2014: The Year of Atheist Spirituality? (Reformation 21)
U.S.-Cuba Diplomacy Sparks Hope & Wariness
Old Age, Happiness, and Virtue (BreakPoint)
2014: The Year of Atheist Spirituality? (Reformation 21)
U.S.-Cuba Diplomacy Sparks Hope & Wariness
Old Age, Happiness, and Virtue (BreakPoint)
This holiday season marks the 100th anniversary of the World War I Christmas truce, in which opposing troops along the war’s western front spontaneously climbed out of their trenches to exchange gifts, sing carols, and play soccer. Especially in the United Kingdom, the anniversary has been the subject of much discussion. Prince William unveiled a new monument to the truce in mid-December, and a major supermarket chain has referenced the truce in its holiday ad campaign. The article below explores the spiritual realities reflected in that remarkable display of the Christmas spirit a century ago.
As they looked out across no man’s land, British soldiers were alarmed at flickering lights in the German trenches. Some of the British opened fire, while others readied their ammunition and weapons for fresh combat. A German cried, “Don’t shoot!” but there seemed no reason to trust him. Then from across the way came the strains of “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” (Silent Night, Holy Night), and the English realized that those lights were makeshift, Christmas tree candles. They laid down their arms and joined in the carol.1
Christmas 1914 was bitterly cold for those at the Anglo-German front in northern France and Belgium, but that was cause for rejoicing. The mud had frozen, and the troops were able to dry out. Still, it was a miserable time, for they were locked in a war of attrition, one which would take the lives of almost ten million soldiers.
In the midst of this carnage, Christmas Eve proved to be an island of peace. While there were some skirmishes here and there, they were lighter than usual, and the overwhelming majority of troops enjoyed an unofficial truce. The music ranged from “Silent Night” on a French harmonica to Handel’s Largo on a German violin. A German regimental band even played the national anthems of both Germany and Britain.
The battle for Europe had given way to the “battle of the carols”:
They finished their carol and we thought that we ought to retaliate in some way, so we sang “The First Nowell,” and when we finished that they all began clapping; and then they struck up another favourite of theirs, “O Tannenbaum.” And so it went on. First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up “O Come All Ye Faithful” the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words “Adeste Fideles.” And I thought, well, this was really a most extraordinary thing—two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.2
Christmas dawn ushered in more of this extraordinary goodwill. As camaraderie and trust grew, opponents met in the open and exchanged such gifts as wine for cake. A German barber cut Scottish hair. One British private sent his wife a postcard with six German signatures.
Burial parties were arranged. The 6th Gordon Highlanders and the 15th Infantry Regiment, a Westphalian unit, joined in a moving ceremony for the dead. As Scotsmen, Englishmen, Saxons, and Westphalians lined up on both sides of a communal mass grave, the Reverend J. Esslemont Adams, minister of the West United Free Church, Aberdeen, and chaplain of the 6th Gordons, read the Twenty-third Psalm in English. A theology student then read it in German . . . The Lord’s Prayer followed, sentence by sentence, in both languages: “Our Father Who art in Heaven. Unser Vater in dem Himmel . . .”3
In many sectors, peace continued through New Year’s Day, in others through mid-January. Not surprisingly, the soldiers were reluctant to resume hostilities.4
Pacifists and other romanticists will cite this occurrence as evidence of the folly and dispensability of war. Certainly they are right that many wars are foolish and unnecessary, but they must ignore both man’s depravity and the demands of justice to denounce all war. There will always be Hitlers, and they must always be stopped.
This incident does, however, illustrate the scandal of supposedly Christian nations’ taking up arms against each other. Brass buttons on the leather German equipment belts read, “Gott mit uns” (“God with us”),5 and the British no doubt felt the same way about their cause. But God is not divided. Even without exploring the roots of the First World War and the rightness or wrongness of the sides’ perspectives, it is fair to say that at least one party missed the Lord’s directions, and so their involvement was deplorable. They needed to repent, not attack.
It has been said that democracies never go to war against democracies, a phenomenon borne out in history. Unfortunately the same cannot be said about nations and factions who claim Jesus as Lord. Whether at Belfast, Gettysburg, or Ypres, Christians have taken up arms against Christians and made a spectacle of themselves before a watching world—a sorry testimony, unlike the splendid testimony of carols sung across no man’s land on Christmas Eve 1914.
1 The bulk of this account is found under “Peace on Earth” in Morris Eksteins, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989), 109-114.
2 Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton, Christmas Truce: The Western Front December 1914 (London: Pan Macmillan, 2001), 58-59.
3 Eksteins, 111.
4 Brown and Seaton, 149. “The difficulty began on the 26th, when the order to fire was given, for the men struck. Herr Lange says that in the accumulated years he had never heard such language as the officers indulged in, while they stormed up and down, and got, as the only result, the answer, ‘We can’t—they are good fellows, and we can’t.’ Finally, the officers turned on the men with, ‘Fire, or we do—and not at the enemy!’ Not a shot had come from the other side, but at last they fired, and an answering fire came back, but not a man fell. We spent that day and the next,’ said Herr Lange, ‘wasting ammunition in trying to shoot the stars down from the sky.’”
5 Ibid., 96.
E. M. Bounds was an attorney who sensed God calling him to ministry after only three years in the legal practice. Consequently, he served as a Confederate chaplain during the American Civil War and a pastor at churches across the South before settling in Washington, Georgia, for a fruitful writing ministry. His works on prayer have become legendary for their spiritual insight.
This passage is drawn from his 1906 book Power through Prayer. It explains that a holy Church and an effective ministry depend on prayer.
A holy life would not be so rare or so difficult a thing if our devotions were not so short and hurried. A Christly temper in its sweet and passionless fragrance would not be so alien and hopeless a heritage if our closet [prayer room]1 stay were lengthened and intensified. We live shabbily because we pray meanly. Plenty of time to feast in our closets will bring marrow and fatness to our lives. Our ability to stay with God in our closet measures our ability to stay with God out of the closet …
There are plenty of preachers who will preach and deliver great and eloquent addresses on the need of revival and the spread of the kingdom of God, but not many there are who will do that without which all preaching and organizing are worse than vain—pray. It is out of date, almost a lost art, and the greatest benefactor this age could have is the man who will bring the preachers and the Church back to prayer.2
1 Matthew 6:6
2 E. M. Bounds, Power through Prayer (1906), available at Christian Classics Ethereal Library Website, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/bounds/power.XIX.html (accessed December 11, 2014).
2 And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” 3 And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. 4 And Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them.”
Matthew 8:2-4 (ESV)
In 1890 Robert Louis Stevenson visited Molokai, Hawaii, home to a leper colony. Though sick with tuberculosis, he found enough strength to play with the kids and to observe the nuns who cared for them. When Stevenson left, he gave them the following poem. Evidently, he was moved both by the lepers’ perseverance and the caretakers’ compassion:
He sees, and shrinks; but if he look again,
Lo, beauty springing from the breast of pain!
He marks the sisters on the painful shores,
And even a fool is silent and adores.1
Today, leprosy usually refers to Hansen’s Disease, the ailment described by Stevenson. The leprosy referred to in Scripture is actually a broader term for a number of disfiguring skin diseases. Most importantly, according to the Mosaic Law, it contaminated the victim and barred him from community life: “He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp” (Lev. 13:46).
Burdened by physical and emotional strain, the leper became a walking parable of unholiness, a picture for the entire community of separation between God and man. However, this particular leper had heard of Jesus. Word spread that crowds had “brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases” (Matt. 4:24) and surely filled the leper with hope. Confronting Jesus, humbled by his need, still cautious, the leper asked, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” Clearly, the leper did not doubt Jesus could heal, but would He? Jesus would, and did. The Law told the leper to remain outside the camp, untouched, but Jesus touched the leper and made him clean. Jesus reversed the fortunes of an outcast. Indeed, Christians follow a compassionate Savior.
Until Christ returns to end the suffering of His people, to fully and finally set all wrongs right, it is incumbent upon believers to emulate their Master and exercise compassion themselves. The modern Western Church knows what it means to be comfortable but it knows little of the shocking compassion exercised by Christians of the past who reached out toward those whom society refused to touch. In the second century it meant adopting babies who might otherwise have been left outside to die. In the eighteenth century it meant taking a prophetic stance against the slave trade. In the nineteenth century, Christians took the lead in caring for those who were then called the deaf and dumb.
What about today? Who are society’s imperiled ones in the twenty-first century? Perhaps it is the older child in need of adoption; the elderly, abandoned in a nursing home, in need of companionship; the neighbor, suffering from HIV, in need of a touch; the out-of-work alcoholic in need of counsel; the wheelchair-bound teenager, in need of encouragement. Whoever it is, if Christianity means anything, by God’s grace, surely believers ought to resemble their Savior, whose compassion was deep, rich, and, ultimately, costly.
1 Cited in John Farrow, Damien the Leper (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1937), 206.
One of the great legacies of the Reformed tradition is an emphasis on worldview thinking. Every area of life is to be brought under the lordship of Christ, and every legitimate discipline may be used as a means of worshipping God with one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength.
In a recent volume, Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., President of Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, reminds Christians that life-long learning is a spiritual vocation.
Thoughtful Christians know that if they obey the Bible’s great commandment to love God with our whole mind, as well as with everything else, then we will study the splendor of God’s creation in the hope of grasping part of the ingenuity and grace that form it. One way to love God is to know and love God’s work. Learning is therefore a spiritual calling; properly done, it attaches us to God. In addition, the learned person has, so to speak, more to be Christian with. The person who studies chemistry, for example, can enter into God’s enthusiasm for the dynamic possibilities of material reality. The student who examines one of the great movements of history has moved into a position to praise the goodness of God, or to lament the mystery of evil, or to explore the places where these things intertwine. Further, from persistent study of history a student may develop good judgment, a feature of wisdom that helps us lead a faithful human life in the midst of a confusing world. And, of course, chemistry and history are only two examples from the wide menu of good things to learn.1
1 Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2002), xi.
Intolerance is the quickest route to social leprosy on the modern university campus. Intolerance simply cannot be tolerated. So argued University of Chicago Professor Allan Bloom in his courageous book, The Closing of the American Mind. By his account, a student could be known for promiscuity, drunkenness, profanity, laziness, and dishonesty and still be popular among his peers. But if he argued that homosexuality, Wicca, or any other deviant lifestyle or belief system was mistaken and harmful, then he was a marked man. At best, he was shunned, at worst, expelled and sued.
Bloom’s title was, at first sight, a curious one, for the book seemed to describe a very open-minded culture, one free from “Victorian” and “Puritanical” strictures. No longer restrained by “cold orthodoxy,” the university celebrated all sorts of formerly disparaged convictions and practices. But, as Bloom argued, their minds were so open that their brains had fallen out. Doubting the existence of truth, they found no cause to pursue it. So the mind stopped working, its activities replaced by those of the vocal chords, fists, and loins.
Traditionalists charged with intolerance are seldom guilty of that crime, for they passionately defend others’ rights to hold and champion their own positions, however bizarre or obviously self-destructive they might be. No, their crime is to claim that they have truths that others lack, much as Jeremiah proclaimed the faith of the Patriarchs at the expense of idol worship and as Paul preached the gospel at the expense of legalism.
Unfortunately, the issue is scarcely one of truth. It is, rather, a matter of feelings, esteem, and power—a post-modern pantheon. And so it was not surprising that Harvard Law School was convulsed at a professor’s claim that feminists, Marxists, and blacks had contributed little to a particular sector of legal theory. Instead of examining the claim for veracity, they formed a Committee on Healthy Diversity. A new sensitivity course was put in place, and a new speech code considered. It was as though a new right had been added to the original Bill of Rights, the right not to be offended.
Truth is taking a beating, but even more fundamentally, the canons of logic are dismissed. For centuries, logicians and rhetoricians have insisted on fealty to the principle of non-contradiction—one cannot both assert a thing and its opposite; you must be consistent. Now that is counted as an oppressive standard, one that serves only the interests of exacting, disciplined leaders, those more committed to persuading than emoting, those disinclined to “revel in contradiction.”
Through the years, professors have steered their students away from ad hominem argument (attacking the person instead of his case) and the genetic fallacy (dismissing something because it had a flawed beginning). These are no longer “sins”; now they are “virtues,” the very stock in trade of “deconstructionists,” scholars who read an oppressor and his victim into every line of text. When they hear, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights . . .” they can only muster contempt for the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Instead of appreciating fine words by a flawed man (Thomas Jefferson), they read the horrors of patriarchalism (“all men”) and religious bigotry (“Creator”) from the pen of a slave holder. Forget the objective truth of the text; focus on its nefarious subtext.
Alas, this perspective operates beyond the walls of the academy. For instance, Canadian Hugh Owens was fined $4,500 by the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission for placing a newspaper ad citing Scripture which was critical of homosexuality. Though such an act of “sensitive” intolerance may be shocking, Paul projected this sort of thing 2 Timothy 3:1-4, when he wrote, “There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves . . . unholy . . . without self-control . . . not lovers of the good . . . lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God . . .”
Under these circumstances, the Church would most naturally stand in stark contrast with the culture. The pastors would be prophets, their congregations, warriors. But Paul anticipated a shocking spectacle: “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
As error flies all about the Church, the pulpit must become a fount of truth. If any churchman would presume to insist that the sacred desk avoid offense, then that man has gravely misunderstood both the times and the preacher’s sacred task. He needs to repent and then defend Paul’s mandate to his successors—“Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2).
The world will not tolerate this; the Church must tolerate nothing less.