Social change, literature and the Bible: A reflection from a small room

Apr 16, 2020 | Reflections

* Please note: At the end of this post is an audio post, for those who prefer to listen to this post rather than read it.

Amor Towles’ novel A Gentleman in Moscow, explores the downsized life of the character Count Rostov who is held under lengthy house arrest in the 1920s revolutionary Russia (in a lavish Moscow hotel mind you). Rostov muses on human expectations that life will continue slowly, with change being ‘glacial’:

“As we age, we are bound to find comfort from the notion that it takes generations for a way of life to fade. We are familiar with the songs our grandparents favored after all, even though we never danced to them ourselves. At festive holidays, the recipes we pull from the drawer are routinely decades old, and in some cases even written in the hand of a relative long since dead… But under certain circumstances, the Count finally acknowledged, this process can occur in the comparative blink of an eye. Popular upheaval, political turmoil, industrial progress – any combination of these can cause the evolution of a society to leapfrog generations, sweeping aside aspects of the past that might otherwise have lingered for decades . . .” 1

We might be living in a ‘blink of an eye’ moment. A study of history reveals that pandemics and their associated fallout are one major factor leading towards social change. Consider the plagues that ravaged medieval Europe, followed by the Renaissance, and later the Enlightenment. Consider the cholera outbreak in 1850s London that led to the formation of modern epidemiology. Great breakthroughs. Incredible change.

Remember the Titanic sinking at the outset of a new century in 1912, on the cusp of World War 1.  The class-based system was inherently shaken to its core. Following the war, even fashion changed, gone were the days of top hats and long skirts! These changes are the background to the stories represented in Downton Abbey – a small world bobbing along amidst a titanic social shift. The workforce, technology, transport, house size, manners, all changed – all was different. Before and after.

We do not yet know exactly what major and minor social shifts will occur in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and how they will affect our day to day life or future generations. Politically – who will emerge as global leaders? What will be the economic impact here in Australia or globally? Let alone other features of life: Language (think of the new terms already – The Rona; Zoom bombing); Social etiquette (handshakes are gone for now but will the elbow tap remain?); Law; Employment; Attitudes to travel and health and family. Again, even fashion has changed for now as we wear our trackies and slippers during staff meetings and online classes (don’t we all?) We don’t yet know how long-lasting or significant these changes will be.

Count Rostov’s hotel detention was meant to reduce his world, to limit him to be a sacrifice on the altar of political and social upheaval, to only witness the changes through the window, voyeuristic, ineffectual, powerless. He was classed as a non-actor on the stage, a ‘Former person’. On the contrary to this limitation, his world expanded as he authentically encountered those immediately before him, held true to his core values and adapted to constantly changing circumstances in the wider world that seemed contradicted by the static realm within the hotel.

We do have tools to help us navigate these times, from those who have been through major social shifts before, and perhaps ironically we can reach into history and literature to help us understand changing times and future directions. The Bible is one major resource for us and includes the witness and wisdom of many who went through cataclysmic changes, from slavery to freedom, from national identity to exile. From power to rubble. From independence to imperial subjugation and even collusion. The Bible can be a source of deep encouragement as we engage with stories of those who interpreted the times they were in, sought God, sometimes from places of isolation and under threat.  Sometimes that witness is a cry for help and comfort from God, such as Job or Jeremiah or Ezekiel. Sometimes the witness is a confident assertion of God’s presence and power through catastrophe such as Moses and Miriam and Deborah. Sometimes it is a lament of things lost and the discomfort expressed regarding the in-between space. Faith communities have long found solace, and inspiration by accompanying their own journeys of transformation and change with reading these biblical texts, partnering with the cloud of witnesses who lived beforehand and re-appropriating these words and stories for a new era and new circumstances. Launching into radically altered spaces can provide opportunities to understand these texts in new ways. Perhaps the wilderness and exile stories hold more resonance in these times. Perhaps the core truths of love, virtues of the inner life, compassion, sacrifice, solitude, hold greater meaning to us in our physical distanced realities. As we and future generations begin to write the stories of changes around us, we can take great comfort in previously transcribed and precious words providing meaning to our liminality. We can draw from a deep well. Our telescoped worlds have the potential to open up in new ways inspired by ancient words.

* Here is the audio post of this reflection


Dr Angela Sawyer (Dean of Students and Lecturer in Old Testament)


  1. Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow (London: Penguin, 2016), 144.

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