Malcolm Muggeridge, “A Third Testament”

This excellent 1976 book by Malcolm Muggeridge is a little over 200 pages long (no index or footnotes) and lavishly illustrated, with all of the color illustrations being works by William Blake. There was a television series by the same name, produced in association with Time-Life Films and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation among others, and the book is dedicated to its two producers (who were also two of its directors). The author describes the text as a collection of the series’ scripts (13).

The book’s organization is straightforward: an introduction, followed by a chapter each on six famous Christians, namely St. Augustine, Blaise Pascal, William Blake, Soren Kierkegaard, Leo Tolstoy, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And what is the common denominator among these six? Muggeridge notes in his introduction (14) that initially he “had seen them singly and separately as six characters in search of God, and as such of great interest, and a formative influence on my own thinking and questing.” But, he continues, on reflection he realized later that each also played a role as one of “God’s spies” (the quote is from King Lear, supplied as the introduction’s epigraph) — that is, each of the six, albeit in different ways, bravely advanced Christianity while living in a world that was (and is) hostile to it.

In all events, the six men chosen are each extremely interesting and, each in his own way, inspiring. And I think the idea of presenting biographical sketches of interesting and inspiring Christians is brilliant. It certainly strengthens me to have heroes.

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I enjoyed each chapter, but of course I was especially interested in the one on Pascal (see name of this blogsite). I love Muggeridge’s discussion of the Pensees, and noted in particular this paragraph (77):

Indeed, I consider that it was a beneficent, if not miraculous, circumstance that Pascal was unable to proceed beyond the notes. The full work, had he lived to complete it, might well have been too massive, too definitive, too dogmatic in its final conclusions, to appeal, as the Pensees have, to all the stragglers and vagrants, like myself, similarly questing. Might it not also have lacked something of the quality I find most delectable: a beautiful skepticism, contrasting so joyously with the sentimentality and credulity of scientific humanism, which actually takes seriously man’s ridiculous pretention to shape his own destiny, pursue his own happiness, construct his own well being?

The chapter on Pascal ends this way (82-83):

What Pascal bequeathed us as a permanent possession is, in Abbe Steinmann’s words, the invaluable “inventory of eternal problems” that he drew up. Also, his incomparable picture of man — ourselves — confronting an empty, silent and illimitable universe, in which the only choices before man are this emptiness and the crucified Christ. This being so, it is fitting that the only certain likeness we have of Pascal is his death mask [pictured].

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Two additional notes:

  • I must say that, of the six men considered, William Blake seems the oddest choice and yet is the one who is allotted the most pages. Perhaps it is because he is the only other Brit (the others are North African, French, Danish, Russian, and German)! ┬áBlake seems to me also to be the one most like Muggeridge. By the way, he is the only one of the six who was happily married and, in this regard, I’ll note one autobiographical aside that the author, a one-time Lothario (prior to his conversion), makes in the chapter on St. Augustine (37): “‘There’s nothing so powerful,’ [St. Augustine] said when he was a Bishop, ‘in drawing the spirit of man downwards as the caresses of a woman.’ He was speaking from experience and I, for what it’s worth, endorse his opinion.”
  • Muggeridge is a terrific writer and always entertaining and thought-provoking. But I’ll end by noting that, while eloquent and powerful, he is not always logical and convincing, and sometimes he baffles. The most glaring instance of the latter in this book are those passages where — it seems to me, and no doubt in light of his revulsion with both the decadent West and totalitarian East — he does not fully concede the primacy of stopping Hitler, even seeming to look askance at Bonhoeffer’s decision to join a plot to kill the Fuhrer (see, e.g., 26-27). I hasten to add that this is all the more remarkable since the author is not only British but served as a soldier and a spy for his country in World War II.