In France, Hugo's literary fame comes first from his poetry, even causing some to see him as the greatest of all French poets. Outside France, his best-known works are the well-known novels Les Misérables and Notre-Dame de Paris (known in English as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame). The former novel is about social misery and injustice in the early 1830s, but it took 17 years to complete and thus was published well after the time in which it was set. Both books have been very influential in English literature classes for more than a century and both have been made into major films, and dramatic plays, several times.
Hugo was a committed conservative royalist as a young man but became more liberal over the years, eventually becoming a passionate advocate of republicanism (not the American political party of course). His written work touches upon virtually all of the political and social issues of the nineteenth century.
Hugo's religious views changed radically over the course of his life. In his youth, he identified himself as a Catholic and professed respect for Church hierarchy and authority. From there he became a non-practicing Catholic, and increasingly expressed anti-Catholic and anti-clerical views, ending his life in what appears to have been unbelief.
Hugo once said: "Religions pass away, but God remains.” And he said, near the end of this life, that Christianity would eventually disappear, but people would still believe in "God, Soul, and the Power.” Hugo was a rationalist. Because of this, and the events of nineteenth century France, he developed a running feud with the Catholic Church.
I recently came across a powerful Victor Hugo quote that I think underscores the reality of moral and social darkness in our time. Hugo said: “Where there is darkness crimes will be committed. The guilty one is not merely he who commits the crime but he who caused the darkness.”
Christians should recognize that Christ is light and this true light “shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it” (John 1:5). Religion may actually promote darkness but Christ is not the author of much that passes for religion. And we must understand that in the incarnation, “God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil” (John 3:19). People are personally responsible for their evil actions but the Scripture also speaks rather powerfully against all who promote darkness and thus foster evil by their ways. All real change in the world requires the people of the light to shine the light of truth into the dark places, even if they do not know the Light by faith. This work is not pleasant. I tend to think that it is not being done well by Christians in our modern Western context. But do it we must. We who follow the light must be prepared to pay any price to shine the light into every dark place, regardless of how people respond.
I first heard the Victor Hugo quotation I cited from Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King appeared on the Mike Douglas television program (not the modern actor Michael Douglas) about a year before his death and openly expressed his antipathy for the war in Vietnam. He cited Victor Hugo in an effort to explain why moral darkness must be opposed by those who profess to walk in the light. He had come to conclude that the war was leading the nation into deeper moral darkness. Without judging anyone who served in that conflict I have come to conclude, these many years later, that Dr. King was right and had the courage to express this in the face of so much hatred and opposition. He was expressing what I have come to call “prophetic patriotism,” something all too rare among Christians in America. One can truly love this country and point out the darkness when they see it. The truly prophetic voice of Scripture demands no less.