The Year of Our Lord 1943 - A Review

9780190864651.jpg

The title of Alan Jacobs’ most recent project, The Year of Our Lord 1943, sets the stage for the book but it does not limit the contents. To many readers, the subtitle offers some clue to the contents, but raises additional questions as well. After all, the word “humanism,” even as it is set in context of the full subtitle—Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis––has competing definitions and in some cases is perceived to be inconsistent with “Christian.”

The crisis of 1943, at least, is obvious to anyone even vaguely aware of World History. This was the year that the Allies became confident that the Axis forces would be defeated. The tenor of the war effort changed, from a hope of survival at great cost, to the expectation of the enemies’ unconditional surrender. It was a time when people began to think beyond the war to what life after the war would look like.

Jacobs focuses on one particular school of thought, which he calls “Christian humanism.” The definition of this movement is complex, but can be summed up as effort to use literature to morally form people into good citizens. This approach to moral formation is built on Christian sentiments, in particular, since Christian humanists saw the Christian faith as the only foundation suitable for a just society.

The Year of Our Lord 1943 is an ambitious work. It surveys a wide range of sources, but mainly deals with the work of Jacques Maritain, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, Simone Weil, and W. H. Auden. Dorothy L. Sayers, Hannah Arendt, Jacques Ellul, and others make appearances, but the first five are the main cast. Not only is this an impressive lineup of writers whose work Jacobs digests and presents, but at many points their vision of the good society is different. They had a common core of ideas, to be sure, but their ideas for what good should look like and how it should be obtained were variegated. The work is also impressive because Jacobs weaves the various streams together rather than using a purely chronological or topical approach.

This book is important because it recounts the debate of that day and documents the thinking of the side whose ideas were generally not implemented. Thus, this book helps tie together what are now prophetic themes about how society could have been better ordered.

In 1941, the great choice would have been whether or not to do what it took to survive. Nearly any means is deemed acceptable when a nation is staring down destruction or enslavement. However, as the tide of World War II was turning, the question of whether the technocratic policies and processes that were used to help organize the war effort would become permanent fixtures of society was a more pertinent one.

The question the thinkers discussed in this book were wrestling is still a pivotal one today: What does it look like to be human in a modern world?

This is what many of Jacobs’ projects have been about, especially in recent years. It also marks a perennial question that humanity has traditionally debated, but has lately seemed to get buried beneath a wave of social media, constant entertainment, and unthinking busyness. If nothing else, this book is a call for people to wake up and begin to question whether they are asking the right questions.

The Year of Our Lord 1943 is an excellent book. For those that are intrigued by the ferment of thought that comes from Christians exploring the good society in the early- to mid-twentieth century, this book will prove to be a helpful reference. It combines history, literary analysis, and thoughtful critique in a readable text that both enlightens and invites further study. For those who are simply interested in a well-told intellectual history, this volume will provide an enjoyable experience. Those who are trying to figure out how to relate their Christianity to the idea of a good society will find this book useful, as well, as Jacobs helps expose readers to old books by writing a new book about the authors of some of the most important, but often unconsidered, texts of the modern age.

The Gospel in Dorothy L. Sayers - A Review

Dorothy Sayers.jpg

Dorothy L. Sayers is one the most brilliant writers of the twentieth century. Her work spans a number of genres, from detective novels, to religious stage productions, radio dramas, apologetic essays, and translations of Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio that are still in print.

Sayers is less popular than C. S. Lewis, in part, I think, because he wrote children’s literature that draws new generations of readers more readily into his camp. Sayers was, however, no less witty and intriguing a figure as Lewis.

In fact, it is encouraging that more of Sayers’ work seems to be returning to print. There are a number of her essays that are hard to find, but which politely dismember opposing arguments in terms that make the power of her logic perfectly clear. Her detective novels, which are now somewhat dated period literature, are good stories in addition to their subtle arguments for truth. Christians, especially evangelical Christians, need a good dose of Dorothy L. Sayers.

The latest release in the Plough Publishing series celebrating the gospel in a range of writers is The Gospel in Dorothy L. Sayers. This anthology curates selections from all genres in chapters focused on particular topics like judgment, equality, creativity, and the cross. In some cases, entire essays are reprinted, like her powerful and satirical essay, “The Dogma is the Drama.” In other cases, the editor has selected a few paragraphs from a novel, or a scene from a play.

This book may not be the best place to start for those who are seeking to learn about Dorothy L. Sayers.  Though the anthology shows the range of her work, much of the power of her writing takes chapters to unfold. Her characters grow, mature, and endear themselves to readers over several novels. For example, her portrait of Bunter, one of my favorite characters in all of literature, can only be fully appreciated by reading all of the Lord Peter stories.

My concern with the approach of this volume is that people will miss the genius of Sayers while getting the idea that she was moralistic in her writing, because of the topical selections. There is no question that the gospel is woven through Sayers’ writing, but her work is worth exploring because it is good even before its moral power becomes apparent. Sayers herself, I believe, would shudder to think that people would read her work because she is a Christian rather than for the artistic quality of it.

At the same time, with the growing interest in Sayers studies, this is a timely and helpful volume. For those who have already come to appreciate her work, The Gospel in Dorothy L. Sayers offers a buffet to sample some of her other offerings. Also, the book can make a handy reference volume (much like books of quotes by Chesterton and Lewis) since it can be hard to remember just where and exactly how Sayers said something in one of the books one has read. The editor has done well to select many of the most significant passages, such that this book may serve as a shortcut for those writing on Dorothy L. Sayers.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

The Lion in the Waste Land - A Review

In the period after the first World War, the Britain was in an existential crisis. The nation remains, at least in name, a Christian nation. At that point, though, the requirement to attend services had been dropped, which subsequently revealed that much of the population had little interest in Christianity. When the pressure of German hostility and the subsequent Battle of Britain became a pervasive threat to daily life, that nations, with its vaguely Christian memories, began to wonder if the resources for survival might be found in the Old Paths of Christian faith.

That period of British history saw several key voices arise to present a credible vision of Christianity to a population that had forgotten the core tenets of the gospel. The first was G. K. Chesterton, who was a journalist and a novelist, and whose work both influenced and made possible the trio of writers that are the main subject of Janice Brown’s recent book, The Lion in the Waste Land.

From amidst the literal rubble of British cities and the figurative rubble of a culture devastated by the carpet bombing of modernity, C. S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers, and T. S. Eliot stand out as prophetic voices pointing people back to the spiritual and cultural resources of Christianity. The Lion in the Waste Land puts the three contemporaries, who were also friends, into conversation and shows how the powerful truth of the gospel of Christ pervades both the non-fiction and fiction works of all three authors.

Summary

Chapter One reveals the continuity in the message of the three uniquely gifted individuals. It also traces how their friendships formed. In the case of the Lewis-Eliot friendship, Brown’s historical explanation is especially helpful since Lewis was vocally critical of Eliot’s poetry early on; yet, the two became friends and co-laborers in revealing authentic Christianity to the world. In the second Chapter, Brown articulates the methodologies used by the three authors: there were overt apologetic attempts by all three, but their more powerful presentation of the fierce redemption found in the gospel is found in their imaginative works. This chapter helps show why these three laypeople were so particularly effective in showing the credibility of Christianity and why they remain popular to this day.

After the first two chapters, The Lion in the Waste Land shifts from historical overview to literary analysis. What follows are several chapters where Brown explores literary themes that are common in the work of Lewis, Eliot, and Sayers and which relate to the truth of Christianity and the redemptive power of the gospel. In Chapter Three, the reader is treated to a thematic exposition of the figure of Christ in the work of all three authors. Brown traces through images—both overt and subtle—to indicate the pervasiveness of Christ in their literature. The fourth chapter surveys the idea of choice and God’s pursuit of humanity for their salvation. This is a theme that is present in much of the work of Eliot, Sayers, and Lewis, and one that forms a unity with the idea of a fierce redemption by God. Chapter Five interrogates the work of the three subjects for uses of angelic figures. These supernatural beings populate the imaginative worlds of the apologetic trio, offering a start contrast to the anti-supernatural vision of modernity.

Having unpacked some of the central Christian themes in Sayers, Eliot, and Lewis, Brown again shifts her focus to the methods and impact of the three writers in their particular cultural-historical context. Chapter Six outlines how the work of the three authors was shaped by and responded to the particular sufferings of Britain during World War II: their message was received and promoted because it offered a plausible source of meaning for a nation teetering on the brink of despair without adequate resources to stand firm. In the seventh chapter Brown explores the deeper message that was offered by all three authors: redemption begins the journey toward the joy in union with Christ. In this chapter Brown delves into the concept of the Christian life as it is portrayed by Lewis, Eliot, and Sayers. In the final chapter, the book emphasizes how each of the subjects was pushing readers back toward historical Christianity, where the resources for salvation and sanctification could be found, rather than toward a revised, modernistic version of Christianity. This is particularly powerful, since all three were particularly Modern authors, but all three pointed people back to resources from the traditional faith of the Church—a distinctly un-modern thing to do.

Analysis and Conclusion

The Lion in the Waste Land is an excellent scholarly work on three of the most interesting people to live in the last century. Brown combines excellent literary criticism with careful biographical research to present a cogent vision of the impact that Lewis, Sayers, and Eliot had in their particular context and continue to have, particularly in the English-speaking world.

This book should remain a mainstay in Inklings studies for decades in the future. Brown’s work is careful, subtle, and reasonably comprehensive. It is both an example of a critical work done well and work of scholarship that will be intensely interesting to those engaged in the study of modern English literature, particularly in the works of Eliot, Lewis, and Sayers.