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Evangelizing With Love, Beauty and Reason | An Interview with Joseph
Pearce | May 2005
Note: Acclaimed biographer and author Joseph Pearce (author's
page) was recently interviewed by a Romanian journalist, Robert Lazu.
This is a slightly edited version of that interview, in which Pearce talks
about his recent work, conversion, literature, Chesterton, Tolkien, and
Robert Lazu: When you look back at your life, what are the turning points
that come to mind? Did you ever have a miraculous moment like the
meeting between the disciples who met Jesus Christ while on the road to
Joseph Pearce: I don't feel that I've had one particular "Emmaus Moment",
at least not one as dramatic as that experienced by those disciples or someone
like St Paul. Rather, I've experienced a number of mini-Emmaus moments on
my path to Christ, each of which has healed my heart, strengthened my understanding
and led me closer to Our Lord. My first introduction to the writings of
G.K. Chesterton was crucial. After Chesterton came other writers, such as
Hilaire Belloc, John Henry Newman, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.
Lazu: Which are your activities and projects at the present time? I imagine
that you are working on another interesting book; maybe you can tell us
something about it.
Pearce: I've just finished editing a volume of political and economic
writings of Belloc. I'm also working on revised editions of two of my books,
Small is Still Beautiful and Flowers of Heaven, for American
publishers. My major new book project is a work on Shakespeare, focusing
on his Catholicism. I also write for a number of American magazines and
co-edit the Saint Austin Review (StAR), a trans-Atlantic cultural
journal. At Ave Maria University in Florida, I teach literature to the undergraduates
and I am also editor-in-chief of the University's publishing operation,
Sapientia Press and Catholic Faith Explorers. I'm also giving talks in the
United States and Europe. My travels in 2005 will include England, Spain
and Portugal, apart from speaking engagements in the U.S. from the east
to west coast. I'm keeping very busy!
Lazu: I know how important for you is the contact youve had with works
written by Chesterton, Newman, Tolkien and others like them. It seems that
books written by Christian authors can be at the "heart" of a conversion
to Catholicism of some people (like yourself), or they can be "instruments"
that are used by God to touch the readers soul in some way. Is it
possible as a Christian be dedicated to the writing of literature meant
to contribute to the re-evangelization of the contemporary world?
Pearce: I believe that evangelization can take place in three distinct
ways, constituting what might be termed "a Trinity of Truth". There is the
evangelizing power of Reason, the evangelizing power of Love, and the evangelizing
power of Beauty.
Ultimately, of course, these three, though distinct, are all one. The evangelizing
power of Reason manifests itself in apologetics, philosophy and theology;
the power of Love resides in the example of sanctity given by the saints
and those trying to be saints (Mother Theresa and Pope John Paul II being
great examples of the evangelizing power of Love); and the power of Beauty
is manifested through culture and the arts. I see my own vocation as being
in the area of evangelizing the culture through Beauty, specifically the
beauty of the work of great writers such as Tolkien, Chesterton, Lewis and
It is true that Chesterton and Lewis also evangelized through Reason in
their works of apologetics. I also hope that I might grow in virtue so that
I can evangelize through Love!
Lazu: How do you conceive the relationship between Catholic Faith and Literature?
Pearce: Since God speaks to us, and shows Himself to us, through the
Beauty of His Creation, so we can show Him to others through acts of artistic
sub-creation, using the gifts He has given us, to reflect His Beauty and
the Beauty of Creation through our own partaking of the creative gifts that
He has bestowed upon us. In the same way that Faith is consummated in its
marriage with Reason, Fides et Ratio, so Faith is ultimately inseparable
from the Beauty that is its source. Catholic Faith and Catholic Art and
Literature are united in the sacramental nature of Reality. They cannot
Lazu: It seems to me that the authors who have influenced your perspective
are not only Newman, Chesterton, Lewis and Tolkien, but others such as Hans
Urs von Balthasar and John Paul II. Who are the important thinkers who have
influenced your conception and what are the most important books in your
Pearce: I must confess to having read very little von Balthasar and
only asmattering of the writings of John Paul II. I've read some Augustine
and someThomas Aquinas obviously but I think my conception about the Trinitariannature
of Truth and the Trinitarian nature of creativity spring from thewritings
and philosophy of literary figures such as Tolkien (On Fairy Stories/Mythopoeia/Leaf
by Niggle, etc), Dorothy L. Sayers (Mind of the Maker) and T.S.
Eliot, and perhaps simply through the contemplation ofsuch things, assisted
Lazu: Youve studied C.S. Lewiss work quite thoroughly. What
is your conclusion about Lewiss faith? Is he a Catholic (or "catholic")
writer, or a Protestant (Calvinist) one (as scholars such as Daniel Callam
have tried to demonstrate)?
Pearce: I studied this whole question at considerable length in my book
C.S. Lewis & the Catholic Church. By the end of his life, and
indeed for most of his Christian life, Lewis embraced a sacramental approach
that was predominantly Catholic and inimical to Calvinism. For instance,
he went regularly to the Anglican equivalent of the Sacrament of Penance,
i.e. Confession. He believed in the ordained priesthood in a pronouncedly
and profoundly Catholic way, believing that the priest stood in persona
Christi at the altar during Mass. For this reason he opposed the ordination
of women and attacked it vehemently in his essay On Priestesses in the
He believed in Purgatory, as is evident from works such as The Great
Divorce, and as he stated specifically in his last book, Letters
to Malcolm. Shortly before he died, he wrote to a friend, Sister Penelope,
that he expected to go to Purgatory after he died. In short, and regardless
of any remaining issues that prevented Lewis from feeling able to be received
into the Catholic Church, he was far closer to the Catholic position than
to anything remotely Calvinist. Indeed his opposition to Calvinism was expressed
satirically as Puritania in The Pilgrim's Regress.
Lazu: Any reader who has read the fairy-tales written by C.S. Lewis and
J.R.R. Tolkien sees that Lewis tried to introduce characters rooted explicitly
in the Christian tradition, while Tolkien seemed to try to cover such references.
What is the explanation for this difference between these two authors?
Pearce: Tolkien's approach to mythology, and therefore to his own work,
is rooted in the belief that all creative activity is based upon the cooperation
between the artist and the gift he is given by God. God as Creator bestows
His gift, through Grace, to the sub-creator who uses (or abuses) the gift
to bring his sub-creation to fruition. As such, Tolkien believed that truths
emerge more freely and fully (and deeply) if the gift is allowed to flow
without the sub-creator stifling it through his desire to dominate the gift
through the desire to dominate his reader.
This was the reason for Tolkien's dislike of formal allegory. Instead of
formal allegory, Tolkien pointed to the applicability of truths that emerge
from the text. I believe that Lewis shared Tolkien's view but usually succumbed
to the temptation towards didacticism, i.e. he allowed his desire to teach
a lesson to his readers to inhibit the free flow of sub-creativity. His
late work, Till We Have Faces, was the closest that Lewis came to
achieving the sub-creative subtlety of The Lord of the Rings which
is why he thought it his best book.
Lazu: One of the most used descriptions of Tolkiens work is that it
is a form of "Christian mythology". How do you understand this
concept? What was Tolkiens conception of classical mythology? Did
he have a theological perspective about mythology?
Pearce: I do not use the phrase "Christian mythology" even though it
is anadequate and accurate description of his work. The trouble with the
termis that it is somewhat vague and might lead people to erroneousconclusions,
e.g. it might imply that Christianity is only a "mere myth" and not the
"True Myth" that Tolkien insisted that it is.
Alternativelyit might imply that Tolkien intended to make his work more
formallyallegorical than is the case. I agree with what I call Tolkien's"Philosophy
of Myth". In essence, Tolkien believed that all "making",including the making
of myth, is the product of the maker's cooperation,knowingly or unknowingly,
with the gift of creativity poured forth asgrace by the supreme Maker, i.e.
God. This gift of creativity is givenby the Creator to the sub-creator who
uses it to make his myth. Inconsequence, all myths contain what Tolkien
described as "splinteredfragments" of the one true light that comes from
Lazu: We know from Tolkiens son, Christopher, that in the last years
of his life "mythology and poetry sank down behind his theological and philosophical
preoccupations". Reflecting on this line, do you think we talk about a theology
or a philosophy of Tolkien?
Pearce: I'm not happy with the suggestion that Tolkien was ever anything
other than preoccupied with theological and philosophical issues. It is
clear from his work and from his letters that he was always a good and practicing
Catholic whose Christian faith was at the heart and centre of all that he
did. The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion are underpinned
by theological and philosophical concepts. If Tolkien became preoccupied
with such issues at the end of his life to a greater degree than ever we
should not be surprised. It is appropriate that a man should ponder these
things more deeply as he approaches the end of his life. Nonetheless, it
is important to remember that the "mythology and poetry" were always integrated
with "philosophy and theology" inTolkien's work. They cannot and should
not be separated.
Lazu: So, we should never forget that Tolkien was, essentially, a writer
and a poet who founded his works on a spiritual vision based on specific
theological and philosophical concepts. What is Tolkiens contribution
to twentieth-century literature? How might we characterize his literature?
Pearce: Tolkien is responsible for the whole genre of modern fantasy
literature, for better or worse. How many writers can claim to have instituted
a whole new (and hugely popular) genre? He is, however, head and shoulders
above those who have followed in his wake and The Lord of the Rings
remains as the greatest work of prose literature of the twentieth century.
I'm also happy to assert that it will eventually earn the status of being
considered a "classic" of the literary canon.
Lazu: In many of your articles you have discussed the issues resulting from
the Tolkiens major work, The Lord of the Rings, being made
into a series of major films. Does this movie help popularize Tolkiens
works? (I ask because I have met people who dont want to read Tolkiens
books on account of the fact that they consider the movies to be "horror"
Pearce: Over the past three years I have spoken all over the United
States, and in Canada, Germany, Portugal and South Africa, on the subject
of The Lord of the Rings. This experience has left me in no doubt
that Jackson's film-version has contributed to an enormous increase in interest
in Tolkien's work. A whole new generation of young people have started to
read The Lord of the Rings because their interest was originally
kindled by watching the film. I would estimate that for every person who
is deterred from reading Tolkien by the films there are many, many more
that are inspired to read him having seen the films.
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.
Lazu: Are there writers comparable to Chesterton, Bernanos, Green, etc.
Pearce: I'm not sure that there are writers of that caliber but, if
there were, they would find it more difficult to break into the popular
culture in the secularized twenty-first century. This is why we need to
engage the culture and evangelize it. The challenge is to work collectively
to become a catalyst for a new Christian cultural revival.
Lazu: Hans Urs von Baltasar claimed that Catholic modern literature seemed
to offer a more lively way of thinking than does modern Catholic theology.
What do you think about this statement?
Pearce: Von Balthasar believed, as do I, that the power of beauty can
illuminate the truth as potently as can the power of reason. The fact is
that there was much bad, i.e. modernist, theology in the last century, whereas
there was much good, i.e. traditionalist, literature. In this sense I agree
with him. I believe, however, that good literature should always be duly
deferential to good theology.
Lazu: In concluding, please tell us what is your essential message as a
critic, writer and Catholic professor? In other words, what is your personal
Pearce: My personal credo genuflects before the perennial Creed of Catholic
Christianity. I have no credo distinct from my adherence to the teachings
of the Church. The truth manifests itself in the triune splendour of Love,
Beauty and Reason. It is only through our apprehension of this Primal Reality
that we can be set free from our subservience to lesser gods.
RELATED IGNATIUSINSIGHT.COM LINKS:
Author Page for Joseph
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Story": An Interview with Joseph Pearce About the Life and Death
of Oscar Wilde | July 2004
British author Joseph Pearce has firmly established himself as the premier
literary biographer of our time, especially in interpreting the spiritual
depths of the Catholic literary tradition. In this new book, Pearce examines
a plethora of authors, taking the reader through a dazzling tour of the
creative landscape of Catholic prose and poetry. Literary
Giants, Literary Catholics covers the vast terrain from Dante to
Tolkien, from Shakespeare to Waugh.
Focusing on the literary revival of the 20th century, Joseph Pearce touches
on well-known authors like G.K. Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien, but also
introduces readers to lesser-known writers like Roy Campell, Maurice Baring,
and Owen Barfield. Anyone who appreciates English literature will be entranced
by the wealth and depth of this new masterpiece.
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