In 2001, St. Augustine’s Press published a new edition of Robert Hugh Benson’s 1907 novel, The Lord of the World. A friend of mine in Vermont recently urged me to read it, and I did.
Ralph McInerny, in a brief introduction, writes: “The novel wonderfully conveys the flatness and boredom of a world without God. Boredom becomes a condition for recognizing our need for something more than this — a few more decades of life and then a total void.”
This novel is remarkably similar in theme to Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Spe Salvi, one of the very great encyclicals. That is, the novel is about the futility of a this-worldly utopia with the instruments of death (abortion, euthanasia) and endless life (prolongation of life, cloning) that are designed to make it come about. Indeed, in a lecture he gave at the Catholic University in Milan on February 6, 1992, Josef Ratzinger cited The Lord of the World and the deadly Universalist, inner-world atmosphere it depicted.
My father had this Benson novel around the house when I was a boy in Iowa, and I remember reading it then. What I remember most about it at that young age was how frightening it was, with its vivid end-of-the world description. Indeed, I have often said that this novel and C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength are the most frightening books that I have ever read. Now, no longer a youth (and then some), when I ask myself why this fright, it is because both books make the this-worldly triumph of evil so plausible, so intellectual, so logical.
Both books seem to exemplify the validity of a remark of Herbert Deane in his book on Augustine: “As history draws to its close, the number of true Christians in the world will decline rather than increase. His [Augustine’s] words give no support to the hope that the world will gradually be brought to belief in Christ and that earthly society can be transformed, step by step, into the kingdom of God” (38). The anti-Christ figure in The Lord of the World becomes the “Man-God,” the “Lord of the World,” precisely by promising universal brotherhood, peace, and love, but no transcendence.
The hero of the book is an English priest, Percy Franklin, who looks almost exactly like the mysterious Julian Felsenburgh, the American senator from Vermont. The senator appears as a lone and dramatic figure promising the world goodness if it but follow him. No one quite knows who he is or where he is from, but his voice mesmerizes. Under his leadership, East and West join. War is abolished. Felsenburgh becomes the President of Europe, then of the world, by popular acclaim. Everyone is fascinated with him, yet still no one knows much about him. People are both riveted and frightened by the way he demands attention. Most follow without question.
The only group who in any sense oppose him are the few loyal Catholics. The English priest is eventually called to Rome, since he has been an acute observer of the rise of Felsenburgh and his agenda. Apostasies among bishops and priests increase. The pope, John XXIV, is a good man — not unlike Pius X, who was pope when this novel was written.
Belief in God is to be replaced by belief in man. All those who oppose this doctrine are slated for extermination. With the English priest’s inspiration, the pope forms a new religious order, the Order of Christ Crucified. Its members, including the pope, vow to die in the name of the faith. Many do.
The English prime minister and his wife form a sub-plot: The wife desperately wants to believe in this new world movement, but she is horrified when she sees the killings that are justified in the name of world unity. Meanwhile, the prime minister’s mother is brought back to the faith by the English priest, much to the horror of the prime minister. But the wife is upset at the whole thing. Finally, to escape it all, she applies for and is granted public euthanasia. She dies not believing, but somehow knowing that what is coming with Felsenburgh is utterly horrible.
As the world comes to an end, the pope calls all the cardinals to Rome. Meantime, some English Catholics, against orders, plot to blow up the Abbey where the politicians meet. Percy Franklin, now a cardinal, along with another German cardinal, are sent back home to try to prevent this plot, which they are warned about. But word gets out. In retaliation, Felsenburgh orders that Rome be destroyed, which it is, together with the pope and all the cardinals but the three not in Rome. These three quickly elect the younger Englishman as the new pope, Sylvester III. The old cardinal in Jerusalem dies. The German cardinal is hanged.
The last pope goes to the Holy Land, to the places of the last days pictured in the New Testament. In a final act, Felsenburgh and all the world leaders fly in formation to destroy the remaining signs of faith on earth. In response, Sylvester and the remaining Catholics are at Mass. As they sing together the music of Benediction, the Tantum Ergo, the attack strikes. With that, the world ends.
The last words of the novel are: “Then this world passed, and the glory of it.” It could not be more dramatic, or more moving. Somehow, I no longer find it so frightening. It is almost consoling.
Originally Published in Crisis March 2009