(Excerpts from a paper I wrote on Milton for Omnibus class.)
“And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons.” (Mark 11:15).
No matter what we might see in the children’s illustrated Bibles, Christ was not languid and passive, only smiling and angelic. He picked up the children, yes, but He also touched lepers. He broke “laws”. He mocked pharisees. He threw tables. The pharisees didn’t have any idea what to do with this wild man from Nazareth. They tried confusing Him, by asking loaded questions, but somehow, He always ended up confusing them instead. He was too sharp for their tricks. But He wasn’t only sharp, He was gentle, too; He wept for His friend (John 11:35). His character is beautifully complex, multi-dimensional character; and nearly impossible to portray accurately. And, well, Milton botched it up pretty sadly. Paradise Lost is an incredibly significant work, but Milton failed, I believe, in the character of Christ. Instead of melding as many of God’s attributes, and layers, and twists, and enigmas, and paradoxes, as he could, he focused too much on only the mighty, ruling attributes. This resulted in God seeming like a distant and lofty king. He is portrayed as distant and almost sterile-feeling. We are half-afraid to get too close for fear of soiling his holiness.
This God doesn’t get His hands dirty. He doesn’t surprise people with His wit. He doesn’t enter into the human condition, like the real God does. He’s there in Milton, but He’s not really Someone you think you’d like to know. You get the feeling He’s too far away. It’s because Milton completely left out the most simple, most lowly, parts of Christ’s personality.
It’s because Milton so bungled the character of Christ in his epic that the character of Satan seems especially masterful, in contrast. Milton’s Satan has a complex, deep, truly fascinating personality. This powerfully guileful being has lost a key battle in the beginning of the tale, but he is unshaken in his resolve to continue. As we read, we clearly see the absolute futility of his going on at all. Satan, himself, knows what the end result of the war will be: Good always wins. But still, he keeps on with this hopeless task. Though at times he shows great remorse for what has become of him, he never falters in his quest to destroy all truth, goodness, and beauty. And his first aim is to destroy the Man and the Woman. If they are defeated, Satan figures he’ll have done pretty darn good...The true Christ is so much more than we get in Paradise Lost: Poet, teacher, king, and carpenter. “Talk to the Fool,” says N.D. Wilson. “To the one who left a throne to enter an anthill. He will enter your shadow. It cannot taint Him. He has done it before. His holiness is not fragile... Touch His skin, put your hand in His side. He has kept His scars when He did not have to. Give Him your pain and watch it overwhelmed, burned away in the joy He takes in loving. In stooping.”
He doesn’t only stoop. He joys in the stooping. He joys in His being birthed into our messy little world. This. This is what we are missing from Milton. In his book, we don’t see our scarred and holy God burning away pain. We see only the guaranteed victory. We don’t see the very ordinary bits of the Story. But Christ loves the ordinary things. He pulls sticky children onto his lap. He enters His city riding on a donkey colt. He called the fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes. “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong,” (1 Corinthians 1:27). That is true glory. Our King doesn’t only rule us, as in Milton. He lives among us. He washes our feet; He throws over our tables; He buys back the unfaithful bride; the one who should have died. Milton forgot the lowly side of Christ. And oftentimes the most simple and unremarkable things are the really beautiful things.