Christ in 20th Century Literature

Christ in 20th Century Literature

Summer Reading at PBC by Deanna Chadwell, Dept. Chair, General Studies

Christ-figures in 20th Century Literature

This summer at PBC I’m privileged to teach a literature class entitled “The Christ-figure in 20th Century Lit.” It’s one of my favorite classes to teach because we get to explore some of my favorite fiction, and we also get to see how, even, in these days of almost overwhelming secularism, the bones of Christianity still act as the scaffolding for our society. Christianity isn’t just skin deep; it is the armature on which America stands and even the most secular writers, when they want to talk about love, leadership, guilt, compassion, honor, and sacrifice, turn a main character into a type of Jesus Christ and let Him carry the weight of what they want to say.

“Christianity isn’t just skin deep; it is the armature on which America stands“

They do this subtly and a reader might not notice at first, but eventually the magnitude of His life, death, and resurrection shine through and empower the story. This summer we started with C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe because Aslan, the lion, is the best-drawn Christ-figure in literature. Christ was the “Lion of Judah.” Aslan is the lion of Narnia—he rules that magical kingdom with both love and sternness. At one point Mr. and Mrs. Beaver are trying to describe him to our main-character children and Lucy (the youngest) asks if he’s safe. She gets this reply, “No. He’s not safe. But he’s good.”

Aslan: The Best-Drawn Christ-figure in Literature

Many things about Aslan paint him as a Christ-figure, but the most telling is his sacrificial death at the hands of the Witch, and his unexpected resurrection. A reader never forgets Aslan just as a believer can’t forget Christ. It becomes obvious that Lewis intended for the children reading this story to respond with recognition – of the Christ they already know, or of a Christ they need to know. The book is a powerful, delightful read.

Bless the Beasts and Children: A Social Commentary

Also powerful is Glendon Swarthout’s young adult novel Bless the Beasts and Children. Swarthout creates his Christ-figure not to evangelize but to use the power of a Christ-figure to make a social comment about the way our society was treating both animals and children. The book was written in the late sixties in response to the cruel way the government was thinning the buffalo herd near the Mogollon Rim in Arizona. He used 6 misfit teenage boys as a parallel to the buffalo (and as disciples) and one of those boys, John Cotton (note the initials) is the Christ-figure. He’s a born leader, shows compassion for boys so anti-social that no one else at the Box Canyon Boys Camp will have anything to do with them. He nurtures them, commands them, listens to them, and eventually ushers them into a manhood they couldn’t have attained without him. And he saves the buffalo.

Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea: Symbolism and Struggle

Next we’ll read Hemingway’s short masterpiece The Old Man and the Sea. The old man is the Christ-figure who struggles to catch a great fish and then has to struggle more to save it. The novel is full of heavy symbols—the sea, the fish, the boat, and most of all Santiago, the old man. He is our Christ-figure, a man who has faced incredible evil and becomes even nobler as a result. He ends up carrying his mast (cross) up the hill to his shanty, his hands and feet still bleeding from his monumental battle.

Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River: Miracles and Devilry

We will also read Leif Enger’s novel Peace Like a River, which features not only a miracle-working Christ-figure, but a horrifying devil-figure too. Next we’ll read Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath about the unlikely Christ-figure of Jim Casey who not only dies to save another, but saves himself in the process.

Flannery O’Connor’s Short Stories: A Powerful Finale

We’ll finish the course with some Flannery O’Conner short stories. My hope is that my students will walk away from this class realizing that our Lord permeates our culture in spite of the efforts of some to deny it.

“our Lord permeates our culture in spite of the efforts of some to deny it.”