Finding Jesus in literature
The God of the Bible is also the God of the arts.
I follow Jesus because of where and who I find Him to be—in literature. A couple weeks ago other students spoke in Chapel about why they follow Jesus. As was the intent of the service, I began to contemplate my own reasons for believing in this man. At the end of my contemplative period (does it really ever end?) I came to the realization that while scripture and basic theology are fundamental aspects of my faith, I find truths gleaming in other places too.
I believe that the Bible, church services, and prayer are ways to draw closer to Christ, but there is also immense validity in finding Christ-like bits in other sources. The beauty of goodness illustrated in the arts, particularly literature, can be so pro found. Faith messages in novels have the ability to cause soul searching and understanding. Often a work of fiction will reveal the deepest truths— indeed they often shine like a polished jewel.
A Prince with no monetary inheritance, lost without those he loves, continually offering himself as lover to all, especially those who reject him, he cannot stop loving even those who commit misdeeds against him. He is cast out by society as a fool for his simple ways of grace, goodness, and seemingly naivety.
This is the character of Prince Myshkin that Fyodor Dostoevsky paints in his The Idiot. This man who cannot help but show compassion, who cannot be corrupted by material means, who gives and sacrifices until the very end, whose love can save his friends, even the most shameful of them, is a beautifully, if unconventionally, constructed image of Jesus. The story doesn’t follow the story of Jesus in the same way the Chronicles of Narnia do, in a fantasized allegory of the scripture. It simply tells the story of a man too good to function in normal society, unrecognized as perfect by others, and misunderstood by most.
I found faith in Anna Karenina: Tolstoy’s character Levin is that of an unconventional aristocrat, a rather emotional fellow who searches for a way to fight off the demons of doubt and worthlessness. The best image of Levin is of him mowing with the peasants. He, the landowning nobleman, toils away in the fields with his peasants, eats with them, and finds more affinity with this lot than his supposed equals. He is not afflicted by pride and his heart is for the workers. It is the ultimate irony that this man, who is made up of goodness, should think so poorly of himself.
In the end, he has an epiphany, a revelation of faith; after achieving all his earthly desires, life still looks bleak. He has a wife and a son, but he still feels purposeless. But in his deepest moment of sorrow, he begins to understand that truth, for which he has been searching, is goodness revealed through Christ. And he is able to love the world again.
Fiction can be more than a mere representation of real life. The fact that it is “made up” does not decrease the legitimacy of what is written. As we read these stories, our hearts pound with real pain—real sympathy for a “fake” person. Indeed, Levin’s existential despair is not an uncommon or surreal experience; we all suffer from things like this. But as G.K. Chesterton says, fictitious stories "are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten."
As portraits of humanity, these novels inspire me. These characters prove to me that life is supposed to be imperfect. We are broken people; we struggle with self-loathing, futility, the desire to be good, and are haunted by our shortcomings. But the moments of joy give us hope, putting us on steady ground even for just an instant. Through Levin I see an end to my sorrows; in the Prince I see a man I want to know and follow and be loved by. I see Christ. Their words may not be printed in red ink, but they still resonate with His truths.