In 2012 I was at a dinner table at my first C.S. Lewis conference, the biannual Lewis & Friend colloquium at Taylor University in Indiana. I was admittedly a little out of place, a bit far from home and presenting my ideas for the first time. I grabbed my food and as I find a circle of people one of the most terrifying objects in culture, I sat at a new table. A minute or so later, the keynote speaker, Alan Jacobs, asked to sit with me. Not really feeling any more comfortable, I offered a spot and the table filled in around us.
As part of the conversation, someone asked Alan what his next project would be. I knew of his book, The Narnian, which I still think to be the most literary of Lewis biographies. I also knew he was a conservative Christian intellectual, so I was curious about what he would say to what I (naively?) thought was then a divided American culture. He had just finished his Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (2011). I have since read his biography of the Book of Common Prayer (2017), and I knew that the thread that held his books together was not always obvious to casual readers (even if I have a hunch myself). He then began talking about the Winter of 1943, about how a number of Christian intellectuals in Britain, France, and the United States were struggling with particular ideas and doing so in public lectures. The connections were intriguing. We all nodded and the conversation moved on.
Now, six years later, the book has appeared. Though I presumed that Alan had moved on to other projects–including a move from Wheaton to Baylor–I had not forgotten about the idea of the book. I am fascinated by a “synchronic” approach to a history of ideas. We often go through time tracking an idea, as Jacobs did in his 2008 book, Original Sin. What would it be like, however, to steady the lens of history to a particular point in time, and to just a few neighbourhoods, and see how rich and magnetic thinkers struggled with such a dynamic moment?
The result of that experiment is The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis, released in 2018 by Oxford University Press. As the war tilts toward allied victory, it was clear to a number of Christian public intellectuals that English, French, and American culture faced a moral and cultural challenge in a post-Christian, post-war era–a challenge that far exceeded austerity measures and the rebuilding of infrastructure. In this technocratic age, issues of what it means to be human surfaced in poignant ways. In what ways would Christians lead, speak, and serve in this age of machines after a techno-ideological war?
To struggle with the question, Alan Jacobs turns to a number of Christian intellectuals, mostly disconnected from one another, and the popular work they did in 1943. Jacobs looks at the lectures, talks, broadcasts, poems, essays, journals, and reviews of Jacques and Raïssa Maritain, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, W.H. Auden, and Simone Weil, as well as figures like Charles Williams, Mortimer Adler, Reinhold Niebuhr, Hannah Arendt, Jacques Ellul, and the WWII-era Oldham-Mannheim “Moot,” a religious, male serial conversation about Christian faith and public order in Britain.
The conversation that results from these Christian intellectuals is a movement to restore a Christian understanding of the world in contemporary culture. Historically speaking, the movement is largely a failure. From this broader conversation, however, there is a great deal of energy and idea-formation that comes from these figures. Sometimes controversial, betimes problematic, though this group differed on political views there is a desire for rootedness in their thinking that unites what is different. These thinkers thus remain an intriguing foundation for critical Christian thought today.
As an experiment 1943 works pretty well, though it is, in the end, a sad book. It is, however, literary, informative, and weighty.
My reading was largely receptive, and a good reading of this text would stop and read all of the great texts that are central to the conversation, like The Screwtape Letters, The Abolition of Man, Till We Have Faces, The Age of Anxiety, For the Time Being, Art and Scholasticism, The Twilight of Civilization, The Need for Roots, “Little Gidding” and Four Quartets, The Idea of a Christian Society, The Technological Society and a dozen other texts. But, for now, I merely listened in on Alan Jacobs’ work to gain what I could from it.
And I gained a lot. Mostly, I gained a sense of urgency. It is, after all, time for social justice activists, Christian intellectuals, and conservative thinkers to work on the project of deepening views rather than merely pointing out the shocking sins and sillinesses of the other side. If we want that deepening–if we want our thinking to be anything more than notes in the pop song of our age–then books like this can help us in rootedness.