Andrew Klavan is a bestselling novelist, screenwriter, and City Journal contributing editor. Associate editor Daniel Kennelly spoke with him about his latest book, The Truth and Beauty: How the Lives and Works of England’s Greatest Poets Point the Way to a Deeper Understanding of the Words of Jesus.
In the introduction, you note that the genesis of this book was your struggle with the Sermon on the Mount and an epiphany prompted by a comment from your son. What did he say to you?
He said that I was trying to understand a philosophy instead of trying to get to know a man. It struck me instantly as a brilliant remark, because when you know someone, you don’t really know their philosophy, you see a bit of what they see. If you asked me what my wife’s life philosophy is, I probably couldn’t tell you. But if you asked me: Would she like this movie? Would she laugh at this joke? How would she react to this person? I would almost surely know. When Jesus says, “These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full,” I think that’s what he means. He wants us to see what he sees.
As you note, the English Romantic poets came along only a few decades before the “long, withdrawing roar” of Matthew Arnold’s “Sea of Faith.” How did these figures lead you to a “deeper understanding of the words of Jesus”?
Essentially, like many people today, they tried to reconstruct what they knew to be true largely without the aid of religion—but everything they knew to be true had its source and proof in the religion they were trying to discard. The way I think I put it in the book was something like: they looked at godless nature and Christian truth looked back at them. Most of them didn’t mean to, but in the midst of the ruins, they built a road back to Christianity. Traveling that road allowed me to understand my faith in a fresh way, from the ground up, as it were.
There seem to be similarities between your approach—seeking to understand Jesus as a person rather than as a mere philosopher—and the novelist’s task of creating and “inhabiting” characters in a story. Did you think of your task in those terms?
Yes, absolutely—though I’d say more like the reader of novels than the writer of them. What does a novel do, after all, but let you live the lives of characters you’ve never met in situations you’ve never experienced? It uses imagination to expand the scope of your experience beyond your own life. If read with fresh eyes, the Gospels allow you to experience Jesus like that. The effort had a remarkable—and wonderful—effect on me. I wanted to share it.
Is there a link between mystery writing and the “mysteries of faith”?
Someone said once that a murder mystery is a tragedy with a happy ending. Maybe it was me! But that describes Christianity too, doesn’t it? No one can ever erase the suffering we experience in this world. Each death represents a gorgeous infinity of consciousness cruelly destroyed. What Christianity does is expand the context of that tragedy so that it is revealed as part of the journey to a happy ending. We won’t fully understand how that can be until it happens, but our faith that it will happen makes us live in a different way—a better, more joyful way, if I may say so.
Do you have a favorite among the poets in the book?
Keats. I remember the day I first read him—“Ode to a Nightingale”— I was 18, and the sorrow and the yearning—it was like that old song “Killing me Softly,” like he’d found my letters and read them out loud. And of course, his youth and high ambitions—it was like looking into a mirror. Now that I’ve become an elder statesman, I can’t help but identify with William Wordsworth and his journey from radicalism to conservatism, from “semi-atheism” to faith. And the sad, stately voice of wisdom in “Tintern Abbey” and the “Immortality Ode” are more suited to the grandeur of my antiquity! Still . . . in my little boy heart, it’s always Keats.
Photo: National Portrait Gallery / Public Domain