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Reading In the Light of Christ | An Interview with Lucy Beckett | Carl E. Olson | February 11, 2007
Lucy Beckett's In the Light of Christ
is remarkable in depth and scope, a highly learned excursion through twenty-five centuries of writings, beginning with Aeschylus, Sophocles,
and Plato, and ending with Czeslaw Milosz and Pope John Paul II. Along the
way, Beckett reflects on the deeper meanings and purposes of works written by
Augustine, Benedict, Anselm, Dante, Shakespeare, Donne, Pascal, Johnson,
Coleridge, Newman, Hopkins, Santayana, Eliot, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Beckett,
Weil, and Bellow, as well as many others.
Her goal is to elucidate these texts--even those
written before Christ or by non-believers--in the light of Christ, and to show
how they reflect not just literary greatness, but goodness, truth, and beauty,
and thus bring readers into contact with God. "There is no need for a
Christian to have any idea of the work of Dante or Dostoyevsky," she contends, "But
there is surely a need for those who are drawn to Dante or Dostoyevsky to have
some idea of Christianity."
Beckett is British, and lives in Yorkshire. She as educated at Cambridge University and taught English, Latin and history at
Ampleforth Abbey and College for twenty years. She has published books on Wallace Stevens, Wagner's Parsifal, York Minster and
the Cistercian Abbeys of North Yorkshire, as well as a novel, The Time Before You Die, on the Reformation, and a collection
of poems. She is married, with four children.
I recently interviewed Beckett about her newest book.
IgnatiusInsight.com: In the Light of Christ is impressive in both depth and scope. What is
your educational and professional background in relation to English literature?
Lucy Beckett: I studied history at Cambridge University, having at
school specialized in Latin, Greek and English literature, and was lucky to be
taught by some outstanding scholars including Professor David Knowles O.S.B.,
Dr Walter Ullmann and Dr Geoffrey Elton. My first book, however, was entirely
literary, a study of Wallace Stevens (Cambridge University Press, 1974), then a
poet little known in the UK. Because I married young and had four children I
never embarked on a university career but taught at Ampleforth College, the
Catholic high school run by Ampleforth Abbey, the largest Benedictine community
in the UK, from 1980. I taught English literature as well as some Latin,
history, theology and European literature, which I would never have had the opportunity
to do had I been working as a university lecturer. Later I taught Church
history and Latin to novices and juniors in the monastic community.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What did you hope to accomplish with the book?
Lucy Beckett: A wide range of teaching experience inspired the idea of
writing a book which would tell the story of the Christian literary tradition
with enough historical and theological context to place some of the great texts
in a chronological narrative, while encouraging those who have been attracted
to some of this writing to explore further within and beyond those authors they
have come across or been required to study.
IgnatiusInsight.com: In your experience, how have the
great texts of Western literature been misused or abused by academics,
intellectual elitists, and ideologues? How can Christians combat those abuses?
Lucy Beckett: People are drawn towards what is good, beautiful and true.
In the last thirty years, however, postmodernist dissolution of the meanings of
these words, scorn for the idea of a canon of great works, and the
disappearance of humble literary criticism into incomprehensible philosophical
abstraction and critical jargon, have combined to destroy the confidence of
readers in their own responses. Whereas a century ago great art was given
ultimate value by some people because they regarded Christianity as an outgrown
delusion, it is now common in universities for any kind of value judgement
to have altogether disappeared: what has been called 'absolute relativism' is a
kind of academic fundamentalism.
My book is an attempt to restore
the sense that great writing (like great music or great painting) deserves to
be valued highly but only in relation to the absolute goodness, truth and
beauty which are one in God. So the value of what human beings create is indeed
relative, but not relative to nothing. The foundational Christian thought along
these lines was done by St Augustine in the City of God, written as the Roman empire, itself a human arrangement
of relative but not absolute value, was collapsing.
IgnatiusInsight.com: In the introduction you
write, "There is no need for a Christian to have any idea of the work of
Dante or Dostoyevsky. But there is surely a need for those who are drawn to
Dante or Dostoyevsky to have some idea of Christianity." How does a lack
of knowledge about Christianity affect how people read and comprehend great
works of literature?
Lucy Beckett: Some of the authors I discuss in the book wrote in a
Christian context so specific that it is difficult to imagine their work
meaning very much to someone with no idea of the context. This is true in
different ways of Dante and of Dostoyevsky, for both of whom Christian truth
was a reality which informed every judgement they
made. Other authors I discuss lack such a specific context for various reasons--they
were too early or too late or too ignorant of Christianity--but
it is my book's contention that where they are aware of the reality of
goodness, truth and beauty, they are aware of the reality of God.
IgnatiusInsight.com: You draw upon the theological
and philosophical work of Hans Urs von Balthasar quite often. What has been his
influence on your thought? What is your assessment of his place among Catholic
theologians of the 20th century (or of any century)?
Lucy Beckett: I regard Hans Urs von Balthasar as the greatest Catholic
theologian since the scholastic period in the high Middle Ages, for the
comprehensiveness of his thought, his faithfulness to orthodoxy, and the
Augustinian warmth of his writing. The Glory of the Lord, the first part (7 volumes) of his great trilogy, restores
beauty to its proper theological place with goodness and truth in the unity of
God, and gave me the confidence to attempt my much more modest book as a series
of examples to which I tried to apply the principles of Balthasar's aesthetics.
With his contemporaries Henri de Lubac and Yves
Congar, Balthasar had a profound influence on the Second Vatican Council and on the thought of John
Paul II and Benedict XVI.
IgnatiusInsight.com: In your first chapter on
Shakespeare you write, "The critical consensus nowadays, indeed, would
probably be that Shakespeare has no place in this book." What do you mean
by that? What do you think of recent works that have sought to show that
Shakespeare was probably a Catholic?
Lucy Beckett: In England Shakespeare, the national poet, had for
centuries to be a Protestant because Protestantism was the national faith. The secularizing
nineteenth century, and still more the twentieth, wanted Shakespeare, who
is practically never explicit about religion, to have written for everyone,
everywhere, always, without a Christian context of any kind. Recently several
books have reassembled the patchy evidence for Shakespeare's Catholicism from
the neglect into which, for these reasons, it had almost disappeared. It is
patchy because it was dangerous in Shakespeare's time and place to be an avowed
Catholic. My case is that, whether or not Shakespeare was a Catholic (and he
almost certainly was) the undoubted fact that his work appeals to almost
everyone almost everywhere almost always has to do with its beauty, truth and
goodness, and in particular with the soundness of his judgment, a
quality essential to a great dramatist.
IgnatiusInsight.com: In commenting on T.S. Eliot's
decision to not become Catholic, you note that for Eliot "Englishness
mattered most to him." In your estimation, as a Brit, how was it that an
American could become so enamored with England as to see Anglicanism as being
superior to Catholicism? How do you think this affected Eliot's later,
Christian poetry and plays?
Lucy Beckett: I have tried in the book to explain T.S. Eliot's
apparently surprising decision to become and remain an Anglican (from his
background in New England Unitarianism followed by no faith at all for a number
of years) when he might have become a Catholic. The explanation is that he
chose to settle for good in England as an Englishman, that he regarded this as
a return to his family's roots, and that, in the strange unsettled period
between the two World Wars, he collected with other aspects of Englishness the
then common prejudice against Catholicism as foreign, tinged with treachery
and/or peasant superstition, and not in line with the views of what has been
called in shorthand 'the Establishment'. (There was a good deal of plain
snobbery in the decision.) A more Catholic sense of the mysteries of the
Incarnation and of the sacraments would have perhaps made his Christian
writing, in particular Four Quartets,
more positive about reality and less self-reflexive.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Who do you think is the
greatest Russian novelist? Why? What is unique about the 19th-century Russian
masterpieces, such as War and Peace, Fathers and Sons, and The Brothers
Lucy Beckett: The great nineteenth-century
Russian novels have qualities of freshness, immediacy and emotional intensity
which make them, in my view, the best novels of all. It is a cliché, but
nevertheless true, to say that Tolstoy was a writer of epic and Dostoyevsky of
tragedy: I think Dostoyevsky the greater novelist because he engaged with
deeper questions of good and evil, of temptation and suffering and innocence,
and also because he really believed in redemption in Christ, which Tolstoy (who
believed in the redemption of Tolstoy by Tolstoy) certainly did not.
IgnatiusInsight.com: How do you think history will
judge the writing and thought of the philosopher-poet-Pope, John Paul II?
Lucy Beckett: I hope that John Paul II's most profound encyclicals,
particularly Veritatis Splendor and Fides
et Ratio, will be
long remembered and read. His major philosophical work, The Acting Person also deserves a respected future. But it will be the drama
and holiness of his life, lived through the worst horrors of the twentieth
century in the country that suffered most, and then coming to fruition in his
long, extraordinary papacy that will be most certainly not forgotten.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Echoing recent comments
by Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI about relativism, you note, in the
Epilogue, that "the doubt-free Nietzschean denial of the trace of God can
become a fundamentalism..." How has this relativistic fundamentalism
affected the average person's view of the world, religion, and literature?
Lucy Beckett: The assumption among intellectuals that religion in
history has done more harm than good, that Christianity is a fable that belongs
to the childhood of the human race, that there is no sound reason to believe
that God exists, and that the Enlightenment did, as it said it would, rescue
the advanced nations from the darkness of faith, is now very common (perhaps
commoner in the UK than in the US, though familiar in both). It can become a
dismissive, contemptuous fundamentalism (Richard Dawkins is a popular example)
in people who pronounce against Christianity without knowing anything
interesting about it--as they would never pronounce against any other branch of knowledge or art or
belief about which they know next to nothing. This makes it appear
intellectually respectable for many people not to bother to discover anything
adult or complex about Christian history or Christian faith, although the
values of humanism--justice,
peace, truthfulness, respect for the uniqueness of every human person--have
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Pages:
The Order of Love | From the Introduction to In the Light of Christ: Writings
in the Western Tradition | Lucy Beckett
Author page for Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
Author page for Karol Wojtyla/Pope John Paul II
Author page for Hans Urs von Balthasar
A Résumé of My Thought | Hans Urs von Balthasar
Must Be Perceived," | From Love Alone Is Credible
| Hans Urs von Balthasar
Love, Beauty and Reason | Joseph Pearce
The Measure of Literary Giants | Joseph Pearce
The Power of Poetry | Joseph Pearce
Well-Versed in Faith | Selections from Flowers of Heaven:
One Thousand Years of Christian Verse
The Life of the Mind | An interview with cultural critic
Relativism 101: A Brief, Objective Guide | Carl E. Olson
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