Miss Havisham and a Church Stuck in the Past


By Derek Penwell

Miss Havisham and Congregations in Amber

“But that, in shutting out the light of day, she had shut out infinitely more; that, in seclusion, she had secluded herself from a thousand natural healing influences; that, her mind, brooding solitary, had grown diseased, as all minds do and must and will that reverse the appointed order of their Maker.”

~Miss Havisham
Great Expectations

Miss Havisham, the jilted spinster of Charles Dickens’, Great Expectations, makes a heroic attempt to freeze time, crystallizing in amber her disappointment at being left at the alter as a young woman. One of the great characters of English literature, Miss Havisham, upon being told twenty minutes before she is to be wed that her fiancé has defrauded her, asks that all the clocks in the house be stopped. Thereafter, she refuses to change out of her wedding gown. She lets the wedding cake fossilize on the table where it was set on that day in anticipation of the great event.

Miss Havisham lives with the determination that, out of some perverse need to hold onto the past, nothing in her life will change. Miss Havisham needs to exert control over a life that has spun out of control. It is the grand scale of her quixotic attempt to preserve everything exactly as it had been at the most important moment in her life that makes her such an important and memorable literary figure. That she attempts to exert control by trying to stop time, however, isn’t particularly exceptional.

Human beings are amazingly partial to the idea of freezing moments (both the good and the bad) as a hedge against change. Humans tend to find comfort in a past they’ve survived, rather than a future about which they don’t yet know.

Seth Godin drives home the point, suggesting that “for many of us, the happiest future is the one that’s precisely like the past, except a little better” (Linchpin, 203).

Whither the church? I want to suggest that congregations in decline share at least one factor in common: they are especially prone to setting the past in amber.


Pattern Recognition, the Herd, and the Threat of Change

Michael Shermer, a famous skeptic and psychologist, has popularized the insight surrounding pattern recognition. Humans, he suggests, are pattern recognition machines. With any set of inputs—sight, sound, taste, touch—the human brain is set to identify patterns.

Amidst the noise and chaos of everyday life, humans are amazingly adept at picking out patterns. That’s why parents in a crowded McDonalds can distinguish the scream of their child amid the screams of a herd of other children.

It’s why when you’re driving faster than you’re supposed to and you look in the rearview mirror and you see the distinctive grille of a Crown Victoria in the rear view mirror, you automatically take your foot off the gas pedal.

Babies, for example, at one day old will focus on edges and stripes. Within a relatively short period of time, they are able to distinguish the face and voice of their parents from other faces and voices in an already crowded world.

From an evolutionary standpoint pattern recognition is essential to survival. If you’re out, stumbling about in the African Savanah and you hear something in the bush, you have a choice to make.

  1. You can assume it’s a predator, and take appropriate action.
  2. You can assume it’s the wind, and ignore it.

Shermer says that if you choose to believe it’s a predator, but it turns out to be the wind, you haven’t really lost much except a little extra adrenaline.

On the other hand, if you choose to believe it’s the wind, and it turns out to be a tiger … well, your genes have to get out of the pool.

Consequently, humans have developed a keen ability to find patterns everywhere, since the cost of being wrong about danger is too high. Unfortunately, while this kind of super-tuned threat detection is helpful for survival in an environment where the chances of being eaten are genuinely great, it doesn’t serve us nearly so well when the biggest threats we face day to day aren’t real aggression, but passive aggression—when the threat isn’t that we’ll be eaten, but that the yogurt we left in the fridge for our afternoon break will be eaten by Janice—who apparently finds it impossible to leave her hands off other people’s stuff. Perhaps leaving a sarcastic sign on the fridge …

In modern life we’re much more prone to pattern recognition that ensures not our safety, but our comfort level. I take it that that’s why most of us are so ill-disposed to change.

Change represents a break in the pattern, and therefore, a potential threat—if not to my safety, then to my sense that the world is a hospitable place, and basically designed to provide me a disruption-free existence.

Resistance and Emerging Generations

I wrote an article last week arguing that emerging generations (Gen-X and Millennials) sense a gap between the Jesus they read about in the Gospels and the Jesus they hear about from the church. The problem with this “Jesus gap,” I suggested, was that it tends to drive young people further from the church—a distressing trend, if you happen to be concerned about the long-term health of the church.

I found it fascinating that among the responses to the piece were two comments by Baby Boomers, the thrust of whose remarks centered on two things: 1) young people in emerging generations are self-absorbed, and 2) Baby Boomers cared about this stuff a long time ago. Both of which assertions might have some basis in fact. However, the resistance to these “upstart” generations and the kind of change they represent, by two self-identified Baby Boomers, is fascinating—and a bit distressing.

Let me be clear, I understand why a generation that has been struggling with many of the same issues of ecclesiastical authenticity and learning to follow Jesus with integrity might find it exasperating to hear these issues explored as though they had been newly discovered by younger generations. It’s important to recall that Baby Boomers were asking many of the same questions in the 1960s and 70s. That acknowledgement, however, makes the criticism of younger generations by Baby Boomers puzzling, since, it would seem, that if any group of people would be sensitive to the questions raised by emerging generations it would be the generation that pioneered the posture of dubiousness toward institutions and distrust of received traditions.

The irony, of course, is that the generation that thrived on the cultural main stage for decades, and that emblazoned such slogans as “don’t trust anyone over 30” on the cultural consciousness, now sometimes sounds like the cranky neighbor yelling at “these kids” to “get off my cultural lawn.”


I think it has to do with the fact that change is something we’re programmed to resist as potentially threatening. And to the extent that the church is made up of people so programmed, it often seems prone to devolve to the role of protector of the past, of trying to set a significant part of its history as the template from which we protect ourselves from an uncertain future.

Treating deviations from established patterns as threats, however—though it may protect us from the odd tiger—walls us off from the many opportunities presented to us to find new and exciting places to graze.

The really interesting question for those who follow Jesus right now, it seems to me is: What kind of church would we have to be to see the past not as a temple to be preserved or the future as a threat to be avoided, but as a holy adventure—one that isn’t imperiled by, but benefits from the gifts brought by each generation?

People who claim as central to their identity the crucifixion of an ancient Near Eastern peasant can never be satisfied that “the happiest future is the one that’s precisely like the past, except a little better.”