A Note From Our Editor: Thornton Wilder’s Bridge Of San Luis Rey -- By: John Warwick Montgomery

Journal: Global Journal of Classical Theology
Volume: GJCT 05:1 (Jul 2005)
Article: A Note From Our Editor: Thornton Wilder’s Bridge Of San Luis Rey
Author: John Warwick Montgomery

A Note From Our Editor: Thornton Wilder’s Bridge Of San Luis Rey

John Warwick Montgomery

Are you acquainted with Thornton Wilder (1897-1975), author of Our Town, The Eighth Day, and The Bridge of San Luis Rey? If not, you have really missed something.

Wilder was one of the most underrated American writers of the 20th century. (Virtually no one, for example, is aware that the characters in the musical Hello Dolly were created by Wilder: the musical was in fact adapted from his play, The Merchant of Yonkers.) It is incredible that an Ernest Hemingway - who killed himself, thereby justifying his pagan philosophy of autonomous individualism - should have received plaudits galore, including a Nobel Prize in Literature, whilst the critics generally regarded Wilder as a novelist and playwright of secondary rank, even though he won no less than three Pulitzer Prizes.

Perhaps the main reason for Wilder’s lesser treatment at the hands of the critics was his non-politically-correct lifetime preoccupation with theodicy: the search for God’s hand in history and human life. The Eighth Day, for example, is an epic novel expanding on the theme of our Lord’s genealogies in Matthew 1 and Luke 3; Wilder argues that each generation and each life may be part of a plan, unknown to those within it, leading to positive ends beyond their imaginings.

I recently attended a dramatic version of The Bridge of San Luis Rey in a Paris suburban theatre. The play was not great shakes, reminding one a bit of amateur, off-Broadway productions, but it could not obscure the power of Wilder’s theme, that of “justifying the ways of God to man” (to use Milton’s felicitous phrase). The story, set in the Peru of the 18th century, is based on an actual historical event: the sudden and totally unexpected collapse in 1714 of a celebrated rope bridge in the Andes, and the death of the five persons who were crossing it at that moment.

A pious and rationalistic friar sees this as a laboratory example to vindicate God’s hand in history: he will investigate those five lives, in order to demonstrate why they were fated to die when they did. I shall not go into the results of Brother Juniper’s research, which were far from unambiguous and which led to the friar’s own condemnation and death at the hands of the Inquisition; nor shall I critique Wilder’s solution, based on a sadly weak concept of love in human relations. But I do want to say something about the apologetic issues posed by the novel.

Ought one to see in this story -- soon to be a major motion picture -- an indictment of apologetics as such: a recognition of the impossibility of our proving ...

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