Conversion by the Book
LONDON, ONTARIO – Perhaps in this first week of Easter, you are casting about for some edifying literature; seeking out what Bertie Wooster used to call, “an improving book” or two or three. One of the best source books I know for picking up leads and cues about writers who are working in my favoured field of zealotry is Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Unbelief by Joseph Pearce (1999). Pearce accomplished something utterly new under the sun with this book which is nothing less than a running chronicle of twentieth century Christian conversion (mostly Catholic) among British literati. As interesting as the thumbnail sketches of everybody from Robert Hugh Benson and Ronald Knox to Malcolm Muggeridge and Graham Greene, was Pearce’s meticulous tracing of the threads of inspiration and influence which connect them all.
Completely bowled over by his book, I leapt at the opportunity to interview Pearce for Challenge magazine in the fall of 2000. Then thirty-nine years old (which means he turns 60 this year), Pearce had been making serious inroads over the previous ten years as the foremost English-language biographer of Christian writers. An early biography of J.R.R. Tolkien announced his presence to an international readership but it was particularly his 1996 biography of G.K. Chesterton, Wisdom and Innocence (published by Harper-Collins in Britain and Ignatius in the States) that garnered enthusiastic reviews, hailing it as the most accomplished, accurate and balanced account of its subject since Maisie Ward’s official, two volume opus appeared mid-century.
In the decades following this interview, Pearce published biographies of Hilaire Belloc, Roy Campbell, Oscar Wilde, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and E.F. Schumacher. Also in this interview Pearce touches upon his own remarkable story of conversion (which he also has subsequently written about in Race with The Devil) from atheistic intolerance to devout faith.
GOODDEN: With Literary Converts you have written a fascinatingly tangled and interconnected account of twentieth century Christian conversion via the written word, of both aspiring and successful writers who read their way into the Church. Do you believe there’s any similar climate out there today? There’s a wonderful sense in reading your book of the torch being eagerly passed from hand to hand throughout the culture. And I don’t feel that same sort of literary contagion today but maybe that’s because we can’t discern the big picture.
PEARCE: Certainly we can’t see the big picture. The trouble is that we’re all shackled by the times in which we live. But the rather sobering conclusion of Literary Converts is that there is a sense in the last twenty or thirty years of the twentieth century that this great Christian literary revival was at least faltering, if not petering out altogether. We no longer have such a great number of literary figures who are converting and producing works of literature which resonate with a Christian response to the modern age in its various forms.
GOODDEN: One omission that struck me was that you didn’t include more than incidental discussion of the vital role played by Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward when they started up their wonderfully dynamic Catholic publishing house.
PEARCE: I think you’re right there and I will accept that as a valid criticism. Also I should perhaps have squeezed in something about Alice and Wilfrid Meynell and their publishing enterprises (with Francis Thompson and so on) into the very first pages. The trouble is that the book is so ambitious in its panoramic scope that you just have to have cut-off points. So I accept what you say and put up my hands and apologize.
GOODDEN: Could you comment on the central role played in Literary Converts by Chesterton?
PEARCE: I think that Chesterton is a key figure and a crucial part of the whole revival. Because I was writing towards the end of the twentieth century, the structure of the book was specifically built around twentieth century literary converts. But the literary revival as a whole, I think it would be truer to say, began in the middle of the nineteenth century. And taking that revival over a hundred and fifty years, the two biggest figures were Newman – who sort of kick-started it with his wonderful literary abilities and theological insights and his charisma – and then in the beginning of the twentieth century when possibly it might have begun to falter, you had this wonderful figure of Chesterton coming along, writing initially these books which attacked the enemy such as Heretics, and then responding to the challenge in books like Orthodoxy. The number of converts that came after Chesterton who cited Orthodoxy as a crucial book in their own conversion is just staggering.
GOODDEN: In the few cases where you talk about writers who didn’t become Catholics – I’m thinking particularly of T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis – you have at least a short discussion addressing the question as to whether they would have been driven into the Catholic Church by now, were they still alive. What would you say to an Anglican reader who objected that this approach smacked of triumphalism?
PEARCE: I could understand that but it’s still a very interesting exercise and would make a fascinating book if you were to get various people to come at Eliot and Lewis in the light of developments in religion since their deaths and how they would address these. But it would also be – however interesting and stimulating – largely hypothetical. I think the reason I mentioned it was not because of triumphalism on my part, but because the highly respected literary critic, Russell Kirk, had actually speculated in that way. Because he knew Eliot so well, and possibly Lewis too, I felt those comments were worth quoting.
GOODDEN: Is it Kirk who says of Eliot that he couldn’t possibly become Catholic because he’d already exhausted his entire capacity for conversion by turning himself into an Englishman?
PEARCE: That was either Jacques Maritain or Etienne Gilson. It’s a wonderfully humorous quip that I just had to put in because it’s so funny, but it’s also very perceptive and profound. There was a sense in which Eliot was so concerned with being the quintessential Englishman, that he ultimately distorted his image of England, the Anglican Church, and indeed the Catholic Church. One hesitates in being critical of Eliot because he was such a genius in so many ways, but in that particular aspect, I think he rather wilfully deceived himself.
GOODDEN: You’re now thirty-nine years old and you only came to the Church in 1989. In view of your chapters on Vatican II and the shock which the liturgical changes caused to so many of the literary converts, I’m wondering if you ever pine for an earlier Church than you’ve ever personally known?
PEARCE: I would say no to that. I didn’t approach those later chapters on the 1960s and ‘70s from a preconceived position. I didn’t wish to make a political point for the traditionalists or the modernists. In writing the book I was struck by the extent to which many of these converts were unsettled by and uncomfortable with a lot of the changes that were heralded by Vatican II. On a purely objective, academic level it was obviously my duty to convey that, which I did. My own position is that I’m entirely at home with the present Holy Father, John Paul II, and the way he has led the Church in the last twenty or so years. I don’t hanker after the past. The more you understand history, the more you see that in every single decade of the Church’s history, there have been crises. The Church is both a rock and a pilgrim. It is a Church Militant fighting against the evils of secularism, materialism and the world in every age. But the guise which secularism and materialism wear changes with passing intellectual and spiritual fashions. Basically, it’s the same enemy and the same truth which we fight it with – which is Catholic Christendom. I’m very confident that the Church will weather whatever storms it faces today.
GOODDEN: It was interesting reading your chapter on the changes of Vatican II and finding that the most reassuring words came from perhaps the least literate person quoted in your entire book – and that’s Mother Teresa talking to Malcolm Muggeridge, basically saying, “Oh, don’t sweat your socks. The Church has come through worse than this and will still be here tomorrow.”
PEARCE: Trust a saint to get straight to the point.
GOODDEN: It’s almost as if there’s something in the literary temperament that is so unnaturally refined and abstemious that these folks couldn’t help but get snagged on any sort of liturgical tinkering. Whereas heartier types just took it in stride.
PEARCE: There’s also a great sense of beauty in any of the arts and there was this sense that the tampering with the liturgy at the Second Vatican Council was an act of barbarism, the work of Philistines. A lot of these converts entered the Church because they were consciously rejecting the spirit of the age. They were therefore very concerned that aspects of Vatican II were compromising that integrity.
GOODDEN: Et tu, Rome?
PEARCE: Exactly. It is very easy and very dangerous to become embroiled in the machinations and ramifications of the Second Vatican Council. The important thing to remember is that renewal and tradition in the Church are creative forces, even if they’re creating tensions, and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit which is entrusted to the Church, then eventually, however buffeted, the Church always finds itself back on an even keel.
GOODDEN: Can we talk about your background? There was a rather shocking piece published over here in the National Post where you wrote about your years as a skinhead. Without putting too fine a point on it . . . how lost were you?
PEARCE: (laughs) I didn’t have any Christianity in my upbringing, although I very much love my parents and my father has subsequently been received into the Church. Basically, I grew up in a very rough, economically run down area of east London at a time when there were large demographic changes caused by mass immigration – along with all the sort of pot-boiling problems that can arise from that. By the time I was thirteen or fouirteen, I was a racist and I joined the National Front. By the time I was twenty-one the only view of life which I had was the one I’d been propagandized with. And not only was I the recipient of that propaganda, I was also the perpetrator of it as the editor of a couple of magazines. So I was very deeply embroiled and in many respects I regard it as a minor miracle that through the Grace of God, I was led out of that labyrinth.
GOODDEN: What was the golden string that led you out?
PEARCE: The largest influence was Chesterton. The National Front was being called ‘the Boot Boys of Capitalism’. I did not consider myself to be an apologist of big business. Although I despised Marxism, I was searching for a just way of looking at society and somebody suggested, ‘Well, have you looked into the Distributism of Belloc and Chesterton?’ So I approached Chesterton purely from a socio-economic-political angle. There was one essay called, Reflections on a Rotten Apple, that was recommended to me. That is actually in a book of essays called The Well and the Shallows. Now the rest of the book is Chesterton’s apologetics for the Catholic faith. At this time I was also a member of the Protestant Orange Order, not because I was a Christian but for purely political reasons as a staunch Ulster Loyalist. I didn’t like the Catholic Church. Being a rather meticulous sort of person I like to read a book from cover to cover, so you can imagine what an unsettling experience it was for me to read Chesterton and be blown away by his logic, by his writing style, by his geniality, by his spirit and by his soul. By the time I finished reading the book, I was largely intellectually converted – although it took another two years to unravel all the other things that were shackling me down, enabling me to enter the Church.
I’ve written biographies of Oscar Wilde and Alexander Solzhenitsyn and a key motif in both their spiritual passages were prison sentences, the experience of prison and the impact that has on one’s psyche. I went to prison on two occasions, serving a total of ten months, for political offences – for editing racist material. Both those sentences were quite powerful in changing my outlook and of course there was the inexpressible grace of God working all the time. Basically the whole of the 1980s was what could be described as a healing process, leading from my first reading of Chesterton in 1980 to my reception into the Church on St. Joseph’s Day of 1989.
GOODDEN: I think it’s just delicious that you were first drawn to Chesterton for his economic theory. And I’m reminded of that famous quote of C.S. Lewis, commenting on Chesterton’s persuasive powers, that, “A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful in his reading.”
PEARCE: Absolutely. You can imagine when I read that quote how much it resonated with me and why I had to put it in this book.
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