The Hound of Heaven: Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited
The new issue of Credo Magazine, “The Truth Inside the Lie,” focuses on the relationship between theology and fiction. The following is an excerpt from Timothy Larsen’s article, “The Hound of Heaven: Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.” Timothy Larsen is McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois. He is an Honorary Fellow, Edinburgh University, and has been elected a Visiting Fellow, Christ Church, Oxford University, for 2021. His most recent books are George MacDonald in the Age of Miracles: Incarnation, Doubt, and Reenchantment (IVP, 2018) and John Stuart Mill: A Secular Life (Oxford University Press, 2018). His recent edited volumes include Balm in Gilead: A Theological Dialogue with Marilynne Robinson (IVP, 2019) and The Oxford Handbook of Christmas (Oxford University Press, forthcoming in 2020).
Admittedly as a kind of provocation to grab their attention, I have been known to declare while teaching a class that Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945) is the greatest Christian novel ever written. One would never make such an unmeasured claim in print, of course. The most prudent qualifier would be “that I have read” or “that I know of.” The second would be “with the obvious exception of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.” Furthermore, if writing for publication, my assertion would be leavened with at least one specimen of what are pejoratively known as “weasel words” – qualifiers such as “probably”, “possibly”, “perhaps”, or “arguably”.
My provocative claim is embarrassed yet further by the fact that I have brilliant, learned, cultured, godly friends who insist that Brideshead Revisited should not be thought of as a Christian novel at all, but merely as a Roman Catholic one – that is, a book that is only an apologetic for the Church of Rome specifically, rather than the faith which was once delivered unto the saints more generally.
I myself am decidedly a Low Church Protestant. My idea of ecclesiastical architecture has always been folding chairs in a gymnasium. On any given Sunday it does not seem unnatural to me to see a minister (definitely not a priest) presiding at the table (definitely not an altar) while wearing jeans and a T-shirt (definitely not vestments). And there is no doubt that Brideshead Revisited is emphatically, explicitly a Catholic novel. (Speaking of explicit, I should also warn any potential readers that much of the novel is pervaded by an air of immorality and decadence. Any novel that wishes to present the Gospel, however, needs to have a concrete world of sin into which grace can appear and triumph.)
Maybe (another weasel word) it is even a more effective novel for me as a Low Church Protestant because it is so overtly Catholic. In fact, I have a theory that a novel that is set in a context different from your own has a particular capacity and power to help you think through fundamental issues in your own world. You are not distracted by where you stand on the precise points at issue because those are not the questions of controversy or debate in your own community and therefore you are able to engage more effectively with the bigger, more existential choices at stake. I direct Wheaton College’s faculty development Faith and Learning Program. Every year in its main seminar for new faculty members I have them all read Chaim Potok’s The Chosen (1967). It is, I believe, precisely because it is very much a Jewish novel, set in the world of Hasidism, that allows us to have a more fruitful and profound discussion about when faith has become debased by sectarian narrowness and a fearful refusal to engage with new learning, discoveries, and cultural achievements and when a desire to engage the world and learn from contemporary intellectual and cultural currents has become corrupted into a path toward worldliness and unfaithfulness.
Is it Nonsense?
I first read Brideshead Revisited when I was in my early twenties, an evangelical American living for the first time in so-called “secular” Europe. “Brideshead” is the name of the opulent country house and family seat of the aristocratic, Catholic, Marchmain family. It is vividly evoked, as is undergraduate life at Oxford University between the world wars. (Members of my family are apt to quote knowingly to one another the advice that cousin Jasper gives in the novel to an incoming college freshman: “You’ll find you spend half your second year shaking off the undesirable friends you made in your first.”) There are also memorable scenes in London, Venice, North Africa, on a transatlantic liner, and elsewhere. Whether or not you think of Evelyn Waugh as a great Christian writer, there should be widespread agreement that he was a great comic writer. His wicked gift for satire was as bounteous as they come.
Brideshead Revisited at first seems to depict a decidedly post-Christian Europe. People who were raised in families that were historically Protestant are now agnostics or atheists, cut off from the church, and soundly convinced that orthodox doctrine has been decidedly and permanently exposed to be erroneous, irrational, and absurd. The Catholics continue to have a connection with the Church for cultural and aesthetic reasons, but one gains the impression that—with the exception of a few repulsive fanatics—they do not seriously believe either. The narrator, Charles Ryder, is one of the post-Protestant agnostics, disdainful of faith, and his friend, Sebastian Flyte, is one of the decadent, worldly, cultural Catholics. Yet the Christian faith cannot be so easily set aside. At one point, Ryder—assuming he and Sebastian are in perfect agreement on such matters—starts to press his friend on the irrationality and absurdity of the Catholic formation he had had to endure:
“I suppose they try and make you believe an awful lot of nonsense?”
“Is it nonsense? I wish it were. It sometimes sounds terribly sensible to me.”
“But my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.”
“I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.”
“Oh, yes, I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.”
“But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.”
“But I do. That’s how I believe.”
That last answer gives the secular reader some hope that maybe Sebastian is still just being an aesthete rather than a true believer. Still, uncomfortably, even that statement can also be read as a confession of a faith that is deeper and truer than the gymnastics of argumentation. And even that cannot fully atone for his claim—rank heresy for modern rationalists—that a full-blooded version of orthodox Christian belief sometimes appears to make complete sense. Moreover, Sebastian’s wish that it were all nonsense gives away the fact that perhaps any failure on his part to be perceived as a true believer was not the fruit of rationalistic, intellectual objections but rather due to a reluctance to pay the cost of discipleship, to live in the light of the truth he can see, to take up his cross and follow Christ.
*Read Dr. Larsen’s full article in the latest issue of Credo Magazine: The Truth Inside the Lie