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 is an April, 2022 Zondervan book by conservative author Andrew Klavan. The book is personal, idiosyncratic, witty, and charming. Klavan talks about the Romantic poets, painting, travel, family, personal religious experience and Biblical interpretation. Reading this book felt like I was spending a rainy afternoon chatting with Klavan in a plush library, fully equipped with leatherbound classics, a fireplace, and brandy snifters. We’d eventually head out for an excursion to this or that garden, stream, or industrial waste site, while chewing over this or that line of poetry. These strolls would feel like tangents, but eventually we’d return to the library, and tie our conversational strands back together. Given that impression of this personal book, it’s important to know exactly who Andrew Klavan is.
Andrew Klavan is a 67-year-old, award-winning, crime and suspense novelist. He has also worked in Hollywood. His father, Gene Klavan, was a prominent New York City area radio personality. He grew up in a comfortable secular Jewish home. He has since become a conservative Christian. He jokes, My wife married a liberal Jew and ended up with a conservative Christian. She’s very patient about it.
We were raised in the Jewish faith but without faith. We were told, ‘This is nonsense, but you must learn it. It is part of the tradition.’ … My mother was the most committed atheist I’ve ever met, Klavan says. He experienced this disconnect between an insistence on claiming Jewish identity while rejecting faith as a rotten foundation. He clarifies that he means this only in reference to his own family’s situation and not as a general comment on Judaism.
He was forced to become bar mitzvah and to say things that he did not believe; in fact he invented Hebrew words during his ceremony to fill in the blanks when he forgot what he was supposed to say. He received thousands of dollars worth of gifts. He was disgusted by his own hypocrisy; the gifts were ill-gotten gains. He felt A crushing sense of dishonesty and shame … I didn’t want to be involved with anything that made me feel that dishonest, that inauthentic. He stuffed the gifts into the garbage. That was meant to be the end of my religious life.
Klavan knew he wanted to be a writer, and, As I studied literature, I realized that Jesus was at the center of all Western literature. When his father caught him reading the Gospel of Luke, Rage bubbled out of him like hot tar. If you ever convert, I will disown you! his father threatened.
Klavan went to UC Berkeley, in California, at least partly to get away from his New York home. There he experienced the first of his depressions. He calls these depressions bola, after the rope-like weapon, fixed with heavy weights on the ends, that is swung, thrown, and entangles and chokes the prey. He interpreted his own mental illness as the price he paid for being an intellectual. It’s hip to be miserable when you are young and intellectual, he says. Klavan’s internal struggle worsened till he became suicidal.
Gary Carter, a favorite baseball player, was a Met catcher with bad knees. Even so, Carter was able to run fast enough to beat a ball to the plate. In a post-game interview, Carter said he was able to run so fast because, Sometimes you just have to play in pain. Klavan took this as his motto; he soldiered on and did not kill himself. Later, Klavan interpreted his hearing that line from a favorite player as God’s reaching out to Klavan at a moment when he might have jumped off his apartment building’s roof.
Things began to look up. One night Klavan said a three-word prayer, Thank you, God. The next morning, he reports, I was suddenly more alive. I suddenly saw everything more clearly … As a writer, as an artist, I was looking to be directly connected to life. You can’t be directly connected to life until you are connected to God. God is the source of life. You can’t know God. He’s just too big, unless you know him through Christ, who is a man like you.
A significant theme connects Klavan’s religious and political conversions. That theme is Klavan’s relentless focus on truth. The hypocrisy of his childhood household’s approach to religion alienated him. Just so the disconnect between objective reality and leftist ideology. The left, Klavan says, under the influence of philosophers like Michel Foucault, has rejected even the concept of truth. The left has replaced the concept of truth with power. People believe something is true because powerful people have told them that it is true. The left imagines that only white, heterosexual, Christian, Western men exercise power. Thus, dismantling any truth accepted by such men has become a focus of the left. Those truths must be replaced with the superior truths of opposite groups: black, non-Western, female, and LGBT people. Klavan relates the left’s focus on power to Foucault’s personal obsessions. Foucault was a practitioner of sadomasochistic sex. Foucault allegedly sexually abused pre-pubescent Arab boys in Tunisian cemeteries.
Klavan explains how he could have recognized the flaws in the left-wing worldview, and yet still consider himself a liberal. I was always a disgruntled liberal. I always knew that something was wrong … but it never occurred to me that the air I was breathing was wrong. In other words, the hegemony of the leftist worldview was so pervasive that it took great energy to overcome it and see things afresh and for himself. Reasoning that objective truth exists, Klavan eventually applied that insight to both politics and to God, as he outlines in a 2019 speech to the Acton Institute.
In academia, the publishing world, and Hollywood, Klavan was surrounded by creative people who were immersed in leftwing ideology, even as a fish is immersed in water. Klavan received a B.A. from U.C. Berkeley, and he married the daughter of a prominent professor. He discovered, though, that The university misuses reason to destroy reason.
Moving on to Hollywood, he discovered new forms of hypocrisy. When I hear artists today talking about speaking truth to power, I ask, ‘Who is the power in your life?’ Is it a Republican politician, or is it rather the artist infrastructure that gives them praise, work, awards, respect? It really is these people who have confined them to their straightjacket of ideology. That they never challenge.
Hollywood bigwigs, he says, are living out a narcissistic fantasy when they make propaganda films serving the needs of enemies killing Americans. They think they are doing something heroic. To make films that are beautifully done propaganda instruments for the enemy is an act of wickedness, he says. Klavan is less angry about the films Hollywood does make than about the films Hollywood doesn’t make. Hollywood could make films that depict soldiers as patriots striving to do the right thing; for the most part, it does not.
There is an ideological fight that has to be fought. But we conservatives have let them [the left] get away with this. If you win the White House, if you win the Congress, if you win the Supreme Court, and you lose the culture, you will lose the country. [Poet Percy Bysshe] Shelley was right. The poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. If you let them [leftists] drip this poison into the consciousness of America, they will win.
In a 2007 City Journal article, Klavan writes, The thing I like best about being a conservative is that I don’t have to lie. I don’t have to pretend that men and women are the same … that failed or oppressive cultures are as good … that the rich cause poverty or that all religions are a path to God. I don’t have to claim that a bad writer like Alice Walker is a good one … I don’t have to pretend that Islam means peace … Leftism has outlived its own failure by hiding itself within the most labyrinthine construct of social delicacy since Victoria was queen.
Materialist, communist, atheist governments destroyed more lives than all religions put together in a single generation … You either have to look in the mirror and say ‘Uh oh I’ve missed the target,’ … or you have to create an illusionary world in which what you are saying makes some kind of sense … In a world where individuals are respected it is urgently important that authenticity is respected. A man should be what he appears to be. Political correctness legislates inauthenticity.
Klavan’s insistence on truth, authenticity, and an accurate relationship with objective reality fueled his reading and his religious and his political conversions. He read the infamous Marquis de Sade, an 18th century French nobleman who rejected religion, morality, and law, and insisted on absolute freedom. Sade, an aristocrat, felt free to kidnap and sexually torture poor women and children. Klavan says that Sade was the most honest philosopher he read. In other words, if man is going to reject God, all bets are off concerning morality.
I loved books. I studied Western literature. I found everything that was true or beautiful somehow related back to the Gospels, Klavan says. In Western culture, he writes in his new book, are embedded that portion of the Western vision that is the simple truth not just for westerners but for humankind altogether. And it came to seem to me, as a matter of simple integrity, that I had to believe in the Singer if I wanted to sing that true song.
Culture and politics, Hollywood, academia, and Washington, DC are alike in that all are engaging in the same argument. We’re in an argument about spirituality … We’re in an argument about God. Klavan’s choice to believe, and to become a Christian, improved his psychological life, his political life, and his creative life. Having made the decision to believe, I feel that I understand reality far better. I feel that my insights are closer to the bone. (Quotes above are from interviews with Andrew Klavan found here, here, here, here, and here, and from the City Journal article here.)
Klavan’s new book, The Truth and Beauty, is a lot like Klavan’s autobiography. It’s about literature, culture, politics, and faith, not as separate entities, but as interlocking, mutually influential aspects of the same organism, human life. Truth is the overarching animating spirit and test. Poetry matters to politics and politics matters to poetry and faith underlies them all.
The book is divided into three parts: The Problems of a Godless World, The Journey toward Solutions, and Reconstructing Jesus. In part one, Klavan records some of his own struggles with the faith that came to him late in his fifth decade. There are weird passages in the New Testament, Klavan confesses. For example, Jesus cures a blind man by placing spit in his eyes. Reading the Gospels through the lens of England’s Romantic poets, he reports, helped him to understand both better.
The Romantic poets, Klavan argues, lived in an era like our own. The Enlightenment’s glorious revolution in France turned out not to be so very Utopian after all; all those beheadings and such. The Romantic poets, at least long-lived ones like Wordsworth, had to figure out how to reconcile their early support for revolution with its excesses. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven! Wordsworth wrote about the French Revolution that ended with streets flowing with blood. Just so, today’s left must confront (or at least paper over) its own spectacular failures, for just one example, the fall of the Soviet Empire beginning in 1989. During the Romantic Era, as well as our own, feminists sought to dismantle gender roles, sexual mores, and the institution of marriage. In another parallel between the Romantic Era and our own, both the Cold War and the Napoleonic era involved proxy wars.
In his chapters on the Romantic poets, Klavan focuses on William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, and George Gordon, Lord Byron. Klavan humanizes these figures with anecdotes. Wordsworth could be a pompous ass; Coleridge was a motormouth, one of the last Renaissance men, and a drug addict, Byron and Shelley were free-love-spouting woman-abusers whose abuse rendered them quite literally lady killers. Shelley’s wife, Harriet, whom he abandoned for 16-year-old Mary Godwin, for example, committed suicide over him. Shelley had been expelled from Oxford for distributing atheist pamphlets. I can scarcely set bounds to my hatred of Christianity.
Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister and a member of these authors’ free love circle, wrote, The worshippers of free love not only preyed upon one another, but preyed equally upon their own individual selves turning their existence into a perfect hell … Under the influence of the doctrine and belief of free love, I saw the two first poets of England [Shelley and Byron] … become monsters of lying, meanness, cruelty and treachery.
Klavan also selects key passages from these authors’ works that help to advance his theme. Coleridge’s poem Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking Frankenstein, considered the pioneer science fiction novel, are treated in detail. Klavan also draws in more recent works, for example James Whales’ 1935 film Bride of Frankenstein. Klavan also talks, at length, about Shakespeare’s Hamlet, obviously not a product of the Romantic era – it was completed two hundred years before the Romantic Era began. But Hamlet, Klavan argues, helps the reader to understand his themes of individual authenticity vs. the individual as an actor performing a part. Always, truth is a unifying theme for Klavan.
Hamlet begins, Who’s there? The true Westerner, Klavan concludes, must decide that the who that is there is God, the Christian God. There are those today who call themselves Christian atheists, who want the values of Christianity but can’t believe in the religion itself … It won’t work. It can’t work. We need God to give us ground to stand on, and not just God, but our God, the Christian God, who will confirm the good values the generations of the West have discerned and learned to live by over time. But we can’t just choose belief if we don’t, in fact, believe. We need God truly … When we cry out to the universe, ‘Who’s there?’ we need to be able to hear the voice of some essential reality respond to us, I AM.
Part three, Reconstructing Jesus, was the most difficult part of Klavan’s book for me. I do not do well with allusive writing heavy on abstract nouns. Klavan writes, flesh is a language, a word, it speaks of a meaning, right or wrong, good or evil, our selves, our souls. I don’t understand that sentence, or others like it. I wish Klavan had followed up his more rarified pronouncements with concrete examples. Given my lack of understanding of this final portion, I am not equipped to assess whether or not Klavan adequately drew together the diverse strands of the book. In this section, too, though, there are some of Klavan’s gems that reach me, for example this observation on Utopianism, In order to make society perfect, you really have to kill all the people first.
My biggest problem with Klavan’s book is in its treatment of women. Klavan writes about seventeenth-century poet John Milton, who, like Shakespeare, was very much not of the Romantic Era. Milton was born roughly two hundred years before the Romantic Era began. In his long poem Paradise Lost, Milton reflects the Great Chain of Being. The Great Chain of Being was a hierarchy that medieval philosophers believed structured the universe. God was at the top; inanimate matter was at the bottom. Humans occupied the middle of the chain because humans are both material – made of flesh – and spiritual – endowed with an immortal soul. Adam, that is man, was higher in the hierarchy and closer to God. Eve, woman, was farther away from God than Adam, and closer to earth. Thus, women require men to mediate for them to God.
Any undermining of this hierarchical structure results in catastrophe. Women should submit to men, and allow men to conduct their spiritual lives. Women who upset this natural order destroy society. In Paradise Lost, men are made For contemplation and absolute rule. Women, Milton says, are to be attractive, soft, with golden hair that extends as a veil, down to the slender waist. Her hair curls …which implied subjection … coy … submissive. Women offer sweet, reluctant, amorous delay of access to their mysterious parts. This isn’t just a soft-porn, it’s also, to Milton, high theological truth. He for God only, she for God in him. Adam connects directly with God. Eve worships Adam, and that worship of a mortal man brings her closer to God.
Klavan writes, Without submission to the natural order, there is nothing left but to create new orders by Jacobin force. Jacobin force, of course, is an allusion to the French Revolution. Klavan says that Milton’s poem is meant to depict that power structure against which no rebellion can succeed: the world’s God-made and therefore absolute hierarchy … the rule of the sacred. The holy order of things. Man naturally rules and woman naturally obeys. After all, as Klavan points out, Ephesians 5:22 says, Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.
Klavan’s allusion to the Jacobins as ushering in chaos by championing women’s equal worth to men is inapt. Jean Jacques Rousseau was a favorite philosopher of the French Revolution. Rousseau was a critic of Christianity. Nevertheless, Rousseau’s attitude toward women is all too similar to Milton’s. Given that women are a source of danger, without men’s ruling hand, Rousseau wrote, men would be tyrannized by women. For, given the ease with which women arouse men’s senses … men would finally be their victims and would see themselves dragged to death without ever being able to defend themselves. Women must, therefore, be trained to serve man. Woman was specifically made to please man … it is the law of nature … woman is made to please and to be subjugated to man … she ought to make herself pleasing to him. That’s not from the Bible. That’s Rousseau.
Rousseau’s pupils, the Jacobins Klavan mentioned, abolished women’s clubs, and sought to exclude women from political and intellectual life. The Jacobins dismissed women’s intellectual abilities and emphasized women’s role as mothers (see here, here, and here). Among the Terror’s guillotined victims were Carmelite nuns. Last time I looked, Maximilien Robespierre was, as we now must say, a biological male. Jacobin Deputy Andre-Amar assessed women as ill-suited for elevated thoughts and serious meditations. Women were ‘destined by their very nature’ in all its expressions – biological, psychological, intellectual, moral – to engage in ‘private functions’ (like caring for their households, supervising their children’s education, counseling their husbands.) ‘Each sex … is called to the kind of occupation which is fitting for it; its action is circumscribed within this circle which it cannot break through because nature, which has imposed these limits on mankind, commands imperiously and receives no law.’ Andre-Amar voiced the Revolutionaries’ majority view. Women were not suited for full citizenship. Only men were.
Jacobins were hardly the only leftists or liberators who would agree with Milton about women’s appropriate place in the great chain of being. That place, of course, is below man, pleasing him. Milton said this in poetry; Stokely Carmichael was less poetic. Carmichael famously said that the position of women in the Civil Rights movement is prone. Fidel Castro allegedly slept with 35,000 women. I wash myself inside the bodies of my women, Mao Zedong said. Otherwise, he never brushed his teeth or washed his genitals. Imagine being one of his many-at-once young bed partners. The USSR’s Lavrentiy Beria was a serial rapist. Scream or not. It doesn’t matter, he told one victim he raped and then sent to solitary confinement in the Gulag. Saintly Gandhi slept with naked girls sixty years younger than he was in order to prove to himself his own spiritual superiority. Leo Tolstoy had a child by a serf on his estate, a woman in a slave-like position. He treated his wife shabbily. The more politically radical Tolstoy became, the worse he treated his wife. Then there’s Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, and the credible allegation that Martin Luther King laughed and egged on a colleague who raped a woman right in front of him. All these diverse men have been celebrated as famous liberators. All used women. Klavan’s fear that Jacobins would overturn society with the express purpose of elevating the status of women is not born out by history.
There is a text and a movement that offers an alternative view of women and their place. That book is the Bible, including passages that Klavan does not mention. Rebecca takes it upon herself to transfer the firstborn blessing from her older son Esau to her younger son Jacob, thus writing Jewish and Christian history. Naomi instructs Ruth to engineer Ruth’s marriage to Boaz. Ruth becomes an ancestress of Christ. Judith decapitates Holofernes. Esther defies Haman and manipulates Ahasuerus. Jochebed and Pharaoh’s daughter disobey multiple men to save Moses. Shiphrah and Puah disobey Pharoah to save Jewish babies. Rahab, a prostitute, defies soldiers of her own people to save Jews. Mary confers with no mortal man in her direct communion with the divine; her conversation with the ultimate gives us the Angelus, a prayer said daily. Mary voices the Magnificat. Mary orders Jesus to perform his first miracle. Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others enable Jesus’ ministry by underwriting it financially. Mary Magdalene is the apostle to the apostles, and is the first to share the good news. The Woman at the Well is also a preacher of the good news. Jesus has his longest conversation with the Woman at the Well; there is no husband there to provide Miltonian mediation between her and the divine. Junia and Priscilla are leaders in the early church. I wonder what Bible Klavan, C.S. Lewis, and John Milton have been reading that is full of meek little women, with slender waists and long blonde hair, who require men to do their spiritual work for them.
In contrast to these powerful Godly women, the Bible is unstinting in its depiction of the destructive power of male lust and contemptuous men who hope to dominate women. David suffers greatly for his lust for Bathsheba. Jacob suffers for favoring his hot wife, Rachel, over the plain one, Leah. According to Jewish tradition, Leah is the first person ever to say the prayer that Klavan says changed his life: Thank you, God. Daniel champions Susannah in defiance of the elders. Abraham’s exploitation of Hagar ends badly. Eli is contemptuous of Hannah, but Hannah’s prayer gives the Jews the prophet Samuel. The widow, by donating a mite, gives more to God than the richest or most powerful man. Nor does every Christian read Ephesians 5:22 as does Klavan. Marg Mowczko’s reading is much more egalitarian and respectful of women.
Klavan says the only happy marriages he knows are marriages in which women submit to men. Once, in a tiny, remote Polish village, I met a woman without a single tooth in her mouth. Her husband had knocked all the teeth out of her head in successive beatings. She did go to the priest; he offered no support. I met such women in remote Muslim villages in Africa and Buddhist and Hindu villages in Asia. I mention the remoteness of these villages because Klavan seems to think that modern capitalism or pervasive cultural leftism have caused all problems between men and women. The problem here is not Jacobins or the free market but misogyny, and there is nothing Christian about it.
If we are going to champion the West and the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is important that we not distort the unique gift that the West and the Judeo-Christian tradition have offered women. My ability to write this review is part of that gift.
Don’t let my insistence on the equal worth of women to the God of the Bible dissuade you from reading The Truth and Beauty. Andrew Klavan is a gifted writer, very funny, and insightful. Reading him really does feel like engaging in a conversation. My comments here are merely an extension of the conversation I had with him while reading his enjoyable book.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery.