Reading Classic Literature
From a Christian Perspective
If you have never read Jack London’s classic 1908 short story To Build a Fire, you should put it on your winter eading list. This harrowing description of a man’s struggle for survival in the
sub-zero temperatures of the Yukon Territory will make the upcoming season’s
coldest day seem balmy by comparison.
The story’s protagonist (referred to only
as the Man) has been warned about the
dangers of extreme cold, and yet as the
story opens he foolishly begins a daylong hike on foot toward a distant mining
camp, accompanied only by his dog. As
the temperature falls, the Man slowly realizes that he is engaged in a life-or-death
struggle against the cold. It will take careful planning and foresight to survive.
Unfortunately, the Man is plagued
with bad luck from the start. He accidentally steps in an icy stream. He builds a
fire to dry himself but stupidly locates it
beneath a snow-laden tree. The fire’s heat
dislodges the snow from an overhanging
branch, which falls on the fire and puts
it out. By the time he arranges wood for
another fire, his hands are too cold to
manipulate the matches.
A dull sense of dread overtakes him as
he realizes that he has miscalculated the
cold and his own powers to withstand
it. He tries to kill his dog so that he can
use its body for warmth, but the animal
senses his fear and will not allow him to
approach. In the end, the man quietly
freezes to death while the dog slinks off
to find another, wiser master.
Is there a way to
redeem this story, or
at least understand
it better, by reading
it from a Christian
A Common Approach
One day recently I taught this story to a
class of Christian parents. At the discussion’s end, one parent approached me
with a familiar reaction.
“This book does not seem to have any
Christian lessons in it,” she said. “It’s dis-
turbing and full of hopelessness and de-
spair. Is there a way to redeem this story,
or at least understand it better, by read-
ing it from a Christian perspective?”
She was absolutely correct in her initial
observation, of course. There aren’t any
obvious Christian lessons in To Build a
Fire, because the story was written by an
atheist as a faithful expression of his own
naturalistic worldview. It is disturbing
and full of hopelessness and despair be-
cause the author wanted it that way.
Meeting Only Ourselves
Obviously, it is important to work hard,
plan ahead, and heed sound advice.