Let’s play a game. It’s no secret that, with a degree in English language and literature, I am a sucker for classic literature. Shoot, I’m a sucker for a good story in general. I love love love to get into the nitty and gritty – theme, plot, character development, allusion, language…even grammar! But one of my favorite things to do is find Jesus in non- overtly religious texts. I’m not talking about the Piers Plowmans written by the monks and prioresses in the middle ages. I’m not talking about Pilgrim’s Progress written by the Puritan preacher, John Bunyan. These are literal allegories with heavy religious influence. I’m talking about the pop literature (of any time) meant to entertain. Art reflecting life. Human stories.
So play the game with me for a minute. Find the divine in the secular.
In the first round, I’d like to get you started with some low-hanging fruit by finding the divine in the secular play Henry V by William Shakespeare. It is the conclusion of a four-part series written about a rebellious prince who becomes the king of England. In this play, Henry V has taken the crown after the death of his father and must prove he is the righteous heir to the throne, so he distracts everyone by going to war with a common enemy, France. (Politics, am I right?) In Act IV, Henry, the king of England, dresses as a common soldier and walks the camp, talking to other soldiers, but they do not recognize him. You can read the scene here. Later, Henry shows great mercy to the soldier who picked a fight with him while not knowing his true identity as king. This would have been an offense punishable by death.
“Your majesty came not like yourself: you appeared to
me but as a common man; witness the night, your
garments, your lowliness; and what your highness
suffered under that shape, I beseech you take it for
your own fault and not mine: for had you been as I
took you for, I made no offence; therefore, I
beseech your highness, pardon me.”
This scene could be some fanfic straight from the Gospel of John:
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We observed his glory, the glory as the one and only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
He was in the world, and the world was created through him, and yet the world did not recognize him. (John 1:10)
In resemblance to this scene, Jesus left the comfort of His heavenly throne and clothed himself in flesh to walk among His people (Philippians 2:7). He lived life as we do (Hebrew 4:17). And, in the greatest act of mercy, gave His life for the very people who not only didn’t recognize Him for who He truly was, but openly offended and defied Him (Romans 5:8).
Next, we will look at one of my favorite characters in all of literature. He is Bishop Myriel from Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.
For those not familiar, Les Miserables is an epic that follows the life of a former convict named Jean Valjean as he struggles to live his life post-prison. Jean Valjean has been released from prison but cannot find lodging due to his convict status. He finds shelter at the door of the Bishop who takes him in, feeds him, and gives him a bed. In return, the desperate Jean Valjean steals the Bishop’s silver and disappears into the night. Upon realizing their guest has fled with the silver, the Bishop remarks to his domestic servant: “Madame Magloire, I have for a long time detained that silver wrongfully. It belonged to the poor. Who was that man? A poor man, evidently.” The Bishop saw Jean Valjean for who he was – a human being created and loved by God. He extended grace to the man who had wronged him even though he wasn’t there to accept it.
It doesn’t end there. As you can read in the entire scene here, Jean Valjean is captured by the gendarmes and returned to the Bishop. The Bishop held Jean Valjean’s entire fate in his hands because he would be returned to prison should he have reoffended – which he had. The Bishop not only saves Jean Valjean from the gendarmes by corroborating his story (that the Bishop had gifted him the silver) but also says “I gave you the candlesticks too, which are of silver like the rest, and for which you can certainly get two hundred francs. Why did you not carry them away with your forks and spoons?” Not only did he save Jean Valjean from a fate he rightfully deserved, but in the same breath, lavished a gift upon him.
The subsequent story of how Jean Valjean lives his life in lieu of this interaction is the reason Bishop Myriel is one of my favorite characters in literature. He is an example of how one interaction can change the course of not one, but many lives. Without him, one of the greatest tomes ever written would end with the first major scene of the story. This Christ-like character in this secular novel is a reminder to us as Christians to live our faith genuinely.
The third piece we’ll look at is a bit less obvious, but I hope you’ll go here with me. Many pieces of literature are often critical of the Church and/or religious people. To be fair, many “religious” people have done terrible things under the guise of holiness – the Summoner and the Pardoner from Canterbury Tales are great examples. If you look at the works of Charles Dickens, you will find an Anglican author casting aspersions toward characters who claim to follow Jesus. For example, there is Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House who busies herself setting up missions in Africa to the neglect of her own children and family. There is Mr. Bumble the beadle in Oliver Twist who is literally tasked with the truest religion of caring for orphans (James 1:27) yet not only does this to the barest of minimums but does so with extreme self-righteousness. There is also the nonconformist minister, Reverend Stiggins from The Pickwick Papers who in reality is a self-seeking, hypocritical alcoholic.
This theme across the works of Charles Dickens is remarkably akin to the relationship Jesus had with the Pharisees. It is a reminder to us that we are ambassadors of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20), and what we profess should match our actions (James 2:14-26).
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of the bones of the dead and every kind of impurity. In the same way, on the outside you seem righteous to people, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”Matthew 23:27-28)
Lest you think this game is only for old, dusty books, I will leave you with a bonus round in the form of one of my favorite television series, Call the Midwife. Call the Midwife is a series that follows the nurses, midwives, and nuns as they provide medical care for a poor area of London in the late 50’s & 60’s. This show is a really easy way to rack up lots of points in my game, but I will give you one example before we finish.
One of the story arcs involves desperate women seeking an abortion at a time when it is a criminal act. Several of these women end up at Nonatus House (the dwelling place of the nurses and nuns) after botched efforts. Naturally, the women of Nonatus House are conflicted with their role in helping these women. For one, it is illegal. Two, they spend a lot of their time bringing lives into the world and saving lives that are already here. One of my favorite lines (which is paraphrased by me) is the encouragement given by the head of the house, Sister Julienne: “It is our job to care for these women, no matter what decisions they made that got them here.” It is a beautiful picture of how Jesus meets us where we are: “But God proves his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
You’ve played my game and seen the divine in a scene, in a character, and in a theme. Once you start looking for them, they’re everywhere! You can’t get away from them. Do you know why? Art does indeed reflect life. The human story is God’s story. The greatest love and rescue story ever told is in the Bible. It only makes sense that we would see it reflected in the stories we tell each other. So, as you read and watch this year, play the game with me. Find shadows of God’s story in the ones we are telling each other. Let Him encourage you in the subtle, everyday literature and media we consume – and let me know what you find!
- For further practice finding scenes reminiscent of the Bible, you can look at the final scene of A Tale of Two Cities, Fernand’s betrayal in The Count of Monte Cristo, or the exodus in The Grapes of Wrath.
- For more practice of finding the divine in a character, you can take a look at The Lord of the Rings, The Lord of the Flies, and The Chronicles of Narnia.
- For more practice with divine themes in literature, you can look in Little Women, Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, and Frankenstein.