Essayist and art critic John Ruskin (in Modern Painters) penned: “I believe that the root of almost every schism and heresy from which the Christian church has ever suffered has been rooted in the effort… to earn rather than to receive… salvation….”1 In other words, Ruskin attributes heresy squarely to a misunderstanding of the doctrine of grace. John Bunyan, most remembered for Pilgrim’s Progress, wrote another book—and a part of his title is Grace Abounding. The purpose of this article is to show the subject of grace—both abused and abounding—throughout some of the world’s great literature and its authors.
I. Grace Abused
1. In Literature
Probably the most frequent and formidable fashion in which grace is abused appears in the form of people—whether in life or literature—who espouse Christian orthodoxy, yet are anything but gracious in character. Hardly a crustier example of religious rigidity could be found in literature than in the character of the infamous Murdstones in Charles Dickens’s semi-autobiographical David Copperfield. The name Murdstone is itself certainly an immediate giveaway as to the character of young David Copperfield’s stepfather and his austere sister. They are true-to-form “wicked” stepparents whom no child would wish to have—austere, harsh disciplinarians. When Miss Murdstone made her debut at David’s house,
she brought with her two uncompromising hard black boxes, with her initials on the lids in hard brass nails. When she paid the coachman, she took her money out of a hard steel purse in the very jail of a bag which hung upon her arm by a heavy chain, and shut up like a bug.2
What a wonderfully wicked woman! No televised version could ever do justice to Dickens’s description of her. The repetition of the word “hard” three times is the tip-off to this religious but rigid person. She appears as the female version of that parabolic perception of God as a “hard man” (Matt 25:24, KJV). From a supposed “hard” God (as Matt 25:25 indicates) one only hides things. An open-hearted gracious God begets an open-hearted, disclosive response.
Charles Dickens was obviously familiar with religious eccentrics—as indeed he was with all eccentrics. In Bleak House Dickens depicted another form of ungraciousness from that of the inflexible Miss Murdstone in the person of the expansively evangelistic Mrs. Jellyby. Mrs. Jellyby had been blessed with multiple children who (if small) were forever tumbling down stairs, or (if older) were being pressed into long hours of secretarial service for overseas missions. They had been conscripted for Christianity while their own normal childhood needs had been neglected. Mrs. Jellyby was forever having missionary correspondence overseas concerning matters related to the African tribe of the Borrioboola-Gha, all the while blissfully neglecting her own tribe of children. Her children got to the point where they hated the Borrioboola-Gha. Four missionary envelopes ended up in the dinner gravy one evening. Mr. Jellyby opened his mouth once during dinner, but closed it without saying anything. Who could compete with Borrioboola-Gha? Mrs. Jellyby is the incarnation of 1 Tim 5:8 (“If anyone does not provide for his [or her] relatives, and especially for his [or her] immediate family, he [or she] has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” NIV). Indeed, how would a believer so ungracious to her own household be any more gracious to the Borrioboola-Gha if she were actually among them?3
Sadly, how many of us have known adults who were turned off to Christianity earlier during their pliable years by ungracious upbringers? Take the following real-life case (which sounds worse than some Dickens characterizations):
Every move she made was subject to careful analysis by this clan…. The slightest deviation was trumpeted as a wicked sin against the all-seeing eye of the never-sleeping God. Almost daily she was admonished to pledge not to drink, smoke, or swear. Four or five times a week the child was herded to church. At home she had to scrub floors and wash dishes before she was six. When she attempted to play act, a child’s normal way to act out her childish fantasies, she was told with rigid implacability that she was sinning against God. Later in life feelings of guilt clung to her like barnacles to a sea-wall.4
Should we be surprised to learn that the little girl’s name came to be that of Marilyn Monroe? What might have happened if the orphan had been raised in a healthy sort of gracious Christian home?
In his Barchester series of novels (including The Warden and Barchester Towers) Anthone Trollope—a contemporary of Dickens—demonstrated that he too had come in contact with ungracious models of Christianity. In the two novels mentioned, Dr. Grantly (the archdeacon) and Rev. Obadiah Slope represent a lack of grace in high church and low church settings respectively. Dr. Grantly is blustering, dogmatic, and overbearing, while Mr. Slope is oily, determined, and manipulative. Both could use a genuine infusion of authentic grace.
Almost always people recoil and rebel against calcified ungraciousness. Take the famed early American novel The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hester Prynne has been tabbed as guilty of adultery. However, one would get the impression that this was the unpardonable sin from the manner (of permanent, public disgrace) in which she is treated by the righteous New Englanders. The disciplinary treatment doled out to Hester seems far harsher than that administered by the Apostle Paul to the Corinthian Christian guilty of sexual immorality (1 Cor 5:1; 2 Cor 2:6-8).
Ungraciousness is not the sole province of Britons and Americans, by any means. Russian great, Leo Tolstoy, incarnated an inflexible uprightness and uptightness in the character of Anna Karenina’s husband. The high-ranking civil servant presented a cold exterior to people, including his wife, Anna. Put together an insensitive, career-absorbed, upright husband and a beautiful, unfulfilled wife, and you have the tailor-made formula for the fuse leading to an affair. What a world of difference it might have made if Anna’s husband had graciously sensed that his emotional sterility and vocational involvement were alienating his wife. At least Emma Bovary’s husband (in Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary) declares his unbending affection to a wife involved in one of literature’s notorious affairs.
World literature is replete with examples of the lack of grace—whether in the form of superfluousness (as in Dickens’s Mrs. Jellyby) or (more often) in the form of severe sternness (as in the Murdstones or Anna Karenina’s husband). Tragically, many of these fictional examples aren’t truly fictional. One who reads both an author’s fiction and the same author’s biographies or autobiography soon discovers that much fiction is factual. That makes gracelessness even sadder—as we shall see in the next section.
2. In Litterateurs
Perhaps there is hardly a sadder recital than when a person begins listing world-famous authors who are not Christians and then compares that same list with all those who grew up in orthodox or evangelical Christian homes and environments. Some reacted with embitterment against unappealing orthodox versions of Christianity they experienced or witnessed (e.g., Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Somerset Maugham). Others sought to forge some milder version of theism (especially emphasizing the Sermon on the Mount) in reaction against a more rigid evangelical home situation (e.g., Leo Tolstoy and Robert Louis Stevenson). Some turned atheist due to harsh, hypocritical “Christian” fathers (e.g., Russian playwright and short-story writer Anton Chekhov). The list—tragically—is long: George Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, etc. Imagine how the literary world might have been impacted if the preceding authors had experienced healthy, happy, winsome upbringings by authentically gracious Christian parents!
Thankfully, even where writers have reacted to or rejected their perception of biblical Christianity, the biblical documents still indelibly impact world literature. Neither Dostoevsky nor Tolstoy, in my opinion, can honestly be labeled Christians, yet the NT profoundly impacts Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment, as well as Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Over a hundred references to the Bible can be gleaned from the embittered Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. There are 600 allusions to the Bible in Herman Melville’s poetic Clarel, and one researcher discovered 1400 biblical allusions in the total Melville corpus!5
Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) was one of the milder instances of reaction to a staunch evangelical home life. Stevenson was the most popular author of the late 1800’s. Stevenson’s maternal grandfather, for whom his book David Balfour is named, was a minister in the Church of Scotland. His nursemaid (affectionately called Cummy) told him Bible stories, taught him the Shorter Catechism, and made heaven and hell very real to him, for she was a lively storyteller.6 As a young man Stevenson became (in his own words) a “youthful atheist.”7 His parents were aghast at their young infidel. In some ways it was sort of a late adolescent rebellion.
Stevenson’s father is surely to some degree responsible. In both The Master of Ballantrae and (a last unfinished novel) The Weir of Hermiston an unbending, emotionally marble father is described by the author. Furthermore, in the latter novel the inflammatory issue over which the fictional father and son divided (namely, capital punishment) is the same one over which the famed author and his own father, Thomas, fell apart. Stevenson found his father overly dogmatic about his son’s vocational choice, politics, and religion. Despite this adamant opposition of his father, Robert Louis Stevenson loved his father, who had definite warm spots and was one of his storytellers in childhood. Nevertheless, when the author in his twenties revealed his unorthodoxy, his father mourned: “You have rendered my whole life a failure.”8 However, about five to eight years later Stevenson could write: “I came about like a well-handled ship. There stood at the wheel that unknown steersman whom we call God.”9 He could write to his father in 1878 that he believed in the overarching God.
Stevenson died at age forty-four. He imbibed generic theistic views, revered Christ, and during his last years in the South Sea Islands held family prayers regularly. Furthermore, he had high compliments for some Christian missionaries there. Still, it would appear that he never fully recovered a full-orbed evangelical view of Christianity. This seems due to the extremely dour, graceless version he had experienced as a child. Some Bible teachers have understood the meaning of Prov 22:6 to be this: Give a child a sweet taste of the faith during its younger years and in adulthood that sweet taste will remain. It would appear that Stevenson could never quite get rid of the sour taste of earlier years.
Somerset Maugham aired his views about Christianity in his most autobiographical and famous book Of Human Bondage. It is a book with which every Christian should wrestle. Maugham had been orphaned early and was afflicted with a lifelong stutter. Hence, he made his chief character, the boy Philip Carey, an orphan who possessed a handicap (a club foot). Philip is cast, for his raising, upon an Anglican clergyman (uncle) and his wife. A person should really read Of Human Bondage in order to pick up the whole complex of innuendoes that reveal in Philip’s uncle a life of conservative Christian correctness which is little more than pure selfishness.
The pastor embarrassed the newly-arrived orphan when the boy’s toy bricks crashed down and interrupted his uncle’s Sunday afternoon nap. Philip is told that “it’s very wicked to play on Sunday.”10 His uncle showed by his actions that he considered Christians of other persuasions than his own something lesser and to be avoided. The vicar kept a fire in his own study on especially cold days, but never kept one in his wife’s room. While Philip’s aunt secretly handed over her life savings to Philip in order to forward his career, his uncle stuck to the letter of the law and provided nothing for the wandering youth. The vicar’s appetite for food remained unimpaired when his wife died. It is a small wonder, then, that we find Maugham writing, “When Philip ceased to believe in Christianity, he felt that a great weight was taken from his shoulders…”11 (One is reminded of the heavy burden of gracelessness Peter spoke about in Acts 15:10, 11).
Unfortunately, one who has read the lives of the litterateurs could go on and on. Rudyard Kipling’s parents sent him back to England from India to be raised (unknown to his parents) by abusive evangelicals. The Russian Anton Chekhov’s adult atheism assuredly had much to do with a Bible-spouting, despotic father who would force his children to rehearse hymns for several hours very late at night. If only grace had abounded!
3. In Legalism
I define legalism basically as that inclination to make things harder than God makes them (in Scripture). Legalism legislates a life harder than the one a gracious God requires (see Matt 23:4; Acts 15:10, 11). As the Lord Jesus indicated, legalism may produce very intense, ardent evangelists (Matt 23:15). In our day there are evangelical brochures advertising “seven steps” to salvation—and the like. The problem with legalism is that a more legalistic legalist will always find one more rule God supposedly requires of us. Another version of legalism in our day is to preach salvation by grace, but to have a stiff list of rules for church membership (e.g., promising to attend every church meeting, to tithe, etc., in order to become a member).
One wonders if Mark Twain hadn’t observed such rules-conscious Christians during his younger years in a conservative Protestant church. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn provides a case study in legalism as applied to other-than-church life. Jim the slave had run away down river, but had been captured and chained by the leg in an out-back hut at Uncle Silas’s place. The task of Tom Sawyer (using the assumed name of “Sid”) and Huck Finn was to free Jim. When Huck suggests that they steal the key at night and make their getaway on the raft, Tom decries Huck’s plan: “It’s too blame simple; there ain’t nothing to it.” Tom has to have a rescue plan that is more high-styled than just getting the key and freeing the slave. When Huck suggests using a hole big enough for Jim to get through, Tom rejoins, “I should hope we can find a way that’s a little more complicated than that, Huck Finn.”
Eventually Tom volunteers: “We’ll dig him out. It’ll take about a week.” Chapter XXXV is entitled “Dark, Deep-laid Plans.” In the early daylight hours the digging commences, but Tom pines, “Blame it, this whole thing is just as easy and awkward as it can be. And it makes it so rotten difficult to get up a difficult plan.” There was no watchman to be drugged, no watchdog to provide a sleeping potion, for Tom informs Huck: “You got to invent all the difficulties.” Tom is not content with merely lifting up the bedstead to let Jim’s leg chain slip off; he has to find a saw so as to saw off the leg of the bed. At this point Tom reprimands Huck and supplies the rationale for salvation-the-hard-way:
“Why, hain’t you ever read any books at all?—Baron Trenck, nor Casanova, nor Benvenuto Chelleeny, nor Henry IV, nor none of them heroes? Who ever heard of getting a prisoner loose in such an old-maidy way as that?” Tom creatively wishes there was a moat around the cabin. He even toys for a minute with the notion of sawing Jim’s own leg off!
Tom invents the need for Jim to hide a rope ladder in his bed so as to supply clues to the discoverers. “Well, if it’s in the regulations,” Huck concedes. In addition, Tom wants Huck to steal a shirt off of the clothesline so Jim (who can’t write) can keep a journal on it. Huck continues to furnish obvious objections, but Tom will hear none of it. If they were to go by the books, Tom figures, it should take them several years, but Jim’s case has a bit more urgency to it Although they could just enter through the door, Tom insists that they must dig Jim out with case-knives. (However, blisters without significant results check that idea shortly.)
The upshot of page after page for several chapters’ worth of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is to show how to make a hard, complicated chore out of a simple remedy. Never was there a more comic case of enforced legalism. At one point, Tom disgustedly rebukes his partner in crime: It ain’t no use to try to learn you nothing, Huck.”12 Simple deliverance is insufficient for a mastermind like Tom Sawyer. What is comic in a rollicking adventure becomes tragic when carried over onto the subject of salvation. If only the spiritual Tom Sawyers could grasp the message of the book of Galatians—to supplement salvation by grace is to supplant it.
II. Grace Abounding
The popular world classics not only provide the Christian preacher and teacher with examples of the abuse of grace, but (thankfully) also with examples of the abundance of God’s grace.
1. The Need for God’s Grace
Human disgrace constitutes the need for divine grace. The grace in Rom 3:24-28 is encased against the dark backdrop of sin in Rom 3:10-20. Perhaps there is no better parabolic presentation of the human predicament than is found in the science-fiction epic poem Aniara by the 1974 Nobel Prize winner, the Swedish Harry Edmund Martinson. The Aniara is a three-mile-long intergalactic spaceship traveling to Mars from Earth with 8,000 passengers. These are survivors of World War Thirty-Two, and at that period the earth is uninhabitable. They are headed for their hedonistic Hawaii (so to speak) when disaster strikes. A near-collision with an asteroid throws the Aniara off-course. Then an encounter with hostile meteors keeps the spacecraft from returning to orbit until the space travelers have reached the point of no return.13
They are lost (just as the Bible diagnoses) and on their own there is no hope of recovery. They are a people partying on their way to doom. What a paradigm of the human situation. “‘Lost!’… the word went like a dagger to my heart,” contemplates one of the members of The Swiss Family Robinson.14 The first quotation in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is that of Gertrude Stein: “You are all a lost generation.”15
2. The Basis of God’s Gracious Offer
John’s Gospel indicates that “grace… came through Jesus Christ.” While the OT was by no means grace-exempt, John 1:17 makes “grace” and “law” into an antithesis. Titus 2:11 observes that “the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all….”
That grace is channeled “through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:24). No less a theologian than Benjamin Warfield observed that the normal word for “redeem” in biblical texts in German (erlösen) is exactly the one used by Grimm’s Fairy Tales for the process of breaking a spell.16 For instance, in Grimm’s tale about “The King of the Golden Mountain” a merchant’s son comes to a castle in which he finds only a serpent. However, the serpent turns out to be a maiden on whom a spell has been cast. She sees her savior and cries, “Are you come, my Erlöser?” When she is freed, restored, and transformed, the curse is broken. What a wonderful analogy from children’s literature of the removal of the curse (Gal 3:13) and freedom from the power of the devil (Heb 2:14, 15). This breaking of the spell comes about by “grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:24).
This salvation by grace also comes about only by the intervening rescue of another. Victor Hugo’s monumental Les Miserables furnishes an illustration here. Jean Valjean is Hugo’s chief character. Valjean’s adopted daughter, Cosette, falls in love with young Marius. Because Marius thinks Cosette has departed forever, he determines to give his life at the street barricades with the youthful revolutionaries. Valjean discovers Cosette’s love and goes to the barricades, where Marius has been seriously wounded. The older man—himself wounded—carries the younger unconscious man through the underground sewers of Paris, thus providing his deliverance. Valjean does not even inform Marius that his savior is Cosette’s father, for he would not force himself upon the other.17 That is grace.
Our gracious salvation has been brought about by means of substitution (2 Cor 5:14, 25; 1 Tim 2:5; 1 Pet 3:18). Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities provides no doubt the classic case of substitution—one dying on behalf of another. Charles Darnay (a former French aristocrat) and Sidney Carton are look-alikes. At an early juncture in the story this likeness allows Darnay to gain his freedom in an English court case. In the latter part of the story Darnay is taken captive by French patriots en route to Paris, and even his father-in-law (an ex-prisoner of the hated Bastille) cannot save him. On the day before Darnay is to be taken in a tumbril to his execution, Sidney Carton manages to finagle his way into Darnay’s prison cell, change clothes with Darnay (who has been rendered unconscious by means of a drug), and is then in position to sacrifice himself as a substitute for another.18 Carton’s death provides another with life. His was a voluntary, graciously offered, substitutionary sacrifice.
God’s grace (Titus 2:11, 12) transforms receptive sinners. Again, Hugo’s Les Miserables furnishes a breathtaking illustration of this truth. At the beginning of the book Valjean is an ex-convict on the run. He has become a hardened man due to long years of incarceration for stealing a loaf of bread so as to feed his sister’s starving family. After his reprieve no one will offer him food or lodging because of his prison record. Therefore, he wanders homelessly from town to town. Finally he is told of a bishop’s home. To his surprise he is taken in and given food and an overnight stay. During the night he decides to steal the bishop’s silver. The guilty thief is then captured by the police who want the bishop to press charges. Instead, the old man mercifully indicates that Valjean had forgotten to take the candlesticks also. The police are flabbergasted. Valjean is also stunned. He had expected severe justice. Instead, he had received grace. That grace transforms a hardened, desperate ex- convict into a compassionate and gracious convert. It is one of literature’s greatest cases of behavioral conversion in response to another’s grace.19
3. The Results of God’s Grace
It has been indicated that divine grace received should engender human graciousness in response. Charles Dickens’s Bleak House affords an excellent example of grace in action in the person of John Jarndyce. Jarndyce shows undeserved favor to others in two particular ways. First, he treats Richard Carstone with grace when the younger man attributes ungraciousness, even questionable ethics, to the older Jarndyce. Richard had waited years and years (like a gambler) for the resolution of the Jarndyce court case. From this case Richard expected to receive a financial windfall. When the case was finally resolved, the lawyers had used up all the money of the parties involved. Richard the debtor got nothing, yet John Jarndyce was willing to forgive Richard’s unjust allegations against him and offer him any financial assistance he needed.
A second instance of Jarndyce’s grace is an extreme one. The older Jarndyce had taken in Esther Summerson as an adopted child and raised her. When she was grown (despite her disfiguring case of small pox), he offered to marry Esther. However, John Jarndyce learned that a younger man, Dr. Allan Woodcourt, was in love with Esther and she with him. Hence, Jarndyce did the unheard-of thing by rescinding his own offer of marriage in favor of that of the younger man. Surely that is grace abounding.20
Stimulus = grace; response = gratitude. One of literature’s most touching instances of grace-and-gratitude occurs in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Three brothers of a dissolute and despicably immoral father are featured in this book. Dmitri Karamazov, frequently a drunken image of his father, is accused and brought to trial for the murder of his father. The transcript of the trial is often long and tedious, but there is one unforgettable chapter in that section entitled “A Pound of Nuts.”
An old German doctor named Herzenstube is called to the witness stand to testify concerning Dmitri’s psychological condition. The German reminisces about his younger years when as a doctor he had had contact with the Karamazov family. He recalled the urchin Dmitri wandering about the streets uncared for, with his trousers practically falling off. One day he bought the uncared-for boy a pound of nuts. Herzenstube began teaching Dmitri the names of the Trinity, which he had never heard before. On a later day the doctor drilled the small boy again on the Trinitarian names.
Many years passed. One day, Dr. Herzenstube told the court, into his office walked a well-dressed young man who proceeded to recite for the physician the names of the Trinity. It was a grown-up Dmitri Karamazov, who said to the kindly older man, “I have just returned to thank you for that pound of nuts.” (Evidently the elderly doctor was the only adult during Dmitri’s entire childhood years who had shown him any special care!) At that point in the courtroom the ever-boisterous Dmitri Karamazov piped up and said, “And I still thank you, you good man!”21
It has been well said: Theology is grace, and ethics is gratitude. In the existential guilt and anxiety of modern literature we sense the quest for meaning. In children’s fairy tales we find the deepest longings of the human heart. The classic literature of the world provides a pastiche of sin abounding, but even greater-of grace abounding!
*Dr. Townsend, the Bible Editor for David C. Cook Publishing Company, makes his third contribution to JOTGES with this fascinating literary analysis. Jim is the author of eight paperbacks in ‘The Bible Mastery Series,” including New Testament Highlights. Ed.