Saturday, 27 August 2011

Faith in Fiction - James Wood in Oxford

There' an interesting article in today's Guardian, a version of James Wood's Weidenfeld lecture at St Anne's College, Oxford.

It is encouraging to see, in the secular press, the argument that "a more nuanced examination of religious belief [than that found in the works of the New Atheists] can be found in modern fiction." However, there are problems too. For a start, Wood takes a long time to get going. Because it is the New Atheists who are deemed to have set the agenda, it takes Wood over 500 words to get to the point where he can write that, "Rather than simply declaring all religious belief to be non-propositional, which is manifestly untrue, it would be more interesting to examine what might be called the practice of propositional beliefs."

Another problem with the article is that it accepts many of the New Atheistic assumptions it criticises. For example, Wood claims that "one good place ... to see religious belief seriously represented and seriously examined, is the modern novel from, say, Melville and Flaubert in the 1850s to the present day. Melville, Dostoevsky, George Eliot, Jens Peter Jacobsen, Tolstoy, Virgina Woolf, Beckett, Camus - and in our own time José Saramago, Marilynne Robinson and JM Coetzee have all shown sustained interest in questions of belief and unbelief".

All of which is true but look at the lacunae: Georges Bernanos, Rumer Godden, Graham Greene, François Mauriac, Martin Mosebach, Flannery O'Connor, Muriel Spark, Sigrid Undset, Evelyn Waugh, to name but a few. With the exception of Dostoevsky and Tolstory, who lie safely outside the safe Anglo-American Protestant world, the only orthodox Christian on Wood's list is Marilynne Robinson. And practising Catholics don't get a look in.

The same is true, by the way, of the Weidenfeld lectures themselves, which feature Melville, Jens Peter Jacobsen, Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf and Beckett.

There is an interesting critique of the original lecture in The Oxonian Review in which Tom Cutterham points out, among other things, that, according to Wood, "narrative is both an “ally and a secret enemy” of faith. He connected the rise of the novel with that of a demythologising Christological scholarship in the early 19th century; that is, an interest in a more realistic, historical Jesus, consonant with the conventions of 19th century fiction." But, as I pointed out in my last post, G K Chesterton made a very similar point in 1906, though he drew rather different conclusions. (He also had a lot more to say on the topic than I was able to include in my brief post.) There is more to literature than the modern novel.

Cutterham summarises nicely: "Wood’s central point is not that our secular fiction gets rid of God, and can have no place for him, but that it is precisely in fiction that we can best examine the hold he still has on our consciousness." Exactly. So if we're going to be intellectually open and honest, let's ensure at the very least that we consider what believing novelists have to say about the fluctuations of belief and unbelief too.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Charles Dickens, G.K. Chesterton and Catholicism

In his preface to Barnaby Rudge, Dickens wrote: "However imperfectly those disturbances [the 1780 No Popery riots] are set forth in the following pages, they are impartially painted by one who has no sympathy with the Romish Church, though he acknowledges as most men do, some esteemed friends among the followers of its creed."

An obvious question for any Catholic English teacher, therefore, is which side of Dickens won out: the 19th Century Protestant who had "no sympathy with the Romish Church" or the sympathetic friend who was perfectly capable of seeing Catholics as people like any others? I'll come back to Barnaby Rudge in a later post but for now I'd like to look at what G.K. Chesterton had to say on the matter. 

In one of his books, he commented that, "When [Dickens] found a thing in Europe which he did not understand, such as the Roman Catholic Church, he simply called it an old-world superstition, and sat looking at it like a moonlit ruin."

More damningly still, in his introduction to Barnaby Rudge he argued that, "Undoubtedly [Dickens] knew no history; and he may or may not have been conscious of the fact. But the consciousness did not prevent him from writing a History of England. Nor did it prevent him from interlarding all or any of his works with tales of the pictorial past, such as the tale of the broken swords in Master Humphrey's Clock, or the indefensibly delightful nightmare of the lady in the stage-coach, which helps to soften the amiable end of Pickwick. Neither, worst of all, did it prevent him from dogmatising anywhere and everywhere about the past, of which he knew nothing; it did not prevent him from telling the bells to tell Trotty Veck that the Middle Ages were a failure, nor from solemnly declaring that the best thing that the mediæval monks ever did was to create the mean and snobbish quietude of a modern cathedral city. No, it was not historical reverence that held him back from dealing with the remote past; but rather something much better -- a living interest in the living century in which he was born. He would have thought himself quite intellectually capable of writing a novel about the Council of Trent or the First Crusade. He would have thought himself quite equal to analysing the psychology of Abelard or giving a bright, satiric sketch of St. Augustine. It must frankly be confessed that it was not a sense of his own unworthiness that held him back; I fear it was rather a sense of St. Augustine's unworthiness."

In other words, Chesterton was not blind to Dickens' self-confessed anti-Catholic prejudices but that did not stop him writing, in what Ian Ker calls "probably [his] greatest work", an appreciation of Dickens as a novelist which has been scarcely equalled since.

One of Chesterton's great strengths was that he was able to see Dickens' novels in their broad historical context. In one of those marvellous, free-flowing passages of his, he argued that "for a few years our corner of Western Europe has had a fancy for this thing we call fiction; that is, for writing down our own lives or similar lives in order to look at them. But though we call it fiction, it differs from older literatures chiefly in being less fictitious." 

According to Chesterton, Dickens stood outside this tradition because he retained a link with the literature that came before the Realist revolution: "Dickens was a mythologist rather than a novelist; he was the last of the mythologists, and perhaps the greatest." 

Dickens stood in a line of descent, through Shakespeare, with Chaucer and other great Catholic writers and so, Chesterton argued, whatever his own personal prejudices, his art drew upon all that was best in the pre-Reformation world: "He could only see all that was bad in mediaevalism. But he fought for all that was good in it."

As we approach the bicentenary of Dickens' birth next year, we do not need to be overly concerned by Dickens' lack of "sympathy with the Romish Church". As GKC puts it in his final paragraph: "The hour of absinthe is over. We shall not be much further troubled with the little artists who found Dickens too sane for their sorrows and too clean for their delights. But we have a long way to travel before we get back to what Dickens meant, and the passage is along a rambling English road, a twisting road such as Mr Pickwick travelled. But this at least is part of what he meant: that comradeship and serious joy are not interludes in comradeship and joy, which through God shall endure for ever. The inn does not point to the road; the road points to the inn. And all roads point at last to an ultimate inn, where we shall meet Dickens and all his characters; and when we drink again it shall be from the great flagons in the tavern at the end of the world."

Or if that's not punchy enough, we could look at the sign that hangs at the entrance to all Dickens' novels, according to Chesterton, the sign that could equally well hang at the entrance to Chesterton's own book: "Abandon hopelessness, all ye who enter here."

Thursday, 25 August 2011

St John of Avila and St John of the Cross

At the end of one of his homilies at World Youth Day, Pope Benedict told the pilgrims that he would "shortly declare Saint John of Avila a Doctor of the universal Church." St John will therefore join his compatriot and namesake, St John of the Cross (and our own St Bede for that matter), as a Doctor of the Church.

Is there any chance of either writer appearing on the school curriculum? Well, maybe. As I wrote before, St John of the Cross does appear on a list of recommended reading drawn up by the English Faculty at University College, London. And his poems have been translated by the excellent (Catholic) poet, Roy Campbell. One I'll be using is 'Other songs concerning Christ and the soul' ('Otras canciones a lo divino (del mismo autor) de Cristo y el alma') [p.43] which has a wonderful twist (for a modern reader). If we teach Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert et al, surely there's room for at least one poem by this great poet and teacher.

It's going to be trickier with St John of Avila but let's hope there are more editions of his works on the way now that he is about to be recognised as a Doctor of the Church. His Audi, Filia is said to be the book to read but it is rather expensive.

Friday, 19 August 2011

A little summer reading

I sometimes include the Bible, or particular books of the Bible, on my recommended reading lists; my students usually respond with expressions of complete incredulity. But I'm glad to see I'm not alone. Here are the Pope's suggestions for vacation reading:

When we have a break from our activities, especially in the holidays, we often take up a book we want to read. It is on this very aspect that I would first like to reflect today.

Each one of us needs time and space for recollection, meditation and calmness.... Thanks be to God that this is so! In fact, this need tells us that we are not made for work alone, but also to think, to reflect or even simply to follow with our minds and our hearts a tale, a story in which to immerse ourselves, in a certain sense “to lose ourselves” to find ourselves subsequently enriched.

Of course, many of these books to read, which we take in our hands during our vacation are at best an escape, and this is normal. Yet various people, particularly if they have more time in which to take a break and to relax, devote themselves to something more demanding.

I would therefore like to make a suggestion: why not discover some of the books of the Bible which are not commonly well known? Or those from which we heard certain passages in the liturgy but which we never read in their entirety? Indeed, many Christians never read the Bible and have a very limited and superficial knowledge of it. The Bible, as the name says, is a collection of books, a small “library” that came into being in the course of a millennium.

Some of these “small books” of which it is composed are almost unknown to the majority, even people who are good Christians.

Some are very short, such as the Book of Tobit, a tale that contains a lofty sense of family and marriage; or the Book of Esther, in which the Jewish Queen saves her people from extermination with her faith and prayer; or the Book of Ruth, a stranger who meets God and experiences his providence, which is even shorter. These little books can be read in an hour. More demanding and true masterpieces are the Book of Job, which faces the great problem of innocent suffering; Ecclesiastes is striking because of the disconcerting modernity with which it calls into question the meaning of life and of the world; and the Song of Songs, a wonderful symbolic poem of human love. As you see, these are all books of the Old Testament. And what about the New? The New Testament is of course better known and its literary genres are less diversified. Yet the beauty of reading a Gospel at one sitting must be discovered, just as I also recommend the Acts of the Apostles, or one of the Letters.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

'Understanding Media' - Marshall McLuhan's Catholicism

There was an interesting article on Marshall McLuhan's Catholicism in the Catholic Herald on 22nd July which I suspect is still available for website subscribers. (It's now available here. With thanks to Benjamin Robertson for letting me know.)

The authors, William Baker and Evan Leatherwood, point out that McLuhan was "a devout Catholic, who taught almost exclusively at Catholic universities and attended Mass nearly every day of his adult life."

They also point out that his Catholicism "underlay his thinking", though it is true that the impact of his faith on his work is highly complex. However, what is clear is that he was not averse to quoting Catholic authors approvingly in some of his most famous books.

Take Understanding Media, for instance. McLuhan was nothing if not eclectic and so a staggeringly wide range of authorities are referred to, including the Psalmist, Blessed John Henry Newman and, perhaps surprisingly for today's secular culture, Pope Pius XII, who said in 1950 that:

"It is not an exaggeration to say that the future of modern society and the stability of its inner life depend in large part on the maintenance of an equilibrium between the strength of the techniques of communication and the capacity of the individual's own reaction."

The conclusion that McLuhan draws from this is that "Pope Pius XII was deeply concerned that there be serious study of the media today."

Now this raises all sorts of questions which can't be dealt with in a short blog post but I do wonder if Catholics in education - and I include myself - need to do a little more thinking about the much-maligned Media Studies. Here's an interesting article which might provide a good starting point from the excellent Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong.