True art is a hard sell in an era in which media is predominant. Today, successful media is immediate, snappy, flashy, pervasive, and geared toward influencing the public to buy something and/or think a certain way. It’s also, especially in the case of social media, quite disposable. Art, on the other hand, is intended to stand the test of time, to be pondered, and to nourish both the culture and the individual soul. It’s not about selling a product or a promoting a narrow political agenda. It’s one of the “permanent things” and will only go away when the society that produced it crumbles itself.
This brings us to Pondering the Permanent Things: Reflections on Faith, Art, and Culture, a compilation of essays by the late and highly regarded professor of English and literature Thomas Howard (1935–2020), edited by Keith Call, assistant archivist at Buswell Library Special Collections at Wheaton College.
Call, an expert in evangelical history, felt compelled to shed a spotlight on the dissertations of the Anglican-professor-turned-Catholic-convert who wrote such well-regarded books as Christ the Tiger, Evangelical Is Not Enough, Chance or the Dance: A Critique of Modern Secularism, Lead, Kindly Light: My Journey to Rome, On Being Catholic, and Dove Descending: T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” In our discussion, Call spoke of how Howard held that great art stands as a bulwark against the tide of secularism— and society’s eventual self-destruction.
John W. Kennedy: Who is Thomas Howard, and why did you decide to compile his writing in 2023?
Keith Call: Thomas Howard was a professor of English at Gorton College and later at St. John College. He grew up in an evangelical family, a very renowned Plymouth Brethren family. His sister was Elisabeth Elliot, who is very well-known in evangelical circles. Her husband Jim Elliot was martyred with a few others in Ecuador in the late 1950s. His father was the editor of the Sunday School Times.
Throughout the years, Thomas Howard was sort of enamored with liturgical worship. He converted to Anglicism in the early ’50s. He stayed an Anglican until 1985, when he converted to Catholicism after reading some classic Catholic authors. That really brought a lot of attention to him. He had written a handful of books before that—Christ the Tiger,Evangelical Is Not Enough. Those were books that were being read by evangelicals in the ’70s and ’80s who were interested in liturgical worship, whether it was Catholic, Lutheran, or Anglican.
I was working in a library—at Wheaton College, in fact—and I had read some of his books and appreciated them very much. I’m not Catholic, but I liked his writing. The last book that appeared was a collection of shorts about 10 years ago called The Night Is Far Spent. As I was looking through periodicals, I noticed that many of his essays had never been collected, and I thought somebody needs to do that. I realized one day that I would have to be that somebody. I was very well positioned to do it. I had access to his student file, which had a couple of essays in it. I had actually asked him to write an essay for something several years ago. It was an unpublished essay. We had some recordings of him when he spoke at Wheaton throughout the years. So it was a matter of transcribing those.
So I contacted his widow and asked permission to proceed. She very graciously said yes. I put together these pieces, and Ignatius Press accepted it. They had previously published his other books, so it was a very easy sell. I’m very satisfied with this book. I think they’ve done a tremendous job.
JWK: You say he compared writers, particularly poets, to prophets in their ability to speak out against secularism and practices that lead to eventual destruction. Can you elaborate on that?
KC: Talking about T.S. Eliot, in particular, he says that’s the job of the poet—to recall the permanent things and to articulate those things freshly. So he would draw the office of the poet and the prophet very tightly in that sense. They recall truths that are known, forgotten, or maybe not known, and then they give them fresh garb in the life of language, drama, or something like that. I think that’s how he approached high culture. He saw high culture as the expression of prophetic truths for people in an era of low culture.
JWK: What would “low culture” be?
KC: Low culture would be sort of this rock-and-roll ephemeral internet culture where you have, for example, podcasters—or somebody like that—who become famous just for being famous, just for being seen on YouTube. (Alternatively) you have a great actor who’s famous for continually delivering great performances, or a great sculptor who is famous or renowned for continually delivering great sculptures. These higher expressions of thought are the permanent things. They say something to the human experience, whereas the latest boy band, Disney film, or video game does not reflect any lasting observations or insights about the human condition.
JWK: Do you think pop culture ever rises to the level of high culture?
KC: It can, but I think that’s the exception to the rule rather than the rule.
JWK: Explain Howard’s belief that myth and storytelling can convey truth at a level that the simple recounting of facts or preaching doesn’t necessarily.
KC: Tom Howard would not discount preaching—but preaching is a delivery of facts, of propositional truths, whereas story absorbs those truths within human drama. So you can have characters living out the truth that’s seen by the reader or the observer rather than having those truths just sort of didactically announced to him. The story unfolds. The reader can track with the story. The reader can involve himself with the story, can feel what’s going on inside of the story. He cannot necessarily do that if he were simply confronted with a series of truths.
Madeleine L’Engle was an author Tom knew well. He said her books knew more than she did. She was always astounded that her fans would tell her things that they discovered in her books that she had not consciously put there. That sort of (ties) into Tom Howard’s idea of the value of story: it can (transmit) what it’s conveying immediately as you’re reading it, but it also is absorbed and transcends that because the reader discovers truths inside of the story that the author did not necessarily insert into it.
JWK: Who influenced Howard? You mentioned T.S. Eliot.
KC: Eliot was a particular favorite for Thomas Howard. He cites him as one of the authors who really triggered his love for liturgy, his love for the lasting things, the permanent things. I think it was T.S. Eliot who coined the term “permanent things.” Eliot also was a great conservative who drew on that storehouse of wisdom that Western civilization had accumulated. (Howard) just tracked with the beauty of Eliot’s words and the depths of his insights.
JWK: He also carried on a communication with C.S. Lewis. Can you tell me a little about that?
KC: Tom Howard was in the South. He was enlisted (in the military). He was a chaplain’s assistant. He stayed back in the office while the chaplain was out in the field. Tom would just clean up the office, empty trash cans, and kind of keep the chapel clean. He said he was usually done by about 11 o’clock. The rest of the day he would read books that people had sent him. At some point, someone sent him a copy of The Lord of the Rings—and he loved The Lord of the Rings, and he didn’t know why! For some reason—he doesn’t remember why he did it—he wrote a fan letter to C.S. Lewis and Lewis wrote back.
JWK: But it was J.R.R. Tolkien’s book. What made him write to C.S. Lewis about a Tolkien book?
KC: In the essay, he doesn’t remember why. Maybe it was because they were in the same circle or he was associating them because they drank together in the same pub or something like that, but a couple of years later he wound up in Oxford, and he had a friend there who arranged for him to meet with Lewis.
So he followed Lewis’ directions and took a bus and met him at Lewis’ home at the Kilns. They had a nice visit. He didn’t see any of the other people that you associate with C.S. Lewis—his brother Warren or anybody like that. It was just Tom and C.S. Lewis. He said Lewis smoked cigarette after cigarette. He was just like you hear him described. He was a very avuncular, cheerful man. He told stories. Tom Howard didn’t want to press his luck. So he stayed for about 45 minutes and then left, but he had a wonderful visit with Lewis.
JWK: What did he think of Lewis’ Narnia stories? Did he have any thoughts on those?
KC: He loved the Narnia stories. He loved anything that Lewis wrote. Some people, in fact, compared (them). He’s thought of as an extension of C.S. Lewis. Tom Howard wrote elegantly and insightfully and picked up on a lot of Lewis’ thoughts. He went through great pains to read what C.S. Lewis wrote—whether it was unpublished letters or published letters, any little bit of ephemera, anything he could get his hands on. He adored Lewis.
JWK: Getting back to Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings, what were Howard’s thoughts on that?
KC: Again, he loved Tolkien. He felt that a great Christian cosmology was wrapped up in The Lord of the Rings—and, particularly, a Catholic cosmology. He loved the writing, the story, and the vastness of it. It was a big story that pulled you in. It was wholesome, too. He appreciated that. He also tried to find everything he could that Tolkien wrote. He relished it.
JWK: Did he ever express any thoughts about the film adaptations?
KC: He mentioned them, I think, briefly in an interview. I can’t say very much about that off the top of my head, but my impression is that he greatly preferred the written version of The Lord of the Rings.
JWK: What do you think he would say about today’s poets, songwriters, and storytellers? How did he feel about the current crop?
KC: I don’t have a sense that he read very much of the current crop. I think somebody would request a blurb or something, and he would read it and offer his usual really trenchant and insightful observation about a children’s book or something like that, but he seems to have read mostly classical literature and kept his head in classical literature. He wasn’t unaware of the current crop of writers, but that wasn’t his preference.
JWK: Judging from all you’ve said, particularly regarding Howard’s view of the value of permanence over impermanence, I would imagine that social media was not his cup of tea.
KC: Right. He would not have been interested in Twitter or any of that kind of thing.
JWK: Do you have a favorite writing of Howard’s that really speaks to why you found him such a worthy subject?
KC: I love the first essay in the book Pondering the Permanent Things. I transcribed that from a taped lecture he delivered at Wheaton College in 1984. I definitely wanted to start this collection with that piece. I’m fascinated with the intersection between faith and creativity, and he gets to the very heart of what that means for the Christian artist. Any artist—of any denomination—would profit greatly by reading that essay. He understands that art is incarnational because you are bringing an idea to solidity. You are bringing it to reality—whether it’s music, painting, or any artistic expression.
He also makes the fascinating observation that art belongs to the fallen world. There would be no art in the Garden of Eden because Adam and Eve were functioning in harmony with God’s will. There was no need for them to create a piece of art to help them reflect on their falleness, because they were not fallen. When we look at a piece of art in a museum, or wherever we have it, that is something that is created within time. It’s a commentary on the state of the human experience in its current fallen condition. I think that’s a very brilliant observation.
JWK: So what’s next for you?
KC: I’ve got enough for two more Tom Howard collections. Ignatius tells me, if this sells well, I can start assembling another book. I’m hoping that happens.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.