In Sunday’s sermon I mentioned John Irving’s novels, and particularly The Cider House Rules. I have a love/hate relationship with John Irving.
I often appreciate his sense of humor (though this probably reflects poorly on me), his New England settings and the “God-haunted” quality of his work. God is seldom absent from Irving’s work, even if He is rejected, scorned or ignored by characters. You get the impression that Irving wrestles with his own religious upbringing.
Back when The Cider House Rules was made into a movie John Irving did an interview in which he said it was a defense of abortion on demand. At the time I remember thinking, “has he lost his mind?” I still do. But let’s ponder the plot for a few minutes.
The book begins in an orphanage located in Maine. Homer, played by Tobey Maguire, is an older orphan there. Among the staff is Dr. Larch, played by Michael Caine. He loves the kids, who are often in his care too long. There aren’t enough couples willing to adopt. There is a touching scene as a young couple arrives and all the kids are doing their best to appear adoptable. It is heartbreaking that they only choose one, and to see the disappointment sink the rest of the kids. Except like those like Homer who is older and slightly cynical. This is part of the reason why Irving has his views, I think.
Yet, he does not portray this orphanage as a place of abuse. There is love. Homer has been well-loved by the staff and loves the younger kids well. The Dr. has taken Homer under his wing and believes Homer can take his place one day.
Soon another young couple shows up. Not to adopt, but to abort. Dr. Larch raises extra funds for the orphanage by performing abortions. Homer is torn. He loves and hates the orphanage. Part of him wants to escape and find his own way in the world. This young couple perhaps senses this. He also seems to be attracted to her. He ends up leaving with them, having a conflicted relationship with her while he goes off to war. He also works in the apple orchard.
As a result he lives in the cider house with the migrant workers. Here we see the crux of the movie in two ways. First, the workers chaff at the list of rules on the post of the Cider House (hence the title). They were made, the workers argue, by people who don’t work or live in the Cider House. They feel like someone who doesn’t understand them, their circumstances, needs and desires is forcing these rules upon them. This is a metaphor for God’s law, and the common human response to it. “Who is God”, people think, “to tell us what to do? He doesn’t walk in our shoes! He doesn’t understand what it’s like and the pressures we face.”
Homer soon finds himself in another bind; another complicated relationship. There is sin in the camp, so to speak. He is friends with the workers, especially Mr. Rose and his daughter Rose (yeah, Rose Rose). He has thrown off God’s law (and social convention reflecting it) and had an incestuous relationship with his daughter who is now pregnant. What can Homer do?
Homer, using the skills learned from Dr. Larch, performs an abortion for Rose. In a sense, he gains clarity on how he wants to spend his life. He wants, so he thinks, to relieve misery. In particular the misery caused by sin. So he returns to the orphanage to learn more from Dr. Larch and take his place.
Soon though, Dr. Larch dies from an overdoes of the ether he uses to get to sleep. Though he, like the migrant workers, has rejected the rules, he still wrestles with guilt over the lives he has taken. So, while we see abortion as an attempt to relieve the misery of sin it actually creates more misery because it too is sin.
Is Irving right? Do we have a right to toss out the rules? Is life in an orphanage a fate worse than death/non-existence? Is abortion the best answer to rape & incest?
Let’s start with Jesus. To stick with Irving’s metaphor, Jesus entered the Cider House, lived in the Cider House. The accusation of an absentee deity doesn’t work with Jesus. He not only made the rules, but also lived under the rules He made.
Though He never broke the rules, Jesus suffered the penalty for law breaking for others. Though He never sinned, He tasted the misery produced by sin. He lived in poverty, and suffered injustice for others. This is the essence of the gospel, which refutes Irving’s cry in the mouths of the migrant workers.
We see this same God loves orphans, the abandoned. He loves them so much He calls His children to welcome and care for orphans. Christians have a long history of doing just that. When it was still an illegal religion, Christians were well-known for taking in the children abandoned by their parents. Many pastors, famous and unknown, have established orphanages to care for orphaned and abandoned children (Spurgeon and Mueller for example). Today many pastors in Africa still do. In the west orphanages are seen as passe. We have the foster care system and adoption. Christians are among those most likely to foster or adopt children. My wife and I are thankful for orphanages since 3 of our children were adopted out of orphanages.
Pregnancy as a result of rape or incest is a real problem. It seems as if we are punishing the woman. I understand a traumatized woman wanting to abort the child.
That doesn’t mean it is the right thing. Or the best thing. Remember, the gospel centers on Jesus who suffered for the benefit of others. The gospel calls us to suffer with, and sometimes for, others. A life transformed by Christ’s work will choose to suffer at times. A woman could carry the child to term and give him/her up for adoption. Or raise the child. I’ve known of people who did this. It seems impossible. It happens only by the grace of God.
Jesus doesn’t just pardon our sin after the fact. He can help us to say ‘no’ to unrighteousness. Our moral code is not to be a lowest common denominator kind of thing. Jesus works in us to do the right thing, the best thing not just for us but for others.
Irving’s argument works in a world without God, or the world of an absentee God. But it doesn’t really work in a world where Jesus is God Incarnate, the Lamb of God and reigning king.
What was John Irving thinking?