The Undercover Revolution: How Fiction Changed Britain,
by Iain H. Murray, Banner of Truth Trust, 2009, 104pp
by Iain H. Murray, Banner of Truth Trust, 2009, 104pp
Iain Murray proposes an interesting thesis in this little book. He claims that that fiction writers did more to undermine Christian faith and values in Great Britain than atheistic scientists. He is not suggesting that reading fiction is wrong per se, but that certain late 19th/early 20th century novelists used the genre to attack biblical Christianity. As Murray points out, in 1870 religious books were at the top of the best seller list, with fiction at number five. By 1886 fiction had knocked religion off the top spot. Novelists were in a position to influence the thinking of the masses. Murray singles out Robert Louis Stevenson and Thomas Hardy for special attention.
Stevenson was the son of godly Scottish Presbyterian parents. In early life he gave some indications that he was a sincere and committed Christian. But all of that was to change when he went to Edinburgh University and fell in with a bad crowd. He also became infatuated with a married women, Frances Sitwell, who would later divorce her husband to marry Stevenson. The novelist became acquainted with other literary figures who had turned their backs upon the Christian faith such as Leslie Stephen, editor of the Cornhill Magazine and and Edmund Gosse. Murray is not suggesting that Stevenson openly advocated unbelief in his novels. We are not to think of Long John Silver as a fifth columnist for the new atheism. But the writer's personal life testified to his unbelief. Amongst his atheistic friends he would mock the faith he once professed. He became alienated from his father, who continued to give financial support to his erring son. In his autobiographical Memories and Portraits, Stevenson caricatured the Christianity of his family as joyless and austere. But unbelief hardly gave the novelist happiness and contentment. Given to hard drink, he died on a South Sea island at the age of 44.
In Stevenson's case, unbelief was an open secret amongst his literary chums. It is difficlt to know how influential were his views upon the reading public. With Thomas Hardy the case is more clear cut. Hardy was the son of a Dorset builder, yet he became one of England's best known writers. Such was his fame that his remains (minus his heart which was buried in Dorset) were interred in Westminster Abbey. Murray is incorrect to say that Thomas was his parents' only son. As well as sisters Kate and Mary, he had a younger brother, Henry, who carried on the family business as a builder/stonemason.
As a young man Thomas Hardy came under the influence of Henry Moule, the evangelical vicar of Fordington. When revival broke out under Moule's ministry in 1855, Hardy seems to have been affected. While training as an architect he began to study the New Testament in the original Greek and was a regular church goer. But like Stevenson, this early piety was not to last. By 1866 he no longer accepted many of the key teachings of the Church. Reading the liberal theology of Essays and Reviews and the writings of the agnostic Thomas Huxley helped to unsettle his beliefs. On attempting to make a living as a writer, he became acquainted with Leslie Stephen and his atheistic fellow-travellers.
Hardy's unbelieving world-view can be clearly seen in his writings. He rejected divine providence in favour of a fatalistic vision in which his characters such as Henchard, Tess and Jude were subject to blind forces that seemed intent on their destruction. Claire Tomlain gives a helpful discussion of this strand in Hardy's writing in Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man, Penguin, 2007 - see chapter 15, Blighted Star. Also, Hardy attempted to push the moral boundaries in his novels. He attacked the church and questioned the value marriage in Tess of the D'Urbevilles and Jude the Obscure. His rather bleak view of married life was informed by his own unhappy marriage to Emma Gifford, who complained that the only women that her husband truly loved were his fictional heroines. It is easy to see how Hardy's atheistic stance could have rubbed off on his readers, helping to create a climate that was hostile to Christian faith and morality.
Next up, Murray considers a coterie of novelists and writers who rejected the Christian faith including H. G. Wells, Bernard Shaw, Virgina Wolfe and Bertrand Russell. A glimpse at the personal lives of these writers shows that while unbelief may promise freedom and fulfilment, it cannot deliver. The brave new world without God was characterised by loneliness, selfishness, broken marriages and a feeling that life was ultimately pointless. Apart from God the greatest achievements and accolades are but vanity and grasping for the wind. Yet it was the outlook of these unbelieving writers that helped to shape the broken society that is modern Britain.
Murray is aware that more work needs to be done in this area if his his case is to be proven. He could have mentioned the novelist George Eliot, whose faith in Christianity evaporated as she read and then translated The Life of Christ by the liberal theologian David Strauss. The publication of D. H. Lawrence's infamous novels further undermined basic moral standards in the UK and opened the floodgates for sexually explicit literature.
But the secular novelists with their bitter antagonism to the gospel are not given the last word. The book concludes with a ringing affirmation of the historicity of the Christian faith. Is Christianity Fiction? asks Murray. No, he replies. It is the life-transforming truth of God concerning his Son, Jesus Christ. Men reject the Christian message not because of a lack of evidence for the claims of Christ, or because "modern knowledge" has made the gospel untenable. Unbelief is a matter of the heart, not the head. Unless God conquers our unbelieving hearts and draws us to Christ for salvation, we remain in a lost and hopeless condition. "The preaching of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God". (1 Corinthians 1:18). Only the truth of the gospel can really set us free.