What are the lasting events of our age?

The great artists and writers of today may well be, in part, names that are now totally unfamiliar or unknown to us

There are times when, having spent hours reading through the culture pages of the newspapers and magazines, one wishes to be transported into the 23rd Century to see what the people of that coming time think and say about the culture of the 21st Century.

If we could, I think we would in for a few surprises.

When we ourselves look back over the last two centuries or so, our era tends to pick out and praise people like Paul Gauguin or Vincent van Gogh, Herman Melville or John Clare. These were artists and writers who their own time either ignored or neglected. We now see them as moving against the spirit of the time, as the true discoverers of the new and the liberating. The academic writers and artists of the day are now unknown to most of us.

In Melville’s case, his first books had the exoticism of the South Sea and were well received. But Moby Dick, a failure in its time, is now considered one of the central literary works of US literature. His later books were entirely disregarded and he had to publish his poems for himself.

One could fill this column with similar examples but the point is that, when we look around our celebrity culture of today to the suddenly fashionable young novelists who are the product of some university writers’ school or we see Damien Hirst or similar installation artists who fill the Turner Prize exhibition every year, we sense that these are perhaps not the lasting talents of the age.

No; I suspect that, for the 23rd Century, the great artists and writers of today may well be, in part, names that are now totally unfamiliar or unknown to us, but whose essential brilliance and integrity will be seen in future centuries as self-evident. Learned critics of the future will doubtless talk about how the critics of today actually betrayed the cause of art and literature in their jejune judgments, in their cliquish affectations and their exploitative attitude to wealthy collectors or to influential public galleries.

William Blake was also unknown. It was not until the biography of Gilchrist in 1865 that he emerged and, even then, his poems were “improved” and regularised by their editors such as Rossetti and W.B. Yeats. They accepted there was some wonderfully genius there, but they were still afraid to let it alone.  

But of course, the future is never quite what we image. In Jules Verne (pictured), H.G. Wells and other pioneers of science fiction in Victorian time, the futures of their imaginations were in fact renovations of their own era. Jules Verne’s Paris in the 21st Century, for instance, which was only published in recent years, is a fantasy which goes nowhere near the reality of the city of the Pompidou Centre or La Défense.


So it is with religion too. Many people, in seeking to imagine the future of the Church, see only in some way a citation of the 19th Century body they love or others an only slightly-modified version of the liberal views of today.

But it will be completely different in the 23rd Century under the Chinese Popes who will have removed the Vatican to South Africa, all the better to serve the majority of mankind. A fantasy perhaps, but recall the passage from Matthew 21:43 that we read recently at Mass, that one about the “stone rejected by the builders that became the keystone”.

All too many people think of the Church as they know it, even with all its conflicts, as a settled thing, a permanent thing. So it is, but the people who run it are not permanent. There was in the text a final warning to those who take their present positions too much for granted, the chief priests and Pharisees so to speak of our day: “I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people who will produce the fruit of the Lord.”

We know what happened in such human activities as art and literature; the same can happen in the realm of religion as well.