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Penetrating the 
Secrets of Nature
  About Reading Frankenstein
A Message from the First Congregational Church of Ithaca About Reading Frankenstein

Even if you've already compiled your summer reading list, I'd like to encourage you to add one more: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and for good reason. As you probably have heard, Cornell University is requiring this fall's incoming freshman class, three thousand strong, to read this famous gothic novel.

In September and October, the University will be hosting a number of lectures, panel discussions, and films around the many contemporary issues raised in this 1818 classic. What you may or may not realize is, at the same time, the Tompkins County Public Library is also sponsoring a community-wide reading of Frankenstein; and using the same special edition as the Cornell freshmen.

This edition, by the way, includes not only the novel but a number of related essays as well. It is available for only $9 at the Cornell Campus Store, or you can pick up one of the 750 free copies donated by the University to the public library. Copies are also available at the rural libraries, the reading centers, all the bookstores in town, and Borders Bookstore at Pyramid Mall.

From September 30 - November 16, a national traveling exhibit, "Frankenstein - Penetrating the Secrets of Nature", will be on display in the North Reading Room of the Tompkins County Public Library. This exhibit was developed by the National Library of Medicine in the National Institutes of Health for the American Library Association and was funded by a major grant from the Natural Endowment for the Humanities. Special guided tours will be available.

And finally, what I'm sure you don't know, unless you were in church last Sunday, is that the Tompkins County Religious Workers have decided to encourage their congregations to get involved in this. Still struggling to determine when to say no instead of yes, I volunteered to coordinate that effort. Here's why.

In all the publicity, suggested study guides, and planned events, there has been no specific mention of the novel's religious and theological themes. Yet, originally, Mary Shelley titled her work: Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. If that wasn't enough to alert the reader to possible philosophic and religious overtones, right below the title she added a quote ascribed to Adam addressing God, from the Puritan John Milton's epic religious poem, Paradise Lost.

"Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay to mould me man? Did I solicit thee from darkness to promote me?"

Clearly, Mary Shelley, wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, and "good friend" of Lord Byron, (those two romantic poets, obsessed with nature and spirituality, wine and women, rebellion and notoriety), would find it difficult to write a story without aspirations, some might say pretensions, to greatness. But regardless of how one judges her or her work, one must admit she succeeded in raising some moral questions of her time. The beauty of Frankenstein is that it does the same today. With the rapid advances in biotechnology, cloning, and the genome it may be even more relevant now than it was then.

Just imagine a weekend with faith communities across Tompkins County all preaching on Frankenstein or addressing issues such as:

  • What does it mean to be human?
  • How do we treat those who frighten us or look different?
  • What is the nature of beauty and ugliness?

In a world faced with the challenges of biotechnology and cloning, how do Biblical people understand God as Creator and humans as God's creatures? Is our fear of a "Frankenstein" future rational or irrational? Where does one draw the line (take a moral stand) in medical/scientific/technological issues? How compatible is a Christian lifestyle to living in a "scientific society"? Is science value-free?

And maybe more than anything, in the book Frankenstein, who is the monster? Among all the characters, plots, successes and failures, what is truly monstrous? Where does one see true horror?

Being a Christian has never been easy, but exploring this tale within a community of believers, and in dialogue with those of other or no faith, will be a deeply rich spiritual experience. Let's stretch our souls this summer and read Frankenstein. After all, with faith we have nothing to fear. As that saint put it, "If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Romans 8:31)

- A Message from Reverend Douglas Green


Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature was developed by the National Library of Medicine in collaboration with the American Library Association.

It has been made possible by major grants from The National Endowment for the Humanities, Washington, D.C., and the National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, Md. The traveling exhibition is based upon a major exhibition produced by the National Library of Medicine in 1997-1998.

American Library AssociationNational Endowment for the Humanities National Library of Medicine

Local program support has been generously provided by Cornell University, M&T Bank, and Borders Bookstore.

Cornell University Logo M & T Bank Logo Borders Bookstore Logo

We have also benefited from many local partnerships with community groups including the members of the Discovery Trail.

Frankenstein image from:

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Last Revised September 7, 2002