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A cautious and skillful map through the world of late modern fiction

Joshua Hren’s How to Read (and write) Like a Catholic proffers a map to the labyrinthine grey and bland literary world built on the ruins wrecked by postmodernity.

(Image: Yannick Pulver/

In his essay, “A Secret Vice,” originally a 1931 lecture at Pembroke College, Oxford, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote of a “secret hierarchy” of individuals who have the curious hobby of constructing their own languages. Perhaps the most famous passage in the essay is one in which Tolkien recounts encountering another creative language-fashioner in an unpleasant pub.

Tolkien, of course, would go onto to create an entire world populated by multiple fantastic races, possessing their own unique and complex language. While Tolkien’s description of the secret hierarchy of language creators is of an especially strange and eccentric sort of people, a similar community exists among the increasingly rare species of human who willingly reads books for both edification and pleasure.

Indeed, even among American Catholics, the joy of finding another Catholic who enjoys reading, and perhaps even writing, literature is a relatively rare phenomenon.

Nonetheless, there is a small but serious cadre of Catholics who enjoy reading and who did not intentionally sleep through their English classes in college.

However, even among the Catholic literati, there is a great deal of confusion about what to read—and even how to read.

On one hand, reading Catholics are often told by they must read (and teach their children) the “classics” or “great books.” Yet, when they read many of these works, some are surprised or even shocked by the impurity, violence, and ultimately un- or even anti-Christian message of a number of the books in the “Western Canon.”

Moreover, those Catholics curious enough to dig through the treasured tradition of the Church, will find comments from saints and doctors of the Church warning of the immorality of much of secular literature. Yet, again, there are other writings of saints and popes encouraging the teaching of carefully pruned works of secular literature.

In his new book How to Read (and write) Like a Catholic, Joshua Hren, editor of Wiseblood Books and co-founder of the MFA program at the University of St. Thomas, Houston, seeks to provide a cautious map through the world of (largely but not completely) late modern fiction. Hren’s work is unique in that he does not simply echo and repeat the same (noble and true) talking points that have circulated about “Great Books” circles for almost one hundred years.

As opposed to presenting the familiar panoply of and Catholic and classic authors that have (in one sense, rightly) filled many late twentieth and early twenty-first century works of Catholic literary criticism, Hren wrestles with a wide variety of Catholic, non-Catholic, and even semi-Catholic, authors ranging from Jack Kerouac and David Foster Wallace, to Gustave Flaubert and Homer, to Caroline Gordon and Friedrich Nietzsche.

Moreover, rather than being rapt by the aura surrounding “la république des lettres” or, in contrast, labeling those authors outside of postmodern conservative American Catholic polite society as being “the bad guys,” Hren carefully navigates through a host of thinkers. In doing so, he picks and prunes those elements of their thought that are consonant with Catholic thinking while dismissing those that are not.

Hren’s argument is guided by John Henry Cardinal Newman’s famous dictum that literature should serve as portrait of “man in rebellion” while at the same time noting that, as Popes John Paul II and Benedict XI, as well as contemporary Catholic poet and critics Dana Goia argue, a Catholic vision of literature should wrestle with the issue of suffering and redemption of man, which is at the heart of the Christian mythos.

As Hren notes, the big three of twentieth-century Catholic writers—Shusaku Endo, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy—themselves taking the great 19th-century Eastern Orthodox novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky as their model, all depict humankind in state of sin in which the “hard rudiments of grace” are difficult to find. These authors—especially Endo—have drawn criticism for their often tortuous and murky depiction of human encounters with grace and sin, and many of their works have left Catholic readers, tutored on the more “theologically formalist” approach of classic writers like Dante Alighieri, either confused or even irritated.

However, it is precisely because of their desire to depict the experience of men and women thrown into a confusing and difficult (and sinful) world that these authors do not provide easy or tidy answers.

This does not mean that Hren endorses a carte blanche approach for authors to revel in sin and doubt. Rather, the Catholic author and reader are both called to follow the model set forth by the Church’s tradition, which is a life raft in the stormy sea of what is now called “post-postmodernism.”

The most difficult quality of contemporary literature and art is not that it present a too harsh and explicit of a vision of sinful humanity (even though it does do that); rather the key issue with contemporary fiction (and popular media) is that it presents evil as something normal and, indeed, good.

Our period is one of tremendous darkness and confusion; it feels like a diabolical disorientation has set in on the world and the Church, and Christians are nothing but losing battle after battle in the culture war.

However, Joshua Hren’s rich and robust How to Read (and write) Like a Catholic is a small, flickering light in the darkness. It proffers a map to the labyrinthine grey and bland world built on the ruins wrecked by postmodernity. However, Hren’s work is equally importantly a reminder that amidst this odd carnival of evil, there are still moments of grace and epiphany.

How to Read (and write) Like a Catholic
By Joshua Hren
TAN Books, 2021
Hardcover, 480 pages

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About Jesse Russell 15 Articles
Jesse Russell is the author of a number of articles on twentieth-century Catholic political thought as well as works on the poetry of Edmund Spenser. He is assistant Professor of English at Georgia Southwestern State University.


  1. Part of our period of “tremendous darkness and confusion” traces back to the notion that mindless churning/evolution is the only reality, and is even the machine of human advancement. About this modern fiction, Charles Darwin himself actually had something to say about his own desiccated narrowness and what has become Darwin-ISM:

    “This curious and lamentable loss of the higher aesthetic tastes is all the odder, as books on history, biographies, and travels (independently of any scientific facts which they may contain), and essays on all sorts of subjects interest me as much as ever they did. My mind seems to have become a kind of MACHINE for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive.

    “…A man with a mind more highly organized or better constituted than mine, would not, I suppose, have thus suffered. . . . The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be INJURIOUS TO THE INTELLECT, and more probably to THE MORAL CHARACTER, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature. . . . My power to follow a long and purely abstract train of thought is very limited; and therefore I COULD NEVER HAVE SUCCEEDED WITH METAPHYSICS or mathematics.”

    (Charles Darwin, edited by Sir Francis Darwin, “Charles Darwin’s Autobiography,” 1887/New York: Henry Schuman 1950, CAPS added).

    • That’s a marvellous familiar quote from Darwin lamenting his tunnel vision of the world, and anticipating how frequent it may become. We can identify the effect of Darwinism in sociologist Herbert Spencer who adopted Darwin’s premises of animal evolution and applied it to Man, famously postulating survival of the fittest to peoples. Other human animal behavior theory was taught by psychologist David Barash U Washington in The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and People. Inventing language for Tolkien meant the spoken word of imagined peoples related to Nordic mythology, whereas Spencer and Barash invented anthropological languages as science.

      • In some of Darwin’s possibly less familiar reflections, he remarked more directly on theology, for example: “[o]n the other hand, an omnipotent and omniscient Creator ordains everything and foresees everything. Thus we are brought face to face with a difficulty as insoluble as is that of free will and predestination [which he correctly dismissed elsewhere as a “damnable doctrine”]”.

        One wonders what Darwin (and his more ideological descendants) might have noticed if he had not been incubated on island-Britain which, ever since Henry VIII, had devolved into a sort of religious/cultural Galapagos Island—polite Anglicanism cut off from valid sacraments (Eucharistic coherence!) and what on the mainland still retained the DNA of the Apostolic Succession and the RNA of the Church Fathers.

        What if a less-narrow Darwin had been exposed less to country-parson tea time and more to what Sts. Augustine and Aquinas had to say about the “difficulty” of free will (universal) and predestination (only Christ and Mary)? Darwin (1809-1882) was, after all, a contemporary of the seemingly mutant Oxford Movement and St. John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890).

        • Besides, the Royal Society paid well. Perhaps the case, otherwise Darwin might have taken a different path [your response wasn’t posted prior to my writing my initial response]. Before Darwin and HMS Beagle there was Joseph Banks and HM Bark Endeavor 1769. Banks, naturalist and botanist during his exploratory research lived beachcomber style among Polynesians personally experiencing life as practiced sans restriction escapades included [remarkably evinced in letters and his famous Journals] . Later became president of the Society 1778. He left his distinctive libertarian mark with the Royal Society into the Victorian era. Royal Society leanings for scientific novelty would’ve likely encouraged a scientific basis for evolution. As shown with Spencer and Barash that would unfortunately lead to the dehumanization of the human species.

      • Assuming the topic of anthropological reinvention and sin finds interest, the infamous pill [it’s notable that the Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences is preparing to revise Humanae Vitae] ushered a reversal of social mores, at least as opportunity arose. Many, and we know very many believed they could now do with their bodies, as perceived what came natural without risk of pregnancy. Women in the Age of Aquarius sexual avalanche believed that avoiding pregnancy made the new sexual freedom a morally acceptable option. Now we have Planned Parenthood sexualizing kids as educational preparing future sexually aberrant who will likely presume that possessing sovereignty over their bodies makes abortion a good option. There may be no practicing homosexuals [now pansexuals to keep updated] who are against abortion. Certainly this form of education following pansexual prophet David Barash is profitable for Planned Parenthood, as well as the Teachers Union [favorable sanction of transgender a premier curriculum], insofar as remaining in good stead with the administration’s ideology of unrestrained liberty. As long as those with the wherewithal to challenge this remain mute those of us who believe what Christ taught, and his Apostles and Church conveyed [when popes defended the faith] have the task of defending that faith by word, writing, and every legal means available.

      • Fr Morello,
        Don’t you think that the telling difference between JRRT and the others was Tolkien’s constant search for Beauty? My opinion is of no worth, but I’ve read and heard both Catholics and non-Catholics remark on this.
        Moreover, speaking of language, we in this country have made our own language too; a language our parents and grandparents would never have dreamed of using. Horrible blasphemy, four-letter words, sexual entendre, filth; (movies seem to be fascinated by toilets,) and what I call the pursuit of ugliness is now part of our culture. Often, when I suggest this, I see an amused expression on faces even from my own adult children. They, and the rest of the world, are numb to it. This “language” is the language of the young–and the language of those who think using it makes them young. Tolkien, CS Lewis, et al. are blessed to have missed most of it. I expect it will become worse…

  2. I have before me an essay, The Quiet Martyrdom of Catholic Novelists. In a world where secular mainstream publishers and large sectors of the reading public regard the words ‘thinking Catholic’ as an oxymoron, this title speaks for itself.

  3. IF (a) it’s true that “the [modified] Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences is preparing to revise Humanae Vitae,” and IF (b) it’s reportedly also true that papal approval for the recently published response to the blessing homosexual liaisons (link below) was given only under pressure from Cardinal Farrell (prefect for the dicastery on Laity, Family and Life) and Archbishop Paglia (president for the Pontifical Academy for Life—and in charge of the John Paul II Institute)…

    THEN, does the response (again, link below) serve as camouflage for the end game of “revising” Humanae Vitae? Feint to the right, move to the left?

    How would such a revision fully reflect Veritatis Splendor which still teaches clearly about moral absolutes versus such fallacies as the Fundamental Option, consequentialism, and proportionalism? And, which inoculates against—rather than accommodates—our pandemic culture of dehumanized sexuality so unhinged from natural law as now to couple routinized abortion with redefined “marriage” and mandatory gender theory.

    • What your question implies is true, there can be no coherence with John Paul II and Veritatis Splendor. Apparently, there’s a reincarnation of proportionalism that had been addressed and dismantled in Veritatis. The greater good nonetheless runs through the Pontiff’s thought regarding exceptions to the rule. Edward Pentin recently [2 weeks past] wrote [again] on the complete decomposition of the Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute indicating that irreconcilable break with John Paul. Pentin added a former member allegedly complained the title John Paul II be removed and renamed the Pontifical Amoris Laetitia Institute. Yes, revision of Humanae Vitae is tentative as you suggest, although globally renowned globalist Jeffrey Sachs’ advisory appointment to the Institute by grand chancellor Paglia is likely directed to that end. And if so it will as likely not be a direct abrogation of settled doctrine, which Humanae Vitae on contraception is [as affirmed by Ratzinger in the Doctrinal Commentary to Ad Tuendam Fidem] rather circumvented via Amoris Laetitia.

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