“Nor could I have spoken, for the answer to her question was still unformed, but lay in the pocket of my mind, like sea-mist in a dip of the sand dunes; the cloudy sense that the fate of more souls than one was at issue; that the snow was beginning to shift on the high slopes.”
Literature accomplishes many valuable ends, and I find that it is most helpful in illustrating the attitudes of different ages. By studying the imaginative efforts of medieval poets and contrasting them with the novels of modernism, the difference becomes inescapable. The Dream of the Rood is a fabulous Anglo-Saxon poem which conveys the gospel through the warrior savagery of the 8th century; Jesus saves the world, but he does so as a mighty warrior slaying the enemy of sin while hung upon the cross (rippling muscles and all). This poem has no room for Jesus “meek and mild” holding a child; Dream of the Rood speaks to the warrior in the mead-hall and calls him to marvel at the quest which God achieved.
Brideshead Revisited highlights a different literary era, and causes us to long for the faith which satisfies.
Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited has become justifiably famous. Adapted multiple times for film and mini-series, this novel follows the relationship which forms between Charles Ryder and the Flyte family. Set in early-to-mid 20th century Britain, it covers the same time period which gave Downton Abbey such dramatic tension. The entire novel is well worth reading, but it is the final scene which gives me chills.
At the end of the novel, Charles has become a long time lover of Julia Flyte. Both seek divorce in order to marry each other; their plans seem well laid until Lord Marchmain returns home to die. The final days of the family patriarch reveal an irreconcilable divide between Charles and Julia. As Marchmain draws nearer to his final breath, his children (and Charles) debate whether or not to invite the priest to administer final rites. While often bad Catholics, the Flyte family had maintained their Catholicism down the ages. Each child had gone through catechesis, and the formative power of early discipleship is one of the running themes of Brideshead Revisited. How much faith influenced each child into adulthood, however, becomes evident as they are faced with the patriarch’s death. Lord Marchmain had denied the Church over the previous 25 years; should he confess and receive absolution in his final days?
Here lies the final dramatic clash of this novel. Charles, a modern agnostic, cannot comprehend why any of the children would even ask such a question. Julia, the eldest daughter, discovers a faith deeper than cognitive assent which surfaces the closer her father draws to death.
“‘Julia,’ [Charles] said, ‘how can we stop this tomfoolery?’
“She did not answer for some time; then: ‘Why should we?’
“‘You know as well as I do. It’s just –just an unseemly incident.’
“‘Who am I to object to unseemly incidents?” she asked sadly” (Waugh, 325).
Hours before Marchmain’s death, he makes the sign of the cross and receives extreme unction. Watching Marchmain repent forms a desire within Charles: he wants to repent, but the best he can do is pray, “God, if there is a God, forgive him his sins, if there is such a thing as sin” (Waugh, 338). The disagreement of faith between Julia and Charles dissolves their romance; Julia refuses to marry an unbeliever, and Charles cannot find faith within himself.
I love this ending because Charles represents modernism. Here is the worldly wisdom, the scoffing at the unseen, the easy reliance on reason. When faced with the faith of the Flyte family, he knows not what to do. Julia stands for the uneasy tension of faith in modernity; she is a bad Catholic, but the early formation and the sacramental nature of her theology gives her rich resources to draw upon when faced with death. There is more to the world than the visible, and as Julia recovers her faith she points to its enduring power.
Waugh does not dodge the difficulties of faith in a technological era. Instead, his literature points beyond the particularities of any one historical moment to the question of death and the emptiness of modernism when faced with death. Waugh does not make the predictable evangelical move for his protagonist to experience a conversion, but he leaves his readers longing for faith which sustains in life’s darkest moments.
For all our scientific mastery, Brideshead Revisited reminds us that we post-postmoderns have difficulty believing with the strength and simplicity expressed in Dream of the Rood. We no longer live in a cultural moment where Christianity may be reasonably assumed; the impetus lies on us as Christians to live lives worthy of the gospel, and therefore let our lives be a “pleasing aroma of grace” to those who are perishing.
Josh Herring is a Humanities Instructor at Thales Academy, a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Hillsdale College, and a doctoral student in Faulkner University’s Great Books program. He has written for Moral Apologetics, The Imaginative Conservative, Think Christian, and The Federalist; he loves studying the intersection of history, literature, theology, and ideas expressed in the complexities of human life.