The Magic of Thomas Howard

I wish I could tell you that I have been a long-time reader of Thomas Howard. I can’t. Discovering his absolutely splendid The Night is Far Spent filled my Easter weekend and occasional moments with joy, insight, ruminations, and pleasure in his delightful prose.

Any fans of Thomas Howard out there? Any former students? Who’ll speak up for this man?
I must unload one little point first: Sometime ago Thomas Howard must have discovered, perhaps in an old box of things no longer used, the word “piquant” and then and there decided it might be the finest word in the English vocabulary. Go ahead, I say to you my reader, read straight through The Night is Far Spent and underline each instance. (I give the definitions below.)
Howard mastered the Inklings — Lewis, Tolkien, Williams, Owen Barfield and Warnie, with others. That distinguished group of beer drinking, manuscript reading, and Christian thinking group met at The Eagle and the Child. A friend of mine sent me a picture of the pub.
Inklings pub…
Howard tolerates fools impatiently, and by “fools” I mean uncareful and untraditional cozy Christian thinking and praxis. So, he comes off as a curmudgeon, but the kind where you say, “You know, Howard, you’ve got the angels — or most of them — on your side.” So, even when I disagree, I love what he has to say and he makes me think.
Then comes his prose… exceptional, exquisite and at times eloquent.
On fiction and the gospel: “The odd thing about all these stories is that we cannot seem to get very far in them without finding our sleeves being plucked by the hint that we are reading about ourselves” (7). And “they seem to lead us away into imaginary regions, but they have an unsettling way of discovering for us the immediate place where we are” (9).
On a similar theme: “My own guess is that, on the contrary, a well-chosen image draws us further into truth than, say, the syllogism, or the equation” (28).
Or this one: “Imagination … may, rather, be the faculty in us corresponding in a unique way to reality. We cannot pit it over against intellect and will and affection” (46).
On CS Lewis’ capacity to make things clear: “Stand up and wave a hanky if you had had things plotted out with such stark clarity before you read Lewis” (67).
Splendid essays into the worlds and minds and hearts of Waugh and Lewis and Tolkien and Muggeridge and, perhaps a new name to you, Dietrich von Hildebrand — a brilliant Catholic theologian who didn’t write sparkling prose but he wrote solid theology and ethics.
And did I mention that Howard grew up in the heart of American evangelicalism and, after flirting at length with the Anglicans, crossed the Tiber and entered into fellowship with the See of Rome. That story of his I read long ago — but this set of essays has made me a fan.
Go, see how many times “piquant” appears.
1. agreeably pungent or sharp in taste or flavor; pleasantly biting or tart: a piquant aspic.
2. agreeably stimulating, interesting, or attractive: a piquant glance.
3. of an interestingly provocative or lively character: a piquant wit.
4. Archaic. sharp or stinging, esp. to the feelings.

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  • Christine

    Oh yes, I loved his writings, years ago now. This book sounds delightful and I appreciate yet another book to add to my growing list! I always thot it interesting that his sister is Elizabeth Elliot.

  • His work is so good that people will be discovering it in a hundred years like Chesterton. “Evangelical Is Not Enough” is masterly and mercifully done and will do much to heal the Body of Christ.
    Scot, I must say that whenever someone praises a devout Catholic, like Thomas Howard they come dangerously close to Rome. Thomas Howard bows and worships what those who are not Catholic see only as bread and wine. In the same vein of Lewis in regard to Christ – Lier, Lunatic, or LORD, Howard is either an idolater or Christ is really present, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. Be careful. The truth is most attractive.

  • Well, David, have no fears.

  • Bob

    you have me convinced! You can’t argue with that. Howards book “On becoming Catholic” along with Peter Kreeft and Scott Hahn present airtight apologetics for RC. I just can’t sign up due to pastoral issues. Can’t beat low church small groups with bible study, intercessory prayer and a sense of community.

  • Tom Howard used to live right around the corner from me (until I moved). He still runs a popular Friday afternoon discussion group at his home, a group which has been part of many people in the Gordon College and Gordon Conwell communities discovering a more sacramental and historic take on the Christian faith. I haven’t read much of his later stuff, but his very first book, “Christ The Tiger,” is delightful, and a small work he wrote while still an Anglican, “The Liturgy Explained,” has gone through several editions and is still fairly widely used in Anglicanism.

  • I’ve read some of Howard’s work, and found it excellent. He is quirky in spots, but it gives his work some personality and probably says more about his editor(s).
    I’ve always found Howard quite generous in how he speaks about Protestants. He is full of gratitude for his Evangelical upbringing even while he disagrees. His example is one that all of us who have chosen one faith tradition over another ought to try to emulate. It speaks volumes on love of neighbor.

  • I absolutely loved his book “Evangelical is Not Enough.”

  • Karl

    I agree wholeheartedly. I’ve heard him speak a couple of times, and we have several of his books. As with others, “Evangelical is Not Enough” was the first book of his that I encountered and it set off all kind of bells in my head – in a good way.

  • Thanks for the recommendation… I too will add him to my ever growing and overwhelming list of desired reads.

  • “On Being Catholic” may be the most beautiful presentation of Roman Catholicism that I have ever read. The book almost convinces as a result of its beauty alone (and we all know the attractive and alluring power of beauty). Also “Chance or the Dance: A Critique of Modern Secularism” is an incredibly unique and provocative essay on the loss of mystery in the modern world. Enjoy!

  • Scot,
    I felt like your post “The Magic of Thomas Howard” was amazingly piquant. 🙂

  • Scott, have you ever read Louis Bouyer’s “The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism?” If so, I’d love to hear what you thought of it. IMO it’s the most convincing/convicting work of “both-and” theology I have ever read. BOTH universal and particular. BOTH individual AND community. BOTH Paul AND John. BOTH faith AND works. BOTH scripture AND tradition.
    Louis Bouyer…Peter Kreeft…Thomas Howard…Joshua Hochschild…Francis Beckwith…Robert Koons… these are courageous, thinking men who refuse to settle for the “either-or” theology of the solas. I’m convinced intellectually; if only I were as courageous as they are.

  • another Beth,
    Nope, not read it. Nor am I sure that I have heard of it.

  • I think there is much that we can learn from Thomas Howard as N.T. Right or more over Scot McKnight! 🙂
    God bless you brother for bringing up this topic and spiritual man of God.
    Scot, I hope you have a day brother!
    Keep up the great blogging.

  • I ment to say Right because I believe most of what he says and has to say is so true and powerful.

  • Ditto on “Evangelical Is Not Enough”. Excellent book and one that moved me away from my Reformed/Presbyterian druthers (albeit into the odd and curious world of Lutheranism of all places).
    I’d also recommend his little book “If Your Mind Wanders at Mass” (Ignatius, 2001).

  • Scot,
    I love reading your blog brother.
    You have been a blessing in my life as I am striving to reach the emerging generations for Jesus Chirst!

  • I love his prose. Dr. Howard is good friends of friends of mine in Boston and I’ve never heard anything but the kindest words expressed about the man. I haven’t met him personally.

  • David

    Thirty years ago a history professor in a conservative, fundamentalist Bible college put Howard’s book “Christ the Tiger” on a class reading list. (I’m still convinced it was an intentional “subversive” act on his part.) The name intrigued me, and reading it opened my eyes in a new way to start asking questions that were emerging before emerging had a name. As soon as I was done reading, I found “Chance or the Dance” and found it too to be a fresh breeze. More of Dr. Howard’s books have followed, and they continue to push me further away from my origins and hopefully closer to Jesus. Thanks Thomas Howard, and thanks Scot for bringing him to our attention.

  • Bob,
    In no way am I trying to be confrontational, merely factual. You said no to RC because you “Can’t beat low church small groups with bible study, intercessory prayer and a sense of community.”
    You can’t beat small groups under the protection and authority of the Church like the Legionaires, you can’t beat having Bible studies with the entire Bible as opposed to a truncated version, you can’t beat intercessory prayer within the “communion of the Saints” , nor can you beat a sense of community that transcends time and distance in every tongue of every nation.
    Granted, one may make sacrifices to become Roman Catholic, especially those with protestant roots,but all of it pales to receive the Person of Christ (body, blood, soul, and divinity)in the Eucharist. Planting one’s feet on solid ground, gaining all the riches of the fullness of the faith, and arriving at a place as close to home as anything that is not heaven is worth it all. I have not regretted one moment, but far from it, a day hasn’t gone by for me that I have not been able to say thanks be to God for the graces that brought me and my family to the full communion of the Catholic Church, which is full communion with Jesus Christ. I’m more than happy to help anyone on that journey of full communion with Jesus Christ. Thomas Howard can do much better than me, so keep reading his works.

  • I had Tom Howard for an English lit class as a freshman at Gordon College in 1984, just a year or two before he converted to Catholicism. What a fabulous teacher he was! He gently opened many of us sheltered evangelical / fundamentalist kids to a bigger world of literature and learning. What a debt I owe to Dr. Howard and to the other faculty members who no doubt gave up better academic opportunities to shepherd naive kids like me towards a richer faith.
    There was great sadness when he had to leave Gordon after converting. I wonder how that would play out at Gordon today, 25 years later, after Evangelicals and Catholics Together — maybe different.

  • David Ulmer,
    when I participate in a prayer meeting in an evangelical church or group we are fully part of the communion of the saints, both all those alive now on the earth all around the world, as well as those who have gone before us into the presence of the Lord.
    The parts of the Bible you say we have “truncated” are so insignificant in the overall scheme of God’s plan of salvation as to make little difference.
    When I participate with other Christians, regardless of which stripe, in the memorial of Christ’s death for us variously called the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion, Christ is truly present with us, even though we may refuse to try and speculate and/or define exactly how this is possible.
    I will remain an Evangelical, regardless of how many great books by Catholics like Thomas Howard, Scott Hahn, Benedict XVI, JPII, I end up reading, because I also have read and still read many great books by men like John Stott, J.I.Packer, A.W. Tozer, George Verwer, Scot McKnight, etc, and realize that Christ’s Body, the Church, is far more comprehensive than any one earthly communion.
    I love what Steven R. Harmon says in his book, “Towards Baptist Catholicity”: “I do not believe that Christian unity is served by Christians migrating from one deficient communion to another” (words to that effect, don’t have the book in front of me right now). This expresses this important truth:
    All of our communions are part of the Body of Christ. All of our communions are deficient. Only when Christ returns will all things be perfected, including our communions.

  • Scott M

    Wolf, all the Traditions fully acknowledge that they are formed from fallible (and often failing) human beings. I’m not even sure what you mean by “perfect”, but that’s hardly what any claim. However, nowhere in Scripture is unity of the Church presented as some future ideal. From Jesus to Paul to James to John, unity, oneness, avoiding divisions, and mutual love is presented as a very immediate command and the way the world will see and believe what we say about Jesus. I’m not sure I grasp how people can rationalize away a major theme of the NT canon.
    The continuing dis-integration, fragmentation, division, and disunity among those who follow Jesus is currently most urgently a problem for those of us in the Protestant tradition. Triage focuses on the places where the bleeding is worst and our disunity and division as a Tradition seems to be well up the exponential side of the curve. Rather than worrying about what the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions think or say about our tradition, it might be better to focus on how we can avoid denying Pentecost and reenacting Babel.

  • Scott M,
    If you read my comment again, you will note that I am not at all worried about what the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions say about us; I am even less worried about what individuals within those traditions say about us.
    I was responding to a specific person’s assertion that if one appreciated Thomas Howard one had practically no choice but to “swim the Tiber”, an assertion I disagree with for the reasons given.
    It is precisely because we need to demonstrate the unity of the Body of Christ that I don’t believe that unity will be served if all of us who see the need to overcome division and disunity join some other communion or tradition which is, likewise, as much a part of the problem as it could be and is called to be part of the solution.
    Rather than calling on each other to change our affiliations we should be busy calling on those who have not yet heard the Gospel to come to faith in Christ.
    I did not say that we need to wait for unity as some future ideal; we need to live it here and now, but I don’t believe that we will achieve it by all joining the same ecclesiastical organization. I live in a predominantly Catholic country, and if you think that Catholics have more unity than Protestants, I have a few stories to tell you.
    Last week I was at a conference here in Austria where the unity of the Body of Christ was manifest in a gathering which included Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Pentecostals, Bible Church evangelicals, independent charismatics of various stripes, and probably a few more. At the same conference a year ago we had messianic Jews and folks from the Eastern churches as well. But those labels don’t mean very much in this atmosphere of Christian fellowship and vis-a-vis the needs we see in the world around us.

  • Scott M

    At first I thought I had missed something in the conversation. So I went back and threaded from David’s first comment to Bob’s response to him to David’s subsequent comment. And there is no clear connection from that conversation to your interjection. I think you assumed some things (rightly or wrongly) that weren’t actually present in what was written.
    Wolf, I have plenty of Catholics in my family. I don’t need any insight into what it means to be Catholic. Like many I read, you seem to conflate unity with complete agreement. And it’s never been that. Heck, I reminded here of the story from the first ecumenical council where St. Nicholas (yes, *that* St. Nicholas), freed from prison by the conversion of Constantine, gave the heretic Arius a head ringing slap. For some reason that story sticks in my mind. Unity means you stand together as one, undivided Church living as the embodied earthly presence of our Lord through the Holy Spirit.
    Roman Catholics and Orthodox are committed to that reality even as, sadly, schisms exist. It is considered a great thing when a schism is healed. I’ve seen no evidence that Protestants consider visible, tangible, physical unity even a goal, much less something worth sacrifice and struggle. Instead, I’ve watched my tradition visibly splinter even further even in the fifteen years I’ve been a part of it. And I’ve actually seen that splintering defended or even promoted as a good thing when people disagree or have trouble getting along. Heck, the idea that the Church could even be split, that there could be more than one “Church”, is a distinctly modern idea.

  • WOW!, Scott you almost made me cry, seriously, I’m not sure quite how to describe this but you spoke my hearts deepest longing for all my brothers and sisters in Christ, not to mention my blood brothers and sisters, parents, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews, etc.
    As a student at Cedarville I was constantly striving to bring unity across doctrinal difference. Unity in seeking truth together, seeking Christ, lovign others not uniformity. I think much of what is passed as biblical studies is often inculcation to uniformity.
    As a member and serving deacon in a GARB Church, I was constantly defending the charismatics to the seperatist mindsets, defending the Church of Christ and their devoted work in the CPCs, defending all other traditions following Christ, even that old, feeble pro-life pope, who unlike every other old person I knew somehow wasn’t living retirement, which means wasting time and money that belongs to the Kingdom.
    Wolf, when I ask Scott to consider the truth of Howard’s claims it is from a deep longing for oneness in Christ. If Lewis asked Gandhi to consider the claims of this man, Gandhi praised so much named Jesus, he wasn’t saying believe or get out. He is saying listen to yourself. Let’s talk. If someone offered me truth I was ready to hear him out and evaluate it as best I could.
    As a person that has looked so long for Christ’s presence in reality, I can’t help share what I believe is so WONDERFUL. Yet, I think Scott and many of his readers share this desire to win a friend in Christ rather than win an argument.
    Everything I ever read of Packer, Lewis, MacDonald, Chambers, or Tozer that was true remains just as true now that I am Catholic. I am not attacking them. I’m saying we live in a new Day. It is the Day for which Christ prayed. The schisms will end.
    You say, “I will not try them, Sam I am. I do not like them!”
    You will not try Him in a house, not with a mouse, not in the rain, I think what I’m saying is plain. If you would try Him you would see, you would like Him, and eventually thank me. He is with us my friend, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. I’m too tired right now to play out the whole Dr. Seuss analogy, but I think I make my point anyway.
    May the peace of Christ be with us all.

  • Wolf Paul

    David, Scott,
    I don’t think this thread is the place to continue this conversation. If I had your e-mail addresses I would continue it that way; since I don’t, here is mine: and if you mail me I am quite willing to continue this conversation. Suffice it to say that I am NOT conflating unity and complete agreement. Neither, however, am I conflating organizational unity and unity in the spirit.
    Shalom, everyone.

  • John Mark

    A recent issue of World magazine spoke of a growing number of Roman Catholics who had become Pentecostals (this is in Texas). A pastor, and former RC said something like “This is not so much a matter of changing churches, but people coming to realize what it really means to be a Christian.” Obviously the swim across the Tiber can take in more than one direction.
    I am not trying to restart any debate here, just pointing out that the kind of unity many Catholics desire (with the highest motives, no doubt) will never happen until Jesus returns. Dialogue and fellowship are possible, and perhaps some sort of Touchstone (magazine) emphasis on Mere Christianity, but organizational unity, never.
    I wonder, too, how many converts to Rome are evangelicals; that is, has there ever been much “crossing the Tiber” from the EO side? I may be wrong, but I would be surprised to find much activity on this front.
    By the way, you (Scott) have rekindled my hunger to read Howards book. All I ever read of him was Chance or the Dance, a really fine book as I recall.
    I hope I don’t come off as an agitator, just wanted to make a comment.

  • John Mark,
    This is fair discussion. You may know I’ve done research on conversions — in both of these directions — and I, along with Hauna Ondrey, have a book coming out from Baylor Univ Press called Finding Faith, Losing Faith late this summer. It may be of interest to those interested in this discussion.