Professor Joseph Pearce, director of book publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review and of the Ignatius Critical Editions, and an instructor and speaker on Catholic literature, joined Dr. David Tamisiea, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Mary, to discuss the role of literature in forming a Catholic imagination and the current state of Catholic literature.
Dr. David Tamisiea (DT): Professor Pearce, it's been some years since we were neighbors in Florida, so it's good to be visiting with you again. Literature played an important role in your conversion to Catholicism, so could we start by getting into your early background and eventual conversion to the faith?
Professor Joseph Pearce (JP): I was born in London, England. At the age of 15 I became heavily involved in radical politics; indeed, at the age of 15 I joined a white supremacist organization in England and I quickly rose through its ranks. At the age of 16 I started editing a magazine for the organization called Bulldog, and I became the youngest-ever member of its executive council when I was about 17 years old. It was for the editing of Bulldog that I was imprisoned twice for publishing materials likely to incite racial hatred. I spent my 21st and 25th birthdays in prison. The two sentences were quite different for me: during the first prison sentence I was really a radical, hate-filled political activist, but by the second sentence I didn’t believe the stuff I was being imprisoned for publishing. That made the second sentence much more difficult. When I saw myself as a political soldier and political prisoner, it gave me a psychological support. But when I was imprisoned for things I no longer believed, I was left questioning, “What am I even doing here?” I had already started reading through Catholic writers and was on the path to the faith before the second prison sentence, and it was during that second sentence that I started going to Mass.
DT: Reading Catholic literature played a large role in your conversion, and that leads to two questions. First, how did you find yourself reading Catholic literature to begin with? Second, how did reading literature lead you to Christ and help to form your imagination so that you began to see the world in a new kind of way?
JP: Nobody would have thought me the type of person to read anything that smelt of Catholicism at that time. I was extremely anti-Christian in general, but I was extremely anti-Catholic in particular. I was even a member of the Orange Order, a secret society that exists to hate Catholics. I was involved with Protestant terrorist organizations in Northern Ireland and their anti-Catholicism. So there was nothing that was going to convince me to read something that was “Catholic,” but I was clearly interested in politics. I was looking for alternatives to the Marxist model and the globalist, capitalist model. Someone recommended that I look into the principles of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. I didn’t know who those men were, but I was prevailed upon to buy some of their books. I bought a book by Chesterton called The Well and the Shallows for one essay, but I figured if Chesterton was worth reading, I would start from the first page of the book rather than skip to the essay I was interested in. The basis for the whole book is a defense of Catholicism: the well refers to the depth and life-giving waters of the Catholic Church, and the shallows refers to everything else in the world. Everything is shallow in relation to the well of life that is the Church. Obviously, I didn’t have an overnight conversion experience, but I couldn’t help being fascinated. More to the point, I fell in love with Chesterton.
The first book I ever read by C.S. Lewis was his autobiographical conversion story, Surprised by Joy. In it, he recounts his own experience of reading Chesterton for the first time, while he was recovering in a field hospital in France. Lewis was an atheist and a cynic at the time and admitted that one might think Chesterton an unlikely author for him to read. But Lewis said that he couldn’t help liking Chesterton and his sense of humor, and he came to see that Chesterton had more common sense than all the moderns put together. That described my own experience. And like Lewis, I accepted everything Chesterton said except for his Christianity. But, of course, you come to see in the end that everything Chesterton says is rooted in his Christianity.
As I read these words of Lewis, I felt a sense of déjà vu. Lewis described his experience as being something like falling in love: you fall in love with Chesterton the person and admire who he is and where he was coming from. I formed a sort of a relationship with G.K. Chesterton, and he took me by the hand and brought me to the threshold of the Church. I always say that under grace, I owe more to Chesterton than anybody else for my conversion. My biography of Chesterton, which was the first book I wrote as a Catholic, was an act of thanksgiving to God for giving me Chesterton, but it was also an act of thanksgiving to Chesterton for giving me God.
DT: Chesterton is known as the Apostle of Common Sense for a reason! I can see how someone like him could reach someone like you: intelligent and interested in ideas, but maybe not interested in Christianity immediately.
I’m going to ask you a bit more about the role of literature in opening someone up to seeing the world in a new way, but before I do that I want to ask you a bit more about your career as a literary biographer. You are a prolific author, and many of your books have been biographies of Christian and Catholic authors, mostly from the mid-nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries, such as Chesterton, Belloc, Lewis, and Tolkien. How did that come about?
To understand the importance of narrative, ask yourself: How does God reveal himself to us most evocatively and powerfully? He does so through telling stories. Most importantly, he does so by telling us the story that we know as history, which can be understood providentially as His story.
JP: I have found that converts are fascinated with other converts. All roads might lead to Rome, but all roads are different. The question of how different people have started in different places but all arrived in the same place is fascinating. Chesterton was a convert, Tolkien was a convert as a child, Lewis was a convert to Christianity although he never became Catholic. Even Oscar Wilde was received into the Church on his deathbed. I became fascinated with this network of minds, this network of grace that formed what has since become known as the Catholic Cultural Revival, beginning with the conversion of Oscar Wilde in 1900 and ending with the death of Graham Greene in 1991.
DT: This might be a dangerous question to ask an author, but I’m curious: of the biographies you’ve written on literary converts, do you have a favorite? I apologize if that’s a bit like asking a parent who their favorite child is!
JP: If I had to pick just one, it would be a biography I wrote about a fairly unknown South African poet named Roy Campbell, entitled Unafraid of Virginia Woolf: The Friends and Enemies of Roy Campbell. I think it’s the best job I’ve done as a biographer.
Some characters are very straightforward, like Chesterton, and their life stories go with the flow, so to speak. Other people are filled with conflicts and contradictions, and their lives are a bit of a mess as a consequence, so trying to get to grips with their lives is a bit like wrestling. Oscar Wilde proved a challenge in that way, and so did Hilaire Belloc to an extent. Roy Campbell was such an interesting fellow in that sense, but I was able to go out to Portugal and interview both of his daughters, and I had access to a lot of unpublished letters. I had a lot of good source material. You asked a question you knew might be dangerous, so I answered with a long spiel about someone you probably hadn’t heard of!
DT: Let’s return to the role of literature in forming the Christian imagination – in forming the way we look at the world. I think the first question we need to ask is what we mean by the term literature.
JP: In the broadest sense of the word, there are two ways of seeing reality. We can see reality literally and literarily. The literal level is the level of fact. But as St. Thomas Aquinas tells us about reading Scripture, beyond the literal level are several levels of allegorical meaning. The word allegory itself comes from Greek, meaning that which speaks of something else. When we’re reading the literal reality in terms of signs and symbols, we’re reading it allegorically – that’s when we are seeing reality literarily. So that’s the broadest sense of what we can mean by literature: seeing how the literal meaning of things speaks of other realities.
Now, in terms of literature as we normally understand it, we can speak of the narrative and lyrical aspects. Both are manifestations of how we are made in the image and likeness of God.
To understand the importance of narrative, ask yourself: How does God reveal himself to us most evocatively and powerfully? He does so through telling stories. Most importantly, he does so by telling us the story that we know as history, which can be understood providentially as His story. And within that story he tells a more particular story, the greatest story ever told: that of his own life, death, Resurrection, and ascension into heaven, the descent of the Holy Spirit, and the foundation of the Church.
Within God’s great story, he tells us other stories, like the parables. I sometimes use the parable of the prodigal son as an indication of the power of literature. The prodigal son is so powerful, be he is also fiction – he never existed, nor did his father, nor did his brother, nor did the pigs. It’s all a work of fiction. And yet when we see the prodigal son, we don’t say that the prodigal son is like us – we say that we are like the prodigal son! We are types of him; he isn’t a type of us. So here we see the power of narrative sanctified by Christ himself in his telling of fictional stories.
To explain the lyrical aspect of literature, I point to Plato’s etymology of the word anthropos, which is the Greek word for man. There are arguments about the etymology, but I’m happy to believe Plato, who says that the term comes from the phrase meaning he who turns up, he who looks up. Specifically, anthropos is he who looks up in wonder. I like to say that the animal grazes but man gazes. To go to Aquinas for a moment, he tells us in the Summa Theologica that we perceived reality in a fivefold manner: it begins with humility; humility gives us gratitude; gratitude opens the eyes to wonder; wonder leads to contemplation; and contemplation leads to dilatatio – the dilation that opens the mind to the fullness of reality. That’s anthropos: he who in humility looks up in gratitude and wonder at the cosmos and is moved to contemplation of the reality that opens up in front of him. Thus, as Gerard Manley Hopkins says, the world is charged with the grandeur of God. It shines out.
Basically, we’re meant to understand literarily that the trees we see when we look out our windows are not just physical atoms, but rather are works of beauty and creation. They’re all unique, and they shine forth the presence of the Creator. That’s the lyrical aspect – seeing the cosmos as a great music, as being enchanted.
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DT: You’ve already answered this a bit already, but I want to ask it directly. Your conversion didn’t arise from you reading the Bible, and you probably wouldn’t have picked up the Catholic Catechism on your own. You began to encounter God and the Christian faith in more indirect ways at first. So here’s the question: how is it that good literature helped to form your imagination and brought you to see the world in a different way than you had before? Why is good literature so effective in a way that the Catechism or the Bible aren’t, at least at first?
JP: I can’t remember which was the first to say it, but both Tolkien and Lewis believed it: we tell stories to get past those watchful dragons. In other words, in an age of cynicism, there are guards posted to prevent you from getting to the Bible and the Catechism. But when people read stories that embody Gospel truths, they’re being moved closer to Christ. And it may well be that they’re only being moved just a little bit closer to Christ. But in my own conversion, for instance, I didn’t have a strong, explicit desire for Christ or to read the Bible, and there was nothing that was going to help me make that jump directly. But as I read literature that was full of Gospel truths in various ways, I was nudged a bit closer. So after some time I was willing to open the Bible – but only because I was nudged toward it by Gospel truths embedded in great works of beauty.
DT: Beautiful. So many of the great authors of the Catholic literary renewal that occurred in the mid-nineteenth through mid-twentieth centuries were not only converts, as you’ve noted, but were also living in England. The Church produced some of the best writers in the world at the time in a country that had often been hostile to Catholic Church in the previous centuries. Can you explain what was going on culturally at that time?
JP: It was an astonishing movement. I would even say it’s miraculous and in many ways should be seen as a type of resurrection. For 300 years in England – from the 1530s until the Catholic Emancipation in 1829 – Catholics were persecuted mercilessly. For the first 150 years they were put to death. We have hundreds of martyrs from that period. The consequence was that the small recusant remnant that stay loyal to the Church were incredibly heroic – it’s really one of the great stories in the history of the Church. But by the mid-nineteenth century, the Church was no longer a force in English culture. It had no power politically or culturally, and it had been marginalized to oblivion
But then two things happened that I see as providential. The first was romanticism. Romanticism was a reaction against the materialism of the Enlightenment – it really went in all sorts of directions, and some of them were not-so-good. But there was an aspect of romanticism – epitomized by the poetry of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge – that led to a neo-medievalism. In other words, as these romantic poets were trying to get rid of the baggage of the Enlightenment and Reformation and find a purer vision of things, they leapfrogged over the previous 300 hundred years and rediscovered the medieval. This neo-medievalism manifested itself in three distinct ways in English culture: in the Gothic revival in architecture (think of Westminster Palace, for instance), the Pre-Raphaelites in the arts, and the Oxford Movement within the Church of England that was sought a Catholic understanding of what the Church of England was. St. John Henry Newman was one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement, and he was received into the Catholic Church in 1845. So there was a 50-year gestation period of romanticism and neo-medievalism before the reception of St. John Henry Newman into the Church, which marks the birth of the Catholic revival.
In addition to romanticism, something much more prosaic happened. In 1845, the same year that Newman was received into the Church, the Potato Famine hit Ireland. One consequence of the famine was a huge influx of working-class Irish people into England. That helped to increase the Catholic population. So while at the higher echelons of society you have intellectuals coming into the Church, you also have many members of the Irish proletariat class moving into England.
The result of these two movements was that the Catholic Church was brought back to life in England. The number of churches and schools being built, and the number of students in Catholic schools in the latter half of the nineteenth century is astonishing. I find that very encouraging: whenever we believe ourselves to live in dark times, we can recall that there have been darker times in the past, but the Church has always risen again from the dead.
DT: That sets up my next question perfectly: what is your view on the present state of Catholic literature?
JP: My answer to this question would have been very different 10 years ago! I moved to the United States in 2001, and for my first decade here, my heart sank whenever I was asked this question at the end of a talk. But things have changed, and for the last 10 years I’ve been very, very excited about what is going on in Catholic literature. There are some great Catholic novelists and poets writing now. I serve as editor of the St. Austin Review, and we get sent submissions for publication by contemporary poets. We only publish five or six poems per edition, but we get 50 or 60 submissions for each edition that are good enough to be published.
There are a lot of great Catholic artists out there. The issue, of course, is that 70 or 80 years ago a Catholic writer could swim in the mainstream. We’re now living in anti-Catholic, anti-clerical, anti-Christian times, where the Christian voice has effectively been exiled from the mainstream. So what we’re seeing is a new Catholic revival in the catacombs. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Such underground revivals have happened in the past: most recently in the Soviet Empire, in which Christians circulated hand-copied or typed manuscripts, such self-publishing (samizdat) being a way of building a healthy and powerful underground subculture at a time when the publication of Christian works was forbidden. The challenge today is that Catholics will need to step out of the mainstream themselves and start checking out what’s happening in the catacombs. If Catholics only keep their eyes on The New York Times Best Sellers list, they’re going to miss out on a great deal of good, new Catholic literature.
The first thing we have to remember is that we are all called to be fully human. The humanities show us humanity. We need to understand reality as it is, and the humanities seek to accomplish that.
DT: To follow up on that, could you share some of the names you see as current great Catholic authors? Where should Catholics who want to look at what’s happening in the catacombs start?
JP: The two best-known Catholic authors, I think, are Tim Powers and Michael D. O’Brien. Powers has made it in the mainstream, and he is best known in the secular culture for On Stranger Tides, which was the inspiration for one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. I’ve had the opportunity to speak with him, and he told me that in his mind his two best novels are Declare and Last Call, which are absolutely brilliant and spooky, and they take place in a realistic world in which the supernatural is happening just beneath the surface. O’Brien is most famous for Father Elijah. His most recent book, The Lighthouse, is lighter, breezier, and shorter than many of his other works, so it might be easier to begin there than with Father Elijah.
Dena Hunt has written some good novels: Treason, an historical novel set in Elizabethan England, is a good place to start. Glenn Arbery, the president of Wyoming Catholic College, has written a couple of novels recently. One is called Bearings and Distances – it is literarily brilliant, but I’ll give an “R-rated” warning to it. There’s nothing inappropriate or voyeuristic in it – but he looks the culture of death in the eye and takes it where it’s headed with no holds barred and no mincing of words, which means it’s a dark place to be.
There are probably two or three good Catholic novels being published every year now.
DT: Now that we are talking about recommendations, I’m curious: what would be the top five books you would recommend for forming a Christian imagination?
JP: The first three are easy for me: the Odyssey by Homer, the Divine Comedy by Dante, and The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien. We can’t overlook Shakespeare, so I would recommend either King Lear or Hamlet, but I seem to change my mind depending on how cloudy it is outside as to which of those two I prefer! I might suggest A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, because it’s very simple, very short, and it shows the power of conversion. And of course conversion is something we’re all called to be doing on an ongoing basis. We are homo viator – pilgrim man – on the journey to heaven, and we should all be looking to be converted closer to Christ with every day. I can’t think of anywhere the power of conversion is presented more clearly and with more brevity than in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
DT: We’ve already touched on this a bit, but I want to ask the question directly: What role can good literature play in the life of a young Catholic today? How will these books we’re recommending impact them?
JP: The first thing we have to remember is that we are all called to be fully human. The humanities show us humanity. The utilitarian approach to education – the idea that education is exclusively about S.T.E.M. (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and is exclusively about the sorts of knowledge that will get you a job – is a bit poisonous. We need to understand reality as it is, and the humanities seek to accomplish that.
As I said before, narrative is a means of telling truth. Each of us needs to see our own selves as being part of our own life story. So if we don’t allow our children to have their imaginations baptized through the power of story, we are actually making it very difficult for them to make sense of themselves and the world in which they live. The lyrical aspect of literature teaches us to see the presence of goodness, truth, and beauty, which is nothing less than the Trinity himself, in Creation. To marvel at the beauty of language is a means of marveling at the beauty of Creation, and that is essential: if we don’t see with the eyes of wonder, we’re not seeing at all.
DT: A lot of our readers will be students enrolled at the University of Mary who will have great books assigned to them in their various humanities courses and will hear from professors on how to appreciate those works properly. But what would you say to someone who is reading this who doesn’t have that same benefit but wants to get into literature?
JP: I wrote a book to address that question directly called Literature: What Every Catholic Should Know. It was published in 2020 by Ignatius Press and the Newcastle Institute. It’s a fairly thin volume of about 200 pages that goes through literature that every Catholic should know, beginning with Homer and coming right into the present day. It gives a list of 100 titles and attempts to walk readers through them. So if someone has never dipped their toe into the great waters of literature, I would recommend that book to them as an obvious starting point.
I would also like to add that I’ve been to the University of Mary twice in the past, and I’ve loved both of my experiences there. Even amongst the Newman Guide schools it’s one of the absolute best and is a jewel in the crown of Catholic education in North America. It’s very edifying to see everything that’s going on there, and how seriously literature and the arts are taken in your educational program.
DT: Thank you, Joseph, that’s very kind of you. I’m grateful to be here, and I’m grateful for all the ways we have been able to work with the Augustine Institute. There are a lot of good people being drawn to the Augustine Institute, and it’s doing a lot of good around the world.
JP: I feel humbled to be a part of it. Thank you for this conversation!