The late Thomas Howard, who died in October 2020 at age 85, was known for his wide-ranging, incisive, and deeply literate books and essays. Raised in a Fundamentalist home, he was a noted evangelical writer and educator as a young man. He entered the Anglican Communion in his mid-20s, then entered the Catholic Church at the age of fifty.
Ignatius Press has published Howard’s many books, including the collection The Night is Far Spent, in 2010. The publisher has now released a second collection, titled Pondering the Permanent Things: Reflections on Faith, Art and Culture, compiled by Keith Call and with a Foreword by Howard’s close friend Peter Kreeft. (See Kreeft’s CWR essay “A Friend and Mentor: Remembering Tom Howard”.)
I recently corresponded with Keith Call about the book, reflecting on Howard’s life and work.
CWR: What is your background? How and when did you first encounter the writing (or person) of Thomas Howard? What role did Wheaton College play?
Keith Call: I am a graduate of Moody Bible Institute and Crown College of the Bible (M.Min). When I first moved to Wheaton, I was the slush editor (reviewing unsolicited manuscripts) at Harold Shaw Publishers. There I developed a passion for the poetry and prose of Luci Shaw and Madeleine L’Engle, whose books we published, and learned a bit about compiling anthologies, including A Dickens Christmas Collection.
After that, I served for 22 years at Wheaton College as the Assistant Archivist at Buswell Library Archives and Special Collections. I have written three small local histories for Arcadia, published an essay in Books & Culture, and compiled other books, including The Arts and the Christian Imagination: Essays on Art, Literature, and Aesthetics and A Well of Wonder: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and The Inklings, both by Dr. Clyde S. Kilby, late professor of English and Founder of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College.
Howard’s sister, missionary author Elizabeth Elliot, is often invoked at her alma mater, Wheaton College, which archives her papers and those of her husband, Jim, famously martyred in Ecuador in 1956. The Howard family was deeply involved with Wheaton College.
In the mid-1980s, many evangelicals began investigating the history and mechanics of liturgical worship, and Thomas Howard’s books provided a measure of direction, particularly Evangelical is Not Enough and Christ the Tiger. I too eagerly read those titles. Ever since the appearance of the last Howard collection, The Night is Far Spent, I had been eagerly awaiting a new compilation, hoping that “someone” would gather the loose items still out there in various formats, and finally realized that I was that someone. So I contacted his lovely widow, Lovelace, who graciously granted permission to proceed.
It has been an adventure of discovery, following leads to far flung archives and libraries, perusing old magazines and newspapers, locating taped talks. When I began compiling Pondering the Permanent Things, many of his essays had been initially published in bound periodicals shelved a few feet from my desk. The first piece in the collection is transcribed from a recorded lecture. A few years earlier, while compiling the Kilby books, I had emailed Howard, asking him to write a brief memorial about his beloved mentor, but it was not included in the two volumes from Paraclete Press. It fits very nicely here.
CWR: Howard was raised in a fairly prominent Evangelical family and he entered the Anglican Communion as a young man, before finally entering the Catholic Church at age fifty. How do these nearly fifty essays, reviews, and interviews reflect that background and arc?
Keith Call: The essays comprise Howard’s involvement with both Anglicanism and Catholicism, ranging from the late 1960s to the mid-2010s. Context usually determines where he stands at the moment, but his wit, erudition and dedication to Christ are evident in all instances. As Peter Kreeft notes in his Introduction, there is a definite “Tomistic” flavor in all the pieces. To reflect that consistency, I purposely did not arrange the contents in chronological order.
Whether he is writing as an Anglican or a Catholic, in whatever decade, you see an unapologetically old-fashioned gentleman who is often baffled, occasionally disgusted, at the degradation ravaging modern society, but who cheerfully pushes forward, insisting that the ancient, stabilizing virtues of courtesy, chivalry and consecration remain perennial detriments to the cultural rot.
CWR: What sort of criteria did you use in deciding what to include?
Keith Call: The connective tissue for the compilation is “faith, art, and culture,” so I included pieces that reflect those pursuits; but since those topics occupy the bulk of his intellectual inquiry, constantly flowing back and forth throughout his writing, it was simply a matter of gathering the essays under the requisite word count.
I did want to begin the collection with his astounding lecture, “Art as Incarnation,” which explains his thoroughly Christian approach to creative endeavor, and finish with his long, genial chat with Frank Schaeffer, which offers a backward look at the shape and trajectory of Howard’s life. There is enough remaining material for additional collections.
CWR: Howard’s background was in English literature, but he wrote on spirituality, theology, art, music, and politics, among other topics. How do you think his love and knowledge of literature informed his writing and thought? Who were authors and thinkers that influenced him the most?
Keith Call: Howard swam in the waters of classicism, immersing his soul in the beauties of the finest art and profoundest philosophies of western civilization. He absorbed these qualities deep into his blood. When he sat down to write, clarity and musicality were his natural, inevitable modes of expression, though his seemingly easy style required hard, persistent polishing.
He adored Augustine, C.S. Lewis, Romano Guardini, T.S. Eliot, J.R.R. Tolkien, Karl Adam and John Henry Newman, but he also cites Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor and Francois Mauriac as touch points. In one small piece, “High on Books,” he offers succinct, enticing reviews of Evelyn Underhill, Dom Bede Griffiths, Ronald Knox and Alexander Schmemann.
Howard’s enthusiasm makes you want to run out and read all of these authors, seeking the nourishment and delight he extracted from them.
CWR: His writing was, of course, deeply literate and quite distinctive. What do you think is so attractive and unique about his writing?
Keith Call: His observations are pointed and perceptive, served up in sparkling, precise prose. Also, he tends toward brevity. He scores his points with passion and elegance, then wraps it up. He is smart and funny without condescending to his reader.
In fact, he possesses the enviable skill of conveying his observations directly to you as a confidant, a friend at his side on the upward path.
CWR: Would it be accurate to say that at the heart of Howard’s work is The Incarnation? If so, how so?
Keith Call: Indeed, the Incarnation is essential to Thomas Howard’s outlook and output. Like Tolkien’s sub-creator, Howard cooperates with his Creator, serving as a conduit for the ministry of the Holy Spirit, lending form or solidity to spiritual abstractions, expressed through well-placed nouns, adjectives and adverbs. Art is his sphere for exploring the drama of redemption. Shakespeare beautifully summarizes the craftsmanship of Thomas Howard and all Christian artists:
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven; and as imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen turns them to shape, and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name; such tricks hath strong imagination.
CWR: Are there essays in this collection that you find surprising or unusual? Do you have some favorites?
Keith Call: Honestly, I see the collection as a satisfying whole, just as Howard envisioned the universe in its ideal, sinless condition: a seamless fabric.
It is no surprise, since I had been reading his books for years, but I am continually impressed that he does not trash his Fundamentalist heritage. He holds his father, the editor of The Sunday School Times, and others representing his Protestant lineage, in the highest regard. He acknowledges that his background provides a solid biblical basis for his faith that many others do not possess.
When asked about his “evangelicalism” by Christianity Today in 1985, Howard replied, “I owe my nurture to evangelicalism. The evangelical wins hands down in the history of the church when it comes to nurturing a biblical literate laity…But evangelicals themselves would say that they have never come to grips with what the whole mystery of the church is.”
CWR: For readers who have never read Thomas Howard: why read him? And for readers who are quite familiar with Howard: why read this collection?
Keith Call: Readers already familiar with Thomas Howard will delight hearing his voice again. He is the effortlessly polite, unobtrusively knowledgeable tour guide, escorting his guests through the capacious corridors of his mind and heart, strolling comfortably from one brilliant exhibit to the next.
I am not Roman Catholic, but it seems to me that his insights are easily exportable to other denominational perspectives. A conversation with Thomas Howard is an elevating experience. For those not familiar with him, he offers provocative ideas, entertaining prose and warm companionship. Adventure awaits!
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