My master’s thesis in literature was a Christian response to a novel I read that shook me: Albert Camus’ The Stranger. My thesis, Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer as Christian Apologetic, was a Christian response to atheistic existentialism exemplified by Camus’ novel.
Maybe some background would be helpful. When I was a freshman in college many moons ago, I met a fellow student who was also a serious reader. We talked and talked of books, of writers we adored, of books we longed to read, etc. She told me that her favorite book was called The Stranger. I had never read it at the time. But I told her I would. And I did.
The book is quite short (just over 120 pages), so I got right through it quickly. But its brevity does not diminish its worldview. Camus, the author, was an atheist. And his characters, except for a magistrate and the chaplain at the end of the story, are atheists, too. They live lives of going through the motions. And the satiation of their physical appetites and the physical beauties in life (beaches, swims, good meals, etc.) and artistic beauties in life (good music, landscapes, seascapes, auroras, and gloamings, etc.) seem to be the sum of ‘the good’ in his characters’ secular worldview.
And so when the death of the protagonist’s mother opens the novel, Meursault (the main character) is largely unmoved. And when he murders an Arab man in the middle of the novel, he is unmoved, unrepentant, even apathetic, when he’s arrested.
There is no transcendent to which an appeal is to be made, in Camus’ world.
The only happiness is to be found by way of eating, drinking, and being merry. Why? Because tomorrow we die, of course. How different from the Christian worldview. Listen to how Jesus taught in Luke’s gospel:
But He said to them, “Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.” And He told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man was very productive. And he began thinking to himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and I will store all my grain and my goods there. And I will say to myself, “You have many goods stored up for many years to come; relax, eat, drink, and enjoy yourself!”’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is demanded of you; and as for all that you have prepared, who will own it now?’ Such is the one who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich in relation to God.”
And He said to His disciples, “For this reason I tell you, do not worry about your life, as to what you are to eat; nor for your body, as to what you are to wear. For life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing. (Luke 12:15-23, NASB)
The biblical view of man is that his life should not be reducible to his possessions, his stuff. The souls of men matter eternally, in other words.
History is replete of those who took their own lives but were drowning in stuff. I remember a few years back, for example, when Robin Williams took his life. He appeared to have gained the world, though, right? Yes. But it appears he may’ve forfeited/lost his soul.
It’s the same, but even darker, in Camus’ The Stranger. The protagonist is estranged because he’s an exile from God’s kingdom, but it’s a self-imposed exile. He hates God. He rejects the offer of forgiveness through the gospel. Moreover, he finds little to like about people, too. No God led him to misanthropy after a life of eating, drinking, and supposedly seeking to be merry.
Nothing teaches quite like contrasts. Last night as I battled insomnia once again, I pulled this novel from my shelf and read it straight through. And I became more convinced than ever that my M.A. thesis was correct–namely, that atheism leads to nihilism and despair; but the biblical view of man explains man’s nature accurately. We are estranged because we suppress God by donning fig leaves, as if we could escape the eye of the Omniscient. And yet God’s offer of the gospel remains for those who will come. What a contrast to Camus’ atheistic worldview.