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.
– C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
These images were downloaded from the online edition of Forward-March! The Photographic Record of America in the World War and the Post War Social Upheaval. The captions are as they appear in the original work published in the 1930s.
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.
It is understandable why Peter Jackson had to take considerable license with The Lord of the Rings when he brought J.R.R. Tolkien’s mammoth work to the screen, and yet his choices inevitably brought disappointment to Tolkien aficionados. Why, for example, did Jackson choose to minimize the presence of Farmer Maggot? Tolkienists take issue with the fact that his role in The Fellowship of the Ring was diminished to the point of insignificance. In the book, Farmer Maggot saved Frodo and his companions as they fled the Shire, giving them provision and helping them elude Sauron’s dreaded Black Riders. It was unexpected help, for Frodo had considered Farmer Maggot an enemy. As a child Frodo had taken a liking to Maggot’s mushrooms, and on more than one occasion absconded with portions of the good farmer’s crop. Such youthful mischief roused Maggot’s anger, compelling him to chase Frodo from his land and threaten him with his very large dogs should he ever return. And so it was that Frodo grew up fearing Farmer Maggot, never knowing that beneath his fierce anger lay a loyal, generous, and hospitable heart. Thanks to the mediation of his companion Pippin, and to the dire need of the moment, Frodo at last gained opportunity to get to know the real Farmer Maggot. He explained as much as they prepared to leave Maggot’s home:
Thank you very much indeed for your kindness! I’ve been in terror of you and your dogs for over thirty years, Farmer Maggot, though you may laugh to hear it. It’s a pity: for I’ve missed a good friend.
Frodo’s words present us with an all-too-familiar and all-too-tragic reality. How often have individuals, families, and nations remained at odds over ancient offenses, the causes of which are long forgotten? How much suffering has multiplied on the earth because natural allies regard each other as enemies, or at least minimize their contact with each other out of mistrust and misbegotten fear? And how much greater is that tragedy if the people who regard each other in this way are the two parts of YHVH’s people? In truth, Moses and Yeshua have no contradictions or arguments, but their followers think they do, and for that reason Jews and Christians have separated themselves from one another for twenty centuries.
In a response to a reader’s question about his works, author Stephen R. Donaldson provided this enlightening comment about the motivation behind his writing:
I’m a storyteller, not a polemicist. As such, my only mission is to help my readers understand my characters and appreciate what those poor sods are going through. (Stephen R. Donaldson Official Website, February 23, 2004)
Donaldson’s best known writings might be categorized as postmodern American science fiction and fantasy literature. The worlds he creates are not the pristine, archetypical fantasy worlds of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, but darker realms that mirror our present ambiguous reality. Donaldson explores human nature in a secular, relativistic world detached from the moral underpinnings of Christian civilization. Good and evil manifest in the worlds he creates, but they are often uncomfortably intertwined so as to be nearly indistinguishable. Such is the case with his most famous protagonist, the anti-hero Thomas Covenant. In ten novels published over the span of 36 years, Donaldson follows Covenant through three epic quests in The Land, the world of his creation where magic and Earthpower shape the lives of mortals. Covenant is one of the most unlikely heroes in the history of literature: a leper living in present-day America who is magically transported to The Land to save it from destruction by Lord Foul the Despiser. He wears a wedding band of white gold, the source of Wild Magic, which is the greatest power ever known in The Land. He does not know how to wield this power, nor does he desire to do so, yet the dire circumstances of The Land compel him to find a way. Each victory comes at a cost. Ultimately it is Covenant himself who pays the greatest price, and thus he earns not only sympathy, but redemption.
We learn much about power in White Gold Wielder, the last novel of The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. The Elohim, supernatural beings who keep watch over the Earth, “silence” Covenant, placing him in a catatonic state so he will not use his ring unwisely and risk destruction of the world. After Covenant is revived by his companion Linden Avery, Findail of the Elohim explains their actions to her:
The ring-wielder we silenced, not to harm him, but to spare the Earth the ill of power without sight . . . Thus the choice would have fallen to you in the end. His ring you might have taken unto yourself, thereby healing the breach between sight and power. Or perhaps you might have ceded the ring to me, empowering the Elohim to save the Earth after their fashion. Then would we have had no need to fear ourselves, for a power given is altogether different than one wrested away.
Findail’s declaration, “a power given is altogether different than one wrested away,” is a restatement of something taught long ago by One Who understood power:
But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28 NASB)
This post-modern generation of the industrialized West has lost sight of the power of the Oath. That is why there is so little understanding of the covenant terminology which establishes the context of humanity’s relationship with our Creator. An oath sworn in good faith is something far more powerful than a legal procedure. It is a spiritual transaction which makes an indelible mark on the parties who take part in it. That is why one’s conscience is troubled when even the least significant promises are broken. Something as simple as committing to be at a certain place at a specified time is a type of oath or covenant. Failing to keep that promise fosters disappointment, anger, and bitterness in the heart of the one who is expecting the appointment to be kept. Hopefully the one who broke the promise will make amends and resolve to keep such commitments in the future. However, if the promise-breaker develops a habit of showing up late, or not showing up at all, then eventually his or her conscience will no longer serve as a reminder about the transgression. And then the promise-breaker becomes something worse: an untrustworthy person.
If this is the case with something as simple as a promise to be on time, what can we say about more serious promises? There is an illustration which may help. J.R.R. Tolkien delved deeply into the subject of oaths and covenants in his epic works about Middle Earth. Perhaps his most memorable account is the oath made by the Men of the Mountains to fight against Sauron, an oath they did not keep. In The Return of the King, Aragorn explains the circumstances of this broken oath:
But the oath that they broke was to fight against Sauron, and they must fight therefore, if they are to fulfill it. For at Erech there stands yet a black stone that was brought, it was said, from Nümenor by Isildur; and it was set upon a hill, and upon it the King of the Mountains swore allegiance to him in the beginning of the realm of Gondor. But when Sauron returned and grew in might again, Isildur summoned the Men of the Mountains to fulfil their oath, and they would not: for they had worshipped Sauron in the Dark Years.
Then Isildur said to their king, “Thou shalt be the last king. And if the West prove mightier than thy Black Master, this curse I lay upon thee and thy folk: to rest never until your oath is fulfilled. For this war will last through years uncounted, and you shall be summoned once again ere the end.”
In Tolkien’s novel, Aragorn leads his companions to the realm of these dead oathbreakers, and as Isildur’s heir calls them to fulfil their oath by following him into battle against Sauron’s armies. They answer the call, and upon winning the victory are released at last to depart in the peaceful sleep of death.
In Tolkien’s story the oathbreakers are redeemed by the descendant of the king whom they had betrayed. Their answer to his call brings an end to the curse and the blessed peace they have sought through the ages. As is so often the case with Tolkien, he illustrates a profound principle first explained in the Scripture. Yet what we learn from Moses differs from Tolkien in one critical point: redemption from the curse of broken oaths, or vows, results not the peace of death, but in the promise of life.
Professor J.R.R. Tolkien insisted that there was no hidden meaning behind his works on Middle Earth. Such was his assertion in his Foreword to The Lord of the Rings:
I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.
– J.R.R. Tolkien, Foreword to the Second Edition of The Lord of the Rings
Yet there are allegorical elements throughout his writings, however unintended. Tolkien’s Catholic world view infused his work with well-known Christian concepts such as atonement, salvation, redemption, and fulfillment of prophecy. A consistent story line appears throughout his writing, repeated on several levels. It is the story of paradise defiled, of blessed people tempted by evil into betrayal of their calling, of their exile and dissolution, and their restoration at last after the struggles of their exile produce the required degree of contrition and of resolve to live up to their destiny. In The Silmarillion the tale plays out in the long defeat of the Noldor in their forlorn quest to regain the Silmarils from Morgoth the defiler of Middle Earth. The cycle ends and begins anew in their redemption beyond all hope by the Valar, the powers over the earth who had exiled the Noldor from the blessed realm of Valinor because of their rebellion. In The Hobbit it is the restoration of the House of Durin as the Dwarves under the leadership of Thorin Oakenshield set in motion the events that bring the death of the great dragon Smaug and the coronation of a new Dwarf King Under the Mountain. And in The Lord of the Rings it is the return of Aragorn as King Elessar of Gondor, restoring the long lost (and nearly forgotten) kingdom of the Númenóreans after the defeat of Sauron, Morgoth’s chief lieutenant.
Among the many things we learn from Tolkien is that things happen in cycles. Life is cyclical, not linear. What happens to the fathers happens to the sons, and what has come before will come again. Whether he realized it or not, that is the Hebraic way of looking at the world. And it is quite biblical. As Solomon, the son of David, teaches us:
That which has been is that which will be, and that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9 NASB)
No one remembers the kings of Arnor. Why should they? After all, they existed only in the imagination of J.R.R. Tolkien. Yet if they had never existed there, the world would never have become acquainted with Aragorn, or with the Hobbits who helped him reestablish his kingdom. The great drama of Middle Earth is now etched in popular culture thanks to the cinematic artistry of Peter Jackson. It is a great credit to Jackson and his team that they drew from the deep wells of Tolkien’s works to portray the indispensable back-story of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but that story probably escaped the notice of most of the audience.
In Tolkien’s world, the noblest people among the Men of Middle Earth were the Númenóreans, a people whose kingdom in the midst of the sea was destroyed by a great flood like that which inundated the legendary Atlantis. Under the leadership of Elendil and his sons Isildur and Anárion, the survivors of Númenor established a new kingdom in the western part of Middle Earth. Elendil divided his realm, placing Anárion on the throne of the Southern Kingdom of Gondor, and retaining for himself the title of High King as he ruled over the Northern Kingdom, Arnor. When Elendil died, Isildur took his place as High King, ruling from Arnor. Over time Arnor declined and failed, but the line of Isildur continued through the Dúnedain, or Men of the West, a diminished and scattered people known more popularly as Rangers. Gondor continued on in great strength, but the line of kings descended from Anárion ceased when the last king, Eärnur, died childless. Tolkien thus created a great irony in his literary world: a king with no kingdom, and a kingdom with no king.
This is the setting for The Lord of the Rings. Those who have seen the movies know that Aragorn the Ranger eventually became king of Gondor, but few realize that his coronation was the culmination of the long-awaited rebirth of the Númenorean realm and reunification of the Northern and Southern kingdoms. Those events could never have happened if the Dúnedain had ceased to exist. According to Tolkien’s work, they remained few in number after the destruction of Arnor, but their vigilant watch ensured a measure of peace in the lands of the North. Although all but forgotten by the people of Gondor, the Dúnedain worked quietly behind the scenes to strengthen the Southern Kingdom’s stand against the growing evil of Sauron. Then, when all hope seemed lost, the heir of Elendil appeared in the greatest hour of need, bringing new life to long-dead hopes and dreams.
A major component of Tolkien’s works is identity: as long as the Dúnedain and the people of Gondor remember who they are, no enemy can defeat them. They may be overwhelmed and diminished, but a remnant will remain and will in time prosper anew. And whether Professor Tolkien realized it or not, his literary works depict something very real in the works of God: the identity, redemption, and restoration of all Israel.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s works had secured for him a lasting place among the giants of English literature long before Peter Jackson ever brought The Lord of the Rings to the big screen. Middle Earth, with its Elves, Men, Dwarves, Hobbits, Orcs, and Wizards, serves as the backdrop for a profound tale about our humanness – what it means, and what we would like it to mean. We would like to see ourselves, for example, as high and noble, like the Elves or the Men of Gondor. Tolkien expresses this nobility in many subplots, not the least being the saga of the Stewards of Gondor. We learn about them from Faramir, son of Denethor, the current Steward:
We of my house are not of the line of [King] Elendil, though the blood of Númenor is in us. For we reckon back our line to Mardil, the good steward, who ruled in the king’s stead when he went away to war. And that was King Eärnur, last of the line of Anárion, and childless, and he came never back. And the stewards have governed the city since that day, though it was many generations of Men ago. (The Two Towers, Book IV, “The Window On the West”)
Faramir relates how his older brother, Boromir, could not understand why his father had not claimed the throne. He had asked, “How many hundreds of years needs it to make a steward a king, if the king returns not?” To this his father replied, “Few years, maybe, in other places of less royalty . . . In Gondor ten thousand years would not suffice.”
It is here that we must question Tolkien’s grasp on reality. He describes a degree of nobility and selfless honor that transcends generations. It is remarkable for one person to lay aside his or her own interests to guard a place of higher power, wealth, and prestige for someone else. How could such selflessness be passed down from one generation to the next, knowing that at some point the supreme authority would have to be handed over to someone else?
And yet that is exactly what our God expects His people to do.