Henry Van Dyke’s “The Other Wise Man”

BLOG #49, SERIES 4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #25
HENRY VAN DYKE’S THE OTHER WISE MAN
December 4, 2013

It is December once again – time for another Christmas selection. For some time now I have been convicted that, for the third Christmas in our series, I ought to choose Henry Van Dyke’s greatest book. Of all Christmas books ever written, only Dickens’ Christmas Carol is the equal to The Other Wise Man. But it has something Dickens’ great book lacks: an unforgettable spiritual dimension that moves the reader deeply. It is one well worth re-reading every Christmas of one’s life.

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One can count on the fingers of one hand the great Christmas stories. The Other Wise Man is one of them.

It was born on the eve of the social-gospel movement in America; born of the realization that the Jesus of the Gospels did not spend much time talking about what we call “doctrines,” but He was very concerned with how we treat one another. His entire earthly ministry could be summed up in two words: “loving service.”

Stories that change the world–how do they come to be? Half a century earlier, Charles Dickens had created the genre of Christmas story with his timeless A Christmas Carol. Nothing of comparable power had been written since.

For the 40-year-old scholar-cleric Henry Van Dyke, 1892 had been a dark and tragic year, during which his beloved father had died. The world saw merely the facade: Van Dyke at his peak–a graduate of Princeton, Princeton Theological School, and the University of Berlin; pastor of the New York’s prestigious Brick Presbyterian Church; author of such scholarly work as The Poetry of Tennyson. Yet inside, he was anything but confident.

The year had been full of sickness and sorrow. Every day brought trouble. Every night was tormented with pain. They are very long–those nights when one lies awake, and hears the laboring heart pumping wearily at its task, and watches for the morning, not knowing whether it will ever dawn . . .

And the heaviest burden?

You must face the thought that your work in the world may be almost ended, but you know that it is not nearly finished. You have not solved the problems that perplexed you. You have not reached the goal that you aimed at. You have not accomplished the great task that you set for yourself. You are still on the way; and perhaps your journey must end now–nowhere–in the dark.

Well, it was in one of these long, lonely nights that this story came to me. I have studied and loved the curious tales of the Three Wise Men of the East as they are told in the GOLDEN LEGEND of Jacobus de Voragine and other medieval books. But of the Fourth Wise Man I had never heard until that night. Then I saw him distinctly, moving through the shadows in a little circle of light. His countenance was so clear as the memory of my father’s face as I saw it for the last time a few months before. The narrative of his journeyings and trials and disappointments ran without a break. Even certain sentences came to me complete and unforgettable, clear-cut like a cameo. All that I had to do was to follow Artaban, step by step, as the tale went on, from the beginning to the end of his pilgrimage.

Responding to the oft-asked question: why he made the Fourth Wise Man tell a lie, to save the life of a little child, he countered,

Is a lie ever justifiable? Perhaps not. But may it not sometimes seem inevitable? And if it were a sin, might a man not confess it, and be pardoned for it more easily than for the greater sin of spiritual selfishness, or indifference, or the betrayal of innocent blood? That is what I saw Artaban do. That is what I heard him say. All through his life he was trying to do the best that he could. It was not perfect. But there are some kinds of failure that are better than success.

It is probable that more research went into this than any other Christmas story ever written. All his previous research, it appears in retrospect, had been setting the stage for this work. And now, it was not enough merely to tell the story he felt a Higher Power wished him to chronicle: it must have historical authenticity as well. So he scoured the great libraries of the world seeking information about every aspect of ancient life and travel. Not until he was satisfied that he knew his ground as well as an attorney presenting his first case before the Supreme Court did he finally begin writing.

What Van Dyke created was a story so simply and beautifully told that the reader is unaware that this re-creation of the world our Lord knew is undergirded by prodigious research. It is an awesome tour de force.

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On Christmas Day, 1892, he spread out his manuscript on his pulpit, looked out at the vast hushed and expectant audience, and wondered how the Fourth Wise Man’s story would be received. He needn’t have worried: the little story spread like wildfire. Three years later, Harpers, the most prestigious publishing house in the world, launched it out across all the seas of the world, both in English and in many translations.

* * *

There are many editions out there on the world-wide web, but I recommend that you seek out one of the splendid editions with color art work. One of the most beautiful is the Harper Brothers 25th anniversary Memorial Edition of 1920, as well as the 30th in 1925. Believe me, you will treasure it forever. Try to secure a dust-jacketed edition.

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Although it’s been years since I first encountered this book, I remember the story as one of the most touching I’ve ever read.


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