It took me a good while to get through Lord of the World by Robert Hugh Benson. With it’s climax occurring in Pentecost, it’s fitting that I finally finished it during the Octave.
An apocalyptic tale, Benson envisions a world which is overcoming all supernatural religion in favor of an ascendent humanist faith. Julian Felsenburgh, clearly the Antichrist, arises at this moment in history to bring about universal peace and ultimately become a god-like figure obtaining the worship of the world. In the midst of this, we follow the story of Percy Franklin, a priest of Rome thrust into the center of the ecclesial response to the situation; Oliver Brand, a politician in the English government who participates in Felsenburgh’s rise; and Mabel Brand, Oliver’s wife who acts as the reader’s experience of the new humanist religion. The story is far more of a travelogue of this world and time, the characters caught up in events greater than themselves and ultimately learning to trust in greater powers (or accept self-destruction in denying them).
The apocalyptic genre of recent times has basically become an opportunity for an adventure story with moralistic sermonizing – see the protestant Left Behind series or, though I greatly like it, even Catholic Michael D. O’Brien’s Fr. Elijah. Benson moralizes, but he’s far more interested in putting in parallel different kinds of moralizing than positing one over another.
Fr. Franklin is a man who gives himself wholly to God, and so experiences both the great consolation of faith along with the dark tribulations of a world which denies that faith. But in Oliver, we see a man who seeks to overcome all division, to bring about peace, which he is fully assured has been frustrated by Christianity. And in Mabel, we find a woman who desires to give herself to that which is greater than herself – Christianity is a beautiful lie for her, fulfilled in the glorious ascendancy of man. All three of these are put in tension, both in the plot and in the literary voice of the narrator.
Benson is still Catholic, though. He knows that Franklin’s way is that of Christ. However, he doesn’t allow that to mitigate the feeling one has for the non-Christians. One can feel the exuberance of both Oliver and Mabel and even be tempted to see their way of things. Their final ends leave one full of pain. By the concluding events of the book, you recognize as a counter to Mabel the “beautiful lie” of a humanistic atheism.
Any and all triumph in the book is not the triumph of being correct – it is the triumph of Christ. The final images, of bombs dropping as a final mass is being prayed, do not give self-satisfaction but rather drive one to pray that prayer of Advent – Maranatha; Come, Lord Jesus.
A note on the prophetic aspect of the book: With over a century of distance from Benson’s time, the world he outlines is somewhat laughable while still holding a bite. It’s laughable, because Benson is still firmly in the Edwardian era and envisions a post-Christian world marked by a culture still firmly entrenched in the mores of the time. He couldn’t imagine that by the 21st century we would actually jettison most of the natural virtues of his society.
Still, while the culture and practices did not survive the 20th century, the basic thrust of the post-Christian age is prescient. We no longer appeal to the divine, to some good beyond ourself, but rather ground our morals in purely human terms – utilitarian ethics mixed with glorification of self-expression. In a world, Liberalism ascendent. Benson is not the only to see this. From the beginnings of the age of revolutions, the Church has been saying this would happen – that man divorced from God and the hierarchy of the good would soon have no measure of morality but himself. And from this measure would come a morality utterly self-destructive.
Don’t let the externals fool you. At our heart, with some few signs of fighting back and the katechon still having vitality, we are still on the trajectory Benson outlines.