NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, October 1st. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. It’s time now for Classic Book of the Month, and for that Emily Whitten is here. She’s our book reviewer.
EMILY WHITTEN, REPORTER: Hi, Mary. Glad to be here.
REICHARD: Let’s hear what your pick is for this month.
WHITTEN: Well, I thought we could celebrate a birthday, Mary. We’re a little late, but in August of this year Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe turned 300 years old.
REICHARD: That’s a lot of candles!
WHITTEN: Yeah. And actually, some folks consider Robinson Crusoe the first English novel. So, if they’re right, we could also celebrate the 300th birthday of the English novel. But that honor is certainly debatable.
REICHARD: That would be quite a landmark. Why don’t you give us a quick refresher as to what the story is about?
WHITTEN: Robinson Crusoe is a young Englishman who ends up stranded alone on a Caribbean island for 28 years. He survives violent storms, shipwrecks, cannibals, mutineers–here’s a taste of the action from a Daniel Defoe BBC Radio Drama.
DEFOE: And so when a friend in Hull told me of a ship that was setting out on which I could enjoy a peaceful introduction to the ocean, I went aboard, hoping to quench my desire with an uneventful voyage. ‘For God’s sake, man, get off your knees. We need to cut away the foremast to save ourselves from this wind.’ ‘My legs, they will not move.’ ‘Get up, get hold of the ax. Cmon. Do you want to live or not?’ (The Daniel Defoe Collection)
REICHARD: Sounds like danger on the high seas.
WHITTEN: Exactly. Daniel Defoe lived in England and Scotland around the turn of the 18th century, a time when adventurers would sometimes publish their travel journals. Defoe took some of the most exciting elements from those journals and put it in a realistic but totally made-up storyline. And people loved it. It quickly became a bestseller in its day.
REICHARD: If I had picked up Robinson Crusoe back then, what would have made it so appealing?
WHITTEN: It wouldn’t have been that the story was fictional. A lot of people thought Robinson Crusoe was a real person and the book his travel journal.
I suspect early readers did appreciate all the adventure and action told in a pretty three-dimensional way. To be fair, Defoe still flirts with allegory here. He uses Crusoe–a fallen man redeemed in a garden–and to explore age-old questions of what it means to be human. But Defoe’s descriptions are much more detailed and realistic than, say, Pilgrim’s Progress, published about 30 years before.
REICHARD: 300 years later, we have plenty of books and films that echo this castaway story. I think of Survivor and The Martian. What makes the book different from similar storylines today?
WHITTEN: For one thing, Crusoe finds a Bible in the wreckage of his ship, and he goes through a powerful Christian conversion. The first time he opens the Bible, he reads Psalm 50: “Call on me in the day of trouble, and I will deliver, and thou wilt glorify me.” Crusoe repents and comes to see God’s providence in his life. It’s rich Biblical content worth reading.
REICHARD: Transformation for the good of a man’s life. That’s definitely not something I often see in popular novels or TV shows.
WHITTEN: Exactly. I should also say, it’s hard for me to reconcile that Biblical content with his ideas about native people. He sees slavery and racism as normal. Crusoe repents of a lot of things, but he never repents of owning slaves or looking down on those with darker skin. Here’s another clip from the Daniel Defoe BBC Radio Drama:
DEFOE: Never underestimate the law of profit in the direction a man’s life ends up taking. Money will always point the way surer than any compass. ‘What did you buy in Guinea?’ ‘Men.’ ‘Slaves.’ It’s a trade like anything else, only men tend to spoil quicker than spices. (The Daniel Defoe BBC Radio Drama Collection)
So, Mary, I think Christians especially can benefit from wrestling with this part of the book. The Bible gives us a solid foundation to critique racism. Unlike our secular friends, we know all people are made in God’s image.
REICHARD: So true. Any other thoughts for Christians reading the book?
WHITTEN: I would just warn Christians not to take books like this for granted. Defoe lived in Great Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries when government censorship was still a problem there, and he ended up on the wrong side of those in power more than once. He grew up as a Presbyterian dissenter, and he often critiqued the monarchy and the Anglican church. Here’s a clip from a biography of Defoe produced by Course Hero:
DEFOE: His interest in politics led him to become a political writer. But then he became a journalist and a pamphleteer. His first political pamphlet was published in 1683. Politics and religion were closely connected and he tackled these subjects fearlessly. On more than one occasion his writing landed him in jail. (Robinson Crusoe Author Biography)
For Christians living in many parts of the world, that kind of censorship is still a reality. The Christian Post reported in August that the Chinese government edited out the words “God” and “Bible” from a version of Robinson Crusoe in an elementary textbook. That seems small compared to arresting pastors or rewriting parts of the Bible, which they are also doing. But the Chinese government apparently sees Christian classics like Robinson Crusoe as a real threat.
REICHARD: Freedom of the press is a wonderful thing. And we Christians who have it can pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters. Emily, thank you for the book recommendation today.
WHITTEN: You’re very welcome, Mary. Happy reading.
REICHARD: Today, Emily recommended Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. to resources mentioned today can be found on the blog, worldandeverything.org. Just search for Classic Book of the Month.