The year was 1959. I was 14 and a new freshman at Colusa Union High School in Colusa, California when our English teacher gave out a list of books. We were to choose one to read in a month’s time. The publishing company was to send out a test on each book read. The most difficult book on the list was Joseph Conrad’s “Lord Jim”. That is the one I chose, in a bid to curry Mrs. Pence’s favor.
It got her attention immediately. “Why Chris, that book is considered college level reading. Are you sure you want to tackle it?” She then mentioned the two others who had chosen the book. They were the smartest girls in the junior class. Yes, I was quite sure that was the book I wanted to read.
I soon discovered how difficult the book was. I read late into the night, putting myself to sleep within the confusion of my chosen intellectual treatise. In addition, I went to the public library, and found and read every article, every commentary, and every critique, written about the book and its author. The writer, Polish author Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, had mastered the English language to write this and other such works, under the name Joseph Conrad. I came to have the beginning of an understanding of the book and its brilliant author. (He did not learn English until he was in his twenties.) When the time came for the publishing house exam, I scored a B+. My two upper grade competitors, the juniors girls, scored a C-, and I suspect that barely. In the eyes of my teacher, my stock increased immediately. In her eyes, I could do no wrong.
But of greater importance, the message behind the novel sank deep into my being, and continues with me still, for it is a tale of redemption. Deeply and genuinely repentant, the idealistic Jim spends his life agonizing and laboring to repay for a past failing. His struggles to redeem himself, and his grief over his past, are such that he labors all his days in the service of others, winning their love and admiration in the process.
Trouble ensues with a pirate who knows of Jim’s past. Rather than take the life of the pirate, he allows him to escape, because he feels it would be dishonorable to take the life of a man, simply because he knows of Jim’s past. The pirate and his men set an ambush in which a young friend of Jim’s is killed. In an attempt to recompense for the life of the boy, Jim willingly turns himself over to the grieving father. Having thus offered himself up, he takes a bullet in the chest.
Great literature has the capacity to stir our souls, and to uplift and edify us. Through great literature we become privy to profound thought, for no book of true value is written save through intense mental struggles on the part of the author. His mind probes the very depth of human reason; he pens his thoughts with the aid of Heaven; inspiration is his guide and benefactor. His mind is constantly on his chosen piece, for even in his leisure moments, he is mentally writing and rewriting.
Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers, as well as one of the most influential interpreters and promoters of the Constitution, had this to say of his works; “Men give me some credit for genius. All the genius I have lies in just this: When I have a subject in mind, I study it profoundly. Day and night it is before me. I explore it in all its bearings. My mind becomes pervaded with it. Then the effort which I make the people are pleased to call the fruit of genius. It is the fruit of study and labor.”
The greatest of all the works of literature center on and around the theme of man’s desire to better himself, and to redeem and separate himself from that which is carnal and worldly. Was not the fruits of such separation the gist of the Psalmist’s question? “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet.”
Of all literature written, is there any to compare with the scriptures, from which source many a great writer has received spiritual sustenance? In holy writ, the central theme is indeed that of redemption, for a loving God would have us return to Him cleansed of our sins, if only we will.
It is of godly love and redemption that we read in the following scripture. Among the Jews in Jesus’ day, it was the custom to receive a visitor with a kiss. Water was provided that he might wash the dust from his feet. His head was anointed with oil. He was given a place of honor to rest himself, according to his standing in the community. We shall see the treatment rendered unto Jesus, by one Simon the Pharisee.
“And one of the Pharisees desired him that he would eat with him. And he went into the Pharisee’s house, and sat down to meat. And behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster box of ointment, in the city, and stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee which had bidden him saw it, he spake within himself, saying, This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner. And Jesus answering said unto him, Simon, I have somewhat to say unto thee. And he saith, Master, say on. There was a certain creditor which had two debtors: the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both.Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most? Simon answered and said, I suppose that he, to whom he forgave most. And he said unto him, Thou hast rightly judged. And he turned to the woman, and said unto Simon, Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head. Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment. Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little. And He said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven…Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace.”
Each of us are benefactors of God’s love, and of His grace. Through His grace, we can overcome the effects of our sins and personal weaknesses. As in the case of the woman in the home of Simon the Pharisee, the love and mercy of Jesus Christ will enable us to heal spiritually.
Let us take time to be selective in our reading, and peruse only the very best literature. We can gauge its quality by the effect it has on us. If it serves to uplift and edify, it is worthy of our time. Let us devote quality time to our study of the scriptures, for through the scriptures we come to know the Holy One of Israel, and that Holy Being who sent Him to our rescue. Yes, let us learn of Him, for how tragic it will be in a future day, if we, like unto Simon the Pharisee, fail to recognize Him for who He is! But if we recognize Him, it shall be because in this life, through obedience to His commandments, we came to understand in a small way His great atoning sacrifice in our behalf. Like unto the woman in the house of Simon the Pharisee, we shall love Him forever.