It’s a rare thing, but every so often you find a book that can be defined outside its pre-supposed genre. Beyond Tenebrae: Christian Humanism in the Twilight of the West by Bradley Birzer is such a book.
It’s partially a discussion of Christian humanism – what it is, where it comes from, and what it is about it that conservatives believe they need to “conserve.” It’s partially a memoir – about the people, writers, and thinkers who influenced Birzer. It’s an introduction to some of the well-known and not-so-well-known lights of Christian humanism. It’s a list of suggested reading, with so many books listed and cited that it might take most of us a year to get through.
It’s a book whose parts are greater than the whole, and a book whose whole is greater than the parts.
It begins, appropriately enough, with the idea of Tenebrae, the period of worship that begins on the afternoon of Good Friday. I’ve been to one Tenebrae service at my church, and it ends with lit candles extinguished one by one until the church is left in darkness and the congregation departs in silence. It is a reminder of what happened after the crucifixion of Christ, after the earthquake, the darkened sky, and the tearing of the temple curtain, that period of darkness and mourning before the light of the resurrection.
Birzer suggests that Tenebrae is what Western culture is currently experiencing, a twilight time when what is good, true, and beautiful is being jettisoned for what is trendy and politically correct in government, the media, and academia. He doesn’t offer a step-by-step prescription to counter this; instead, he tells the story of Christian humanism and some of its more contemporary practitioners.
Initial chapters focus on key elements of Christian humanism, the conservative mind, Edmund Burke and Alexis de Toqueville, and many of Birzer’s favorite writers, including J.R.R. Tolkien. Part II of the book provides shorter vignettes of the people who might called “the lights” of 20th and 21st century Christian humanism to counter the growing darkness.
Some of these lights are well-known: Willa Cather, Tolkien and the Inklings, Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, Russell Kirk, Ray Bradbury, Ronald Reagan, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Some deserve to be better known: Clyde Kilby, Sister Madeleva Wolff, Paul Elmer More, Chsristipher Dawson, Eric Voegelin, and Ralph McInerny. One that was a personal surprise and delight was author Walter Miller; I read his A Canticle for Leibowitz in high school and loved it.
Birzer is a professor of history and the Russell Kirk Chair of American Studies at Hillsdale College. He received his B.A. degree from Notre Dame University in 1990 and his Ph.D. degree from Indiana University in 1998. He was a co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative site and publication in 2010. He is the author of numerous works in history and literature, including J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth (2003), Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson (2007), American Cicero: Charles Carroll of Carrollton (2010), Russell Kirk: American, Conservative (2015), and Neil Peart: Cultural (Re)Percussions (2015).
Beyond Tenebrae is a solid introduction to Christian humanism and its writers, adherents, and proponents. It’s also a book about hope, that no matter how dark the culture may become, there will always be a light.