“Diamonds are found only in the dark bowels of the earth; truths are found only in the depths of thought. It seemed to him that after descending into those depths after long groping in the blackest of this darkness, he had at last found one of these diamonds, one of these truths, and that he held it in his hand; and it blinded him to look at it.”
Victor Hugo is the most towering figure in French literature. Though he produced extensive poetry and prose, he is famous popularly for the novels The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Misérables.
Les Misérables is the story of Jean Valjean. Newly released from prison after serving a long term for stealing a loaf of bread, he is ostracized because of his ex-convict status. Bishop Myriel takes Valjean in and treats him kindly, but Valjean repays him by stealing his silverware. When the police arrive, Myriel claims the silverware was a gift, thereby giving Valjean another chance at a new life. Myriel’s only request is that Valjean become an honest man.
His story is that of a man struggling at once with the brutality of the letter of the law and the yearning for freedom which can only be realized in grace. Victor Hugo uses imagery from the watery fate of the prophet Jonah to describe Jean Val Jean’s fall into despair. As circumstances begin to drown Jean, “he drinks in bitterness and it is all liquid hatred to him.”
A crisis is that decisive moment when, due to circumstances and the diminished ability to cope, the status quo is no longer sustainable and something must change. Out of crisis something new must and will emerge—hence the common association of crisis with emergency.
The trajectory of an entire life is often determined by how crisis moments are navigated; such intense junctures (also known as “tipping points”) are pregnant with promise and peril.
The question is never if these moments will come, but whether we turn to One whose grace is entirely sufficient.
D I G D E E P E R
Art: At Eternity’s Gate by Vincent van Gogh
At Eternity’s Gate is an oil painting by Vincent van Gogh that he made in 1890 in Saint-Rémy de Provence based on an early lithograph. The painting was completed in early May at a time when he was convalescing from a severe relapse in his health and some two months before his death, which is generally accepted as a suicide.
Literature & Liturgy: Victor Hugo and Crisis
Between 1822 and 1832 Hugo established himself as a major literary figure in France. He wrote poetry, novels, and plays and became a leader in the Romantic movement.
In 1830 his play Hernani was a spectacular success. By shattering the artificial rules that had previously governed the writing of French drama, Hugo brought new freedom to the French stage. His novel Notre Dame de Paris was published in 1831. Translated as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, it became vastly popular in many countries. In 1832 his play Le Roi s’amuse, or The King’s Diversion, on which Giuseppe Verdi later based his opera Rigoletto, was staged. Like so many of Hugo’s works, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The King’s Diversion were criticisms of social and political injustice. Another reason for writing the plays was to provide parts for the young actress Juliette Negroni, who became his mistress in 1833 and was to be his companion for the rest of her life.
In 1841 Hugo was elected to the French Academy, and in 1849 he became a member of the National Assembly. An outspoken political opponent of Napoleon III, Hugo had to flee France in 1851.
He remained in exile until 1870. During that time he wrote some of his finest works. In 1862 appeared Les Misérables, one of the most popular novels of all time. Hugo’s wife died in 1868, and Negroni moved into his home.
After the fall of the empire in 1870, Hugo returned to Paris. There he lived the rest of his life as a literary idol. Huge crowds turned out to celebrate his 80th birthday. Hugo died in Paris on May 22, 1885, and is buried in the Panthéon.
Some forms of recent Christian spirituality have highlighted the punctiliar (that is, it happens in an instant) nature of crisis and the profound urgency of choice. Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish father of modern existentialism, is best known for his haunting interpretation of the enigmatic biblical story of Abraham offering his beloved only son Isaac as a human sacrifice. According to Fear and Trembling (1843), the divine command to kill made no sense to Abraham and seemed to contradict every shard of moral sensibility; yet in that moment, hung suspended in eternity, the man of faith inexplicably chose to obey. He had said “yes” to God. The murder was averted and the crisis passed, but the father would never be the same again.
Building on an existentialist foundation, twentieth-century theologians like Karl Barth developed what was called a theology of crisis. Unlike the immanent God of liberal Protestantism, Barth’s God is altogether transcendent, touching humanity at tiny points of intersection (rather like the pinprick dot between a circle and a tangent), such that the divine reality from on high can never hang around for long or be domesticated or incorporated into anything human (e.g., such as a sacred text or a religious sentiment). Accordingly, God arrives out of nowhere, topples us off our chairs with a glancing touch, and then disappears. But we know that it was God, and we are forever changed.
According to British historian David Bebbington, the evangelical tradition has always been conversion-centered. The life-transforming religious experiences of seventeenth-century Pietists and Puritans, as well as those that characterized the Great Awakening of the 18th century and subsequent revivalism, all centered around the crisis moment of “salvation” in which disillusionment with alternatives, conviction of sin, and fear of judgment intensified until they exploded in the massive joy and relieved assurance of grace and eternal life. Given this historical legacy, it was only natural that the Christian life would often be conceptualized by subsequent evangelicals as a series of crises, beyond conversion itself, through which important added dimensions of a “deeper,” “higher,” or more empowered and Spirit-filled Christian life could be appropriated.
Inevitably the spiritual journey involves crises, though not necessarily a normative set. With these in view, the Scriptures encourage vigilant readiness, the virtues of courage and resilience when everything is on the line, and hope in God who makes all things new. Happy are those for whom the old is gone and the new has come (2 Cor. 5:17).
Glen G. Scorgie, “Crisis,” ed. Glen G. Scorgie et al., Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 381.
Barbour Publishing Inc, Book Lover’s Devotional (Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour, 2011).
Louis Markos, Literature: A Student’s Guide, ed. David S. Dockery, Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 98.
“Hugo, Victor,” Compton’s Encyclopedia (Chicago, IL: Compton’s Encyclopedia, 2015).