Don’t Despair: Letters to a modern man
Pine Tribe £6.04 (978-0-9912609-4-2)
CHRISTIANITY as we know it was first communicated in a series of letters, and from St Paul to C. S. Lewis the epistolary approach to apologetics has proved popular. Furthermore, the epistolary novel has been especially prominent in Scandinavian literature, so that Matias Dalsgaard’s "letters to a modern man" boast a distinguished pedigree.
Both the author and the recipient of these letters are fictitious, although Dalsgaard, a Danish philosopher and successful entrepreneur, clearly identifies himself with Rasmus, the over-achiever who appears to have it all, and yet remains unhappy and unfulfilled. His Uncle Morten is a Lutheran priest to whom Rasmus turns for advice, and an exchange of letters takes place over many months. Unfortunately, only Morten’s are featured here, and, as with the Pauline epistles, it is frustrating to have only one side of the correspondence. One consequence of this is that, although Morten admits to lecturing his nephew, and preaching at him, we are left to wonder why Rasmus apparently offers no response worth recording.
The book is in two parts. The first is analytical and critical, as Morten dissects his nephew’s character and lifestyle with clinical precision. In spite of his success as a modern man, still Rasmus is not content, and, when his wife deserts him, he descends into a classic slough of despond. He tries psychological therapies and meditation techniques, but these simply collude with his own self-perception as a competitor in today’s socio-economic rat race. Morten is clear that, even if you win the rat race, you are still a rat and doomed to despair.
In the second and more positive half of the book, Morten offers a solution to this malaise by drawing extensively on the writings of his compatriot, Søren Kierkegaard, who majored on how we must learn to relate ourselves to ourselves rather than to those artificial and inauthentic accounts of the self prevalent in "the present age". This will simply to be oneself — to accept and celebrate oneself in the ebb and flow of day-to-day existence — is crucial to authentic humanity and psychological well-being.
Whether or not a person believes in God, these lessons are still worth learning. But, as a Christian himself, Morten endorses Kierkegaard’s view that the one thing that we should will, above all else, is to live in reliance on God the giver of life. To place ultimate reliance on anything or anyone else is idolatry, and no idol can ever be an antidote to existential despair.
The fact that the book’s Danish readers were moved to contribute to a crowd-funding campaign to enable its English translation must mean that many have found it helpful in coping with the stresses and strains of modern life. But being lectured by Uncle Morten will not be everyone’s cup of tea, even if his advice is timely, topical, and to the point.
Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.