A Book for Anyone Interested in the Evangelization of the Culture


The Spiritual History of English by Andrew Thornton-Norris

What makes a piece of literature or art Christian? Some would say just the content, that is what is said. Some on the other hand would say both the content and the structure, that the way in which those truths are conveyed can communicate more fully the truths. In other words its not just what you say that's important, but also how you say it. If this is the case then it means that the style of prose or poetry can be Christian (or un Christian) as much as the meaning of the words considered apart from that style.

Any regular reader of this blog will know that I have long maintained that the style of art is every bit as important as the content, and that since the Enlightenment that style has declined because artists have rejected the traditional Catholic forms.

In this slim volume, the English Catholic poet Andrew Thornton-Norris does for poetry and prose what I have been trying to do with art. He relates the actual structure of the writing and the vocabulary used to the worldview of the time. See he shows us, for example, how even if the poet or novelist is sincerely Catholic and trying to express truths that are consistent with the Faith, he is at a great disadvantage if he is seeking to express those truths with the vocabulary and poetic form that reflect a post-Enlightenment culture.

I am not an expert in literary or poetic form and, to be honest, not interested enough in either to seek to become one. So I had to take what what Mr Thornton-Norris's descriptions of form at face value. However, I agree with his analysis of modernity, which he sees, right down to the present day as ever greater degrees of the protestant heresy. Chapter by chapter he analyses and critiques the worldview of the Englightenment and through to the present day. So the philosophies behind neo-classicism, Romanticism, Modernism and Post Modernism are each presented as differing reactions against Christianity and ultimately the authority of the Catholic Church. He then connects each with the cultural forms.

Because he is dealing with the English language, he first describes the rise of the language as a distinct vernacular and connects this with the Faith. He argues that the very idea of the English as a nation comes from the Church through Pope Gregory the Great and his emissary St Augustine of Canterbury. He then describes how the language and literature developed in the light of this through the influence of figures such as Bede, Alcuin of York and King Alfred the Great.

Then after the great heights of  writers such as Chaucer and finally Shakespeare, he argues it was all downhill. As he puts it in the beginning of his concluding chapter: 'This book has argued that English literature has declined, almost to the point of non-existence. In this and previous chapters we have examined what remains: the entrails, the shipwrecks so to speak. It has argued that this decline has been concurrent with that of English Christianity, and it has examined the relationship between these two phenomena'.

This means that he is much more suspicious of the Romantic poets, for example, than many other Catholic commentators. I like the idea of this, firstly because it makes me feel less of a philistine for finding them really dull in the first place, but also because this parallels exactly my analysis of painting, in the Romantics and all thereafter are, in my opinion inferior to earlier Christian forms (along with neo-Classicism, Modernism and Post-modernism).

He is discussing general trends, and is not inclined to dismiss all examples of English literature in these periods. But rather points out the great disadvantage that those poets and novelists who were trying to express something that is consistent with the Faith had. The were restricted, generally, to the vocabulary and structural forms of the language at the time in which they lived and because these were affected by one form or another of a post-Enlightenment anti-Catholic worldview always struggled to escape their time.

Furthermore, Mr Thornton-Norris clearly believes that through the prism of literature, you can point to problems with the whole culture, which are at root related to the rejection of the Faith and its forms of worship. This again is very similar to myself in regard to visual art and so the idea appeals to me.

This is a short read but it contains a lot of ideas that need time to be considered carefully. One of the reasons that the writer has managed to condense so much into just over 150 pages it is that he assumes that the reader is already aware of the broad trends in history in England since the time of Pope Gregory the Great, of the philosophical developments that took place in parallel with the historical events, and of what the literary forms that he describes are. As mentioned, I fell short particularly in the last of these areas. If he had written this for an intelligent but less well informed audience, he would have had to spend a long time defining his terms and explaining their meaning. He chose not to do this and as a result this is unlikely to be accessible to a mass readership. However, I think that the ideas that it contains should be considered and perhaps those whose mission it is to popularize ideas might look at it and if they believe that they have merit, might apply their skills to those contained in A Spiritual History of English.


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My book the Way of Beauty is available from Angelico Press and Amazon.

JAY W. RICHARDS, Editor of the Stream and Lecturer at the Business School fo the Catholic University of America said about it: “In The Way of Beauty, David Clayton offers us a mini-liberal arts education. The book is a counter-offensive against a culture that so often seems to have capitulated to a ‘will to ugliness.’ He shows us the power in beauty not just where we might expect it — in the visual arts and music — but in domains as diverse as math, theology, morality, physics, astronomy, cosmology, and liturgy. But more than that, his study of beauty makes clear the connection between liturgy, culture, and evangelization, and offers a way to reinvigorate our commitment to the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in the twenty-first century. I am grateful for this book and hope many will take its lessons to heart.”