In the likely event that the last post might lead one to suspect an "America First" predilection, I rush to add that I am beholding, morally, more to English writers than American. I am either not fond of nor am I sufficiently familiar with American Christian writing. A sample note of my feelings: "Christian romance paperbacks" are an unfortunate homegrown (and viral) production that should be, for the convenience of the trade, printed with the front cover already removed.
I think, although I'm not certain of this, that Emerson's transcendentalist legacy insinuated a great simpering fog bank into American religious thinking, at least in the literary tradition. Once in a while, great sparks like Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy and Ron Hansen leap out of the otherwise mouldering mass of the Christian American bookshelf, which is usually weighed down by the gospels of self-improvement, marriage techniques, and get-rich-quick schemes.
Even with the likes of O'Connor, I confess that the clarity of Christian literature is found more easily on the English shelves. Maybe this is due to the residual effects of Christendom on English literature, especially that writing that is self-consciously Christian. It may also be that American Christian literature suffers from being thoroughly, and inherently, protestant -- that is, devoid of a sacramental reference, and without the traditional lineaments of anthropology and, even, Christology.
Is it just me? or is there a lot better satire and burlesque on the other side of the pond, at least in the Christian library? are the Christian sentences more limpid in Oxbridge?
In any case, here is a very short list of English Christian books. They are more my favorites than they are a helpful bibliography:
- Hilaire Belloc, The Four Men.
- Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome.
- Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday.
- Chesterton, The Everlasting Man.
- Chesterton, The Flying Inn.
- Msgr. Ronald Knox, Let Dons Delight.
- T. S. Eliot, most everything, especially The Four Quartets. Is he American? Is Auden English?
- J. R. R. Tolkien, everything.
- C. S. Lewis, most everything, especially Till We Have Faces, Perelandra and The Discarded Image.
- Charles Williams, The Figure of Beatrice and All Hallows' Eve.
I know there is more. I know that I missed your favorites. Remember, too, that this is a short list of English writers. It is not meant to list the most important spiritual texts, especially for Orthodox Christians.
I should note that some of these volumes are out of print and hard to find. Out of insane neglect, one of the most beautiful reveries of all time, The Four Men, is available only in crumbling paperbacks from the miscreant sixties and seventies. Used copies of Let Dons Delight are available for around $40. In both cases, the authors are being suppressed.
Heretofore, I have prattled long on the Thunderer, who is a lot more bittersweet, smoked with sunset-wisdom than his nickname suggests, especially in The Four Men. It was providential this last year that I came upon this little book. I have encountered such depth of sweetness and awe only in Tolkien before, and that was an altogether different sort of writing. In this book, I have found traces of someone who really knows what it is like to wander meadow and field in the gloaming, with the haunted, sentimental wind.
With regard to GK, The Everlasting Man must be read again so that we, like innocent children, can see (and tell) that the pompous emperor has no clothes on: the naked doctrines of evolution and scientific materialism are being foisted upon us, and we trample the hypersensitivities of the age when we appear less than chipper about the foisting. Evolutionism is the pernicious suppression of Christian anthropology and, ultimately, of Christology. The Everlasting Man demands attention.
The Flying Inn manages to uncover the spiritual DNA double helix entwining wahhabism, boorish secular puritanism, and political arabesque. It fails to resonate, nowadays, because most people think of Inns as "Holiday Inn," and not as a place substantiated by a wheel of cheese and some ale (and a few raucous songs).
And GK's masterpiece? "... it remains the most thrilling book I have ever read," Kingsley Amis once wrote of Thursday. (I would so much like to hear D. B. Hart's take on Sunday.) Thursday needs read by everyone nowadays, if only to hear this particular setting of the words, "Can ye drink the cup that I drink of?" (get The Annotated Thursday, provided through the kind offices of Martin Gardner, from Ignatius Press, for all the bells and whistles). Thursday is current events, like you can't believe.
If I could suggest two books to you, apart from Scripture and the Fathers (oh, and yes, Florovsky, Lossky and Hart), then get the pages of Thursday and The Four Men.