Beyond C S Lewis: Glimpses of 20th-century British literary Christians from biographer Joseph Pearce

Cover of "Literary Converts: Spiritual In...

A Christian literary feast

One of the more fascinating books I’ve read in the last 10 years is a sort of group biography by the prolific Catholic writer Joseph Pearce. Called Literary Converts (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2000), this sprawling account leads us through a surprisingly large and varied network of 20th-century British literary Christians. Here are G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Evelyn Waugh, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Ronald Knox, T. S. Eliot, Dorothy L. Sayers, and many more. They all play their part in the spread of Christianity in English literary culture after the spiritual doldrums of the 1910s and 20s.

Pearce weaves themes and connections that will grip any fan of those writers who shares their faith. His keen eye for the telling detail, the revealing vignette, and the colorful anecdote make this book both a rich resource and a pleasure to read, if you can forgive the Roman Catholic triumphalism that emerges here and there along the way.

As with the David Bell and Jaroslav Pelikan “glimpses” and the glimpses of Benedict and Francis by Columba Stewart, Dennis Okholm, William Short, G. K. Chesterton, and Mark Galli, I thank my t.a., Shane Moe, who transcribed these and inserted  brief contextual tags where helpful. Page numbers are at the beginning of each excerpt. The designation “Q” means I wanted to save the text as a quotation, for use in teaching and writing. D means the definition of a term. “U” means I want to use an idea or statement in my teaching.

I started marking in this book while working on an article for the late lamented Christian History magazine on Chesterton & Belloc’s “third-way” economic theory, Distributism. Therefore a number of these notes relate to the aforementioned literary Brits’ Christian critique of modernity, especially in its economic manifestations.

Q, 47 (quoting Benson on Chesterton): “He is a real mystic of an odd kind.”

U, 51: In 1952 she [Sayers] put the matter more eloquently: “To the young people of my generation G. K. C. was a kind of Christian liberator. Like a beneficent bomb, he blew out of the Church a quantity of stained glass of a very poor period, and let in gusts of fresh air in which the dead leaves of doctrine danced with all the energy and indecorum of Our Lady’s Tumbler.”

Q, 54: “Belloc’s profound gratitude at the gathering army of converts belonged, at least in part, to the work of his friend G. K. Chesterton. More than any writer in the first decade of the century Chesterton had taken on the secularists, doing battle with ‘heretics’ such as Shaw and Wells with a good-natured joviality which was infectious.”

U (use in distributism article), 62: Loosed from party political constraints Belloc began to formulate an alternative to capitalism and socialism. During his parliamentary days he had written an article entitled simply “The Alternative” in which he had argued that a society built on the ownership of widely distributed private property would offer a solution to the ills of capitalism preferable to the nationalization proposed by the socialists:

The whole contention of the future in Europe lies between these two theories. On the one hand you have the Socialist theory, the one remedy and the only remedy seriously discussed in the industrial societies which have ultimately grown out of the religious schism of the sixteenth century … On the other hand, you have the Catholic societies whose ultimate appetite is for a state of highly divided property, working in a complex and probably, at last, in a co-operative manner …”

Q, 63 (discussing Eric Gill’s turn towards Chesterton and Belloc, away from Nietzsche and Wells, whose views Pearce characterizes in this way): “mechanized madness and materialism”

Q, 69 (quoting Belloc discussing the debate between Shaw and Chesterton on socialism vs. distributism): “The industrial civilisation, which, thank God, oppresses only the small part of the world in which we are most inextricably bound up, will break down and therefore end its monstrous wickedness … Or it will break down and lead to nothing but a desert. Or it will lead the mass of men to become contented slaves, with a few rich men controlling them. Take your choice.”

Q, 70: “England never wanted what Chesterton and Belloc believed it needed”

Q, 75: “Towards the end of the book [Confessions of a Convert by Robert Hugh Benson, a Roman Catholic convert from Anglicanism], Benson asserted ‘that to return from the Catholic Church to the Anglican would be the exchange of certitude for doubt, of faith for agnosticism, of substance for shadow, of brilliant light for sombere gloom, of historical, worldwide fact for unhistorical, provincial theory’.”

Q, 214 (quoting Sayers on a forthcoming series of books on social reconstruction): “We shall try to quicken the creative spirit which enables man to build … systems in the light of his spiritual, intellectual and social needs. We aim at the Resurrection Faith, the Revival of Learning and the Re-integration of Society.”

U, 215 (quoting Sayers on the “Economic Man”): “our latest, most simplified, least human conception of ourselves – that humourless, passionless, sexless unit in a vast financial system”

Q, 215 (discussing Sayers on the inverse relationship between scientific progress and man’s understanding of his own purpose and importance): “It was the modern dilemma, the paradox of progress, that scientific advances seemed to go hand in hand with social disintegration—the result of an increase of knowledge coupled with a lack of understanding and precious little wisdom.”

U (great anecdote), 222: One of the greatest admirers of The Screwtape Letters was Dorothy L. Sayers who wrote enthusiastically to Lewis, praising him for the book and urging him to contribute a book to the Bridgeheads series she was editing. Another of her letters to Lewis even imitated the style of The Screwtape Letters, being written from a demon named Sluckdrib, complaining to his superior about the unfortunate effect which certain religious plays are having on atheists. He is, however, gratified by the detrimental effect that writing them has had on the character of the author:

I have already had the honour to report intellectual and spiritual pride, vainglory, self-opinionated dogmatism, irreverence, blasphemous frivolity, frequentation of the company of theatricals, captiousness, impatience of correction, polemical fury, shortness of temper, neglect of domestic affairs, lack of charity, egotism, nostalgia for secular occupations, and a growing tendency to consider the Bible as literature.

Q, 223 (discussing Sayers’ take on the reduction of sin to lust in “The Other Six Deadly Sins”): “Sayers was evidently frustrated at this distortion of the true picture, perceiving that the modern world was divided between prurient and prudes, both groups being unhealthily obsessed with sex from opposite sides of the same puritanical coin.”

U, 226 (quoting Christopher Dawson on the aims of the RC initiative “The Sword of the Spirit”; compare to Sayers’s aims): “The aim of the movement was, Dawson explained, first and foremost spiritual, ‘a return to the foundations on which Western civilisation and our own national life were built and therefore opposed alike to the deliberate apostasy of the totalitarian state and the superficial materialism of our own secularised culture’.”

U (use as a key them in Sayers chapter and course), 254: In 1944 Sayers had discussed the deeper theological remedies in an address on the Christian aesthetic which found ‘its source and sanction in the theological centre’.

‘I am to speak to you tonight,’ Sayers began, ‘about the Arts in this country—their roots in Christianity, their present condition, and the means by which (if we find that they are not flourishing as they should) their mutilated limbs and withering branches may be restored by re-grafting into the main trunk of Christian tradition.’ It was the desire to cultivate culture in the post-war desert that inspired Sayers to embark upon her translation of Dante.

U, 255: [Barbara] Reynolds believes that ordinary readers have been introduced to Dante in a far more comprehensible way through Sayers’s translation: ‘She has presented Dante in a clearer way as never before’.

U (quoting Waugh on his perception of Merton’s rejection of modern materialism, from his forward to Merton’s Elected Silence, the British publication of The Seven Story Mountain; use Merton in book?), 261-2: “Here in fresh, simple, colloquial American is the record of a soul experiencing, first, disgust with the modern world, then Faith, then a clear vocation to the way in which Faith may be applied to the modern world …” “Prayer must become heroic. That is the theme of this book which should take its place among the classic records of spiritual experience.”

U (discussing ordination and quoting Sayers): “In so far as the Priest represents Christ, it is obviously more dramatically appropriate that a man should be, so to speak, cast for the part. But if I were cornered and asked point-blank whether Christ Himself is the representative of male humanity or all humanity, I should be obliged to answer ‘of all humanity’; and to cite the authority of St Augustine for saying that woman is also made in the image of God …”

U, 275 (discussing Sayers’s efforts to promote Christian reconstruction after World War II): “Her letters are important,” says Barbara Reynolds. “She was writing to so many people at the time that it seems to me that she was energising so many people’s minds … that she has left a legacy that we don’t know about which is only apparent in the letters … A network of minds energising each other.”

U, 367 (see in context): “Schumacher described Sayers as ‘one of the finest commentators on Dante as well as on modern society’ and quoted at length from her Introductory Papers on Dante, which had been published in 1954:

That the Inferno is a picture of human society in a state of sin and corruption, everybody will readily agree. And since we are today fairly well convinced that society is in a bad way and not necessarily evolving in the direction of perfectibility, we find it easy enough to recognize the various stages by which the deep of corruption is reached. Futility; lack of a living faith; the drift into loose morality, greedy consumption, financial irresponsibility, and uncontrolled bad temper; a self-opinionated and obstinate individualism; violence, sterility, and lack of reverence for life and property including one’s own; the exploitation of sex, the debasing of language by advertisement and propaganda, the commercialising of religion, the pandering to superstition and the conditioning of people’s minds by mass-hysteria and ‘spell-binding’ of all kinds, venality and string-pulling in public affairs, hypocrisy, dishonesty in material things, intellectual dishonesty, the fomenting of discord (class against class, nation against nation) for what one can get out of it, the falsification and destruction of all the means of communication; the exploitation of the lowest and stupidest mass-emotions; treachery even to the fundamentals of kinship, country, the chosen friend, and the sworn allegiance: these are the all-too-recognisable stages that lead to the cold death of society and the extinguishing of all civilised relations.

One response to “Beyond C S Lewis: Glimpses of 20th-century British literary Christians from biographer Joseph Pearce

  1. Hmmm. I finally get a one-star rating on a post. Care to elaborate, o one-star rater?

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