The Need for Roots
There are probably some stylistic reasons. Their language is near enough to our own day not to sound arcane, and the crispness, simplicity and visual quality of their prose has been shaped by the advent of the cinema. Their works are also marked by a deep awareness of radical evil, which is hardly surprising given the times in which they lived. It gives their essays an urgency, and their poetry and fiction a cosmic drama that few writers before or since have achieved: think of Big Brother and Room 101, Sauron and Saruman, Lord of the Flies, the White Witch, Animal Farm, and the role of sin and the devil in Graham Greene’s novels.
So it is fascinating how often their responses to radical evil involve an appeal to history. Sometimes this comes as a direct address to the reader, like James Baldwin’s writings on race, Hannah Arendt‘s on revolution, Leszek Kołakowski’s on communism, Isaiah Berlin’s on liberalism, or Dorothy Sayers’s Creed or Chaos. T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden do it through their numerous references and allusions. Greene and Flannery O’Connor draw on their Catholicism. C. S. Lewis makes the point through essays on why we should read old books, and by skewering chronological snobbery at every opportunity, from That Hideous Strength to the fates of Uncle Andrew and King Miraz in the Narnia stories.
J. R. R. Tolkien does it through his medieval language and setting, his complex prehistories, and his plot: remember Sam on the edge of Mount Doom, reminiscing about the Shire and reminding Frodo of the old stories long before totalitarian evil seized the world. Simone Weil’s greatest work is entitled L’Enracinement, usually translated The Need for Roots. Most powerfully of all, George Orwell creates worlds where nobody remembers the past, and where those in power, from the pigs in Animal Farm to the Party in 1984, are free to manipulate it for their own purposes, throwing unwanted recollections down the memory hole. “History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.” All of these writers had witnessed the near-collapse of the West in recent memory, and they knew the dangers of losing their history, and the importance of not allowing it.
We do not have to look too hard for contemporary equivalents. History is the most contested of subject areas, now as then, because (as Orwell pointed out) those who control the past control the future. If you want to prevent twenty-first century Christians from preaching the gospel, pursuing social reform and holding fast to orthodox faith, then history is your friend: just cast eighteenth century missionaries as rapacious villains, nineteenth century reformers as patrician moralists, and the defence of biblical authority in the twentieth century as a thinly disguised power play, and browbeaten believers will flee the public square like rabbits in the field when the fox arrives. Conversely, if you want to ensure that the divisions and injustices of the eighteenth century Church continue into the present, give people a triumphalist historical narrative of evangelistic breakthrough, social transformation and spiritual revival, while carefully omitting the egregious racial, sexual and political failures of their heroes. Paint goodies and baddies in lurid colour, and make all historical context a vague, indecipherable pastille grey. Rinse, wash, repeat.
We are storytelling creatures, so narrating origin stories is inevitable. Indeed, since it is impossible to be theologically neutral when it comes to history, narrating theological origin stories is probably inevitable. The only question is whether those origin stories are true, good and beautiful: whether they reflect what really happened and why; whether they nudge us towards courageous humility and love; whether they recount the wondrous deeds of the Lord alongside the successes and failures of human beings. The arrogance of amnesia is always a threat, not least in periods of great technological and economic change, and so is the defeatism born of weary cynicism about flawed ancestors. So it is vital, as the Psalms and the prophets remind us, to remember.
And to that end, Remaking the World: How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West will be out next September.