My book The Awful Mess: A Love Story is a contemporary twist on The Scarlet Letter that naturally features a priest who gets himself into a very bad spot.
Hawthorne didn’t inspire this book, and I didn’t set out to model mine after his. I think I was nearly done with the first draft when I suddenly realized I was echoing The Scarlet Letter in some major ways. I hadn’t read it since high school, though, so I promptly reread it — this time with much more appreciation than I’d had at 17.
My errant cleric is an Episcopal priest because this book was actually inspired by the sad coincidence of knowing three separate married Episcopal priests who had cheated on their spouses in the course of their duties and thereby wrecked their careers.
(They had not cheated with me, I hasten to add!)
These were three men who were dynamic in the pulpit and beloved of their congregations. Why would they risk all that for an affair? But I also knew they were hardly alone in this.
That’s how I eventually arrived at Arthur, who wasn’t Arthur at all in the very first draft. I changed his name when I realized how much he had in common with Arthur Dimmesdale. (Roger’s name changed at that point, too.)
Anyway, why would a man do this? I decided that Arthur needed to be feeling trapped and stale to go so wrong, so I gave him a miserable marriage, as well as the problem of knowing a lot more provocative Biblical scholarship than the average congregation would ever want to hear. (Not that I’m entirely convinced he wouldn’t have cheated anyway, mind you.)
Then I needed someone for my errant priest to mess with. And that was another puzzle. What self-respecting woman would want to sleep with a married priest? And who would be stupid enough to get pregnant in the process?
My husband and I had dealt with infertility issues ourselves, so I had my answer to the second question. If you think you’re infertile, you never bother with birth control (except, ironically, during infertility treatments).
So I made Mary someone who had been cast off, and was just lonely and isolated enough to indulge in the immediate physical comfort of something she herself didn’t think was right. (I just couldn’t rename her Hester. NOBODY is named Hester.)
Anyway, for the priest, I figured Mary could represent a welcome break from having to be a spiritual leader all the time. But oddly enough, every time I tried to write Arthur seeking solace in Mary’s lack of religion (and/or her pants), he kept trying to save her soul anyway. And that’s because the man is still a sincere Christian, if a rather flagrant sinner. He’s a Christian, even though he clearly has wrestled with doubt, and doesn’t put much store in purity – or his own vows – and his theology is about as progressive as it can get and still be called Christian.
Religiously, I actually have a lot in common with Arthur. I don’t share his disregard for marital fidelity, but I do share his theology. I used to find his ideas – for example, about the virgin birth – absolutely appalling. I even left a church once because the priest was espousing them. But since then I’ve learned more, and changed my opinion about that and many other aspects of my belief.
I can still vividly remember what it was like to be so appalled, though. I can fully understand having that kind of belief, being viscerally attached to that kind of belief, while still being a perfectly intelligent person.(Atheists just don’t get how this is possible, in my experience.)
So I can value Bert’s Evangelical faith, for example. Most of all, though, I appreciate that even though he feels strongly that many things in the world are an abomination to God, he still finds it in his heart to love rather than to condemn when it really matters.
And sometimes that love is expressed in very practical ways: With food. With a coat. With shelter. With comfort to to the sick, or to those in prison.
It’s all there in the gospels, multiple times, attributed to Jesus. And that is a Jesus whose fan club I can happily remain a member of, even after I have come to doubt many aspects of the creed. Not because I expect to burn in hellfire if I don’t believe, but because I respect His teachings and want to follow them.
Anyway, as I expected, I’ve gotten some occasional grief from religious reviewers. I kept my book out of the Christian category to avoid the worst of it, but I didn’t feel I should be chased out of “religion and spirituality” completely, and so at the moment I’m drafting this, if you type in “women’s religion and spirituality” my book still shows up on the front page.
I expected some condemnation, but I’m actually impressed by the kindness shown by some people who clearly don’t share all the book’s beliefs.
(I’m also still new enough at this to be tickled to have any reviews, period.)
This blog post is, however, my rather long-winded attempt to refute the reviewer who says that the book feels insincere. She writes:
I liked the characters, and I thought the story interesting enough for 4 stars. However, I downgraded it to 3 because I felt it had a quasi-religious agenda that came across forced. The religious agenda was also somewhat blasphemous. If you have to force feed a position, it doesn’t resonate with truth. This book had undertones of man twisting God to be whatever man wants him to be so as not to have to change our behavior. It just felt insincere. Good plot though. And well paced writing.
She was generous enough to give me credit where she felt credit was due, so I can’t complain. But I’d like her and anyone who thinks that way to know that my “religious agenda” is entirely sincere.
Because I firmly believe that if you are a Christian, or even just a human, then giving and accepting love should be more important to you than anything else.