Do you know the Count of Monte Cristo? You may have read the book, and if so, my hat goes off to you, because it’s quite long. You may have seen one of the various film adaptations of it. This epic tale told by Alexandre Dumas hits at something central to our understanding of the world. It has become one of the main stories that is referred to when people are talking about revenge, one of the main themes of the book.
In one of my favourite movies, Shawshank Redemption, this book is donated to the library and the inmates are unsure if it should be filed under fiction or educational, since it deals with a prison break. The recent blockbuster movie V for Vendetta refers to an older film version of The Count of Monte Cristo, available in glorious Technicolor. All three of these stories, the original and the two that refer back to it, are stories of revenge and redemption.
Certainly redemption is a theme that I, as a pastor, like to dwell on from time to time, there is something else in this story that captures my attention, but there are other things about it that I love.
There is a movie version that was released in 2002, where the main character, Edmond Dantes, is played by Jim Caviezel. This was his first big movie after playing Jesus in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. So it was an odd feeling to see a man who I had only recently seen as The Prince of Peace wandering around France on a quest to kill his former friend.
Spoiler Alert. In the story, Edmond Dantes is imprisoned unjustly. One day a fellow prisoner, who also happens to be a former priest, mistakenly digs a tunnel into Dantes’ cell and the two become friends. The teacher-student relationship they develop is heart warming, but it is also fodder for some great quotes.
After admitting he once told a lie, the priest defends himself by saying, “I’m a priest, not a saint.”
Despite being centuries old, this tale presents to us a wonderfully contemporary approach to inter-faith dialogue. The priest speaks of God and Dantes, having suffered though years of undeserved torture, responds by communicating his lack of faith.
By far my favourite conversation is when the priest lays dying. He is imparting final instructions on his friend and warns him not to carry out the revenge that is in his heart. The priest quotes the Bible, “God says, ‘Vengeance is mine.’” Dantes looks at him, bewildered that this priest has not yet understood that he has given up his faith and Biblical reasoning will not deter his plans. “But I don’t believe in God,” is his response. Without hesitation, the priest answers and says, “It doesn’t matter, he believes in you.”
For some this is a reassuring statement about the nature of God. For others, this is simply a clever turn of phrase. For me, this is a model of Christian-Atheist dialogue that our society is sadly lacking. Our most prevalent example of this conversation is usually when a celebrity atheist is debating a prominent Christian and they are exchanging insults and referring to their non-overlapping spheres of knowledge to outdo each other.
On the surface, it would appear that this is no shortage of angry atheists who want to knock down the church by any means necessary. They will point to countless unhealthy models of Christianity in the past to discount the church’s credibility as a moral institution. They will point to scientific research to discredit the validity of various Biblical accounts. They will appeal to political processes try to remove aspects of Christianity from our cultural institutions that are remnants of a different time. The church usually responds in kind, and often initiates the attack, calling atheists soulless, immoral and worse. Without seeking to understand each other, this kind of conversation quickly deteriorates.
What I like about the conversation in the movie/book, is that the priest knows full well the abuse Dantes has suffered and knows how those events could sap a man of his belief in a benevolent Creator. He knows the pain that went into Dantes’ renunciation of faith and still he offers this gentle assurance. His statement is not a guilt trip, an academic challenge or a call to faith, it is simply a reassuring word.
I have gotten to know a number of atheists in my life. Usually we decide not to make our disagreement about the nature of the universe as the defining feature of our relationship. I respect that they have come to their views for a reason. I assume that we can coexist and cooperate on mutual interests. Like the priest in the Count of Monte Cristo, I am sure that God still believes in them, and so maybe I should believe in them too.