Once upon a time — when I was a young man — I fell as it were under a spell. Truth be told, I did not so much fall under it as I was buoyed up by it. It was not the standard fairy-tale ensorcelling that pushes upright humans downward toward four-footed bestiality, but was rather the magnificent opposite of such. It was the kind of spell that turns straw into gold, that ennobles. In fact, it was very much as though I had been carried from a low neighborhood of mud and brindle hair to the very ramparts of heaven.
This took place 30 summers ago, when I bowed my knee to that Sovereign of Sovereigns, whose coming is prophesied in the ancient Scriptures of Israel. Truth be told, this new allegiance was the best thing that ever happened to me, which is itself a deep understatement. Yet this tremendous boon came with some difficulties too. For one thing, how was I to explain this dramatic change of situation to my “educated” and “civilized” friends who had not been similarly entranced, and who thought my newfound joy something barbaric, if not as undeniable evidence of my having become non compos mentis?
I myself wondered about a few things too. For one thing, precisely how was I to reconcile my newfound faith with certain aspects of my previous life? For example, must I leave behind forever my love of words and ideas and meaning? Was this new world of serious Christian faith compatible with an ardor for classical and even “pagan” literature? With puns and poesy? I seemed to have evidence that it was not; and so I was troubled.
Then someone on a white steed hurriedly rode toward me — his name is Tibor Lengyel, but we must not name him publicly here — and he dramatically pointed me toward a book titled Chance or the Dance? It was by an author named Thomas Howard. That book I did find, did ope, and did read. And my life was then and forever changed. It was as though I had drunk a silvery draught of water from the very Well-at-the-End-of-the-World itself. So it is a fact that reading that extraordinary book was for me like a miracle — and was not merely like a miracle but really was a miracle. And the book itself is a miracle still, which is why I am raving about it here. But how to describe it?
Let us imagine that C. S. Lewis had lived well beyond 1963 and had written many more essays and poems and books. Imagine that six years after we thought he had died he had in fact produced one of his most beautiful and important books, titled Chance or the Dance? In fact, anyone who loves C. S. Lewis and who has not read Chance or the Dance? is almost missing a new book in the Lewis oeuvre. It is simply that good and that reminiscent of the Lewisian world. There are differences between Lewis and Howard, to be sure. For one thing Howard’s prose style is even better than Lewis’s. I hope that everyone can at least agree that it is more beautiful — even sumptuous — and I have no doubt that old Jack would himself agree. (By the way, as a graduate student in England, Tom Howard visited the great Lewis at his home in Oxfordshire and spent an afternoon with him there, but that’s another story.)
Unlike most books, the book of which I am here speaking is virtually impossible to categorize. What exactly is it? For one thing, it is a manifesto that asserts the grand old medieval Christian worldview over and above the current secularist one. You know that latter one, don’t you? It’s the one that is so depleted and deflated and paralyzingly depressing that we hardly ever really think about it, because it’s simply too much to bear. So we just seem to accept it, as though it simply described the godforsaken way things are — and accept too that we must nonetheless soldier on. But what toward? Toward the dust of death. But this book defies that very basest of all ideas. It flies the indefatigably and multiply bright standard of Meaning. And Truth and Beauty and Goodness. It is bracing and inspiring — a kind of call to arms, like the staccato blast of a bouquet of golden trumpets. Who can ignore it?
But the book is a kind of prose symphony too, which manifestos manifestly never are. In another way it is a kind of a rambling yet manicured and sweeping lawn, punctuated appropriately with a population of ancient and agreeable marble busts. There are even some sheep in the distance, just beyond the ancient ha-ha. There are things in it that one simply cannot forget. And in a nutshell it poses a choice between those two worldviews just described.
There are a handful of books that not to have read will place one at a serious disadvantage. To read such books is something like learning to tie a shoe.
First, there is Chance, in which all is random, a wan modern world — like a fragile, weasel-sucked egg — devoid of all meaning and where nothing is more than the dead sum of its dead parts, where an utterly random series of accidental events somehow ended up in creating the infinitely variegated cosmos in which we find ourselves, somehow musing on our place in it, only to conclude that our existence and all we have created and thought over the millennia has no more actual meaning than does a rock on a dead planet a billion billion billion miles from the wild flowers around the Parthenon. The Dance, on the other hand, is a divinely orchestrated poetic and genuinely infinitely meaningful movement through history — that progression and ascension toward God, and toward the ultimate meaning of all things, large and small. The book asks us, then: Which is true? Which of these two views is grace-filled and glorious? And which of them deprives us forever of those categories we call grace-filled and glorious?
There are a handful of books that not to have read will place one at a serious disadvantage. They are foundational and help us understand the world in a way that is positively vital. They are primers, giving us a new vocabulary with which to apprehend the cosmos. To read such books is something like learning to tie a shoe. It is an experience without which life is inestimably more difficult, and even dangerous. Who wants to trip on one’s shoelaces over and over throughout the long decades, perhaps even unaware that they even are meant to be tied?
But back to the prose. It is exquisite to the point of sometimes being baroque, but never rococo. It is nearly as lapidary as Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, but is never cloyingly so, as some of Chesterton’s aphorism-riddled writings can be, however good they are. And like Chesterton, this book is both lapidary and fun. Sadly, the universe of such writing seems limited to the works of these two authors. But be of good cheer: The little sea that is Chance or the Dance? is inestimably and impossibly wonderful. I cannot think of a single book in creation that says anything approaching what it says, and certainly not with the élan and joie de vivre and fitness with which it says it.
For example, would you like to understand once and forever the forlorn folly of so-called sexuality outside marriage? More to the point, would you like to understand exactly what sex is and what it is for? Here you will find it. And incidentally, if you ever in your life discover a better chapter on sex than the one in Chance or the Dance? titled “Sex,” do not delay in dropping everything and chartering a plane to wherever I am to share it with me, for which trouble and expense I will hock all I have to reimburse you. In this book one may see with one’s whole soul how the modern, materialistic view of the world is as sad and terrifically silly as anything could be: as a snake swallowing its own tail — and then vanishing into thin air with a faintly audible pop. Ciao!
If I may say so, this book makes me want to be a better man. If you are a man I suspect it will make you want to be a better man, too; and if you are a woman it will make you want to be a better woman.
But have I said enough about the prose? I have not. The book is a happy bramble of giddy turns of phrase, and through it that reader will proceed best who proceeds least hurried. Be absolutely certain that you give yourself the time to take in the whorls and the whoopee. And by all means feel free to look up — and then sunbathe in — such words as valetudinarian and purlieu and bibelot. And be sure to gambol and cut capers o’er the references to Vermeer and Wee Willie Winky and Ultima Thule. And by all means turn cartwheels and handsprings around such sentences as “Don’t insist on seeing a cosmic order in Goosey, Goosey, Gander.” Acrobatics are the only appropriate response.
Must we cut to the chase? There is nothing like it. It stands apart in what it is and what it says. Read it for yourself and tell me to what you would compare it. To a Shakespearean sonnet? At least that’s a start. And like all the truly best art, it has a powerful moral component. If I may say so, this book makes me want to be a better man. If you are a man I suspect it will make you want to be a better man, too; and if you are a woman it will make you want to be a better woman.
But why am I saying all this now, nearly 50 years after the book was first published? That’s a simple question to answer: because it came to my attention that this gemlike work of art had recently gone out of print! The very moment the smoke stopped blasting from my ears I contacted the publisher, Ignatius Press — which I highly recommend, not least for publishing Tom Howard’s books, not to mention those of other great writers like the aforementioned Chesterton and like that brilliant apologist and philosopher Peter Kreeft too, who himself counts Chance or the Dance? as one of ten books he would take to a desert island. I asked Ignatius if there was any way at all to remedy this new gasp-inducing ellipsis in American letters. I vowed to do anything I could to help, including writing a foreword to a new edition (which I did and from which this essay is adapted). And Father Fessio, the great founder and leader of Ignatius, agreed: and so — mirabile dictu — the book is again in print! It is in print this very minute!
But I haven’t yet told you about the author.
In the summer of 1998, nine years after reading the little book that changed my life I found myself headed to Oxford University for the centenary of C. S. Lewis’s birth. I was in part excited to go because I understood that Thomas Howard was to be there. But could the author of such a book really exist in the same world in which I did? I never expected to meet Horace or Boccaccio; why should I expect to meet Thomas Howard? But then on the omnibus from Heathrow I met a woman who was also headed to the Lewis event; and somehow it came out that she was friends with the Howards. I gulped.
And then it happened. Later that day there was a reception in the grassy quadrangle of Magdalen College, which was C. S. Lewis’s college at Oxford, and whose particular golden greenness — framed by the stone cloistered walks — seemed itself to partake of the Middle Ages. The woman to whom I was speaking on the bus saw me and introduced me to her friend, Lovelace Howard. When I visibly goggled to be speaking to the wife of the man whose book had changed my life, she smiled and said: “Would you like to meet him?”
Imagine boarding an old-fashioned ship named Omphalos and sailing thither. And imagine learning that there is in the middle of that seagirt isle a sparkling freshwater lake. And imagine traveling overland to that sparkling lake and beholding in its midst a small island. Why do you want to go there? But you do.
I said that I would and she disappeared into the crowd and I waited. And then, out of that same crowd came the very man himself. “What ho?” quoth he, for he actually talks as he writes. He was indefatigably self-deprecating and I could hardly believe I was talking to him. The next day, dressed in an academic gown, he gave a talk in the Sheldonian — that illustrious building designed by Sir Christopher Wren — whose interior is painted in that uniquely English orange-red and gold, and I remember that in his talk he used the word “ultra-marine.” Like most of Howard’s writing, his speech was all just perfectly shy of grandiloquence.
In the 20 years since then I have had the inestimable privilege of befriending him and of trying to convince him that his book changed my life, but — alas and alack! — to no avail. That I even would use that ejaculation in an essay should prove the point all by itself, once and for all. But my humble mentor will have none of it. If you try to convince him of such things he will only retreat into the depths like a cuttlefish, all the while squirting ink that spells “Oh, pshaw!” In fact, no matter how you try to praise him he will invariably and frustratingly adopt a perfectly Puddleglummian demeanor, the only difference between his adoption of it and Puddleglum’s being that unlike the venerable Puddleglum, Thomas Howard does not have the good excuse of actually being a Marsh-wiggle, which strikes those who know and love him as a dispositive distinction.
Still, you needn’t take my word for it. You can yourself in the book catch a gray glimpse of marshy hue in the final sentences of his new preface right after my foreword! He there says that this book was his reply to the question of our epoch, whether there exists divine order in creation, and then he says he leaves to the reader to ponder whether a reply is tenable. Whether a reply is tenable! Whether! “But of course a reply is tenable!” we all wish to shout. “And this book, dearest Tom, is that golden reply itself — and if you could bear to hear it, it is the best reply thereto ever written and that anyone ever will write, by full fathoms five and then some. Put that in your corncob pipe, sir, and smoke it!” Ahem.
Before you buy the book and enter the realm of Thomas Howard’s glorious and luminescent writing, please imagine an island in the middle of the sea. Imagine boarding an old-fashioned ship named Omphalos and sailing thither. And imagine learning that there is in the middle of that seagirt isle a sparkling freshwater lake. And imagine traveling overland to that sparkling lake and beholding in its midst a small island. Why do you want to go there? But you do. But why? Reading Chance or the Dance? is somehow like visiting that island; and reading it will even help explain why you want to go to that island. And it will help explain why you hope that that small island in the middle of the lake will in turn have a small pond upon it. And perhaps . . . but enough. Tolle lege.
Eric Metaxas is the author of Bonhoeffer, If You Can Keep It, and Martin Luther and hosts the nationally syndicated Eric Metaxas Show. He is also founder of Socrates in the City, where copies of Chance or the Dance? may be purchased at a discount.