February 2004By Dale Vree
Dale Vree is Editor of the NOR, and a convert from Anglo-Catholicism.
An American Conversion: One Mans Discovery of Beauty and Truth in Times of Crisis. By Deal W. Hudson. Crossroad. 185 pages. $22.95.
I got this long-distance call out of the blue from a guy who appeared to be Deal Hudsons personal publicity director, asking me if Id like to review Mr. Hudsons book, An American Conversion. Mildly shocked, I wondered why Hudson would want me, of all people, to review it. Was Hudson thinking of the Brendan Behan line, Theres no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary? Or was it the Mae West line, Its better to be looked over than overlooked? Well, I didnt ask.
I had been aware of the book, but was disinclined to read and review it. But the publicity director was a really nice guy, and we had an amiable conversation. Since Im a really nice guy too, I said, oh, what the heck, send it along.
But the publicity director wanted a firm commitment that Id review the book. I had to say I couldnt promise that since I hadnt even seen or dipped into the book. Friendly fellow that he was, he said hed send it anyway, and so I resolved to at least give the book a fair and honest read.
Now, Ive read scads of conversion stories to Catholicism with profit, so I didnt really feel the need to read another. But I admit I was tantalized by the prospect of finding out more about who this Deal Hudson really is. So I read the book with an eye for finding out about Deal Hudson, the man.
In this regard, I didnt learn much other than that he regards himself as handsome and likes sex, both asserted in 1980, before he became a Catholic and before he got married. While he defends literature and movies that are sexually explicit, the only thing he says about himself is: I tried to create an artificial intensity in my relationships. No doubt this led to unfortunate and destructive behavior on my part.
Well, these are slim pickins. Since this wont suffice for a review, Im gonna have to discuss Hudsons ideas.
In Chapter One he says, I dont want my story [of conversion to Rome] to be used against the denomination that I converted from [Southern Baptist] . But thats pretty hard to do, for if you wont criticize your prior ecclesiastical affiliation, it would be hard to know why you converted to something else. What was lacking? Not surprisingly, Hudson goes into great detail about whats wrong with the Southern Baptists. In a nutshell, theyre hostile to philosophy, culture, and beauty, and are anti-intellectual. Ive spent some time around Southern Baptist types, and most of what he says rings true. Hudson expresses it poignantly: [As a Southern Baptist] I felt guilty about my mind, my hunger for learning, and about my love of music. This is the most serious and paralyzing guilt of all, because it is guilt about being human guilt about exercising the potencies that God himself placed within you guilt about life itself.
So, what drew Hudson to Catholicism? It was primarily the lure of beauty. There is little theology in this book; rather, Hudson appeals to his philosophy of aesthetics. Unfortunately, he makes extravagant claims for beauty: The aesthetic, in its foundational sense, is the doorway to all knowledge and the acquisition of all value. This does present significant problems. Lets focus on a few.
· Catholicism isnt the only beautiful religion. There is also Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and so forth. Why did he pick Catholicism over them? Were not told.
· If beauty is the doorway to all knowledge and all value, shouldnt we choose our religion on the basis of which one is the most beautiful? Surely many people would say that all of the above-named religions are more beautiful than Catholicism is nowadays. Of course, all of this begs the question of whether we really can evaluate the truth claims of a religion in terms of the beauty we see in it.
· And what is beauty? Hudson tells us he likes the Beatles, Ravel, and Debussy. I dont much care for them, finding them effete and bloodless. In fact, I positively dislike the Beatles always have. But then Im no aesthete. Hudson says bad taste is no little matter. Uh oh. Do I lack good taste? Have I revealed myself to be a philistine? Or maybe just maybe is beauty often in the eye of the beholder or the ear of the listener?
Hudson was also attracted to Catholicism by Thomas Aquinas. While reading Aquinas he came across this sentence: So everything that exists is good. It was Hudsons epiphany. As he tells it: I was sitting beneath a tree and a bird feeder. A redbird had arrived for a feeding . As I turned that phrase over and over in my mind, everything that exists is good, the redbird began to sing and somehow that phrase was taken up into the birds song, and for a moment (I dont know how long) the bird was singing the saints words, the words and the song were one and the same thing . That day the day of the vision and the song has marked the rest of my life. With that single idea Aquinas set me on the final road to conversion and confirmation. Hudson says hes not a mystic; still, thats quite an aesthetic experience!
Now, when Aquinas said, So everything that exists is good, he had certain (debatable) philosophical reasons for saying so, but Hudson omits the background reasoning, and all were left with is So everything that exists is good.
We must remember that Hudson came from the Southern Baptist Convention, where there is a strong belief in the depravity of man and nature. But to say baldly that everything that exists is good sounds like a wild overreaction. Are earthquakes, rattlesnakes, black widow spiders, cancer cells, Mein Kampf, gulags, abortion mills, whorehouses, and drug dens all good? If you have to believe that to become a Catholic, I cant imagine anyone becoming a Catholic.
Hudson frequently mentions von Balthasar, the theologian of beauty. Hudson approvingly quotes Balthasar: Whoever sneers at her [beautys] name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past whether he admits it or not can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love. I do wonder if Hudson can, or Balthasar could, cite even one individual who sneered at beauty and then was unable to pray and love. Isnt that a judgment only God can make?
Curiously, just two pages later Hudson asserts that Satan retains the beauty of his existence. Are we then not allowed to sneer at Satan? And if Satan is beautiful in his existence, then everything is beautiful, nothing is ugly, and the very concept of beauty loses all meaning. People like to say everyone is special. If so, then no one is special, by the very definition of the word special. Likewise, not everything can be beautiful or good.
Hudson also allows (one page later) that The moral meaning of beauty is intrinsically ambiguous: which is to say, beauty can lead us to heaven or hell, and Satan uses beauty to seduce us away from God. Still, on the same page, he insists that Any experience of beauty opens a wound that can be healed only by contact with a greater beauty, a greater good (italics added). I would add: or a greater evil. Just ask a drug addict or a sex addict what led him to his addiction: It was his initial experiences with what he thought was beauty.
Then, two pages later, Hudson asserts that beauty will save the world. But if Satan is beautiful and seduces us with beauty, we could just as easily say that beauty will damn the world.
Oddly, Hudson also speaks of the heresy of emotivism, that is, identifying our feeling states with our beliefs. But he directs this barb against the emotionalism of Southern Baptist services. But when Hudson says beauty will save the world, isnt this just a high-class rendition of Southern Baptist emotionalism? Isnt it just a refined version of the heresy of emotivism?
Hudson admits that what I believe about my own experience [of beauty] does not prove anything in itself. Thats right, it doesnt. So what is this book really about? Who knows?
Hudsons journey to Catholicism was also aided by what he calls the Catholic novel. Of all the novelists I read on my way into the Church, says Hudson, none touched me more deeply that Julian Green. Yet Hudson says that Greens novels are in no way written to express a Catholic message. Go figure.
Hudson quotes a letter written by the homosexual Green: Drag a writer away from his sin and he no longer writes . Is sin necessary to his works? Who would dare say such a thing? But remove sin and you remove the works. Hudson comments: Green is absolutely correct: avoid the sin and you kill the creative imagination of the artist. And Hudson marshals Jacques Maritain for his purposes: He [Maritain] defended the freedom of the artist from the demand of moralists to avoid the depictions of sin. The habit of the fine artist, he argued, is ordered to the making of beautiful things . Again you notice how Hudson links sin with beauty.
Beauty led Hudson away from the Southern Baptists and to Catholicism. But he links beauty to sin and regards beauty as a child of sin (and sin is of course the child of Satan). Hudson wants Christians to appreciate beauty. But with this sales pitch, any good Christian would want to flee beauty. Hudsons argument is self-defeating and self-refuting, and thats a real pity.
Now, I generally agree with Hudsons critique of the Southern Baptists. But by time this book ends, the Southern Baptist types win the argument hands down. And thats a real tragedy. (If youd like to lead a fundamentalist or evangelical Protestant to Catholicism, do not give him this book.)
Its said that all roads lead to Rome. Indeed, my road may not be your road. Therefore, I want to respect the integrity of each and every road.
I want to honor Hudsons road too. But how can I? How could any intelligent Catholic?
Yes, there is a road to Rome marked Beautiful Boulevard. But Hudson has failed to illuminate it.
Now, you may think that Ive torched this book because of the tensions between Crisis (of which Hudson is the Publisher) and the NEW OXFORD REVIEW (of which I am the Editor), deriving in its origins from Crisiss attack on Michael S. Roses book Goodbye, Good Men. Let me assure you that this is not the case, even though I realize that people will believe whatever they want to.
If anything, I have downplayed my criticisms. But not to downplay things, I must say that this is one of the most irrational and contradictory books from a reputable publisher I have read in my entire life. When all is said and done, the book simply makes no sense. Other orthodox Catholic reviewers would probably not want to say this, given that Hudson is such an influential man in our circles. But because of the tensions between Crisis and the NOR, I can say that, for I have nothing to lose.
I dont doubt that Hudson is an intelligent man. I know that Hudson has done yeoman service on behalf of the Catholic cause, and I refuse to doubt the authenticity of his conversion. So the most charitable conclusion I can come to is that Hudson is a busy man and this book was written in great haste, and that there must be more much more to his conversion story than this.