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Alan Jacobs, Lena Dunham, and Jane Austen

Alan Jacobs has a very fine article in First Things where he contrasts the amoral world presented in the HBO television series Girls with the moral themes and critiques in the literature of Jane Austen. He compellingly shows how Miss Austen weaves a realistic moral message throughout her writings, falling into neither romanticism nor naivete. All in all, the reader of Austen is typically brought to place of moral conviction quite apart from trite moralizing or explicit sermonizing. Lena Dunham’s Girls, on the other hand, presents explicitly grotesque and perverse material without giving the audience any means of moral evaluation. I was thoroughly moved by Dr. Jacobs’s presentation, and had I ever been even slightly tempted before, I am now convinced that Miss Dunham’s work is, for all of its pretenses, actually quite vapid. Or at least I thought that was how the article affected me.

You see, inexplicably, towards the end of his essay, Dr. Jacobs claims that the postmodern condition is such that the modern audience has no sure moral compass and cannot be expected to see the problem with Girls. Our moral reasoning has been so lost that we can only hope to rebuild it, ever so slightly, by telling new stories and crafting a new imagination. This essay was released in the midst of “The Late Great Natural Law Debate,” and Dr. Jacobs seems to be joining in the side opposed to natural law as a socially and politically useful tool. His citation of MacIntyre certainly seems to leave the reader with the impression that literature is a necessary community-forming catechesis which is itself a prerequisite for moral discourse.

As interesting and insightful as all this might sound, it is really not very helpful at all, as it just pushes the question back a step. Why should we prefer Miss Austen’s literary catechesis to Miss Dunham’s? Under the communitarian account, there really is no rational answer. It’s a question of taste. Some people like the flavor of child rape, while others don’t. Hopefully, if we are creative, we can successfully market the negative.

But of course in reality, the answer is plain. Miss Austen’s account is beautiful and Miss Dunham’s is revolting. And if the good, true, and beautiful actually are all One (as the classical tradition affirms), then these are objective and inescapable. The beautiful and the revolting are themselves features of the moral order.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.