From Skinhead Bulldog to Catholic Man of Letters
September 06, 2013
Joseph Pearce’s autobiography reveals his violent past and grace-filled conversion.
Joseph Pearce, as many who have read his work or seen him speak might testify, can give one the impression of a soft-handed, tweed-sporting, Oxford don who has spent the better part of his life among the dusty pages of a library, with his remaining hours spent drinking afternoon tea and sipping scotch in the evening. Pearce, author of many literary biographies and other books including Literary Converts, Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G.K. Chesterton, and Tolkien: Man and Myth, appears to be the consummate English gentleman. Perhaps those with the knack of identifying an Englishman’s town of birth by his accent would not be fooled, but for most of us on this side of the pond, his blood seems practically blue. It turns out, however, that his blood is really more…well, orange.
In his latest offering, an autobiography, Race with the Devil: My Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love (St. Benedict’s Press), the donnish impression of Pearce quickly goes up in smoke. The book dispels almost instantly any stuffy image one may have ever entertained of the prolific author. Who knew the young Joe Pearce was a skinhead bulldog? Yes, you read those words right—a skinhead and a bulldog anxious for the fight.
His life began merrily enough in the English countryside with his parents and a younger brother, but when he moved to London for middle school, things got rough. His father’s racism and high regard for the Nazis, the chaos of an inner-city school, and his own clever pen opened the door to his early involvement—at the age of 15—with the National Front, a British-nationalist, white supremacist group. Pearce became the editor of the party’s newspaper, Bulldog, which extolled the virtues of the white race while calling for the expulsion of non-whites from Britain, as well as Catholics and Jews.
His work with the National Front eventually led to membership in the Protestant counterpart of the IRA in Northern Ireland—which heightened his own anti-Catholicism. He describes the intense experience of being an “Orangeman”:
As a loyal Orangeman, the highlight of the year was the annual Twelfth of July parade when the Orange Order celebrates the victory of the Protestant William of Orange against the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Although I had attended the English Twelfth in Southport, just north of Liverpool, the experience was utterly eclipsed by my attendance at the mother of all Twelfth of July parades, held annually in Belfast, at which tens of thousands of Orangemen, accompanied by hundreds of flute and accordion bands, are cheered on by tens of thousands more who line the streets waving Union flags as the parade of Orange lodges passes by. There’s nothing like it and the memory still sends a primal, tribal thrill up my spine as I remember the beating of the drums and the sheer fervor and magnitude of the event. (p. 104-105)
As the book makes plain, it wasn’t just ink that was spilled during Pearce’s early days of rabble-rousing. The National Front demonstrations often became violent melees with counter demonstrators involving bricks, bottles, and any other handy projectile, and his own belligerence, fueled by alcohol, nearly got him killed on several occasions.
Pearce finally found himself in jail, although surprisingly not due directly to any violence, but on charges of publishing material in Bulldog likely to incite racial hatred. Not once, but twice. Under the unpopular Race Relations Act a jury found him guilty of “hate crimes,” which made Pearce something of a political martyr. During his incarceration, “Free Joe Pearce” was emblazoned in graffiti on walls, bridges, buildings, and overpasses around the country.
Pearce, while embroiled in the heated political battles of the 80s involving the IRA, terrorism, and racism, was also heavily engaged in the British music scene, much of which will be familiar to Americans of a certain age—Madness, The Clash, and Depeche Mode, all 80s chart toppers. His brother was the manager for the one-hit-wonder Soft Cell, known in the US mostly for “Tainted Love,” though Pearce’s own musical choices were punk and heavy metal. The book offers interesting insights into some of the politics associated with the British music scene in the 80s—much of which we Americas were oblivious to as we listened to our cassette tapes or watched videos on this new channel called MTV. Who knew there were such things as Rock Against Racism and Rock Against Communism?
I spoke with Pearce about the book a few months before reading it. My question was, why are we just hearing about his colorful past now? He explained that he wanted to wait until both of his parents had passed away out of respect for them. But he said he also needed the distance of years from the events of his youth in order to develop a mature perspective and to write truthfully and without saying simply, “See how bad I was.” People have, he explained, a balance of good in them, even when they are up to no good. He wanted that mixture to come through in the book. He is successfull, especially when he writes about his father and several friendships he developed along the way.
As the subtitle of his book suggests, Pearce did not have a dramatic conversion experience involving being knocked off any horse—though there was quite a lot of being knocked about; his was a long journey with small steps along the way. Many of the steps stand out, such as the moment he found himself in prison again at the age of 24, grasping a rosary someone had given him in court and trying to pray despite not knowing a single prayer. Or later, while making a sincere effort to be a church-goer and a good dad to his children, who lived in another village, he showed up drunk at the parish priest’s residence with nowhere to go after a long night of partying. (That must have been an awkward breakfast.) It seems he spent many years living these sorts of paradoxes—paradoxes that easily exist in lives of all of us sinners without an abundance of sacramental grace.
The spark to which Pearce gives credit for his conversion came from G.K. Chesterton. Pearce felt as though he had found a true friend in Chesterton’s writing, especially on economic issues, but simply dismissed the Catholic elements. Eventually, after having absorbed the goodness of Chesterton, Pearce began to wonder about that Catholic part, too. It didn’t take long before he was convinced of the truth of Catholicism, but living it proved to be much harder. It took years before he would finally enter the Church.
As Pearce made steps closer to the faith, he believed himself to be acting solely upon rational grounds. However, in hindsight, Pearce confesses that he can see the hand of Providence guiding him toward truth and goodness, as well as sparing his life on many occasions.
Like Pearce’s other books, Race with the Devil is a delight to read. It is also a source of great hope. Many small acts of great kindness that Pearce received during his journey left significant impressions upon the angry young man, which serves as a reminder that even the little things we do for others can have an impact beyond our wildest imaginings. As in Augustine’s Confessions, it was little moments of grace that made the difference in Pearce’s life: a generous police officer here, a thoughtful couple there. More than anything, however, Pearce’s autobiography is a testimony to the ever ancient, and yet so new, transforming power of grace.
St. Benedict’s Press, 2013
Hardcover; 264 pages
Evangelizing With Love, Beauty and Reason |
An Interview with Joseph Pearce | May 2005
Editor’s Note: Acclaimed biographer and author Joseph Pearce (author's page) was recently interviewed by a Romanian journalist, Robert Lazu. This is a slightly edited version of that interview, in which Pearce talks about his recent work, conversion, literature, Chesterton, Tolkien, and more.
Robert Lazu: When you look back at your life, what are the turning points that come to mind? Did you ever have a miraculous moment – like the meeting between the disciples who met Jesus Christ while on the road to Emmaus?
Joseph Pearce: I don't feel that I've had one particular "Emmaus Moment", at least not one as dramatic as that experienced by those disciples or someone like St Paul. Rather, I've experienced a number of mini-Emmaus moments on my path to Christ, each of which has healed my heart, strengthened my understanding and led me closer to Our Lord. My first introduction to the writings of G.K. Chesterton was crucial. After Chesterton came other writers, such as Hilaire Belloc, John Henry Newman, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.
Lazu: Which are your activities and projects at the present time? I imagine that you are working on another interesting book; maybe you can tell us something about it.
Pearce: I've just finished editing a volume of political and economic writings of Belloc. I'm also working on revised editions of two of my books, Small is Still Beautiful and Flowers of Heaven, for American publishers. My major new book project is a work on Shakespeare, focusing on his Catholicism. I also write for a number of American magazines and co-edit the Saint Austin Review (StAR), a trans-Atlantic cultural journal. At Ave Maria University in Florida, I teach literature to the undergraduates and I am also editor-in-chief of the University's publishing operation, Sapientia Press and Catholic Faith Explorers. I'm also giving talks in the United States and Europe. My travels in 2005 will include England, Spain and Portugal, apart from speaking engagements in the U.S. from the east to west coast. I'm keeping very busy!
Lazu: I know how important for you is the contact you’ve had with works written by Chesterton, Newman, Tolkien and others like them. It seems that books written by Christian authors can be at the "heart" of a conversion to Catholicism of some people (like yourself), or they can be "instruments" that are used by God to touch the reader’s soul in some way. Is it possible as a Christian be dedicated to the writing of literature meant to contribute to the re-evangelization of the contemporary world?
Pearce: I believe that evangelization can take place in three distinct ways, constituting what might be termed "a Trinity of Truth". There is the evangelizing power of Reason, the evangelizing power of Love, and the evangelizing power of Beauty.
Ultimately, of course, these three, though distinct, are all one. The evangelizing power of Reason manifests itself in apologetics, philosophy and theology; the power of Love resides in the example of sanctity given by the saints and those trying to be saints (Mother Theresa and Pope John Paul II being great examples of the evangelizing power of Love); and the power of Beauty is manifested through culture and the arts. I see my own vocation as being in the area of evangelizing the culture through Beauty, specifically the beauty of the work of great writers such as Tolkien, Chesterton, Lewis and others.
It is true that Chesterton and Lewis also evangelized through Reason in their works of apologetics. I also hope that I might grow in virtue so that I can evangelize through Love!
Lazu: How do you conceive the relationship between Catholic Faith and Literature?
Pearce: Since God speaks to us, and shows Himself to us, through the Beauty of His Creation, so we can show Him to others through acts of artistic sub-creation, using the gifts He has given us, to reflect His Beauty and the Beauty of Creation through our own partaking of the creative gifts that He has bestowed upon us. In the same way that Faith is consummated in its marriage with Reason, Fides et Ratio, so Faith is ultimately inseparable from the Beauty that is its source. Catholic Faith and Catholic Art and Literature are united in the sacramental nature of Reality. They cannot be separated.
Lazu: It seems to me that the authors who have influenced your perspective are not only Newman, Chesterton, Lewis and Tolkien, but others such as Hans Urs von Balthasar and John Paul II. Who are the important thinkers who have influenced your conception and what are the most important books in your intellectual formation?
Pearce: I must confess to having read very little von Balthasar and only asmattering of the writings of John Paul II. I've read some Augustine and someThomas Aquinas obviously but I think my conception about the Trinitariannature of Truth and the Trinitarian nature of creativity spring from thewritings and philosophy of literary figures such as Tolkien (On Fairy Stories/Mythopoeia/Leaf by Niggle, etc), Dorothy L. Sayers (Mind of the Maker) and T.S. Eliot, and perhaps simply through the contemplation ofsuch things, assisted by grace.
Lazu: You’ve studied C.S. Lewis’s work quite thoroughly. What is your conclusion about Lewis’s faith? Is he a Catholic (or "catholic") writer, or a Protestant (Calvinist) one (as scholars such as Daniel Callam have tried to demonstrate)?
Pearce: I studied this whole question at considerable length in my book C.S. Lewis & the Catholic Church. By the end of his life, and indeed for most of his Christian life, Lewis embraced a sacramental approach that was predominantly Catholic and inimical to Calvinism. For instance, he went regularly to the Anglican equivalent of the Sacrament of Penance, i.e. Confession. He believed in the ordained priesthood in a pronouncedly and profoundly Catholic way, believing that the priest stood in persona Christi at the altar during Mass. For this reason he opposed the ordination of women and attacked it vehemently in his essay On Priestesses in the Church.
He believed in Purgatory, as is evident from works such as The Great Divorce, and as he stated specifically in his last book, Letters to Malcolm. Shortly before he died, he wrote to a friend, Sister Penelope, that he expected to go to Purgatory after he died. In short, and regardless of any remaining issues that prevented Lewis from feeling able to be received into the Catholic Church, he was far closer to the Catholic position than to anything remotely Calvinist. Indeed his opposition to Calvinism was expressed satirically as Puritania in The Pilgrim's Regress.
Lazu: Any reader who has read the fairy-tales written by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien sees that Lewis tried to introduce characters rooted explicitly in the Christian tradition, while Tolkien seemed to try to cover such references. What is the explanation for this difference between these two authors?
Pearce: Tolkien's approach to mythology, and therefore to his own work, is rooted in the belief that all creative activity is based upon the cooperation between the artist and the gift he is given by God. God as Creator bestows His gift, through Grace, to the sub-creator who uses (or abuses) the gift to bring his sub-creation to fruition. As such, Tolkien believed that truths emerge more freely and fully (and deeply) if the gift is allowed to flow without the sub-creator stifling it through his desire to dominate the gift through the desire to dominate his reader.
This was the reason for Tolkien's dislike of formal allegory. Instead of formal allegory, Tolkien pointed to the applicability of truths that emerge from the text. I believe that Lewis shared Tolkien's view but usually succumbed to the temptation towards didacticism, i.e. he allowed his desire to teach a lesson to his readers to inhibit the free flow of sub-creativity. His late work, Till We Have Faces, was the closest that Lewis came to achieving the sub-creative subtlety of The Lord of the Rings which is why he thought it his best book.
Lazu: One of the most used descriptions of Tolkien’s work is that it is a form of "Christian mythology". How do you understand this concept? What was Tolkien’s conception of classical mythology? Did he have a theological perspective about mythology?
Pearce: I do not use the phrase "Christian mythology" even though it is anadequate and accurate description of his work. The trouble with the termis that it is somewhat vague and might lead people to erroneous conclusions, e.g. it might imply that Christianity is only a "mere myth" and not the "True Myth" that Tolkien insisted that it is.
Alternatively it might imply that Tolkien intended to make his work more formallyallegorical than is the case. I agree with what I call Tolkien's "Philosophy of Myth". In essence, Tolkien believed that all "making",including the making of myth, is the product of the maker's cooperation,knowingly or unknowingly, with the gift of creativity poured forth asgrace by the supreme Maker, i.e. God. This gift of creativity is givenby the Creator to the sub-creator who uses it to make his myth. Inconsequence, all myths contain what Tolkien described as "splintered fragments" of the one true light that comes from God.
Lazu: We know from Tolkien’s son, Christopher, that in the last years of his life "mythology and poetry sank down behind his theological and philosophical preoccupations". Reflecting on this line, do you think we talk about a theology or a philosophy of Tolkien?
Pearce: I'm not happy with the suggestion that Tolkien was ever anything other than preoccupied with theological and philosophical issues. It is clear from his work and from his letters that he was always a good and practicing Catholic whose Christian faith was at the heart and centre of all that he did. The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion are underpinned by theological and philosophical concepts. If Tolkien became preoccupied with such issues at the end of his life to a greater degree than ever we should not be surprised. It is appropriate that a man should ponder these things more deeply as he approaches the end of his life. Nonetheless, it is important to remember that the "mythology and poetry" were always integrated with "philosophy and theology" inTolkien's work. They cannot and should not be separated.
Lazu: So, we should never forget that Tolkien was, essentially, a writer and a poet who founded his works on a spiritual vision based on specific theological and philosophical concepts. What is Tolkien’s contribution to twentieth-century literature? How might we characterize his literature?
Pearce: Tolkien is responsible for the whole genre of modern fantasy literature, for better or worse. How many writers can claim to have instituted a whole new (and hugely popular) genre? He is, however, head and shoulders above those who have followed in his wake and The Lord of the Rings remains as the greatest work of prose literature of the twentieth century. I'm also happy to assert that it will eventually earn the status of being considered a "classic" of the literary canon.
Lazu: In many of your articles you have discussed the issues resulting from the Tolkien’s major work, The Lord of the Rings, being made into a series of major films. Does this movie help popularize Tolkien’s works? (I ask because I have met people who don’t want to read Tolkien’s books on account of the fact that they consider the movies to be "horror" movies).
Pearce: Over the past three years I have spoken all over the United States, and in Canada, Germany, Portugal and South Africa, on the subject of The Lord of the Rings. This experience has left me in no doubt that Jackson's film-version has contributed to an enormous increase in interest in Tolkien's work. A whole new generation of young people have started to read The Lord of the Rings because their interest was originally kindled by watching the film. I would estimate that for every person who is deterred from reading Tolkien by the films there are many, many more that are inspired to read him having seen the films.
Lazu: Gilbert Keith Chesterton is the other author you have written much about. What is Chesterton’s place in the literature of the twentieth century? How can the specific features of his works be summarized?
Pearce: Without doubt, Chesterton is a major figure in several areas. As a popular Catholic apologist he is perhaps without equal; as an essayist he is one of the finest prose stylists of the century; as a poet his work is very uneven but his finest verse deserves a place in any reputable anthology of twentieth century poetry, e.g. Lepanto, The Donkey, The Rolling English Road, A Second Childhood, The Skeleton, The Fish etc. As a novelist his work is also uneven and of variable quality, but his finest novel, The Man who was Thursday, ranks as one of the most important novels of the last century.
Lazu: It is hard to imagine that Catholic writers are well received by non-Christian literary critics in Central Europe. What is the situation in Great Britain and the United States as far as non-Catholic criticism authors such as Chesterton, Tolkien, Lewis, etc.?
Pearce: I am pleasantly surprised at the number of times that Chesterton is quoted in the secular press in Britain and America; Tolkien is now taken more seriously than ever before, partly because of the huge success of Jackson's films but also because The Lord of the Rings has passed the test of time and has forced itself into the canon in spite of the hostility of many critics and academics to its resolutely Christian and conservative ethos; Lewis remains hugely influential in Christian circles, both Protestant and Catholic, and the forthcoming film adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe might catapult him back into the popular mainstream; Waugh's Brideshead Revisited is widely accepted as one of the great novels of the twentieth century even amongst liberal critics hostile to its Catholic traditionalism.
Lazu: Are there writers comparable to Chesterton, Bernanos, Green, etc. writing today?
Pearce: I'm not sure that there are writers of that caliber but, if there were, they would find it more difficult to break into the popular culture in the secularized twenty-first century. This is why we need to engage the culture and evangelize it. The challenge is to work collectively to become a catalyst for a new Christian cultural revival.
Lazu: Hans Urs von Baltasar claimed that Catholic modern literature seemed to offer a more lively way of thinking than does modern Catholic theology. What do you think about this statement?
Pearce: Von Balthasar believed, as do I, that the power of beauty can illuminate the truth as potently as can the power of reason. The fact is that there was much bad, i.e. modernist, theology in the last century, whereas there was much good, i.e. traditionalist, literature. In this sense I agree with him. I believe, however, that good literature should always be duly deferential to good theology.
Lazu: In concluding, please tell us what is your essential message as a critic, writer and Catholic professor? In other words, what is your personal credo?
Pearce: My personal credo genuflects before the perennial Creed of Catholic Christianity. I have no credo distinct from my adherence to the teachings of the Church. The truth manifests itself in the triune splendour of Love, Beauty and Reason. It is only through our apprehension of this Primal Reality that we can be set free from our subservience to lesser gods.
RELATED IGNATIUSINSIGHT.COM LINKS:
• Author Page for Joseph Pearce
• "A Truly Wilde Story": An Interview with Joseph Pearce About the Life and Death of Oscar Wilde | July 2004
NEW! British author Joseph Pearce has firmly established himself as the premier literary biographer of our time, especially in interpreting the spiritual depths of the Catholic literary tradition. In this new book, Pearce examines a plethora of authors, taking the reader through a dazzling tour of the creative landscape of Catholic prose and poetry. Literary Giants, Literary Catholics covers the vast terrain from Dante to Tolkien, from Shakespeare to Waugh.
Focusing on the literary revival of the 20th century, Joseph Pearce touches on well-known authors like G.K. Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien, but also introduces readers to lesser-known writers like Roy Campell, Maurice Baring, and Owen Barfield. Anyone who appreciates English literature will be entranced by the wealth and depth of this new masterpiece.
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C.S. LEWIS AND ORTHODOXY
(a favourite with Catholics and Orthodox)