It hurt a bit when I realized that others who read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice might think they are like the author’s heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, too. I think of myself as Austen describes Bennet: spunky and sharp-witted and more than tolerable.
By the end of the novel, self-sabotaging Elizabeth Bennet is loved for who she is, a hope I have for myself. By the time I finished Austen’s famous novel, I was a Janeite, one of thousands in the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA).
Martin Luther and similar recognition
When I began seminary and dug into Martin Luther’s theology beyond confirmation class basics, I felt a similar pang of recognition. I do believe “that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him…” (See the Third Article: Sanctification)
Grace is central to who I am, and how I live out my faith. Saint and sinner? Definitely. I am recognized, in Luther’s theology. By golly, I am a Lutheran, not by growing up in such a church, but by theology, the faith put into words.
Luther and Austen describe me, my thoughts and approach to the world, so I bear their names proudly: I am a Lutheran, and I am a Janeite.
Facing hard truths
But owning these pieces of my identity means facing some hard truths too. Luther and Austen don’t always speak for me. We who bear their names have the authority to critique our heroes, for as we respond critically to them, we are engaging in self-examination.
[bctt tweet=”We … have the authority to critique our heroes, for … we are engaging in self-examination.” username=”womenoftheelca”]
Not everything Martin Luther said or did, or every heroine Jane Austen wrote about is worthy of our praise. I disagree with Luther’s writings about Jews. And I wish that Austen had used her wit against the great injustices in her time like economic inequality and the slave trade.
Some of the things people do in the names of these people I admire are considered silly by on-lookers; others are downright horrible.
Janeites attending JASNA conventions dressed in period costumes may be accused of escapism or white European elitism. With Luther, it is more serious. Luther’s work entitled “Jews and Their Lies” was used to stir up anti-Semitism amongst Hitler’s Nazi party.
As descendants of Luther, we should denounce anti-Jewish teachings. And those of us who are Janeites should be sure that we also read other modern and more diverse voices to have a well-informed world view.
This has been a big year for Lutherans and Janeites. In 2017, we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death (or as JASNA calls it, “her 200th year of immortality”).
Major anniversaries are a time for celebration, but also a time for followers to reflect on the words of those whose names we assume, however flawed they are, and we are.
Words do endure, 200, 500, and 2,000 years. It is our task to interpret them faithfully.
Lee Ann M. Pomrenke is an ELCA pastor in St. Paul, Minnesota, and is delighted to share a birthday with Jane Austen (Dec. 16). She blogs at leeannpomrenke.com.