Recently at The Gospel Coalition Terry Glaspey wrote an article about novelists who affirm faith. His list leaves off one of the greatest novelists in western history – Victor Hugo. Works such as Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables have many theological lessons in each book. This is a response to this column by Terry Glaspey.
“Our mind is enriched by what we receive, our heart by what we give.“
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
7 “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Matthew 6:5-8 ESV
The other day at The Gospel Coalition they had an article by Terry Glaspey. The name of the article is called, “25 Great Novelists Who Affirm Faith.” Its a list of twenty five novelists whose work professes faith and the Gospel through their writing. He lists people like Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Jane Austeen, J. R. R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton and he goes on to list the reasons why in in the article he writes. I read the post and thought it would be a quick glance of nothing to see. And I read through the list and the first words that blurted out of my mouth when finished became, “Where is Victor Hugo?” I thought of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables and was stunned. This was not a topic that could be dropped. The more I processed the subject the more it became clear that it had to be written about. So I would like to add the following individual and ask the question.
What about Victor Hugo?
Consider the examples to make my case. The first is from his Hunchback of Notre Dame. It talks about the hypocrisy of religion and how religion can be used to keep people in their place. In the case of the Hunchback here is this guy who is deformed and rejected by France. Religion is twisted and used against him. The same is true for the gypsy who knows that religious people look down upon her. This classic shows the problem of when religion is harsh and judgmental. Its also a lesson of how the broken, the rejected and outcasts can understand and love better than the religious. They have seen the dark places religion can go. Here’s another take you can read that I Googled quickly. Years ago Disney released an animated movie of about The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It didn’t receive the success of Lion King, Pocahontas, Beauty and the Beast, and other animated hits. But some believed that it handled the topic of religion incredibly well. There is a song in the film called, “God Help the Outcast” that shows the issues with religion, prayer, and hypocrisy. You can watch that below. Before moving on I must ask the question. When you consider how religion can operate who are the outcasts today? This would be a partial list. The atheist, skeptic, doubter, the trans-gendered, the gay person, the immigrant, the Muslim, the urbanite, workaholic, gambler, male prostitute, the ill, the handicapped, the autistic, etc… I could go on. The reason why I say this is because in my experience religion tends to be for perfect people. The regular happily married suburban family with three kids. Someone who can be a poster boy or girl for faith. In the Hunchback of Notre Dame the gypsy was fleeing from a group that wanted to kill her and she was in a church as a doubter. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of the most underrated and theologically significant stories in my opinion.
Then you have the classic Les Miserables. The story of a failed uprising against the 1832 monarchist rebellion in France. Its a story of faith, grace, forgiveness, death and being broken. Its a story of redemption, compassion and caring. Jean Valjean encounters grace which the Catholic Bishop gives to him when he steals two candlesticks. And yet he broke his parole and was hunted by Javert throughout the story. Jean Valjean can accept grace but Jasvert can not. He also realized his mistake in firing Fantine which resulted her going into prostitution to support her child Cosette. There’s greed, fraud and faith in the uprising. Its an amazing story with a lot of theological implications. A couple of years ago I had a friend who read Les Miserables in the book form. He would call me up every couple of weeks and tell me what he read. In one phonecall I remember him saying, “Do you realize the theological tone and implications of Victor Hugo’s novel?” I did. In the musical one of the most haunting songs is called “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” Sung by Marius its his struggling with surviving when so many of his friends died. Think of all of the empty tables that have happened over the years? I think of my parents death when the family gets together with Mom and Dad being absent. Think of the families from New York City who lost a loved one in the World Trade Center destruction of September 11, 2001? Think of the gay community and the lives lost in the AIDS crisis? During the COVID-19 pandemic think of the families who lost a parent, son, daughter, etc…
That’s why when I saw Terry Glaspey list my jaw dropped. How can you miss one of the greatest novelists in European history? I mean I know the Calvinists have their issues, but is the greatest indicator just dropping the ball on the author of such books like Les Miserables or The Hunchback of Notre Dane? I digress.
Well I’ll leave you with a couple of songs from Les Miserables.