Mark Vernon’s “A Secret History of Christianity,” review by Wesley Schantz (On Owen Barfield)

Review of A Secret History of Christianity: Jesus, the Last Inkling, and the Evolution of Consciousness, by Mark Vernon

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.

For me, the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection is consummately portrayed in Piero della Francesca’s sixteenth-century fresco. (Vernon,132)

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.

A particularly momentous occasion came when a painter of pots discovered the trick of foreshortening. (Vernon, 49, cf. The Story of Art, by E.H. Gombrich)

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.

Little wonder that Blake was drawn to the suspended end of Mark’s gospel. No one has caught this moment of possibility like him, in his watercolor “The Three Maries at the Sepulchre.” (Vernon, 183)

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.

 


Wesley Schantz coordinates Signum Academy, writes about books and video games, and works as a substitute teacher in Spokane, WA.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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25 Responses to Mark Vernon’s “A Secret History of Christianity,” review by Wesley Schantz (On Owen Barfield)

  1. danaames says:

    I haven’t kept count, but it’s interesting that this is yet another Christian tome that has come out in the past 10 years or so that uses the icon of Christ from the Deeisis (“adoration of God” – Christ in the center with his mother to his right and John the Forerunner to his left) at Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. Icons, especially mosaic icons, seem to be all the rage with publishers – as long as it’s Christ only, not accompanied by any saints…

    Dana

    Like

    • It’s pretty ubiquitous, isn’t it? I wonder the reasons:
      -the phot is probably in public domain, and it is relatively cheap to buy a photograph
      -older art has muted colours that work in today’s design aesthetic
      -these icons are immediately recognizable, so I know the book is Christain and probably historical and/or intellectual
      I do love religious art, honestly.

      Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        It does look familiar – but if I knew where it was, I had forgotten – as well as the sad condition of the whole mosaic (which would explain its skillful cropping as here, also including, cropping off of the Theotokos and St. John, as here – to include them, unless separately cropped and juxtaposed, being likely to focus too much attention on the damage…).

        It is an interesting thought to consider who is and isn’t included on covers (etc.), though – again, Williams’s Descent of the Dove comes to mind, with its frontispiece of a reproduction of a panel attributed to Ludovico Brea and apparently in the Church of St. Martial in La Brigue, and usually described as the Assumption or Coronation of the Virgin – also used as the cover illustration of at least one edition.

        Liked by 1 person

        • “cropping” is interesting. I suppose, though, for many masterpieces or mosaics–and church art in general–any reproduction is a misunderstanding of the original intent. They were designed and painted to overwhelm and draw the participant, so that we stand (or kneel), attend, submit to the piece, with our heads tilted upwards. As great as books are, tilting our heads down to a book will never be the same thing.

          Liked by 1 person

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Good food for thought, here! I’ve seen manuscript illustrations of existing buildings and monuments, but did such an approach apply to church art, too?

            I am grateful for the churches that provide mirror tables for us the more easily to see the ceilings, though I’m happy on lie on my back in unbusy circumstances (and often remember to bring binoculars when visiting churches).

            And one thinks of the discussions of things only the artists or stonemasons could have seen in detail, when in place. (This also gets me wondering if there are books with evidence about seeing before lens-making developed…)

            All the mediaeval depictions of people looking at manuscripts which spring to mind include some sort of lecterns or book stands, so that even looking down is not far down – though your thought-provoking observation did make me think of the paradoxical imagery of adoration of Jesus in the manger.

            Liked by 2 people

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    This is tantalizing… and the link to his website with a chunk of the book’s Introduction welcome and well worth following!

    I have read far too little Barfield, to date – but this gets me interested in comparing the more I’ve read of Eric Voegelin’s analysis in Order and History, and the bits I’ve read about Karl Jasper’s Axial Age studies, and wondering if there is explicit attention, here, to Barfield’s debts to, and differences from, Rudolf Steiner, and to possible Enlightenment and Romantic thinkers and works shared in the backgrounds of such 20th-century Germans and Barfield.

    Like

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      And, I should have added, Charles Williams’s The Descent of the Dove with the lively subtitle A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church (recently translated into Dutch, with a rich annotation which it would be good to see available in English!).

      Liked by 1 person

    • Instinctively, I suspect that Barfield would be a great conversation partner with either Voeglin or Jasper on a big academic study…. if only I could understand Barfield!

      Liked by 1 person

      • bookwarmgames says:

        Hmm, there’s a brief reference to the Axial Age idea early on in the book, but Jaspers doesn’t come up again. Neither Eric Voegelin nor Charles Williams makes it into the book… Nor does Steiner, which is a little surprising! Thanks for the comments, all!

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        • ChrisC says:

          Prof. Dickieson, D.L. Dodds,

          It’s gratifying to see some appreciation for Eric Voegelin. Part of the reason is that he is so darned obscure that it’s sort of a revelation to realize others outside the corners of specialized academe even realize he existed.

          Voegelin almost sounds like a slightly corrected, more down to earth version of Barfield to me, while still managing to keep a lot of similar themes and ideas intact. The most telling similarity is how both authors seem aware of the idea of “participation” and the “evolution of consciousness”. In particular, there’s a lot to admire about Voegelin’s concept of the symbolizations that different ages of the past used to both identify and perceive reality back then. I’m not sure we have that sort of idea in place in this day and age.

          To be fair, there can also be parts of Voegelin’s thinking that can strike me as either slightly off, irksome, or mistaken. The most obvious is the moments when he prefers to draw limits on certain subject when it seems perfectly possible to arrive at a reasonable conclusion. The other is with his lumping the idea of alchemy in with Gnosticism. I just feel that a case can be made for hermetic symbolism in a way that doesn’t hinge on any kind of nihilistic philosophy.

          Still, on the whole, I can’t help thinking Voegelin might be a useful thinker for Inkling fans to look into.

          Liked by 1 person

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Thanks – I heartily agree! I love Lewis and Tolkien’s coining of words, but can imagine they might take issue with his enthusiasm for technical terms (which I also love, myself).

            Liked by 1 person

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            I might add that I bring Tolkien, Voegelin, and George Grant together in, I hope, interesting and true ways, in my paper for ‘The Tolkien Phenomenon’ conference:

            http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Scholarship_and_Fantasy

            That book must be in various libraries, but it may be rather hit or miss how close it is to a potential reader – I suppose WorldCat would help, here.

            Liked by 2 people

            • ChrisC says:

              D.L. Dodds,

              Thanks for the reply, as well as highlighting your very own source for Voegelin and the Inklings. I’ll HOPE that I can find a copy for purchase at least lying around SOMEWHERE.

              One of the greatest consternation at the moment is learning all about hidden, or unpublished Master’s Thesis’s that are tucked away where they seem to have been so forgotten that obtaining a copy is just about impossible.

              Still, thanks for the heads up. I’m particularly gratified to find Andy Orchard as one of the writers of the collection. I’ve just obtained a copy of his “Pride and Prodigies”. It has to be the only book-length study of the monsters and a mythical beasts in the “Beowulf” manuscript,outside of Tolkien.

              Liked by 2 people

              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                Maybe some sort of Inter-Library Loan would be possible… Also, I could try to get organized and see if I could send our host, Brenton, a scan of my paper to pass on to you…

                When I was doing research at the Wade in Wheaton, they had a fine collection of Inklings and indeed their ‘Seven authors’ dissertations… I don’t know what other libraries have been similarly busy collecting relevant copies, or how that has evolved and changed with the progress of digitalization… but I do have the general impression of tantalizing numbers of theses frustratingly in- or not easily accessible!

                I thoroughly enjoyed Andy Orchard’s Critical Companion to Beowulf, but only many a year after it appeared – and I still have not yet caught up with Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-Manuscript, enthralling though it sounds! (I dream of living closer to a great library again, someday…)

                Liked by 1 person

              • Hi David, if you want to facilitate some paper exchange, great. You’ve got my email. For Chris, it is junkola [at] gmail [dot] com.

                Like

              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                Many thanks! Now to get organized to scan… ChrisC. feel free to nudge!

                Liked by 1 person

            • Thanks for this link to the Tolkien Phenomenon, David. I didn’t know about it!

              Liked by 1 person

              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                It was a great conference and, I think, a great volume of proceedings – I have not tried to keep track of them, but I think Tom Shippey’s has been reprinted elsewhere, and it may not be the only one (which may make some more easily accessible!).

                Liked by 2 people

  3. ChrisC says:

    D.L. Dodds,

    From what I’ve been able to see, it looks like your impression is more or less correct. If it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind, at least as far as the digitization of a lot of valuable thesis papers are concerned. For instance, I’ve heard of a study called “Charles Williams as Reviewer and Reviewed” by Lawrence J. Dawson that I’ve been unable to find anywhere. Sad really.

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