We have been doing some devotional reading in my Humanities class during the last few weeks. We are, after all, a Christian school. Our mission is to grow our students in their walk with Christ. So, we want to read books that reinforce our Christian values and worldview. It also happens that this year’s Humanities class is “The American Story.” So, the writers are Americans.
Two of our recent devotionals are The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway. If these two books don’t shake the minds and souls of my students, I don’t know what will. If these two books don’t cause them to feel an inner ache for beautiful literature, I don’t know what will. If these two books don’t bring the Christian worldview into clearer focus, I don’t know what will.
Of course, if you know anything about Fitzgerald and Hemingway, you know that neither was a Christian. Neither was religious. Faith issues are far from the texts of their writings. Personally, they were both ungodly and immoral men. (See my essay Drunken Writers.) Both were bad husbands; both fell short as fathers; both struggled with alcohol problems; both strayed far from any religious roots they may have had; both were bitter; both were cynical; both had false values; and both came to sad and tragic ends in their lives.
They were friends for a season. The friendship began at a point when Fitzgerald was on the rise as a writer and Hemingway was looking for a break. When it was to his advantage, Hemingway sought Fitzgerald’s friendship. But Hemingway was jealous, vindictive, and unappreciative of friends. Fitzgerald paid a price for having befriended Hemingway.
And yet, both these men were incredibly brilliant. Both honed the writing craft. Both changed American fiction. Both hit the world of literature with freshness and power. And, both are still read and readable, still relevant and compelling, still speaking and tugging at the heart of their readers.
And both men point us to Jesus Christ and the Christian life.
“How?” you may be asking. And, “Why are kids in a Christian school reading this kind of literature?”
Fitzgerald and Hemingway show us what life is like apart from a Christian foundation. Both show the emptiness, the futility, the ugliness, and hopelessness of the life, thinking, and worldview of the unbeliever. As Dostoevsky pointed out just prior to the time of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, if there is no God, everything is permissable.
The Great Gatsby came out in 1925. It showcases the “Roaring 20s” in all their glory. The glitz, glamour, wealth, and pursuit of fun are all part of the novel. It is the story of what money can do. It is the story of money as god, of romantic love as god, of life in the present order as divine. Jay Gatsby stares each night at the green light across the bay. That green light is where Daisy Buchanan lives. Gatsby’s life quest has been to achieve the love of Daisy. In the past, he almost had her, but now he doesn’t. He uses money, parties, friends, deceit, and any and every means to reach Daisy and win her over. The fact that Daisy is married is irrelevant. Daisy’s marriage and life are pretty sordid also, but its the sordid life of the rich and immoral.
This novel is a vital picture of the history of certain segments of American life in the 1920s. It was the age of great wealth and speculation, of gangsters, of speak-easies, of parties, of loose morals, and wild living. In his premier novel, Fitzgerald wrote that after World War I, people returned to find “all gods dead, all wars fought, and all faiths shaken.” So if that is the case, how should we then live? Like Tom and Daisy Buchanan. If you don’t have the money and venues for decadence they have, then you do whatever it takes to get their money or at least the appearance of money. There was a spiritual vacuum and emptiness of the 1920s and Fitzgerald captured it perfectly. (A book that gives a vital picture of another aspect of the 1920s is J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism.)
The Great Gatsby is also a picture of the American tendency toward obsessions, particularly material obsessions. Almost every character is trying to get ahead, or they are already there and are bored and wicked. “Money will win Daisy to you,” thinks Gatsby. Money will buy you happiness, but it will take lots of it. Morals are passe, even in regard to such matters as golf scores.
The Great Gatsby teaches that sin destroys. Sin damaged every character in the book and killed two of them. Gatsby, who was handsome, talented, and filled with possibilities, was far from great. Tom and Daisy, in the powerful judgment of Nick Carraway, were “careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” Nick Carraway was a largely passive observer who did little or nothing to avert the multiple tragedies in the story.
The story is powerfully told. The prose is beautifully crafted. The characters live. Any Christian reading this book should be on his knees (at least figuratively) at the end, giving thanks to God for saving grace. Idolatry is an ever present danger. Years ago, I read Herbert Schlossberg’s brilliant book Idols for Destruction. The idols he warned of are destined for destruction, but they threaten to destroy us in the mean time.
The Great Gatsby deals with having money and sexual desire as false gods. Marriage is wrongly desired by Gatsby and despised by Tom. The missing element in the book is grace and redemption. Fitzgerald saw so much so accurately, but he didn’t know or desire grace. The Christian can find it by it very absence in this book.
Apart from Christ, The Great Gatsby would be all the Gospel we could have. The green light, blinking across the harbor, would be beckoning us to a false hope and certain destruction.
Ernest Hemingway changed American writing with his first novel, The Sun Also Rises. The action is limited, the characters are twisted, and the plot is uneventful, but the style and the philosophy captured a generation, and then another, and then another. Hemingway wrote prose that was crisp. And it was clean. And it was good. Then he filled his cup with wine, and wrote another sparse sentence. The next one was shorter. He then gulped the last of the wine in the cup. He took the bottle and emptied it. He swished the cup around. The red wine buoyed up in a circle, and then it calmed again like the sea at midnight. It was good.
You get the point, I hope. That is good.
As easy as it is to parody Hemingway, and as safe as it is since he is dead, he was a powerful writer. He took pains over his craft. Add to that, Hemingway lived out adventures, edged out to the extremes of life, took chances, and nearly got killed many times. Hemingway personified everything identified with testosterone driven, gutsy, reckless, unflappable, unflinching, tough masculinity. Almost any man would feel a bit inferior if compared to Hemingway. He was in World War I and was wounded. He was a reporter in the Spanish Civil War and World War II. He killed at least one of about every animal that has existed, including lions and great antelopes.
Hemingway and his 3 sons with their catch after fishing.
He fished. He could trout fish in the fast moving streams of the northern United States or deep sea fish off the coasts of Cuba. He lived in Cuba and Paris and Key West Florida and Idaho. He survived two plane crashes. He boxed. He enjoyed living wild. He enjoyed women and married four of them. He also liked cats and is still known for the six clawed cats that can found at his Key West home.
A Farewell to Arms is set in Italy during World War I. It is a powerful war novel and anti-war novel. Next to All Quiet on the Western Front, it is one of the best fiction works on World War I. It is the story of a American who was an ambulance driver in the Italian army. (Like Hemingway during the war.) His name is Frederic Henry, and he is wounded. (Like Hemingway.) While recovering from his wounds, he meets a nurse named Catherine Barkley. Many bandage changes and many more drinks later, Frederick and Catherine fall in love. Love in the midst of war is a powerful theme, but you should know it is not going to go well or end with the lovers living happily ever after.
Besides, Hemingway rejected the idea of there being a happily ever after. If there is any happiness, it has to be now, for the moment, with maybe just the two of “us,” and a bottle of vermouth. (Make that 3 bottles, for this is Hemingway.)
The war goes badly for Italy. On the historical side, one wonders why Italy got into World War I. Basically, Italy lost the war, but was on the side that won. World War I was brutal and ugly. Most of what we know is tied to the Western Front between France and Germany, but that was only part of the conflict. World War I was insane. The origins are a study in political insanity. (Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August is unsurpassed, although I really want the new book Catastrophe 1914 by Max Hastings.) After the political insanity, the military insanity followed and continued for four years.
The world is crazy and chaotic and deadly. The answer is to abandon the world, to escape from society and the war. Frederic and Catherine leave the war zone and go to Switzerland. For a time, the life there is of love and beauty. The young amorous couple live a life of bed, bath, and beyond, with vermouth. But romantic love and happiness can’t last and it doesn’t.
I will refrain from detailing the end of the story, but be warned. Hemingway’s philosophy was centered on living in the face of meaningless, cruel death. “They will kill you in the end. We all die sooner or later,” Hemingway would have thought and often did say. It has been called “grace under pressure.”
If there is no God, no Gospel, no saving work of Jesus Christ, then you better pick up your new Bible, the works of Ernest Hemingway, and start living and applying (and drinking). But there is no hereafter, only death. Until then, live.
Frederic Henry is Hemingway’s voice telling us what the alternative is to the Gospel.
As Joshua said long ago, “Choose this day whom you will serve.”
(If you have not read it, you might be interested in my essay comparing Fitzgerald and Hemingway to C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Click here.)