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Ronald Knox: A Man for All Seasons

edited by Francesca Bugliani Knox.
PIMS, 2016.
Hardcover, 416 pages, $65.

Jesus said only a fool would light a candle and proceed to hide it under a bowl. Yet time, even more than neglect or abuse, has a way of snuffing out even the brightest reputations. So it has been with the polymath priest, Ronald Knox. At his death in 1957, the Times of London called Knox “one of the individually great in his generation,” and devoted a remarkable 1500 words to eulogizinga Catholic priest. Any anthology that covered his ingenious interpretations of Virgil’s Aeneid, his apologetic writings, or his histories of Christianity would be stretched to the breaking point. This is, after all, a man who translated the Bible at the behest of the English Catholic Church. Ronald Knox: A Man for All Seasons, a collection edited by Francesca Bugliani Knox, attempts to reintroduce Knox to an academic audience.

In one of this book’s essays, Clare Asquith refers to Knox as “English Catholicism’s foremost convert.” In 1917, not yet thirty years old, Knox left the Anglican faith of his family. Despite having trained to be an Anglican priest, and being the son of the Bishop of Manchester, Knox could not resist the call of the Catholic faith. He adopted a line from Virgil’s Aeneid, a touchstone of his emotional and spiritual life, to explain his position: “I am not seeking Italy out of my own volition.” It is characteristic that Knox should choose a pagan poet to express his Christian longing. It is also characteristic that he chose to see himself as the inert, stoic plaything of more powerful forces. He did not believe in ecstatic passion as a foundation for religious faith, and wrote a critical history of the tendency called Enthusiasm. To Knox, the Protestant Reformation had licensed any lunatic or con man to act as the voice of God himself, and confused even the faithful Catholics about what their faith meant. Although he was too modest to admit it directly, Knox did believe that his early Protestantism afforded special insight into the meaning of Catholicism.

But Knox was in intimate contact with a more obvious candidate for “foremost convert”—the novelist Evelyn Waugh. Waugh arrived at Catholic belief after a long period of dissolution and profanity, at least half of it conducted in a spirit of ironic mockery. His earlier novels unflinchingly exaggerated the vices of the English aristocracy, and as he settled into his faith, he became increasingly unapologetic in his scorn for whatever he reviled about the modern world—the vernacular Mass, cars, children. It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely friend for the sober, temperate Knox. Yet Knox impressed him so much that Waugh wrote a biography of his friend, and Waugh was responsible for the literary remains of the famous author.

Knox became famous not least for his crowning achievement, a translation of the Latin Bible, “in the Light of the Hebrew and Greek Originals.” While Knox was already accomplished in the classical languages, he decided to learn Hebrew to supplement his decisions. His New Testament appeared in 1945, and the Old Testament followed four years later. At this point, the 1610 Douay–Rheims Bible was still generally used in Catholic settings. Knox himself doubted that it was used at all; in his visits to parishes around England, he found that the priest often had to dig out and dust off the scripture. As he put it, “the new wine of the gospel, you felt, was kept in strangely cobwebby bottles.” He was typically Protestant in his veneration for scripture, believing in the radical importance of giving English speakers a readable version of the Bible. His writings on the translation process provide a fascinating glimpse of a man in conflict. On the one hand, he believed that “Words are not coins, dead things whose value can be mathematically computed.” And yet he also claimed that “I have taken my stand upon tradition.” Like many of his generation, he thought that centuries of fumbling hands had worn smooth the meanings and beauty of the church. But like many converts, he wanted to believe that those praying, hopeful hands were themselves the church. He thought that “consecrated phrases” had mostly become hollow through overuse, but he also believed that “to strike a note of modernity” in a biblical translation would only “make fun of” the scripture.

Forthe reader already familiar with Knox, this volume gathers a scrapbook of interesting asides and delights. The book alternates between sections of material written by Knox and scholarly essays. This results in a somewhat erratic organization: a section of biographical essays, then some of his writings, then another section of critical essays interpreting his work, and finally more of Knox’s writings. The writings about Knox tend to be longer, in the dilatory fashion of people fascinated by their subject. The selections actually by Knox are regrettably short, generally less than ten pages long.

Bugliani Knox seems to believe that her subject needs little introduction. The biographical essays cover only very specific aspects—his relationship with the Benedictines, his residence at a particular country house, and so on. There are insights available throughout, but these essays fall prey to a habit of English biography: “Nervous indigestion made meals a constant worry. He disliked the dog, the church bells, and had a horror of exercise and outdoors in general, only venturing out into the garden ‘greatly daring’ after a cold.” There’s a strain of writing about English personality that substitutes quirks for character, and Knox the man often disappears into a fog of foibles. The book would have benefited from more intimacy with Knox’s ideas, as opposed to the minutiae of his life and career. Two of Bugliani Knox’s essays show the pattern well. The First World War fundamentally reshaped Knox—he was fond of remarking that “History begins in 1914”—and Bugliani Knox covers the ramifications well in her “Ronald Knox and the Great War.” But then, in another essay, she covers extensively his unpublished and uncollected writings. The essay is pleasant and intriguing, but to spend so many pages discussing writings that exist only in manuscript, if at all, seems like material for specialists.

But then the reader happens on the sections written by Knox. A sample of his ingenuity as a classicist appears in “Virgil and the Future Life,” a brief essay that revives the Christian interest in the poet of pagan Rome. But Knox is less interesting as a proprietor of erudition, and more remarkable for his ability to state concisely the meaning of his faith. “Twenty Years After” comments quickly on the history of his conversion to the Catholic faith, but with compassion for both the unconvinced and the strident, newly converted zealot. Would that there had been space for more of Knox’s words.

Although decked out with the regalia of academic professionalism, a glow of ancestral homage suffuses the collection. Editor Francesca Bugliani Knox is married to Ronald Knox’s great-nephew, who provided the introduction. One writer refers to his essay as “an act of pietas,” and in a sense, the complaint is general. Some contributors seem to have been chosen for reasons of personal affection or piety. Clare Asquith, who offers an exhausting essay on Knox’s last ten years, has mostly built her reputation on a quackish book arguing that Shakespeare was a crypto-Catholic who wrote all his plays in code for the Catholic underground. A cursory search reveals that Milton T. Walsh, who writes about the role of humor in Knox’s ministry, was implicated in the sexual abuse of a thirteen-year-old boy. There is not space here to debate the church’s ongoing response to sexual abuse, or the proper measure of forgiveness in Christian life. But surely, many others could testify to a general audience about the value and importance of Ronald Knox’s work. What good is a suggestion, if you’re not sure about your guide?

Ronald Knox is important, and he does deserve better partisans. One of his prayers drawn from the Psalms says, “Thy word is a lantern unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” His translation uncovered a living text of the Bible for a new century, and many have followed in the path he helped to reveal again. It is a shame that, more often than not, this volume lowers a bowl over his light.  

Greg Morrison lives in Virginia. He comes on Twitter as @exam_times.