Support a Catholic Speaker Month: Joseph Pearce
September is Support a Catholic Speaker Month! Brandon Vogt has put together a list of the top 100 Catholic speakers as voted on by his readers. The best part is that that this list will include links to each of these speakers, featured at various blogs. The list includes some really interesting names; I would be tempted to hold an event just so I could invite some of these people to speak at it.
For this project, it was my pleasure and privilege to interview Joseph Pearce, author of several books any of which a Catholic bibliophile would eat up. He is also writer in residence and visiting fellow at Thomas More College in New Hampshire, editor of an international review of Catholic culture, the St. Austin Review, series editor of a series of the Ignatius Critical Editions, and executive director of Catholic Courses. He's been on EWTN to talk about Shakespeare and The Lord of the Rings (two of my literary favorites), and his books have been translated into at least seven different languages. You can read more about his work, and him, here.
Joseph has generously shared his thoughts on a spattering of topics about his work, his faith, and the literary world. (Writers, check out his brief but beautiful prayer before beginning work.) I could have asked him a hundred more questions than I did. Maybe for some other project one day, he'll consent to another interview and I can share his answers with you. Or better yet, maybe you can have him at your conference, school, or parish, and you can hear him yourself.
I first came to know of your work in Tolkien: Man and Myth. Is Tolkien's Catholicism as evident in his book The Hobbit as it is in Lord of the Rings? Have you begun to see an uptick of interest in Tolkien (and his Catholicism) in anticipation of the first Hobbit movie?
Tolkien referred to The Lord of the Rings as "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work". Over the years I have written a great deal exploring this Catholic dimension of Tolkien's masterpiece. Now, however, I have written a book on the Catholicism of The Hobbit, which will be published later this year as "Bilbo's Journey" by Saint Benedict Press.
Tolkien's deeply-held Catholicism permeates The Hobbit in many ways, most notably as a meditation on Christ's words in the Gospel that "where your treasure is there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:21). The Hobbit is also a reflection on the nature of man as "homo viator", whose ultimate purpose is to love and serve God on the journey through this life that we may be with Him forever in the next. It charts Bilbo's spiritual growth in terms of the mystical relationship between free will and Divine Providence.
Judging by the amount of interest in the upcoming movie version of The Hobbit I am hopeful that it will present Catholics with the opportunity to evangelize through the power of Tolkien. In the wake of the film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings ten years ago, I gave many talks at Ivy League schools and state universities, as well as at Catholic and Protestant schools and parishes, unlocking the Catholicism of Tolkien's work. It would be wonderful if the movie version of The Hobbit were to present the same opportunities to evangelize.
You've written two books about Shakespeare's Catholicism. Is this idea gaining traction in the literary world?
There is a residual resistance to the growing evidence for Shakespeare's Catholicism amongst secular academics, not because they have any convincing counter-evidence but because many academics have built their reputations upon misreadings of Shakespeare's work. Such secular reading of his work becomes untenable if the Bard can be shown to be a believing Catholic.
I have now written three books, not two, exploring the mountain of evidence for the Catholic Shakespeare, the third of which will be published by Ignatius Press next spring. In the first of my books, The Quest for Shakespeare, I assemble the biographical evidence, i.e. the evidence that emerges from the facts that we know about Shakespeare's life; in the second book, Through Shakespeare's Eyes, I explore the textual evidence for the Bard's Catholicism to be found in three of his plays (The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet and King Lear); in the third book, Shakespeare On Love, I reveal the Catholic moral dynamic of Romeo and Juliet, a play which is almost invariably misread and misunderstood. I have also had the honour of editing the Ignatius Critical Editions of several Shakespeare plays, each of which includes excellent critical essays by contemporary academics offering tradition-oriented readings of the works. Apart from the four plays mentioned above, there are also Ignatius Critical Editions of Julius Caesar and Macbeth. (For more details, please see www.ignatiuscriticaleditions.com.)
Last year, I had the immense privilege of filming an eight-lecture series on Shakespeare's Catholicism for Catholic Courses (www.catholiccourses.com). In addition, I regularly speak on the topic at Catholic parishes and at Catholic schools. Thankfully I am joined in this crusade to make Shakespeare's Catholicism better known by an increasing number of scholars who are doing splendid work on the subject. The extent to which this scholarship is having an impact on the wider culture can be seen by the response of a nationally-known director of Shakespeare plays to a question put to him at a talk he gave in Washington DC. Asked for his views on Shakespeare’s religious beliefs, the director answered that many people believe that he was a Catholic. This well-known Shakespearean was not a Catholic himself but was acknowledging the growing weight of evidence for the Bard of Avon’s adherence to the Church of Rome. There’s a long way to go but this battle is being won!
You underwent a radical change in your belief system, going from a twice-convicted anti-Catholic racist to Catholic convert and defender. You credit G. K. Chesterton with much of the impetus for your conversion. What happened?
This is a long story but, to make the long story short, I was a leading member of a white supremacist organization called the National Front in my native England back in the 1970s and 1980s. I was sent to prison twice for “publishing material likely to cause racial hatred”. I was also very anti-Catholic and was involved with the Protestant terrorist organizations, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles. I was also a member of the Orange Order, an anti-Catholic secret society, and was very anti-American, demonstrating outside US airbases in the UK and demanding that the “Yanks Go Home”!
By a miracle of grace I was introduced to the work of G.K. Chesterton, whose books I began to read avidly, even though I didn’t agree with his Catholicism or his anti-racism. So much that he wrote made sense and I loved his personality, his wit and his sense of humour. Through my love of Chesterton I came to read the books of Hilaire Belloc and, later still, the work of C. S. Lewis, John Henry Newman and, finally, St. Thomas Aquinas. Slowly but surely I was being drawn to the truth of the Faith. I was received into the Catholic Church on St. Joseph’s Day in 1989. My first book, Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G.K. Chesterton, was an act of thanksgiving. I was giving thanks to God for giving me Chesterton but also giving thanks to Chesterton for giving me God!
I note that you were always a writer, even before your conversion. Afterwards, how did you get your foot in the door of the Catholic publishing world?
Yes, I’ve always been a writer – for as long as I can remember. It’s in my blood, or my genes, or my soul, or wherever these things reside! I made the final of a national poetry competition in the UK when I was about nine-years-old and launched a magazine, of which I became editor, when I was only sixteen-years-old. It was for articles published in this magazine that I was sent to prison.
Following my conversion, my books were published by mainstream secular publishers in the UK (Harper Collins and Hodder & Stoughton) but the US editions were being published by Ignatius Press, the great Catholic publisher in San Francisco. My biography of Chesterton, and my book, Literary Converts, were very successful in the USA, launching my long-term relationship with the folks at Ignatius Press. Although I am still publishing with Ignatius, I am now being published by other good Catholic publishers in the USA, such as Saint Benedict Press and St. Augustine’s Press. My books have also been published in foreign language editions, including Spanish, French, Italian, Polish, Korean and Mandarin.
Your biographies have been mostly about Catholic English writers. Do you have a favorite?
This is always a difficult question. I love G.K. Chesterton, of course, and owe him a great deal as being the most important influence, under grace, on my conversion. I’m also a great admirer of Hilaire Belloc, who deserves to emerge from Chesterton’s shadow. I have always been in awe of Shakespeare’s inestimable and incomparable genius. He is the greatest writer who ever lived, with the possible exception of the great Dante. In the final analysis, however, I must admit that Tolkien is probably my favourite writer. The Lord of the Rings is simply too astonishing for words.
Perhaps I can illustrate my admiration for Tolkien by way of a short tangential digression …
Samuel Johnson famously said that the man who is tired of London is tired of life. As a Londoner, I am forced to disagree with the great Dr. Johnson. I am tired of London because London is tired of life. It has become the epicenter of the culture of death. I would like to replace Dr. Johnson’s epigram with an alternative of my own: The man who is tired of The Lord of the Rings is tired of life! Tolkien’s masterpiece has so much life in it, and is a symphony to the wonders of Life, that only a cynic can fail to be edified by its beauty and majesty.
What do you do as a writer in residence?
I am so blessed to be a writer in residence and Visiting Fellow at Thomas More College in New Hampshire (www.thomasmorecollege.edu) because it allows me the time to write even though I have teaching responsibilities. The folks at TMC recognize my desire to write and the importance of my work as a writer and want to facilitate the writing of future books by showing great flexibility in the planning of my teaching schedule. I will be teaching at TMC intensively for four one-week periods each semester. Obviously such intensive teaching will require a great deal of preparation but I will still have time to write. This arrangement is heaven-sent! I hope to repay the faith that the people at TMC have placed in me by being a model member of the faculty and a tireless promoter of the great work that the college does in educating students in the tradition-oriented liberal arts.You recently began teaching for Homeschool Connections, and you are executive director for Catholic Courses. What inspired these? How are they working out?
I began teaching for Homeschool Connections (http://homeschoolconnectionsonline.com/) as part of my ongoing commitment to the Catholic homeschooling movement. I have spoken at homeschooling conferences throughout the USA for several years and met the Homeschool Connections people at these conferences. Teaching on-line, from the comfort and convenience of my home-office, enables me to engage in teaching homeschoolers in such a way that it minimizes disruption to my writing schedule. As with my position at Thomas More College, my relationship with Homeschool Connections is heaven-sent.
As for Catholic Courses, I was both flattered and honoured when Conor Gallagher, the executive producer of the series, asked me to become executive director. The series is very exciting. It’s meant to be a Catholic equivalent of the Teaching Company, offering courses on DVD, CD or in downloadable format in the areas of theology, philosophy, literature, history and the lives of the saints. We’ve managed to attract some of the finest Catholic lecturers to present the courses and I’ve had the pleasure of teaching four courses myself. The first two, filmed last year when the Catholic Courses were first launched, were on “Shakespeare’s Catholicism” and “The Hidden Meaning of The Lord of the Rings”; the most recent two, which I filmed only a few weeks ago, are on The Hobbit and on “The Thought of G.K. Chesterton”.
You obviously have been influenced by your faith in the choices you have made in your career. How do you understand your aptitude for writing and teaching as a vocation in the service of God?
The Catholic Faith is at the summit and the centre of my life. It is my life’s very purpose. As such, I see my aptitude for writing as a gift from God which it is my duty to offer back to Him in service. The extent to which I see my role as a writer as a vocation is best summed up in the words of the prayer with which I begin the working day: “Lord, I pray that my labours today, by Thy grace, will bring my soul and the souls of others closer to Thee. In all that I do, Lord, may the desire to please you be paramount. Keep me free from worldly ambition and anxiety, and I ask only for material sustenance for myself and my dependents. Lord, may my words be your words.”
What are you currently working on?
I have been commissioned to write a full-length book on my conversion story, which I’ve tentatively titled “Race with the Devil: A Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love”. This will keep me busy until at least the end of the year. I am also engaged always with my responsibilities as co-editor of the St. Austin Review (www.staustinreview.com), a journal of Catholic culture which is published six times per year. I have been co-editor of the St. Austin Review (or StAR) since it was launched back in 2001. It is an ongoing labour of love.
Do you speak primarily in academic settings? What does your speaking schedule look like?
I speak in all sorts of settings. Over the years, I have spoken at Catholic colleges, Protestant colleges, Ivy League schools, state universities, Catholic parishes, Protestant parishes, Catholic high schools, Protestant high schools, Diocesan conferences, Men’s conferences, homeschooling conferences, academic conferences, Chesterton conferences, C. S. Lewis conferences, et cetera. I’ve also given talks in disparate parts of the world including South America, South Africa, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany and England, as well as in many parts of the United States and Canada.
My speaking schedule is busy. I’m usually travelling several times a month, but I’m always happy to accept other engagements. Anyone wishing to obtain further details of my availability and the topics on which I speak regularly should contact me at the following address: firstname.lastname@example.org.