When is illumination, as light shined upon knowledge, no more than sound and fury—signifying nothing? Are there times when illumination is even perilous? I have been on a tear this summer reading books whose copyrights have expired, allowing me to download them for free. I recently read the 1896 novel, “The Damnation of Theron Ware; or Illumination.”1 I came across it quite serendipitously while reading a blurb about its author, The New York Time’s journalist Harold Frederic, in the 1933 autobiography of another journalist, Willis Abbott.2 Abbott mentioned Frederic as an example of the glory days of newspapermen in the late 1900’s who could write across genres.
The book is still taught in some English 101 or more advanced English literature courses and continues to be the subject of scholarly articles. Harold Bloom even included it in the lengthy appendix of his 1994 book, “The Western Cannon: The Books and Schools of the Ages,” where it shared the spotlight with better known luminaries of nineteenth century American letters. But why would this book—I asked myself—which is relatively unknown outside of English departments, and whose author—primarily a journalist who only wrote a handful of best-selling novels—wind up listed with the likes of Adams, Chopin, Whitman, James, Cooper, etc.? Yes, yes, google tells me that several literary critics have praised it for its nineteenth century realism; but why, asked as a very non-rhetorical question, does it continue to show up in college syllabi? As a psychologist, I think the answer is found in the book’s sub-title, “Illumination,” under which it was published in England.
But before going into that, for those who have not read it, here is a brief summary (with apologies to all who have taught this novel). Theron Ware is a very young, married Methodist pastor who is both clever and ignorant. He is naïve, dismal at managing money, not very politically astute, and not well educated. But he is ambitious, good at preaching, and thinks highly of himself. At a time when Methodist preachers rotated through churches every three years, he has ambitions of landing a very prosperous Methodist Church in upstate New York in his second rotation after he wows the congregation with his preaching prowess. But instead, he and his wife are called to a small primitive Methodist congregation in the same district with an austere chapel and run-down manse, where pettiness and self-interest masquerade as piety.
He has a chance encounter with the Irish priest in town, Father Forbes, through whom he meets two of the other main characters, Celia Madden—an Irish free spirit, musician, and the daughter of the richest man in town—and Dr. Ledsmar—an atheist and gentleman scholar. Already downcast by his appointment, he is mesmerized by his exotic new friends who, with the ease of an evening brandy with the gentlemen, and Celia’s playing of a Chopin nocturne, convince him that Christianity is nothing more than a useful moral framework, and that his curiosity would be better suited by turning to the arts, humanities, and science to find answers to questions about God and the universe that he never thought to ask.
By the penultimate scene of the novel, he is so enthralled with Celia that he grows disgusted by his life, formulating an ever-wilder fantasy of leaving his pulpit and his wife to sail off to Europe with Celia where they can live off her money. Desperate that his friendship with Celia is slipping away, he steals three weeks of church offerings, surreptitiously following Celia and Father Forbes on a trip to New York City, finds their hotel, and figures out Celia’s hotel suite number where he goes to finally unburden his heart to her. Without any empathy or ownership that she too acted in untoward ways, she cruelly tells Theron that, in his innocence, he was a lovely plaything for his three new friends, but he has now become an immoral bore. They are done with him. In his devastation, he becomes seriously ill, leaves the ministry, and his one remaining friend sets him and his wife up to move to Seattle. But still not repentant of his months of poor behavior, as he and his wife are about to leave for the train station, he fantasizes about speaking before a great throng of men in Seattle. Theron tells his friend that he thinks he may take up politics when he gets there, saying, “I can speak you know. If I can’t do anything else. Talk is what tells, these days.”
Apart from Theron’s wife, no one is likeable in this book. No one is who they seem, everyone has an angle; all are out for themselves. Theron Ware’s damnation is not so much the passing of God’s judgement as the hell that he easily makes for himself. Both “The Damnation of Theron Ware” and “Illumination” are tongue in cheek titles, but the English title, which Frederic preferred, is more to the point: What appears to Theron to be a growing sense of illumination is really nothing more than fresh opportunities for self-deception, a fault in which all characters imbibe. While his new friends may be highly educated and his Methodist flock profess strong beliefs, no one knows themselves; no one has the spiritual wherewithal to transform their knowledge, faith, or opinions into self-revelation. They don’t know who they are or to whom they belong. There is a great deal of opacity to everyone’s illumination.
I finished the novel about the same time that I was reading through the book of Matthew. Having read Matthew umpteen times in my increasing lifespan, I tend to read the rebukes that Jesus lays on the Pharisees throughout this gospel as a gentle reminder not to be a jerk; “log in my eye,” and all that. But while finishing reading the novel, I slowed my reading cadence in chapter 23, filtering the condemnation of the pharisees through an exercise of what my own sense of illumination might be. After reading this chapter on so many occasions, verse 30 finally stabbed at me: “And you say ‘if we had lived in the days of our ancestors we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’” Jesus calls out the peril in their own illumination. But, in my own ways and for my own predilections, aren’t I just as capable of such serious self-deception? The work of social psychologist David Dunning and his colleagues suggest that its true for all of us. Over several decades they have shown that most people have difficulty with accurate self-perception, believing that they are above average on many behavioral and social markers. This includes the findings that people tend to see themselves as morally superior, believing that they would act in more generous, altruistic, ethical, and kind ways than their fellow human.”3
More knowledge, that is to say more illumination, is not necessarily the antidote for less self-deception. Those are hard words for an educator to type for we all believe that education can be transformative. But it’s important to understand that the information in our brains is organized into clusters, or what psychologists refer to as “schemas.” Our schema associated with our sense of self, that is how we perceive ourselves, is not necessarily tied to other information schemas. To do that, knowledge must be inhaled as it were. There must be an intentional non-defensive reflection to make knowledge personal to our own sense of self if it is to be linked to our self-schemas. In this case, it is appropriate for people to ask themselves, “what’s in it for me?”
There is so much noise in our lives, so much proneness to self-deception that educators cannot assume that students will have the necessary motivation, aptitudes, or skills to take advantage of an education that can transform their sense of self, their relationship with God, others, and the world around them. The content of our courses does not automatically shape the content of students’ character; knowledge that makes no difference to a student’s self-schema can be a form of illumination. As Christian educators, we are good at incorporating Scripture into our lectures, bringing unique Christian and ethical perspectives, integrating faith (in all its manifestations) with course content, using unique methodologies, and emphasizing student spiritual formation.4 We are good at the priestly functions of education. But do we give enough emphasis to our equally important prophetic role? Where do we emphasize the dangers of hubris, self-deception, lack of humility, or lack of empathy that cause those logs in our eyes. Do we truly believe that, somehow transported back 3,000 years, we wouldn’t be standing at the very front with those calling for the blood of the prophets? How do we teach that to students? Theron Ware is not a cautionary tale. He is us. And perhaps that is why this singular book remains relevant 125 years after its publication date.
- Harold Frederic. The Damnation of Theron Ware; or Illumination, New York, Stone & Kimball, 1896. Downloaded from the Hathi trust
- Willis J. Abbott. Watching the World Go By. 1934. Little, Brown, and Company. 21.
- Nicholas Epley and David Dunning. “Feeling ‘Holier Than Thou’: Are Self-Serving Assessments Produced by Errors in Self- or Social Prediction?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 79, no. 6 (2000): 861.
- Nathan Alleman, Perry L. Glanzer, and David S Guthrie. “The Integration of Christian Theological Traditions into the Classroom: A Survey of CCCU Faculty.” Christian Scholar’s Review 45, no. 2 (2016): 103–24.