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Glen Argan: Dystopian novel misses the mark

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  • July 23, 2019

Authors of dystopian novels are bound to get a lot wrong. After all, they are looking into what they believe will be a dark future which is inherently unpredictable. The year 1984, for example, turned out to be nothing like George Orwell’s famous novel of the same name.

Still, when I added Robert Hugh Benson’s 1907 novel Lord of the World to my summer reading list, I did expect to gain some insight. Both Popes Francis and Benedict XVI had recommended it and others suggested that it was uncannily correct in some of its predictions about the distant future, that is, the early 21st century. Instead, I found a story that tells more about the era in which it was written than it does about the world today.

Benson wrote in the middle of one of the most fear-filled eras of Church history, an era which extended from the French Revolution to the Second Vatican Council. The religion of Humanitarianism which dominates Lord of the World is an outgrowth of that 18th-century revolution, a bloodbath which unsuccessfully strove to eliminate the Catholic Church and belief in God. 

The author postulates a 21st century in which the world has been reduced to three governments — Europe, the Eastern Empire and the American Republic — which are then engulfed into one world government led by a mysterious, charismatic figure, Julian Felsenburgh. The vast majority of Catholic priests apostatize in order to join the Humanitarian religion. Many of the remaining devout have moved to Rome, where they have created a medieval society without technology or basic cleanliness, and Felsenburgh has set out to exterminate all who hold the Catholic faith.

If you are a paranoid Catholic, this book is your ultimate nightmare, although, of course, everything turns out just heavenly in the end.

But Benson gets it all wrong. The emergence of these totalitarian empires goes unexplained, other than by scattered references to Freemasonry. Also unexplained is the magnetic attraction of Felsenburgh before whom the world bows in homage. So, too, is the apostasy of the priests. Stuff just happens.

Instead, while secularism has the upper hand in the West today, religion has proven remarkably resilient. In developing nations, Catholicism and Pentecostalism are vibrant forces, and Islam and Hinduism are not about to disappear. The Marxist bloodbaths in 20th-century China and the Soviet Union were indeed massive, greater than anything in Benson’s book. But the author, a Catholic priest, had no inkling that the spark of human conscience, ignited by a Polish pope, could overturn a mighty totalitarian empire.

Understandably missing from Benson’s story is anything resembling the Second Vatican Council which razed the Church’s self-erected bastions against a scary world. The 21st-century Church has major problems, but not of the sort Benson suggested, and she is noteworthy for having come at least partially out of her cave. Nor is medievalism seen as a viable option by many.

Noteworthy is the author’s failure to see corporate power and massive technological advancement as contributing to global homogenization. These are real forces which are eradicating traditional cultures and leading to the privatization of religion, forces which have a much greater effect on society than does Freemasonry.

People are not taking this homogenization lying down as do the masses in Lord of the World. One may view the rise of populism and ultra-nationalism in a negative light, but it does show that the erasure of national borders will not occur without resistance. 

One of Benson’s numerous assertions about the 20th century is that the United States annexed Canada. It hasn’t happened, and more than a few Canadians would fight any effort to make it happen.

In short, the Catholic Church and national allegiances are not about to collapse in the face of shadowy forces which arise out of nowhere as if by magic. The human person is by nature oriented towards God. As St. Augustine declared at the time of the fall of another empire, the human heart is restless and will not find rest until it rests in God.

A 112-year-old novel, such as Lord of the World, would not be worth commentary except for the encouragement from two recent popes to read it. I am not suggesting that you bypass the novel, but to understand the present threats to the Church and society, you had best go elsewhere.

(Argan writes from Edmonton.)

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