Strange Flourishing: The Christian Moment in Twentieth-Century British Literature
“If one could believe in God, would he fill the desert?”
Graham Greene, The End of the Affair
Most historians point to the late 1800s as the time when Christianity began to experience a serious decline in Europe, a decline that proceeded steadily through the next century and a half. Yet there was a strange anomaly in the midst of all that decline. The middle of the 20th century saw a major resurgence of orthodox Christian faith among British writers, a sudden strange flourishing in the desert of modernity.
Since that time, it seems as if Christians have been searching for another such moment, a moment that would bring great artists and audience and faith all together, sparking a blaze that would light up the world. During the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, both Anglicans (including C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, Dorothy L. Sayers, Barbara Pym, and Rose Macaulay) and Catholics (including Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, J. R. R. Tolkien, Muriel Spark, and Ronald Knox) steadily turned out out novels, poems, plays, and radio scripts that reflected their Christian faith, along with straightforward works of apologetics. Mere Christianity, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, Brideshead Revisited, The Heart of the Matter, The Power and the Glory, The End of the Affair, Four Quartets, Murder in the Cathedral, The Cocktail Party, Gaudy Night, The Mind of the Maker, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Excellent Women—this is just a partial list of the works these artists and thinkers produced, works that have deservedly become classics.
In short, these were not obscure writers. What they wrote was widely read, seen, listened to, and loved, both by their fellow Britons and by audiences all over the world. These writers and many others brought to their work not just robust faith but also formidable intellectual gifts that helped them tackle the toughest questions of their day and shattered stigmas, stereotypes, and other misconceptions about Christianity. They helped many learn to take faith seriously and helped some to embrace it fully.
In his recent book A Grain of Faith: Religion in Mid-Century British Literature, Allan Hepburn puts it this way:
From the declaration of war on 3 September 1939 until the consecration of Coventry Cathedral [which was bombed and then rebuilt] on 25 May 1962, Christian faith transformed British cultural production. Novelists thought about the spiritual life of characters just as architects thought about churches and chapels that expressed faith in physical form. Instead of deliberating on whether God existed or not, British writers understood faith as a human necessity in the face of conflict and rebuilding.
I picked up Hepburn’s book because I was curious about where all that faith had gone. Today, more than half the adults in Britain belong to no religion. Those Christian writers and their works may have flourished at mid-century, but if they did anything to arrest the steady drop in belief in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, the effect seems to have been only temporary. And British cultural production largely reverted back to a grimmer mood. If those works from the middle of the century were so good and so powerful—as everyone from literary critics to theologians would argue that they are—why didn’t their impact last in their own country?
Hepburn, a professor of 20th-century literature at McGill University, explains how World War II and the years that followed concentrated people’s minds on the fundamentals: the problem of evil, the power of the state and how it can be abused, the need for beauty and goodness in a world that all too often turns dark and ugly. The postwar years would see an increasing search for stability in a transient world, as “populations became too mobile to create permanent communities.” With all this going on, the time was ripe for what Hepburn calls “a renewal of faith among the ruins.”
For different thinkers and writers, of course, that meant different things. Nonbelievers like John Strachey and Virginia Woolf called for “faith in the future,” whatever that might mean. Church and government officials alike promoted a kind of civil religion, a religious faith that was bound up with a national and cultural faith. Hepburn devotes a rather lengthy section of the book to the bombing of British churches and cathedrals, and how this loss and destruction were incorporated into wartime propaganda. This sort of thing Hepburn dismisses as “muzzy religion,” or “a mixture of tradition and righteous faith used for propagandistic purposes.”
But at the same time, thoughtful Christians committed to using the opportunity to share the great truths of their faith, without watering them down. Lewis and Sayers gave talks, created radio broadcasts, and wrote essays, books, and dramas that offered deep but lucid accounts of Christian doctrine—works that were by all accounts incredibly popular. Great novelists like Greene and Waugh boldly incorporated saints, martyrs, and miracles into their stories, going directly against the grain of a culture more accustomed to rationalism and ordinary human drama in its fiction. Eliot’s poetry, while remaining decidedly modern in form, moved away from its modernist bleakness after his conversion to Christ.
The word relatable is overused, but there’s something to be said for finding the right theme at the right cultural moment for the right audience, in what can only be called a divine accident. When Greene’s Sarah Miles (The End of the Affair) made a desperate vow to a God she didn’t even believe in to save her lover from dying in an air raid, readers could understand. They could grasp the concepts of right and wrong as Lewis explained them when the whole world was battling over them. In the postwar years, though many Tolkien readers were unaware of his beliefs, they could certainly relate to his portrayal of the battle to preserve a beloved homeland against the forces of darkness. It was the right moment for big themes like sacrifice and redemption, and yes, reaching out in faith.
And yet the moment didn’t last. As Hepburn notes, “The religious fervour of the 1940s and 1950s trails away in the early 1960s. Something shifted in or around 1963.” Even prominent religious leaders—he cites the famous (or infamous) book Honest to God by John Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich—were finding “the idea of God inadequate to the spiritual needs of the 1960s.” At the same time, “postwar interest in religion dissipated into the vagaries of karma, reincarnation, and astrology.”
As a new generation, one that didn’t remember the war, was growing up, it made sense that they might lose sight of the faith that had sustained their parents through those terrible years. But that still leaves the question, why were their parents unable to communicate any of its truth or importance to them?
If we go along with Hepburn’s contention that much of the faith shared by cultural figures in the mid-20th century was a “muzzy faith,” that would certainly help to explain why many might have fallen away, or at least struggled to sustain their faith. But that idea hardly fits with the kind of Christian writing we saw during that mid-century period—the kind that wrestled with thorny theological questions and embraced the most mystifying and difficult aspects of faith. Whatever may have gone on in other cultural and religious circles, there was very little about this faith that was “muzzy.”
Something else that Hepburn mentioned may come closer to the mark. That postwar transience, even as it created a hunger for something stable and solid, also depleted parishes (even as Barbara Pym was still brilliantly capturing their ins and outs in her postwar novels). Hepburn writes,
In London alone, over a million homes were damaged during the war and over 100,000 totally destroyed; in 1944 at the height of the V1 and V2 blitz, 20,000 houses per day were partially or entirely damaged. . . . People were constantly on the move because of bomb-damaged dwellings. With evacuations, billeting, military postings, and bombed-out buildings being the norm for wartime, Britons registered 60 million changes of address for a civilian population of 48 million. . . . After the war, families throughout Britain lived in patched and temporary housing while waiting for better quarters.
With so many Britons on the move, the idea of a church community that “nurtures the spiritual development of individuals” and “imposes collective responsibilities and obligations on all those who reside within its boundaries” became more and more a thing of the past. It could not be helped, and perhaps it wasn’t all bad; novelists like Pym and Spark adeptly remind us in their tales of community life that communities have their dark sides as well as their advantages. But it was a loss all the same—a loss that hastened the passing of that moment when great writers had something to share about faith that readers were eager to hear and to implement in their lives.
Since that time, it seems as if Christians have been searching for another such moment, a moment that would bring great artists and audience and faith all together, sparking a blaze that would light up the world. Considering the scope of the crisis that sparked that previous moment, however, perhaps we should remember to be careful what we wish for. Divine accidents, as Greene and Lewis and Eliot and all the others would probably tell us, tend to involve the catastrophic.
Still, it’s not wrong to hope that God would bring together another such group of powerful, faith-inspired artists. If another such moment should come along—a moment that brings crisis and artists and audience and faith all together—let’s hope we can remember the lesson of the last one. However intelligently and creatively faith is shared—however bright the spark that gets a revival going—it needs the life of a Christian community to keep it from burning out.
Review copy of A Grain of Faith provided by Oxford University Press.
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This is also a topic that Alan Jacobs has explored rather extensively, for example in his essay The Watchmen here: https://harpers.org/archive/2016/09/the-watchmen/ and in his book The Year of Our Lord 1943. He has some interesting additional thoughts.
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