Religion & Liberty Online

Christian Humanism and the Imaginative Mysteries

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

A collection of essays by Hillsdale professor Bradley J. Birzer explores the moral imagination of the great Christian humanists to reflect on literature and film—and, of course, Batman.

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A young Kansas boy moves between oil derricks, wheat fields, and abandoned buildings. He stops for only one thing: the hose. Not any ordinary hose, but a most extraordinary hose. Its contents pour forth not in trickles, streams, or torrents but gush in words, images, and pages. Not a fire hose run from a hydrant, but a library hose. It runs not from any particular library, but many places at once. While the Wiley Elementary School Library and the Hutchinson Public Library were reliable fonts, none was more important than that found at home, where his mother lovingly nourished him from shelves, coffee tables, and the nightstand beside his bed.

In time, the miraculous happened. Filled with this torrent of books and words, he began to disgorge words, words, words! Papers for school and arguments for the debate team consumed him. Research was both an intellectual puzzle and an art. He would grow to become what Russell Kirk called a “Bearer of the Word,” a dedicated man “whose first obligation is to the Truth, and that a Truth derived from apprehension of an order more than natural or material.”

This knight-errant “Bearer of the Word” from the plains of Kansas is the author of the new book Mythic Realms: The Moral Imagination in Literature & Film published by Angelico Press. His name is Bradley J. Birzer and he is Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies and professor of history at Hillsdale College. On the surface the book is a mere collection of essays and lectures, the bulk of which were previously published in various outlets (including the Acton Institute) and orated to varied audiences. Much more, however, lies beneath.

The depths of this collection are clear from the book’s concise but penetrating introduction, which opens with Russell Kirk’s provocative definition: “Images are representations of mysteries, necessarily, for mere words are tools which break in the hand, and it has not pleased God that man should be saved by logic, abstract reason, alone.” Kirk’s conviction is that images give us not just poetry but great scientific, philosophical, and spiritual insights. Birzer argues that this definition is shared by a long line of the West’s most profound thinkers, from the philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome down through “Cicero, St. Augustine, Edmund Burke, Irving Babbitt, T.S. Eliot, and C.S. Lewis.”

Birzer calls this tradition “Christian humanism,” and this book, while able to stand on its own, is a self-conscious companion to his 2019 Beyond Tenebrae: Christian Humanism in the Twilight of the West. Beyond Tenebrae sought to define “Christian humanism” by exploring the life and thought of its leading figures; in Mythic Realms, however, he deploys the moral imagination found running through them to reflect on literature and film in this century and the last.

Prior to the critical enterprise that makes up the bulk of the book are a series of personal reflections that, summarized and reimagined, became the opening paragraphs of this review. In this opening section, Birzer names the writers Ray Bradbury and J.R.R. Tolkien as early and great influences on him as masters of style and imagery. The opening paragraphs of this review, while not modeled on the respective style and imagery of these masters, nevertheless serve to illustrate the play of both aspects of the craft of writing that move beyond “abstract reason alone” to insight into the author of Mythic Realms by way of the moral imagination.

While the primarily autobiographical “Personal Reflections” precedes reflections on “Literature & Moral Imagination,” “Film & Moral Imagination,” and the concluding “The Moral Imagination & Belief,” autobiographical threads persist throughout. Personal genealogies of the author’s subjects, ranging from genres, literature, film, to belief, provide a reception history of the subjects critically examined. This layering of the moral imagining is both an inquiry into the images explored and an examination of their impact on the author of the book. This is fitting, as these are not bare images examined by reason alone but as Edmund Burke describes it, “the decent drapery of life … furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies.”

In the TV series Twin Peaks: The Return, FBI deputy director Gordon Cole, played by the show’s creator, director David Lynch, is on a case when the actress Monica Bellucci and her friends invite him to coffee at a street café. There Bellucci tells him, quoting the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, “We are like the dreamer who dreams, and then lives inside the dream.” Birzer the critic is the dreamer who dreams and then lives inside the dream. When his moral imagination is engaged in the critical reception of images, it is changed and becomes part of him—a model of sensitive engagement with works his heart comes to own as they shape his understanding. Reading Birzer on literature and film, one appreciates the truth of the British physician and preacher Thomas Fullers’ observation that “seeing’s believing, but feeling’s the truth.”

There are 30-some essays of varied length examining literature and film in the collection, with subjects ranging from the creator of Conan the Barbarian to the Inklings, Hitchcock to Stranger Things. Batman looms large. Informative historical digressions abound regarding their composition and initial critical reception. These are interesting and engaging in their own right, but the twin pillars on which they almost all rest are their philosophical underpinnings in Romanticism and their pulp sensibility in genre.

In the chapter “Romance After Tolkien,” Birzer argues that the modern imaginative world is saturated in Romanticism. While acknowledging its excesses and failings, he draws on the Catholic historian Christopher Dawson to argue that “Romanticism successfully saved Christianity from the utilitarianism and rationalism of the eighteenth century.” Birzer presents a Romanticism, rightly understood but often abused, that is fundamentally deeply conservative “in its praise of the ancestors, its idealization of the past, and its admiration for folk customs as greater wisdom than any one generation or one person can know. Romanticism is also, properly understood, deeply sacramental.”

In the chapter “Who Were the Inklings,” Birzer shows the fundamentally Romantic underpinnings of the literary projects of some of last century’s leading Christian humanists:

Would it be possible, Tolkien and Lewis wondered in the 1930s, to write fiction that might combine all of these loves: a love of history; a desire to debate defenders of the modern world and point out the many foibles of modern living; and a way to promote one’s philosophical and religious beliefs without being overly blatant? That is, could a modern writer create art while avoiding the pitfalls of the ever-prevalent ideological morass and political propaganda of the era and remain artful?

It is deeply Romantic, and ironically conservative, that the Inklings would utilize such seemingly modern and popular genres as science fiction, fantasy, and horror to recover the best of the premodern world. It is in what was once contemptuously dismissed as “pulps” that Birzer finds some of the most outstanding instances of the moral imagination in this century and the last. Readers who once devalued and dismissed such works will find ample evidence in Mythic Realms to reconsider and take up and read and/or watch!

The end of Mythic Realms itself presents the best sort of startling reveal and reversal found in the pulp fiction it celebrates. Here Birzer makes his confession: “Faith has always been a struggle for me. Indeed, throughout my fifty-plus years of life, very rarely have I ever felt comfortable for any stretch of time with my religion or my religious practices.” The consolation he finds—no spoilers here—is consonant with great children’s author Chris Van Allsburg’s observation, “Seeing is believing, but sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see.”

Dan Hugger

Dan Hugger is Librarian and Research Associate at the Acton Institute.