Not long ago, I mentioned that my favorite movie is The Shawshank Redemption. It truly is an inspiring story of hope and sacrifice, a Christian story in the deepest sense of the term. There is another story, however, that strikes me deeper. This evening I made my daughter stay up an hour past bed time so I could finish reading it to her, though I cried so hard I barely got through it.
I’m speaking of my favorite book, and no, it’s not Harry Potter. It’s A Tale of Two Cities, which is one of the most difficult and beautiful books I’ve ever read, and the most poignant depiction of the gospel lived-out that I’ve ever encountered. I’m not a fan of most of Charles Dickens’ books – A Christmas Carol makes me gag – but this story is breathtaking.
Admittedly, it’s a tough book to read, and not just because it’s dark. Its language is so dense and carefully-phrased, it has to be read aloud for full effect. Through its first half, it presents several dozen seemingly unconnected events and characters, without explaining their importance. It takes a real act of faith to stick with the story, yet steadily its complex plot resolves itself into a true masterpiece in which there is nothing extraneous at all. Absolutely every detail of this story, from the first page on, is eventually tied into its stirring climax. Every minor occurrence becomes important before the end; every character plays their vital role in its completion.
Summarizing the plot would be difficult and give too much away, but in brief, A Tale of Two Cities, like Shawshank (and Les Misérables, my next favorite book), is a story of unjust imprisonment, and thus a symbol for our own universal bondage to sin. Like the characters in this tale, all of us are born into a system overrun with evil, and while we each must choose either to accept or to redeem what small realm of it we touch, we lack the power to truly escape it on our own.
It is called A Tale of Two Cities, and though this undoubtedly refers to London and Paris, whose distinctive histories shape its every contour, it is also the story of two other “cities,” what Saint Augustine called “the city of man” and “the city of God.” Set before and during the French Revolution – that bloody and lawless coup in a long line of such tragedies – it is first off a tale of the “city of man,” as one nation’s unbearable suffering symbolizes the misery of all those oppressed by the cruel and indifferent of the world. Worse still, in its depiction of the equally cruel and indifferent revenge that so often repays such oppression (and certainly did in revolutionary France), we see also the unending cycle of evil that so defaces all our attempts to save ourselves.
Yet this is not only a tale of “the worst of times,” it is also a tale of the best of them. Like Shawshank, this is a story that centers on a hope that can only be gained through sacrifice. Even better than Shawshank, it is a story which recognizes that sacrifice can only be authentic if embraced out of love. True, unconditional, world-conquering love, that is the heart of this story, and the final answer it gives to evil. This is not the sappy-sentimental, overly-sexualized love of a modern romance. No. This is a love that takes its inspiration from the one whose own sacrifice marked the turning point in history, whose own love founded “the city of God.” In the end, A Tale of Two Cities is a story of his sacrificial love, lived out through redeemed men and women, which is the only hope we have in this dark world. As such, it is his words that one seemingly minor but ultimately central character recalls at the book’s climax, and it is these words that we too must recall if we are to have any hope at all:
“I am the Resurrection and the Life, he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. Whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.”