A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War by Joseph Loconte, is one of several books I’ve read over the past couple of years about WWI, its origins and its ongoing effects.
What it says about the spiritual conditions leading into (and through) the First World War seems disturbingly familiar. The specifics may have changed, but the general spirit of those conditions is unmistakably in the world again today; disguised to a degree – but with a flimsy mask.
“The alliance of church and state allowed the secular goals of government to get mixed up with the spiritual goals of Christianity.”
“Add to this the rise of the most potent political ideology of the hour: nationalism. The nation-state was replacing religion as a powerful source of meaning and identity in people’s lives…
…For devoted nationalists, their patriotic faith was equivalent to membership in an alternative church. For religious believers, nationalism offered a grandiose political outlet for their faith commitments. The result was the birth of Christian nationalism, the near sanctification of the modern state.”
That hybrid of nationalism and religion may have worked well at first for the recruitment of willing soldiers (“for God, King and country”) but it later had a detrimental impact on the faith of many. Christianity and God had been portrayed as being aligned with the cultural, political and philosophical systems of the age leading up to WWI, so:
Since Christianity was considered integral to Europe’s political and economic system, the perceived failure of that system was a spiritual failure as well.
…the Great War had defamed the values of the Old World, along with the religious doctrines that helped underwrite them.
Loconte writes about the despair and disbelief affecting the generation that lived through the War, and how it was reflected in post-war literary expression.
Postwar writers seemed to have no mental category for the nature of the conflict, no set of beliefs to understand it.
However he observes a difference in the work of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis who “rejected the sense of futility and agnosticism that infected so much [literary] output of their era”.
The dark horrors of their experience such as the scale of death and destruction informed their writings”
Central to their experience was an encounter with the presence of evil: the deep corruption of the human heart that makes it capable of hunting down and destroying millions of lives in a remorseless war of attrition.
A conviction emerged in both of these authors, however, that the problem of evil was not explainable only in natural terms. Rather, evil existed as a darkness in the soul of every human being and as a tangible spiritual force in the world.
But they also drew on aspects of “light”, things like the strong and often sacrificial relationships that sustained men through their time in the trenches. That close interdependent bond is the strength that, despite setbacks, ultimately leads the authors’ characters through the obstacles they face, looking ahead for the hope and promise of victory. But that hope wasn’t based on mere, vague wishfullness.
After returning to England from the front, Tolkien and Lewis might easily have joined the ranks of the rootless and disbelieving. Instead they became convinced there was only one truth, one singular event that could help the weary and the broken hearted find their way home: the Return of the King
…the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words. (1 Thess 4)
[All quotations, apart from the last are from A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War by Joseph Loconte