Reflecting On ‘Lord of the World’

David Oatney Blog: Life at 25, Catholic Books

Monsignor_R._H._Benson_in_Oct._1912,_Aged_40In the last couple of days, I’ve finished the classic Catholic novel Lord of the World, which was mentioned in this space a few days ago. It isn’t intended for this entry to be a review of the book, largely because an actual review might deter some Life At 25 readers from reading it, and it is a book that I would heartily recommend a devout and thinking reader should carefully read. In doing so, however, the reader should be aware that the book characterizes a future that was imagined in 1907, and so World War I, World War II, the rise of a Russo-centric Soviet Communism, the Cold War, and the Soviet collapse were all things that had not happened. That’s important to understand, because Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson, who wrote Lord of the World, imagined a Western Europe dominated by Communists and Marxism. That merely shows that Benson had read The Manifesto of the Communist Party quite thoroughly, because Marx and Engels envisioned their “workers’ revolution”as being something that would likely be a Western European phenomenon. The idea that Russia, a country that was largely agrarian and rural outside of it’s major cities, would be the birthplace of the first Communist state would likely have seemed strange to them. They imagined a Marxist West, and so, in the beginning of this book, did Monsignor Benson.

WorshipIn 1907, the Labour Party, which is today a major mainstream political party in the United Kingdom that doesn’t subscribe to hard Marxism, was just seven years old. There were people who believed that at that time that it was a Communist front, and in the book’s preface, Monsignor Benson seems to hint that he may have held this belief. The preface, by the way, actually serves as the story’s real beginning. A fictional scene between an old Tory parliamentarian on his deathbed and two Catholic priests, in which the classical Conservative runs through all that has happened on the political and social scene that leads to the beginnings of the story as it unfolds in the rest of the book. I mention all of this so that a younger reader that might be a bit less familiar with history can understand some things that may seem strange if you begin to read this work. Aircraft in the book are called “volors” (remember that regular passenger flight was not yet known in 1907, the first manned air flight had occurred four years before) and the description reminds me of something sort of like dirigibles.

lordworldPope Francis has called Lord of the World “prophetic” in light of our times, where there is a globalization born of a “uniformity of thought” and “adolescent progressivism.” Father Robert Barron has called the book “a most extraordinary novel, one that sheds considerable light on the spiritual predicaments of our own time.” Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen was reportedly riveted by Lord of the World. What is amazing about this book is what it does foresee as the future. In the world of the novel, which takes place with a Britain of “the future” as the center of activity, Catholics begin the novel as a laughed-at and often persecuted small minority (Protestantism has essentially collapsed in this world, largely because of divisions within it since abandonment of Christian faith of any kind is widespread), one where priests wear grey suits rather than distinctive clerical dress. The secular culture moves toward a unity based on the “uniformity of thought” that our present Holy Father has talked about, and the worship of “Humanity.” As this happens, Catholics, the only visible Christians left, go from being persecuted to prosecuted for failing to accept this new civic ritual religion that is contrary to the faith of Christ. By the end of the book, even professing faith in God or Christ can get you killed. It seems far-fetched, but as the book begins, the world’s attitude described seems like our own world today. Faith of any kind is ridiculed, and the Catholic Church in particular is persecuted to a degree unheard of in the West in 1907 when this book was written. A culture of death is predominant in the world of the novel, and euthanasia is accepted and even promoted by the state in many places, as it is in an increasing number of Western countries today. 

billboard-atheismAlso at work in Lord of the World is a spirit of secularism that is so militant that the secularism itself becomes the religion, with “Humanity” becoming the new god. What this work written in 1907 causes us to ask ourselves is this: What could someone like Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson tell us about the world of our own time? In saying this, I don’t mean that Benson was some kind of “dreamer” who could see the future, but perhaps he and other faithful people at the turn of the last century had what we might call a prayerful sense of the times or the “hour at hand,” and they knew that the decades and century ahead would not be an easy time for the world, and that our time would not always be an easy one for people of faith.

Lord of the World deals with what we today would say is the rise of the Antichrist, and that reality might cause someone to think that it is some kind of Catholic version of Left Behind, but it is easy for us to forget that the Church does teach that the Antichrist will be a reality with which we as believers will struggle before the end of all things. The Church doesn’t tell us what the Antichrist will be like or who it is, only that the Church will wrestle with the Antichrist before the present world comes to an end. Antichrist as portrayed in Lord of the World seems not unlike what the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes (675):

Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the “mystery of iniquity” in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh.

antichristIt isn’t easy subject matter to deal with (as our own Father Christian Mathis knows), but Monsignor Benson displays great skill in showing that Antichrist won’t seem strange to a world that is already intensely secularized. In keeping with traditional Catholic teaching, there is no “secret rapture,” the panic from which allows the Antichrist to rise-that is a modern idea that has no roots in Catholic thought or in historic Christianity (there won’t be anything secret about the Coming of the Lord). Instead, a world that has secularized itself to the point of no longer knowing what is sacred is hungry for faith in something, even if that is faith in humanity itself. There have been other Catholic works of apocalyptic fiction, such as Michael O’Brien’s Father Elijah and Eclipse of the Sun. However, if you’ve read those works and then, like me, read Lord of the World, you see that O’Brien seems to get some of his literary ideas from Monsignor Benson. The mentality of the secularist world in Lord of the World seems incredibly familiar to a modern reader: Life is not sacred, humanity is the master of all things, and if you are going to believe in God and practice the faith, keep it to yourself and away from public life or influence. It is easy to see why Pope Francis finds Lord of the World “prophetic,” for insofar as Pope Francis deals with the wealthy Western world, Benson describes the mentality of that present world in a remarkably accurate way.

lordoftheworldI’m not suggesting that Life At 25 readers should go read Lord of the World, which is available free on Google Books, and then get all worked up about the End of Days, as some Christians continually seem to be. That kind of mentality is neither productive nor does it do anything for the spread of the faith in our present age, not to mention the fact that Jesus himself said that it was not our place to be concerned with the times and the seasons (Acts 1:7). Lord of the World does paint a very stark picture, however, of a Western culture totally devoid of God and of the persecuted Church which lives through it. It is worth reading, reflecting, and praying on, and asking: How much do I love the Lord? Enough to give my life as a witness for the faith, as some of these characters do, or would I recant my faith in the midst of persecution, as do some others?