The Christ in Recent Fiction

WE are wont to hear it said that the unlettered people of the dark ages learned their Bible through its translation into stone and upon canvas. The life of the Christ was told over and over again, in certain scenes, with a great variety of representation. The pictures, springing sometimes from a faith which made art a servant, sometimes from an art which availed itself of faith, but more commonly from the complex mind that did not trouble itself to analyze its motives, served in like manner as stimulants to devotion or appeals to a love of beauty, and made familiar the incidents of New Testament history. The conditions of modern life, and especially of modern Protestant life among Englishspeaking people, present a different aspect, The Bible is known through the printed page, and the church which thus uses the Bible has little occasion to resort to other methods for making the facts of the Scripture narrative known. To compare small things with great, we may say that the only religious art which performs this function nowadays in Protestant communities is the cheap woodcut which accompanies the earliest instruction in Bible stories.

Meanwhile, the literary accumulation of textual annotation in the Protestant world has been enormous. Bibles illustrated by pictures play an insignificant part, but Bibles expanded by comment, historical, geographical, ethnical, as well as moral and religious, form the customary reading of great numbers of people. There are books devoted not merely to Bible lands, but to Bible animals, Bible manners and customs, and, if we mistake not, to insects mentioned in the Bible. As a result, the imagination is plied with material drawn from this source, and from early childhood thousands of persons who constitute the great commonalty of readers have formed the habit of reconstructing Biblical scenes with far more assiduity than they have used upon any other historical material. From being pupils they become teachers, and continue the task of criticism and creation.

The last generation, to go no further back, has witnessed an extraordinary collection of books, centring about the person of the chief figure of the Scriptures, which owe their origin to this great intellectual activity. Any one who will compare such a book as Fleetwood’s Life of the Saviour with Farrar’s or Edersheim’s Life of Christ will see at a glance the difference in the attitude of the writers. No doubt Strauss’s, and later Renan’s, publications had a great deal to do with the sudden rise of what may be called the evangelical school of biography of the Christ ; but it is plain that the popularity of these books is due most distinctly to the same cause which had much to do with the production of the more rationalistic school of biography, namely, a concentration of interest in the subject as capable of expression in the terms of biography. The interest cannot be separated from other movements of the human mind, eager in its search for the foundations of human life; but the soil for this special form of literary art had been prepared by the very widespread interest and study in all the details of New Testament history; the labors of exegetes in pulpit and Sunday-school, and religious newspaper and book, bore fruit in a familiarity with the subject which responded immediately to such an orderly and systematic presentation as biography presented, and the spirit which prompted lives of the Christ had minor manifestation in lives of the Apostles.

Now it was inevitable that when art, as dominated by Protestant thought and relieved of formal church patronage, should again approach Biblical subjects, and especially the central subject, it should express itself in more exact terms, whether the form used was pictorial or literary. Not merely the education of the artist, but the education of the spectator, has compelled Mr. Holman Hunt to make his Christ in the Temple, his Flight into Egypt, and his Wounded in the House of his Friends scrupulously exact archælogically. Mr. Ford Madox Brown, if he essays to portray the raising of the Shunamite’s son, does not for a moment think of disclosing the interior of a Manchester house, with a Church of England clergyman to act the part of Elisha, as his Venetian, or Florentine, or Netherland predecessors in the same field might have done, mutatis mutandis. But nowadays it is not pictorial art, it is literary art, which is likely to busy itself with Scriptural subjects, partly because the whole drift of training for painters is in other directions, but more because the literary artist is surer of an audience than the painter is of spectators.

The first form of literary art to feel the influence of which we have been speaking was the poetic and dramatic. Longfellow’s Christos in its first division, several of Browning’s and Story’s poems, occur at once as examples. But as there are a hundred successful novels to one successful poem, though there probably are nearly as many persons who in secret think they can write poems as there are who openly profess an ability to write stories, the form of fiction is that which may be counted on as most likely to engage the attention of those who lay hold of that great body of material which lies in and about the Bible for the purposes of their art. The way has been made plain by the abundant biographical studies which have appeared. These have accustomed the reading public to a treatment of the subjects detached from a strict Biblical form. From a life of the Christ which builds a conjectural youth out of two or three texts of Scripture for a foundation, and a vast amount of Judaic lore for a superstructure, it is but a step to a story which imagines the same period without the necessity of a constantly guarded

“ From our knowledge of other Jewish youths we may suppose,”etc.

There have been several stories of late which, with more or less boldness, occupy this field of New Testament life and character. We took occasion, upon its appearance, to speak briefly of the one which was most in the public eye, General Wallace’s Ben-Hur. Probably the success of that novel had something to do with the multiplication of its class, but we have tried to show that some such manifestation was to be looked for in the premises. It may be worth while to give a cursory examination of other examples, with a view to discovering, if possible, what this literature can and cannot do, and how likely it is to prevail, and even to make demands upon those who take their literary art seriously.

It is noticeable, at the outset, that so far these books refrain from making the central figure of all humanity the central figure, conventionally, of a piece of fiction. For so much reserve let us be thankful. But what the novelist gains in decorum, by such a method, he loses in art. There can be no middle choice between a deliberate converging of all lines toward this centre, since centre it already is in the reader’s mind by an irresistible force of association, and a mere allusive treatment. The author of BenHur, with a correct instinct, clearly had this in mind, and strove to diminish the actual presence of the Christ as a character in his story, leaving him rather an influence. So, too, with a somewhat similar purpose, evidently, Mr. Brooks, in his story A Son of Issachar,1 scarcely introduces the Christ at all, though many of the scenes take place about him, and now and then he appears as an actor. As this book is a fair sample of its class, and more ambitious than some, let us give a rapid outline of its construction.

Two characters, who are the foci of the ellipse described in this story, are presented in the first chapter. One is Juda Bar-Simon, of Kerioth, a zealot, a knifeman, whom the intelligent Sunday-school scholar at once recognizes by his more familiar title Judas Iscariot; the other is Cheliel Bar-Asha, of the Potters’ Street in Nain, and the mention of his residence prepares the same reader to find him the young man who was raised from the dead. Bar-Asha is of the tribe of Issachar, and has therefore the proud consciousness of a prince. The conversation between these two is intended to bring out the characters of the men : Juda, fierce, fanatical, burning for the freedom of Israel from Gentile domination, ambitious of wealth and power, and attached to the cause of the Rabbi Joshua, a Netser (Nazarene, O less learned reader), indeed, but a mighty worker of miracles ; Bar-Asha, dissatisfied, vaguely restless, wavering, yet easily stirred to action. Juda Bar-Simon leaves this young man, who is driving camels, and the next scene presents Bar-Asha as pushing along the road with his beasts, dreaming of a future which shall make good the words of Bar-Simon, when he is awakened rudely by the presence in the road of a company of Roman soldiers, under Vettius, the centurion, escorting the procurator, Pontius Pilate. Bar-Asha, still half mooning, announces himself as a prince of Issachar, and, upon being contemptuously handled by Macrinus, a Roman soldier, fells his assailant to the ground with a camel-goad. He is now thoroughly in possession of his senses, and sees that he is a prisoner of Rome. He is brought before Pilate, who thinks the jest a good one, and sends off this beggar prince to Herod for royal sport. Bar-Asha makes a desperate attempt to free himself, and the people of Nain, through which the cavalcade passes, are stirred up by the young man’s widowed mother to attempt a rescue, but nothing comes of it ; it merely serves to give the writer an opportunity to depict the relations of subject Jew to tyrannical Roman, and to make a picture of a village community.

Brought into the presence of Herod, Bar-Asha is amazed to hear orders given to treat him as a prince. He is properly arrayed, obsequiously attended, and finally given the place of honor by the king, and treated to a gorgeous spectacle. The young man, naturally a dreamer, has his head turned, and takes all the mocking speeches of Herod in dead earnest. The end comes when the tyrant, tired of the sport, dashes the contents of his cup into Bar-Asha’s face, who, a second time awakened from his dreams, retorts, with the unspeculating courage that belongs to his nature, by hurling his empty goblet at Herod’s head. Of course this fracas ends in the summary dispatch of the contumacious Jew. His dishonored body is sent back to his mother.

Thus it is that the son of the widow of Nain came to his death; and this, in the imagination of Mr. Brooks, is the explanation of the great throng of people that followed him to burial. The brief narrative of the scene of his restoration to his mother is elaborated by the art of the exegete and the reconstructer of ancient life; and as the young man opens his eyes upon the departing group, they rest upon one of the company,— Juda Bar-Simon. The remembrance of his conversation with this man tires BarAsha, and, with an exaltation of spirit, he sets forth to find Messias.

On his journey he falls in with a company of travelers, and the reader is now introduced, along with the hero of the tale, to Amina, daughter of Dal-el’ Aretas, King of Nabat and Lord of Petra. Amina, this young and very beautiful Arabian princess, was the lawful wife of Herod, but the tetrarch had discarded her for Herodias, and she was now returning, in fierce wrath and foiled ambition, to her father. She recognizes the camel-driver prince, whom she had seen at Herod’s sport, and who she knew had been put to death. The story which he tells of his restoration to life, and his enthusiastic search for the Messias, quickly suggest to Amina the possibility of making common cause with this new king of Israel and his followers, and she begins by casting her wiles about the handsome young man. She persuades him to keep on his way to Jerusalem, to find out the plans of Messias, and then to join her in her father’s camp.

In Jerusalem Bar-Asha again falls in with Judas, who discloses his impatience at the Master’s strange course, but his belief, nevertheless, that the Netser is biding his time ; he makes more clear, also, his own ambition : “ From my youth wealth has been my desire, — wealth and power. And when I am become the lord treasurer of the kingdom of Messias, shall not the poor man of Kerioth find that the long dream, the one hope of his life, is royally fulfilled?”

Bar-Asha joins Amina at her father’s fastness in the rocks of Petra ; and here is introduced another character, Magalath, the aged Magian, who is, of course, our old friend Melchior: a mystic scroll is read by him, which gives direction how to find a certain hidden treasure. At this juncture the historian steps aside from the main course of his narrative to bring forward a new personage, by name Adah, who is the daughter of Jairus, raised from the dead, and whose function in the story is to represent the steadfast, spiritual believer in the Messias, and to act as a foil to the seductive and dangerous Amina.

The action now quickens. A battle is fought between the Arabians and Herod’s army, in which Bar-Asha has his first taste of war. Herod is defeated; the knifemen play their part; Bar-Asha is brought into the presence of Adah; and Vettius also, who proves to be the centurion “ that loveth our nation,” learns from her of the Messias, whom he desires to find in behalf of his servant Macrinus, now sick. He stumbles upon Bar-Asha, whom he knew only as the camel-driver put to death by Herod; and Bar-Asha, thinking he has a new disciple of Messias in the Roman centurion, discloses to him the plan of Judas to incite a rebellion against the Romans, for the purpose of setting up Messias as king of the Jews. Vettius takes his own view of the matter, and arrests Judas. Thereupon Bar-Asha, discovering that this is the result of his impetuous confidence, gains access to Vettius’s quarters and stabs the centurion to death, but not before he has secured, in writing, a permit to visit Judas. He pays his visit at once, easily prevails upon Judas to exchange dress with him, and before news comes of the death of Vettius is on his way to Cæsarea Philippi, by command of the centurion previously given to Judas, while Judas goes free.

At Cæsarea the quasi Bar-Simon, — the real Bar-Asha, — for plotting treason against the Emperor, is exposed to the lions in the circus, overcomes them, as the valiant hero may be expected to do, and is thereupon given his freedom, just as a courier dashes up with the tidings that the gladiator is guilty of the base crime of slaying Vettius. But in the same nick of time a company of knifemen, headed by one Bar-Abbas, dashes into the circus and gives him real freedom. — leaving its captain, however, a prisoner.

We pass rapidly over the next succeeding passages, which are designed to pit Adah against Amina, with the temporary victory of the hitter; to make Bar-Asha head the crowd that hopes to crown Messias; and to enliven the narrative with an account of the treasure hunt which Bar-Asha and Amina have, with the customary result of the extinction of their torches just as they come upon the treasure.

The more significant movements now are those made by Juda Bar-Simon, who discloses to Bar-Asha his purpose to betray Messias. “ Only thus,” he says, “may I arouse him to his duty; only thus shall he achieve the end for which he was sent. Then shall he save himself by one swift, mighty act.” Accordingly the betrayal follows. BarAsha is the one, whom the synoptical gospels do not mention, who smites off the ear of Malluch ; and witnessing how the Messias receives this aid, Bar-Asha turns with rage, and thereafter joins the crowd in demanding the crucifixion ; he it is who heads the demand that BarAbbas, the captain of the knifemen, shall be released.

Remorse follows both Bar-Asha and Bar-Simon. They meet in seemingly deadly conflict, but Bar-Simon is saved for the death of suicide, and Bar-Asha for what? For the love of Adah, for repentance, for discipleship, and finally for martyrdom as the first Christian martyr ; the Hebrew Cheliel, “ son of a crown,” being Stephen, the crown itself, as the Greek name intimates.

To do Mr. Brooks justice, he has tried hard to make his melodramatic ingenuity a study of character in the case of both his main personages. In his preface, which serves in the nature of an apology, he accounts for BarAsha in these words: “ The man who is touched by a great purpose may never understand the depth of that purpose until tried as by fire; and he who would stand the test of faith must be an unhesitating believer, or his courage ends in cowardice. Even he whom a Christ recalls to life may, through lack of understanding, prove recreant to the Divine Impulse that has reawakened him; even he whom Messias raised from the dead may have been the loudest in all the rabble to cry, Crucify, crucify! Only through bitter experience is the light reached at last. The path to faith is often over the thorny ways of renunciation.” In his analysis of the motives of Judas he has more than one eminent writer on his side.

Nevertheless, the reader never escapes the unpleasant sensation of assisting in a tale which brings the greatest figure in human history within the lines of a romance which is lighted up by the red and blue fire of sensational melodrama. A foolish story-teller has rushed in where a truly great artist would not dare to follow; for the great artist has a capacity for perception as well as for conception, and the more he stood face to face with the narrative of the gospel, the less would be he disposed to turn it into a melodrama; and if he sought to disclose the action of character, he would prefer to choose conditions and circumstances which permitted a true freedom of handling.

Great art is reverent, but reverence alone does not necessarily produce great art. Another writer has attempted something of the same problem which presented itself to Mr. Brooks, but has not called in the aid of the same sort of machinery. Emmanuel2 is scarcely more than a paraphrase of the Scripture narrative ; the hero in this case being the Apostle Thomas, whom the author, with that desire to escape the ordinary which seems to afflict all these writers, introduces as Thoma, the son of Salmon.

His purpose is to delineate a character profoundly religious, early attracted to the Master, but intellectually perturbed, and unable to make his conception of the Messias coincide with the facts. Robertson of Brighton struck the keynote of the character when he said, “The honest doubt of Thomas craves a sign as much as the cold doubt of the Sadducee.” Mr. Cooley relies for his material very largely upon the Palestinian landscape. He uses, with patience, the natural world as a background to the scenes, which rarely go far beyond the accounts given by the evangelists. Nor does he ever put any words into the mouth of the Saviour which he does not find recorded ; but he seeks to show the probable effect of words and acts upon the lives of the unnamed but not unmentioned characters that appear in the gospel narrative. Now and then his fine perception strikes out a forcible and suggestive interpretation, as when, for example, after describing the interview with the woman of Samaria, he quotes the words, “ Behold. I say unto you, Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields, that they are white already unto harvest,” and interjects the explanatory clause, “ pointing to the people of Sychar, beginning to stream out across the valley toward them.”

Mr. Cooley, as we have intimated, is reverent to the verge of timidity in the handling of his subject. He also, in the preface, describes his point of view. “This book,” he says, “is an attempt to depict the life of our Lord in narrative form. Its character is given in the sub-title; it is an attempt at a story, rather than a critical biography, of the Christ. . . . Neither is it a historical novel. The thread of fiction running through it is only a thread, — a cord to which to attach, and by which to join, narratives which, in lack of some such bond, must remain more or less disconnected.” In fact, if there were such a thing as historical evolution of a work of art in the form of fiction dealing with the person of the Christ, this book would represent the stage just beyond the formal biography, as the biography itself represents the development of the loose gospel narrative conceived as contributions toward a presentation of the life of the Christ, which it is not; being exactly what it calls itself, a gospel.

Mr. Cooley’s failure to make an absorbing piece of fiction is due to his reverence for his subject, in the first place ; and then, it must be confessed, to his too minute and detailed use of nature. He is not skillful enough to make his hills and valleys and tempests and sunshine form a real background to distinctly moving figures, and the result is a somewhat dull setting for a very quiet book; nor has he ventured, as he frankly admits, to construct anything that could be called a plot. In truth, he has done what others have not done, for he has made the Christ in reality the central figure, and doing this he has wholly subordinated the story element. Hence one is always aware that the work is merely a frame to a picture. It occupies a middle position between a biography and a story.

If the reader draws back a little at the use which Mr. Brooks makes of the person of the young man of Nain, and of his restoration to life by the Christ, a veritable and familiar Scripture incident, as a part of the development of character and plot, what will he say when he takes up the novel by Mrs. and Mr. Ward,3 and reads it through, — if he can, — and finds the use which these authors have made of one of the profoundest, most sacred incidents in the New Testament history? The reader will recall the dignified and suggestive use which Browning makes of the raising of Lazarus in his Epistle of Karshish. He will think of Tennyson’s lines : —

“ Behold a man raised up by Christ!
The rest remaineth unrevealed ;
He told it not; or something sealed
The lips of that Evangelist.”

But nothing has sealed the lips of this pair of story-tellers. Not so much do they reveal the rest as they uncover the whole course of proceedings which led to the death of Lazarus, and set this great act of the raising from the dead as the culmination of a trumpery piece of fiction. Let one think for a moment of the place which this resurrection holds in the real narrative, where no vulgar art has been at work to make it effective. We shall not revolt the reader by a detail of the plot of Come Forth. Suffice it to say that Lazarus is made to be in love with the daughter of Annas in a clandestine fashion ; that twice the Son of Man is made to save the heroine from death by a miracle ; that the second time he saves both hero and heroine, when they are otherwise to be drowned like rats by the enraged father, who has discovered them in an underground passage ; and that Lazarus dies from the effect of the exposure.

Is it to this that the process of humanizing the sacred narrative by means of the art of fiction has come ? Is this Divine Person, chief on the pages of history, enshrined in the hearts of men, to be degraded as a mere wonder-worker, to save the lives of a man and woman who have been created by these two writers out of their own imagination, — for there is not a vestige of the Scriptural Lazarus in the story except his name, — and have been fashioned out of the cheap materials of paltry fiction ?

This book emphasizes as a more cautious one would not the manifest perils of literature of its kind. It would seem, at first blush, as if the novelist in search of historical material on which to base a romance would be exceedingly well off in such a field, for he would not have to educate his audience in the facts, — they would have it all in their minds, and would respond at once to his lightest intimation; whereas the ordinary historical romancer has to count upon the ignorance, for the most part, of his readers. But, unfortunately for him, if he wishes to move freely amongst his characters and scenes, he is constantly finding himself stepping upon ground from which, if he be reverent, he shrinks, and whither he knows his readers, if they be reverent, will not wish to follow him. Reverence is the soul of great art, and no one can miss it out of his own nature and expect others to find it in his work.

It is noticeable that while men of marked literary power have been tempted by the subject of early Christianity, as Kingsley in Hypatia, Ware in Aurelian, and Pater in Marius the Epicurean, no one has yet attempted to take the next step, and deal with the Christ. We have hinted at some of the reasons. The undying beauty of the New Testament narrative is an additional reason. A sister art like painting may interpret, but literary art knows its limitations. It will be boldest in the forms of poetry and the drama, but fiction turns away. There is one subject before which great fiction, with all its mirror-like power, drops its eyes, and that is Truth Incarnate.

  1. A Son of Issachar. A Romance of the Days of Messias. By ELBRIDGE S. BROOKS. New York : G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1890.
  2. Emmanuel: the Story of the Messiah. By WILLIAM FORBES COOLEY. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. 1889.
  3. Come, Forth. By ELIZABETH STUART PHELPS and HERBERT D. WARD. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co.