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.