In The Truth and Beauty: How the Lives and Works of England’s Greatest Poets Point the Way to a Deeper Understand of the Words of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervasn, c. 2022), Andrew Klaven provides us some fresh, persuasive ways to address our increasingly godless culture. Klavan is well-known in the literary world, considered by Stephen King a “most original American novelist of crime and suspense.” In an earlier book—The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ—he recounted how reading literature tilled the soil for his remarkable conversion. “No one could have been more surprised than I was,” he said. “I never thought I was the type. I had been born and raised a Jew and lived most of my life as an agnostic. I believed in the fullest freedom of thought into the widest reaches of fact and philosophy I believed in science and analysis and reasonable explanations. I had no time for magical thinking of any kind. I couldn’t bear solemn piety. I despise even the ordinary varieties of willful blindness to the tragic shambles of life on earth.” In short, for half-a-century he’d been a hard-boiled realist—“a worlding by nature” But coming to Christ (and being baptized) he “acquired a new realism. My deepened relationship with God augmented my talent for living” (p. 4). Desiring to more fully understand the Faith he turned to the Bible, but found some of its passages, such as the Sermon on the Mount, incomprehensible. Discussing this with his classics-educated son he heard these words: “‘Maybe the problem is that you are trying to understand a philosophy instead of trying to get to know a man.’ I recognized this on the instant as the single smartest thing anyone had ever said to me.” (p. 5). So he embarked on a quest to get to know Jesus. He taught himself koine Greek and read the Gospels, not “trying to understand Jesus’ philosophy” but “to get to know him: who he was inside, how he saw the world, how he tried to make us see it. And that is ultimately what this book is about” (p. 12).
Setting the stage, Klavan explains why he finds help in the 19th century Romantic poets. Nor is he alone in this discovery. William Wordsworth had provided C.S. Lewis “a stepping-stone to faith” by giving glimpses of a more ethereal world and enabling him to escape the iron fetters of materialism. To Klavan: “Mostly without seeking to, mostly without meaning to, these poets rediscovered what is provable in the living of it: that the deepest experience of human existence, the most creative, the most joyful, and surely the most true is the experience taught to us by the incarnate Word of God and bought for us by his crucifixion and resurrection” (p. 17). Consequently, when he “returned to Jesus searching for a deeper understanding of his words, he sent me back to literature—to the poetry I loved most—so that it could explain him to me anew. To paraphrase the lines of T. S. Eliot, a modern Christian poet deeply influenced by the Romantic tradition, the end of all my exploring was to arrive where I had started and to know the place for the first time. I hope that others will find what I found: that that journey—that literary journey of the Romantics through an age of unbelief back to the entryway of faith—is nothing less than the journey home” (p. 19). With Dante, “having strayed from the right path and lost it,” we need to head home.
After delving into the problems of our increasingly godless world, Klavan turns to Wordsworth and Coleridge as sources to both rightly diagnose and properly rectify out worldview. Both men were unusually talented, and they together wrote a book, Lyrical Ballads with a Few Other Poems that “would revolutionize the art of English poetry” (p. 122). Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” begins the book and Wordsworth’s “Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” concludes it. One of C.S. Lewis’s friends, Owen Barfield (an Inkling), wrote Poetic Diction and dedicated it to Lewis. He thought Coleridge’s philosophy “fits into the collaborative cycle of creation,” showing “that, in its origins, language originally expressed the unity of physical and spiritual experience.” Consequently: “The purpose of poetry, Barfield says, is to reunite the language of the physical with the language of the spiritual in our minds, and so recreate the original human experience of the physical and the spiritual as one thing” (p. 127). As with icons in Eastern Orthodoxy, we see through what is here to see what is there.
We crave meaning, Klavan says, “and it matters whether we find that meaning in collaboration with reality or step out of that collaboration and find ourselves left with nihilistic nonsense” (p. 129). Coleridge found such “collaboration with reality” in Jesus. As St John declared: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things were made by Him, and without Him nothing was made.” So, to Coleridge: “‘Might not Christ be the World as revealed to human knowledge? . . . . ‘A kind of common sensorium, the total Idea that modifies all thoughts?’ The word sensorium means the apparatus of human sensation, the way in which we experience the world. Coleridge’s idea is that Christ is the model and perfection of that experience, a true melding of flesh and spirit, life and Logos, man and God. The more we experience the world through Christ, the more we become like Christ and know the world truly” (p. 130). We’re able, Colderidge thought, to behold with our finite minds the “eternal act of creation in the infinite I Am” (p. 130). Thus “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” concludes: “He prayeth well who loveth well / Both man and bird and beast. / He prayeth best who loveth best, / All things both great and small: / For the dear God, who loveth us, / He made and loveth all.” Of all the Romantic poets, only “Coleridge was philosophically brilliant enough to understand that their declarations about nature—its immortality, its beauty and truth—needed to rest upon the supernatural, ‘a kind of common sensorium’—as he called Jesus Christ—‘the total Idea that modifies all thoughts’” (p. 162)
Wordsworth and Coleridge effectively answered Hamlet’s searching query: “‘Who’s there?’ By depicting the human imagination as ‘a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I Am,” and as ‘an agent of the one great mind . . . creator and receiver both, working but in alliance with the works which it beholds,’ they had restored the essentially Christian relationship of man with the Logos. They had written a new mass, which made of all nature the bread and wine, the melding of material and meaning. Which brings us back to C. S. Lewis’s observation: ‘For some souls I believe, for my own I remember, Wordsworthian contemplation can be the first and lowest form of recognition that there is something outside ourselves which demands reverence . . . For ‘the man coming up from below’ the Wordsworthian experience is an advance. Even if he goes no further he has escaped the worst arrogance of materialism: if he goes on he will be converted” (p. 141).
Following his discussion of the Romantic poets, Klavan turns to “The Word Made Flesh: Jesus Versus Unbelief,” finding: “Jesus’ life expresses the Logos, the Word that speaks the world into being, the Word that is with God and that is God. Jesus is that Word made flesh. The meaning of Jesus’ life is the meaning of everything. His truth is truth. His right is right. His beauty is beauty. These are human ideas—truth, right, beauty. These are ways we humans experience the indescribable Logos. But how do we know our truths are true, our right is right, our beauty is beautiful? We know by knowing Jesus. He is what Coleridge said he was: ‘the World as revealed to human knowledge . . . the total Idea that modifies all thoughts’” (p. 169). Inasmuch as He is the Word, “everything Jesus does is a story, but because he is the Word incarnate, it is also life, because his story is the story of the meaning of life. Picture him as a bridge between the physical world and its immaterial meaning” (p. 172). This is ever-evident in Jesus’ parables, for they show us a transcendent realm illustrated in the tangible, transient world. “Meaning is above nature—it is supernatural—because it is the idea that nature expresses” (p. 173).
Many today refuse to acknowledge any supernatural realm, rejecting any designing Mind, any Logos working creatively in the cosmos, denying the reality of any immaterial God Who created all that is. But religious thinkers respond by asserting “that consciousness [or mind], acting at a distance, has a role in creation, that consciousness precedes creation, that it is creation’s source and motive force and can bring what was not there into existence and change what is there into something new. This is the very first thing that happens in the Bible. God says let there be light—and there is. And it’s what Jesus does in the miracles and healings. He uses consciousness to affect matter” (p. 191). Klavan thinks “it is actually more plausible to believe that matter is the spoken word of the One Great Mind than that it is simply itself. Mathematics would not work if this were not so—it would have no underlying idea to which to refer. Truth, morality, and beauty likewise—they would be smoke and illusion, as the materialists say they are. But they’re not. Math, truth, morality, and beauty are all ways in which our minds translate matter into meaning—the Logos—the meaning in the consciousness of the Great Mind. And since our minds are made in the Great Mind’s image, there is no reason not to believe that his Word could appear among us in the guise of ourselves. Like all miracles, it seems unlikely only before it happens. Afterward, it seems entirely reasonable. Such a person, the embodied Word, would be the clear mirror which shows us the image of moral reality we now see only darkly. He would be the silent presence of the truth the language of our lives can only roughly express. And he would be inexpressible except as presence, as story, as a living metaphor for himself. He would be like the experience of bread and wine—indescribable. You have to taste and see that it’s good” (pp. 192-193).
On the road to Emmaus the risen Christ opened his disciples’ minds to the truth of the scriptures, for they speak of Him. Subsequently, Christians found Christ in Hebrew history and sacred writings. Similarly, Klavan has found Jesus as the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end of all things. And the end is revealed to us in His Resurrection, which was “like everything else Jesus did: itself and its meaning. He really rose from the dead, and, rising, he showed that the Word speaks the body into existence and that if the body speaks the Word, it becomes part of its endless creation and will be spoken into life without end. The resurrection tells us that when the flesh becomes the Word, the Word will become flesh again, in a new body, incorruptible. The resurrection says to us: heaven and earth shall pass away but the Word will never pass away. Therefore, become the Word” (p. 228).
Commending Klavan’s book, Stephen C. Meyer (author of Return of the God Hypothesis)says: “Andrew Klavan has written a stunningly original work that defies classification by genre. It is, at once, literary, philosophical, and deeply Christian—and, for all those reasons, personally enriching.” Still more: “The Truth and Beauty is full of insight about romantic love and human mortality, the perils of utopian politics, the nature of men and women, the meaning of life and the moral order, science and the possibility of knowledge, and especially, the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. Not since reading C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce in college has a single book induced such deep and constructive theological reflection in me, as I suspect it will for many other readers.” Similarly, Carl Trueman says: ‘We live in a disenchanted world, a world of commodities and ‘stuff’ that simply do not satisfy the intrinsic human craving for meaning and transcendence.” But: “For those who love both Christ and great literature . . . this book is a delight and a means to that most important of things: the reenchantment of our world.”
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To Saint Teresa of Calcutta: “The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty—it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.” As Jennifer Roback Morse makes clear in The Sexual State: How Elite Ideologies Are Destroying Lives and Why the Church Was Right All Along (Charlotte, N.C: TAN Books, c. 2018; Kindle Edition), our hunger for love has been seriously subverted by our culture. We’re certainly blessed in many ways, yet all too frequently we’re lonely, anxious and depressed. Children and women seem especially troubled. “The average child in the 1980s reported more anxiety than child psychiatric patients in the 1950s” and “women’s happiness declined both absolutely and relative to men between the 1970s and the turn of the century” (#139).
Why might this be? Morse blames the Sexual State. Citing many examples as well as scholarly studies, she says cohabitation, divorce, pornography, casual hook-ups, contraception, abortion, etc. have soared following the Sexual Revolution in the ‘60s. Its main tenets are: “separate sex from childbearing: the Contraceptive Ideology; separate both sex and childbearing from marriage: the Divorce Ideology; eliminate all distinctions between men and women except those that individuals explicitly embrace: the Gender Ideology” (#318). These ideologies certainly prevail in America’s universities and media and have helped shape various Supreme Court decisions. As a devout, traditional Catholic, Morse says the only significant alternative is “the Catholic Narrative. The unbroken teaching of the Catholic Church is that the Contraceptive, Divorce, and Gender Ideologies are all at war with human nature and divine law” (#676). Consequently they must be resisted.
Unfortunately the Church faces a formidable foe in the modern state, controlled by secular elitists. “The Sexual Revolution has never been a grassroots movement. It is and always has been a movement of the elites justifying their preferred lifestyles, imposing their new morality, and, in the process, allowing them unprecedented control over others” (#743). It’s the state that runs the nation’s schools and insists they promote the Sexual Revolution. It’s the state that issues judicial edicts imposing no fault divorce, same-sex marriage, trans-gender “rights,” etc. It’s the state the zealously excludes any religious traditions, admonitions or prescriptions from the public square. Only the state has coercive power to impose its standards, though they are manifestly false. In fact: “Children do need their parents, and therefore marriage is the proper and just context for both sex and childrearing. Men and women are different. The true sexual revolutionaries resent these facts.” They fantasize about making a better world with utopian components. But denying reality doesn’t ultimately change it—it simply harms the persons shoved into its molds. “It requires government coercion, media propaganda, economic restructuring, and educational indoctrination to cancel out the impact of sex differences” #823). People capable of believing a man pretending to be a woman is actually a woman can easily believe 2 + 2 = 5.
Having assessed the power of the Sexual State, Morse devotes many chapters to examining court decisions, academic research and personal anecdotes, finding abundant reasons to reject the contraceptive, divorce and gender ideologies. “The contraceptive revolution was supposed to make ‘every child a wanted child,’ but who can take that cliché seriously now?,” she says. Highly educated career women may consider it a great good, but “the percentage of children born to unmarried mothers has increased dramatically during the period in which both contraception and abortion were legally available and highly promoted.” The data speak clearly: “regardless of intent, the results of have been catastrophic for women and children” (#1457). But the government has imposed its will and promoted contraceptives by all means necessary, guided by a perverse commitment to eugenics. As Margaret Sanger declared in 1919: “More children from the fit, less from the unfit—that is the chief issue of birth control,” a vision, empowering the corps of “ardent believers” who lead the feminist and environmentalist armies. And they are financed by some of the world’s most wealthy and powerful men, such as George Soros, Warren Buffett and John D. Rockefeller III. Speaking at the Third World Population Conference in Bucharest in 1974, Rockefeller said “promoting women’s rights was a key to reducing world population” (#1796).
Aborting 60+ million unborn American babies in 50 years has certainly helped reduce world population and has been zealously promoted by the Sexual State! But it’s suppressed evidence showing how abortions harm women. Multiple studies link abortion with breast cancer, and one scholar asserts: “‘Induced abortion is now a commonly-accepted risk factor for breast cancer—except in North America, where it is denied chiefly for political reasons.’ The American medical profession is complicit in suppressing the knowledge of this well-documented risk” (#2154). For example, Leslie Bernstein, a National Cancer Institute researcher found birthing a baby helps protect a woman from breast cancer—“the biggest bang for the buck is the first birth, and the younger you are the better off you are”—but she refused to promote her research because of its political implications. Our elites have championed contraception and abortion, enabling women to pursue careers, buy houses, and enjoy our affluent society. Almost alone in resisting the contraceptive ideology, Morse says, is the Catholic Church, for the “unbroken teaching of the Church is that the unitive and procreative aspects of the sexual act must not be separated” (#2640). She insists the Church is right, and the faithful should fully embrace and follow her teachings.
Turning to the Divorce Ideology (firmly established by no-fault divorce laws) Morse stresses that: “Children of divorce were the first victims of the Sexual Revolution. Children of unmarried parents followed quickly behind them. Now, children of same-sex couples and children of donor conception are the latest victims” (#2706). Children clearly “suffer from the loss of connection with their parents. Children suffer from their parents’ divorce. Children suffer from the loss of their fathers if their parents never marry in the first place. Children suffer from their parents’ remarriages and other couplings. And while the evidence is still relatively new, early indications are that the children of donor conception have serious issues with the circumstances of their conception. It takes a lot of propaganda to maintain the myth that the kids will be fine” (#3545). We now confront “two competing worldviews.” Christians have traditionally held that adults who bring children into the world have duties regarding them. Secularists insist adults should enjoy sexual pleasures with little concern for children who have to adjust to their parents’ desires, and the Sexual State should maximize opportunities for sexual expression. Lawmakers have crafted policies that enabled unmarried women to get money for both contraception and child care. Consequently, whereas in 1960 only 5 percent of all births were to unmarried women, within a decade 10 percent were non-marital, and “since 2011, over 40 percent of all births are to unmarried women” (#3241). The soaring illegitimacy rates were significantly fueled by governmental policies. Casualties ensuing from the Divorce Ideology created a wasteland are all around us, should were care to consider it.
The final ideology—the Gender Ideology—has only recently begun making inroads into our culture, infiltrating multiple institutions, taking increasingly radical forms. Contraception severs sex from babies and divorce separates children from parents, but Gender Ideology frees individuals from their own bodies. Its proponents “now insist that any individual can reconstruct his or her own personal gender identity,” that “gender is a construct merely assigned at birth,” and that “genitalia are not sufficient to classify people into male or female” (#3685). As is now evident, when courts decree that men self-identifying as women may compete in women’s athletics, the Gender Ideology is now part of the Sexual State. That this is “truly revolutionary” goes without saying.
Morse concludes her treatise by urging us to move “From the Sexual State to a Civilization of Love: A Manifesto for the Family,” which includes ending sex education in public schools, abolishing taxpayer-funded women’s and gender studies, reforming divorce laws, stopping the “marriage tax” in welfare programs, outlawing abortion, and eliminating same-sex marriage. Probable? No, but probative!