In Though Waters Roar (2009), Lynn Austin tells the story of Beatrice “Bebe” Garner through the eyes of her granddaughter Harriet Sherwood. Harriet wants to be a heroine like the other women in her family: her great-grandmother Hannah fights slavery, Bebe fights alcohol, and her mother Lucy fights for women’s suffrage. Unlike some other Christian novelists I have read, Austin has a sharp writing style and she tells interesting stories, a rare combination. I liked Bebe’s story the most, but I identified with Harriet; I know what it is to feel lost while seeking a life purpose. I also learned much about American history from a woman’s point of view and I liked the characters’ insights on a Christian woman’s role, both at home and in society.
Although I like Austin as a storyteller, she does not know the Bible well and hurts readers unschooled in it. First, Austin’s portrayal of the gospel and its influence (legal, moral, social) is unbiblical. Her characters frequently offer people cheap forgiveness when they have not changed. Yet there is no forgiveness without repentance and no grace or mercy without judgment. “Forgive others as God has forgiven you”: Jesus paid the price for everyone, but God does not forgive sinners until they repent. “If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3).*
Through the voice of Bebe, Austin also makes two mistakes. First, she says that Jesus denounced the Pharisees for “dictating morality” (424). However, the Pharisees were “moral guardians” of their day and Jesus expected this of them (424). He told his disciples, “Do as they say because they sit in Moses’ seat” (Matthew 23:2-3). Jesus himself fulfilled the Law of Moses, which God gave to Israel. The divine lawgiver made his people lawgivers for a reason. Conversion helps us obey the law. The Pharisees’ only sin was disobedience with knowledge – saying and not doing, i.e. hypocrisy (23:3).
Second, Austin says that legislation does not produce obedience. Yes, the Emancipation Proclamation did not eliminate racism, Prohibition alcohol, or the Suffrage Amendment male chauvinism. “Only God can change people,” so a Christian’s duty is “to bring people to Christ” (425). However, she wrongly concludes that Christians should not bother with legislation: “It isn’t our calling as Christians to write laws that force people to live moral lives” (424-25). The work of William Wilberforce (slavery) and William Carey (sati) tells a different story. Even the Emancipation Proclamation eliminated slavery. Good legislation is vital for law and order. It and evangelism help fix society’s problems. They go hand-in-hand.
So what about Bebe? She marries Horatio Garner, an alcoholic who suffers nightmares from his Civil War days. Instead of overseeing his father’s tannery, Horatio often comes home drunk. Inspired by Carrie Nation, Bebe decides to start a chapter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Its activities include educating churchgoers, signing temperance pledges, listing saloon customers in newspapers, and chopping up saloons and alcohol shipments with an axe. The women sing and pray outside these saloons, hoping to deter their male customers and close them. Bebe even takes Horatio to their cabin, in order to remove him from saloons so he will not be tempted to drink.
Does this flurry of activity sound familiar? The WCTU is not what it used to be, but the pro-life movement has successfully taken its place. Through articles and posters, websites educate people about the evils of abortion and euthanasia. Some men and women stand outside abortion clinics with pro-life signs. Others sing and pray. Still other people fight cigarettes, guns, drugs, alcohol, pornography, nuclear weapons, inadequate education, racism, and poverty. As horrible as some of these things are, they are just red herrings. The real problem is sin.
Likewise, Horatio Garner’s real problem is not alcohol or his adulterous and inattentive father. These things are just red herrings. No, Horatio’s problem is sin. It manifests itself in selfishness and an evil eye toward his illegitimate half-brother Neil McLeod, a humble Christian and the foreman of their father’s tannery. Horatio just drowns his sorrows in alcohol. If he had lived today, he might have snorted cocaine instead. Horatio dies a sober hero, having saved people from a Johnstown-like flood, but he does not die a Christian.
Althoug Bebe finally realizes that she was supposed to fight Satan instead of alcohol, this knowledge came too late for her husband. She should have prayed for his salvation instead. Alcohol was a red herring, but Bebe was distracted. I wish more pro-lifers would see this truth. Then they would spend less time fighting abortion and more time fighting Satan in prayer. It is amazing what God can do with pro-choice people. Their politics always change after conversion!
I live in a wet county. It has no bars (saloons), but alcohol is sold at some restaurants and most grocery stores and gas stations. Horatio Garner might have liked the place. But unlike him, I do not drink. I do not buy alcohol either, so I rarely visit “wet” restaurants. Nor do I add alcohol to my shopping cart or fill-up, although I cannot avoid the grocery stores and gas stations. The crucial difference between Horatio and me is Jesus Christ, or at least a Christian culture (church, etc) that my parents and I have chosen to saturate ourselves in.
People love to blame families, situations, and environments for their problems. They love to point outside. Sometimes, like Horatio’s father and the Civil War, other people and situations can cause real problems that we must overcome. However, they are still red herrings and we are still playing a blame game. Most legal, moral, and social problems we see in our culture today do not stem from that culture. They stem from sinful people instead. People create culture. If there were no people today or only devout believers who wrote and obeyed good laws, then things like abortion, pornography, alcoholism, murder, and racism would not exist.
Adam and Eve were the first people to play the blame game, the first to point to a red herring. After they ate from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the couple hid from God. When he asked them what had happened, Adam pointed to his wife: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree and I ate” (Genesis 3:12). Then Eve pointed to the snake: “The serpent deceived me and I ate” (3:13). Few people note that they were right. They did not lie about what happened, just deflected blame from themselves. God knew that the real problem was sin – disobedience – and he judged them accordingly.
Our real problem is inside us. So we must stop blaming other people for our mistakes, failures, and situations. Instead, we must identify the problem as sin, repent, and turn to Jesus Christ. Only he can fix us.
* New King James Version (NKJV), unless otherwise noted