Editors’ Note: This week The Gospel Coalition welcomes you to join us in an exciting new series called Commending the Classics. We’re thrilled to welcome Wheaton College professor Leland Ryken as a sort of literature scholar in residence to guide us as we read classic books together. Every week he’ll lend us his decades of learning to help us understand why these works have come to be regarded as timeless treasures. Have you ever thought, I’ve heard that book is great, but I’m intimidated to read it myself without any help? Then we’ve designed this series precisely with you in mind. You get the benefits of a reading community who will help you along and a gifted professor who will answer your questions.
We’ve conceived the series with sensitivity for your busy schedule, so we’re focusing on shorter works you can finish in a matter of weeks or months. Keep on reading God’s Word along with good theology and history and let Commending the Classics whet your appetite for thought-provoking fiction. We’ll start with the much-discussed mid-century classic The Stranger by Albert Camus. Grab a copy and join us in an adventure that promises to challenge, confound, and ultimately cultivate our understanding of and compassion for the world. We’ve lined up a number of Christian leaders to convince you this is a worthwhile endeavor, but for now let Dr. Ryken explain why Christians should read Camus.
There is no more representative intellectual figure of the mid-20th century than Albert Camus. In addition to being an influential fiction writer, Camus was at the focal point of the intellectual crosscurrents that swirled about Europe and crossed over to the United States. The underlying principles of those movements remain pervasive in Western culture, and this is part of the relevance of Camus to us today.
Born in Algeria in 1913, Camus was a restless spirit who kept on the move and pursued many intellectual and professional paths. As a literary figure, Camus is considered a French author. He is as famous as a philosopher as a fiction writer, and in fact his novels are an embodiment of his philosophical viewpoints. Camus was killed instantly in a car crash in 1960 at the age of 46.
The many-sided nature of Camus’s life makes it a veritable primer on modern secularism. Camus was a political activist, pacifist, and revolutionary. He was twice married but dismissive of marriage as an institution. He lived a sensual and disordered life. That chaotic life is itself instructive for Christians. If we want to see modern man “writ large,” Camus can supply our representative figure.
But my subject is why we should read Camus. Camus’s life is the background chorus (a helpful one) to his writing. That writing encompasses such a wide range that I cannot cover it all in this brief essay. I will accordingly place my focus on Camus’s best-known work, his 1942 novel The Stranger, a landmark of modern literature. Camus was a mere 29 years old when the novel was published.
My first encounter with The Stranger came as I sat in a college chapel service at Central College in my home town of Pella, Iowa. A special-services speaker made a passing reference to Camus’s masterpiece, citing the central premise of the story, namely, that the protagonist was found guilty not because he had murdered a man but because he had not wept at his mother’s funeral. I found this narrative premise completely intriguing.
I first read The Stranger after my sophomore year in college while doing church work in California. Another member of my team had just read the novel and recommended it. I found the famous opening captivating and unforgettable: “Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure. The telegram from the Home says: YOUR MOTHER PASSED AWAY. FUNERAL TOMORROW. DEEP SYMPATHY. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday.” Thomas Hardy once claimed that a story must be striking enough to be worth the telling. The Stranger meets that criterion.
Camus maintains the brilliance of writing all the way through the novel. The last sentence is as striking as the first: “For me to feel less lonely, all that remained to hope was that on the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of execration.”
The first reason why Christians should read Camus the novelist is thus a narrative and aesthetic reason: Camus is a great storyteller and provides the materials and occasion for artistic entertainment. The Stranger is worth reading just for the brilliance of its style. The example of John Milton is instructive at this point. Although Milton eventually came to deplore the moral viewpoint of the Roman poets who had fired his youthful imagination, he nonetheless records that “their art I still applauded.” After all, the image of God in people is what enables them to create form and beauty. I have always relished the aristry of The Stranger despite the distance I feel from the worldview that it offers for my approval.
Voice of Authentic Human Experience
The subject of literature, I tell my students repeatedly, is human experience. Literature rarely gives us new information. What it does instead is put us in touch with human experience, clarifying that experience in the process. The Stranger performs that function to a preeminent degree.
The protagonist of the story is named Meursault. His actions and responses are abnormal in the extreme. Above all, he is unable to attribute normal human feeling and meaning to the external events of his life. He murders a man and feels no regret. When Meursault’s girlfriend, Marie, asks him to marry her, the first-person narrator records, “I said I didn’t mind; if she was keen on it, we’d get married.”
To write this off as being so abnormal as to be irrelevant is to miss the point. The imagination always heightens what it touches. As a result, the experiences of life stand silhouetted with more-than-ordinary clarity. Meursault’s life is a completely accurate picture of how many people around us live—a heightened and exaggerated picture, to be sure, but an accurate picture.
This is a second reason for Christians to read Camus: his fictional characters and the events of their lives are a window to our world. The daily news is also a window to our world, but it is out of date 48 hours later. Meursault, by contrast, haunts our memory and becomes an unforgettable acquaintance. As we ponder him, we come to understand some of the people in our own lives.
Camus the Modern Philosopher
Camus is also a towering modern philosopher. It is true that Camus repeatedly disavowed belonging to modern schools of thought. Yet these traditions are obvious in his writings and interviews. All I can say by way of explanation is that Camus was distrustful of organized systems. Thus when he claims not to be an existentialist, it means that he did not wish to be identified with all facets of that movement and its adherents. Additionally, we need to read Camus’s statements carefully. When he claimed in a 1950 essay that he had made a lifelong attempt to “transcend nihilism,” it is not necessarily the case that his attempt was successful.
In his own day and subsequently, Camus was regarded as an existentialist. The protagonist of The Stranger (whom Camus professed to admire) is an existential hero: encompassed in a world of total subjectivity, regarding his own existence of the moment as the only reality, denying the possibility of supernatural reality and its consolations, living under the shadow of death, and operating on the premise that life itself is the highest value.
It is incorrect to say that such existentialism died long ago. Existentialism is not only a philosophic movement of the mid-20th century; it is also a universal. Many people in our society live and think as existentialists, and if we want to understand them, assimilating Camus’s existential novel is a great help.
The literary and philosophical movement with which Camus was most thoroughly identified in his own day was the absurdist movement. It is hardly too much to say that The Stranger was the “poster book” of the absurdist movement. Fellow French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote an essay on The Stranger that helped to make it famous. In it he wrote, “Absurdity means divorce, discrepancy. The Stranger is . . . a novel of discrepancy, divorce, and disorientation.” Sartre also related the style of the book to this absurdist viewpoint, noting that every sentence is self-contained, with the world being “destroyed and reborn from sentence to sentence.”
As with existentialism, it would be wrong to relegate the absurdist view of life to a philosophic and literary movement of the mid-20th century. Mersault’s inability to attach normal meaning to the events in his life—the absurd gap between the protagonist’s experience and his response to that experience—is what we see in less drastic form all around us. If we understand Meursault, we understand much about our own society.
Another modern movement that finds expression in Camus is nihilism. Although Camus wished to distance himself from nihilism as a philosophic system, his fictional protagonist Merusault is every inch a nihilist who denies that life has meaning. Meursault yells at the chaplain who visits him in prison, “Nothing, nothing had the least importance.” Of course part of this nihilism is denying the existence of God (“I explained that I didn’t believe in God,” Merusault tells the chaplain). The new atheism that afflicts us today is not new at all. We can find it full-blown in Camus’s novel.
To sum up: another good reason for Christians to read Camus is the clarity with which his writing embodies leading philosophic viewpoints of the modern and contemporary worlds. The fact that The Stranger is set in Algeria 75 years ago, far from being a detriment, gives the book a helpful distance from our own moment in history. Emancipated from the surface clutter of our own cultural situation, the story is able to highlight the essential features of our world.
I want to conclude by returning to the life of the author. Camus offers us a case study in the mystery of how some alleged non-Christians are actually deeply engaged with the Christian faith. By exploring the vagaries of Camus’s interactions with Christianity, we can sharpen our understanding of the complexity of what we find in the attitudes of many people around us who seem intransigent to the Christian faith but who remain deeply entangled with it.
Camus’s early upbringing was Catholic, and he was baptized as an infant. Although Camus rejected institutional Christianity, he nonetheless remained in dialogue with Christians and Christianity throughout his life. Christianity was for him an intermittent sparring partner. The author of the book Albert Camus and Christianity (Jean Ominus; University of Alabama Press, 1965) writes that although Camus “was totally divorced from religion . . . there is in him the trace of a scar, even an open wound.”
Early in my study of The Stranger I encountered references to the view that Camus was moving toward a Christian viewpoint shortly before his untimely death. This is hard to extract from Camus’s writing, but certain aspects of his life make the hypothesis plausible. For example, in an interview on the occasion of his receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, Camus said, “I have only veneration and respect for the person of Christ and for his life. I do not believe in his resurrection.”
The real shocker was a book published in 2000 by an American Methodist named Howard Mumma, who served as guest minister at the American Church in Paris for several summers in the late 1950s. The book (Albert Camus and the Minister, Paraclete Press) chronicles how Camus sought the minister out for “irregular and occasional” dialogues. Eventually Camus asked Mumma to perform a private baptism (which Mumma refused). When Camus accompanied Mumma to the airport for his return to the United States that summer, expecting to resume their conversation the following year, he said, “I am going to keep striving for the Faith.” He was dead within a few months.
Camus’s moral and humanitarian earnestness is well attested. But if beyond that Camus became a serious Christian seeker, we are naturally teased into looking at his writings for evidences of a seeking soul beneath the overt rejection of orthodox Christianity and the church. And if such complexity could exist in a famous modern agnostic, what light might that shed on some of the acquaintances in our own lives? This, too, is a reason for Christians to read Camus.