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« Re: Summer movie recommendations and Jane Austen | Main | ’Time is not our enemy’ »

July 10, 2007

Blog-a-Book: ’The Book of Uncommon Prayer’

Prayinghands As I was saying to Lori yesterday, I'm always interested in coming across representations of faith in literature. It's not like you have to look very hard -- with many of the classics, such representations are often right there on the surface, or if not, at least you can get a clear sense through the characters' actions and thoughts how their religious faith affects them.

That's a major reason I chose to blog about The Book of Uncommon Prayer: Meditations and Devotions from Jane Austen, Daniel Defoe, Ben Jonson, C. S. Lewis, William Wordsworth, and 54 Other Classic Writers, recommended by Kim. The editors, Constance and Daniel Pollock, write in the introduction (you'll love this, Lori):

The idea for this book was born about six weeks after our daughter Jane. Searching for special prayers to use at her baptism, we uncovered some lovely devotions in the works of Jane Austen, composed by the novelist herself. This aroused our curiosity about how other classic writers might have voiced their spiritual yearnings and relationship to God.

To my mind, this is a terrific idea for a prayer book. At the same time, knowing that some of these authors were not what you would call strictly orthodox in their beliefs, I wonder how this will affect the selections in the book. For instance, we start with Louisa May Alcott (the editors go more or less in alphabetical order). Now, if you look at the faith shown by the family in Little Women, it looks very much like your standard Christian faith, with lots of praying and Bible reading going on. (The two religious poems here that Louisa wrote when she was eleven seem to bear out this impression.)

In real life, though, it doesn't take much research to discover that Daddy Alcott raised all his "little women" to be good little Transcendentalists. Much has been written about how Bronson Alcott was far too spiritual to waste much thought on trifling matters like providing for his family, with the result that they had to provide for him. But for all his odd ideas about religion and the toll they took on his family, he was still interested in the Gospels and paid tribute to their wisdom, though he didn't believe in the divinity of Jesus. So I've sometimes wondered whether Louisa, who by turns honored and satirized her father in her work, was showing respect for him or rebelling against him with her more conventional presentation of religion. At least for me, it's not easy to tell.

One thing at least is clear: As the title implies, this is going to be no ordinary prayer book.

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