Monday, October 16, 2006

Sin and Mr. Smooth-it-away

The "Wayside," home of Nathaniel Hawthorne
Photograph by Cindy Mercer

In the mid-1800s, Nathaniel Hawthorne, certainly no Evangelical Christian, turned his back on the radical, progressive literati of his age when he published the "The Celestial Railroad." Written after the manner of Bunyan’s, Pilgrim’s Progress and Lewis’s, The Great Divorce, Hawthorne envisions a train-load of passengers bound for the Celestial City from the City of Destruction, to heaven from hell. The un-named pilgrim's guide is "Mr. Smooth-it-away."

The train departs packed with “parties of the first gentry and most respectable people in the neighborhood” and "characters of deserved eminence—magistrates, politicians, and men of wealth." The fashionable ladies are "well fitted to adorn the most elevated circles of the Celestial City." All of their burdens are safely tucked away out of sight in the baggage car. It would be unbecoming to show them in public and bear them on their backs.

They arrive at their destination with lightning speed. Along the way, the swiftness of the journey is enhanced by the new bridge that spans the Slough of Despond. The foundation for the new bridge is built with
"volumes of French philosophy and German rationalism; tracts, sermons, and essays of modern clergymen; extracts from Plato, Confucius, and various Hindu sages together with a few ingenious commentaries upon texts of Scripture,--all of which by some scientific process, have been converted into a mass like granite." The train speeds through the tunnel cut through Hill Difficulty and over the land-fill that was the Valley of Humiliation. It simply bypasses Interpreter’s house and Palace Beautiful. Interpreter has nothing to say to enlightened moderns and the ladies of Palace Beautiful--Miss Prudence, Miss Piety, and Miss Charity--are now just “old maids, every soul of them—prim, starched, dry, and angular."

The pilgrims especially enjoy their long stay at Vanity Fair. They are amazed to see "that almost every street has its church." They meet "Rev. Mr. Shallow-deep, the Rev. Mr. Stumble-at-truth, that fine old clerical character the Rev. Mr. This-today, who expects shortly to resign his pulpit to the Rev. Mr. That-tomorrow; together with the Rev. Mr. Bewilderment, the Rev. Mr. Clog-the-spirit, and, last and greatest, the Rev. Dr. Wind-of-doctrine." Vanity Fair evidences "wonderful improvements in ethics, religion, and literature." Some of the travelers are tempted to end their pilgrimage then and there.

Finally, having boarded the ferry boat en route to his final destination, the pilgrim narrator looks back and, to his great shock, sees Mr. Smooth-it-away waving goodbye from the shore-line: "Don't you go over to the Celestial City?" he asks. "Oh, no!" answers Smooth-it-away. "And then did my excellent friend Mr. Smooth-it-away laugh outright, in the midst of which cachinnation a smoke-wreath issued from his mouth and nostrils, while a twinkle of lurid flame darted out of either eye, proving indubitably that his heart was all of a red blaze. The impudent fiend!" Smooth-it-away denies the existence of sin and hell while "he felt its fiery tortures raging within his breast."

Hawthorne’s picture is prophetic. Sin is out of style. Hell is inappropriate. Pastors and professors who deny these doctrines lead their followers over the precipice.

Hear and heed the Psalmist:

Psalm 32:1-7
A Psalm of David.
A Maskil.

[1]How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven,
Whose sin is covered!
[2] How blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity,
And in whose spirit there is no deceit!

[3] When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away
Through my groaning all day long.
[4] For day and night Thy hand was heavy upon me;
My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer.

[5] I acknowledged my sin to Thee,
And my iniquity I did not hide;
I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the Lord";
And Thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin.

[6] Therefore, let everyone who is godly pray to Thee in a time when Thou mayest be found;
Surely in a flood of great waters they shall not reach him.
[7] Thou art my hiding place; Thou dost preserve me from trouble;
Thou dost surround me with songs of deliverance.