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.
I Believed the False Narrative of Secularization
I am not going to offer any plot spoilers in this article, but will only say generally that several characters whom the reader comes to know well—so well that we cannot imagine them coming to faith—nevertheless do give up their doubts and sinful ways and choose to follow Christ. This novel influenced my outlook on life so deeply when I first read it because it made me realize how much I—though ostensibly a good Christian—had believed, or half believed, the false narrative of secularization. Why was I so surprised that these characters were able to come to faith? Had I forgotten about the apostle Paul, and Augustine of Hippo, and all the rest? No, of course not, but I had somehow unwittingly imbibed the assumption that the modern Western world is different–that educated, thoughtful, cultured people in it, especially in Europe perhaps, were somehow now immune to the work of the Holy Spirit and the power of the Gospel. This novel influenced my outlook on life so deeply when I first read it because it made me realize how much I—though ostensibly a good Christian—had believed, or half believed, the false narrative of secularization. Click To Tweet
I slowly began to see that what was really untenable was not the Gospel, but rather the secularization thesis. I was working on a PhD in History. My thesis was on the relationship between religion and politics in nineteenth-century England. Part of my research for it involved exploring figures who—though I was interested in them for their political activism—were as well known or more well known as bitter, vocal, public opponents of Christianity and champions of unbelief, freethought, religious skepticism, or even outright atheism. In modern scholarship, many of them were presented as heroes of rationalism and heralds of our secular age. Sometimes, however, often literally tucked away in an endnote, there would be a sheepish confession that this person who was supposed to be an eternal hero of unbelief had later experienced a Christian conversion and lived the rest of their life believing and defending the Gospel. I was surprised by how little these modern scholars were interested in this fact. They were so sure that faith was irrational and receding that only evidence in line with their confirmation bias mattered. Sometimes they even falsified the story a bit by declaring or hinting that the conversion had happened when the person was old, senile, and about to die, when, in reality, he (nineteenth-century unbelievers were overwhelmingly men) had actually gone on to be a public apologist for Christianity for decades—writing a string of books defending the faith, and participating in numerous, vigorous, public debates with skeptics.
I was interested enough that I researched this pattern of leading Secularists converting to Christianity until I had enough material to turn it into a book: Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England (Oxford University Press, 2006). As to scholars today, a particular target in my book was the English historian, novelist, and man of letters A. N. Wilson. Himself a bitter opponent of Christianity, Wilson wrote a book bluntly titled, Against Religion: Why We Should Try to Live Without It (1991). It began: “It is said in the Bible that the love of money is the root of all evil. It might be truer to say that the love of God is the root of all evil.” In a book on nineteenth-century Britain (this one with the tendentious title, God’s Funeral), Wilson promoted the assumption of inevitable secularization: “By the end of the nineteenth century, almost all the great writers, artists, and intellectuals had abandoned Christianity.” That statement makes it sound like for thinking, educated people the water in the bathtub of faith had all drained away already before the start the twentieth century, while, in truth, I wrote in Crisis of Doubt:
in the inter-war period and thereafter numerous “great” writers, artists, and intellectuals had reappropriated Christian faith. One thinks of T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Graham Greene, Dorothy L. Sayers, C. S. Lewis, Christopher Dawson, Siegfried Sassoon, J. R. R. Tolkien, John Betjeman, E. F. Schumacher, Edith Sitwell, Malcolm Muggeridge, C. E. Joad, G. K. Chesterton, and Evelyn Waugh.
The influence of Brideshead Revisited on my own thinking on this matter was probably what prompted me to give its author pride of place as the last, resonant name on that list.
A Divine Romantic Comedy
Waugh’s novel had helped me to see the ongoing trend of cultured, learned, sophisticated moderns coming to faith. Once I could see it, I could go on to notice that it is actually a common occurrence. The very existence of this trend had been obscured, however, by a false secularization narrative that misled people into treating each and every new conversion not as a part of a wider pattern, but only as an insignificant anomaly to be set aside without consideration.Next time you hear someone fume that God is the most contemptible being who never existed, keep in mind that you just might be watching the first act of a divine romantic comedy. Click To Tweet
Trained to see this pattern—first by Brideshead Revisited and then by my research which culminated in Crisis of Doubt—I was not as surprised as many others when in 2009 A. N. Wilson himself publicly announced his conversion to the Christian faith. I wrote about Wilson’s newfound faith in an article published in the Wall Street Journal which was titled, “Look Who’s a Believer Now.” It ended: “As is the case with Mr. Wilson, intellectuals often pursue long, drawn-out love affairs with Christian thought. Next time you hear someone fume that God is the most contemptible being who never existed, keep in mind that you just might be watching the first act of a divine romantic comedy.” When it comes to fiction, Brideshead Revisited is a powerful and delightful example of this overlooked genre of the divine romantic comedy.
The greatest drama any novel, biography, or autobiography can tell about a character is the drama of salvation inside an individual human soul. And, Low Church Protestant though I am, it took this flamingly Catholic novel to help me to see with fresh eyes of faith the ongoing reality that, year by year, this drama continues to culminate in conversion to Christ even among sophisticated, educated elites in our modern, Western world.