Artists Struggling with Evangelicalism 2

Eliot.jpgGeorge Eliot was Mary Ann Evans (1819-1880), and a famous novelist. She is the subject of David Hempton’s first study in how artists struggle with the evangelical faith ( Evangelical Disenchantment: Nine Portraits of Faith and Doubt
). Eliot’s most famous novels were Adam Bede, Silas Marner, and MIddlemarch.

Hempton focuses on two major writing events in Eliot’s career, one of which is considered “one of the finest pieces of polemical prose in the English language” and is called “Evangelical Teaching: Dr. Cumming” (1855) and the other powerful, positive, sympathetic descriptions of evangelicals in her novels, including the character Dinah Morris in Adam Bede.

I would put Eliot’s problem with evangelicalism like this: she embraced the evangelical gospel and the Bible and then used specific ideas of both evangelicalism and the Bible against the larger picture. So, she deconstructed evangelicalism by appealing to the theme of love and grace and compassion, which she thought countered the form of evangelicalism she knew.


Who has read her novels? Any comments about the books or ideas? Do you think her deconstruction is justifiable?

Eliot’s conversion occurred through her teacher, Maria Lewis, and she was committed to all the evangelical factors: passion for Bible study, devotion to evangelical biography, a morbid introspectiveness, concern for the sick and needy, and refusal to participate in such things as “fiction” (novels!) and theater. Within less than a decade, however, she walked from the faith. Her father said she stopped attending church in 1842.

Her diatribe against Dr Cumming was 13 years later and heaped up her problems with evanagelicalism and they were three-fold: (1) his deficiency of love that showed up in a party spirit and a kind of evangelical tribal loyalty; (2) an obsession with prophecy, including detailed predictions of the end that would occur in 1867 — the man was a huge success in London as the major church of Scottish Calvinists; and (3) the morality of his teaching on eternal punishment, which for her was essentially an image of God that was unloving and unlovable.

Alongside this Eliot famously dived into German higher criticism, translating Strauss, Spinoza (not German), and Feuerbach — and many have anchored her problems with the faith here. But Kempton shows that her problems (above) began earlier.

Eliot’s religion became humanism; she got over her anger and bitterness toward evangelicals and learned to focus on the good, the merciful, and the compassionate. Kempton sums up her faith like this: “For her the essence of religion was neither a set of forensic theological propositions nor an assemblage of apocalyptic aspirations. Rather, true and undefiled religion was a life of inclusive love, devoted service to humankind, and forgiveness” (39-40).

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • John C

    It might be significant that one of her most sympathetic portrayals of Evangelicals comes in form of Dinah Morris, a Methodist woman preacher, in Adam Bede. The fact that some sectors of Evangelicalism made space for women’s voices probably appealed to Eliot (just as it might do today for artists otherwise sceptical of the Evangelical church).

  • Eileen

    Scot, it has been a long time since I’ve read Eliot so I’m not sure I have a clear memory of all the subtle messages. However, I would only offer that perhaps when we step away from the sectors of evangelicalism but still desire a relationship with God, we may naturally become more humanitarian or what is now called missional. IF evangelicals get preoccupied with building their churches, paying for their programs and I’ll dare say converting their Catholic neighbors then would not the deeply spiritual feel the deficiency in authentic love.
    Perhaps Eliot tried to integrate her own radical and strong beliefs through her writing because she didn’t have another way to work it out? And are our options much better in 2009?

  • Diane

    John C,
    Yes, given Eliot’s heartfelt depictions in her novels of caring, good women limited or challenged by patriarchy or overbearing men, the intersection of women and faith is particularly interesting here. Eliot openly critiques the place of woman in society in her novels in memorable ways and lived for many years in a non-marital relationship with the critic George Lewes, so it seems clear that she was groping for a faith transcending legalism and female subjugation. I feel for people like her and Van Gogh, intelligent, passionate people who thirsted for Jesus and God, but faced a world with no adequate structure for meeting their need. Of course, out of that gap, we got great artists.

  • RJS

    Diane,
    The importance or role of patriarchy and male “superiority” here is interesting. It is hard, perhaps even unhealthy, to remain committed to a worldview that consistently devalues your being. But I think that the problems that Eliot had with evangelicalism or Christianity in 19th century England were typical of a broad swathe of the intellectual elite, intelligent passionate people – not just artists and writers – and not just women. Eliot’s groping for place finds outlet in her writing.
    In answer to one of Scot’s questions – I don’t think her deconstruction is entirely fair, but I think it is a legitimate critique of damaging forms of evangelicalism.

  • eileen

    I love this discussion! I like the comments already posted. I personally place a high value on that combination of intelligence, courage, and passion that (in my words) reconstructs rather than deconstructs. It is very cool when that which is artistically birthed lights or sparks or resonates with our own passions and the trickle down effect is perhaps called “evangelism.”

  • Diane

    Lost one comment; will keep trying.
    RJS, I agree you completely, but was focusing on the focus on this thread. I believe scientists/ artists experience much the same problem with certain forms of Christianity. In her novels, Eliot is scathing towards the women who “buy into” patriarchy in ways that limit or destroy intellectual/medical/scientific/artistic men. We need go no further than Middlemarch to see that!

  • Pat

    RJS wrote “But I think that the problems that Eliot had with evangelicalism or Christianity in 19th century England were typical of a broad swathe of the intellectual elite, intelligent passionate people – not just artists and writers – and not just women.”
    I agree completely. It was the most interesting period for religious writing that I’ve ever encountered. It seemed as if people both cared about religion and felt they had a right and duty to reach personal answers to their vexing questions about it.
    Nowadays we seem to either accept authority or decide that it really doesn’t matter — either it really doesn’t matter whether we believe in god at all, or it really doesn’t matter what his character is. And I share a lot of this apathy. When I find myself wrestling with a theological issue, some voice in my head asks ‘are you really getting bent out of shape because of some ancient book of propaganda written by a bunch of old patriarchs in a completely different culture?’ I just can’t take the enterprise seriously, and the rule book for an enterprise I could take seriously hasn’t been written yet.


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