FAITH AT THE END OF THE AGE
Or, THE CHURCH AT THE END OF THE WORLD
READING WALTER MILLER, A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ (1960).
We are looking at books that imagine the end of the world, or at least in any recognizable form, and explore how religious believers cope with such an apocalyptic age. Canticle is one of the best-known works in this genre, and still, after fifty years, among the most cherished.
My main questions about the book are simple: as we read it today, what do we take away from it? What is its core message? And on a related theme, how do you think our response today differs from what readers might have thought when it first appeared? Above all, what does it tell us about faith under ultimate stress?
MAIN QUESTION FOR ESSAY: How does the book fit into the apocalyptic tradition?
ItÕs often helpful to now something about how and when a particular book was written. Walter Miller himself was a curious figure, and Canticle was really his only major achievement. Although inspired in some ways by his experience during the Second World War, most of the bookÕs writing took place between about 1955 and 1960.
Some questions for discussion:
How does the book reflect its time? Take a look at this chronology for a sense of what is going on in these years. What world is Miller living and writing in? Is it too distant from us to make sense?
Tell me about the title? What is odd and surprising about it?
Which of the three sections did you find most appealing, most engaging? Why?
Why do the three sections bear the titles they do? (By the way, for understanding all the Latin in the book, you might find this site valuable!)
What does the book tell us about faith, about religion? Apart from its generally religious setting and characters, how far can we describe it as a specifically Christian piece of writing? What Christian themes emerge most strongly from it?
How does the book fit into the apocalyptic tradition? Does knowing the Christian apocalyptic tradition help us understand the book better?
It is very much a Catholic book, and not just in the sense of having characters who are monks. Does that limit is relevance?
American science fiction in MillerÕs era was largely a Jewish world, in terms of the most successful and visible editors and authors. How might a Jewish audience have reacted to Canticle?
The Catholic church was a very different institution in the late 1950s from how it is today. What do we need to know about that era to appreciate MillerÕs goals? Think particularly abut the fears and concerns of the Catholic church living through the 1940s and 1950s. Moreover, what problems might a modern-day Catholic face in reading the book?
The scheme of the book draws heavily on actual European history. How do these parallels help or hinder us understanding the book?
Despite its grim themes, there is a huge amount of humor in the book. Give me some prime examples. How do these contribute to achieving the bookÕs goals?
What does the book tell us about secular states? What does it tell us about the relationship between church and state?
Looking back from the modern world, the moral debates in the final third of the book look highly relevant to religious debate. Why? How well does Miller handle them?
Who is the old wanderer and what does this tell us about the book?
What does the book tell us about the nature of sanctity?
Are there ways in which the book shows its age? Tell me for instance about its treatment of women, of sexuality É
Canticle is very much a book about history, and about memory – potentially two very different things. ItÕs also a book about writing, about books, and about the changing technologies of writing and recording the past. ItÕs about the faithful recording and transmission of words and ideas, with maybe the suggestion that this is a special duty for the church. Explore those ideas a bit.
Does the book make its moral dilemmas too easy?
Miller shows that technology is potentially deadly, but that it can and must be used: under what conditions, and with what limits?
The book came from the science fiction genre. Looking back, should we more properly rank it as a major piece of mainstream American fiction? How would you rate it?
Should we properly rank it as a major piece of religious fiction?
What is our takeaway from the book? What have we learned? What were we supposed to learn? Are the two things different? Based on what Miller tells us, how should the church conduct itself in an age of crisis?
By the way – astonishingly, you can download audio MP3s of a fine dramatic adaptation of the whole novel, all 15 parts, from