After reading so many brilliant reviews of the new horrible Persuasion—the best one suggested the writer and director be put in jail for a short time so they can think about what they’ve done—my girls and I decided to give it a try. Indulging in a terrible movie is called, in modern parlance, “hate-watching,” and it can be a fun time, especially if the thing is so bad as to become almost good. This wasn’t the case with the new Persuasion. It was just bad. We endured only half an hour, just past the moment where Anne accidentally tips a gravy boat over her head. Then we gave up and watched the 1995 version to try and restore sense and reason to her throne.
What is so wrong with it? So many things, too numerous, almost, to name. But the chief failure, as usual, is that the people writing it painfully did not seem to get the point of the exercise. It’s like they were strangers and aliens, looking at the text but not able to comprehend its meaning, turning over the pages but possessing no inner—or outer (did they ask for help??)—resources to orient themselves in so foreign a landscape.
Not to be hateful myself, I will admit that, to one degree or another, the only way anyone can function in the world is to “be who you are.” You take what you do know and apply it to new and incomprehensible contexts. Sometimes it works. When the new thing has some points of connection to the thing you already inhabit, you begin to build a new small world of knowledge. You might go on a trip, for example, and find yourself hungry, and discover that the people in that far-flung place also experience hunger and that some of the food is vaguely familiar. You can’t understand the names of anything, but you can point to some items that seem recognizable. Bread, for example, and meat, though that is always a bit tricky. You open a cold case and discover that every place these days manages to put water in bottles for relatively little money.
But very often, what you already know is completely at odds with the new thing, and so you interpret the thing wrongly—catastrophically so. You think you are asking for one kind of dish, and discover, too late, that it is not at all what you thought, and that you don’t even know what you are eating. You go away disappointed, unable to live and be comfortable with strange people and strange food. In the case of Persuasion, the sassy Girl-Boss motif of the current moment is so ubiquitous and unquestioned that apparently educated readers of English look down at the page and think that what they are seeing is a heroine who should be delivering lines borrowed from Legally Blond, with a heaping side of Instagram because why not. In this way, they show off their ignorance, they heap up bad reviews and laughter.
Can anything be done? In human terms, not really. For anyone to be able to read Jane Austen anymore, I suppose we would have to have some sort of divine intervention, some sort of miraculous breaking in of an older and more true motif into our poisoned and corrupt ways of seeing the world. God himself would have to open the ears and eyes of human creatures to behold the mystery of Christ, who must have been at the back of Austen’s mind as she wrote her best novel (it is, Persuasion is the best one, fight me).
Fortunately for us, two such occasions arise out of the lections for today. You, who were once alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, might wander up to peer into the living room of Mary and Martha, or you might collapse under a big tree and watch another drama unfold. Which would you rather? Both scenes are stressful. In both kitchens, a mountain of food is being cooked.
Abraham, that grand old stately patriarch, has thrown propriety to the wind and is running from one corner of his compound to another, his long robes hitched up and his unsightly ankles visible to all. His ancient wife is having to knead and bake several bags worth of flour. His too-slow-young servant his having to dress a lamb at lightning speed. Everyone is being pressured to get a move on and set out the food before his visitors decide they have to go away.
Round the corner, several centuries later, Martha is too hot and too testy in her own kitchen. Her servant girl, no matter how much Martha pushes her along, can’t be made to go any faster. And there aren’t just three visitors, there is a room full. They might all be out there laughing, but there is no joking over the stress of feeding the entire lot. And nobody will help, least of all Mary who seems to be beclowning herself, right there in the middle of all those men.
“O LORD,” groans the Psalmist, probably tired at the end of a long day, “who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill?” Only one person, it turns out, the only person who knows all, who sees not only what is going on around the table, but into the very hearts of all people no matter their language or ability to understand anything.
Martha pokes her head around the door and her Visitor sees that she is about to lose it. She, like Sarah, doesn’t have to say anything about the ocean of her disappointment and unbelief, about the heaps of unmet expectations, about the bitterness and fatigue. They have both been cooking dinner for the same man. He came and sat down in both of their courtyards. He drank water out of both of their cups. He peered into both of their hearts.
And what did he see? What does he see when he peers into your soul? Are you so much more together that you don’t stand frustrated on a Sunday afternoon over a sink of dishes while everybody else “fellowships” in the other room? Or are you so satisfied with all God has given you that you don’t laugh bitterly when you stumble over the promise of God to “present you holy and blameless and above reproach?” Don’t lie, he can see what you think and feel even when you yourself can’t.
And that’s why the food is so plain. That’s why the morning service is the same every week. You sing the songs—maybe even badly—you confess your sins, you listen to the readings, you have your tiny sip of wine and your spare bite of bread, and then you go home and face another week of filling up the sufferings of Christ, of being reconciled to him and to yourself by his death and resurrection. Over and over and over again.
You sojourn in your tent, and whether you really invited him or not, he sojourns with you. But by the end, you should be able to read his book, and understand who he is, and make sense of what he is going on about, and even enjoy and recognize the food. Because you will have painfully and slowly put down your own rights and expectations, and learned to accept him on his own terms, because he took the trouble to accept, but then transform you. See you in church!