as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, October 24, 2021
This morning I offer you what might seem like an unusual sermon, a sermon on Frankenstein. Churches and other religious communities typically take scripture as the starting point for their sermons. Many demand a neat dividing line between the sacred and the secular. One set of works–holy books, theological treatises, spiritual autobiographies, liturgical poetry–are appropriate for Sunday morning. Another set of works–romance novels, science fiction stories, tales of the fantastic and the phantasmagorical–are decidedly not.
In some instances, religious communities have even denounced secular creative works. This has certainly been true in the case of Frankenstein. Ever since it was first published, some critics have believed it to be anti-Christian for daring to consider the possibility that humanity might intrude upon God’s domain and author life. Shortly after it appeared, one influential reviewer described it as “horrible and disgusting” and raised the question of “whether the head or the heart of the author be the most diseased.”
You will experience no such criticism from this pulpit. In part, because, as I will explain, Frankenstein has close connections to English Unitarianism. More broadly though, Unitarian Universalism makes no clear distinction between the secular and the sacred. We need look no further than the sources of the Unitarian Universalist Association to find urgings that we look to “science” and other kinds of supposedly secular knowledge for religious inspiration. In truth, one of the distinguishing marks of our tradition, even in its earliest iterations, has been its proponents claims that religious practices and beliefs have, in essence, many secular sources. Nineteenth-century Unitarianism was despised by its opponents precisely because many of its ministers claimed the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament to both be authored by humans.
The refusal to divide the sacred from the secular is the reason why, last week, in our series on reimagining grief, we turned to the dance band LCD Soundsystem’s anthem “I’m Losing My Edge” for inspiration. It is the reason why this week we delve into Frankenstein, a work of imagination profoundly influenced by its author’s grief and devoted to the project of reimagining grief.
The story you probably know. Mad scientist creates creature. With an unsavory assistant, he raids graveyards, cuts executed murderers down from the gallows, and constructs a ghoulish body for a vital force he then animates with electricity before shouting, “Its alive!” His creation subsequently goes on a rampage. It kills children. It terrorizes the good townsfolks. It experiences brief moments of transcendence–grasping the beauty of flowers or the brilliance of music. It experiences revulsion when it catches glimpses of its own gruesome visage. It panics at the heat and sight of fire. Ultimately, it is destroyed, depending on the version, by an angry mob, by its creator, by its own hand.
“Its alive!” Ever since Shelley’s novel was released in 1818, the story has been both variously told and interpreted. The 1970s comedic interpretation by Mel Brooks features the creature singing a rendition of “Putting on the Ritz.” In the classic 1931 film version, the mad scientist conducts his experiments in the most gothic of European castles. In the original novel, he builds his creature while a student in something akin to his college dorm room. In either case, the story is often taken as a parable about the dangers of technology. The mad scientist, usually named Victor Frankenstein, builds the creature without regard to the consequences.
“Its alive!” You know, I am having fun saying that… it is not uncommon in interpretations of Frankenstein to consider it a warning about the folly of humans who dare to challenge the divine prerogative. In one film, after the creature first stirs, Frankenstein looks to the heavens and shouts, “In the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God.”
This morning, we will primarily turn our attention to Mary Shelley’s original text. Like scriptural stories and parables, its many variations are suggestive of its power to, by turns, delight, provoke, and even scare. We are reading it in my ministerial book group. If you have not read it, it is well worth doing so.
Shelley’s text reflects the grief that filled her life. Her mother, the writer and philosopher Mary Wollenstonecraft, died ten days after she was born. Her infant girl died shortly before she wrote Frankenstein. She grieved the absence of both. In her dreams, the dead returned to life. In her diary she recorded sleeping and finding “my little baby came to life again” only to “Awake and find no baby.”
It should not be surprising that her novel is populated with the beloved dead. It is the death of Victor Frankenstein’s mother that appears to spur him in his scientific pursuits. Over the course of the novel, everyone he loves dies. His young siblings, his father, his wife, his best friend, his wife’s best friend… In most cases they are murdered by his creation, though this is not always what happens. One dies of grief. Another after being accused of a murder she did not commit.
Such tragedy filled lives were common when Shelley wrote her novel. In addition to her mother, one of her sisters predeceased her. Of her four children, only one lived into adulthood. Her husband, the famed poet Percy Shelley, died only a few years after Frankenstein was published.
Grief, for her, must have been ever present. Certainly, ever since she was self-aware she keenly felt the absence of her mother. Mary Wollenstonecraft was one of the most important philosophers of what has become to known as feminism in the eighteenth century. And it is through her, that Shelley is connected with Unitarianism.
Wollenstonecraft was a member of the Unitarian church in Newington Green, London for several years. While it is possible to overstate the influence of Unitarianism on her life and thought, she was closely connected to the congregation’s minister, Richard Price, until he died. Afterwards she remained active in Unitarian circles, even once she stopped attending services.
Wollenstonecraft’s most famous work was her treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Published in 1792, in the middle of French Revolution, it blasted eighteenth century gender norms as debasing for keeping women in a state of “listless activity and stupid acquiescence.” Rejecting the ideal that women were “weak,” irrational, and lived and needed to be kept in “a state of childhood,” she argued that all humans, regardless of gender, are equally rational and deserved equal access to education and should be granted equal political rights.
These were incredibly radical ideas in eighteenth-century England. They appear to be somewhat radical ideas in twenty-first century Texas. We live, after all, in a state and at a time when the legislature has passed laws regulating the bodies and reproductive rights of women but not those of men. We live in a moment when such legislation is passed by a political body, and a political party, whose representatives are overwhelming male. It is not hard to wonder if laws like Senate Bill 8 would make their way into existence if there was gender equality in the legislature.
But I digress… Wollenstonecraft died shortly after giving birth to Mary Shelley. Shelley grew up with her memory ever present. Her mother’s portrait had pride of place in her father’s study. And as she learned to read, and grew older, she voraciously devoured and then returned to again and again to all her mother’s texts.
Last week, I shared with you the anthropologist David Graeber’s observation, “Rarely do the political careers of important individuals end in death. …ancestors… can be far more important after their death than when they were alive.” Graeber continues this observation with the claim “Mourning… could then be seen as an essential part of the labor of people-making.” What he means here is that we humans raise and shape each other. The people we lift-up in death serve as models, inspirations, and moral exemplars for us as we continue living.
Recognizing how the dead continue to shape the living is part of our work of reimagining grieving. Certainly, coming to understand that the dead are ever present in shaping my own life–through the stories that both I tell and have been told to me–has been one of the ways I lived through my own grief over the years. What about you?
Cornelius Eady writes beautifully about his ongoing relationship with his dead father in his magnificent cycle of poems you don’t miss your water. In it, he describes the conversations he has with his deceased Dad. Even though his father’s body has been reduced to an “empty chair” he can easily imagine both talking to him and what they would say to each other. He can imagine the advice his father would give him, the inquiry “just for safety’s safe, if my wife still had / her good paying-job.” And he can imagine sharing something of his success, his life, with the “old fool.”
Have you had similar conversations? Where you find yourself in dialogue with those you have loved even after they are dead? For me, the dead have continued to be present even if I never really knew them. My grandfather Morrie died when I was a toddler. I have no memory of him. And yet, he has played and continues to play a significant role in my life. I grew up listening to stories about him. One my father enjoys is about my grandfather’s love of bacon. My grandfather was a somewhat observant Jew. He mostly kept kosher. And yet, at some point in his life, he had acquired a taste for bacon. Whenever he was confronted about this, he would apparently deny that bacon was in anyway related to pigs or pork. “Morrie, isn’t bacon pork? Doesn’t it come from pigs?” people are supposed to have asked him. “No, it is just bacon,” was the alleged reply.
I could offer an entire sermon reflecting on that one story. I could probably write a dozen on the various stories I have heard about him. The larger point, however, is this, the dead are ever with us, whether we knew them or not. Has this been your experience?
It has been mine. And such experiences closely hew to the larger hope for this sermon series–and for the hope of much of my preaching. Through our work on reimagining grief, I desire to lift-up the truth that it is our connections to each other that make us human.
We humans are social creatures. The radical individualism so prevalent in our society is a myth. There is no me without you. We come to know ourselves through each other. Our successes and failures have as much to do with the larger social structures we collectively create and maintain as they do with our own strivings. Almost everything we have, almost everything we do, is created, and performed within a community. Art, science, even something as deceptively simply as cooking a meal is ultimately a collective, a social, act.
When I make dinner tonight, I will be reliant on the labor of thousands. Though I might chop the onions, sauté the garlic, or make the salad dressing alone, in all I do I will be dependent upon the farmers who grew the food, the laborers who harvested it, the truck drivers who shipped it, and the grocery store workers who sold it. My dependence will not end there. I will be connected to the miners who mined the iron ore that was crafted into pots and knives, the factory workers who built the stove on which I cook, and the builders who erected the house in which I live. The list of connections that can be discovered in the simple act of cooking is infinite. And considering it reveals the simple truths: we are all connected; we need each other to survive.
This was something that was understood by the Unitarians of the eighteenth and nineteen centuries. They frequently preached on interdependence. They claimed that humans were created “in the likeness of God” and that it was through our religious communities, and our connections with each other, that we could grow in such likeness. The purpose of the church, in their hearts, was to empower each of us to become more virtuous people and uncover the threads that bind each to each.
They even held views on death and grief similar to those that we have put forth through these sermons. In considering the nature of the religious community and institutions, they quoted, with satisfaction, the philosopher Edmund Burke when he argued society “is… a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” And they claimed, in their gendered language, “The relations between man and man cease not with life… We are most intimately connected with… [the dead] by a thousand dependencies.”
We are shaped by our relationships with the living and the dead. We are social creatures, not atomized individuals. Like her mother, and like the Unitarians of her day, Mary Shelley believed humans to be deeply social.
It is quite possible to read her Frankenstein as parable about humanity’s social nature. Consider the story as she tells. Victor Frankenstein is happy and well-adjusted while he is surrounded by his family and friends. After his mother dies, he travels to the university where he finds himself lost “in the most melancholy reflections” and “alone” away from “amiable companions.”
It is in and from his loneliness that Frankenstein creates the creature. He seeks to break the bounds of life and death and “pour a torrent of light into our dark world” through the construction of “a new species.” These new beings, “would”, in his words, “bless me as its creator and source.” Never would he alone anymore.
He is alone when he is successful in his experiment. Alone when he shouts, “Its alive!” The phrase never actually appears in the novel because as soon as the creature stirs Frankenstein flees his laboratory, overcome at the “catastrophe” he has created. Soon after he is reunited with his family and friends where he discovers himself to be “loving and beloved by all” and wholly uninterested in continuing with his gruesome experiments.
Meanwhile, rejected by his father–the creature is never given a name but he is given a gender–Frankenstein’s creation wanders until such time as he finds a secluded place from where he can observe, and learn from, a human family. Watching them he learns language, learns to love, learns that we become human by being with each other. Over and over, he struggles with the realization “I was alone.” Over and over, he longs for acceptance, connection, the desire to know and be known, “The more I saw of them, the greater became my desire to claim their protection and kindness,” the creature confesses about the family he monitored.
He hopes to find connection but only experiences rejection. He reveals himself to the family. He inspires in them only fear. They flee from him. He gets no love. It is then that he becomes monstrous and begins in his work of killing. “[I]f I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear,” the creature warns his creator when they meet.
The tragedies that fill the book are all results of the isolation and rejection that the creature experiences. He demands that Frankenstein create for him a companion–an “Eve”–with who he might live. He promises his creator, “the love of another will destroy the cause of my crimes.” Frankenstein at first assets. Later, fearful of what he might unleash on humanity, he destroys the bride for his creature before she ever comes to consciousness.
It is only when the creature faces the possibility of eternal loneliness, of never encountering another like him, that he vows revenge upon his creator. He sets about to kill all whom Victor Frankenstein loves.
He is successful. With each death Victor Frankenstein experiences, he falls further into madness, becomes less and less capable of living a life amongst his fellow humans or contributing to the larger good. Eventually, after experiencing the death of both his wife and his father, he finds himself alone and obsessed, not with creating life but with destroying it. He chases his creature throughout the world and dies before being successful in his mission.
In the end, the creature mourns over his creator. In his closely soliloquy, he emphasizes that it was his inability to find connection that caused him to do all the ill he wrought. “[S]till I desired love and fellowship, and I was still spurned… Am I to be thought the only criminal, when all human kind sinned against me?”
The story is, in the end, a morality play about the terrible things that can come from the grief of loneliness. In our work of reimagining grief, we might consider how grief comes from a loss of connection and how much more good might be brought into the world by maintaining connections to each other. That is the message of Frankenstein. And it is a message for us today. For Shelley wants us to understand that grief we experience when people die can be overcome by our connections to the living. Fail to remember that and we can fall victim to the worst parts of ourselves.
It would be easy, here, to argue that this makes Frankenstein a morality play for our times, when people find each other more alone than ever. However, rather than resting upon that point let me instead suggest that it offers us a purpose for our religious community. It is the same purpose that the Unitarians of Shelley’s day found in theirs. It is for us to offer each other connection and fellowship and, in doing so, inspire each other to grow in compassion, wisdom, and love.
That it might be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.