Monday, September 2, 2013

Christ in Flanders by Honoré de Balzac

An unconventional plea for church reform
Christ in Flanders, originally published in 1831, is a short story by Honoré de Balzac. Like almost all of Balzac’s writings, it is considered part of his multi-volume body of work entitled The Comédie Humaine, but it is one of the tiniest pieces in the mosaic and bears little or no connectivity to other works in the series. The story takes place on the coast of Flemish Brabant, in present-day Belgium. A ferry from the island of Cadzand to the town of Ostend on the mainland encounters rough weather that threatens the lives of the passengers. Balzac examines how the travelers on board, representing various social classes, react to their impending doom, and to the mysterious Christ-like stranger who travels among them.

As is obvious from its title, Christ in Flanders deals with religious subject matter, but for the most part it’s far from preachy. The story reads less like an inspirational fable and more like a gothic tale of supernatural horror or an episode of The Twilight Zone. The atmosphere is delightfully spooky and the plot captivatingly suspenseful. Only toward the end does it devolve into a sermon of sorts. The ultimate purpose of the story is for Balzac to both scold and implore the Catholic Church to cast off its hunger for riches and its gloomy, judgmental facade and embrace its foundational values of faith, love, and benevolence. Perhaps this unconventional tale was not the best choice of venue to express such lofty ideas. Those receptive to such a message may not appreciate the macabre manner in which it is expressed, while those just looking for a good story are likely to consider the concluding lecture a major let-down. Christ in Flanders is not an essential read by any means, but avid fans of Balzac won’t mind giving it a brief 20 minutes of their time.

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