Lord of the World

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.

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