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“But we, distracted in the roar of life,
Still insolently at God’s adverb snatch,
And bruit [spread rumour] against Him that His thought is void,
His meaning hopeless – cry, that everywhere
The government is slipping from his hand,
Unless some other Christ, (say Romney Leigh)
Come up and toil and moil and change the world,
Because the First has proved inadequate,
However we talk bigly [highly] of His work
And piously of His person. We blaspheme
At last, to finish our doxology,
Despairing on the earth for which He died.” – Aurora Leigh

And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.          – Hebrews 11:6

Sometimes we are deceived into thinking the questions of our age are unique to ours alone, and that they mark a progression of human thought. However, issues which concern us today, such as social justice and social welfare, preoccupied the Victorians just as much (as evidenced by books such as Aurora Leigh) as they sought to ameliorate the detestable working and living conditions of the lower classes. In Christian spheres, both today and in the 1800s, the issue of social justice becomes a theological one, and not a peripheral debate, either; our view on good works reflects our understanding of the gospel and the role of Jesus Christ in our salvation. How much are we responsible for curing social ills? Are we doubting the sovereignty of God by fretting over our works? Could it be blasphemy to do so, as Barrett Browning writes?

The question especially close to Barrett Browning’s heart in Aurora Leigh is the role of the artist – the contemplator of God, his creation and the people he populated it with. How productive is art, and by extension, faith, in a hungry and starving world? These questions are older than our age or the Victorians’; they go back to the Bible and its discussion of faith vs. works. Every age since the Bible has wrestled with (or settled) this issue differently, some weighing down heavily on one side or the other. For many Victorians confronted with the suffering brought about by the industrial revolution, particularly the Christian socialists and the Unitarians (such as Elizabeth Gaskell), their theology, which perceived Jesus’ primary work on the cross as exemplary, rather than atoning, provided the impetus for their emphasis on charity and education for the poor, i.e. good works.

That said, Gaskell’s social problem novel Mary Barton includes a noticeable lack of practical suggestions for fixing society and instead relies on scriptural exegesis, namely 1 Corinthians 12, which promotes a united body guided by the spirit of Christ, for her solution to the class divide. Her exegesis belies her value of faith; she can’t help but bring God into a discussion of evil and suffering, and prioritize the reconciliation of society with its heavenly Father and brothers and sisters in Christ before social reform. And can a novel, a work of art (an oxymoron?), really constitute a “good work” anyway? Which brings us back to Aurora Leigh, which tries to marry the two sides of the salvation coin – faith and works.

I am reminded of Mark 14, where the disciples harshly criticize a woman for wasting beautiful-smelling perfume that “could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor” by pouring it over Jesus’ feet. Rebuking them, Jesus calls her effort “beautiful.” Also, the many verses commanding us to daily praise the Lord and to continually contemplate his law come to mind. Faith is our upward expression, toward heaven, through our praises, thanksgiving, prayers, repentance and contemplation, and works are our outward expression, toward our fellow human beings, and they include charity, kindness, feeding the poor, caring for orphans, forgiveness, intercessory prayer and so on; even these, we do to please God. We need both the poet (Aurora Leigh) and the philanthropist (Romney Leigh), the former to inspire our faith and the latter to move us to action. We know the Bible clearly delineates that faith and works cannot be separated, because the the latter is evidence of the former; however, faith always comes first, which I believe is the central message of Aurora Leigh. We are justified by faith first, when Christ first grips our soul, and then works follow, as we seek to follow in his footsteps. I leave you with the following arresting illustration from Aurora Leigh:

“‘Tis impossible
To get at men excepting through their souls,
However open their carnivorous jaws;
And poets get directlier at the soul,
Than any of you oeconomists:–for which,
You must not overlook the poet’s work
When scheming for the world’s necessities.
The soul’s the way. Not even Christ himself
Can save man else than as He hold man’s soul;
And therefore did He come into our flesh,
As some wise hunter creeping on his knees
With a torch, into the blackness of some cave,
To face and quell the beast there,–take the soul,
And so possess the whole man, body and soul.” – Aurora Leigh

______________________________

Some more quotes from Aurora Leigh worth pondering:

“Art is much, but love is more.
O Art, my Art, thou’rt much, but Love is more!
Art symbolises heaven, but Love is God”

 

“Verily I was wrong;
And verily, many thinkers of this age,
Ay, many Christian teachers, half in heaven,
Are wrong in just my sense, who understood
Our natural world too insularly, as if
No spiritual counterpart completed it
Consummating its meaning, rounding all
To justice and perfection, line by line,
Form by form, nothing single, nor alone,–
The great below clenched by the great above;
Shade here authenticating substance there;
The body proving spirit, as the effect
The cause: we, meantime, being too grossly apt
To hold the natural, as dogs a bone,
(Though reason and nature beat us in the face),
So obstinately, that we’ll break our teeth
Or ever we let go. For everywhere
We’re too materialistic,–eating clay,
(Like men of the west) instead of Adam’s corn
And Noah’s wine; clay by handfuls, clay by lumps,
Until we’re filled up to the throat with clay,
And grow the grimy colour of the ground
On which we are feeding. Ay, materialist
The age’s name is.”

“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes”

 “The Christ himself had been no Lawgiver,
Unless He had given the life, too, with the law.”

“This race is never grateful: from the first,
One fills their cup at supper with pure wine,
Which back they give at cross-time on a sponge,
In bitter vinegar.’
              ‘If gratefuller,’
He murmured,–’by so much less pitiable!
God’s self would never have come down to die,
Could man have thanked him for it.'”

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