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Haunted by Christ: Modern writers and the struggle for faith, by Richard Harries

02 November 2018

Philip Welsh considers an introduction to great writers of modern times

FOR many years, Richard Harries has championed the importance of modern literature for Christian thinking. Now he has drawn together an attractive introduction to 20 novelists and poets, both believers and unbelievers, “who have meant a great deal to me over the years”. In all cases, “the pull of religion has been fundamental.” They are all, as Samuel Beckett was described, “haunted by Christ”.

Harries stretches modernity to include three figures who were dead by 1890: Dostoevsky, Hopkins, and Emily Dickinson (the latter two admittedly having a delayed impact). At the other end, he features just two living writers: the American novelist Marilynne Robinson, with her “overwhelming sense of astonishment before life”, and Philip Pullman, who comes out to moral advantage in a comparison with C. S. Lewis.

In between, Harries considers such mid-century heavyweights as Eliot, Beckett, Auden, R. S. Thomas, Graham Greene, and Evelyn Waugh, as well as figures such as William Golding, Edwin Muir, and Elizabeth Jennings, who were widely read by the author’s generation, but are less heard of nowadays.

Each chapter starts with some basic facts about each writer before examining his or her work, usually against a biographical background, and highlighting areas of significance for faith. We range from Stevie Smith, for whom the issue was not whether certain tenets of the faith were unbelievable but whether they were immoral, to Greene’s admission that “the element I admire in Christianity is its sense of moral failure”. Auden writes that “love, or truth, in any serious sense, Like orthodoxy, is a reticence,” and Emily Dickinson would agree: “I believe we shall be in some sense cherished by our Maker. . . Beyond that all is silence.” The novelist Flannery O’Connor is more confident: “Only if we are secure in our beliefs can we see the comical side of the universe.”

Much of the book’s character is determined by the origin of more than half of its chapters in lectures delivered at various times, or, in two instances, as chapters from a book published 23 years ago (allowing the author to refer to a 1991 biography of Hopkins as “recent writing”).

The author’s consideration for the non-specialist is not always matched by clarity with later references: we are told that Duns Scotus influenced Hopkins at Oxford, but are left to guess whether he might have been the poet’s tutor (let alone what the point of a cynghanedd is); Eliot is said to have been drawn to Charles Maurras, whose “dubious reputation” is unexplained; twice the author makes the point that the poet Edward Thomas hated his father, but not why; and Harries refers enticingly to “Barry Spurr’s thoroughly researched book” about the very particular world of Eliot’s Anglo-Catholicism, but without identifying it anywhere in his detailed notes.

An impression of some carelessness in the reworking of old material is reinforced by occasional slips: Kingsley Amis turns into Martin Amis on the same page; and Edwin Muir is commended — one assumes a misprint — for poems “of impotence”.

Haunted by Christ is not a work of literary criticism or of theological analysis, but provides for the general reader an informed appreciation of each writer in relation to the struggle for faith. It will be of particular value to those Christians seeking greater familiarity with modern writers, and open to the enrichment and the challenge of fine creative imaginations; and to others for whom religion is an unfamiliar world, but who want to explore the importance that it has had for so many great writers.

And for many readers, Harries’s repayment of literary debts of gratitude will be an incentive to revisit old friends on their shelves.

It is also cheering to discover that Eliot composed Journey of the Magi one Sunday morning between church and lunch, with the aid of half a bottle of gin.

The Revd Philip Welsh was formerly Vicar of St Stephen’s, Rochester Row, in London.

Haunted by Christ: Modern writers and the struggle for faith
Richard Harries
SPCK £19.99
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