This is the printer-friendly layout. Click here to find the online format.
In the Light of Christ: Writings in the Western Tradition
by Lucy Beckett
Ignatius Press, 2006
(648 pages, $21.95, paperback)
reviewed by Franklin Freeman
“We do not decide, but are given to discover and love, what is true,” writes Lucy Beckett, teacher of English, Latin, and history at Ampleforth Abbey and College for twenty years. In her survey of the major works of Western literature, beginning with the Greek playwrights Aeschylus and Sophocles and ending with the Polish writers Czeslaw Milosz and John Paul II, she does just that.
In the Light of Christ, she writes in her introduction (titled “The Order of Love”), addresses
the value to us now . . . of some great texts written in relation to the truth of orthodox Christianity, and it is the thesis of this book that their value—that is to say, their truthfulness, beauty and goodness—rests in their relation to the absolute truth, beauty and goodness that are one in God and that are definitively revealed to the world in Christ.
The Two Cities
One of her main themes is that, as St. Augustine proposed in The City of God, there are two cities in the universe, the civitas Dei (the city of God), which will never be realized here on earth, and the civitas terrena (the worldly city). The Church on earth is a corpus permixtum: in Beckett’s words, “an imperfect body of imperfect human beings . . . to be sorted out only in the judgment of God.”
These concepts provided the context to Augustine’s understanding of the relative value of literature. After his conversion, he “never cut his attachment to the writers of the Roman past,” but because of his understanding of the two cities, he never fell into English Victorian scholar and poet Matthew Arnold’s error of elevating the study of literature into a replacement for religion.
This is a natural error to fall into once one has lost his religion, Beckett writes, because “writing that reflects much goodness, truth and beauty really does bring us close to God.” But for a Christian, this study will always be subordinate to God: “The great achievement,” as St. Augustine wrote, “is to break the idols we keep within us.”
Most of the writers Beckett chooses are at least aware of this natural temptation to “divinize anything other than God,” and they strive to know more about and seek after the civitas Dei; while others (D. H. Lawrence, Tolstoy, and Schopenhauer, for instance) she chooses because their opposition to the civitas Dei is instructive in understanding the human soul.
Each chapter of this book is a mini-biography of its subject or subjects, but also a cultural history lesson, and finally, and most enjoyably, an exercise in wise literary criticism. Beckett delves into the religious themes of these writers, themes literary critics seldom take seriously in themselves.
For instance, in most secular studies I have read, Pascal is treated as a famous French mathematician who was a Jansenist (whatever that is) and who said, proving his existentialist credentials, “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.” But Beckett, after an in-depth but clear exposition of his achievements, writes, “Of all the great intellectuals of his period,” which included Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Milton, Leibniz, and Locke,
Pascal alone wrote, from the heart of the Church for the heart of the Church, of “the beauty ever ancient and ever new,” a phrase in the Confessions quoted in the Pensées.
This book will appeal to all Christians with an interest in the relation between literature and Christianity. Beckett writes from an outspokenly traditional Catholic point of view, and Protestant and Orthodox believers will shake their heads as they read some passages, but they will, I believe, keep reading for the same reasons I did: her bracing style, the great breadth of her learning, and her passionate wisdom.
She quotes not only from the works of the authors she surveys, but also from their notebooks, journals, and correspondence, especially helpful in illuminating the meaning of sometimes obscure writers and works. She also chooses obscure quotes important to their writers’ religious views, quotes and a subject contemporary scholarship often passes over in silence.
She is the kind of writer it is a pleasure to disagree with. I certainly disagree with some of her comments on Scholasticism (she regards it as a confining system of philosophy), some of her literary judgments (she prefers Wallace Stevens to T. S. Eliot), and her remarks about George W. Bush’s thinking that America is the civitas Dei (she calls him a Christian fundamentalist).
Nevertheless, I wish I had had In the Light of Christ as a university student, for it would have given me the knowledge and wisdom to judge more rightly what I was taught by my teachers, most of whom, though I do not think they knew it, divinized the study of literature. Lucy Beckett teaches us in this book that, in the words of Hans Urs von Balthasar (whom she quotes, in frequency, second only to St. Augustine),
Art, great art, has a special reserved place among human endeavors. It is close to that side of the absolute that we call “grace,” free gift. Nonetheless it is always the fruit of the highest human effort too. . . . Ultimately, however, it is all a writing in the sand.
But she also teaches that the study of literature from a Christian perspective can help us with our ultimate task, which, as St. Augustine wrote, “consists in healing the eyes of the heart so that they may be able to see God.”
Franklin Freeman is a freelance writer living in Saco, Maine, with his wife and four children.