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Asch Plots a Course to Redeem Culture

What is culture? And what is culture that is truly Catholic? These are the questions addressed by the Saint Austin Review, a British-American magazine devoted to Catholic culture. Launched in September 2002, StAR’s goal is to revive and promote all cultural forms that express Christian civilization and values.

At a time when Christianity is attacked by cultural relativism, such a project is vital, says Robert Asch, who co-edits StAR with writer Joseph Pearce.

“StAR is about implicit rather than explicit evangelizing. This is not a polemical magazine,” he explains. “Long-term, the project is to educate people about what culture is and what Catholicism is.”

For StAR, culture means everything that celebrates Christianity, so the magazine contains sections on videos and philosophy, new poetry and dead authors, history, theology, music reviews, and even science. Asch argues that such range is vital to place culture in context.

“You need to develop the big picture. That’s why it is important to have a variety of disciplines available and why we have a science column in the magazine written by Peter Hodgson, a nuclear physicist who formerly taught at Oxford University.

“Culture is broad. It includes music, food, literature, film, and philosophy. The magazine aims to foster an understanding of culture.”

So what is the connection between culture and religion? They’re inseparable, Asch claims, quoting Christopher Dawson, the British writer often called the greatest English-speaking Catholic historian of the twentieth century. Dawson devoted his life to the study of culture, underpinned by his belief that religion is “the motor of culture.”

“Dawson said that every culture derives from religion, and there is a religious nucleus to any real culture, without which you can’t understand what’s going on in a country,” Asch says. “Dawson’s technique was to study first the literature, architecture, and music of a country and later its history, philosophy, and religion. So Dawson’s starting point was what the culture had translated into.”

Published bimonthly, each issue of StAR is dedicated to a specific cultural theme. Scott Hahn has written on Thomas Aquinas. Giacomo Cardinal Biffi of Bologna penned a personal account of how he discovered J. R. R. Tolkien. Other StAR themes have included culture wars in Hollywood; the annual Holy Week processions in Spain; Russia, its culture, religion, and history; modern art; the anti- and pro-Christian case for Harry Potter; Mary; and a look at the Inklings, the group of Oxford-based writers that included C. S. Lewis and Tolkien. They, along with G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, are featured regularly in StAR, reflecting the interests of Asch’s co-editor, Joseph Pearce.

Pearce, who teaches literature and is writer-in-residence at Ave Maria College in Florida, has written several biographies of notable Catholic writers, including Tolkien, Belloc, and Chesterton. His book Literary Converts covered the faith journeys of writers such as Evelyn Waugh, Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Sayers, and poet Roy Campbell. Pearce’s most recent book, C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church, examines why Lewis never became a Catholic.

Often Catholic writers from England are more appreciated in America, says Asch: “English Catholic writers such as Chesterton, [John Henry] Newman, and [Ronald] Knox have far more credence in the U.S. and Europe than in England itself.” Their presence in the magazine is just one way in which StAR seeks to build upon the “special relationship” between England and America. Each issue contains “English Essays,” which are reflections on English writers, life, and Catholicism written by American Jesuit Fr. James V. Schall. Patrick G. D. Riley, a former journalist and philosophy professor, writes “Riley’s America,” a topical letter on affairs of note for British, Australian, and American Catholics.

“Despite the fact that the United States and the United Kingdom are very different in many ways, they have a lot of common,” explains Asch. “English-speaking continents have more influence on each other on a conscious level than we realize. Americans often tend to feel more at home in England than anywhere else in Europe.

“We wanted to get to know each other because the Americans often make excellent contributions that the English are often snobbish about, having the idea that Americans are very populist. On the other hand, at times Americans don’t realize that the English can, while appreciating their culture, express the occasional useful reservations.”

The third dimension to StAR is its European presence. For this, thirty-five-year-old Asch is ideally placed: He lives and works in northwest France, teaching history at Chavagnes International College, a boarding school for Catholic boys that provides a traditional British education coupled with orthodox Catholicism.

A fluent French speaker who lived for seven years in the Czech Republic, Asch is keen to introduce to readers little-known Catholic authors from Europe, such as Leon Bloy (1846–1917), a contemporary of Catholic French authors such as Charles Péguy, Georges Bernanos, and François Mauriac. “Bloy is a sort of cross between Baudelaire and Tertullian,” he says. ‘He had a huge influence on people like the theologian Jacques Maritain and the composer Olivier Messaien, yet he is virtually unknown in English.”

Another of Asch’s heroes is Hugo von Hoffmanstahl (1874–1929), the Austrian poet and dramatist best known in English-speaking circles for translating the librettos of Richard Strauss: “He was perhaps the greatest German poet in the last hundred years. T. S. Eliot was a great admirer of his. A Catholic who was a quarter Jewish and a quarter Italian, Hoffmanstahl was a child prodigy who was writing lyrics at the age of seventeen. At thirty, he stopped writing poetry to write drama instead.”

Hoffmanstahl was a “revert,” or lapsed Catholic who returned to the faith, dying a tertiary of St. Francis. His dramatic works reflected contemporary cultural influences such as Sigmund Freud, but he also wrote Christian morality plays influenced by Spanish baroque playwrights such as Calderón de Barca, whose work is riddled with Christianity.

“One of Hoffmanstahl’s Christian morality plays opens the annual Salzburg Festival in Austria, which he co-founded with Richard Strauss,” says Asch. “Though he broke with the symbolist movement, he was influenced by the religious school of Russian symbolists. In Russian, the word symbol has a meaning akin to sacrament, and this is reflected in Hoffmanstahl’s work. He was very interested in cultural Catholicism—a classic example of Catholicism being receptive to secularism and transforming it.”

To Asch, Hoffmanstahl is the paradigm of how Catholicism, according to Dawson’s principle, is adept at infiltrating and transforming local cultures while at the same time remaining truly universal: “Dawson believed that Catholicism was an incarnation of religion, which incarnates itself in local culture. We see this principle at work, for example, in the fact that the Church has many different liturgical rites.

“Non-Catholics can feel uncomfortable with this. For example, they can feel uncomfortable with literature that does not seem sufficiently or solely spiritual, but this attitude can lead to an imbalance between Christianity and its manifestations—or to a sect-like mentality where Christians live utterly apart from the world. Catholicism has incarnated in the arts, theater, and institutions of its local cultures.”

Asch’s own conversion to Catholicism is a case in point. A practicing Reformed Jew, he grew increasingly aware of Catholicism while living in the Czech Republic in the 1990s. Despite a half-century of Communism, the country, he says, still bore the traces of its pre-Communist Catholic culture. “I was surrounded by implicitly Catholic spirituality. I had a number of Catholic friends and was surprised to meet Catholics interested in Judaism. I was impressed also by the Church’s role in opposing Communists, something I could relate to strongly.

“Most Czech poetry is spiritual. The cultural background of most Czechs was Roman Catholic, at least until the Communists took power in the 1940s. Twentieth-century Czech poetry is probably comparable with English in the sheer bulk of good work of moderns comparable with Eliot, [Walter] de la Mare, and [W. H.] Auden.

“But go to poetry bookshops in England, and virtually the only Czech material you’ll find is Kundera, Havel and people such as Miroslav Holub, a biologist, poet, and dissident Communist. Most Czech literature in translation fits the ideological horizons of the people wishing to translate it. They are, for instance, happy with Holub because he is left-wing but a dissident, not a hard-line Communist. But the way most people in the West feel is not how people think over there. Ask any Czech who they consider to be the five greatest poets of the twentieth century. None will say Holub.”

Asch deems it “shoddy scholarship” to dismiss writers because of their political views, however extreme: “I want to get away from pigeonholing and ideological clap-trap. English Catholics tend to think in terms of left-wing and right-wing. The minute you begin to think in those terms, historically it’s completely out of sync. The fact is that a lot of people either side of these questions wouldn’t fit into the contemporary scene at all.”

Asch has a taste for cultural debate, something he ascribes partially to his cosmopolitan Jewish upbringing in Toronto and London as the son of two opera singers. With a half-Christian mother, Asch says, he was more assimilated culturally than other Jews but recalls a Jewish environment as involving “get-togethers to discuss and argue anything and everything, and culture is on the agenda. There was a very healthy respect for culture in my family background.”

His conversion to Catholicism at age twenty-seven was prompted in part by a disagreement with a female rabbi over the nature of the Messiah. “I was brought up a Reformed Jew, and this tradition presents itself to young Reformed Jews as being more practical. My conversion was due to a number of things, but one was an increasing dissatisfaction with Reformed Judaism. It seemed that when things got difficult, Reformed would conform.

“One day I heard a woman rabbi in London explaining that her little daughter had expressed fears about the Messiah’s coming destroying a nice happy world. So the rabbi told her she preferred to talk of Messianic Days rather than the advent of the Messiah. And I felt this was not acceptable, that it went against the Jewish conception of the Messiah as an individual. To judge the issue, my brother and I felt it would be a good thing to read the Old Testament cover to cover to find out what it was about—and then to read the New Testament to find out about Jesus.

“In the Old Testament, we found that the central.aspects of the drama lay in tension between the chosen people and the breaking of the covenant—the law that God had handed over to them. Reformed Judaism was blurring the distinction about the covenant. At the end of the Old Testament were prophecies about the Messiah suffering.

“When I read the New Testament I was taken aback. I found it was not what I expected it to be. If open-minded Jews would read the New Testament, they would find it very Jewish. In religion class at school, Christ and the Pharisees came across as a debate between Christians and Jews. But, reading it straight through, it is clear that Jesus’ manner of debating was very rabbinic. Especially for someone from a Reformed background, I found Jesus’ arguments not offensive in the least. Another factor for me was that, according to Orthodox Judaism, the religious canon can be added to, but for 2,500 years there have been no major miracles in Orthodox Judaism.”

This crucial discovery of the gospel hit Asch toward the end of a long journey toward Christianity that was first sparked while discovering as a schoolboy the writings of Chesterton and later Lewis. “When I read Lewis’ Surprised by Joy, it talks about how, when he was an agnostic in World War I and confined to hospital, he read Chesterton and thought him the most sensible person in the world bowing under Christianity. That what was pretty much what I felt. I thought Chesterton was on the money apart from this Christianity thing.”

Asch rethought his ideas on the Messiah while working as an usher at a Christmas performance of Handel’s Messiah in Toronto. “It really hit me as a specifically Christian thing, and I began to ask myself whether there wasn’t something to this. Judaism proposes man as fallen and says there will be a Redeemer, and the last chapter of history is the messianic chapter. I began to think, If there is a Messiah, could there be a more plausible one than Christ?

“Another influence was Charles Dickens, probably my favorite author. The Christmas Carol had a big influence on me as a boy. I felt there must be something to this, because, even though all people deride the commercialization of Christmas, people do behave better and in a more Christ-like fashion during the season.”

Impressed with the Church’s stance on pro-life issues, he eventually began to take instruction in Catholicism during holidays in London. “As a Jew I was against abortion. To a non-Christian, the Church is the only institution in the world that stands up and says abortion is wrong. That made a big impression on me.” His eventual reception into the Church nine years ago felt, Asch says, “like a completion. I felt I was not turning my back on Judaism.”

Asch’s own story is a neat summary of StAR’s mission: It is the story of a man evangelized through culture, following a path via Dickens, Lewis, Chesterton, and Handel that led him straight to the gospel. He stand as proof—if any was needed—of the place Catholic culture can play in evangelizing a world in danger of forgetting Christianity.

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