Monday, June 4, 2012

"There is Special Providence in the Fall of a Sparrow"

In a post from last week, I wrote about the difficulty (and importance) of avoiding anachronism in historical fiction, not simply in terms of material culture, but the world-view of our characters. Authors have to negotiate a difficult path between the Scylla of making our characters too modern, and the Charybdis of making them so historical that readers cannot identify with them.

Oddly enough, that post was a bit of an unintended tangent. The subject I had intended to write about was divine providence.

Devotees of Shakespeare no doubt recognize Hamlet’s claim that, “There is special providence in / the fall of a sparrow.” (V. ii. 215-6) In this passage, Shakespeare is drawing on an idea found in the book of Matthew, which notes, “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing, and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father?” (Matt. 10.29)

Shakespeare and Matthew are making two related points here. The first is relatively straightforward: Nothing that happens without God’s permission. If you accept the idea of an omnipotent and omniscient God, this is an obvious (and not terribly interesting) point.

But in the early modern period, there was another rather more foreign concept that went along with this. Not only did God authorize every event, virtually any event, good or bad, could be interpreted as a sign from God.

In other words, the world was a series of coded messages from God, and the believer was obliged to study their lives in search of His hidden meaning.

In some cases, the meaning of events could be quite clear. In 1623, a Jesuit priest named Robert Drury was in the midst of delivering a sermon to some three-hundred hearers when the floor of his makeshift church collapsed, killing Drury and scores of hearers. For Puritan preachers and pamphleteers, such a tragedy was (literally and figuratively) a gift from God. What better proof could you want that God hated Catholicism?

But God was not always so obvious when he spoke, and Englishmen and women (especially the godly) had to listen carefully. Puritan minister Oliver Heywood wrote in his diary of his narrow escape from serious injury when his horse fell and nearly crushed him:

“I reflected upon what I was thinking of when I fell, and I had been thinking of the great company that came to hear me preach the day before…and methought that was a seasonable correction to my pride…blessed be god for his gracious confutation of my pride.”

Here Heywood has found divine reproach for the sin of pride in a relatively common event. It’s not that he was lucky, and it wasn’t chance. In that moment, God known what he was thinking and as a warning against the sin of pride He had knocked Heywood’s horse to the ground.

Nor was this a singular example. Heywood kept a diary dedicated to examples of God’s providence, listing the horrible accidents met by sinners, and the blessings bestowed on saints. What is more, when Heywood grew old, his very survival was an ongoing example of divine providence. How else could he explain his mere existence except that God had made a conscious decision to allow it?

The idea of divine providence is important not just as a reminder that in many ways our characters are not us. At times they may look and act like us, but the mental world in which they live is much, much different. When our characters react to a murder, the death of a monarch, or the outbreak of war, the question some of them will ask is, “What is the meaning of this?”. And when they ask, they are dead serious – they want to know what God intends, and to react accordingly.

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