Middlemarch is the epic novel by Mary Anne Evans, better known by her male penname George Eliot. The work is considered one of the most significant novels of the Victorian period and a masterpiece of English fiction. Rather than following a grand hero, Eliot explores a number of themes in a series of interlocking narratives, telling the stories of ordinary characters intertwined in the intricate details of life and community. Eliot’s focus is the ordinary, and in fact her lament—in the form of 700 pages of detail—is that we not only so often fail to see it, but fail to see that there is really no such thing. There is neither ordinary human pain nor ordinary human living. “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life,” she writes, “it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.”(1)
The world Eliot saw around her is not unlike our own in its capacity to silence the dissonance of details, the frequency of pain, the roar of life in its most minute and yet extraordinary forms. We silence the wild roar of the ordinary and divert our attention to magnitudes more willing to fit into our control. The largest tasks and decisions are given more credence, the biggest lives and events of history most studied and admired, and the greatest powers and influences feared or revered most. And on the contrary, the ordinary acts we undermine, the most common and chronic angst we manage to mask, and the most simple and monotonous events we silence or stop seeing altogether. But have we judged correctly?
Artists often work at pulling back the curtain on these places we have wadded out of sight and sound, showing glimpses of life easily missed, pulling off the disguises that hide sad or mortal wounds, drawing our attention to all that is deemed mundane and obscure. Their subject is often the ordinary, but it is for the sake of the extraordinary, even the holy. Nowhere does Eliot articulate this more clearly than in her defense of the ordinary scenes depicted in early Dutch painting. “Do not impose on us any aesthetic rules which shall banish those old women scrapping carrots with their work-worn hands….It is so needful we should remember their existence, else we may happen to leave them quite out of our religion and philosophy, and flame lofty theories which only fit a world of extremes.”(2) For the artist, ordinary life, ordinary hardship, ordinary sorrow is precisely the scene of our need for God, and remarkably, the scene of God and miracle.
In this sense, maybe, the psalmist and prophets and ancient storytellers are all struggling artists, closing the infinite distance between the grandeur of God and an ordinary humanity in which God mysteriously wills to dwell. What are human beings that You are mindful of them? Mortals that You care for them?
The parables Jesus tells are also richly artistic, theological pauses upon the ordinary. Presented to people who often find themselves beyond the need for stories, whether puffed up with wealth and self-importance, or engorged with religion and knowledge, his stories stop us. Jesus seems acutely aware that the religious and the non-religious, the self-assured and the easily distracted often dance around idols of magnitude, diverting their eyes from the ordinary. And yet his very life proclaims the magnitude of the overlooked. The ordinary is precisely the place that God chose to visit—and not as a man of magnitude.
Whatever one’s philosophy or worldview, attention to the ordinary will be a gift, rooting bodies in this mysterious place, awing these bodies to the miraculous. It is far too easy to miss the world as it really is, to hold a philosophy in hand and mind that cannot hold the weight of ordinary life. While Jesus’s own disciples bickered over the most significant seats in the kingdom, they were put off by a unwanted woman at a well, they overlooked a sick woman reaching out for the fringe of Christ’s robe, and they tried to silence a suffering man making noise in an attempt to get Jesus’s attention—all ordinary scenes which became the place of miracle. Even in a religion where the last are proclaimed first, where the servant, the suffering, and the crucified are lifted highest, the story of the widow’s coin is still easily forgotten, the obscure faces Jesus asked the world to remember easily overlooked. How telling that the call to remember the great acts of God in history is itself a call to remember the many acts of life we mistakenly at times see as less great. For the ordinary is filled with a God who chooses to visit.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) George Eliot, Middlemarch, (London: Penguin, 1994), 194.
(2) George Eliot, Adam Bede (London, Penguin, 1980), 224.