Robert Hugh Benson's 1907 dystopian novel turns out to be prophetic
It’s a somewhat obscure apocalyptic novel, much overlooked since its publication in 1907, and yet it comes with a recommendation that just about any best-selling author would covet: the spiritual leader of the whole world says it’s a good read. And not just the current pope, the previous one too.
Pope Francis raised eyebrows in 2013 and again in 2015 when he recommended Robert Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World to the faithful as a book that depicts a “globalization of hegemonic uniformity.” Similarly, then-Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, referred to the Universalism depicted in Lord of the World in an address he gave in Milan in 1992.
What makes this book so remarkable?
The world depicted by Benson is eerily similar to our own: rapid travel and communication systems, weapons of mass destruction, and a materialistic outlook that denies the supernatural and purports to elevate humanity to the highest place. In a way, Lord of the World is more timely now than it was when Benson wrote it in the early 20th century.
When Pope Francis spoke of the book as showing the dangers of globalization and what he calls “ideological colonization,” he did so in the context of his visit to the Philippines. The “colonization” he refers to is a process in which economically and politically powerful cultures such as those in America and in Western Europe impose a materialistic and secular worldview on the developing world.
When you read Lord of the World, it’s easy to see the prophetic character of the book, to see the technological predictions that have materialized, to see even some of the political predictions come true; we think of other stories such as 1984 and Brave New World. Indeed, in the edition recently released by Ave Maria Press, the excellent introductory essays describe Robert Hugh Benson’s vision as one that inspired the genre of dystopian fiction, and they also give background on Benson’s conversion from Anglican cleric to Catholic priest.
The story itself concerns the ascent of Antichrist to world power, primarily in the person of the enigmatic Julian Felsenburgh, a mysterious American senator who rises to worldwide prominence by negotiating a long-desired world peace. Any opposition to Felsenburgh and the world order that he leads melts away: nations beg Felsenburgh to be their leader, and people embrace him by mass acclamation. The only ones who remain in opposition are the few members of a remnant Church, led by Fr. Percy Franklin, who is elected Pope Sylvester III and who looks strikingly similar to Felsenburgh.
In the midst of this large-scale story of materialism, technological advancement and world government battling a seemingly defeated Church, it is easy to overlook a subtle spiritual reality: a world that denies the supernatural does not cease to be influenced by supernatural forces but rather simply blinds itself to those influences. The government ministers, the average citizens on the street, apostate priests who join the humanitarian movement all fall in with Felsenburgh out of emotion and false hope; they lose not only the perceived superstitions and moral chains of Christian faith, but they lose their ability to recognize the spirit of Antichrist come into the world. In this way, Lord of the World is reminiscent of another novel that recounts the entrance of Satan into an atheistic world that denies his existence: Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.
A world that fails to recognize the supernatural, a world that seeks to elevate humanity to the highest order is one into which Antichrist can enter and operate more easily. Man does not lose his need for hope; Benson’s depiction of the mass movement to embrace and project hopes onto Felsenburgh presages the mass movements that engulfed world affairs throughout the 20th century and up to the present moment. Viewed in this light, we can see the character of Mabel Brand, who undergoes a profound alienation from the humanitarian mass movement, as a sort of conversion story: she comes to see the reality of evil in the world and flees from it, while halfway around the world, Felsenburgh and Pope Sylvester meet in a final cataclysmic battle between good and evil.
Perhaps this is why the popes have suggested we read the book. We ought not only be cautious to avoid using the work of globalization for the purposes of propagating policies that harm people in the developing world, but we must also bear in mind the supernatural reality that Good and Evil are real, and that to deny the Devil is to give him place to operate.
Colin O’Brien works in the communications department of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and periodically updates his personal blog, Fallen Sparrow.