Many of us have heard the old saying, or some version of it: “there are only two things certain in life: death and taxes.” Not all men have been subject to taxes, but all men are subject to the consequence of our sin, death. It is our scourge, our fear, our dread. It cuts down the weak and strong alike. Our earliest literature (c.f. The Iliad) deals with man’s difficulty in facing its reality or (c.f. The Epic of Gilgamesh) man’s quest to escape it. In plagues and famine, in war and storms, death takes some or many; given enough time, it takes all. What is stronger than death?
In A Tale of Two Cities Charles Dickens answers in a word: Love. Love is stronger than death.
In this story a young man (Dr. Manette) is wrongly imprisoned in the Bastille. After years and years of deprivations and mistreatment he is released. But though his body still lives, he is in reality “dead”. He cannot speak. He cannot think. He cannot make eye contact or engage with others, so broken is his soul. He is reduced to the status of an automaton—even after he is released he huddles to a corner and cobbles shoes as he was forced to do in his dungeon for ceaseless nights on end. So deep is his spiritual death it seems that there is nothing strong enough to rescue him from his fallen state.
Enter Lucie. Lucie Manette is the daughter of Dr. Manette. Separated from her father during her infancy she has no memory of him and believes he had died years ago. But the moment that she finds out he is alive she does not hesitate to travel to Paris to retrieve him. She takes it upon herself to care for her father, no matter the cost to herself. And her steadfast, unmerited love restores her father to life. Love proves to be stronger than death.
The Bible uses different expressions to describe sin and its consequences. It says that we, like Dr. Manette, are dead in our sins. But it also talks about us being slaves to our sins. In this novel Sydney Carton is the embodiment of enslavement to sin. Carton is a man that, at least on some level, wants to do what is right. But he finds himself absolutely incapable of doing what is right, so enslaved his will to sin. Time and again, night after night, he finds himself turning to drink and sinful behavior with low and base men. In one of the most moving passages in the book Carton sobs into his pillow, ashamed of his sin, ashamed of his weakness, but utterly incapable of mending his ways and changing his life. Love can bring life, but can it bring freedom?
Once again Dickens responds with a resounding “yes”. Through the non-romantic love of Lucie, Carton is set free from his slavery. He is empowered to live as he ought to live, to be the man he was created to be. His life is fundamentally transformed and he goes on to embody and live out the love he has received. (Those of you that have read this book know that there are even stronger parallels to the Gospel that I am not mentioning; I don’t want to spoil the book for those that haven’t read it.)
A concerned mother once wrote to C. S. Lewis, ‘what do I do? My young son seems to love Aslan more than he loves Jesus.’ Lewis responded, ‘everything that your son loves about Aslan is a reflection of a much deeper and truer reality that is in Christ. As he gets older he will come to see that what he loves in Aslan is actually Christ.’
Our children attend church regularly; many attend youth group and Sunday school regularly and many of us have regular family devotions. These are all good things! But the danger is that the truths of the Gospel can become commonplace to them. By the time they are in their teenage years they have heard Biblical stories dozens and dozens of times and as a result the beauty of the Gospel doesn’t move them as it does someone who is approaching it for the first time.
That is why I think great literature is so valuable—it allows us to see great and profound truths through fresh eyes. I can tell my children that Christ’s love brings life to the dead and freedom to slaves, but Dickens shows that love is stronger than death and stronger than the slavery of sin, capable of restoring and transforming us. No book can replace the Bible. But Great Books can deepen our understanding and appreciation for the truths found in the Bible.