A guest post from Wesley Schantz
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
For purposes of calibration or, if you like, conversion, I would have given Good Omens a perfect score of 5 out of 5, even while acknowledging it has its flaws, so maybe I’m an easier grader than Brenton. And in the interest of full disclosure: Mark Vernon graciously allowed me to interview him for my ongoing study of Philip Pullman; he subsequently sent me an advance copy of his new book. According to his website, A Secret History of Christianity will be released in August.
Lest the title put you off (or simply mislead you), the author hastens to clarify: “By ‘secret,’ I don’t mean a Dan Brownish reference to an occult code, let alone a conspiracy theory, but to a truth that seems obscure or hidden only because it’s tricky to grasp” (2). Humble, good-humored, and reasonable as that sentence is, it gives a good sense of the book as a whole.
In a short space, and in a remarkably lucid style considering the intellectual heft of his subject matter, Mark Vernon brings together a great many insights into Christianity which, if not entirely new, he puts in a new light with reference to the peculiar philosophy of Owen Barfield.
If, like me, you’ve tried tackling Barfield on the strength of his reputation (for instance, coming to his works via Verlyn Flieger’s seminal treatment in Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World) and found his writing difficult to get into, Vernon’s approach here is welcome. He eschews the more academic, close-reading analysis of major texts in favor of a richly allusive introduction to them. In Vernon’s encouraging retelling, we get the context for the Christian story from its Hebrew and Greek roots through to its efflorescence, reformation, and decline as a religious and cultural force, rapidly bringing us all the way from the prophets and Plato right up to the present moment. Right now we find ourselves, as ever, in a critical time, and we would do well, Vernon counsels, to consider Barfield as a guide in attempting to make sense of what this history, and its central mystery in the figure of Jesus, might portend.
Running parallel to the more familiar apologetics of his contemporary and frequent compère C.S. Lewis (whose Discarded Imaged and Surprised by Joy in particular bear referencing here), Barfield advocated a profoundly philological and mythological worldview (whose outlines also become apparent, to take another well-known point of comparison, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “On Fairy-stories”). In Vernon’s account, Barfield still accords Jesus a central role in the drama of history, but rather than laying a theological emphasis, in terms of divine providence and salvation, for him the historical Jesus embodies a key turning point in consciousness. In one of the strongest sections of the book, Vernon, who nowhere in it either professes or rejects Christian faith outright, sketches the transformation in human consciousness in the light of the gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
Part of the effectiveness of these central chapters, of course, is owing to the groundwork Vernon lays out for readers in the first third of the book. Though without pictorial illustrations, there are enough memorable exempla from ancient works of art and literature to give us a sense of the stages in cultural evolution, and its impact on individuals’ experience of the world. Barfield’s theory of participation provides the core of the argument, but Vernon brings in evidence from a variety of sources for support. He juxtaposes a selection of Romantic poetry with the Socratic aporia, and draws connections between the shifting conception of ancestry, land, and divinity among the Hebrews and the inner life of parts of the body among the Greeks.
Ultimately, the serious student of any one of these subjects will probably find something (or the absence of something) to gripe about. For the art historian or textual scholar, the superficial analysis of imagery and language will grate; for the theologian or aspiring mystic, the sweeping generalizations and relative lack of fear and trembling will appal; and for the perplexed reader of Barfield, the loose and baggy summaries of this “first and last” Inkling’s dense thought will leave plenty in his writings to puzzle over. In recompense, though, and in a way that opens it up to be accessible to anyone, the succinctness and ready fluency of Vernon’s Secret History cut right to the heart of the matter. The further reading, and re-reading, he invites us to more than make up for any initial impression of a lack of depth given by his conversational tone.
Appropriately enough, a series of questions follows this passage. As Vernon notes elsewhere, following Barfield, perhaps “the move from the Greek historia, which had meant ‘knowledge gained by inquiry,’ to history as ‘the study of the past,’ arose with the need for objectivity from the Bible” (157). His Secret History continues this speculative, imaginative inquiry into the essential truth of scripture as prose and poetry, and the possibility of our participation in it.