"Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" by Viktor Vasnetsov (1887)
Recently I read about a group in
Switzerland that's agitating to remove all reference to God from the
Swiss national anthem. Since the national anthem of the United States
says nary a word about God, Americans are in no position to point the
finger of blame at the godless Swiss.
Rather, I mention this factoid from
Switzerland because it's a perfect example of modern secularism in
its overtly aggressive mode. This same movement to push God out of
the picture can be found just about everywhere now.
It isn't new. As I was reading about
events in Switzerland, I also was re-reading Robert Hugh Benson's
century-old apocalyptic novel Lord of the World, a chilling
fictional account of the events surrounding the coming of the
Antichrist at a point in the not very distant future.
Benson was a son of an Archbishop of
Canterbury who became a Catholic priest and wrote a number of highly
readable devotional works and novels with religious themes. Lord
of the World is the best known of these. Every now and then
someone new falls under the spell of what its author himself called a
"terribly sensational" book and offers fresh testimony to
its nightmarish power.
Apocalyptic literature--writing about
events heralding and accompanying the end of the world--has a long
history and occupies its own special niche. Far and away the best
known work of this sort is the New Testament's Book of Revelation,
attributed to St. John the Apostle. New additions to the genre, both
Catholic and non-Catholic, have multiplied since Robert Hugh Benson's
day. A very recent specimen from a Catholic author is Paul Thigpen's
The Burden (Sea Star Press), cast as a series of verse
denunciations in the Old Testament manner aimed at various
contemporary perversions and threatening appropriate retributions for
Thigpen captures the spirit of this
sort of writing in an introduction: "We are a generation of
mockers, and we face a calamitous harvest….Spiritually, socially,
politically, economically, the consequences of our sin whirl around
us today and threaten us with catastrophe."
The message could hardly be clearer:
repent and be saved while you still can.
Whether The Burden and other
current apocalyptic works will stand the test of time is beyond
predicting. Lord of the World obviously has done that, and
it's worth considering why.
One obvious reason is that Benson is a
very skillful writer, with a rich (some would say overly rich) style
and a gift for fast-moving narrative. But there's also a larger
explanation than that. He saw and described in compelling detail not
only the triumph of secularism--humanism, he called it in his
day--but its terrifying evolution into a new religion exalting
humankind in place of God.
"It was Positivism of a kind,"
Benson wrote, "Catholicism without Christianity, Humanity
worship without its inadequacy. It was not man that was worshipped
but the Idea of man, deprived of his supernatural principle."
Moreover, as he depicts it, this religion without God it is
enormously appealing to the already de-Christianized, secularized
How persuasive individual readers will
find this depends on each one's capacity for the willing suspension
of disbelief that works of the imagination always demand. Here's one
cautionary note. Lord of the World is a powerful antidote to
the mindset that celebrates things like experimentation on human
embryos and euthanasia. Like other powerful medicines, though, it
must be taken in small doses lest it transport the reader to those
fever swamps of paranoia that lurk on the fringes of religion.