Haunted by Christ is a riveting look at how modern writers dealt with lingering doubts, anger, sorrow, and the question of Christianity. Richard Harries asks readers to engage with several writers to ask them questions that might not normally be asked, and he challenges readers in ways that are intricately tied into these authors’ lives.
First, it is worth pointing out that the concept of “modern” here is being used in the technical sense, related to modernism. Harries sets this period starting with Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) and Closing in the early 20th century. The authors Harries surveys are Dostoevsky, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Edward Thomas, T.S. Eliot, Stevie Smith, Samuel Beckett, W.H. Auden, William Golding, R.S. Thomas, Edwin Muir and George Mackay Brown, Elizabeth Jennings, Graham Greene with Flannery O’Connor, Shusaku Endo, and Evelyn Waugh, C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman, and Marilynne Robinson. Readers familiar with the works of these authors will know they run the gamut from skeptics to devout Christians. What ties them together, in Harries reading, is that their works are “haunted” by the supernatural, and specifically through a grappling with the person of Jesus Christ.
As a reader, I was unfamiliar with many of the authors, not having read much from the modernist movement. (This line makes me want to say sorry to my English teachers.) Nevertheless, Harries gives enough biographical information on each author to understand the points he’s making. Indeed, most of the information in the book is biographical, as Harries draws out each authors’ struggle with faith and coming to terms with the person of Jesus Christ. Even the skeptics surveyed clearly interact with Christianity, even if in negative ways.
I found several chapters of particular interest. Seeing C.S. Lewis’s and Philip Pullman’s competing mythologies set alongside each other for examination was fascinating. The chapter on W.H. Auden and his quiet, almost “polite” faith drew to light the great impact culture can have on one’s perception of religion and the work of God. The chapter on Golding makes me want to read more from him, despite not enjoying The Lord of the Flies. Emily Dickinson as “smouldering volcano” was an insightful look at a phenomenally successful poet. Each chapter had something that struck me, though the book also left me wishing I did know more about the authors and their works. I suspect Harries would be pleased to know his work led me to reach out and start reading some of these other works.
The biographical way Harries writes integrates worldview questions into the writings of each author. It never felt as though he subverted their own personal narratives, however. He didn’t pull punches in describing the way a skeptic like Pullman spoke about religion. Nor did he cover up aspects of authors’ lives that some might find unappealing. It’s an honest, almost unyielding book. It made me uncomfortable at times, but in ways that challenged me to learn and understand.
Haunted by Christ is a fascinating work. Harries offers insight and vision into Christianity in ways that I hadn’t really thought of before. It made me want to read many of the authors mentioned. And it made me want to know what someone who actually was more familiar with these authors might think. Recommended.
Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.
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