This weekend I finally finished The Year of Our Lord 1943 by Alan Jacobs. In the book, Jacob traces the war-time thinking of thinkers like Simone Weil, Jacques Maritain, W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, and C. S. Lewis, particularly as each of them worked to articulate something like a Christian understanding of that particular moment in world history (in the hopes of setting the stage for how life might be lived once the war was over). It’s an interesting read and a wonderful weave of five disparate threads (much like Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own). Jacobs handles the historic interplay well, moving both thematically and chronologically through each thinker’s life and thought.
In the end, the book is not particularly hopeful. But it is helpful. It’s helpful in showing us another period of (relatively) recent history where the stakes were high and where Christians could or should have said or done more. While the five thinkers Jacobs chooses have a good bit of philosophical overlap, there’s enough that is unique to each that you find new surprises every few pages. I found Weil’s reticence with the organized (Catholic) church interesting, particularly as she took a different but sincere approach to the questions posed by cultural power. The book also humanizes Lewis some, as it weaves in personal anecdote to quotes from essays like “Learning during War-Time.”
The book comes to something of an abrupt ending, and that without his main protagonists. Instead, Jacobs opts to bring in a sixth thinker, Jacques Ellul (who I first encountered in college through Steve Garber’s Fabric of Faithfulness). And while there’s something frustrating about the shift, it also makes sense, as Ellul’s though often epitomizes a particular strand of post-war thinking. That strand, at least as Jacobs teases it out, involves technology. In particular, it’s the thread of how democracy inadvertently gave way to a kind of technocracy.
The question the book poses, in the end, is this: how late is too late?
It’s something sobering to think about.
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Jacobs recently did an interview with The Point about the book. Appropriately titled “When the Ship Has Sailed” (remember: helpful, not hopeful), Jacobs gives a good summary of the approach of the five thinkers in general. From the interview:
They don’t offer the same prescription, but to speak very generally, the older figures (Maritain, Eliot, Lewis) tend to believe, or at least hope, that it’s possible to rebuild and renew Christendom—to have a Western European society that is grounded in Christian tradition, though without any mandated acceptance of Christianity. (Their views are not altogether unlike those of Viktor Orbán in Hungary today.) Roughly speaking, Maritain hopes to draw and keep the attention of heads of state (including his own head of state in exile, Charles de Gaulle); Eliot hopes to influence the influencers, the people who worked behind the scenes in the various halls of power; and Lewis seeks to address a large public directly via talks, journalism, books and radio broadcasts. All of them count on an audience that had received some degree, however imperfect, of Christian formation, and could perhaps be persuaded to deepen their own interest and then infiltrate either the halls of power or their own neighborhoods with a body of Christian thought and practice.
For the younger figures, Auden and Weil, the ship of Christendom has sailed; for them, the chief question is the place that Christian ideas can find in societies that structurally reject them. They’re more likely to ask whether Christianity can be made intelligible, especially as something relevant to the whole social order, to people for whom it is a foreign language or sheer nonsense.
Don’t take this distinction as absolute, but in general terms it’s correct, I think.
I think those few paragraphs sums up so many different contemporary takes of the place of Christianity in contemporary culture. The question for many, in the end, is whether or not the ship has already sailed. And if it has, what next?
(image from amazon.com)