Recommended Reading for the Catacombs

Here are some suggestions of good books to buy and read — a sort of reading list for the catacombs.

Eduard von Grützner (1846-1925), “Monk Reading With a Wine Glass”
Eduard von Grützner (1846-1925), “Monk Reading With a Wine Glass” (photo: Public Domain)

On my many travels giving talks on topics related to Christian literature, I am often asked why the Christian Literary Revival of the 19th and 20th centuries has come to an end. Why are there no writers of the caliber of Newman, Hopkins, Chesterton, Belloc, Eliot, Greene, Waugh, Tolkien or Lewis today? Or, to cross to this side of the Pond, why are there no writers of the quality of Flannery O’Connor or Walker Percy writing today in the United States? This question used to trouble me. Indeed, and truth be told, it used to irritate me a little because I was aware of the inadequacy of my response. It did seem that this exciting and exhilarating revival, rooted in dynamic orthodoxy, had petered out and faded into oblivion.

These days, I am much more happy to be asked the question because I am much more happy about the answer that I can give. My answer is that there was indeed a petering out of the revival from the sixties onwards, notwithstanding the fact that Greene and Percy spilled over into these later years until their own respective deaths, within a year of each other, in 1990 and 1991 respectively. The Revival was, however, not so much dead as sleeping, or, if it was dead, it has had a resurrection. I can say this because the new millennium has seen a vibrant Christian Literary Revival, paralleling that of the previous century. The problem is not the lack of good contemporary Christian literature; the problem is that most people are unaware of it. There has been a host of splendid novels, short stories and poems published in the past decade. It’s just that this new literature has gone largely unnoticed because it is happening underground and out of sight, in the new catacombs in which today’s Christian literati operate.

The sobering truth is that times have changed since the days of Chesterton and Belloc, or Tolkien and Lewis. In those days, Christian writers were part of the mainstream. Chesterton and Belloc wrote regularly for the secular media, and overtly Christian children’s books, such as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, were taught and read regularly in secular schools. Today, in our secular fundamentalist culture, Christian literature is not tolerated in the public square or the public school. It is sidelined, marginalized and openly scorned. We have changed from a culture that believed in freedom of religion to a culture that is increasingly demanding freedom from religion. It is a sobering reality that today’s secular publishers would have rejected The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe were Lewis alive and writing today. He would have been forced to join the ranks of those Christian writers who have nowhere to go but to the new catacombs, in which a small band of intrepid Christian publishers continue to make great works of Christian literature available to the dissident underground of Christian readers.

This state of affairs might be considered regrettable (though this is arguable), but it is no cause for despair. On the contrary, good Christians should always be happy in the catacombs. The early Church was at home there, sowing the seeds for the cultivation of the Faith and watering them with the blood of Her martyrs.

If, therefore, we are in the midst of a new Christian Literary Revival, it is imperative that Christian readers put their money and their reading habits where their faith is. We need to think outside the secular box and stop reading secularist books. We need to leave the polluted mainstream so that we can drink from the clear crystal streams of this exciting new literature. We need to turn our backs on the dead sea and stagnant ponds of postmodernity and discover the living water, or what Shakespeare calls the “quick freshes.” We need to refresh ourselves in those new works springing from the healthy imaginations of today’s Christian avant-garde. In short we need to discover the gems of new literature to be found in the Christian underground.

We need to water the seeds of this new and rich revival with our hard-earned cash, changing the culture by changing our reading and spending habits. Every dollar spent in the right way is a step to leading our culture the right way. Every dollar spent the wrong way is a step to leading our culture the wrong way. This being so, and as a means of helping Christian readers become patrons of this new Literary Revival, I’m going to offer some suggestions of good books to buy and read — a sort of reading list for the catacombs.

I would suggest that new readers of the new literature should begin with The Leaves are Falling by contemporary British author, Lucy Beckett. As with Beckett’s earlier, excellent A Postcard from the Volcano, it is a hard-hitting, heart-rending historical novel, a story of faith and the quest for freedom amid the secularist tyrannies of communism and Nazism that plagued the last century.

Having whetted their appetite for good Christian literature with Beckett’s dynamic duo, I would recommend that they then read Arthur Powers’ superb novella, The Book of Jotham. Set at the time of Christ and told through the eyes of a mentally challenged disciple, it packs a powerful pro-life punch without ever succumbing to preachiness. Dena Hunt’s Treason is another historical novel, this time set in Elizabethan England, in which a young priest and a young woman fight for physical and spiritual survival in a turbulent and violent anti-Catholic culture.

In a different vein is Eleanor Bourg Nicholson’s superb epistolary novella, The Letters of Magdalen Montague, a neo-gothic gem full of the atmosphere of the French and English Decadence and yet alive with the desire for faith and religious conversion, as well as her more recent novel, A Bloody Habit, a Catholic spin on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. On a lighter and absolutely delightful note, I would recommend any of the whimsical crime novels of Lorraine V. Murray, of which my favorite is the hilariously gripping Death of a Liturgist. Last but not least is Brian Kennelly’s Two Statues, a suspenseful story about modern-day miracles, set along the East Coast of the United States. This list is far from exhaustive but to continue with the lengthening of it would soon become exhausting for the prospective reader. The foregoing should be sufficient to whet the appetite.

It’s time to change our culture in the right direction by helping to nurture this exciting Christian Literary Revival. Be proactive. Play your part. Become a patron of the Christian arts. Buy these books and read them with your Christian friends in the catacombs of the new cultural renewal.

Ivan Aivazovsky, “Walking on Water,” ca. 1890

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