We live in the present, but we are linked inextricably with those who have come before – just as those who come after are linked with us. What do we remember of our fathers and mothers of old? Do we want our sons and daughters to remember us in the same way?
The year of my birth marked the centennial of the great American Civil War. At that time, the “late unpleasantness,” as some Southerners called it, was barely removed from the realm of living memory. The last Union and Confederate veterans had passed away only a few years earlier, but their collective experience and their impact on my Southern world lived on – and continues to live on to this day.
It is on this day, November 11, 2018, that our human journey through time passes another centennial: the one hundredth year since the end of the Great War. As with the centennial of the Civil War, World War I is barely beyond living memory. The last American veteran, Frank Woodruff Buckles, died in 2011. I recall an exhibit featuring him and a handful of other World War I veterans in the Pentagon. Mr. Buckles participated in the ceremony dedicating that exhibit in 2008. Sadly, although I was working in the Pentagon at the time, I missed that event. It’s a pity; now that I am an old soldier, I cherish opportunities to honor those who have gone before me.
Tomorrow I will join my family in doing just that. How fitting that, on the day America officially celebrates the centennial of Veteran’s Day, we gather at church to pay our respects to my father-in-law, Chaplain (Colonel) Retired) Raymond Barry. He left us just a few days ago after a long and fruitful life. Being the only other military person in this branch of the family, it was my honor to write his obituary. The experience taught me much about him. People don’t think much about Chaplains when they think of soldiers, but without our Chaplains, we soldiers would not do our duty half so well. Theirs is truly a thankless task. They bear some of the heaviest burdens, but few recognize it. Doctors and nurses deal with the visible consequences of combat, but Chaplains deal with the invisible consequences – not only of combat, but of the daily grind of life for the soldier and his or her family. Life is hard enough as it is, but soldiers have the added burden of service to an often ungrateful nation. It is a service that takes them frequently to the most undesirable and dangerous places, where they must do the most difficult of tasks that may or may not solve the problems they are sent to address. Who can fix Somalia, or Afghanistan, or Iraq? Thus, we soldiers endure the worst, often only to see the temporary solutions we have bought at such a dear price come unraveled before we have had time properly to process our ordeals.
Properly processing, by the way, means doing so with the loved ones from whom we have been so long – and so often – separated. They, too, suffer while we are away. During my last tour in Iraq, my greatest pain came not in what I endured in the combat zone called Baghdad, but in the grievous hurt inflicted on those at home. My family and the families of many of my comrades had to deal with death, injury, assault, sickness, and more while we were away and unable to protect or help them. Does anyone think of that when they think of veterans? Probably not.
Which is why we need Chaplains. That’s what my father-in-law did. He was a pastor in uniform for 30 years, serving on three continents through most of the Cold War, and a hard year in the hot war called Vietnam. One might not be surprised to learn that he prayed for and with soldiers about to leave this world in the midst of combat. They died in his arms, and he wept for them. At other times, they died in peacetime, and he stayed by them in the hospital to pray for and weep with their loved ones. That is the kind of service no one saw, but the kind that produces good fruit that impacts generations. And that is why we honor Ray Barry, now and always.
We honor all veterans on this day, but in particular I hold in my heart those who gave so much a century ago. The course of nations and of peoples was established in that war to end all wars. As a historian, I can explain how World War I shaped the current global system and continues to define the way nations relate to one another. Yet instead of a history lecture, let me offer some personal examples of how the Great War shaped my life. Two British veterans of that war became my favorite authors. Through their collective works, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien helped me see the world. I still filter much through a Tolkienesque lens and draw considerable inspiration and wisdom from the observations of Professor Lewis. Could either of them have been mentors to three generations without their combat experience in France? I think not. They would have been honorable men and respected scholars, but had they not endured that horrid crucible, would Lewis ever have embarked on the intellectual faith journey that brought him to the cross of Jesus Christ? Would Tolkien have been able to synthesize the totality of human experience in the mythical epics that bear his name? And without those influences, where would I be? Where would you be?
Then there is my grandfather, Garland Victor “Bill” McCarn. I knew him as a kind elderly man who rarely left his apartment, but who always appreciated seeing his grandsons. A stroke took him from us when I was but six years old. It was not until some time later when my father explained to me about his service in the Great War. Daddy Mack, as we knew him, did not see combat, and with the hindsight of a lifetime I consider that a blessing for him. Yet he did see France in 1918. At the age of 30, when he was establishing a clerical career and settling down with a wife and infant son, his nation called on him to don the uniform and depart for a distant shore. He learned the skills of a combat engineer, employing those to good effect in the first half of 1919 to repair war-ravaged France. To my knowledge, after his return home in May of that year, he never went overseas again. Even so, he knew what to expect when his children served in Europe during the next war. He told my father, Jack, that he wished he could go in his place. I do not know what he told his daughter, Alice, but as a father of daughters myself, I surmise his heart broke even more grievously than when he said farewell to his son.
I surmise as well that he remembered his own wartime service as a watershed event of his life. He was never the same afterward. I do not know what Daddy Mack was like before the war; my father was born several years after he had put off the uniform. The experience no doubt hardened him, but nothing could prepare him for the loss of his beloved wife, Ammie Clyde Latimer McCarn. She died of pneumonia just two years after my father was born. It unhinged Daddy Mack. His life had taken two serious turns in less than a decade, and even before he was able to adjust to the new normal, the Great Depression arrived to take away all he had worked to achieve for his diminished family. The story is long and sad, and it seems that the grace of God, shown in the form of many kind and caring hands and faces of many colors, carried him and his children through the hard years ahead. In all that brokenness, Garland still succeeded in helping my father become the man he was, and through him, to help me become the man I am.
What did he think of his World War I service? The only answer I have is in a book he left behind. When I first saw it, the book was charred and damaged from a fire that had engulfed many of his belongings. Years later, I took possession of that book and had it rebound. It sits on my bookshelf today, a fond legacy of my grandfather that he purchased in the midst of the Great Depression. It must have been very important to him to make what others might deem a frivolous expense in times when the little money he had should have gone toward more pressing needs. The work is called Forward-March! The Photographic Record of America in the World War and the Post War Social Upheaval, published in two volumes by Disabled American Veterans in 1934. Some years ago, I discovered that this work had been republished online. My grandfather probably owned both volumes, but only the second survived the fire. Nevertheless, that single volume was enough for a small boy enthralled with the stories of a bygone era. As I paged through its contents, it never occurred to me that, many years later, the same DAV would help me make the transition to civilian life upon my retirement from the Army. All I knew at the time was that the pictures told stories of soldiers long ago, and of a world enduring a cataclysmic transformation.
My grandfather was part of that. One hundred years ago, in Brest, France, he breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that he would be returning safely home. I can think of no better way to honor him than to share some of the photos from Forward March! that captured my childhood imagination. Consider this a tribute to all veterans of all wars, regardless of the uniform they wore. We might have been adversaries in days gone by, but nothing changes the fact that we are all human.
I have often thought to myself how it would have been if, when I served in the first world war, I and some young German had killed each other simultaneously and found ourselves together a moment after death. I cannot imagine that either of us would have felt any resentment or even any embarrassment. I think we might have laughed over it.
A motif running through J.R.R. Tolkien’s fiction works is the exile of the Elves from Valinor, the Blessed Realm of the Valar, the gods of Tolkien’s world. Those who read The Lord of the Rings first encounter the exiles as the High Elves who aid Frodo and his companions in their flight from the Shire. Readers who venture into The Silmarillion learn that the High Elves are the Noldor, one of three Elven clans who answered the Valar’s invitation to leave Middle Earth and live in Valinor. The Vanyar and Teleri – the other two clans – remained in Valinor, but the Noldor rebelled against the Valar and returned to Middle Earth to fight against Morgoth, Tolkien’s equivalent of Satan.
The Noldor had justification for their actions. Morgoth had stolen the Silmarils, the matchless jewels fashioned by Fëanor, greatest of the Elven craftsmen, and had killed Finwë, Fëanor’s father and king of the Noldor. Nevertheless, their rebellion under Fëanor’s leadership incurred a sentence of exile and separation from any help the Valar could offer. Over the next several centuries the Noldor and their allies among the Elves and Men of Middle Earth proved unable to defeat Morgoth, and they suffered a long defeat. At the end of their strength, the humbled remnant repented and begged help from the Valar. When help came, Morgoth was defeated and the Valar granted clemency for the Noldor to return to the Blessed Realm, bringing with them the remaining Elves of Middle Earth who had never seen Valinor.
This is the unseen backdrop for the Elves appearing in Tolkien’s later and more popular works. Those who pick up the story with The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings meet wise Elrond, stern yet kindly Thranduil, and gentle Galadriel, but they have no understanding of their history. Galadriel, for example, was Fëanor’s niece, and along with his sons and her brothers led the Noldor in rebellion. Upon passing the test of refusing the Ring of Power when Frodo offers it to her, she proves that she, the only surviving rebel leader, is indeed ready to return home as a humble penitent.
In Galadriel’s story we see the stunning panorama flowing through the body of Tolkien’s works. Yet there is one missing detail: he never tells us what happens when the exiles return. It is a significant omission. We can imagine the scenes of reconciliation as the Noldor made amends with the eternal Valar, but we do not know what happens when they encountered the brethren they had wronged. At the beginning of their flight from Valinor, the Noldor demanded of their kin, the Teleri, use of their ships. The Teleri refused, resulting in a terrible battle known thereafter as the Kinslaying. As Tolkien describes it, “Thus at last the Teleri were overcome, and a great part of their mariners that dwelt in Alqualondë were wickedly slain.” If that were not enough, when they arrived on the shores of Middle Earth, Fëanor gave orders to burn the wondrous Telerian ships, craft of great beauty the like of which could never be made again.
What happens when the prodigal Noldor return home is a tale we do not know. We hope they are reconciled with their brethren, but achieving reconciliation requires conscious effort to overcome the debt of blood between them. Until that debt is paid or forgiven, the bliss of the Blessed Realm remains unbearably diminished.
Tolkien’s epic thus becomes a parable for us, the returning exiles of the House of Yosef (Joseph). Like the Noldor, we are guilty not only of rebellion against our God and the king He had anointed, but also of an endless Kinslaying of our brethren of Judah.
A continuous source of amazement for me is the fact that many of the men and women who have contributed substantially to my spiritual growth most likely would not be comfortable sitting in the same room with one another.
Perhaps it should not be a surprise. Inspiration for my life has come from Baptist Christians, Presbyterian Christians, Anglican Christians, Catholic Christians, Pentecostal/Charismatic Christians, Messianic Jews, Orthodox Jews, Reformed Jews, and Hebrew Roots Torah teachers of many different streams. It is amazing what these people have in common. It is more amazing what divides them, and how senseless that division is in the long run.
What fellowship, for example, does D.L. Moody have with R.C. Sproul? That is a question most readers could not answer, not having a clue who either of those esteemed gentlemen are. Had they been contemporaries, however, the simple tenets of Moody’s evangelism (“Ruined by the Fall, Redeemed by the Blood, and Regenerated by the Spirit”) would clash with Sproul’s elaborate Reformed reasoning.
We might say similar things of many, many others – even of the two authors who have had the greatest influence on my life. It just so happens that they were contemporaries, serving as professors in related fields at prestigious English universities. It is no secret that J.R.R. Tolkien was instrumental in bringing C.S. Lewis out of atheism and into a relationship with Jesus Christ (Yeshua the Messiah). Yet Tolkien was disappointed that he could get Lewis no closer to what he considered true Christianity (Roman Catholicism) than the Anglican Church. And yet the two remained friends and colleagues, greatly influencing each others’ literary and other works.
This begs the question: If Tolkien and Lewis could get along, why is it that Hebrew Roots believers have trouble getting along with one another? Or why is it that traditional Christians and Messianic believers of all stripes find it easier to condemn one another rather than support and pray for one another? Or why do Christians and Jews have such difficulty accepting one another as part of the same covenant people of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? It seems that our divisions are doing more work for the enemy of our souls than the good we hope we are doing for the Kingdom of our God.
In the interest of helping to correct this tendency, I am pleased to share an article recently published by Messianic Jewish leader Daniel C. Juster. Much of my understanding of the Hebrew Roots (or Jewish Roots, as he would say) comes from Dan Juster. I have been blessed to sit under his teaching and to be discipled by this writings.
Somewhere in my boxes full of old photographs there is a picture I took in 1986 while on a pilgrimage to Oxford, England. The purpose of that trip to England was not to visit Oxford, but to attend a conference with one of my oldest friends (who probably would prefer to remain anonymous). I was stationed in Germany at the time, and he was in need of a vacation, so we met in England to join other friends at a Christian conference. When it was over the opportunity arose to see Oxford. Since we had met two very charming British girls at the conference, and since they shared some of my enthusiasm for Tolkien, they joined us on this journey.
Ah, Tolkien. He was the attraction to Oxford. J.R.R. Tolkien’s works have captured my attention since I first read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings at age 11. Of the handful of authors who shaped my worldview, he and C.S. Lewis share the top position. It was his grave I particularly wanted to see, after enjoying a pint in his honor at The Eagle and Child, the pub where he, Lewis, and others shared their literary ideas. The old photograph lost somewhere in the boxes is the one I took of his grave. One day I will dig it out and put it in an album of good memories.
Tolkien left us far more than good memories, of course. He has made a lasting impact for good on four generations of English-speaking youth. That impact shows no sign of slowing – provided youth of the present and future read him, that is. Watching the cinematic adaptations of his works is not enough. The depth of Tolkien is not in the action sequences of Elves fighting Orcs and Dwarves hunting dragons, but in the way he weaves the essence of humanity into his stories. I view this as a gift from the Almighty.
My guess is that David Goldman would agree. In this article reposted from PJ Media, he investigates what appears to be a major motivation for Tolkien: neutralizing the anti-Semitic messages of German composer Richard Wagner. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Nazism knows the high place of Wagner in Adolf Hitler’s esteem. It should be no surprise that Wagner, like Hitler, despised Jews. Tolkien did not despise Jews; he despised those who twisted our historical and literary inheritance into something evil to justify the eradication of that which is good. That is what Goldman relates as he presents the back story of a masterful author’s life work.
Why is this important? The literary-minded understand. Words, music, and images capture the soul and shape the mind. Regarding Tolkien and Wagner, Goldman sums up the point this way:
Wagner’s legacy remains baleful. Fortunately, many more people know Tolkien than know Wagner, and we may pronounce Tolkien’s project a success. Unfortunately, Wagner’s hold on the cultural elite remains strong, and influences modern culture in ways of which the popular audience is unaware.
How did he arrive at this conclusion? Read on and find out.
And thanks very much to my anonymous old friend, who not only accompanied me on that Oxford pilgrimage long ago, but brought this piece to my attention.