Joan of Arc (1412–1431) was a Catholic mystic and military prodigy. At age seventeen, she was appointed commander in chief of the French army and led her forces to decisive victories over the English. Mark Twain — the pen name for Samuel Clemens (1835–1910) — was a world-famous writer who was also famous for being a grizzled skeptic, a religious agnostic, and an outspoken, scathing critic of the Christian faith.
So, who do you suppose was Twain’s historical hero? Yep, Joan of Arc. He even wrote a biographical novel about her astounding life, which I read with astonishment 25 years ago. Twain said the Maid of Orleans was “by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced” (452). To call this ironic is an understatement. What in the world did Twain see in Joan that inspired his supreme admiration?
Well, if you trust the historical records — and Twain did — there’s a lot to admire. Over a number of years, this anti-religious curmudgeon took his fine-toothed comb to the original court documents and the many firsthand witness statements that still exist in various European archives. And at the end of his research, he found it impossible to deny a few astounding claims:
- This kind, humble, illiterate, teenage, peasant girl, with zero prior exposure to or training in the art of war, inexplicably possessed military genius.
- With no prior leadership experience, she quickly became the most effective, courageous leader in the French military, and in a career that lasted barely a year, she achieved a series of unparalleled victories.
- As someone given to frequent ecstatic spiritual experiences, she somehow exercised more levelheaded wisdom in decision-making than her sovereign or the high-ranking officials around her.
By all historically credible accounts, Joan was a phenom.
Sacrificial Love Conquers a Skeptic
But the Maid’s astonishing skill in warfare isn’t what most captured Twain’s heart. What captured his heart was Joan’s heart. In the “Translator’s Preface” at the beginning of his book, he wrote,
[Joan] was perhaps the only entirely unselfish person whose name has a place in profane history. No vestige or suggestion of self-seeking can be found in any word or deed of hers. (20)
What Twain calls unselfishness the Bible more accurately calls love. We can see this more clearly in a description of Joan that Twain later wrote in an essay (included as an appendix in my edition of the book):
She was full of compassion: on the field of her most splendid victory she forgot her triumphs to hold in her lap the head of a dying enemy and comfort his passing spirit with pitying words; in an age when it was common to slaughter prisoners she stood dauntless between hers and harm, and saved them alive; she was forgiving, generous, unselfish, magnanimous; she was pure from all spot or stain of baseness. (451)
Four centuries after her death, it seems Joan of Arc achieved another victory: she conquered a jaded skeptic. She made Mark Twain a believer, not in the existence of the true God, but in the existence of Christlike, sacrificial love. He saw in Joan a person who actually loved God supremely and followed what she believed was his will with pure, childlike faith, all while seeking to love her neighbor as herself — even when her neighbor was her enemy.
The Heart Has Its Reasons
Whether or not Joan of Arc was, in reality, as selfless and loving as Twain believed her to be is beside my point here. What’s remarkable is his admiration of the self-sacrificing love he saw in her. Why did it move him so deeply?
We can ask this another way. If Christianity isn’t real, and the world is governed merely by pitiless naturalistic forces, then it strikes me that Joan of Arc ought not to be glorified as a historical hero, but pitied as an example of what the real world does to those whose love ethic is informed by a delusion. Twain would have known this, but it appears he couldn’t help himself. Why?
I believe it’s because, as Blaise Pascal said, “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know” (Pensées, thought 423). Let’s let Pascal expound a little more on what he meant:
We know truth, not only by the reason, but also by the heart, and it is in this last way that we know first principles; and reason, which has no part in it, tries in vain to impugn them. (thought 282)
As Twain applied his reason to the claims of Christianity, he found numerous reasons to be skeptical. Having been raised in the Christian tradition, he knew the Bible well. He knew Jesus’s commandment that Christians were to sacrificially love one another as Christ had sacrificially loved them (John 13:34), and he took cynical delight in pointing out ways professing Christians had failed miserably to keep that commandment. For he knew that “anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8).
But in Joan, it seems to me, Twain’s heart discerned a truth, a first principle, his reason could not refute: “Love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7). In this case, Twain’s heart was better than his head. Being an image-bearer of God, unbeliever though he was, he recognized the real thing when he saw it. Something deep inside, the part of him designed to admire and be drawn to sacrificial love, couldn’t help but find such love in a real person captivating.
By This All People Will Know
Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Why? Because deep down, their hearts acknowledge a truth their reason may deny: God is love. And so, while “no one has ever seen God,” people intuitively recognize that, “if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12). This is why years ago I wrote,
Christlike, sacrificial, forbearing, hopeful, enduring love is the greatest apologetic to the existence and nature of God. It is more compelling than brilliant, well-reasoned arguments (which can be brilliantly countered) and more powerful than signs and wonders (which can be counterfeited, Matthew 24:24). And any Spirit-filled Christian, man or woman, of any ethnicity, social class, age demographic, intellectual capacity, or spiritual gifting, can demonstrate love.
They will know we are Christians by our love. This is why Jesus made love his last and greatest commandment for Christians. And it’s why, when all is said and done, Paul tells us that “the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). Because God is love.
‘Best of All My Books’
Near the end of his life, Twain said, “I like Joan of Arc best of all my books, and it is the best; I know it perfectly well.” The irony of this has not been lost on many of his ardent fans. As one expert on Twain has observed,
By the time he’s writing [Joan of Arc] he’s not a believer. He is anti-Catholic, and he doesn’t like the French. So he writes a book about a French-Catholic martyr? Ostensibly, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.
No, but the heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. In spite of Twain’s anti-Christian bias, in spite of his anti-French bias, in spite of his anti-mystical bias, who became his historical hero? The French mystic warrior, who was, in his view, “the most noble life that was ever born into this world save only One.”
Save only One. That’s a notable qualification, given this grizzled skeptic’s religious views. I think it’s a haunting indicator that Twain perceived in Joan of Arc’s sacrificial love a type and shadow of the One who, like no other, laid his life down for his friends and enemies. And Twain couldn’t help but admire it. Because in his heart he knew there is no greater love than this (John 15:13).