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The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity

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Beautiful World, Where Are You

Societies, and indeed generations, are most open to the gospel when they cannot provide cogent answers to the questions people are asking. So thought Professor Andrew Walls, the great mission historian. And that in broad terms is where British society finds itself. And that too is the predicament facing the two main thirty-something characters in Sally Rooney’s warm, astute, funny, and probing recent novel – Beautiful World, Where Are You.

After her two sex-drenched novels of Irish university life, Rooney fast-forwards a decade to take on the big themes of purpose and meaning, exploring her characters’ lives at precisely that hinge-period when questions of direction and achievement and relationship become sharpest. What kind of life am I making for myself?

Rooney’s emotionally fragile, likable, and intelligent female protagonists are driven by a laudable honesty. They think that history is over, that their capitalist lifestyle is trivial, ecologically unsustainable, and morally repugnant, fuelled as it is by the suffering of 95% of the world’s population. Similarly, they have concluded, as any Christian apologist would, that their atheistic beliefs render right and wrong unknowable and all of life meaningless.

What then of human love? Here they come up against their own wounds and the difficulty of navigating the murky, pathless boglands of contemporary relationships – when is a relationship a relationship? When does anyone owe you anything much more than a reply, eventually, to your last text? Even if you have been having sex regularly for weeks?

This prompts a spiritual exploration, partly triggered by their initial disbelief at the steady, deeply sincere Catholic faith of the man one of them has been in love since she was 15. How could anyone their own age believe that stuff? It is deftly, humorously, and respectfully done. And highlights, too, just how the absence of a divine centre in one’s life puts so much more pressure on finding a source of emotional stability and safety elsewhere.

Can the beautiful world they yearn for be found? The answer surprisingly and refreshingly turns out to be yes. And though the two women’s solutions are different, and certainly not orthodox, they are linked by a return to a trust in really quite traditional truths and values. If they were real people, we’d say God hasn’t finished with them yet.

As we trust he hasn’t finished with the generation they’re part of.


Mark Greene
Mission Champion, LICC


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