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Saturday, 22 August 2015

Christian Arts renaissance: Major or minor?

In 1983 former pupil of C.S. Lewis, the literary historian, Harry Blamires, wrote:

'Lewis began writing just at the point when this minor Christian renaissance in literature was taking off. His Pilgrim's Regress came out in 1933. And the 1930s were a remarkable decade in this respect. Eliot's Ash Wednesday came out in 1930, The Rock in 1934, Murder in the Cathedral in 1935 and Burnt Norton in 1936. Charles Williams's War in Heaven was published in 1930, The Place of the Lion in 1931, The Greater Trumps in 1932, and his play Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury in 1936. Helen Waddell's Peter Abelard came out in 1933. Meanwhile on the stage James Bridie had great popular successes with his biblical plays Tobias and the Angel (1930) and Jonah and the Whale (1932). Then by 1937 Christopher Fry was launched with The Boy with a Cart. That same year saw Dorothy Sayers's The Zeal of Thy House performed, and David Jones's In Parenthesis and Tolkien's The Hobbit published. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet followed in 1938, along with Williams's Taliessin Through Logres and Greene's Brighton Rock. Eliot's Family Reunion followed in 1939, Greene's The Power and the Glory in 1940. During the same decade Evelyn Waugh was getting known and Rose Macauley was in spate. Edwin Muir, Andrew Young and Francis Berry appeared in print.

So when the literary historian looks back at the English literary scene in the 1930s and 1940s he is going to see C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams, not as freakish throwbacks, but as initial contributors to what I have called a Christian literary renaissance, if a minor one.'

This summary, which is accurate as far as it goes, illustrates some of the reasons why a Christian renaissance in the Arts during the twentieth century and into the present is not more widely recognised and acknowledged.

Blamires, like many whose writings touch on this renaissance, reaches his conclusion regarding a minor Christian literary renaissance as part of a different focus i.e. his interest in C.S. Lewis, Lewis' circle and its influence. In other words, he didn't write about this Christian renaissance per se and, therefore, did not explore it in depth. We still await an Arts historian willing and able to do.

As a result, there is much that Blamires misses, as well as much that he includes. He neglects to mention that Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were primarily responsible for the entry of modern fantasy fiction into the mainstream of publishing or that Lewis made a significant contribution to the development of science fiction or that many of the writers and works he lists formed the core of the Verse Drama movement. Awareness of this latter movement also brings writers such as Gordon Bottomley, Ronald Duncan, Norman Nicholson and Anne Ridler onto the stage. This movement was partly facilitated by George Bell's founding of the Canterbury Festival, when Dean of Canterbury Cathedral, which led to the formation of the Religious Drama Society of Great Britain under the directorship of E. Martin Browne.

Bell was also active in the visual arts, particularly in the Diocese of Chichester, where his commissioning and appointments, such as Walter Hussey to be Dean of Chichester Cathedral, resulted in significant commissions at Berwick Parish Church, Chichester Cathedral and the Chapel of the Ascension at Bishop Otter College. These commissions essentially began an engagement with the visual arts that continues into the present and which has resulted in artist residencies, exhibitions, installations and commissions, both temporary and permanent, in churches and cathedrals throughout the UK.

So, by his focus on literary works alone, Blamires also misses the bigger picture of the wider renaissance. Again, this is a common shortcoming in those who touch on this renaissance because of the other agendas they are primarily pursuing.

Similarly, Blamires neglects an international dimension. From a literary perspective, had he explored the international dimension the minor renaissance he notes might, again, have appeared more significant. In this respect he could have noted the emergence of the Modern Catholic Novel as part of the French Catholic Revival. Theodore P. Fraser writes, in The Modern Catholic Novel In Europe, that:

"The Catholic novel in Europe as we know it today originated in French literature of the nineteenth century. Originally part of the neo-romantic reaction against Enlightenment philosophy and the anti-religious doctrines of the Revolution, the Catholic novel attained fruition and became an accomplished literary form spearheading the renouveau catholique, or Catholic literary revival. This literary movement contained in its ranks a number of brilliant writers (Bloy, Péguy, Huysmans, Bernanos, Mauriac, Claudel, Jacques Maritain, and Jacques Rivière, to name the most important) who reached maturity at the century's end or during the decade of World War I, and it essentially took the form of a strong, even violent, reaction of these French Catholic writers against the doctrine of positivism that had gained preeminence in French political and cultural circles in the last third at least of the nineteenth century."

Marian E. Crowe noted in 2007, in Aiming At Heaven, Getting The Earth, that "the past eighty years have seen high-quality Catholic novels by Maurice Baring, A. J. Cronin, Compton Mackenzie, Antonia White, J. R. R. Tolkien, John Braine, Rumer Godden, and Anne Redmon" and that "... Alice Thomas Ellis, David Lodge, Sara Maitland, and Piers Paul Read ... do not hesitate to include the "craggy" and "paradoxical" parts of Catholicism."

Citing over two decades of experience publishing a who’s who of what he calls “believing writers” (Annie Dillard, Marilynne Robinson, Elie Wiesel, Mark Helprin, and Mary Karr (a Catholic convert), Gregory Wolfe has asserted: "The myth of secularism triumphant in the literary arts is just that—a myth. Yet making lists of counterexamples does not get at a deeper matter. It has to do with the way that faith takes on different tones and dimensions depending on the culture surrounding it."

So, from a literary perspective, writers such as W.H. Auden, Wendell Berry, John BerrymanRhidian Brook, Jack ClemoShusaku Endo, U.E. FanthorpeWilliam Golding, Geoffrey HillP.D. James, Elizabeth JenningsDavid Lodge, Sara Maitland, Czesław Miłosz, Nicholas Mosley, Les MurrayFlannery O'ConnorWalker PercyJames Robertson, R.S. ThomasSalley Vickers, Niall Williams and Tim Winton, can all be cited, among others, as of relevance to the wider ongoing renaissance. In 'popular' fiction, John Grisham, Susan Howatch, Mary Doria Russell, Piers Paul Read, Ann Rice and Morris West, among others, can be noted. Theological themes and practices of faith also continue to be explored in contemporary fiction. The work of Douglas Coupland or novels such as Patrick Gale's A Perfectly Good Man and Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry being a few examples. Additionally, novelists have been re-examining the life of Christ and his followers through novels such as: Jim Crace's Quarantine, Norman Mailer's The Gospel According to the Son, Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Ann Rice's Christ the Lord series, Colm Tóibín's The Testament of Mary, and Niall Williams' John, among others.
Joseph Pearce suggests in Literary Converts that: "[G. K.] Chesterton's 'coming out' as a Christian had a profound effect, similar in its influence to Newman's equally candid confession of othodoxy more than fifty years earlier. In many ways it heralded a Christian literary revival which, throughout the twentieth century, represented an evocative artistic and intellectual response to the prevailing agnosticism of the age. Dr Barbara Reynolds, the Dante scholar and friend and biographer of Dorothy L. Sayers, described this literary revival as 'a network of minds energizing each other'. Besides Chesterton, its leading protagonists included T. S. Eliot, C. S. LewisSiegfried Sassoon, J. R. R. Tolkien, Hilaire Belloc, Charles Williams, R. H. Benson, Ronald Knox, Edith Sitwell, Roy Campbell, Maurice Baring, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Muriel Spark, Dorothy L. Sayers, Alfred Noyes, Compton Mackenzie, David Jones, Christopher Dawson, Malcolm Muggeridge, R. S. Thomas and George Mackay Brown. Its influence spread beyond the sphere of literature. Alec Guinness, Ernest Milton and Robert Speaight were among the thespians whose lives were interwoven with those of their Christian literary contemporaries."

All this reflects primarily Western literature and does not touch the visual arts which in both Western and non-Western forms saw and see significant engagement between Christianity and modern art. I have sought to document much of this engagement in my series of posts entitled 'Airbrushed from Art History' and 'Sabbatical Art Pilgrimage'.

It may well be that all this engagement between the Arts and Christianity is still judged to be a minor renaissance. My point, however, is that the significance of this ongoing renaissance cannot be properly assessed and judged until it is considered and documented historically as a whole. While our record of it remains fragmentary, its significance cannot be fully or fairly evaluated.


T.S. Eliot - Ash Wednesday.

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