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EPISODE 37: Trevin Wax and Les Miserables
God created us as story-creatures and, as such, we relate to and are shaped by stories. Reading and enjoying fiction is not a silly diversion but can be a powerful source of spiritual transformation. Trevin Wax and I explore this theme in our discussion of Victor Hugo’s vast novel Les Miserables.
Trevin’s new book that helps readers access Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.
The specific translation of Les Miserables we recommend.
C.S. Lewis’s essay “On Stories” can be found here.
Welcome to Questions That Matter, a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute. I'm your host, Randy Newman, and today I'm delighted that my conversation partner is Trevin Wax. Trevin is vice president of research and resource development at the North American Mission Board. He's a visiting professor at Wheaton College. He was a missionary for a number of years in Romania. He writes for The Gospel Coalition and many other online and print sources. He was named by Christianity Today one of 33 Millennials shaping the next generation of evangelicals. And we're going to talk today about a mutual love that Trevin and I have, and that is Victor Hugo's book, Les Miserables. But before that, let me welcome Trevin. Welcome to Questions That Matter.
Thank you for having me on again, Randy. It's so good to be with you.
Yeah. I think you may be the very first guest who has come on a second time, so you're blazing new territory. I hope our listeners will go back and listen to the earlier recording I did about your earlier book, about looking into the self and rethinking yourself. That was a fun conversation. Before we dive into discussing Hugo's great novel, I note that you have a brand-new book out. It's sort of your annotation of G.K. Chesterton's book, Orthodoxy.
So, give us just a short—we're going to have you back a third time to talk about that book, but I can't introduce you to our listeners without having you do at least a little bit of a promo for Orthodoxy.
Well, Orthodoxy is a wonderful book, a classic book, one that gets recommended all the time, and yet it can be a very dense book. If you think about G.K. Chesterton, partly it's dense just because he has a brilliant mind, and he's going all over the place, and he's thinking about all sorts of things when you're reading him. And he's also referring to so many different thinkers, both contemporary and in the past, so many different books, events, many of which are not familiar to today's readers, particularly American readers. And so what I wanted to do with this book, because it is a classic, I wanted to ease the reading experience for the first-time reader and even for someone who may have tried to get into it and hadn't finished it or maybe has maybe read it one time and thought, “There were some gold nuggets in there, but I didn't understand a lot of it.” I thought maybe this would be the kind of book where I could do chapter introductions and summaries, sort of to set the stage, and then to kind of come back around and say, “Hey, here's where we're going, and here's where we've been,” but then also to do a lot of annotations, so that you get a little bit of a… In my mind, you’re getting an education just from reading the footnotes at the bottom of the pages. Because every time Chesterton mentions a particular war or a particular person or this author or that author or this style of architecture, you basically get a crash course in education and everything just by reading the notes.
And I learned a lot just by going through and making sure that every person that I had a little snippet about, okay, who this person was and why Chesterton’s referring to them and where it fits into the structure of the argument. So, my goal with this book is not…. I don't see it as a book I wrote about Orthodoxy. It's actually the book Orthodoxy with my notations, some updated spelling here and there. I do try to break up the paragraphs a little bit, because that seems to be an English thing from 100 years ago. The paragraphs could be a page long, if not more. And then also just to add some headings and to guide the reading experience, so that you feel like, “Hey, I'm going to dig into this big book. It's going to demand a lot of me, but at least I got a trusted guide here who can help me make it through and glean the gold from it.”
Well, I'm very excited about that, because I'm one of those people who have tried to read Orthodoxy, and I guess I could say, yes, I read it, and I made it through, but I bet I understood less than 20%. So, I'm really looking forward to getting yours and making it through, because it is an important work. It's a very, very important work. And even if you're not a fan of C.S. Lewis, but Lewis was influenced greatly by Chesterton.
So, I think that's great. Congratulations on that. It’s a great project. And may it be that so many more people will be able to get into that book. But speaking of getting into a difficult book, let's talk about getting into a book that's not difficult. It's just very big. And we both love it. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. I’ve seen you’ve done this thing quite regularly in your blogs, of Trevin's Seven, seven key things or seven books or seven favorite things. And I've noticed, in the past couple of years, a couple of new translations of Les Miserables that have been some of your favorite things. So, I really love the book, and I'm reading now the very newest translation. But let's start with: How has this book influenced your life? How has it influenced your Christian walk?
So, I first read this book—goodness, it's been so many years now. I think it was when I was in seminary. I read the Signet Classics mass market paperback. I just picked it up. I think I found it for a good deal at a bookstore. That was the Norman MacAfee translation. And I was overwhelmed by the majesty of the story line, the scene of Jean Valjean, the main character. His conversion brought me to tears. And it was the understated nature of that conversion, of that sort of response to an unanticipated grace, that really went deep into my soul, into my heart. And I just thought, “This is just a marvelous picture of grace.”
And then you have this theme running throughout, of law versus grace. There’re so many theological themes running throughout, and Hugo is one of these guys, suddenly he'll like…. It's a sprawling epic in a lot of ways because of so many different places that he'll go and so many different things he'll comment on and whatnot. And there's some one-liners in there that are just stunningly beautiful and that you take away, and they're just profound. You just want to stop and pause. Maybe if you’ve got a pencil, you want to underline something, and just say, “Oh, I’ve got to come back to that,” because there's so much beauty in the way that the story is told. Yeah, it's one of those books that you have to give yourself over to it and of course not uncritically, don't read anything uncritically, but you give yourself over to it and you really capture the beauty and the pathos and the tragedy of human existence in so many ways. But then what grace and love and mercy and law, how they all come together to tell a story. It’s one of the books that, if you really read it carefully and move through it, I just don't see how you couldn't be moved at some level by the beauty of the story.
So, I'm going to just…. I have to at least underline something you said but then not linger too long. But I marvel. You picked this book up to read while you were in seminary. See now I made decisions of books I wasn't going to read while I was in seminary, and those were the required textbooks. You just took on, in addition to whatever, 5,000 pages of systematic theology and learning Hebrew and Greek, you also said, “Oh, why don't I pick up this 1400-page novel and read it during my spare time?” But never mind. We’re not going to go after that.
So, here's what I am going to say: My first exposure to the story of Les Miserables was seeing the musical, not the musical movie, but the show on stage, and I really did not know much about the story. I had never read the book. The movie versions hadn't come out yet, or I hadn't seen them. So, my very first exposure was this powerful impact of the music and the drama and that stark, stark contrast between Jean Valjean, this terrible sinner who gets forgiven and transformed by the power of grace, and Inspector Javert, the law-abiding tyrant who has no room whatsoever for grace or mercy or forgiveness. No, you live by the law, or you die by the law. And that's the theme woven through. So, then I read the book and felt the force even more, coming from another angle.
Yeah. The book goes into so much more detail, and actually I'm fortunate that I saw the musical only after I had read the book, because I feel like I got the force of the story first and then I could sort of judge the musical, saying, “Well, why didn't they do this? Or why didn't they do this?” But the musical is certainly a beautiful expression of the overall story of the book. For me, I know you made the joke about seminary, but I look at it and think, when you're reading a lot of theology and philosophy and all sorts of things, you need to cleanse the palate a little bit with some great fiction. And this is certainly in that category.
All right. I just had this thought: I wish one of my seminary professors would have required it as a textbook because if I had been reading through that while also wrestling.… But anyway, that let's not be seminary nerds on this, because the vast majority of our listeners have not and will not go to seminary. But we're talking about how can fiction be part of God's work in our lives to cause us to grow spiritually? So, let's just step back a little bit and talk about that, fiction. Why does reading stories that are not true shape us and contribute towards our discipleship?
Well, I believe we are storied individuals, that it's built into our DNA, to our self-understanding and our understanding of the world, that we are going to tell a story about ourselves and where we fit. And I'm working on a new book where I talk about why it's a cliché that everyone talks about being on a journey. It's a cliché because it's true for everybody. You can't help but see your life in some sense as a story, with a beginning and end and whatnot. And so, I think because we are embodied people on this earth, we came into existence, we suddenly were thrust into an adventure that we didn't choose for ourselves. That's a point Chesterton makes again and again, is that the adventure starts from the beginning. You don't pick your parents. You don't pick your family. You don't pick the environment that you're in. You’re suddenly here, and you're thrown into the story. Because of that, reading stories, stories that shape our minds, that give us pictures of virtue and vice, they stick with us.
I'm reading out loud to our youngest son. Now he's eight years old, and I'm reading a book to him, a series of books from a friend who lives in Franklin, part of the Rabbit Room group of books. And just this week I read to him. There was a conversation, there was an adventure, and then there was a conversation about the difference between being fearless and being courageous, and the point was made. This kid was fearless because he didn't have any fear. And so, he did something a little bit rash and crazy, but this other kid was afraid, but still was brave and courageous, in that he overcame his fear in order to do what needed to be done. And my son has mentioned it two nights in a row, the difference between fearlessness and courageousness. And, without a story, I don't know that he would have gotten that.
Good, good. You know, I think I've admitted this, confessed this on another recording of another episode. I have not always valued fiction. I think I looked down on it as fairly new Christian, which is… this is just embarrassing to me, but I want to say it as an encouragement to anyone who may feel similarly. I thought, “Well, this is fiction. It's not true. It's just trivial.” But we have to look at the fact that there are so many stories in the scriptures, and not just all true ones. There are made up parables and made up stories, because, like you just said, we are storied creatures. I like the way you said that. And we are moved and shaped by stories. We also need ideas and theology and dogmatic statements. We have the book of Ephesians and the book of Romans also in God's word. But stories, they grab a hold of our emotions and move us and transform us. So, there's great power in them.
Well, you mentioning the scriptures reminded me of the power of a story sneaking past one's defenses. The best example we have, I think, in the Bible of that is the prophet Nathan confronting David. He could have come to David and said, “Why have you committed this terrible sin with Bathsheba and had her husband murdered?” But, you know, he doesn't do that. He gets David's emotions engaged and involved with the story that he tells, and then when he says, “Thou art the man,” it lands completely differently than if he had simply started out that way. Which goes to show, I think, both the power and that there is a danger to stories as well. Bad stories can warp us in many ways, just as good stories can form us well, because they sneak past our defenses, and so they're powerful.
One of the questions that matter that we hope to pursue throughout all of these different podcasts is: Do you want to experience the power of a transformed life? That's the focus of our C.S. Lewis Institute Fellows Program, a year-long Fellows program, and we're, at this time, accepting applications for the next round of Fellows programs. Please visit our website, cslewisinstitute.org, and then go slash Fellows program. Or just go searching on our website for the Fellows Program, and prayerfully consider applying.
Now I just have to share one of my favorite bits from C.S. Lewis, and I want our listeners to know I'm not required to quote C.S. Lewis every time I do one of these recordings, but I just can't help myself. But he has this short essay called “On Stories,” and he talks about the importance of rereading stories, reading them more than once, and as only he could say it, he says, “An unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books only once. There's hope for a man who has never read Mallory or Boswell or Tristram Shandy or Shakespeare’s sonnets, but what can you do with a man who says he has read them, meaning he's read them only once and thinks that settles the matter?” And then he says, “We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust has been given its sop and laid asleep are we at leisure to savor the real beauties.” Isn't that something?
If we're just so curious and not know how it's going to go, well, we understand it, and we follow it, but the second time, we know what's going to happen, and we can even slow the reading down. We can deliberately slow it down, because I'm not rushing to get past, “What’s going to happen to him? Is he going to jump or isn't he going to jump?” Oh, “Look at the way he worded that,” or, “Look at the way she described that scene.” And you can slow down. You can highlight. I'm actually rereading Les Miserables and I'm highlighting, but I wouldn't have done it the first time because I had to follow where it was going.
Yeah. To me, I love what Lewis says there, and actually, I don't recall coming across that, but I just finished a third reading of The Brothers Karamazov, the Dostoevsky book, which is one of my favorite novels of all time as well. And I honestly, though, this is what I would say, Randy, something that Lewis doesn't say, but I think he would agree with. When you read fiction, and I found this to be true when I read The Screwtape Letters, I've read that three times in three different decades of my life, and I feel like I was a different person each time I read the book.
You are. You are.
You grow, you change, and you come back to a book that you may have read before, and you read it at a different phase of your life, and it hits you differently. It has a different effect on you. But I certainly agree there's something to be said for finding a book that you cherish and not reading it out of obligation or because it's laborious, but just because, once you find a book that you really love, returning to it and enjoying it and savoring it is one of the best parts about reading.
Yes. I don't know. I want to encourage our listeners. You know, it's really okay to read some short novels, too. I mean, Trevin apparently doesn't want to do anything that's less than 800 pages. The Brothers Karamazov is what? 900. But it's good to read short novels, too.
For sure. The Great Gatsby is short. Hard Times by Charles Dickens is short. There’re quite a few good short novels out there.
All right, now, you've mentioned that you've read it in three different translations. And I think, about this newest one, this most recent one, you said it has some of the most resonance with the scriptures. Tell us a little bit more about these different translations, why they make a difference, and what you meant about that, the resonance with the scriptures.
Sure. Well, the first time I read it was sort of the older classic edition, which was fantastic. I mean, it's a beautifully written book, and any translator worth their salt can't help but do well with the material to some extent, because it's just beautiful. The second time I read the book was by Julie Rose. It was the translation that Julie Rose did, and I enjoyed that one a lot more. And I may have enjoyed it more, Randy, because it was my second time through. And so, I understood more, and I knew where it was going. But I also just found the prose to be very sparkling. I mean, there was a sense of contemporariness to it that gave it a lot of beauty and depth. But this most recent translation by Christine Donougher, it's the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, which that's the one you were talking about as well. I got to the very end of it, and I realized why I was so enjoying this one. And at the end of it, I realized why I would choose this one out of the three.
There's a scene towards the end, when suddenly they realize that basically Marius and Cosette—and I don't want to go into the—obviously, we don't want to give away too much here—realizes that this main character has really been a saintly figure, has been someone who has shown a life of forgiveness and self-sacrifice. And this is the way that Marius, it says, “His heart was swelling, burst out.” He says, “Cosette, do you hear? He even goes that far. He asks my forgiveness. And do you know what he has done for me, Cosette? He has saved my life. He has done more. He has given you to me. And after having saved me, and after having given you, Cosette, to me, what did he do with himself? He sacrificed himself. Behold the man.” That's what the new translation says. And when I get to that, “behold the man,” the biblical resonance there is this is the Jesus figure of the novel, right?
But if you go to the Julie Rose translation there, it says, you know, “Cosette, he saved my life. He did more than that. He gave me you. And after saving me, and after giving me you, Cosette, what did he do with himself? He sacrificed himself. That's the kind of man he is.” Which, again, beautifully written, still beautiful. But the behold the man resonance that you get from the gospel of John, when Pilate says, “Behold the Man,” and you have Jesus in the ultimate humiliation, about to sacrifice himself. For a translator to understand that, in Hugo’s mind, there are these biblical illusions and resonances, to me, makes for a better translation because it allows those of us in English who are reading and who also understand some of that biblical terminology to glean more from the text and the translation. So that's just an example of why the translation really does matter.
Now, I don't know if you know the answer to this question. I certainly don't. Do you know anything about this newest translator? Does she have Christian convictions? Is that part of the driving force? And or what about Victor Hugo? I've done some reading about him. He doesn't necessarily strike me as a godly Christian man. Certainly, a lot of extramarital affairs that seem to dominate his life, and yet he's writing this stunningly I would say rather parallel Christian story. Do you have any insight for us on either Hugo or this woman translator?
I don't know much about the translator. It says that she is a freelance translator and editor, translated numerous books from French and Italian. Hugo, similar to Dostoevsky. You can look at the same life, and you're looking at a book like The Brothers Karamazov, where there's a profound Christian sensibility at the bottom of both, Les Miserables and The Brothers Karamazov. They're two of my all-time favorite novels. And yet the lives of the authors are pretty much a mess from a Christian perspective, as far as to exactly where their convictions are or their actions lining up with their convictions.
I think what we're benefiting from in both of these books are works from two individuals whose sensibilities and moral outlook is profoundly shaped by Christendom in the 1800s, whether or not, in their own lives and personal faith and whatnot, were completely orthodox or were living up to Christian orthodoxy. And even there, there would be differences based on what you consider orthodox. Of course, Dostoevsky was Russian Orthodox.
I think what you find with those authors, though, is they come from a milieu where there's a profound Christian sensibility, and there's also a recognition that some of what is beautiful in that Christian sensibility is in danger of being lost. I get the impression, with both of those books, that the authors are concerned at the way society is going or what might happen with society, that there are elements of that Christendom that ought to be discarded, perhaps, and then there are elements that need to be lifted up, and they need to be preserved. And I think that's one of the reasons why the books continue to speak across the centuries to that level, is because they're dealing with they're dealing with human realities, with the human soul, with enduring traits of humanity, but from a perspective that corresponds enough with Christianity to where the resonances of the human heart, the inconsolable longings of the human heart that C.S. Lewis talks about in Surprised by Joy, come out in their writing and in their fiction.
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Well, I want to share one of my favorite parts of the book, and I think what I wanted to say: Not only does this make a very good point, but it takes a while to say it. And that's something that fiction does. If you were just delivering a factual treatise, you might just say one sentence or two sentences, like, “You know, your surroundings make a difference in your life.” There. But listen to the way Hugo writes this with this great translation. This is after Jean Valjean has escaped all sorts of difficulties, and now he finds himself in this very, very beautiful, quiet, religious convent.
And the book says, “He was slowly imbued with everything that surrounded him. This peaceful garden, these fragrant flowers, these children uttering joyful cries, these women of grave simplicity, this silent cloister. And little by little, his soul became a creation, of silence, like this cloister, a perfume, like these flowers, of peace, like this garden, of simplicity, like these women, of joy, like these children. And then he reflected how it was two houses of God that had in turn taken him in at two critical moments in his life. The first, when all doors were closed to him, and human society rejected him. The second, when human society started hounding him again and the prison hulks opened up before him once more. And that, but for the first, he would have fallen back into crime, and but for the second, back into torment.”
Isn't that just beautiful? And again, to feel the weight of that, it takes that long. He takes a while to unpack an emotion or an event, and that's what fiction does. And you don't necessarily want to rush it. You don’t want to, “Okay, yeah. I got the point.” No, you want to feel just all of the different senses being awakened in it.
Absolutely. I think that's a beautiful example of the power of fiction in helping us linger. You don't rush through books like this. You want to linger over the text and really let the full force of the beauty. It's like taking in a painting. You don't want to go from—if you're in an art museum, and I mean an art museum with genuine art, not some of what passes for art today. But you don't want to just rush from painting to painting. You want to sit and behold something. I think a good novel, even the long ones, Randy, even the long ones. A good novel presses us to stop and really linger over something beautiful.
And in a world that does feel like we're in a rush all the time, or that we need to take in as much information as possible. Good fiction, good literature, beautiful music, stunning art, demands that we slow down, focus on only one thing, maybe it's only a word or a sentence or a paragraph or a part of just one painting, and allow that to make us deeper, richer, more fully human. And I think that's what this book does for both of us and for so many, many people.
We could talk for hours, but I need to kind of wrap this up. Are there any more more thoughts that you wanted to share about your experience and your spiritual growth and development as a result of reading Les Miserables?
Well, I immediately think of a couple of things where I'm moved to tears, whether it be the movie version or the musical or in the book. The conversion scene, but also the—I’m not wanting to give away a lot of the book. But the way the book ends, with the sort of the main character at the end of his life. We are formed by our view of the future and by our view of our destiny and where it is that we're going. And there's something so powerful and profound about imagining your own self at the end of your own life, and striving toward and leaning forward into that beautiful transition, when you know you're going to be moving from this life to be with the Lord and the kind of person you want to be at the end of that life. When I think about Les Mis, and I think about the sprawling story that it tells, with all of the sin and the evil and the heartache and the beauty and the wickedness and the injustice and the forgiveness and mercy, and all of these great human themes that are captured in this book, I'm left with that end result, though, of the individual who has been slowly but steadily formed and shaped in the image of Christ through the choices that have been made, through the grace that's been shown to him and then the choices that he's made throughout his life, to where you see a great soul at the end of life. And it's hard to walk away with that, Randy, and not want to, at least at some level, see that as the end. See that as the end of your earthly life and the beginning of the life thereafter. And so, for me, that's been very informative, as I've thought about, “What will the end of my life look like?” Only the Lord knows. But what could it look like after a lifetime of hopefully growth and sanctification and virtue, and it's that kind of legacy that's left.
Okay. Well said. Yeah. Okay, there’s delusions of grandeur in this, for sure, but it's worth playing out. Okay, if somebody was going to write a novel of my life, and they're coming to the end and they're writing this last bit, what would I want them to say on that last page? What do I want my life to be like? And if someone were writing about it, what would they say? And I do have to quickly say Jean Valjean is not sinless in this book.
In fact, there are a couple of places where it's excruciatingly painful, so then it becomes all the more beautiful and powerful that he's a man who's been redeemed. He’s been forgiven. He’s been changed by the power of God's grace, not by his own inner fortitude and great character. Yes, there certainly is that. But it's a character that shines because of terrible failures and even sin. And look at God's redemptive power.
Absolutely. And I think that's actually what gives hope to the reader is that you're not looking at someone who is saintly all throughout the book. In fact, you could even say, even later on in the life, there are some unwise choices and decisions that are made throughout the book as well. Maybe not sinful choices, but certainly there's the desire for control and for anonymity, and it leads to there being challenges relationally with other people. But I think actually that adds to the portrait of the man. I think it's why he's so compelling, is that he seems like someone real.
Very. Very real.
And that's the beauty of Les Mis overall, and any great literature, is that you could look at these—there are people in these great books, and you can look at them, and it's as if they could walk into the room and you could actually meet them and you wouldn't be surprised to find that that was a real person being written about.
And that's what's so beautiful about great literature.
Well done. Well done. And thank you for pointing us in that direction. Well, I'm afraid we could go on, but I'm going to draw this to a close. C.S. Lewis said, “You can't get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” And I would say that this is a book still in that long book category, but so very powerful and I'm so thankful for it. I had originally hoped to have finished my rereading of it before this conversation, but I'm just over 52.3%. That's what happens when you have an ebook. But I'm not rushing. I don't want to rush through it.
So, Trevin, thank you so much for being a guest on Questions That Matter. I want to say to our listeners, please check out some of the items we put in the show notes, especially this new annotated edition about Chesterton's Orthodoxy. Trevin, we’ve got to have you back to talk about that book. And maybe The Brothers Karamazov. We can just put those two together in one recording. It'll be easy.
That would be great. Anytime.
Again, to our listeners, please check out our website, cslewisinstitute.org, and all of our many resources. Our desire is to promote heart and mind discipleship, so that you can love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.