This book originates in a colloquium on the life and works of Monsignor Ronald Knox held at Heythrop College in 2013. Its varieties of writings, from the family reminiscences of ‘someone I do not actually remember [but] who has yet somehow always been there in the background’ (p. 63) of Clare Asquith, to the scholarly literary indulgences of Sheridan Gilley and the academic reflections of Nicholas King on Knox’s translation of the Bible, together with brief passages of Knox’s own writings, some hitherto unpublished, capture the complexities and limitations of Knox as a priest and a scholar. In many ways a kind of lesser Newman of the 20th century in his passage from Anglicanism and his captivating prose as a Christian apologist, novelist and wit, Knox certainly deserves this literary tribute which, though it borders on the mildly hagiographical at times, properly restores him, a rather dated figure now, to his due place in the life and letters of English church life in the 20th century. His father, an Anglican bishop, educated at Eton and Oxford with Anglican High Church tendencies that eventually led him into the Roman Catholic Church, and dying more than half a century ago, Knox comes to us now as a figure of a by-gone age. He lost most of his earliest close friends in the First World War and comes to inhabit that educated Catholic country house world that Evelyn Waugh, Knox’s friend and biographer, captures beautifully and bitterly in Brideshead Revisited. Those who, like myself, can still recall the place of the English public school curriculum of the classics and Latin composition that Knox occupied so centrally and brilliantly, are advancing in years. It will soon be finally forgotten. And yet Ronnie Knox (for we should still call him that) occupies a place in Christian piety and church life that deserves, even requires, to be remembered and treasured. Trained as a classicist in Oxford ‘Greats’, he drew as much on Virgil’s Aeneid as anything else in literature apart from the Bible, and if he was precisely neither a biblical scholar nor strictly a theologian, then his wide, intelligent, and prayerful reading in the literature of Christian mysticism and his sense of biblical literature would suggest the very limitations of such formal scholarship within Christianity and the life of the Church. Like most English churchmen of his time, whether Anglican or Roman Catholic, Knox kept a close rein on his emotions in spiritual matters, though never without feeling. This was, in his case, often expressed through a complex and well-honed sense of humour, or else a literary sense that emerges (as it does also in G. K. Chesterton and others) in intricately plotted detective fiction or his delightful, and sadly forgotten, extension of Trollope’s Barchester chronicles. And this required that he had at his command a prose style that subtly and necessarily grows from his facility in Greek and Latin. Knox’s fluid art of writing is a skill that is sadly lacking in our own time, and it is beautifully evident in his translation of the Bible as well demonstrated in the essays here by Nicholas King and Richard Price. In his fiction, Knox is well caught in both his strengths and weaknesses by Dr. Gilley inasmuch as ‘it would be an exaggeration to call him the Catholic Noel Coward, with, like Coward, a talent to amuse, for his entertainment went with a message’ (p. 166). The comparison captures well the slightly strained tone of this collection of essays and writings, for they reflect, lovingly, a man who was a wise spiritual director and guide, a donnish, slightly shy priest who never quite lost the fervor of the convert and whose life was spent in the somewhat rarified atmosphere of Eton, Oxford and the English aristocracy. And yet, there is something rather remarkable about him, which still requires our attention. Is it, perhaps, that we live now in a Prosaic Age that can no longer accommodate such genuine, scholarly Christian decency? In our age of suspicion and overstated, if necessary, political correctness, where do we place a figure who is essentially Edwardian, visiting the remnants of Empire in Africa and who exudes a genuine spiritual innocence that our more cynical culture bears with little patience? For Knox was remarkable, and this book properly conveys that. Its essays allow him to speak for himself, often through books that are now little read, both fiction and theology, though I suspect that they are still there, gathering dust, on many clerical bookshelves of a particular generation, my own included. But when Knox writes he still commands our attention, if we would give it to him. It is the sheer common sense of the very late essay entitled ‘Spiritual Reading’ (1956) that is attractive. Knox is offering a guide to Lenten reading. He does not prescribe, and he is perfectly well aware of how boring so much of such literature can be. What he seeks is a book that is ‘relevant to the affairs of the spirit’ (p. 356). Such a book may not be ‘in the ordinary sense a devotional work’, but may be a novel, a work of scholarship or history—but it has to be ‘your book’. Knox’s own reading is very much of its time, from the novelist and historian H. F. M. Prescott to the journalist and travel writer H. V. Morton, though he has also picked up the young Thomas Merton (‘what a good writer, and how prolific!’ [p. 360]), but he is ever the wise guide nudging each reader to find their own way without the constraints of sticky piety or unfathomable theology. We should be deeply grateful for this book which is a labour of love and the recovery of an English churchman of the 20th century whose quiet wisdom, sharp humour, and unassuming scholarship are rare commodities in our own darkened times, and who is still capable of shining a clear light upon Christian sensibility and spirituality. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press 2017; all rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Literature and Theology – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 4, 2017
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