Christ-Symbol or Christ-Substitute?

Today my Bible study group listened to a taped sermon on Romans 8 by the estimable Tim Keller, a Presbyterian minister in NYC, who mentioned how examples of self-sacrificing love in books or movies can help us emotionally understand Christ’s gift to us. For instance, Keller suggested we could view Sidney Carton in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities as a symbol of the substitutionary atonement.

This reminded me of an email discussion I had with Dr. Anthony Esolen at Mere Comments last year about whether Dickens’ novels were truly Christian. Do figures like Carton, or Florence Dombey (whose endurance of child abuse finally melts her father’s heart), point us toward the realization that we need Christ as savior, or away from the gospel and towards believing that we can be saved by human love alone?

Is the problem with the whole genre of the modern realist novel, in which God must remain an implicit presence and only human action is directly visible? Aslan can function as a Christ-symbol without misunderstanding because few people over the age of five will read the Chronicles of Narnia and literally think “I need to put my trust in a talking lion.” The risk is greater that someone will read A Tale of Two Cities and make an idol of romantic love. 

I have a very personal stake in this question because one major theme of my novel-in-progress is how we mistakenly seek transcendence through Eros rather than God. If my playboy protagonist turns his life around because of his boyfriend’s unselfish devotion, instead of because he has an explicit conversion experience, does that make it less of a Christian novel? (Those of you who are stuck on the gay content of the previous sentence, substitute “girlfriend”.) By emphasizing the insufficiency of human love, am I setting up an opposition between God and His creatures that is stricter than the Incarnation warrants? How can I depict a marriage that is mutually self-giving and fulfilling, and yet points to something beyond itself? Should I just let my characters be as nice to each other as they want, and let God figure out the rest?

Comments, please! The salvation of my imaginary best friend may depend on it.

5 comments on “Christ-Symbol or Christ-Substitute?

  1. Leah says:

    the insufficiency of romantic love for salvation doesn’t undermine the need for the incarnation it underscores it. the incarnation, as I was taught in Seminary, is not God’s stamp of approval on the human race but instead a sign of it’s deep need for redemption. (at the same time it does show that humanity is of the utmost value to God that he would be ready to live and die as a human being).

    hope that helps in some way.

    check out a few posts back for some interesting thoughts on p0rn.

  2. Hank Rodgers says:



    I highly recommend a, much overlooked, short novel from 1952 by Patrick O’Brian (actual name Richard Patrick Russ – see Dean King’s O’Brian biography of 2000).[Same guy who wrote the acclaimed 20- volume “Aubrey-Maturin”, 18th-19th Century English “seagoing” (and MUCH more)sagas — an absolute joy of the English language, from first of which the recent inadequate movie “Master and Commander” was made.]

    O’Brian’s novel “Testimonies” is a lovely and very personal description of romantic love, as opposed to sexual “love”. [The latter I think a ridiculous term – while appreciating both in equal measure, and remaining deeply aware of the difference as, apparently, was O’Brian.]

    Although not a marriage, and certainly not “consumated”, “Testimonies” is one man’s moving description of a “transcending” kind of love – without hope of realization.

    I think it is interesting that in the novel O’Brian quotes Andrew Marvell:
    “My love is of a birth as rare/ As ’tis for object strange and high./It was begotten by Despair/ Upon Impossibililty.”

  3. Jendi Reiter says:

    Very true — but then how to tell the story of a man reformed by the love of a good (wo)man in a way that is not idolatrous?

    “Telling Secrets” has been added to the blogroll!

  4. Alegria Imperial says:

    I agree with Leah. The keyword and/or idea is ‘incarnation’. The human condition is so unalterable in that we only attain utmost understanding and conversion through our senses. Selfless love or loving unconditionally, not really romantic love, I believe is the ‘saving’ kind of love. It breaks or escapes cinctures and floats or flies beyond the physical; and it is then when it leaves the idolatrous. But first, if the story were told in ‘truth’, love should pass through the crucible of romance.

  5. zhenimsja says:

    Hello, mate! I am utterly accede to this way of thinking and all of joined.

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