Chesterton and Saint Francis, an essay by Joseph Pearce
from his new book Literary Giants, Literary Catholics, is now available on www.ignatiusinsight.com.
Here is Joseph's Pearce-ing smile:
9 months ago
GK Chesterton remarked that in human affairs one must first find the cure before one can identify the disease. This reminds us that in the area of values one needs to know what is good, before one can say what is wrong. It is the example of a secure and loving family that illuminates the problems of failed ones. It is the sight of a well-functioning community united by shared goods that shows up the fact that in many parts of Britain communal existence long ago gave way to mere society, which in turn dissolved into mere co-existence, and from there declined into "strangerliness".
Most of us completely misunderstand the word humility. It's usually confused with a cringing meek attitude, submissiveness or self-deprecation.
We think it means saying we're not a very good golfer when we know we really are. That's not humility. That's being coy and subtly begging for compliments, "Oh, yes you are, you're very good!" As Dag Hammarskjold put it in "Markings," "Humility is just as much the opposite of self-abasement as it is of self-exaltation."
"Do not think that if you meet a really humble person he will be what most people call 'humble,' nowadays:" writes C.S. Lewis, "he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person who is always telling you he is a nobody. He'll seem a cheerful, intelligent chap who takes a real interest in what you say to him. If you do dislike him, it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all."
Humility is so important that it is impossible for anyone to have any type of genuine spiritual life without the virtue of humility. Humility tames the ego and rids us of superficiality and compels us to be true to ourselves and others. Because of the nature of our egos, humility is an extremely slippery quality. In the act of thinking we possess it, we prove to ourselves that we don't. Like happiness, it alights on our shoulder only when we're unaware of it.
In the book, you call both Star Wars and Christianity "mythology." What do you mean?
A myth is a story that confronts us with the "big picture," something transcendent and eternal, and in so doing, explains the worldview of a civilization. Given that definition, Christianity is the prevailing myth of Western culture and Star Wars is a prevailing myth of our popular culture. However, one of these myths is actually true and historically based, and that is Christianity. Both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien loved great myths, but each believed beneath all well-crafted myths there was the one true myth, Christianity.
George Lucas, to my knowledge, has never made explicitly Christian claims for Star Wars. How would you compare his fantasy world with those of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien?
As you mentioned, the Lucas story is more theologically attuned with Hinduism. In Jedi mythology, the highest good is achieved by balancing light and dark, whereas Jedi Christians believe the highest good is achieved when darkness is defeated. In Jedi Christian lore, the dark side is not just the opposite of light, but is an unequal opponent of God, who, in Star Wars terms, is the Lord over the Force.
In Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, there is a ring over the other rings, and then there is a Lord of the Rings. The wizards Sauron and Gandalf represent the dark and light sides, but Tolkien's title reveals his Christian belief that above all the rings and all manner of powerful wizardry, there is a Lord of the Rings who rules over all, and who will bring history to a just and good conclusion. Tolkien said of his work, "The Lord of the Rings is a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; it is about God, and his sole right to divine honor."
Lewis also recognized the ultimate rule and authority of God over the "forces of good and evil." As Lewis put it, we must ultimately decide whether Jesus was a liar, a lunatic, or who he said he is, the Lord. The first chapter of Christian Wisdom of the Jedi Masters draws this important distinction between the Star War's Hindu, monistic worldview and Christianity, which teaches that there is one who is wholly other and Lord over all.
Belloc’s ... claim to understand France was based mainly on the time he had spent in a French military college and in the French army. In fact, he left the Collège Stanislas after only a few months and the army after only one year of his three-year military service. He disliked both experiences intensely, taking from them little more than the anti-Semitism of the French Right, a prejudice which was to remain with him for the rest of his life. His knowledge of French political and cultural life amounted to little more than what he learned from a few months spent in northern France in the late 1890s, as Pall Mall magazine’s “Cycling Correspondent”.
Maurice Baring, then a young diplomat in Paris, met Belloc about this time. Baring, who was completely at home in continental Europe, thought the young Belloc was out of place. Significantly, he described him as “very un-French when seen in France. In fact his Gallicism is an untrained pose. His Catholicism is a political opinion: he is really brutally agnostic. His Gallicism too is a political opinion”.
Lazu: Gilbert Keith Chesterton is the other author you have written much about. What is Chestertons place in the literature of the twentieth century? How can the specific features of his works be summarized?
Pearce: Without doubt, Chesterton is a major figure in several areas. As a popular Catholic apologist he is perhaps without equal; as an essayist he is one of the finest prose stylists of the century; as a poet his work is very uneven but his finest verse deserves a place in any reputable anthology of twentieth century poetry, e.g. Lepanto, The Donkey, The Rolling English Road, A Second Childhood, The Skeleton, The Fish etc. As a novelist his work is also uneven and of variable quality, but his finest novel, The Man who was Thursday, ranks as one of the most important novels of the last century.
Lazu: It is hard to imagine that Catholic writers are well received by non-Christian literary critics in Central Europe. What is the situation in Great Britain and the United States as far as non-Catholic criticism authors such as Chesterton, Tolkien, Lewis, etc.?
Pearce: I am pleasantly surprised at the number of times that Chesterton is quoted in the secular press in Britain and America; Tolkien is now taken more seriously than ever before, partly because of the huge success of Jackson's films but also because The Lord of the Rings has passed the test of time and has forced itself into the canon in spite of the hostility of many critics and academics to its resolutely Christian and conservative ethos; Lewis remains hugely influential in Christian circles, both Protestant and Catholic, and the forthcoming film adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe might catapult him back into the popular mainstream; Waugh's Brideshead Revisited is widely accepted as one of the great novels of the twentieth century even amongst liberal critics hostile to its Catholic traditionalism.
[The] mental distance [between writer and reader] is a main reason why, for example, G. K. Chesterton is not widely read today (with the possible exception of his Father Brown stories). He makes, especially in his early work, a set of assumptions about his reader that are no longer true. He expects the reader to be more educated, more actively intelligent and more, as it were, sensitive to the workings of the universe than most reading public is today. He expects a lot of things to ring a bell. He expects the reader to handle more or less effortlessly complicated chains of reasoning as well as complicated strings of images, to be comfortable with the endless intertwined strands of meaning that are the stuff of thought. After all, the reader is supposed to have been to school and to University. What is more, he assumes a common moral ground. "Democracy in its human sense is not arbitrament by the majority; it is not even arbitrament by everybody. It can be more nearly defined as arbitrament by anybody. I mean that it rests on that club habit of taking a total stranger for granted, of assuming certain things to be inevitably common to yourself and him. Only the things that anybody may be presumed to hold have the full authority of democracy." This is from a work written in 1910. Now we have moved a long way from this cheerful faith in common sense and the ultimate spiritual brotherhood of all men. There are no things that I can assume to be inevitably common to myself and a total stranger. The stranger may be a cannibal for all I know.
C. S. Lewis, who wrote a few decades later, is much nearer to us mentally because the assumptions he makes about his readers are totally different. Chesterton expects us to join in the fray as equals, and enjoy it as much as he does; Lewis expects no more than that we should sit quiet and let him talk while he patiently and carefully explains simple things in the simplest possible terms. Lewis is better known today because he had to write for an audience that was, generally speaking, both more stupid and more wicked than Chesterton’s.
There is historical precedent in the ephemeral city phenomenon. Cities are natural theaters. In the past, cities provided the overwhelmingly rural populations around them with a host of novel experiences unavailable amid the hay fields.
Rome, the first mega-city, developed these functions to an unprecedented level. It boasted both the first giant shopping mall -- the multi-story Mercatus Traini -- and the Colosseum, where urban entertainments grew monstrous both in its size and nature.
Maybe it makes sense for some cities to hitch their futures to their role as cultural and entertainment centers -- one hopes without resorting to gladiatorial contests. This is a transformation that H.G. Wells predicted over a century ago. He saw the transition of urban centers from commanding centers toward a "bazaar, a great gallery of shops and places of concourse and rendezvous."