Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

Intimations of Immortality: Catholicism in David Lodge's Paradise News

Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

Intimations of Immortality: Catholicism in David Lodge's Paradise News

Article excerpt

"THE question facing the theologian today is, therefore, what can be salvaged from the eschatological wreckage?" (Lodge, Paradise 280). This question, which begins the last chapter of David Lodge's Paradise News, is taken from a lecture given by Bernard Walshe, the novel's protagonist. Bernard, a former priest, has lost his religious faith, but being untrained for any other kind of work, he is teaching part time at an ecumenical theological college. The segment of his lecture that begins the last chapter is a candid and poignant analysis of the dilemma facing Christianity at the end of the twentieth century. Bernard argues that although belief in an afterlife remains a central tenet of Christianity and forms a staple of liturgical prayer and scripture, many academic theologians and highly educated and sophisticated believers have marginalized it. Noting that fundamentalism, which does continue to promote belief in an anthropomorphic afterlife, is flourishing "precisely on the eschatological scepticism of responsible theology," (281) Bernard is reminded of W. B. Yeats' lines:

   The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate
   intensity.

But can Christianity afford to minimize or marginalize what has been one of its most motivating and inspirational beliefs? As Bernard puts it to his students, "if you purge Christianity of the promise of eternal life (and, let us be honest, the threat of eternal punishment) which traditionally underpinned it, are you left with anything that is distinguishable from secular humanism?" (282).

Bernard's question and his keen analysis of the dilemma facing Christianity in our time the inability of sophisticated and intellectual Christians to emphasize and propound belief in an afterlife at the same time that human longing persists for what has always been a foundational dogma--marks Paradise News as a new stage in David Lodge's use of Catholicism in his fiction. Although the novel remains ambivalent on the question of an afterlife, the serious exploration of the possibilities for faith in a postmodern age and a sense of sacramentality in everyday life make Paradise News a more nuanced, complex and theologically interesting novel than any of Lodge's earlier work.

Although Lodge is best known for his academic novels, Changing Places, Small World, and Nice Work, in which Catholicism plays no part, his other novels make substantial use of Catholic material. This fact may seem to contradict Lodge's own assertion in 1970 that the Catholic novel (as represented by Mauriac, Bernanos, and Greene) is largely a thing of the past:

   I don't think that one can talk of the Catholic novel in quite such
   sharply-defined terms any more, partly because Catholicism itself has
   become a much more confused--and confusing--faith, more difficult to
   define, mainly in the last ten or fifteen years as a result of Pope John
   and the Vatican Council. The Church no longer represents that sort of
   monolithic, unified, uniform view of life which it once did. (Bergonzi,
   "David Lodge Interviewed" 109)

Yet Lodge's very first novel, The Picturegoers (1960), written when he was only twenty-two, makes extensive use of Catholic material. It concerns a lapsed Catholic who comes to lodge with a large Catholic family and ends up returning to the faith, whereas the adult daughter, who has left the convent loses hers. It is different from the "Catholic novels" of Greene and Waugh in that the Catholic characters are so ordinary. "There are no dissolute aristocrats ... or men undergoing spiritual intensities in exotic parts of the world.... The frame of reference is sociological rather than literary-theological" (Bergonzi, "Conspicuous Absentee" 50).

In his next two novels Lodge uses Catholic material primarily for comedy. The British Museum Is Falling Down (1965) zeroes in on birth control, detailing the stratagems to which Catholic couples had to go in order to try to avoid pregnancy. …

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