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Reading In the Light of Christ | An Interview with Lucy Beckett | Carl E. Olson | February 11, 2007

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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 Karamazov?

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 Judeo-Christian roots.

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
"Love Must Be Perceived," | From Love Alone Is Credible | Hans Urs von Balthasar
Evangelizing With 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 Roger Kimball
Relativism 101: A Brief, Objective Guide | Carl E. Olson

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