In the past, I have written ad infinitum, some may say ad naseum about Catholic writers and Catholic filmmakers and still hold firm to the belief that great “Catholic” writing does not necessarily have to deal with overtly religious subject matter or even religiously inclined protagonists and antagonists.
So, of course, it is only logical that I now sing the praises of a book written by a priest, with a priest as the protagonist — a book that has, as I wrote in my last column, been endorsed by Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.
Now you may ask what can a book written more than a century ago have to do with the here and now. But, just as much of what Orwell envisioned for 1984 has come to pass, the novel “Lord of the World,” written by Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson in 1907, is downright unnerving in its prognostication.
The author’s life reads like a novel as well. His father was the Archbishop of Canterbury, which is about as high up in the Church of England that a guy can get. Msgr. Benson himself started out as an Anglican priest. After the sudden death of his father and a pilgrimage to the Middle East, he began to hear the calling of the Tiber and in the early part of the 20th century, entered into communion with the Church and was ordained a Catholic priest.
Though he worked by day (and probably at night as well) within the framework of a traditional parish priest, Msgr. Benson’s penchant for fiction writing was pronounced and in 1907 he published his Magnus opus: “Lord of the World.” The novel takes place in a dystopian future — not at all unlike the countless dystopian future images one finds on the covers of paperback novels in the science fiction section of a book store (if you can find a brick and mortar book store these days).
The language and the story structure is not ground breaking and remains encapsulated in the somewhat stodgy style that most books written 110 years ago fall prey to. Yet the subject matter and the unsettling foretelling we find in this book makes it an obvious choice of our two most recent popes.
Any question that you are in for a very different reading experience in “Lord of the World” is answered when a fantastical flying machine called a volor crashes. Remember this novel was written only four years after the first powered flight and the notion of a giant flying machine that could carry hundreds, something we now take for granted, was pure fantasy when Msgr. Benson wrote his book.
Unfortunately, what follows after the crash is getting closer to our modern day reality. In the novel, the seriously hurt crash survivors are set upon by a kind of government response team. But we soon realize they are not here to heal, but rather euthanize the damaged survivors in an act of governmental “compassion.” It is when one of the secondary characters observes a Catholic priest providing Last Rites to the victims that causes a major plot development. She is amazed to see a man who actually seems to believe in something.
God and religious faith have been so thoroughly scrubbed from this antiseptic world envisioned by Msgr. Benson as to render the occupants of the novel morally numb and prone to seeking substitutes for the God-sized holes in their hearts.
Granted, we aren’t there yet, but it is unsettling on my own personal comfort scale to contemplate that “assisted” suicide has just been codified in California with language the proponents of this new law use that is almost in lock step with the language used in “Lord of the World” — a science fiction fantasy novel written in the same year Marconi commenced the very first transatlantic wireless service.
I think I’m in pretty good company to see, as Pope Benedict and Pope Francis also seem to see, how an old book can be important to us in the here and now. I think it is primarily because old ideas were once new ideas and vice versa. It’s like that circle of life thing you get in animated features from the Disney corporations. Sometimes it is not a good thing to be running around in circles.
Belief in God is conditional in the world created by Msgr. Benson and religious leanings are only as valued as they are diminished and publicly acceptable. Sound familiar? The Church still teaches the truth in the novel and suffers mightily for it.
Reading this part of the book will call to mind what the late Cardinal George of Chicago said, “I expect to die in bed, my successor to die in prison and his successor to die a martyr in the public square.” What is often left out of this quote is what Cardinal George said immediately afterward: “His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the Church has done so often in human history.”
“Lord of the World” is Cardinal George’s quote and follow-up quote writ large in an exciting and compelling novel that, despite its age, continues to make one think, make one a little queasy about a difficult future, but, in the end, just like Cardinal George’s final quote, hopeful that the Church endures … just as Jesus promised it would.
Robert Brennan has been a professional writer for more than 30 years, including many years in the television industry.