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Published originally in Christianity Today, April 2002
“The Good News According to Twain, Steinbeck, and Dickens”
My road to faith was paved with great literature.
“It does sometimes seem a shame that Noah and his party did not miss the boat,” quips Mark Twain as his sharp tongue aims at the heart of humanity. My favorite thing that Mark Twain satirically advocated, however, was to bring home missionaries from China. He wanted them to “sivilize” Southern white men who had sworn allegiance to the Ku Klux Klan. “You (missionaries) convert roughly one Chinaman per missionary per annum. That is an uphill fight against 33,000 pagans born every day.” At such moments, Twain makes me think about Jesus.
But he isn’t the only one. In fact, reading led me to Christ. I did not have a conversion experience. No drugs or alcohol sank me to rock bottom. I had no one mentor to lead me to church and ultimately to Christ. The Lord did not call me in a dream or speak in my ear. My faith in Jesus grew over time. I don’t think I ever didn’t believe in God. From the time I was born, I was brought up in the Protestant church, and while various of my family members traveled far and wide on spiritual journeys, I never did. But I read. I read a great deal.
After a short stint working in radio, I became a teacher and a writer. Soon the books I taught my students began to take hold of me—books I’d known since the time I was in high school were now my own personal Bible of sorts. I taught John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and found that I looked forward to it almost as much as my students loathed it. Reading a book of 500-plus pages is usually not an event anticipated with glee. But as a teacher, I did find joy in it, and what’s more, I found God in it.
Steinbeck, who was not known for devout Christian faith, wrote about it all the time. In The Grapes of Wrath, the secondary character, Jim Casy (note the initials J.C., I always tell my students), is an itinerant preacher who has fallen away from the mainstream church. “Just Jim Casy now. Ain’t got the call no more. Got a lot of sinful idears—but they seem kinda sensible.” Casy is confused and in his confusion he says, “I went off alone and sat and figured. The sperit’s strong in me, on’y it ain’t the same. I ain’t so sure of a lot of things.” The tension between human mind and spirit—our desire to do what pleases God and upon trying, our inability to do so—is laid bare here.
Casy’s death is even more allegorical than his life. In an attempt to stop farm owners from driving down wages, he leads some of the migrant workers on a strike and tries to force a settlement. It doesn’t work, of course, and in a moment of violence remarkable for its sparse telling, Casy is killed. He is standing in a stream of clear water as a flashlight from one of the men chasing him falls on his face. He turns to the man and says, “Listen … You fellas don’ know what you’re doin’. You’re helpin’ to starve kids.” And with that the man, armed with a pick handle, hammers across Casy’s cheek and brow. He lays in the stream, lifeless, the flashlight beaming on him. Steinbeck merely dramatized what the Bible has said all along: God is on the side of the downtrodden.
Perhaps no one “secular” author has contributed so much to the Christian faith as Charles Dickens. His novella, A Christmas Carol, is perhaps single-handedly responsible for making Christmas a household celebration, as well as a pagan celebration. But in light of his stories of redemption, salvation, and grace, he can be forgiven and perhaps even lauded for bringing Christmas out of the basement of the Western conscience and moving it into the living room.
It is not Ebenezer Scrooge who fascinated me most, though. It is Sydney Carton, the debauched, drunken, and brilliant lawyer from A Tale of Two Cities who finds that his sacrifice will redeem him and save his dear friends. It is Carton who, though morose and depressed, drunk and slovenly, gives his life in the uncanny twist of events that lead him to the guillotine in revolutionary Paris.
“I am the resurrection and the life,” Sydney keeps hearing over and over again. As his captors prepare to execute him, in the midst of his own sacrifice, he comforts another, a young lady, accused by the “Citizens” of France of treason. Sydney tells her to keep her eyes on him. He remains a constant and steady source of hope and inspiration for her. Yet the ridiculous events that lead these two innocents to be executed are not the focus of Dickens’s attention. He does not write, in his extraordinary verbosity, about the injustice of the system. Rather, he writes about compassion, healing, understanding, justice, and ultimately faith.
An aside: in the high school where I teach, A Tale of Two Cities is core literature for the ninth grade. I am always puzzled when I hear cries about how God has been kicked out of our classrooms. Have those leveling this charge looked at the reading list of their local high schools recently?
In any event, Dickens, more than most classic authors, brought me to Christ. Though not my favorite writer, Dickens unabashedly writes about humanity in a way that would embarrass a 21st-century psychologist. As Harvard professor Robert Coles has said, “And Dickens, oh my, what Dickens knew about human nature!”
I am inclined to agree. In Soul Survivor, Philip Yancey writes of Coles being drawn to great authors—including Dickens, Flannery O’Connor, Leo Tolstoy, Simone Weil, and William Carlos Williams—while he was a student at Harvard. Like Coles, I have found that these authors are simply retelling the Bible, albeit sometimes in a way that makes some Christians angry. But Coles never blinks. He explains to Yancey that the Bible has all along steadfastly preached that we have both sides in us. We have the ability to be evil and ignorant, and we have the ability to behave with grace and compassion. All of us have those tendencies, and the authors that moved Coles merely repeat that refrain and seek ways for the most despicable of people to be redeemed.
Beauty, Grace, power
In the dying days of winter, I teach a book by Zora Neale Hurston called Their Eyes Were Watching God. The main character, Janie, is constantly in the spring of her life. Through a series of failed marriages and abusive situations, Janie does not shrink from her circumstances. Rather, she embraces them and lives joyously in God’s shadow. “Ev’rybody got to go to God for theyselves,” says Janie, speaking from experience. Never cowed or demeaned by her situation, she is an indomitable woman and ultimately finds her own soul. As one of my students wrote in a paper about the book, “Spring is the soul-chasing season.” What a tribute to Hurston: She reaches into the black experience in America, and rather than coming out discouraged, as she has every right to do, she finds reason for joy and love.
One line reads, “Dawn and doom were in the branches.” Hurston also knew that human beings have the potential for both. Dawn and doom exist in each one of us, and it is up to us to choose which one will succeed. Perhaps this is the ultimate expression of free will that we are given. This is the free will that allows human beings to suffer or alleviate suffering, to love or to hate, to choose spirit over ignorance, compassion over mistrust, and finally to accept and share what there is of living.
In that vein, I have continued to teach. I teach not because I know how to reach students. I teach because they reach me. In the depths of all that is rampant in a high school—drugs, abuse, sexual promiscuity, ignorance, hatred—literature also exists, and with it, God. Ralph Waldo Emerson speaks to students about self-reliance and the power of nature. He speaks to them about losing yourself in order to find yourself. Shakespeare provides such profound glimpses into the human heart that many doubt he could have written them on his own. The beauty of his words, the grace with which he writes, and the power of the human soul and spirit they convey are unmatched in the English language.
Tolkein, Lewis, Frost, and even more contemporary authors like David Guterson, Charles Frasier, Annie Dillard, and Anne Lamott are what led me back to the Bible and to Christ. In their writings is the constant search, and an acceptance of sorts, that while we all sin and fall short of the glory of God, we must strive toward that glory while giving love and compassion to those around us. This is not an epiphany or a moment of clarity. This is a lifetime of struggling with answers that belie their questions. It is a terrible honesty and, finally, a hope that God will indeed dwell within us. What a dreadful and wonderful lesson to learn.
Mark Storer is a writer and teacher in Camarillo, California.