Christiana Rosetti and the Decalogue


Editor's Note: The following is a review of Timothy Larsen's paper presented at the Reading the Decalogue Through the Decades Conference held at Wheaton College this past October.

It was a first for the conference and a first for the series of conferences of which it was a part. It was a long awaited first, but an important first step nonetheless. In his lecture coming towards the end of the Reading the Decalogue Through the Decades Conference, Timothy Larsen presented the views of Christiana Rosetti, the Anglican poet and expositor of scripture. Within this presentation, the first female expositor was quoted and examined. As Larsen posited these was of value in and of itself. In the longstanding focus on the male expositor of Scripture, the Church and Academy has lost the ability to examine what roughly half of the population at any given time might have thought on a topic. In restricting its search for understanding to just one group of respondents, both groups have lost many a great insight and possible train of thought.

In this case the church has been tempted to miss the length and breadth of such a work as Letter and Spirit, which was written by Rosetti and approved by the Anglican Church, presented an interested and fascinating mix of discussion on what the Decalogue meant. This work meant as a devotional work for members of the Anglican Church to use for their private moments of thought and mediation provided an excellent wormhole into the orbit of popular Victorian piety.

The work was done in the established pattern of Rosetti’s devotional writing. First there was an interest in examining the feminine prospective to be found within scripture. In this Larson was able to include a rather lengthy and fascinating list of all those canonical females mentioned within the text itself. In this way Rosetti sought to reverse the Victorian logic and argue that it is truly women that lead by the mind, and men that often are led by the heart. Second, Rosetti sought to examine the Decalogue in light of the rest of scripture. In this Rosetti revealed the Anglican belief that all of scripture existed within a unity, and this unity presented the lens by which to read the scriptures. In this Larson pointed out how Rosetti’s work included references from 53 other books of scripture. In this way the author used writings such as Matthew 12:30 and Luke 14:28-30 to argue for gender inclusion and support to be found within the Decalogue.

By doing this Rosetti sought to combat two tendencies within the Christian tradition: that of “idle inquistiveness,” and the removal of the radical nature of the passages. In working toward this, Rosetti took a stance similar to that of such male luminaries as John Calvin. It is just here that one feels that the modern desire to bring female readings into play seems a tad overblown. In reading Rosetti, a woman approved the Anglican Church, one is reading just another traditional expositor of the Church. There may be a soft sexism in play when one posits that females will have a new and different view of the church and life. The surprising thing about reading many female authors is not their difference, but in their similarity to the Church Fathers. They may open new vistas, but the vista in question is still an orthodox one.

The real emotive power of the lecture, instead, came when Larson switched to a discussion of the author’s literary work. By discussing Rosetti’s prominent and powerful poem On the Iniquity of Our Fathers, Larson revealed a passionate plea to follow the commands or play the price of sin as passed from father to his children. Rather than focus on the devotional work, a fuller and broader discussion of the words of the Decalogue as mediated within the works of literature. That is not to demean the search for authentic female voices within the church tradition. This is an important task, but as Susan Shriner posited within her lecture on Calvin, some of the most interesting and illuminating work on the Decalogue has come within the literary tradition. The church needs to listen the words of Christiana Rosetti, devotional writer, but it also needs (perhaps more than ever) to have an ear to hear out Rosetti, the poet, as well. That would be a lecture well worth attending if not so easily understand and written about by the varied students in attendance. That complexity, perhaps, is the point.

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