BOTH these books deal with outstanding Christian thinkers and writers as they responded to the crucial events of their time. For The Lion in the Wasteland, this is early 1940 as Germany started to blitz British centres of population; for The Year of our Lord 1943, it is when, victory now in sight, the allied powers started to think about what kind of world they wanted to build for the future. Their importance, however, is not just in reminding us of these writers and what they said then, but in bringing home to us the no less daunting challenge of our own times.
With the strong support of the BBC, which wanted something serious for the nation at a crucial time, and, in particular, the initiative of an unsung hero, the Head of Religious Broadcasting, the Revd James Welch, C. S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers became famous and influential communicators of the Christian faith.
Janice Brown in The Lion in the Wilderness considers them together with T. S. Eliot, who also did occasional broadcasts. Lewis disliked Eliot’s poetry and was at first suspicious of his Christian faith, but the two men came to a respectful friendship in their shared, deeply felt convictions. Both respected Sayers for her clever and deeply moral detective stories, as well as for the serious scholarship of her work on Dante. But her intense no-nonsense manner was not something that they wanted every day. As Lewis put it, he liked her “for the extraordinary edge and zest of her conversation as he liked a high wind”.
pa/tophamT. S. Eliot at his desk at Faber & Faber on 1 January 1940
Brown is especially knowledgeable on the neglected Sayers, on whom she is a leading specialist. She particularly admires Sayers’s play The Just Vengeance, which deeply moved those who saw it at the time. Brown describes the strong sense of personal calling that all three felt to speak and write on the faith, which meant relinquishing other work that was more natural to them; and the prophetic part that they played in asking whether the country now believed in anything more than consumerism and a steady rise in dividends. They castigated the Church for preaching a watered-down gospel and an anaemic Christ. The true Symbol is Aslan. As Mr Beaver says, “He’s wild you know. Not like a tame lion.”
Brown looks to three key moments in the early stages of the war. For Sayers, it was after the bombing of Coventry, when she was writing The Man Born to be King and the misunderstandings of the producers really got her angry and going. For Eliot, is was after the first great Blitz of London, when he spent his nights as a fire warden before going to work the following day as usual. For Lewis, it was his first broadcast at about this time.
The desperate crisis of the war brought home to them both humanity’s plight and the toughness of the Christian message. Love was “an intolerable shirt of flame” and our only choice, only despair, was “to be redeemed from fire by fire”. She traces out in all three authors their experience and message of how we can come through such fiery trials to joy.
As the Allied powers were planning a new world order in Casablanca, and Reinhold Niebuhr in the United States was setting out the political implications of a Christian view for this world, a group of thinkers in Europe were focusing on another aspect of what was needed: true education.
In The Year of Our Lord 1943, Alan Jacobs overlaps with Brown in discussing Lewis and Eliot, but, in addition, writes about the French philosopher Jacques Maritain, W. H. Auden, and Simone Weil, with an afterword about the Protestant theologian Jacques Ellul. Unlike Niebuhr, they had little political influence at the time, and they tended to meet in small like-minded groups such as “The Moot” for serious discussion at the highest Christian intellectual level. Eliot and Auden, of course, conveyed what they had to say through their poetry and occasional talks or papers. They all shared a sense of dismay at the wretched moral state of Europe between the wars, together with a further anxiety, that education in the future would be driven only by what was useful for the State and the workplace.
This, they believed, was because human beings were more and more being considered simply as numbers, or objects to be seen from a scientific point of view, rather than persons in relation to other persons. As a result of the breakdown of family life, the poverty of our culture, and the weakness of the Church, education, they believed, was being asked to bear too heavy a load.
Nevertheless, it was to education that we had to look, and this education needed to be based on a proper view of the human person as a moral and spiritual being, which, in turn, needed to be suffused and undergirded by a Christian understanding of life. Jacobs ends with the depressing thought that, though these outstanding thinkers were right in both their diagnosis and their remedy, it was already too late, and education would be increasingly dominated by utilitarian concerns.
Eliot believed that the Christian faith had become a foreign language, and that Europe had lost a capacity for religious feeling. He, together with the others discussed in these books, agreed that the situation had become more dire over the course of their lifetimes.
The situation that we face seems even more challenging, with almost no knowledge of the faith in our culture, and the Church no longer holding the moral high ground, but being, rightly, castigated for its failures. In education, although most individual schools do what they can to inculcate some civilised values, there is no binding philosophy of the human person as a moral and spiritual being. There is much the Church needs to say today which would echo the writers discussed in these books, but it is from a much weaker position.
One caution is necessary. Lewis and Eliot were social conservatives, opposed to many changes that we now take for granted. We can rightly ask whether they always distinguished a nostalgia for the past from genuine ills, and this, in turn, should drive us to ask again for the gift of true discrimination.
The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford. He is the author of Haunted by Christ: Modern writers and the struggle for faith published by SPCK.
The Lion in the Wasteland: Fearsome redemption in the work of C. S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers and T. S. Eliot
Kent State University Press £48.50
Church Times Bookshop £43.65
The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian humanism in an age of crisis
Church Times Bookshop £18