Okay, I’ll say it: I don’t really like John Milton. He’s okay, I guess. I mean, I think? To many of our readers, my opinions on Milton don’t matter. But as an English major and a student of the Honors program, this statement comes off as near-blasphemous. A poet and devout Christ-follower, Milton’s contributions to Protestant Christian ethics and values, alongside his innovations in literature, shape him as a celebrated figure within the humanities. Despite all this, I still can’t find myself joining the hype—and if you know me, I almost always join the hype. Frankly, I’m highly critical of the man’s writing and I see more of his shortcomings than his merits. Nevertheless, despite being condemning of Milton’s flaws, I cannot deny that I am drawn to how he characterizes fallen creation.
Currently, my class is reading Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” a biblical epic poem recounting the fall of man and the war in heaven. It is apparently a literary classic, 12 books long, and, surprisingly, not too bad (much to my chagrin). The poem opens with Satan as its central figure, a few days after he and his group of angels were expelled from heaven. And it’s curiously captivating. For one, I find myself rooting for the very figure that my religion tells me to fear and stay away from. Lucifer is characterized as a flawed individual, someone relatable—even, dare I say, human. From the beginning of the text, I find it much easier to connect with Satan than with the Holy Father. In the enemy, I find someone who is not unlike myself—someone just trying to find their place in a society with set rules and expectations, a faulty character searching for their own redemption and a shot at something bigger than himself.
But why am I so fascinated with this character? Why do I empathize so much with the figure I grew up learning was my enemy? Why would John Milton, a pious believer in Christ, even attempt to make the devil a sympathetic figure?
And the answer, quite possibly, lies in the fact that as imperfect creatures, it’s easier to relate to someone flawed—it’s easier to see our blemishes. When I read Paradise Lost, I can’t see myself in God or the angels. Rather, I find echoes of my humanity reflected in Satan and Adam and Eve. And when I look in a mirror, I don’t see the facets of my virtues and good qualities. No. Every morning, I see someone damaged, someone faking it until they’re making it, and someone trying to be a part of something bigger than himself.
Why then is it so easy for us to see the bad in ourselves? What compels us to focus on our flaws rather than our merits? I mean, yes, from their faith and doubts to their adoration and malice, it’s easier to comprehend the experience of the fallen and view God as some distant and unfamiliar character. But then what? Should the fact that we—no, I—am a marred person stop me from seeing my value? Should sinfulness prevent a person from attempting to draw closer to God? Would God even accept someone who is consistently making mistakes?
Fast forward a bit more into the text and you find Adam, recently created by God. As a perfect human living in paradise, Adam enjoys the benefits of interacting with heavenly hosts and the Heavenly Father. Flawless and pure, he is the prime example of ideal humanity Despite this, however, Adam still felt unworthy of God’s love and presence. Like get this: a perfect, faultless human being felt undeserving of perfect love. The disconnect here for me is that if Adam, who didn’t know sin and thus wouldn’t understand the concept of shame, could still feel unworthy of God, then how much moreso with me?
Despite his perfection, Milton’s Adam still didn’t see his own worth; he didn’t realize that God made him perfect and with value. Unsurprisingly, there are many days when I feel insignificant and, quite frankly, like trash. There are moments when I feel like I’m not going anywhere; five years and I’m still in undergrad and unsure of what the next step really is. And there are instances when I question my faith and whether my doubts and actions diminish how God could view me. Unlike Adam, I’m not perfect. I’m far from it.
So where does that leave me? In all honesty, I’m not too sure. But we shouldn’t make Milton’s Lucifer our example. Satan becomes less likeable as the epic progresses; he becomes more malicious, jealous and dark—things that I, happily, am not. But it’s still interesting to see how easy it was for me to immediately relate to a flawed creation and overlook the God characterized by Milton—forget about the more personal God I believe to exist.
While Milton and I might have an uneasy relationship, learning more about him has ultimately opened my eyes. Ironically, it was in his blindness that he learned to see God more. With his inability to access the world he once knew and read the biblical words he adored, he determined to discover new ways to experience God in the darkness. Learning this, somehow, gave me a fresh perspective on Milton and taught me something about myself, too. Maybe I need to stop looking for my flaws and my blemishes. Maybe I need to learn to have sympathy for myself. Maybe I just need to trust in a God who loves me. I think that’s a good place to start.