Alan Jacobs’ Experiment in 1943: Christian Intellectual Foundations with Lewis, Maritain, Auden, Eliot, and Weil

The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of CrisisThe Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis by Alan Jacobs
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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.

by C.S. LewisThe 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.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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25 Responses to Alan Jacobs’ Experiment in 1943: Christian Intellectual Foundations with Lewis, Maritain, Auden, Eliot, and Weil

  1. salooper57 says:

    Thanks for the helpful review. “The Year of our Lord” will go on my reading list. Your intro about the discomfort you felt at your first colloquium reminded me of being at the evening meal at the kick-off of the colloquium. One of the organizers was standing in line in front of me. He turned and asked, “So, what have you published?” Feeling self-conscious, I answered, “I write a newspaper column,” I could almost hear the “Humph!”

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    • Ha, Shayne, that’s funny. There is certainly an anti-media bias in that group. It’s probably a Tolkien-Lewis thing. A few years ago, I got the same response to blogging, but not so much recently.
      I suppose “circles” come in different shapes.

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        That seems curious with respect to newsprint (etc.), in general, considering how many interesting things Lewis and Williams – and Auden and Arendt and Adler – wrote for newspapers and popular magazines (I don’t know about the others, though Eliot wrote lots for magazines)!

        Thanks for this – I had not heard of it (or yet caught up with his earlier work), but it sounds very interesting.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Gabriel says:

    Looks interesting! I was wondering about Lewis and the WW2 context just the other day, so I’m definitely going to check this out. I also really liked The Narnian.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      It keeps turning up in the contemporary references in the fiction (Screwtape, Great Divorce, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – and cf. Williams’s All Hallows’s Eve, as well as Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’) – but I wonder how much being aware of the Russo-German treaty of Non-Agression may inform things written between August 1939 and June 1941.

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      • Oh, can I ask how specifically you are thinking?

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        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          The bombing in Screwtape and The Great Divorce, the evacuation – and the secret police (and perhaps other Nazi and Soviet parallels?) in LWW. And, it struck me re-reading “Meditation on the Third Commandment” that that was published in January 1941, when the Russo-German Treaty of Non-Aggression – I can’t, however, immediately remember if I noticed explicit references to that, anywhere… But, looking at Arend Smilde’s chronology of short prose works, 19 fall within that period (August 1039-June 1941).

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          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Oops! “when the Russo-German Treaty of Non-Aggression was still in force”

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            • Ah yes, I see what you mean. Yes, I think there are links but I am too weak to know them precisely. Some we know. For example, by the time Christmas 1943 came along, Lewis was pretty certain in That Hideous Strength that the Nazis would lose but that England could still be tempted internally to totalitarianism in other ways. WWII and the austerity measure after haunt Narnia. But what about Screwtape, past the Hilter connection? I don’t know.

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              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                I need to do some careful rereading – I seem to remember grounds for thinking there may be ironic interplay between demonic and human evil – with the devils hoping people aren’t scared into serious thought by human violence or killed before being damned!

                Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        ‘Little Gidding’ the air-raid-related references, All Hallows’ Eve, while like THS projected into the near post-war future, the effects of the bombing on London, reference to Hitler.

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    • Me too. I’m reading Sayer’s “Jack,” which is also pretty literary. But Jacobs’ biography stands out.
      This 1943 book is just one of a number of resources I’m working on to fight to understand the mental space of WWII. For example, I honestly don’t know what average people in London or Glasgow or Halifax knew about the holocaust.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hannah says:

    I don’t either really, but it came to mind as I have never understood that church split in war time.
    In line with those writers would be Dietrich Bonhoeffer (German theologian and resister, 1906-1945), have you heard of him? Info from a google search just now:
    https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/martyrs/dietrich-bonhoeffer.html

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  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Wow, I just learned of a book and a documentary about other, shocking 1930s-WW II (and even, apparently, thereafter) German Church ‘developments’:

    http://history.utoronto.ca/publications/twisted-cross-german-christian-movement-third-reich

    https://www.worldcat.org/title/storm-troopers-of-christ-baptism-and-the-jews-in-nazi-germany/oclc/191821702

    Liked by 1 person

  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Nearer the Inklings’s – and Eliot (et al.)’s – home was the prominent Anglican “Red Dean”, Hewlett Johnson (1874-1966), whose Wikipedia article says, “During World War II, Johnson strictly followed the Soviet line. After the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939, he opposed the war despite the fact that Britain was at war with Germany, and was accused of spreading defeatist propaganda. However, after Nazi Germany invaded the USSR in 1941, he supported the war, although his MI5 file reports that it was still judged ‘undesirable for the Dean of Canterbury to be allowed to lecture to troops’.” It also quotes his new DNB biographer, Natalie E. Watson, “Until the end of his life he ignored the realities of mass persecution and the extermination of political opponents, as well as the anti-religious aspects of Marxism and Stalinism.”

    He – or, more the thought of him – features strikingly in Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington (1988), set in 1954. I wonder to what extent an awareness of such German and English fans of murderous totalitarian regimes may be consciously in the background of the NICE clerical characters in That Hideous Strength? (Heweitt Johnson apparently also “engaged in psychical research” – the Wikipedia reports, without details as to when and for how long, or how widely known this was.)

    Liked by 1 person

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