Shakespeare, The Hobbit, and the Apologetics of Beauty

Editor’s Note: Last week, Joseph Pearce, Catholic author and writer in residence at Thomas More College in New Hampshire, gave a fascinating interview in the prominent Spanish journal, InfoCatolica (www.infocatolica.com). This is the interview’s first publication in English.

Joseph Pearce

IC: You mentioned once that you feel called to the “apologetics of beauty”. What does that mean?

JP: The “apologetics of beauty” is one of the three ways of defending the Catholic faith and winning converts. The other two ways are the “apologetics of goodness” and the “apologetics of truth”, each expressing what the ancients called the good, the true and the beautiful, and which Christians should see as a reflection of the triune nature of the Trinity.

The apologetics of goodness is the defending of the Faith and the winning of converts through a life of sanctity and virtue. It is the winning of people to Christ and His Church by becoming a saint.

The apologetics of truth is the defending of the Faith and the winning of converts through the use of Reason. The apologetics of truth is fought on the battlefields of theology and philosophy.

The apologetics of beauty is winning people to Christ and His Church through the showing forth of the beauty of God’s Creation, very often through works of sub-creation, such as literature, the visual arts, music and architecture.

In the hedonistic and relativistic age in which we live, the apologetics of beauty can often be the most effective means of winning converts to the Faith. Hedonism hates sanctity and virtue and despises the example of the saints. Relativism shuns objective reason, relegating rational discourse to the level of subjective perception and subjecting truth to mere opinion. Hedonism is not responsive to the apologetics of goodness but can still be attracted by the power of beauty. Relativism is not responsive to the apologetics of truth but can still be engaged by epiphanies of beauty.

IC: You are a convert to Catholicism from a culturally-Protestant agnosticism. Did someone else’s apologetics of beauty help you on your way to the Church?

JP: My path to conversion was lit by all three forms of apologetics. I greatly admired saints, such as St. Francis of Assisi who wedded Lady Poverty in order to unite himself to Christ. I was, therefore, led to conversion by the apologetics of goodness. I read and became convinced by the theological and philosophical arguments for Catholic Orthodoxy, particularly in the work of St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine and more recent writers, such as Karl Adam. I was, therefore, also a beneficiary of the apologetics of truth, coming to understand the inextricable interconnectedness of fides et ratio, faith and reason. At the same time, I was also greatly attracted by the edifying edifices of Christian civilization, such as the great works of art, music, architecture and especially literature, all of which shone forth the beauty of God and His Church. I was, therefore, a beneficiary of the apologetics of beauty. All three forms of apologetics pointed to the one harmonious Whole, which is the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, instituted by Christ and serving as His Mystical Body throughout history.

IC: You are co-editor of Saint Austin Review, a ‘journal of Catholic culture, literature and ideas’. Is there a place in the market today for such a thing? What is the idea behind the journal?

JP: The Saint Austin Review (www.staustinreview.com) seeks to educate Catholics about the beauty of the Faith and to give them the intellectual and aesthetic weapons that they need to evangelize the culture through the power of Catholic beauty and the goodness and truth that it contains. There is nothing else quite like the Saint Austin Review and, as such, it fills a crucial role in the struggle to bring the truth of the Gospel to the twenty-first century. Many of the finest Catholic writers have graced the pages of the Saint Austin Review, including the Holy Father himself, who, as Cardinal Ratzinger, granted the journal the first English publication rights of his essay “On Catholicity”. I have been the co-editor of the Saint Austin Review since its first issue eleven years ago. I consider my editorship of the magazine to be both an honour and a labour of love.

IC: I’ve noticed that the journal is always stunning from the visual point of view and includes beautiful Christian art. Is that part of its mission?

JP: Yes. Very much so. A journal that seeks to win people to the truth of Catholicism by showing forth its intrinsic beauty needs to be an incarnation of that beauty by being beautiful itself. The beauty of the greatest Christian art remains one of the most powerful witnesses to the Church’s mission in the world. It speaks for itself and for the beauty of the Faith that inspired it.

IC: I’ve heard a book of yours about Tolkien’s The Hobbit is to be released this year. Is that true?

JP: Yes. I finished writing it a few days ago. It has been tentatively titled “Bilbo’s Pilgrimage: The Christianity of The Hobbit” and we hope to have it published in time for the world premiere of the first part of Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation of the book. It’s very exciting!

IC: You’ve written so many books, it would be impossible to talk about all of them. Which one is your own personal favorite?

JP: I always find this a very difficult question to answer. Literary Converts was a book that needed to be written by someone so I’m pleased that I managed to fulfill that need. I know that it’s been very influential on the conversion of quite a number of people, which is both gratifying and humbling. I am also fond of my biographies of Roy Campbell, Oscar Wilde and Hilaire Belloc.

IC: Do you think a Catholic cultural revival similar to the one that occurred in Britain in the XIX-XX centuries is possible today?

JP: Yes it is possible, and is certainly badly needed. The present rise of hedonism and secular fundamentalism is unstable and unsustainable and will come crashing down within a few generations. When the liberal ascendancy begins to crumble and decay, the world will be looking once again for the Permanent Things that have informed civilization throughout the centuries. The Catholic Church is the incarnation of those Permanent Things. As the culture of death kills itself in an orgy of self-abuse, the Church and the culture of life it represents will rise phoenix-like, or more to the point Christ-like, from the ashes.

IC: I know you probably get this question often, but I have to ask it: Was Shakespeare really a hidden Catholic?

JP: Absolutely! At least he was really a Catholic, though I don’t believe that his Catholicism was particularly “hidden”. In my book, The Quest for Shakespeare, I argue from the evidence that Shakespeare was not so much a secret or “hidden” Catholic but was considered a “safe” one, which is to say that his Catholicism was known but was not considered a threat to the monarch or the state.

I was originally very skeptical about claims that Shakespeare was a Catholic, arguing that there was insufficient evidence to come to such a conclusion. I came to realize, however, that I had been wrong and that, in fact, there is an abundance of evidence, both biographical and textual, to prove beyond any reasonable doubt the Bard’s Catholicism.

IC: Even though you usually attend Mass in the ordinary form, you are an admirer of the extraordinary form. Do you think that Pope Benedict XVI also had in mind an apologetics of Beauty when he allowed the old liturgy for the whole Church?

JP: Yes, he sees the power of its beauty but he also appreciates the goodness and truth at the heart of the traditional liturgy. It is beautiful, but it is also full of holiness and is theologically true to doctrinal orthodoxy. Every Catholic should familiarize themselves with the goodness, truth and beauty of the traditional liturgy.

IC: You are a supporter of Chesterton’s Distributism. Is it hard to defend those ideas in the United States, which could arguably be described as today’s capitalist country par excellence?

JP: Many Americans are as skeptical about Big Business as they are about Big Government. Many of them are suspicious of economic and political globalism and its negative and destructive consequences, especially the nature of its impact on the US economy. The call for the revitalization and reinvigoration of small and local government as an alternative to the Big Government and Big Brother policies of the Obama regime, and the need for a revitalized small business sector to counter the destructive power of globalism are making subsidiarity and distributism more attractive than ever. This is a great opportunity to evangelize the culture with the wisdom of the Church’s social teaching.

IC: What are you currently working on?

JP: I have been commissioned to write a full-length book charting my own conversion to Catholicism from a background of anti-Catholicism and white supremacist racist politics. The tentative title of the book is “Race with the Devil: A Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love”.

 

Joseph Pearce is Visiting Fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College in New Hampshire. His book on Alexander Solzhenitsyn received the prestigious Pollock Award for Christian Biography.

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  • Pargontwin

    I can personally speak to the effectiveness of the Apologetics of Beauty.  My best friend was raised High Episcopal and became disillusioned when every Episcopal church outside her home parish was what she called “Low Episcopal.”  The difference?  A High Episcopal service is virtually identical to a Catholic Mass; you find it in the “Anglican Use” Catholic churches.  A Low Episcopal service looks more like a Baptist communion service. 

    A talented singer, she wanted to join a choir, but couldn’t stand the music used at any of the Episcopal churches where we live, so I invited her to join the choir at my church, where the choirmaster is a traditionalist and searches assiduously for the most beautiful anthems he can find; his personal stated mission is to show the congregation that there’s more to church music than the “happy, clappy” stuff many of them grew up with. 

    She felt as if she’d come home when she attended her first Mass with us.  Two years later, I was honored to stand beside her as she received her First Communion in the Catholic Church. 

  • Yblegen

    I was just talking to someone about your explanation of the “Merchant of Venice,” in light of Shakespeare’s Catholicism.  Can’t wait to read the new book

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