Literary Wisdom

Literary Wisdom: Mansfield Park and the Pastoral Ministry

“Beginning with its sharply satiric opening sentence, ‘Mansfield Park’ deals with money and marriage, and how strongly they affect each other. Shy, fragile Fanny Price is the consummate “poor relation.” Sent to live with her wealthy uncle Thomas, she clashes with his spoiled selfish daughters and falls in love with his on. Their lives are further complicated by the arrival of a pair of witty, sophisticated Londoners, whose flair for flirtation collides with the quiet, conservative country ways of Mansfield Park.” ~Teaser from back cover of Barnes and Noble classic edition of Mansfield Park

Last summer, the day following my birthday, one of my closest friends gave me one of the books I now hold close to my heart.

Mansfield Park, my favorite Jane Austen novel, is a brilliant story. I honestly didn’t think I’d like it as much as I did. I’d read Pride and Prejudice in the middle of my freshman year and only mildly enjoyed it (though I can’t say that I’ve never dreamed of living in Pemberley:) Mansfield Park, on the other hand, surprised me—and surprised me well. How the author knew the church! It was obvious, when I read it, that Austen delighted in discussing it—and that’s why I’m delighted to share her words with you.

(Note: You may have noticed that all but one of the quotes below are taken from the ninth chapter. If you’d like to read the bulk of Jane Austen’s discussion of the church in Mansfield Park, that chapter is an excellent starting point.)

“There is something in a chapel and chaplain so much in character with a great house, with one’s ideas of what such a household should be! A whole family assembling regularly for the purpose of prayer is fine!” ~Chapter 9, Fanny Price

It’s been said many times before, but all good things start in the family. The biological bond is already put in place, commanding a certain respect from and to each member. If, however, each member developed a spiritual bond with one another, God’s own wonders will work. Such an idyllic world where families assemble regularly for prayer, of course, can never be possible as long as Earth is fallen, but if even one family heeded Fanny’s wisdom, that would be one less dysfunctional family, one less dying group of kin—and their example will surely lead to another family’s inspiration and salvation.

“A clergyman cannot be high in state or fashion…I cannot call that situation [being a clergyman] nothing, which has the charge of all that is of the first importance to mankind, individually or collectively considered, temporally and eternally—which has the guardianship of religion and morals, and consequently of the manners which result from their influence.” ~Chapter 9, Edmund Bertram

The manner in which Austen worded the responsibilities and importance of the clergyman sharply convicted me. In our list of priorities, we like to put what we see first and what we can’t second. In Edmund’s mind, however, that ought to be reversed. The clergyman is responsible for sharing life, for guiding sheep to the Giver of life, for preventing the destruction of life in hell. And yet, this world, dying at every moment we breathe, seems more important?

“A fine preacher is followed and admired; but it is not in fine preaching only that a good clergyman will be useful in his parish and his neighbourhood, where the parish and neighbourhood are of a size capable of knowing his private character, and observing his general conduct.” ~Chapter 9, Edmund Bertram

The private character of a person, be he the leader of the church or a layman, is infinitely more important than his public life, for it is in the private place God looks through in judgement. The Bible, of course, has the best words to say on the matter:

“The spirit of a man is the lamp of the LORD, Searching all the inner depths of the heart.” ~Proverbs 20:27, NKJV

“But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the LORD does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” ~First Samuel 16:7, NKJV

“[I]t will, I believe, be everywhere found, that as the clergy are or are not what they ought to be, so are the rest of the nation.” ~Chapter 9, Edmund Bertram

As the church member’s job is of the highest importance in all of society, all will suffer in some way if he fails to accurately represent Christ. The question here is not of the separation or union of church and state; it is the right of authority the church should have in the eyes of the people, both saved and unsaved. If the church does well in filling its God-given duties, many will take note and better heed the church. If, however, the church does ill in carrying out its responsibilities, many will turn away and view the church as a altogether hypocritical chaos. Let’s pray we are more like the former option.

“He [Edmund] knows that human nature needs more lessons than a weekly sermon can convey; and that if he does not live among his parishioners, and prove himself by constant attention their well-wisher and friend, he does very little either for their good or his own.” ~Chapter 25, Sir Thomas Bertram 

One evangelism service, one prayer, one kind deed—if that is the only resume we have to show to our Maker, He’d be very displeased. Yet, if they followed suit, I’d believe He’d be more dissatisfied with those whom He has called to feed the sheep (John 21:17).

Those who are called to the pastoral ministry are also called to foster an especial level of unselfishness, of patience. Those in their care look first to them for shelter, chastening, and instruction. If he turns away his flock or those who could be potential members of the body with hypocrisy, legalism, or anger, the world will lose its salt more quickly—and God’s vengeance will swiftly follow the lack of seasoning (Matthew 5:13).

In conclusion, here’s another author’s testimony of Mansfield Park‘s power. It’s so perfect!

“How well I recall the greatest literary pleasure of my life, its time and place! A dreary winter’s day without, within a generous heat and glow from the flaming grate, and I reclining at my ease on the library lounge, Mansfield Park in hand…I was amazed that I, a hardened fiction reader, should be so transported by this gentle tale of Miss Austen’s, and yet I enjoyed to the full the aftertaste of her perfect realistic art…” ~Hiram M. Stanley, Essays on Literary Art (sourced from Barnes and Noble ed. of Mansfield Park)


~Sarah Merly

February 17, 2018

Isaiah 53