Feeble Lamps Burning in the Big Wind: A Review of “The Year of Our Lord 1943”

November 29, 2018
Title: The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis
Author: Alan Jacobs
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publish Date: August 1, 2018
Hardcover: 280 pages
ISBN: 978-0190864651

It just so happens that in 1943, five of the brightest Christian minds of the time—C.S. Lewis, Jacques Maritain, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Simone Weil—were all writing, speaking, and thinking about education and what it means to be human. This would not be weird except that it was 1943, and the catastrophe of World War II was still engulfing the globe. So why, in the middle of a worldwide crisis, were these Christians talking about something as insignificant as their philosophy of education? This is the question that Alan Jacobs dances around in his new book, The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis. He wonders, What if these five thinkers were looking prophetically past the war? Of course fascism was evil, but what about the technocrat Allies who were fighting them—what would happen when the technocrat victors became the educators? Each one of these thinkers, in their own way, was afraid that technocratic education would reduce people to “an animal for the utility of the state,” as Maritain put it (124). The book, then, is a drama about five Christians sparring their way through literature and the humanist tradition as well as trying to chart a different, better, distinctly Christian view of human being and the task of learning.

The Year of Our Lord 1943 is a strange book—do not expect a linear narrative. Jacobs is a devoted disciple of W. H. Auden; so, in a way, the book evokes one of Auden’s great long-form poems, The Age of Anxiety, in which a group of thinkers inhabit a virtual space together to talk and talk and talk. These contemporaries (Lewis, Maritain, and so on) had little actual contact in each other’s lives, but Jacobs is endlessly fascinated by the mere fact that they happened to think their thoughts at the same time—overlapping and interacting. Rather than sticking with one character at a time, he jumps back and forth as different characters take the stage. And what a colorful cast of characters it is! There is T. S. Eliot, the stuffy, snooty cultural critic and poet; Jacques Maritain, the earnest philosopher convert; W. H. Auden, the music-and-book-guzzling aesthete and poet who happens to be gay; and Simone Weil, the tormented mystic and rigorist wunderkind. Perhaps the most surprising character is Jacobs’ version of C. S. Lewis. Far from the breezy confidence of Lewis’ radio talks or the warm didacticism of Narnia, the war-era Lewis of private letters that emerges in Jacobs’ depiction is quivering with fear and self-doubt.

And what exactly are our courageous heroes arguing for? It is impossible to summarize all the terrain that they cover, but themes do emerge out of the murk of cross-references and nested quotes. Jacques Maritain sounds the alarm in his lecture Education at the Crossroads:

Technology is good, as a means for the human spirit and for human ends. But technocracy, that is to say, technology so understood and so worshipped as to exclude any superior wisdom and any other understanding than that of calculable phenomena, leaves in human life nothing but relationships of force, or at best those of pleasure, and necessarily ends up in a philosophy of domination (130-131).

The rest of the book is, in a way, an extended meditation on this quote, grouped into broad categories. There is a chapter on the checkered Christian humanist tradition that technocratic education replaced and another on the ways that the use of force corrupts truth (and Christianity). Also there is a bizarre but necessary chapter on demons and the way that technocracy can be conceived as a manifestation of “the powers and principalities.” Along the way, we are lavished with lapidary excerpts from Auden’s and Eliot’s poems, Weil’s tortured and visionary letters, and smatterings of every genre in which Lewis dabbled. Even if you find Jacobs’ argument unpersuasive (or inscrutable), the brilliant quotes alone make the book worth reading.

The Year of Our Lord 1943 is an intellectual biography, and like any biography, reading it is an act of moral formation. Studying the contours of another’s life, we reflect on our own lives and discern what to emulate and what to avoid. But where a standard biography calls us to follow or reject the example of a single saint and sinner, hero or villain, the ensemble cast biography asks a different set of questions of the reader: What are the boundaries of their claims? What are their shared convictions, if any? Do these people form a community, and is this the kind of community I would want to be a part of?

Reading the book, I found it striking that each character found shelter from the external tempest of nationalism and the internal tempest of romantic individualism by joining a fellowship with other pilgrims on the way. C. S. Lewis had his Inklings, the gold standard of literary pub theology. T. S. Eliot attended Oldham’s Moot, a group of Christian intellectuals attempting to bring Christianity back into public discourse. (With names like The Inklings and Oldham’s Moot, you may rightly begin to wonder if Christian fellowships must have quirky names to be legitimate.) W. H. Auden found an intellectual home in Elizabeth Mayer’s salon, which he described in a poem as “a cottage in Long Island… our minds a civitas of sound.” Maritain found his fellowship in his intense intellectual synergy with his wife, Raïssa, and their joint tutelage under Henri Bergson. (The fact that each of these four found a fellowship makes the path taken by Simone Weil, with her unflinching commitment to aloneness, all the more devastating.)

These fellowships are a bright spot of hope because, on the whole, the book tells a tragic tale. The Year of Our Lord 1943 is a tragedy because the central characters failed to change the world. But perhaps our goal as Christians should not be to assume arrogantly that we can change the world; maybe we should be simply seeking a few good friends, “people worth disagreeing with,” as T. S. Eliot described Oldham’s Moot (27). For all of their failure to turn the tide of technocratic education, the characters in the book succeeded in other ways. For example, they formed countercultural communities (often open and porous, welcoming non-Christians) by resisting the use of force to coerce others to adopt a Christian worldview. Perhaps most importantly, they relentlessly witnessed to beauty, human suffering, and personhood in the face of a culture that had come to prize technique, mechanization, and efficiency over all else.

As a parent, this book struck a nerve with me as I tried to discern what the values guiding my children’s education should be. As a pastor, the book sparked thoughts about what Christian discipleship looks like in a technologically-driven society. As a lover of literature, the book functioned as an apologetic for why reading literature, as a study of the human person and a discipline for discerning beauty, is an important Christian task. However, as I read and enjoyed the book, there was a nagging thought that would not go away. In a world full of crises, can we really justify the study of “Christian humane learning as a force for social renewal” (51)? In a letter to his brother during the war, W. H. Auden wrote, “All that we can do, we who are spared the horrors, is to be happy and not pretend out of a sense of guilt that we are not, to study as hard as we can, and keep our feeble lamps burning in the big wind” (116). As a follower of Christ, this leaves me with a deeply unsettling question: Is Auden right?

About the Author
  • Steven Rodriguez is the pastor of Lakeview Community Church, a congregation of the Reformed Church in America. He lives in Rochester, NY. You can follow him on Twitter @smarcorodriguez.

What are your thoughts about this topic?
We welcome your ideas and questions about the topics considered here. If you would like to receive others' comments and respond by email, please check the box below the comment form when you submit your own comments.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

There are currently no comments. Why don't you kick things off?