Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Unafraid to Be (Book Review)

Unafraid to Be: A Christian Study of Contemporary English Writing, by Ruth Etchells, Inter-Varsity Press, 1969

This is, without question, the most meaningful book I've read this year.

It's a short book, mostly about the despair and emptiness that dominated mid-20th-century novels, drama, and poetry, mostly British.  It's about what some of those weird plays were actually saying, although Ruth Etchells says she is not writing literary criticism.  It's about the Christian response to those questions, although she says the book is not meant to be theology.  What it is, is discussion (though it's not written in that format).  It's what you might have gotten into with Ruth Etchells, and, one supposes, some equally thoughtful friends, after seeing the latest John Mortimer play or reading a new Kingsley Amis novel.  It's the sort of discussion that one imagines having, in the '60's and '70's, at places like L'Abri.  People read the popular books, watched the films, and asked important questions; a few Christians tried to provide intelligent answers.  You can learn a lot, and not just about literature, by (virtually) sitting in on these conversations.

What worries me now, aside from the fact that most of us North Americans in 2013 won't immediately grasp the details of many of the works she's discussing (although you can always look them up), is that I wonder if people still ask the questions, want to discuss.  The question of whether Christians can respond to contemporary versions of the questions is not even such an issue: the questions themselves really don't change that much, they're about who we are and what life really means.  (The Christian response is that a Bible-and-God-centered view of life might offer an honest--not deluded--possibility of hope in the midst of despair.)

My concern is if what's out there right now--what people are watching and, hopefully, reading--does raise those important questions, and if anybody's asking them or caring about the answers.  Somehow I don't think Britain's Got Talent offers as much conversational fodder as the T.V. plays of the '60's did...or, rather, it does, but only in the sense that that's what people watch.  Maybe the important question to ask in our time is, how, in what form, do people ask the old questions, and try to answer them (if they do try)?  If it's not through poetry, or serious/angry/satirical novels that take precious time to read, or heavily-symbolic existentialist films that might leave you feeling very depressed, then how?  We may need to start by getting people...and I mean Christians too...to slow down enough to think and question as watchers and readers, as well as to respond by the art they create.  Because if nobody's even asking, or taking the time to look at what's created, we're all in serious trouble.

In the meantime, Ruth Etchells' book offers a brief but challenging look at the world of ideas, as it existed fifty years ago.  Very worthwhile, and not just a conversation piece about the past...it's a good lesson in Christian apologetics.

1 comment:

Annie Kate said...

It sounds a bit like Francis Schaeffer's How Shall We Then Live.

People still ask the questions, but the answers are even more mixed up than the questions. Some young friends of mine love Blue Like Jazz (probably the most negative review I've written!) because it pretends to grapple with some of the big questions.

But it doesn't really.