high coloured and overstrained productions. They have surely adopted the best method of conveying instruction, who had all resources within their power, and almighty wisdom to direct their choice. Their method is a recital of naked facts. Here is no embellishments, no impassioned description, although the facts related are the most affecting which our earth has witnessed. They wished that the convictions of their readers should rest on facts, and that their feelings too should be excited by facts. (We trust we shall not be misunderstood, as speaking against earnest appeals founded on these facts.)

The artist or the novelist may set before our imaginations the circumstances of the Redeemer’s death, much more impressively than any of the evangelists have done. We may gaze upon the crucifix and weep; but our tears will not be the tears of repentance. And our indignation may burn against the persecutors of one so meek and so benevolent, while we continue more attached than ever to those sins that nailed the Lord of glory to the tree. It is the simple fact that the Son of God died for our sins, — as that fact illustrates the divine character, — which can make us abhor the sin we gloried in, and gladly suffer for the truth we once despised.

While we have so rich a store of facts, it is surely unwise to resort to fiction. We will venture to say, that one judicious volume of Christian biography, has been of more service to the cause of truth, than all the religious tales, or stories, "founded on fact," that have ever issued from the press.

The following fragment on a very important subject, appears to have been written about this time. I deeply regret that it is but a fragment, as from the very happy mode of illustrating the subject, which belongs to the first part of the paper, it would, I have no doubt, been a very admirable illustration of the doctrine had he lived to complete it —

ON THE OMNIPRESENCE AND OMNISCIENCE OF GOD

When we have offended a fellow man, and wish to escape his anger, the first thought that occurs, is to flee from his presence. We know that his observation is limited to one little spot; and that anywhere else we are safe.

Imagine, however, that such an individual possessed an active band of emissaries, scattered over a large extent of territory, with whom he can maintain an easy communication; or, that he himself is able to move with immense velocity in whatever direction he may please; and you can see how difficult it would be to escape from his presence. A well-regulated police will give some idea of this. Let an offender escape whither he will, a description of his person, and a warrant to apprehend him, is there before him. Suppose such a system perfect, and that all its operations are performed, not by numerous agents, but by one individual, possessed of the power of moving with the rapidity of lightning if you will, still this would afford but a poor conception of what is meant by omnipresence.

Flight would no longer be a means of escape; but concealment might. The eye of man cannot pierce the darkness, — nor can he guess the design that is formed in secret. And, however swift his motions, and minute his observations, some lurking place might still be found, which the most exquisite scrutiny could discover. The bare possibility of escape would be thus afforded, and that is all. But there is no such possibility of escape from God. "If we ascend up into heaven," &c. It is not by any change of place that God meets us wherever we turn. However difficult may be the conception, he is present everywhere. He fills heaven and earth with his presence. No wonder that David exclaimed, on contemplating the omnipresence of the Deity, —"Such knowledge is too wonderful for me." Psalm cxxxix. 15. If we wish to do anything in secret, it is the presence of a sentient being that we dislike; and the more acute and piercing his senses, the more would we avoid his presence. The mental and moral character of an individual is also a matter of importance. Thus darkness suspends the power of one of the human senses. Hence men can commit crime in the dark, which they would blush to perform in open day. And, in some instances, the presence of the inferior animals would be a matter of indifference, when the presence of human beings, especially of one esteemed for his virtues, would be felt as a most distressing intrusion. Now think of these remarks in their application to God?

"The darkness and the light are both alike to him." And, if we speak of a lurking place, behold, "hell is naked before him, and destruction hath no covering. All things are naked, and open," &c. And the Almighty Being, of whom these things are affirmed, is a being of unspotted purity.

Could a human being thus force himself on our bodily presence at all times, and in all circumstances, there would yet remain to us one retreat, whose secrets, without our consent, no human scrutiny might discover. Man may drive us from every other hiding-place, but he cannot come, unbidden, into the secret place of the soul. He may mark all our words and actions but our thoughts; his most keen-sighted penetration fails him there. The torture may be employed to force the will, and compel us to reveal what is passing within us. But in some cases of firm hardihood, the tyrant has found even his tortures ineffectual. There have been minds which refused to bend, though the body was broken on the torturing wheel. But there is no such repeal from the all-knowing Deity. It is his high prerogative to know the thoughts, and to try the views, of the children of men. Think then of that Almighty Presence, which is with us wherever we go. Think of that all-seeing eye, which not only can pierce the thickest darkness, and lay open the most secret hiding place; but which, without the medium of anything material, can gaze upon the naked soul, and tell the unuttered thoughts that are rising and passing within us.

There is still another way in which we may sometimes escape the anger of a fellow-man. If we can but avoid him for a season, we know that time will erase the remembrance of the offence, or at least, it will mitigate the fury of his passion. Thus Esau, who sought to kill his brother Jacob, received him, after the lapse of years, with cordial affection. But it is not so with God. "He is not a man, that he should repent."

God is present throughout space, in the world of mind, as well as the world of matter. He is present also throughout all duration, throughout time, throughout eternity.

The former was a difficult conception. This is still more so, and language fails to express it. It may be an easier way of conceiving the idea, to say, that all the past, and all the future, are to Him as the present, "Known unto him," &c. Hebrews iv. 6. It was some such conception that the philosophers had, who spoke of the Eternal now. Neither matter, nor spirit, nor duration itself, can remove us from this omnipresent God.

Hitherto we have been labouring to get some conception of the idea expressed by the term omnipresence.

Let us consider what effect it should produce on our minds, to know that God is omniscient and omnipresent.

In the illustration we set out with, we supposed the case of one endeavouring to escape the anger of the man whom he had offended. How terrible is the anger of an adversary, who is omnipresent! On the contrary, how delightful the thought of a Friend who never leaves us! Now, how do we regard Him who alone possesses this wondrous attribute? Is God our friend, or do we think of him only as our enemy? Alas, too many think of him merely as the destroyer of their pleasures, and the punisher of their sins. They would fain flee from his presence, but they cannot. The full impression of his omnipresence would be perfect misery. This they can, in some degree, avoid if not by escaping from his presence, by banishing Him from their thoughts. The idea of God is an idea of pain. No wonder, then, if they can command the direction of their own minds, that we can say concerning them, "God is not in all their thoughts." But it will not be so always. There are cases in which conscience, roused by a deed of uncommon atrocity, and ever awake, has given some impression of an ever-present God. The murderer may flee from the scenes where he did the horrid deed but they will not leave his thoughts; asleep or awake, the sword of justice will be seen hanging over him; and in many cases, he had been known to seek the hand of the avenger, to try if death would give relief from an existence of unmingled wretchedness. O what is the misery of those who have lifted up their eyes in hell! There conscience cannot slumber. There the unwelcome idea of a God of unrelenting justice, can be banished from the thoughts no longer.


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