Encountering Christ Through Coleridge

Andrew Klavan, the Daily Wire contributor and novelist, has lofty aims for his newest book, The Truth and the Beauty. He wants to understand the mind of God. He begins, though, with a relatable story. He recalls a conversation with his son in which he stated that he doesn’t fully understand the Sermon on the Mount—a segment in the Christian Bible where Jesus of Nazareth proclaims that the poor, meek, merciful, mournful, and persecuted are the truly blessed in the kingdom of God. His son suggests a different approach to understanding difficult parts of the Bible. “Maybe the problem,” the younger Klavan offers, “is that you are trying to understand a philosophy instead of trying to know a man.” 

This question set the father down the curious path of writing The Truth and Beauty, which explores the Christian worldview through the lens of 19th-century romanticism. Klavan seeks to penetrate the internal perspective of Christ, in order to understand what it means to fully live out the Christian life. This combination of romanticism and Christianity is odd, but it serves as the preface to an exploration of the internal experience of being. It slowly builds up the romantics as a methodology to see the world, and then uses that lens to look at the Bible with fresh eyes. 

Andrew Klavan has transitioned his career over the past two decades. He was known in the 1990s as a successful novelist and screenwriter, having written books and films like True Crime, Don’t Say a Word, and Shock to the System. He gave up opportunities in his successful writing career to transition into a political writer and Christian apologist, hosting The Andrew Klavan Show at The Daily Wire, and working on the pro-life polemic film Gosnell. The Truth and Beauty is Klavan’s most recent non-fiction work, following his 2016 memoir The Great Good Thing, which explored his conversion from secular Judaism to Christianity over the course of his adult life. 

The Truth and Beauty is a joyful read, helped in part by Klavan’s playful, humorous prose. At one point he proclaims, “I believe in all my heart that God is in three persons… but if it turns out he’s five guys named Moe, I’m not going to cancel my vacation. I’m not a theologian.” He says that the way to become a successful French philosopher is to “say many false things beautifully.”  

The romantics were struggling with problems similar to ours. They were reactionary thinkers and artists living in the aftermath of the great scientific and political changes that resulted in the French Revolution.

The heart of The Truth and Beauty, though, is Klavan’s focus on trying to fully come to terms with the inner life of Christ. He wants to live out the Christian life more fully, and he has found a unique path by using the ideology of romanticism as a lens to help him imagine what Christ thought as he moved through the world. He hopes that this reconstruction might inspire the moral growth of fellow Christians to help them seek a similar path. 

“I understand that discussing these writers might seem like a peculiar path to understanding Christ,” Klavan writes. “And yet again and again, as I reread the Gospels, it was their voices that spoke to me, their poetry that broke through quirks and limitations of mere reason, and let me feel the savior as a presence, a man whom I might truly come to know.”

Why does he choose romanticism as his lens? Partly, he does so because the romantics were struggling with problems similar to ours. They were reactionary thinkers and artists living in the aftermath of the great scientific and political changes that resulted in the French Revolution. The horror of that experience set upon the hearts of the romantics—religious and secular alike—the conviction that something was missing and needed to be rebuilt. 

The romantics who didn’t die young or commit suicide—primarily the English poet laureate William Wordsworth—found that the path they had chosen drew them back to Christianity. They wanted to build a new world in the wreckage of the old world, and accidentally inspired their descendant poets to return to Christianity by rebuilding the concepts and enchantment that made religion possible—inspiring later evangelistic writers like C.S. Lewis to convert. 

For the Christian, the romantic path can be fraught. Some contemporary romantic scholars would argue that the spirituality of romanticism was a secular alternative to Christianity, and that it helped erode religious systems. Klavan makes this clear throughout the book, exploring the emotionally fraught lives of the romantics who frequently fell into lives of hedonism and despair, leaving abandoned families and suicides in their wake. The romantics were both reactionary and revolutionary, and their work can inspire religiosity and secularism depending on how you read it. Spirituality though can be a path to Christ in and of itself, as many pagans and atheists have found themselves walking the pilgrimage of Christianity. Klavan, like Wordsworth, Mary Shelley, and Lewis before him, sees this path through works of romantic poetry, arguing that the vision that creates a viable alternative to Christianity can also draw people back to Christianity and give them a new way to look at it.

Klavan sets down this path by following a long line of thought from the Protestant Reformation to the Victorian era, exploring how radical ideas emerged in English poetry as a result of secularization and radicalization. He explores writers and artists like William Shakespeare, John Milton, Edmund Burke, William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, Benjamin Haydon, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, and John Keats to show how their insights into mind and matter can provide a lens for the Christian to understand Christ. 

Klavan gives a lot of attention to Wordsworth and Coleridge, the two most overtly religious of the romantics and the founders of the romantic movement. Wordsworth and Coleridge revolutionized the world of poetry with the publication of their collaborative poetry collection Lyrical Ballads in 1798, in which Klavan sees, “the idea of the book was this… to reunite flesh and spirit, nature and meaning, through the human imagination.” They succeeded by, “depicting the human imagination as a repetition of the finite mind of the eternal act of creation.”  

Through poems such as “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Lines Written A Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,” Coleridge and Wordsworth respectively lamented the cruel state of human nature, the consequences of cruelty, and the departure of the Edenic childlike state of humanity lost in the fall, and concurrently in the destruction of “Christian unity” and “Europe’s childhood”, embodied in an abandoned Abbey. 

Coleridge and Wordsworth were not traditional Christians at the time they wrote Lyrical Ballads. Coleridge spent many years of his young life as a Unitarian preacher and Wordsworth was described as a “semi-atheist” at the time. The poems they conceived together through their collaboration brought meaning to the ordinary and saw the transcendent beauty of nature, uniting flesh and spirit together as two parts of the whole in the western mind—in stark contrast to the materialism of their age. “Coleridge would bring the imagination of man into nature, and Wordsworth would recreate nature in the image of man’s imagination,” said Klavan. 

Lyrical Ballads inspired the work of the later romantics like Keats, Shelley, and Lord Byron, who furthered what Klavan calls “traditional concepts, schemes, and values which had been based on the relation of the Creator to his creature and creation,” but also tried to, “reframe those ideas as part of the human mind or consciousness and its transactions with nature.”

The romantics weren’t a direct path to Christianity, but they were building their artwork against the flow of history.

Klavan then ties these themes back to our modern political circumstances. The book slows for extended digressions about topical issues such as abortion, feminism, moral relativism, and revolutionary politics that emphasize the utility of the romantic methodology. He depicts our modern world as one that the romantics feared—barren, rebellious, and unable to assert the nature of ultimate goodness, much like the aftermath of the French Revolution.  

The romantics weren’t a direct path to Christianity, but they were building their artwork against the flow of history. “It is often said that the Romantic generations failed in the underlying mission to create a new world in the ruins of the old,” says Klavan. “But without the sanction of those creeds—without the full sense of a realm beyond nature, a realm of truth that nature only represents—their system could not stand.” The romantics were not prophets but Klavan recognizes that the road they laid down depends on Christ and “brings us back to him, sadder, wiser for having traveled through the wilderness to reach his throne.” 

Using that knowledge and enchantment, Klavan builds his arguments up to a 60-page exhortation that ties the themes and problems he saw through the eyes of the romantics, into the inner life of Christ. The book is forced to do a lot of setup in order to make this premise work. Two-thirds of the book is dedicated just to explaining the history of romanticism as an artistic movement and its implications, making the reading experience rather roundabout and long-winded, if well informed.  

The final part of the book tries to apply Coleridge’s romantic philosophy to the inner life of Christ. Klavan wants readers to experience the world through his eyes in such a way that they become more like Christ, understanding and living out his actions. 

Coleridge’s philosophy was complicated, often not fully written down for posterity, but Klavan says the idea “is that Christ is the model and perfection of that experience, a true melding of flesh and spirit, life and Logos, man and God.” We can know the inner sensation of our minds— the experience of faith and beauty—is true, according to Coleridge, by living in accordance with our experiences. 

Klavan begins to see the world through a perspective where mind, matter, and language are all expressions of supernatural will, seeing that we begin to act out the Kingdom of Heaven, and become more like Christ as we follow in his footsteps. “Jesus sometimes seems perplexed by our inability to see what he sees and to do the amazing things he does. The possibilities are so obvious to him, he is frustrated we are so blind… The full truth—the Logos—is right there in front of us. It’s so clear, how can we miss it?” Klavan continues, “Our lives are meant to express the truth and beauty which is woven into the fabric of God’s creation.” 

It is in this framing that Klavan succeeds in fulfilling his promise of using the romantics to understand Christ, in a roundabout process. He offers a powerful and haunting vision of creation where the blessed truly are the poor and persecuted. He comes to understand that matter is the language of the Logos—the mind of God. We must live it out to understand it. In doing so, we embrace the joy and fullness of creation and live the life that Christ describes as the Kingdom of Heaven—abundant and eternal. 

Jesus is not an idol. He is a moveless statue of a god. He is fully a man who fully embodied God. He lived once in time as we do now. He grew and developed himself as everyman must. But he was perfect as his father in heaven is perfect. He was sinless: he did not miss the target. He came into himself perfectly.

The Christian must make himself like unto a child, not in mind but in heart. Klavan is ultimately skeptical that such a change, fully embodied, would change the world. He doesn’t foresee a mass restoration of Christianity. While he sees the truth of his beliefs, he is realistic in his expectations and expects a future filled with tragedy and confusion. The materialist worldview continues marching, and the spiritual awakening of the few cannot turn that tide. He sees a world with the church in decline, where telling the truth may result in persecution. 

That life is the life of Christ, though. In Klavan’s view, it is necessary to embrace every aspect, to fully live it out. It may be tragic to be rejected by the world, but it is fully better to die in truth and beauty than to live without being able to answer the question “what is truth?”