You must understand, sir, that a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between. This is a sharp time, now, a precise time—we live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed itself with good and befuddled the world. Now, by God’s grace, the shining sun is up, and them that fear not light will surely praise it.
Arthur Miller, from The Crucible, Act III
The murmured words of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible mingle with the lazy creek as I tiptoe between reading knots of students, their heads bent over their copies of the 1953 play, their voices alternating between animation and monotone. My largest class, they’re also paradoxically shy about reading aloud as a group, so in a concession to their reserve I’ve let them split up into smaller fragments today, tiny groupings in which they feel safer being dramatic. It’s Friday afternoon, almost hot, and we’re reading outside. Pretty standard good-day material.
The play sounds a bit like a broken record this way (a phrase that two of my students recently pretended not to recognize, much to a colleague’s chagrin). As all of the groups are at slightly different points in Act III, I often hear the same words repeated three or four times; different tones from different voices, but the same familiar lines. I heard it last week, too, when the other junior English class was reading Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin In The Sun, again outside. That time, they were far away, but it didn’t matter. Then, as now, I know the lines that go between. Whether the words are mumbled or shouted, spoken with an accent (real or assumed) or intoned agonizingly slowly, I’ve heard them before. Many, many times.
In an effort to help students learn more reflectively, a few years ago I began asking why we read the books we read. My English class consists of six main texts, and five of them are exactly what you’d expect. Only Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer, came out within my lifetime, let alone theirs. These books are, well, old. Yes, they’re classics, but why? Why is is that these are the same books that your parents, perhaps even your grandparents, read in American Literature class? Haven’t any books been written since then? Weren’t they any good?
I recently told my students I’ve read this play twenty times, and really that’s an underestimation, not an exaggeration. “Don’t you get tired of it?” they’ll ask. “No,” I reply. “It’s different each time.”
One of my students is doing a presentation that compares the panic outlined in The Crucible with the racial profiling of Muslims that escalated dramatically in the months following 9/11. Those attacks hadn’t happened yet when I first read this play, in October 2000, when I was fifteen years old. I have changed, but so has the world, and each new year brings new resonance to this old play about an even older event.
Later this week, we’ll discuss why reading The Crucible is relevant today. My students will mention police shootings and “alternative facts,” the fears that led to Brexit and travel bans, and the general divisiveness of our age. They’ll echo Judge Danforth’s words above, haunting words that cast prejudice in the light of a godly crusade, specifically noting his “with us or against us” attitude.
Considering the famed optimism of the nation it represents, the canon of American literature isn’t particularly cheerful. This year, we’ve gone from the prejudice of Puritan Boston to the racism of pre-Civil War South, to the hollow glitter of 1920s New York to the hopeless agony of Depression-era California. I love these books, works of art that reveal heartbreaking truths about our culture.
Still, I wish they weren’t still so relevant. I wish very much that I could ask this question–How is The Crucible still relevant today?–and have fourteen teenagers laugh at me. That play about witches? About a tormented community? About how fear makes people do crazy things? That kind of thing doesn’t happen now. Let’s read something more current.
It’s the conclusion we keep coming back to, my students and I: We read these books because they still matter. We read these books because their authors didn’t just tell a story; they tapped into basic truths at the heart of the world, truths that span time and space.
We read them because relating these books, at most a few centuries old, helps us to read an even older and far more important text. Through the classics, we remember that stories tell truth, not just their own, the historical truths that are so valuable in Scripture, but truth for today, truth that keeps mattering as long as we’re human, created in God’s image and longing for redemption.