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Wednesday, 06 June 2007 00:00

Schwartz discusses impacts of Catholicism on four British writers

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A country which has accepted the mantle of “empire,’ however inimical that mantle may be to its professed destiny; a country which sells itself off to its competitors, which elevates cheap goods for consumers at the expense of its own safety and welfare; a country which forces its citizens to remove their shoes at airports to search for sock bombs while leaving thousands of miles of its borders open to intruders; a country obsessed with sports, games, and entertainment, which worships at the altars of “American Idol“ or “Lost“: such a country, such an empire, will not only founder one day, but will be cheered in its death struggles by most outside observers. We need read only the histories of Rome and Great Britain to see the fate that, given our present course, awaits us.

As the United States becomes less a nation and more a roaring nuthouse of crackpots, clowns, simpletons, political dunces, and delinquents of all ages, the adults still among us will eventually look for more solid ground on which to build their houses than on today’s debased patriotism or meaningless citizenship. In the Roman Empire the disenchanted looked to the mystery religions of the East, one of which was Christianity. In Great Britain many in the 20th century looked to the “-isms,” particularly socialism. As our own country continues to fall apart, we will find more and more people looking to a faith of some brand or another, some belief that will afford solace and ask for commitment, that will promise larger rewards than cheaper goods or endless video games.

In The Third Spring: G.K. Chesterton, Graham Greene, Christopher Dawson & David Jones (0-8132-1387-8), Adam Schwartz, a professor at Christendom College in Virginia, looks at four Englishmen who, disenchanted with modern secularism, tried to find happier roads to travel, using as their vehicle the Catholic Church.

In the case of these converts, Schwartz is particularly interested in their reactions to modern secular beliefs and practices, how their aversion to these secularist mores led them to traditional religion, and how, upon their conversion, they then used the belief and framework of their faith to build their art “Once each man was received,” Schwartz writes:

“orthodox Roman Catholicism — and especially its incarnational emphasis on the goodness of both spirit and matter, and an ensuing integrated equilibrium between them — became central to his personal and religious identity; Catholicism also supplied the intellectual framework and vocabulary that he used to articulate his rebellion against modern secularity.”

Today we see that each of these writers employed this acquired framework and vocabulary according to the lights of his own talents. Though Chesterton’s novel, The Man Who Was Thursday, and his Father Brown mysteries are still read today, we remember him chiefly for his book on faith, Orthodoxy, and his expository essays on the Catholic faith. Greene we chiefly recollect because of his title of “Catholic novelist,” a title which he eschewed but which aptly fits his best novels. Both Christopher Dawson and David Jones, the former a historian, the latter known chiefly for his poetry, were led into the Church in part by their view of history and the place of the Catholic Church in that history.

Doubtless more readers these days are more familiar with Chesterton and Greene than with Dawson or Jones, and might therefore expect to find the chapters on historian and the poet less accessible. Schwartz, however, writes so lucidly and with such mastery of his materials that we can easily enter into the lives of these two men. Regarding Dawson, for example, Schwartz shows us that his early boyhood of solitary joys was, like that of Chesterton and Greene, wrenched by the demands of adolescence; he tells us what books and what thinkers eventually helped Dawson cross the Tiber; he shows us what his new-found faith cost Dawson in terms of his family, friends, and work.

Schwartz seems at his best, however, in his examination of Graham Greene’s religious journey. Biographers of Greene, and Greene himself, have written extensively of his conversion, of his slow disenchantment with the Church, of his often confused take on his faith in his later years. In The Third Spring, however, in the longest section of his book, Schwartz carefully examines Greene’s relationship with the Church and its effect both on his life and on his writing. His analysis of Greene’s brilliant and often overlooked Brighton Rock, the first novel Greene wrote in which his faith comes to the forefront, reveals Greene’s ambivalent love of his faith. Schwartz goes on to shows us how much Greene’s later fiction — The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair, and other novels — incorporate his religious beliefs, and his own struggles with those beliefs, into his fiction.

Near the end of his chapter on Graham Greene, Schwartz writes:

To Greene, only the ancient bark of Peter had the correct coordinates and seaworthy sailors to navigate safely these treacherous rapids of fallen human life, and thus avoid the shipwrecks he thought were suffered by modern secularism and liberal Christianity.

As we begin in the years ahead to encounter more and more of our own shipwrecks, it would behoove us to pay attention to others who have sought alternate routes through this world.

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