The Great War ended with the official Treaty of Versailles in June 1919, but arms were laid down on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. This Sunday is the hundredth anniversary of what we had hoped to be the end of all wars.
President Wilson proclaimed the following year: “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.”
Collin Hansen asked Baylor Historian Philip Jenkins about WWI’s influence on Christian peoples. Did the war or the end of it change the global church in significant ways?
The war destroyed ancient centers of Christianity in the Middle East, especially among the Armenians and Assyrians. At the same time, the suspension of missionary enterprises shifted the balance in Africa and Asia to native forms of faith. That movement was massively enhanced in 1918 by the influenza epidemic, which killed between 50 million and 100 million worldwide. That event showed the utter inability of Western missionaries and medics, and drove many ordinary people to seek help from healing churches, and from individual prophets and charismatic leaders. The great age of the African Independent Churches dates from this time.
As to the West, I can hardly begin! Contrary to myth, the war did not destroy the faith of ordinary people, but it did drive thought and writing by theologians, above all by Karl Barth. Barth published the first edition of his commentary on Romans in 1919, but it was the second edition, published in 1922, that according to one Catholic observer, “burst like a bombshell on the playground of the European theologians.” The book was a frontal attack on the liberal conventions that had shaped mainstream theology since the Enlightenment.
And that does not begin to talk about the great Catholic thinkers like Henri de Lubac, whose war experiences shaped their lives, and we see their lasting influence transforming the church in the Vatican Council of the 1960s.
Dare I say that the Christian world we know today is the product of 1918?
‘I wonder,’ said Frodo. ‘But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.’
Much has been written in Tolkien scholarship about the influence World War I had on the composition of The Lord of the Rings. That influence is certainly discernable in The Two Towers, which I recently completed re-reading. It’s been a few days since I finished it, so I’ve probably forgotten some of what I thought while reading, but I’ll try to offer a few crumbs from the feast for your perusal.
When I first read of the World War I connection, I had some trouble understanding it. The corpses in the Dead Marshes, people said, were reminiscent of the corpses in No Man’s Land, between the trenches. The journey was like trench warfare… somehow.
I understood it a little better, I think, in this reading. Frodo’s and Sam’s journey is in some psychological ways like the experience of a long war. Sam is a perfect epitome of the “common” soldier whom so many men of Tolkien’s class learned to appreciate, as never before, in the shared experience of combat. C. S. Lewis writes affectingly of his experience with his own sergeant, technically his subordinate, who taught him enough war-craft to stay alive in the early stages, and finally gave his own life (inadvertently) for Lewis through standing between him and the exploding shell that would have killed him. Continue reading Blogging through LOTR: War stories
I’m not sure C. S. Lewis would have approved of this book. He maintained, on numerous occasions, that an author’s biography should be of no interest to the reader. Studying the lives of Milton or of Spenser, he insisted, would provide no insight into the meanings of their works beyond what an intelligent reader can gather from reading the plain texts.
Still, I think Joseph Loconte’s A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War serves a useful purpose. Amidst the tremendous popularity of the works of Tolkien and Lewis all these decades after their deaths, there’s a lot of misunderstanding about their artistic motivations (particularly in Tolkien’s case. I’m pretty sure a lot of fans of the movies think the books are about environmentalism). Loconte follows the two men’s lives, concentrating especially on their experiences in the First World War, and explains how the experience of battle (Lewis remembered thinking, “This is war. This is what Homer wrote about”) impressed itself on their memories and their imaginations. In the midst of the great disillusionment that swept Europe after the armistice, Tolkien kept his bearings, because he’d never fallen for over-optimistic enthusiasms like eugenics but had put his faith in eternal things. And in time he was able to help his friend Jack Lewis to understand as well.
For fans unfamiliar with the lives and the thought behind the books of these two men, A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War may be very illuminating. It’s well written and well researched. I recommend it.