Friday, November 7, 2014

Faith Matters

In 1946, Evelyn Waugh wrote:
I believe that you can only leave God out [of a novel] by making your characters pure abstractions. . . . The failure of modern novelists since and including James Joyce is one of presumption and exorbitance. They are not content with the artificial figures which hitherto passed so gracefully as men and women. They try to represent the whole human mind and soul and yet omit its determining character – that of being God’s creature with a defined purpose.
The same can be said for biography. I’ve read many a book about a real person – not a character, not an abstraction – that shies away not only from spiritual assessment of its subject but even from outlining the spiritual beliefs, opinions, or outlook of the historical personage in question. Modern and postmodern public discourse, in the United States anyway, generally avoids religious talk, originally perhaps out of polite recognition that arguments on the topic tend to cause more rancor than enlightenment, but ultimately, it seems, from the mistaken belief that religion just isn’t worth talking about.

What a relief and delight to have found a biographer who knows that faith matters. Jon Meacham’s Franklin and Winston traces the course of the relationship between the two great leaders of twentieth-century English-speaking democracy, revealing several fascinating aspects of each man’s character through comparison and the details of their interaction concerning World War II. Who knew (not I) that Churchill lacked self-confidence? But the trait is made clear when, like Dickens’s Mr Twemlow, the Prime Minister constantly worries about whether his hero thinks of him as a friend. On the other side of the duo, Roosevelt’s penchant for cold political maneuvering comes to the fore when, in their first meeting with Joseph Stalin, the American President begins to criticize Churchill in his presence just to crack an ice-breaking smile from the Soviet dictator.

But these three- (or more) dimensional, very concrete personages also had religious views and acted based on or informed by those views, and Meacham is not embarrassed to talk about it. Not that either historical figure shared Meacham’s faith. Jon Meacham is, I believe, a Catholic Christian, while Roosevelt was an Episcopalian (although he didn’t mind occasionally singing hymns with the “Methodys”), and Churchill was, in the author’s words, an “optimistic agnostic.” With deep respect for faith, the author respects faiths different from his own and in turn shows much more respect for the men who held them than would an author who hides religious matters behind an arbitrary screen with the thought that they’re simply irrelevant.

Along with the general descriptions of religious view and practice come many details that might well be kept out of a similar book by a different historian. Roosevelt, for instance, always wanted to conduct a church service and late in life got one opportunity to do so on board a ship. At the first meeting between the two, he and Churchill actually planned a Christian worship service together, the PM choosing the hymns. Both stories get extended treatment. Faith shows up in many other tiny details in the book, from a quotation by C. S. Lewis on friendship to many moments of, offers of, and requests for prayer. The most surprising mention of spiritual matters? Joseph Stalin telling his two counterparts that God would be with the Allied invasion of North Africa.

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