Books That Have Made a Difference: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Celestial Railroad”

by Derrick G. Jeter

There was much pleasant conversation about the news of the day, topics of business, politics, or the lighter matter of amusement; while religion, though indubitably the main thing at heart, was thrown tastefully into the back-ground. Even an infidel would have heard little or nothing to shock his sensibility.

Nathaniel Hawthorne sprang from sturdy, and old, New England Puritan stock. His great-grandfather was a judge during the Salem witch trials. But Hawthorne was a bit of a wild shoot. Though believing in God, his upbringing in a strict religious environment made him suspicious of formal religion. Despite his suspicions, and his criticism of the Puritans’ religious intolerance—most notably in The Scarlet Letter, the book that brought him fame and fortune—his writing was influenced by his Puritan heritage, frequently including themes of moral choice and the darkness of the human heart.

Hawthorne’s short story, “The Celestial Railroad,” was first published in 1843, on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution and the rising popularity of Transcendentalism, particularly in New England. These two shapers of modern civilization—scientific advancement and novel ideas in theology and philosophy—ran on parallel tracks called the Enlightenment. Hawthorne used both to critique the changes taking place in American Christianity in the nineteenth century.

The temptation to reinvent Christianity has dangled in front of humanity’s nose since the beginning. One Scotsman summed up the temptation succinctly: “What I think is what the Lord would think if he knew the facts of the matter.” Quite simply, it’s a human foible to think we know more or know better than God. Wasn’t this the appeal of the first lie—that we could know good and evil, and in a way be like God (Genesis 3:5)? Of course the whole history of mankind proves that we confuse good for evil and evil for good, which is nothing like God. But the temptation continues to entice—“Did God really say. . . ?” “Well, not really,” we convince ourselves. Or if He did say it, He didn’t really mean it. So we fall into the trap that we can ‘correct’ or ‘improve on’ God, to show where He changed His mind about some command or consequence, or about sin itself. “The power is within you to make Christianity what you want it to be,” the tempter purrs. “All you need do is climb aboard and throw your burden in the baggage car.”

In the eighteenth century, faith was thrown on the garbage heap. And in an effort to clean it up, Christianity attempted to reinvent, reinterpret, and reinvigorate itself in the face of the Enlightenment’s fierce attacks. Faith was considered regressive; enlightened thought was considered progressive. Faith, it was said, had to be remade to be more rational, more modern, and above all, more “relevant.”

In the nineteenth century, when Hawthorne wrote, Christianity pushed the trend to modernize even further, especially in light of advanced scientific and physiological discoveries, and rapid industrialization. Faith was no longer seen as an answer to the origin of the universe and humanity, which placed it under the pressure to “evolve,” particularly in regard to biblical inerrancy. Faith was also on the analyst’s “couch” answering questions about its usefulness to humanity. Faith, especially through the revival movements, was becoming more process and product oriented.

By the twentieth and twenty-first centuries the temptation to reinvent and reinterpret Christianity was pushed past the breaking point, especially morally. The Episcopal Church of the United States of America, in July 2003, confirmed as bishop an avowed homosexual who divorced his wife, left his family, and was openly living with his homosexual lover. And the short lived NBC television series “The Book of Daniel” was beyond edgy—it went over the edge. The basic plot revolved around an Episcopalian priest who “not only believes in Jesus—he actually sees him and discusses life with him.” But Daniel Webster, the priest, is not your conventional clergyman with a conventional family. His eldest son is gay, his teenage daughter is dealing dope, and his rebellious adopted son is sleeping with his girlfriend. Amid this chaos, “Webster [is] grounded [by] Jesus, his best friend and confidant who serves as a sounding board and encourages Webster to find the answer to his questions within himself.” There it is again; the same trick that tripped us up in the garden—“who needs God?” The answer is hiding somewhere in your own soul!”

The move to reinvent Christianity, at least in some circles, produced a protest of voices decrying the sellout of faith, and with it the sellout of faith’s spiritual and cultural impact. Their message of protest was simple: the “relevance” movement drove the faith to commit suicide.

Some of the greatest writers were among the voices warning of the church’s stupidity in trying to improve on God’s ways. In Russia, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” in The Brothers Karamazov, illustrates the evil of knowing better than God. In Denmark, Søren Kierkegaard unleashed a blistering attack on institutionalized Christendom. His scathing satire, “Fishers of Man” mercilessly skewered the church’s attempts to get beyond the simple-minded peasantry of Jesus and his followers and build a corporate-minded “Man-Fisher” big enough to compete in the age of industry and mass production.

In America, Nathaniel Hawthorne, though not as well known, wrote “The Celestial Railroad.” A parody of John Bunyan’s seventeenth century classic, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Hawthorne recounts Pilgrim’s journey to the Celestial City as if he were making the trip in 1843. The parody, however, is not to make fun of Bunyan’s vision of the Christian life, but to satirize the “improvements” made to the faith in Hawthorne’s day.

In “The Celestial Railroad” Pilgrim is not a lonely travel with a burden on his back, sloughing his way to the Celestial City. He travels in the comforts and luxuries of a railcar, with “parties of the first gentry and most respectable people in the neighborhood, setting forth toward the Celestial City as cheerfully as if the pilgrimage were merely a summer tour.” Pilgrim doesn’t travel with loyal companions such as Faithful. He journeys with Mr. Smooth-it-away, who represents suave and slick churchmen of Victorian New England.

“The Celestial Railroad” is a parody of the first order, lampooning the reinvention of faith, of easy believeism, and of I-know-it-better-than-God religion. It should be required reading for all Christians, but especially by the professional class within Christianity, for it reveals what happens to faith when we try to smooth away difficulties and circumvent challenges.

Scotsman quote: Anonymous, in Os Guinness “The Celestial Rail-Road” by Nathaniel Hawthorne (McLean, VA: The Trinity Forum, 2003), 3.

“The Book of Daniel” quotes: http://www.nbc.com/The_Book_of_Daniel/about/, accessed 8 January 2006.

I’m indebted to The Trinity Forum’s “The Celestial Rail-Road” by Nathaniel Hawthorne for many of the ideas presented in this essay.

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