They Will Not Be Forgotten
I am just back with the boys from watching Peter Jackson’s excellent documentary, “They Will Not Grow Old.” It was a breathtakingly beautiful reminder of the resolve of human character, the fragility of life, the brokenness of human society, and the paper thin veneer of decency covering the baser elements and instincts of the human condition.
In the movie, Jackson and his team restored hours of largely forgotten World War I footage. This process was complicated by the monochromatic nature of the original film, years of decay, the lack of contemporary sound recordings to pair with the footage, not to mention the unpredictably inconsistent frame rate produced by the manual cameras extant at the time, which required the cameraman to hand-crank the film past the aperture.
Jackson deployed the best and brightest minds of modern cinematography to restore the footage, colorize it, smooth out the frame rate, and add an appropriate sound stage. The result was quite simply stunning.
I thought it might be useful to record some of the men’s observations from our time together afterwards:
WW1 marked the suicide of modernity. Modernity is the idea that man can get on quite well by himself without God. Give him enough education, technology, and good government, so it was thought, and mankind will create an inevitable utopia. On top of this, conventional wisdom stated that such a utopia needed a strong military to defend it from attack. At the turn of the 19th century, Germany was the most advanced nation on earth, with the best education system, the best and most advanced industrial machine, and one of the strongest militaries. If any nation could have been the birthplace of such a utopia, surely Germany was it. Yet, her avarice and pride produced the Great War, the war to end all wars (except of course it didn’t!).
Clive Staples Lewis fought in WW1, seeing his first day of active service in the trenches on his 19th birthday, November 29th, 1917. At that stage of his life, Jack was an atheist, and angry one to boot. He wrote war poems (De Profundis, and others) in which he blamed God for the war. Isn’t that interesting? He didn’t believe in God, yet he believed passionately that the world ought to be just? But, do you see, without God, from where does such an instinct for justice arise? An atheistical universe knows nothing of justice at its heart of hearts. Where there is no God, there is simply no ultimate reference point for the idea of justice, it becomes merely a human convention—the way we like the world to be; not the way the world really is. Deep down, even as an atheist, Jack knew better. He knew life ought to be just, and he knew war wasn’t. He just assigned the blame in the wrong direction. At this moment in his life, he epitomized the atheist’s creed: “There is not God and I hate Him!”
In war, leadership is essential. Without good men leading the way, chaos and disorder take over on the battle field. Which became a problem in the War, because the leaders on the battle field, leading as they did from the front, Webley Revolver and whistle in hand, where quickly cut down, leaving the troops uncertain of what to do next. Similar things happen in the Christian home when men lose their heads (metaphorically), when we get so caught up in the conflict that we forget our role as leaders and of our family’s need for such leadership. When this happens things go quickly pear-shaped. In such moments, we need to find a way to keep perspective (or quickly to recover it once lost) or our family will become a black hole of fleshly chaos. As Kipling famously quipped, “If you can keep your head while all about your lose theirs, then you will be a man, my son!” Leadership matters, and it is our responsibility to produce it.
In war, we must remember who we are fighting and why. Many of the troops in WW1 didn’t really understand why their countries were engaged in conflict. To them the struggle seemed pointless. This sapped morale in battle. As Christians, we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers, the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6). We must remember this. We ought not to expect a peaceful, easy life. We need a warfare mindset in which God’s kingdom receives the priority it deserves.
This sparked the question: as Christians, do we maintain such a warfare mindset? What would it look like if we did?
We would be engaged in the Word. We need to hear daily directions from our commanding officer (the Lord) from his battle plan (the Scripture). We need a robust Christian world and life view to guide us in battle, otherwise we too will lose our way and become spiritually disorientated. In Paul’s vision on spiritual armor (Ephesians 6), the belt, which holds all the other armor in place, is truth— the truth of the Christian world and life view.
We would also be much more engaged in prayer? Too often, we regard prayer as an intercom to ask the “servant” to bring us another cushion for our comfort, as opposed to a battle radio for calling down heavenly airstrikes upon God’s enemies. With this mindset, with what zeal should we read missionary prayer letters, seeing them as news from the frontlines of battle, as desperate cries for heavenly artillery to come to their rescue.
When soldiers returned from the war, they were surprised to discover that the country neither understood nor appreciated them. The soldiers were regarded as oddities; they did not fit in. The same principle stands true for Christians. If you are really involved in spiritual conflict, seeking to put Christ first, and resist the powers of darkness assaulting your soul, “run of the mill” people (even many professing Christians) will not understand you. It will seem to them as if you are from another world, as if you are out of your mind! The only way you will appear normal to them will be if you comprise your spirituality, get out of the fight, and live as if “nature were the whole show.” To combat this middling standard of the masses, we need to surround ourselves with people who see the world as it really is, a battle ground where eternal forces battle for the souls of men. Such fellowship braces the soul and encourages steadfastness. Without it, we will almost certainly lose perspective and become worldly, “normal,” and ineffective in the fight for our lives.
As we engage with the powers of darkness in our daily struggle to live to God, we must keep our eyes on Jesus Christ. He is the Captain of our Salvation, who has already won the victory for us. The decisive battle has been fought in Golgotha’s darkness. Easter morning is our VE/VJ Day. Because of Christ, any battles left for us to fight are but the mop up skirmishes of a war that is already over— over in the truest and deepest sense of the word, though it might not always seem so.