Edward Abbey Runs from Humanity, Runs from God

Environmentalism is a major force in Western society today. Inherent in the “ism” of environmentalism is a sense of ought-ness for human involvement in the world. Christianity insists that man made in God’s image is responsible for his stewardship over God’s creation. Is environmentalism compatible with Christianity? Perhaps the terms of this question are too complex and broad for a simple answer. The questions I begin to explore in this essay are more precise. Is environmental literature, in its popular expressions, compatible with a historic Christian worldview? Is popular environmental literature even consistent with its own worldview? I don’t claim to provide an infallible, absolutely conclusive answer to these questions, but I do make some specific claims about a specific, foundational work of environmental literature.


Edward Abbey Runs from Humanity, Runs from God

In Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey tells the story of his time as a park ranger in Arches National Park in Utah. Throughout the novel, two major themes are apparent, his disdain for human culture and his disdain for God. During his sojourn in the wilderness, he regularly relates his aversion for these two realities. In fact it seems that a significant reason that he takes the position as a ranger is to try to escape both society and God. Abbey’s relationship with humanity and the question of God’s existence are both themes that the author never fully resolves in the novel; the tension present throughout the book remains at the end. It is my argument that Abbey’s time in the desert is an expression of his running from and resistance to humanity and God. In both cases, he is not successful; both humanity and God are inescapable realities with which Abbey is forced to deal one way or another.

Abbey’s Role in Literature in General

One of the great values of literature is its capacity to help connect the reader with aspects of life experience that could otherwise easily go unnoticed in the bustle of everyday life. Whether constructing a fictional story or retelling actual events, the author of any piece of literature chooses which elements he includes in his work. Literature is constructed by the author and experienced by the reader, so it has the opportunity to provide insights into both the author’s view of the world and the common experiences shared between author and reader. As one writer states, “Literature abstracts from the complex events of life (just as we do all the time every day) and can reveal patterns that are like patterns of events in the real world. Studying literature can give us sensitivity to those patterns. This sensitivity to the rhythm of life is closely connected with what the Bible calls wisdom” (Leithart 13). As Leithart puts so well, those insights a reader can gain from literature have to do with the “rhythm of life” and even “wisdom”. As I discuss humanity and God in Desert Solitaire, I will be interested in seeing what can be discovered about Abbey’s perspectives on these areas of life and to what extent this perspective of his comports with reality.

Abbey’s Role in Environmental Literature

Abbey’s emphasis on man’s relationship to the environment places his writing in the modern category of “environmental literature”. Since this genre is primarily concerned with teaching, or at least proclaiming a particular way of viewing the natural world and man’s position in it, it tends to come across as what is commonly described as “preachy”. In order to minimize the perception of inherent “preachy” voice of such a piece of literature, Abbey makes use of heavy sarcasm. However, as a work of environmental literature, Desert Solitaire embodies a concern for the morality of man’s dealing with nature and the responsibilities that he has toward nature. In dealing with these questions, environmental writers such as Abbey introduce both an important insight into the rhythm of life in the natural world and a fundamental philosophical inconsistency into their arguments. Loren Wilkinson, writing from a liberal theological perspective, makes a keen observation about environmental literature that is relevant for this discussion and also consistent with historical Christian thinking:

“But perhaps uniquely, environmental literature has the capability of revealing the inadequacy of some of its own foundations. For the more environmental literature is informed by an ethical urgency, the more it impels a recognition that “environment” is “creation” (at least this particular corner of it), and concern for its care is not consistent with a monism (whether pantheistic or naturalistic) that recognizes neither Creator nor the unique nature of the human person within creation” (Wilkinson).

Wilkinson’s insight into the fundamental incongruity of naturalistic assumptions with notions of moral imperatives regarding man and nature can be noted throughout Abbey’s work. I will provide illustrations of such inconsistencies as I argue for Abbey’s running both from human society and God.

Running from Humanity

Just another animal?

Throughout the account of Abbey’s time in the desert, he tries to distance himself as much as possible from humanity; this is the solitaire part of Desert Solitaire. To account for this intentional distancing, and to measure his success or failure in this goal, it is helpful first to note how he perceives human society. Edward Abbey is not a friend of humanity. When he speaks about humans, especially in contrast to nature, Abbey assumes a scathing, sarcastic tone. One such example comes early on as he considers whether or not to kill a snake that has taken up residence beneath the steps of his trailer: “…I have personal convictions to uphold. Ideals, you might say. I prefer not to kill animals. I’m a humanist; I’d rather kill a man than a snake” (Abbey, Desert 20). It is hard to tell whether he is simply being sarcastic here or if this is a moment of candor for Abbey. One would like to think that his preference of killing a man over a snake is just a snarky joke, but this hope may not be entirely justified given the recurring nature of such sentiments throughout the book. Though he vacillates over his approval or disapproval of other humans during his time in the desert, the same sense of disdain for humanity shows up on numerous occasions.

One way to account for this disdain may be seen in the following line from a letter sent to a local newspaper: “I merely wish to insist that we must stop pretending that we are somehow different from, or in some fashion superior to, the other animals on this planet” (Abbey, “Letters”). This statement is taken from a letter in which Abbey pronounces his blessing upon a potential crash of human population. He is declaring the beneficial results of such a calamity, saying that it would be good since we are really just the same as any other species of animal and a population crash would reduce our consumption of resources. For Abbey, there is supposedly no meaningful distinction between human beings and animals. We are merely one twig on the great evolutionary tree of life. However, it is worth mentioning here that such a failure to distinguish clear differences is inconsistent with Abbey’s imperatives about how humans ought to behave. Inherent in his statement is that human beings, through belief and action, have a say in whether or not we act or think as if we are on the same level as animal life. Implicitly, then, Abbey’s statement serves as an example of the principle that Wilkinson affirms.  Abbey’s end-goal is that human beings should maintain what he would consider a sustainable population size, namely 25 million, as he points out later in the letter. Regardless of the wisdom (or lack thereof) of his ideal, there is a moral imperative of man in his relationship toward nature that is implied here, and that moral imperative is absolutely inconsistent with his godless worldview. A consistently naturalist worldview simply does not have the capability of providing a foundation for morality. Morality is a sort of law; it necessarily comes from a lawgiver.

Not only is there a moral ought-ness in Abbey’s stance regarding humans and nature, but there is a recognition that humans are uniquely equipped with something that sets us apart from nature. A human being can, by Abbey’s own admission, pretend to be of more value than he is. Presumably, he wouldn’t have similar complaints about any of the animal species. If one species is eating too many of another species, the predator is just doing its job, and responsibility falls on humans to correct the problem. Here is where the distinction becomes clear. Humans can reason and consider their place in relation to the world and to God, which ability is a part of what it means to be made in God’s image, whereas there is no indication that animals have such thoughts. However, to admit that there is a fundamental distinction between humans and animals leads to the conclusions that man is not merely the product of naturalistic evolutionary processes and the universe is not merely matter in motion. In other words, if humans are moral creatures, they are in essence more than super-evolved animals, and the source of that difference is the Creator God. Abbey doesn’t recognize the fallacious nature of his position on humans as being just another part of nature, but this position does serve as a foundation for other positions that he takes regarding human society throughout Desert Solitaire.


Building on his perception of human beings and their place in the world, Abbey regularly employs his sarcasm on the subject of human beings and their reliance upon technology, culture, and especially religion. At one point, he writes, “An increasingly pagan and hedonistic people (thank God!), we are learning finally that the forests and mountains and desert canyons are holier than our churches. Therefore let us behave accordingly” (Abbey, Desert 65). Abbey has an especially sardonic tone for Christian beliefs, but more will be made of this later in the essay. Abbey never clearly delineates where he believes wilderness should begin and end, but he does insist on several occasions that automobiles should not be allowed in it. The overall mood of Desert Solitaire suggests that humanity has far too much of an impact on the world, and by extension that it should have far less of an impact. How could Abbey’s naturalist ideals be accomplished? In the “Polemics…” chapter, he presents a plan, and the foundation for that plan is the restriction of human population. He doesn’t lay out any specific numerical goals for population in Desert Solitaire, although the previously referenced letter mentions that the world population of humans should be limited to 25 million. Of course, he has his own suggestion for how humans can fix the population issue as well. If there are too many people, “we may soon have to make birth control compulsory” (Abbey, Desert 136).  But is Abbey’s lifestyle consistent with his ideals for human societies?

Except for a few short moments in the book, Abbey is disparaging toward humanity and things that are associated with human society and culture. In particular, he is against automobiles in the parks and belittles tourists for their dependence on societal conveniences (Abbey, Desert 64,65). However, Abbey himself is really not so different than those he mocks. As one man in the desert, he represents all the things of which he disapproves in others. “About once a week I put on my pants and walked up to the Indian village to buy bacon, canned beans and Argentine beef in the little store” (Abbey, Desert 248). Abbey is completely dependent upon the human society from which he is supposedly trying to escape. Whenever his food runs out, he goes to the store rather than hunting or providing his own food. He eats the bacon that comes from a farm and is distributed and sold by businessmen. On a number of occasions in the novel, Abbey feeds on canned beans. He even lives in a trailer with a petroleum-powered generator and drives a petroleum-powered truck through the park! He never fully leaves society behind, but takes it with him. In another case, he goes back to town to buy a new pair of shoes when his are worn out (Abbey, Desert 285). He still depends upon the civilizational infrastructure that must be in place to provide for all the manufactured conveniences that he requires.

Beyond the items that Abbey consumes while in the desert, the very nature of his being there is also inconsistent with his professed values. Abbey is a Park Ranger, employed by the Federal Government of the United States of America. The source of his income is a paycheck from this government. The Federal Government and its public services are paid for through tax revenues of American citizens. In other words, human society and economy together serve as the backbone that makes Abbey’s wilderness sojourn possible. In such a situation, completely dependent upon and representative of human society, Abbey expresses disapproval of the very nature of that society. As he uses money produced through the American economy to buy a can of beans produced, distributed, and sold through the American socio-economic system, and as he drives his government truck from one spot in the park to another, Abbey writes that people should keep out of the wilderness, or at least not bring their automobiles. One would think that so many inconsistencies were bad enough, but the irony goes even deeper than this.

Edward Abbey, hired by the Park Service as a Ranger of Arches National Park, and running from humanity in that park has a problem that cannot be solved by either clever argumentation or change of lifestyle; Edward Abbey is a human being. In his effectively anti-human stance, regardless of practical inconsistencies, Abbey is a part of the very community that he sees as the problem with nature. Deep in the wilderness, Abbey seems to feel the most separated from the rest of humanity. At one point, he entertains the idea that he has somehow joined the natural order of predators and prey as he kills a rabbit hopping around near his trailer:

“What the rabbit has lost in energy and spirit seems added, by processes too subtle to fathom, to my own soul. I try but cannot feel any sense of guilt. I examine my soul: white as snow. Check my hands: not a trace of blood. No longer do I feel so isolated from the sparse and furtive life around me, a stranger from another world” (Abbey, 40).

Abbey sees this experiment as a success. He has left the world of mankind and entered the natural order. He seems to relish the fact that he’s become a predator in the wild, but there is a problem. Predators kill their prey for sustenance, but Abbey kills the rabbit because he can, as an experiment. Once again, Abbey reveals that he cannot truly disconnect from his humanity. This is another example of a uniquely human ability to experiment, pretending to be something other than what he is to measure the resulting emotional response. He leaves the dead rabbit to decomposition or scavenging, and grabs a sandwich to satisfy his hunger just two paragraphs later. His failure truly to connect with nature reinforces the notion that humans are separate from nature. As much as Abbey would like to entertain the thought of being just another part of nature, he remains the very thing he seems to despise, a human being.

Running from God

What is God?

Abbey’s problems with humanity are reflected and rooted in his problem with God. There are many different variations of belief regarding the nature and existence of God. In a popular understanding, “God” can mean anything from a powerful being with any number of different qualities and attributes to a genetic condition of emotional feelings resulting from evolutionary processes. The former is represented in the numerous religions and sects that exist, the latter in naturalistic expressions such as one character from a popular Margaret Atwood novel: “God is a brain mutation, and that gene is the same one birds need for singing” (Atwood, 377). When I argue that Abbey is running from God, I’ll be referring to the Triune God of the Christian Scriptures. After all, Christianity has been very influential in the culture and life of Western society. To be clear, this God who is revealed in the Bible is characterized by certain attributes: “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth” (Westminster). This is the God from whom Abbey is running in the desert.

Abbey the Atheist

As Abbey’s language concerning human society is sarcastic and disparaging, so it is with his language about God. He is agnostic at best, but much more likely atheistic. Abbey has a sarcastic sense of humor, but when God is the subject, his tone is almost always sardonic. Previously quoted, Abbey states, “An increasingly pagan and hedonistic people (thank God!), we are learning finally that the forests and mountains and desert canyons are holier than our churches. Therefore let us behave accordingly” (Abbey, Desert 64). This is one example of how Abbey flippantly mentions God to make an ironically humorous point. Statements like this are certainly more consistent with one who “sits in the seat of scoffers” than the blessed man of Psalm 1 whose “delight is in the law of the LORD” (Psalm 1:1, 2). Abbey doesn’t here explicitly proclaim a system of atheism, but his words and tone are clear in demonstrating that he rejects the Christian God.

In another work, Abbey responds to the idea that creation is a gift of God by decrying “the constant name-dropping. Always of one name. People who go around muttering about God make me nervous. It seems to me that the word mystery, not capitalized, should suffice” (Abbey, Abbey’s 20). Abbey seems willing to admit that he does not have a definite answer for life’s big questions. Questions like, “How did we get here?”, and “What is our purpose?” naturally arise from human experience and are exacerbated by the denial of God as Creator. Abbey’s insistence that we be content to attribute nature as the product of mystery rather than the gift of God is further evidence that he does not merely question the existence of God, but outright denies it.

To Meet God or Medusa face to face

With such a perception of God, and with the previously discussed dislike for humanity, I argue that a second aspect of Abbey’s sojourn in the wilderness is a desire to escape the nagging doubts of his atheism. In other words, he is running from God. In one of the defining passages of the novel, Abbey says that he wants “to meet God or Medusa face to face, even if it means risking everything human in [him]self” (Abbey, Desert 7). Taken at face value, one might think that Abbey is on a spiritual mission to find God in the desert. How then is it that I can say that this passage is an expression of Abbey’s desire to escape God? In large part, this conclusion derives from the stipulations that Abbey puts on how God must be found. Abbey’s approach is similar to the Transcendentalist writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who rhetorically asked, “Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?” (Emerson 1). If Abbey is “to meet God or Medusa” it will be “face to face” and on his own terms. In the same paragraph where Abbey expresses this intention to meet God, he says that he wants to see nature “as it is in itself,” even “to confront, immediately and directly if it’s possible, the bare bones of existence” (Abbey, Desert 7). Not unlike the quote from Emerson, this expectation of an immediate experience of God or Medusa in nature illustrates just how far Abbey is from desiring a true encounter with the Living God.

Abbey’s words indicate that he has a presupposed notion of what nature is, why we are here, and how God, if such a being exists, may be encountered. He doesn’t explicitly lay out a positive case for the answers to these big questions—and it does appear that he is searching for answers of some kind—but he reveals enough of his worldview for the reader to determine what he believes the answers are not. Whatever Abbey’s notions are about the natural world and how God may be encountered, he does not allow for the Christian belief of God’s revelation. According to the Bible, God reveals himself in creation and in Scripture. Regarding his revelation in the creation, it says that “[God’s] invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So [all men] are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20). By this argument, one needn’t go searching somewhere for God, because his “eternal power and divine nature” are already “clearly perceived” by all men. However, the Bible also teaches that although the natural knowledge of God is enough so that all men are “without excuse”, God has revealed himself in Scripture so that men may know him personally, and so that they may know what he requires of them. In another place, it says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16). If the God of the Bible is what is meant by “God”, then he must be sought out in his inspired Scriptures and not in “immediate” experience.

Abbey insists that if God exists, then he must be accessible through “immediate” experience in nature; he assumes that an immediate experience is possible and that this experience will reveal to him nature or God as it really is. This method of experiencing God is one that Abbey has stipulated, but as previously pointed out, the sovereign and all-powerful God of the Bible is able to determine for himself how he will be experienced by his creatures. On the subject of man’s knowledge of God in creation as taught in Romans 1, Christian theologian K. Scott Oliphint writes,  “To claim to know something while thinking it to be independent of God (or to deny that there is a God) is to fail to know it for what it really is. Whatever it is, it is created and sustained by God at every moment” (Oliphint 42). Abbey professes a desire to know nature as it is in itself, or as it really is, but his language throughout Desert Solitaire reveals that he has already written off the notion that nature “is created and sustained by God.” Following the logic of Romans 1, Abbey’s presupposed nature of things as they really are, is actually an expression of how men “by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18). In approaching his quest for an experience of nature in a way that necessitates seeing it apart from its relationship to God, as creation, Abbey is actually determined not to see things as they really are. His quest is in vain. Furthermore, his concept of what God is and how he may be experienced is evidence that he isn’t really searching for God “as [he] is in [himself]”; Abbey has a preconceived notion of how he thinks God should be, and that notion is much closer to Abbey the creature than to God, the autonomous Creator, revealed in Scripture.


In one of the didactic sections of the book, Abbey presents his view of the natural world as a sort of gospel that ought to be published. He writes that the animals “do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins” (Abbey, Desert 23). After a couple sentences describing evolutionary relationships, he writes, “We are obliged, therefore, to spread the news, painful and bitter though it may be for some to hear, that all living things on earth are kindred” (Abbey, Desert 23). Although there is no explicit mention of God here, there are certainly religious overtones. By his own language, Abbey is calling up and rejecting Christian teaching about sin and God’s provision of salvation for that sin. The implication is that the Christian Gospel of salvation from our sin by faith alone in the atoning work of Jesus Christ alone is not worth our concern and effort to proclaim to others. He is here supplanting the Christian Gospel with a new gospel of evolutionary inter-species relatedness and the naturalist worldview from which that belief springs; it would follow, then that the Christian Gospel is not true. He presents the new evolutionary gospel as something for which we are morally obliged to spread. Again, however, the reader is faced with a moral imperative to take particular action, but the worldview Abbey is promoting is an insufficient foundation for this kind of moral imperative.

There are many such passages in Desert Solitaire where Abbey mentions God or alludes to Scripture in order to somehow strengthen his arguments against Christian teaching and in favor of a naturalist view of the world along with those moral imperatives that Abbey promotes. I earlier pointed out how Abbey’s resistance to humanity is futile, ultimately because he himself is human and cannot separate himself from what it means to be a human being. Likewise, Abbey’s resistance to the God of the Scriptures is futile; he can never truly escape this God of whom it is said, “And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13). But, again one wonders, if Abbey is convinced that his objections to the Christian faith are correct, is my argument for the futility of his anti-faith merely a matter of ipse dixit? Christian apologist, Cornelius Van Til wrote, “Arguing about God’s existence, I hold, is like arguing about air. You may affirm that air exists, and I that it does not. But as we debate the point, we are both breathing air all the time” (Van Til). This analogy of an argument about air is consistent with the Biblical teaching that “[The Lord Jesus Christ] is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17).  Like the hypothetical doubter from Van Til’s analogy, Abbey relies completely on God to deny him and belittle any notion of Him. Not only does Abbey live in God’s world, reliant upon God’s sustaining power for his own continued existence, but Abbey provides his own analogy, similar to this quote from Van Til, as he regularly mentions God and alludes to biblical passages in the expression of his unbelief in the God revealed therein.


Edward Abbey is known because of his role in environmental literature and the promotion of environmental causes. The concern that he shows for preserving and not destroying the natural world in Desert Solitaire is admirable and worthy of consideration. However, as the Wilkinson quote and my arguments demonstrate, Abbey’s worldview provides an insufficient foundation for the moral imperatives required to construct an environmental ethic. Insofar as Abbey opposes humanity as a special creation of God, he destroys any moral foundation for man to protect the natural world, even from man himself. And insofar as Abbey opposes God as Creator, he likewise destroys any moral foundation for the natural world to have any inherent value. Sadly, in pursuit of his goal to argue on behalf of nature, he chooses to attack the God of Scripture who is the only coherent foundation for any argument. Abbey has to deal with the inescapable realities of man and God, but he does so in ways that are inconsistent with the values he professes. In maintaining a devotion to these professed values, even in spite of their lack of foundation in his worldview, Abbey actually give credence to the Christian worldview that he seeks to suppress and destroy. That is to say, Edward Abbey is God’s creature, and as a man, he has been given a certain responsibility over God’s creation. Though Abbey runs from humanity and God, and though a tense unbelief remains in the end, he cannot truly escape the One “to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13).


Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. The Year of the Flood. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2009. Kindle Edition.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. James Munrow and Company, 1849. Kindle Edition.

Leithart, Peter. Brightest Heaven of Invention. Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 1996. Print.

Oliphint, K. Scott. Covenantal Apologetics: Principles and Practice in Defense of Our Faith. Crossway, 2013.  Kindle Edition.

Van Til, Cornelius. Why I Believe in God. Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics, 1996. Barlow, Jonathan ed. Web. 19 Nov. 2014. <http://www.reformed.org/apologetics/index.html?mainframe=/apologetics/why_I_believe_cvt.html>.

“Westminster Shorter Catechism”. Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics. Web. 2014, November 20. <http://www.reformed.org/documents/wsc/index.html?_top=http://www.reformed.org/documents/WSC_frames.html>.

Wilkinson, Loren. “Pilgrims at home: The mutual challenge of christendom and environmental literature”. Christian Scholar’s Review. 32.4. (2003): 413. Web. 2014, Nov. 7. <http://proxying.lib.ncsu.edu/index.php?url=/docview/201277649?accountid=12725>


God’s Providence through Dark Means in Shakespeare’s Richard III

A note about this essay. In preparatory research for this essay, I came across some contemporary writers (such as Drs. Leland Ryken, Peter Leithart, and William Tate for example) who have attempted to do justice to the Christian themes and influences of Shakespeare’s writing. This essay is an attempt to add my pebble to the great path men such as these have laid down and trod upon. In an environment saturated with atrociously bad scholarship, as the current Shakespeare scene is, such men should be read and commended. It is my hope that some of their qualities have rubbed off on my writing, and that curious readers will gain some encouragement or benefit from reading this essay.


God’s Providence through Richard III’s Dark Means

“Of whom tedious it is to me to write this tragedious history, except that I remember that good it is to write and put in remembrance the punishment of sinners, to the end that others may eschew to fall into like danger” (Fabyan 113). So writes Robert Fabyan, a contemporary of Richard III, of the namesake of Shakespeare’s play. The days in which Richard III takes place are dark and dangerous for those in the English court. In the end, as twilight falls on the War of Roses and dawn rises upon the Tudor dynasty, Richard III, the great instigator and human agent of this dynastic shift in the English monarchy finds himself in the most dangerous position of all. Through the dark, despicable deeds of the play, Shakespeare tells the story of how this man brings chaos to the court and, much to his chagrin, falls prey to that same chaos in the end. Yet God’s hand of Providence is present behind all these events with apparent intentionality, directing both people and events toward a particular end. There are many aspects of Richard III that one could consider to illustrate the theme of Providence, but two examples are the deformity of Richard’s body and his sacrilegious mock-piety before the citizens.

Providence Defined

Providence is an immanently Christian concept to be distinguished from the impersonal capriciousness of the old Pagan Fate. The Christian doctrine of Providence is inextricably tied to the nature of the God whose acts the term describes. Summarizing about a century of Reformation preaching in English and Scottish churches, the Westminster Assembly of Divines gathered to compose a Confession of Faith in 1643. Regarding Providence, the Assembly wrote, “God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures; ordering them, and all their actions, to his own glory” (“Westminster Larger Catechism” 18). Therefore, according to this expression of Christian faith, Providence is not merely a theoretical explanation of creation’s origin or mover of auspicious events that occur in time; this God is the Creator who acts in time, but he also governs “all his creatures” and “all their actions” to accomplish his own purposes; purposes that all work “to his own glory.”

A significant aspect of the biblical theme of God’s Providence, particularly relevant to Shakespeare’s Richard III, is that God is at work accomplishing his will in even the darkest of circumstances. In fact, it is in the transition from disorder to order that God’s life-giving power is most apparent to a world that by nature cannot see God. In and of themselves, all things tend ultimately toward chaos. The central example of God accomplishing his purposes through dark means is the central message of the Christian Gospel. “For in [the Lord Jesus Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (ESV, Colossians 1:19, 20). This ultimate example of God creating order out of moral chaos is reflected, in a small scale in Richard III with the establishment of a peace through Richmond’s conquering of Richard III in Act 5, Scene 5.

Providence in Richard’s Deformity? A Christian Reading

One of the defining characteristics of Richard III is his physical deformity. In the opening monologue of the play, Richard himself says that he has been “…cheated of feature by dissembling nature, / Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time” (Richard III 1.1.21-22). Following the theme of Divine Providence in the play, what Richard credits to nature having cheated him is an expression of God’s will in his creation. Shakespeare’s portrayal of the appearance of Richard and how this appearance relates to Richard as a character and moral agent is complicated. The audience encounters a certain tension regarding how to view Richard’s deformity. Does the deformity act as a portent of God’s wrathful intention toward him? Is it merely a dramatic visual cue of Richard’s evil heart building upon historical record? Does it serve primarily to build Richard’s character as a sort of embodiment of vice? Or does the answer lie somewhere else entirely?

One may be tempted to see the hand of Providence in Richard’s physical deformity as a factor that causes or in some way facilitates Richard’s vicious plots. To this end, Catherine Williams cites a scholarly tradition linking contemporary “theological and moral lessons” to Richard’s physical condition; she states that a contemporary audience would have “understood Richard as the ‘vehicle for the doctrine that villainy in the soul was predicated by a correspondent deformity in the body'” (Williams). While this may have been the case with some or many, perhaps it would be better to consider physical deformity in light of the Reformation-era Christian context in which Shakespeare’s plays were performed. I argue that there are not theological or moral lessons at play in Richard’s deformity. There is a sort of dramatic symbolism in Richard’s physical appearance, but from a Christian worldview, there is no ground for linking “villainy in the soul” with “a correspondent deformity in the body.” Those with a biblical Christian worldview would be aware of the Bible’s teachings against such notions. Some biblical examples will help to dispel the misunderstanding of theological lessons in physical deformities.

On the subject of physical marks or disfigurement being signs or portents, the biblical precedent seems to be that such things can happen to both those upon whom God shows favor as well as those upon whom he is bringing wrath. The Apostle Paul gave an example to the Corinthians of how God had given him a thorn in the flesh “to keep [him] from becoming conceited” (2 Corinthians 12:7). Job, a man “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil,” was given “loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head” to demonstrate his persevering faith (Job 1:1, 2:7). There is the example of Cain who received a mark from God after murdering his brother, Abel. However, even this mark is explained to have been given “lest any who found him should attack him” to avenge Abel’s death (Genesis 4:15). There simply aren’t Christian grounds to conclude that a physical deformity is given by God to signify “villainy in the soul”, and so insofar as a Christian audience is enlightened by the Christian worldview, it would not make this connection as the Williams citation argues.

Indeed, Christians of any era would affirm that God’s hand of Providence was behind the disfigurement of Richard, but not for the simplistic cause-and-effect reasoning that we might initially think.  I earlier cited the Christian confession that God governs “all his creatures…and all their actions.” Certainly Richard qualifies as one of God’s creatures, and so God, who “knitted [Richard] together in [his] mother’s womb,” had intentional purpose in causing Richard to be deformed, however great or small the deformity (Psalm 139:13).

Shortly after defining Providence, the Westminster Larger Catechism takes up the Christian teaching on human suffering in this life. It states that, because of our fall in Adam, “we are by nature children of wrath, bond slaves to Satan, and justly liable to all punishments in this world, and that which is to come” (“Westminster Larger Catechism” 27). This catechism answer, relying on biblical teaching about post-fall humanity, observes that every man is responsible for his own sin and answers for that sin both in the miseries of this life and, in the absence of a redeemer, the punishment for sin after death. So in this understanding of the Scriptures, even as God is seen to execute his decrees in Providence, every man is liable to the miseries we experience in life. A Christian understanding of Providence would affirm God’s intentional Providence in every aspect of existence but would not allow the conclusion that there is necessarily some sort of “theological and moral” connection between God’s decree of Richard’s physical deformity and Richard’s subsequent moral chaos as Williams’ quote suggests. One can but conclude that all things, even deformities, somehow serve “to [God’s] own glory” (“Westminster Larger Catechism” 18). Insofar as one is consistent with a biblical worldview, as church-going, Reformation-era Londoners would have known, these “theological and moral lessons” would not be immediately apparent.

The Dramatic Symbolism of Richard’s Deformity

However, just because there are not theological or moral lessons in Richard’s deformity, it does not mean that there is not some purpose for which Shakespeare would both include and emphasize it in his play. Richard III is not a theological treatise; it is a theatrical drama. Insofar as it serves this theatrical function, both the visual and rhetorical portrayal of Richard as deformed in fact serve to amplify the audience’s perception of his inner, moral deformity and that these horrible events that are happening are part of a Divine decree. Richard’s outward deformity serves as a sort of visual, dramatic symbol of his immoral character. The function is that of dramatic symbolism, not theological teaching.

In Shakespeare’s early dramatic environment, not heavily reliant upon sets and props, the bodies of actors, how they are decked, their appearance, their voices, etc., are at the center of the audience’s attention. Whereas plays are, by their very nature, heavily visual, all of that vision is focused on the individuals on the stage when scenery is absent. So, the appearance of Richard, however his deformity was originally pulled off, would be very important to the play’s director and very striking to the audience. Even amid the very large cast of Richard III, the malformed Richard would be easily distinguishable.

On the subject of the visual effect on the audience of Richard’s deformity, Williams writes, “The theatre employs the powerfully affective device of the actor’s body beneath the character’s theatrical body, and this overlapping presentation complicates the dramatic fiction’s descriptions of the character the actor personates” (Williams).  It is always significant to recognize that the actor has the great power to give life to the character written on the page. The actor for Richard would have, in fact, been pretending to be deformed, and his pretending would have been done in such a way that a crowd of people from a considerable distance could tell that he was deformed. Such a performance would demand a sort of symbolic exaggeration, and such symbolism stirs the imagination to consider the implications of what is symbolized. As time progresses in the play, this visually striking deformed figure performing heinous acts suggests a causal connection between the visual portrayal of Richard and the actions he is performing. Clearly Shakespeare was intentional in his choice to make Richard’s appearance as striking as Richard’s actions. This intentionality, symbolized in that visual image of deformed Richard, reveals Shakespeare’s “providential” hand in the events of the play, and further reveals an intentionality in the events which are portrayed in the performance. There is a connection between God’s Providence and Richard’s deformity in Richard III, but it is symbolic rather than theological and moral.

As a playwright, Shakespeare “providentially” directs all the elements that he writes into his own play. In the rhetoric that he gives Richard, he includes the deformity as a significant factor in Richard’s bad character. In Henry VI, Part III, Richard says of himself, “Then, since the heavens have shaped my body so, / Let hell make crooked my mind to answer it” (III Henry VI 5.6.79-80). Along the same line of reasoning, in the opening monologue of Richard III, he adds:

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,

To entertain these fair well-spoken days,

I am determined to prove a villain

And hate the idle pleasures of these days. (Richard III 1.1.30-33)

Here the audience sees a glimpse into what drives Richard’s murderous heart. Whereas deformity can work dramatically as a visual cue for Richard’s inner state, rhetorically, it also serves to fuel his corrupt sinful nature, already bent on obtaining power at any cost.

So Providence can be seen to be at work through Richard’s deformity in a way that symbolically combines God’s decree with Richard’s own evil heart, but not in as simplistic a relationship as an audience might be comfortable with. But if God is providentially at work in the events of the play, the picture is further complicated by the depths of chaos and evil to which Richard stoops.

Providence in Richard’s Sacrilege – Hastening His Ascent

Shakespeare’s Richard is the sort of villain we all love to hate. He is evil and he knows it. He seems to love being evil, and if that were not enough, his physical body is twisted to match his wicked soul. Shakespeare portrays the moral chaos of Richard as bringing an end to the longstanding War of Roses between the York and Lancaster houses which lasted from 1455 to Richard III’s death in 1485.  He is, indeed “a scourge whom God uses in a measure-for-measure fashion to punish members of both Houses for not only their inner, sinful disorders (passion’s overthrow of reason) but their shattering of civil harmony as well” (Hunt 13). Such a view of English history is reminiscent of Israel’s period of kings, as the Jewish monarchs seemed to compete with their predecessors to exceed in wickedness, only to bring God’s judgment on the nation through either foreign kings or internal conspiracies. A key element of this political aspect of Richard III is the establishment of the Tudor house under Henry VII, or Richmond, as he is called in the play. A key scene that reveals God’s providential guidance, even through Richard’s evil deeds, is Act 3, Scene 7, when he wins public support by appearing to align himself with the Church.

After much scheming and killing, Richard has Buckingham attempt to stir up the citizens to support Richard as their new king. Unsuccessful in moving the people, Buckingham returns to Richard and devises a plan to gain Richard power and support through appearing devout and disinterested in being ruler. Buckingham says to Richard, “And look you get a prayer-book in your hand, / And stand between two churchmen, good my lord: / For on that ground I’ll make a holy descant” (Richard III 3.7.48-50). Richard obeys and the mock display of Christian piety wins him the support of the mayor and citizens. Now the question comes to mind, how can such an act of sacrilege be seen as the work of Providence pursuant to a positive end?

Richard’s mock piety hastens his ascension to the throne. After many years of battling between the houses of York and Lancaster, Richard, in his few years, has multiplied the chaos in the court by killing off rivals to the throne. In an environment where any surviving son is a potential heir to the throne, Richard is attempting to create a sort of vacuum of power with himself situated as the only rightful man to fill the space. Vacuum or no, an English king without some consent of England’s citizens is not likely to be king for long. Encouraged by Buckingham, Richard’s plan to garner the favor of the citizens is to do so by aligning himself with God through the Church. The Church is a symbol of stability. Royal houses and kingdoms alike rise and fall, but “[God’s] dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation” (Daniel 4:34). The trick works and the citizens and leaders who previously, “like dumb statues or breathing stones, / Star’d each on other, and look’d deadly pale,” now respond by declaring Richard King with their “Amen” (Richard III 3.7.27-28, 3.7.246). So, in what is essentially a public relations campaign, Richard successfully turns the tide of public opinion in his favor by seeming to ally himself with God.

Providence in Richard’s Sacrilege – Hastening His Demise

Even as it hastens his ascent, Richard’s mock piety, an act of scoffing defiance against God, also hastens his demise. Any passage of time, it could be argued, brings one closer to one’s ultimate end. However, in Richard’s case, it is not the mere passage of time, but how he uses that time to engage in more and more evil that suggests a special intention of Providence. Oftentimes in the Bible, God gives men plenty of opportunity either to repent or indulge further in their sins before he brings a swift hand of justice down upon them. Like the ancient Pharaoh, whose stubborn disobedience to God’s command brought God’s plagues upon his nation, Richard seems also to be digging himself a deeper and deeper hole of guilt before God.

Yet even in the biblical account of Pharaoh, there is explicit mention of Providential decree, “And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD” (Exodus 14:4). Pharaoh’s deliberate resistance to God’s commands is paired with God’s providential actions in the events taking place. Although there is no explicit language of such divine intentionality in Richard’s case (Shakespeare does not have the same didactic purpose as the writer of Exodus), Richard himself does bring God’s attention to events into the picture when he mocks reluctance to ascend to England’s throne: “For God doth know, and you may partly see, / How far I am from the desire of this” (Richard III 3.7.240-241). Whether or not Richard truly believes what he says about God here, he is the one that makes the move to invoke God’s blessing, if only in outward ceremony. This scene is still fresh in one’s mind when, two scenes later, Richard emerges “in pomp, crowned” as King (Richard III 4.2.1). However, having hastened his ascension to the throne, Richard has deepened his guilt even to embrace blasphemy as he brings the God of Providence into the picture. With such an affront to the Divine, it would seem that Richard’s demise is assured from this point on. “And I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD”.

Drawing It All Together

Richard III presents a mostly historic tale of how the 30 year War of Roses between the Houses of York and Lancaster is brought to an end by the conspiracies of Richard III, and order is restored in the establishment of the House of Tudor through Richmond, King Henry VII. Richard is a strong, chaotic force in the already chaotic setting of civil war in England, and God providentially uses even his chaos to restore order to the nation. The existing disorder of the War of Roses, the scourge of Richard III with all the chaos that he brings into the picture, and the idyllic establishment of the House of Tudor all seem to point to undercurrents of Christian thought about God’s ultimate act of ordaining order from chaos through the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.  But, for Shakespeare, all is not yet right in the world just because Richard III is gone. In the concluding scene, Richmond acknowledges the potential for future strife and prays that God would disallow it when he says, “Let them not live to taste this land’s increase / That would with treason wound this fair land’s peace” (Richard III 5.5.38-39). The conclusion is rosy, yes, but there are still thorns on the stem. The mood of the play’s conclusion expresses a desire that looks forward to the time when every knee will bow before the King of Kings and order is ultimately established forever.


Works Cited

Fabyan, Robert. “From The New Chronicles of England and France (1516) – Richard III.” Richard III (Norton Critical Editions). Ed. Cartelli, Thomas. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009. 113-116. Print.

Hunt, Maurice. “Ordering Disorder in ‘Richard III’.” South Central Review. 6.4. (1989): 11-29. Web. 2014, October 31. < http://www.jstor.org.prox.lib.ncsu.edu/stable/info/3189652 >.

Shakespeare, William. Henry VI, Part III. Delphi Complete Works of William Shakespeare LITE (Illustrated). Delphi Classics. Kindle Edition. 2013.

Shakespeare, William. Richard III. Delphi Complete Works of William Shakespeare LITE (Illustrated). Delphi Classics. Kindle Edition. 2013.

“Westminster Larger Catechism.” Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics. Web. 2014, November 12. <http://www.reformed.org/documents/index.html?mainframe=http://www.reformed.org/documents/larger1.html>.

Williams, Katherine Schaap. “Performing Disability and Theorizing Deformity”. Shakespeare and Theory: Special Issue II. Spec. issue of English Studies. 94.7. (2013): 757-772. Web. 2014, November 11. < http://www.tandfonline.com.prox.lib.ncsu.edu/doi/full/10.1080/0013838X.2013.840125#.VGZ9E_nF-So >.