Lord of the World

June 13, 2013

I recently reread Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson’s prophetic novel Lord of the World, written in 1906. Tell me if this sounds familiar.

*****MAJOR SPOILER ALERT***** The following synopsis gives away most of the principal story line, up to but not including, the last sentence.

Benson’s novel takes place around the mid-late 20th century. The future technology Benson describes is similarly prophetic or wildly off-the-mark as the futuristic fiction of H.G. Welles or Jules Verne.  Millions live in crowded cities under artificial light. Air travel via mechanical “volors” capable of traveling 150 mph is commonplace. Military weapons are predictably far more powerful than anything existing in Benson’s time, with military use of air travel to deliver powerful explosives capable of destroying modern cities a reality. Advances in technology provide greater conveniences and benefits to the citizenry, but also greater disasters when technology fails.

None of this is remarkable in itself. Where Benson’s novel surpasses other similar efforts is in its depiction of the spirit of the age, the cultural and spiritual zeitgeist of a world that has not just lost its faith, but is growing in hostility towards the faith even as the latter diminishes in power and influence. In Lord of the World, a progressive secular humanitarianism has produced a relatively modernized but sterile existence. Euthanasia is the norm for dealing with illnesses and diseases in old age. If anything, Benson’s vision of what Pope John Paul II described as a culture of death falls short of the grisly reality of abortion on demand, partial birth abortion and infanticide. His imagination could foresee the rise of a greater villain than even Hitler, but not everyday monsters like Kermit Gosnell and Planned Parenthood.

Consistent with Benson’s ecclesiology, what little remains of the faith in the novel is decidedly Catholic. (Benson was the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury and his conversion a few years after his father’s death stunned the Anglican community.) The Protestant churches and even Islam have become increasingly irrelevant as they incorporate more and more of the humanist spirit of the age.

Into this post-Christian milieu, from out of nowhere appears a charismatic young political figure who captures the public imagination. His background is a mystery, rising from obscurity to sudden fame and rapidly expanding political power on the basis of his spellbinding oratory, although in fact his speeches consist mostly of banal platitudes.

His name is Julian Felsenburgh and he is the anti-Christ.

“But who is Felsenburgh?” put in a young priest…
“He’s a mystery,” said another priest, Father Blackmore…
“I met an American senator,” put in Percy, “three days ago, who told me that even there they know nothing of him, except his extraordinary eloquence. He only appeared last year, and seems to have carried everything before him by quite unusual methods…”

Felsenburgh soon forms a de facto one world government with himself at the head. (Benson’s novel depicts a world  divided into three separate camps, federalisms of former sovereign States resembling the European Union, comprised of Europe, Asia and America, all of which ask Felsenburgh to rule over them. One ‘king’ to rule them all, one ‘king’ to find them, one ‘king’ to bring them all and in the darkness bind/blind them. 

The charismatic Felsenburgh preaches a message of universal tolerance, whose logic inevitably leads to persecution of the “ancient superstition.” As Felsenburgh’s power grows, he assumes several familiar titles for himself: Lord (and Savior) of the World, Messiah, Son of Man, even Incarnate God… because Man created God in his image and Felsenburgh was both the archetype and supreme example of Man-made-God!

In no less than nine places—Damascus, Irkutsk, Constantinople, Calcutta, Benares, Nanking, among them—he was hailed as Messiah by a Mohammedan mob. Finally, in America, where this extraordinary figure has arisen, all speak well of him. He has been guilty of none of those crimes—there is not one that convicts him of sin—those crimes of the Yellow Press, of corruption, of commerical or political bullying which have so stained the past of all those old politicians who made the sister continent what she has become. Mr. Felsenburgh has not even formed a party. He, and not his underlings, have conquered.

Eventually, all traditional religious worship is abolished, to be replaced by obligatory services to worship Man, which Felsenburgh represents in perfect glory. A a Catholic plot to blow up a cathedral where the first compulsory new service is to be held is uncovered. The event establishes a pretext for Felsenburgh’s brutal and vicious persecutions to begin in earnest. In retaliation, Felsenburgh leads a fleet of 200 military volors to destroy Rome, killing the Pope and all the Cardinals, who were present in the holy city to attend a council to decide what should be the Church’s response to the threat of Felsenburgh. One of the new Cardinals, the former Father Percy Franklin who we meet early on, a young man with white hair who bears a striking resemblance to Felsenburgh, escapes the destruction, having left in haste for England in a futile attempt to stop the bomb plot.

At the end, all that remains of the church founded by Christ is a ragtag band of twelve in hiding somewhere in a desert near Nazareth where the faith originated. One of the twelve betrays the remant church’s location to Felsenburgh. And Felsenburgh leads his forces—the largest, most powerful military force ever assembled—to destroy them.

…He was coming now, swifter than ever, the hier of temporal ages and the Exile of eternity, the final piteous Prince of rebels, the creature against God, blinder than the sun which paled and the earth that shook; and as He came, passing even then through the last material stage to the thinness of a spirit-fabric, the floating circle swirled behind Him, tossing like phantom birds in the wake of a phantom ship… He was coming, and the earth, rent once again in its allegiance, shrank and reeled in the agony of divided homage.

He was coming—and already the shadow swept off the plain and vanished, and the pale netted wings were rising to the cheek; and the great bell clanged, and the long sweet chord rang out—not more than whispers heard across the pealing storm of everlasting praise…

Against Felsenburgh and his Hellish hosts racing to obliterate the remnant of Christ’s Church, the last pontiff and his tatterdemalion followers celebrate Mass for the last time.

I must admit I didn’t quite get the ending the first time I read it. The words of the Mass, juxtaposed against the final assault of Felsenburgh’s vast army—Word versus Flesh—are quoted in Latin, of which I know just a few phrases. Re-reading the novel again after many years, I thought of several different ways Msgr. Benson could have chosen to end the book, none of which approach the beauty and glory of his simple and fitting last line.

There’s much more to Lord of the World than the parts I’ve spoiled. And at only 206 pages and much better IMO than Stephen King’s The Stand, it’s well worth checking out.


An Unapologetic Apology

June 6, 2013

Mike Adams delivers an “apology” (sort of) to his Mormon/LDS readers.

Several LDS readers requested an apology after Adams took a gratuitous swipe at their church in a previous column, titled “The Judgment of Future Generations”, which dealt with same sex marriage.

Here’s the paragraph they found upsetting:

People often try to call something a marriage when it isn’t. Calling a union between two men or between two women a marriage doesn’t make it one. It’s like embedding the name “Jesus Christ” in the official title of the LDS church and thinking that makes Mormonism somehow Christian. Call a square a triangle if you like but it’s still a square. Your hardheadedness won’t make it become a triangle. It will only make you appear obtuse (emphasis added).

My immediate reaction upon reading this was to cringe the way an American traveller abroad cringes when witnessing another American behaving in stereotypically boorish “ugly American” fashion. I was nonplussed to understand why Adams chose to take a calculated cheap shot at Mormons, especially when arguing about an issue on which the people he insults are more likely to agree with him than those who share the faith he claims to represent.

First, it wasn’t necessary to insult anyone to make his point. Adams could have quoted Lincoln instead, “If you call a tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have? The answer is four, because calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.” That would make the same point more effectively, without losing friends and alienating people on purpose. Now, after being asked to apologize, he quadruples down on the ridicule and Mormon-baiting.

As my friends and colleagues know, I find it easy enough to lose friends and alienate people unintentionally. Adams seems to enjoy going out of his way to attack staunch allies in the culture wars on purpose. He’s already written a three-part series of columns on Mormonism, which upset his LDS readers. Having done my own homework on Latter Day Saints history and teachings, I find myself uncomfortably in agreement with Adams about the truth claims of Mormonism. BUt I also find myself almost wishing that I did not agree with him. I’m embarrassed by his uncharitable behavior toward others, Christians or not. And even more embarrassed that he calls himself a Christian and them non-Christians while behaving so uncharitably toward them.

Writing in the middle of the 1st century AD, St. Peter still has the best approach to effective apologetics: “Always be prepared to make a defense [of the faith] to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you.” When I began studying the faith seriously, I took these words to heart and tried to learn everything I could about my faith. But I failed to heed the rest of St. Peter’s advice: “… yet do it with gentleness and reverence; and keep your conscience clear, so that when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.” As a popular saying attributed to various authors says: “in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.” I still have a long way to go with respect to the last one, but at least I recognize that I fall short of the mark. This is a lesson that Dr. Adams seems to delight in never having bothered to learn.

Predictably, most of the comments on the original Townhall piece quickly descended into ugly Mormon-baiting. On a positive note I suppose, at long last we may have found an issue where the Tolerant™ Left and the More-Christian-Than-Thou Right can agree. Whether it’s celebrating The Book of Mormon (the Musical) or Dr. Adams callbacks to Joseph Smith’s prophetic spot-on 1830s Bill Clinton impression, Mormons, because they tend not to fight back, are safe targets for ridicule and abuse.

But at least the South Park creators of The Book of Mormon musical are minimally consistent, devoting approximately 0.1% of their ridicule at Islam and the prophet Muhammad. Instead of asking Adams to apologize, I’d like Morman critics on both sides of the political spectrum to give equal time to insulting Islam.

After all, if a religion that abandoned polygamy a century ago deserves ridicule, why should a religion that still practices polygamy today (and seeks to impose a worldwide Caliphate under Sharia law where women are enslaved, homosexuals executed, and rape victims stoned to death) deserve so much more respect?

Rhetorical question. We already know the answer.