The Scarlet Letter and Moral Relativity

Alienated and embittered in the woods of Puritan Boston, Hester Prynne, the adulteress of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, stands alongside her pastor and lover Arthur Dimmesdale, begging him to take her away to the Old World. As readers of the classic know, such a quest would pose a possible relief to the social humiliation and turmoil that has plagued Hester in the city since her opening scene on the scaffold for public shaming.

Yet, as Hester and Dimmesdale find solace in each other’s arms from the raging frenzy of the Puritan mob (a raging frenzy that is actually, according to C.S. Lewis, atypical of the broader Puritan community), Hester lets slip the verbal equivalent of a sledgehammer assault on the Christian framework of morality.

And Hawthorne even has her whisper it:

“‘Never! Never!’ whispered she. ‘What we did had a consecration of its own. We felt it so! We said so to each other!'”

This murmur from Hester follows their discussion of the encounter that brought them to this point, namely the affair which resulted in her condemnation, his guilt, and the lovely “airy sprite” Pearl.

We must pause, however, at this statement to reflect on the depth and severity of Hester’s excuse. Her attempt to assuage Dimmesdale’s suffering and affirm her own sin-stained impudence relies firmly on her insistence that their sin “had a consecration of its own.” She claims their affair was its own sort of holy. In other words, it was, in its own way, right. For her evidence, she claims its “holiness” or “rightness” rises from both their feelings and their verbal declarations of “love” (“We felt it so” … “We said so”).

This line of thinking has become quite popular as the increase of social tolerance and religious pluralism sweeps our secular culture. Everybody is entitled to their own truth and their own moral code, right? We must be tolerant of everyone’s understanding of truth (except those darn Christians. We don’t have to tolerate their views, so if you happen to spot one of them, fire at will). If I could modernize Hester’s statement, it may sound something like, “It felt right, we love each other, and we aren’t hurting anybody. Those old geezers with the buckle shoes need to relax.”

Ok, maybe not that last bit.

However, a quick look to the Scripture sheds light precisely into the dark thickness of those woods. In Isaiah 5:20, the prophet declares, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light, and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” This encompasses any perversion or corruption of God’s good design and calling it right or pure. In a society becoming increasingly talented at this type of renaming and redefining (“marriage equality,” “pro-choice,” “misgendering”), God’s Word is clear on the distinction between good and evil. Hobbits and orcs will always be separate and distinguishable.

How many legs would a dog have if we called the tail a leg?

Four. A tail is a tail no matter what you call it.

In Romans 1:32, Paul reminds his readers of man’s tendency to call evil good: “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things [sin] deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” Hester’s attempt to justify her sin by claiming it had its own rightness falls directly in this category. Jeremiah warns, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (17:9). Even Jesus knew of the insufficiency of the heart to justify behavior: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matt. 15:19). Jesus hears the whispers of the Hester Prynnes of the world, trying to pardon their own sinful actions not through repentance but through redefinition. In her mind, she doesn’t have to feel bad if she can convince herself she isn’t bad.

Yet, the gospel is powerful enough to withstand such attempts to dissemble, to misconstrue, to disfigure. Drawing a mustache and spectacles on the Lincoln memorial does not tarnish or redefine the great president; in fact, it only illuminates the folly of the offender. Neither does “calling it in the air” determine which side of the coin will appear on the field. God saves sinners from their hearts, no matter how “right” or “wrong” they may think it is.

So, it would seem the framework of Christian belief is not so easily penetrable by the brazen rephrasing of sinners, particularly when they swing with hammers made of foam.

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