I bought a copy of A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf. She began the book by mentioning Christina Rossetti in her first entry1. Woolf says, “If I were bringing a case against God she [Rossetti] is one of the first witnesses I should call.” So, if Virginia Woolf was making a case against God, why would she call Christina Rossetti, a devout Christian poet, as one of her first witnesses?
Here’s an excerpt from Monday, August 4, 1918:
Christine has the great distinction of being a born poet, as she seems to have known very well herself. But if I were bringing a case against God she is one of the first witnesses I should call. It is melancholy reading. First she starved herself of love, which meant also life; then of poetry in deference to what she thought her religion demanded. There were two good suitors. The first indeed had his peculiarities. He had a conscience. She could only marry a particular shade of Christian. He could only stay that shade for a few months at a time. Finally he developed Roman Catholicism and was lost. Worse still was the case of Mr. Collins—a really delightful scholar—an unworldly recluse—a single-minded worshipper of Christina, who could never be brought into the fold at all. On this account she could only visit him affectionately in his lodgings, which she did to the end of her life. Poetry was castrated too. She would set herself to do the psalms into verse; and to make all her poetry subservient to the Christian doctrines. Consequently, as I think, she starved into austere emaciation a very fine original gift, which only wanted licence to take to itself a far finer form . . . . She wrote very easily; in a spontaneous childlike kind of way one imagines, as is the case generally with a true gift; still undeveloped. She has the natural singing power. She thinks too. She has fancy. She could, one is profane enough to guess, have been ribald and witty. And, as a reward for all her sacrifices, she died in terror, uncertain of salvation.2
Woolf acknowledges Rossetti’s marvelous poetic gifts. What concerned Woolf was Rossetti “starved herself of love, which meant also life; then of poetry in deference to what she thought her religion demanded.” Woolf, in my opinion, was not being critical of Rossetti, in fact, she’s sympathetic. She describes her story about Rossetti as “melancholy reading”. What Woolf seems critical of is a type of puritanical Christianity that encourages practitioners to starve love, life, and creativity. It’s sad when, in the name of Christianity, we diminish our life and the gifts we could give others.
The enclosed world of puritanical Christianity doesn’t seem to be as prevalent today as it was at the time of Rossetti. Much of the moral rigidity seems to have given way to a new kind of enclosed world marked by rigid and impenetrable ideology. This ideology goes beyond theological beliefs and has added dogmatism and divisiveness on nearly every topic from politics to science to social issues. It’s a way of thinking that goes beyond having opinions and ideas. In many cases, these ideas can no longer be discussed with civility or tested for accuracy without a severe reaction. This enclosed world also starves love, life, and creativity.
When, in the name of Christianity (or God or Christ or our church), only the people who believe like us have the truth — when we think we know what everyone else should think and believe — when we judge other people for making choices that are none of our business — when we parrot the cable news talk show hosts instead of hearing the other side of important and complex issues — when we’re consistently the most dogmatic person in the room or on social media — when our filter is so sensitive that we can’t have a conversation without correcting, misunderstanding, or resenting others — when we sideline learning, listening, receptivity, gentleness, humility, and discovery, we’ve entered into an enclosed world that starves love, life, and creativity. There is an Old Testament proverb that talks about the one who “takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing personal opinion.”3 Let’s not be that person.
We should have our own opinions – even strong opinions. But, when we enter into an enclosed world of rigid and impenetrable ideology, we too, will be called to the witness stand — in another case against God.
1This caught my attention because I’ve written about the song In the Bleak Midwinter which was based on one of Rossetti’s poems.
2Woolf, Virginia. A Writer’s Diary (Harvest Book) (pp. 1-2). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
3Proverbs 18.2 (NRSV)
Wonderful insight about today’s Christian brand. I was also reminded that when our free thinking is governed by group think, we become at least stifled and perhaps paralyzed, living in the fear of “getting it right” rather living in the adventure and power of ideas.
Thank you for your comments Larry. Great additional thoughts – I appreciate you adding them.
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