In the Light of Christ: Writings in the Western Tradition
By Lucy Beckett
Ignatius Press | 2006 | 664 pages | ISBN-10: 1586171070 | US$21.95

Oscar Wilde once described a cynic as “knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing”. This careless witticism suggests more than its author could have realised; indeed, it is a neat description of the post-modern culture in which we live. Lucy Beckett’s book is a magnificent demonstration of the poverty of the rational, scientific outlook when divorced from “value”, the value of certain classic texts in the light of truth, goodness and beauty – the light of Christ.

Beckett has put a lifetime of study and teaching into this book. She studied at Cambridge University and for 20 years she taught English, Latin and history at Ampleforth College, a renouwned private secondary school, run by the Benedictines. She has published books on Wallace Stevens and Wagner’s Parsifal, as well as a novel about the Reformation, The Time Before You Die, and a collection of poems.

Beginning with the pre-Christian Plato and Greek tragedy – “For Aeschylus and Sophocles, as for us, the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom” – Beckett traces how writers down the centuries have responded to the coming of God into the world. In this enterprise she is constantly alert to the either/or that Christ’s incarnation poses: either the Christian story is true and therefore the whole of life is charged with the mystery and grandeur of God; or man is a merely a “biological accident in a random universe”. As the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre states: “There is no neutral ground.”

Central to her thesis are the writings of Augustine of Hippo. Rescuing him from the bad press he has endured over the years (obsessed with sin and negative about sex) Beckett shows his enduringly creative influence on later torchbearers. For Augustine, in incomparable prose, vividly describes the tension between the city of God and the civitas terrena, and the drama of man’s existence caught between the two: his need for grace, his weakness, his longing for transcendence and his struggles to overcome himself. Until the 13th century the Augustinian tradition predominated. With the advent of the universities, of Abelard and Thomas Aquinas, a chasm developed between professional theologians and the amateurs (literally “lovers”). Abelard “presaged a future in which thinking about the things of God would be cut free from receiving God as a gift of grace.”

For Beckett the Western tradition means “a collaborative achievement of coherent intellectual effort”. Athenian tragedy prefigured the truth of Christianity; Virgil — “anima naturaliter Christiana” and thus the chosen companion of Dante — influenced Augustine who, in turn, inspired the monastic writers: Benedict, Bede, Bernard of Clairvaux, and others. But the book is by no means a dry, academic survey of an immense wealth of literature. The author has the gift of bringing her chosen writers to life in such a way that the reader is constantly prompted to turn, or return, to the works she considers with such passionate rigour. As she observes, simply knowing the complex details of Dante’s Thomist cosmology will not make us love him. What makes him, Shakespeare, Pascal, John Donne or Hopkins (to name a few of the writers she engages with) come alive on the page is their artistry, compounded of their relationship to God, their own experience and the books that have influenced them.

Clearly, a great influence throughout this book is the writing of the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. Quoting von Balthasar on Shakespeare – “All the time he is utterly certain that the highest good is to be found in forgiveness” – Beckett makes the point that Shakespeare’s “sense of the truth of God and of the freedom and responsibility of the will” is shaped by the Christian and specifically the Augustinian Catholic tradition. Common sense will intuitively recognise this in his celebration of goodness and truth “through a beauty from which they are not separable”. This challenges both the “Protestant” Shakespeare and the modish “values-free” Shakespeare. She wonders whether Shakespeare, whose background was entirely Catholic, had read Augustine’s Confessions. It remains an intriguing possibility — after all, Augustine invented the soliloquy as a mode of dramatic discourse.

Finally we come to the long shadow of the Enlightenment. Beckett observes that by the time of Dr Johnson’s death in 1784 (he himself had a greater sympathy for the old faith than is commonly realised) it was becoming rarer and therefore more difficult for an intellectual to believe that the central doctrines of Christianity were true. This was the fitful but courageous journey of the brilliant, chaotic Coleridge, who, like Pascal before him or Newman after, had come to a certainty of the Trinitarian God.

Newman saw the either/or as a turning towards God’s redeeming love for the world or a turning “to our own intelligence, our own opinions, our own will”. Yet the influence of the 19th century poet, educator and literary critic Matthew Arnold predominated. High-minded Victorians hoped that culture could replace faith. Later critics like F. R. Leavis divinised literature under the illusion that “poetry can save us”.

A fascinating late chapter examines 20th century writers from a cultured but entirely secular background and education who struggled to discover what lay behind their quest for truth, goodness and beauty. These include the writer Simone Weil, the critic George Steiner and the novelist Saul Bellow. How can a gifted modern writer admit the possibility of faith without seeming irrational? And how can a Christian creative writer, in the sceptical, relativist climate of today (someone on a recent, serious BBC radio programme dismissed Catholic beliefs as “flailing, dying superstitions” without protest) have any platform at all?

This short summary can hardly do justice to such a rich and thought-provoking book. Beckett’s work, drawing on a wide range of poems, plays, essays, letters and diaries, offers an erudite, lucid and insightful commentary, presenting the Western canon in a way not hitherto attempted. While informative – indeed inspiring — for Catholic and other Christian readers, it is also aimed at intelligent agnostics who are open-minded and brave enough not to fudge the conclusions to which the book draws them. The author has struck a formidable blow at the arid, deconstructed, cultural wilderness we live in and shown what literature is like when it is fed from the stream of faith.

Francis Phillips writes from Bucks in the UK.