“You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your presence.”
I don’t know why, but I’ve always thought of Edgar Allen Poe as “junior high-ish.” Even though I taught American literature for thirty years, I never knew what to do with him. He fits on a standard Am Lit curriculum like an elegant barnacle. Is “The Fall of the House of Usher” a study in unremitting madness, or, simply, as some critics have often claimed, “an elaborate way to say ‘boo’”? I don’t know.
“The Tell-tale Heart” may well be his most famous yarn. A delusional man-servant murders his boss and covers the crime perfectly. Yet, he’s so wretchedly haunted by what he’s done that he confesses, as a means by which to end the horrifying echo of the old man’s heart in his own demented mind.
Remove the 17th century details from Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, and you’ve got the same story. How about this?--set it in 19th century Russia, and title it Crime and Punishment. Tell the story in apartheid
South Africa, and you have To Late the Phalarope. I’m sure I’m
missing a dozen or more cousins. Same story—right? Maybe. Maybe not.
Years ago, I judged a junior high forensics contest in which kids gave memorized readings; one of them did “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The performer did well but scared no one. Mostly, he got giggles. Nobody used Hawthorne or Dostoevsky or Alan Paton that day; but if someone had, I’m betting no one would have giggled. That’s why I can’t help but think there is something somewhat “junior high” about Edgar Allen Poe.
Just as there is something somewhat junior high about a verse like this one—at least, in the way an idea like this has been manipulated by believers throughout history. “Beware—your secret sins will find you out.” Or in my own faith tradition a half century ago: “What if Jesus returns and find you in the movie theater?” Shudder.
Fear has always been an effective, if temporary, motivator. Somewhere I read that adolescent boys have fleshy sexual fancies about dozen times per hour, on average. I don’t doubt it. I was such a character once myself. Tell a junior high Christian boy that Jesus knows his secret sins, and you’ll get his attention.
But some of us don’t have as much of that kind of steamy seamy-ness, nor much of a criminal record—and I’m not bragging. My testimony wouldn’t inspire anyone around a campfire, certainly not a TV producer. Any memoir I’d write would be woefully short on narrative drive. I’m nearing seventy, and the burden of my sins would be filed under “Spirit,” not “Flesh.” From Hollywood’s perspective, my story is not going to spin turnstiles.
And yet this verse holds some fear for me—especially if I think about it in a, well, fleshy way. To be buck naked before God almighty gives me the bejeebees. To imagine him seeing me, inside and out, 24/7, claws at my guilt. I’m not haunted by the heartbeat of my latest, sorry victim like the terrified murderer in “Telltale Heart,” but when I imagine myself splayed before the God of love, I can feel the jagged edges of my very own pride. After all, I know very well what I want. I know where number one ranks in my daily to-do list. What’s worse, when I think about it, as I am doing now, I remember all that arrogance is hugely set already in his perfect presence. Do I believe he doesn’t know?
And that scares me. Which it should. And I’m long, long past junior high.
Historically, the sins of the spirit have always been considered deeper and more vile than sins of the flesh, probably because they’re not front-page material. Even I don’t bother to read that kind of story, maybe because it’s my own.