The Last of the Last

Claude Choules died yesterday. He was 110.

If Claude’s age were not enough to give us pause, this certainly should: Claude was the last known combat veteran* from World War I. In case your history is rusty, that brutal conflict ended in 1918. Yes. 1918.

Claude entered the Queen’s navy when he was only 15. He wanted to be a bugler for the army, but they put him on the seas. In an NPR interview after his biography The Last of the Last came out (he was the oldest first-time published writer), he recounted memories of the Japanese Navy’s surrender. Catch that? Japanese Navy. Oh, by the way, he was a veteran of both World Wars. Of course, he’s the finale of that generation as well.

Not long ago, after several death left him the last man standing, an interviewer asked Claude for his thoughts. “Everything comes to those who wait and wait,” he said.

Claude said he hated war. Noble men do. And he said his family was his richest joy. The picture below was Claude at 100 kneeling beside his wife Ethel, age 97. This was in 2000 as they celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary. On these days, I pause and think about my own life, about the life I hope for my sons, about the husband I want to be, about the ideas and convictions that I hold dear.

I know there are courageous women and men in every generation (and I name a number as friends). I know that the older I get the easier it can be to see the world in jaded hues — and the more complicated the notion of bravery and ideals becomes. Still, when men like this pass, I do wonder if there are others to step into the gap.

Rest in peace, Claude.

*Florence Green, 108, is now the lone living remnant we have of the World War I veteran generation. However, Florence was never in combat. So, the combat veterans have crossed the veil. Too soon, we will say farewell to all of this era.

Evil and Religion

First, this is post #250. If someone would please blow-up a balloon or send out a little woot! woot! right there in front of your screen, I’d appreciate it. I’m curious if any of you have been reading along from the beginning. If so, (1) May God grant you mercy for the words you’ve endured, and (2) A very sincere thanks. A writer has a rough time if there’s no place for his words to land. I’m glad, every now and then, some of them land here.

Second, I have a piece over at on Lent, Dickens, Temptation and, of course, Lewis.

Last week, I was privileged to enjoy my second year as an author at the Virginia Festival of the Book (which, by the way, provides three days of absolute joy for any book lover – you’ll have to visit). This year’s event, Speaking of God, cast five authors writing from various vantage points. Reading the bios and book blurbs ahead of time, I knew the conversation would be spicy. I had no idea…

At one end of the table sat two smart and highly credentialed authors proposing that their work surveyed the most recent research in neuroscience, proving (in 144 pages, which I thought quite a feat) that God is merely a construct of the human mind and suggesting that the world would be a far better place if religion simply evaporated. Seated next to them, in the worst possible position if we wanted any chance at an evening of peace and harmony, was a philosopher whose spanking new Oxford Press book argues that a theistic worldview best explains the moral truths most of us say we believe. Meanwhile the two authors remaining (myself and another fellow) sat on the far end, which turned out to be a good vantage, out of the line of fire but close enough to watch the steam blow.

Needless to say, at some point the conversation ceased to be about the books.

I was struck, however, by the dogmatic, unequivocal claim that the world would be a kindler, gentler place if we simply abandoned our naive religious commitments and recognized science for the Almighty that it is. By this view, the evil in our world is fueled by religion, and science is the savior.

I’m hearing this claim as I’m immersed in Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, penned before the SS hung him by a thin wire in the grey courtyard of a Nazi concentration camp. Hitler did not heat up the smoke stacks because he was compelled by religious fervor. Hitler, madman that he was, was driven by a worldview he found compatible with the social science of his day. I’m not suggesting it was good science (it was bad science. Good science and good religion are friends not foes – neither have anything to fear if what we’re aiming for is the truth). I’m not suggesting that science gave us Hitler. I’m simply noting that if you were forced to choose between religion and science to find blame for the Third Reich, it would be science, hands down.

Six million Jews herded to the gas chambers had religious faith. Bonhoeffer had religious faith. Hitler had another kind of faith altogether.

I’m quick to admit, sadly and with horror, that much evil has been done in the name of Christianity (and other faiths too). This is to our great shame. However, in such moments, we stand judged – and rightly so – by the claims of our faith. It is precisely the view of God as a God of justice that allows someone to (rightly) name our actions evil. If God is simply something we dream up, then religion’s vision of evil is also something we conjure. And I’ve yet to hear a compelling, coherent response as to how, yanking that foundation, we reconstruct any meaningful case for the evils most of us instinctively acknowledge.

When someone names these evil moments evil (at least evil in any ontological sense), they affirm the fact that some reality in the universe has named certain actions just and certain actions diabolical. You can’t insist religion a farce while using religions’ criteria for what is right and what is wrong. Good science wouldn’t allow that double standard.

Bonhoeffer: Against Abstraction

[Jesus Christ’s] word is not an abstract doctrine, but the re-creation of the whole life of man. {Dietrich Bonhoeffer}

I’m taking a course at the University of Virginia on “Peace and Resistance: Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr.” So, of course, I’ve been reading a good bit of Dietrich Bonhoeffer lately.

As you know, Dietrich was a German pastor and theologian instrumental in the German Resistance during World War II. Dietrich was imprisoned for subversive activity, and (though complicated by the fact that he was a principled pacifist) later charges were added for his association with the infamous July 20 Plot to assassinate the Führer (the oft popularized story of the plot was the center-piece of Tom Cruise’s 2008 film Valkyrie).

As the SS grew more suspicious of Bonhoeffer’s entrenchment in the Resistance, they passed Bonhoeffer from prison to prison until he finally landed at Flossenburg concentration camp. This was his final stop. He was hung (asphyxiated actually) by a thin steel wire on April 9th, 1945 – only 14 days before the camp was liberated. Bonhoeffer was 39.

Bonhoeffer opposed not only the Nazi regime but the religious movement that swept through Germany, the “German Christian” movement. Attempting to re-frame Christian witness so it could harmonize with the Third Reich, the “German Christian” movement ultimately viewed their first allegiance to the State and their second allegiance to God. One bishop fielded a question: “What is one first — a Christian or a national socialist?” The bishop replied, “A National Socialist.” In public worship, they would go so far as to sing hymns to Hitler.

Against this moment, Bonhoeffer wrote his most challenging and enduring work, The Cost of Discpleship. His plain assertion was this: To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to say that God rules over everything. As such, you can not be a disciple of Jesus if you are unwilling to obey Jesus above every other person, claim or passion. You can imagine how that landed in 1944 Germany.

Dietrich believed that the proclamation of Jesus as Lord was always enfleshed in (and evidenced by) the lived realities of our life, the choices we make, the allegiances we declare, the principles and ideas that we obey (or disobey). Christianity is concrete, not abstract.

To be a Christian was not merely to affirm religious facts but to be gripped by the reality that Jesus Christ has come to resurrect us to an entirely new kind of life – a lived life. Equating Christian faith with any particular political movement is idolatry (and this is a lesson we best learn). However, being Christian will always have political (public, lived) implications. Obeying the way of Jesus means saying yes to some things and saying no to others.

The work of the Christian is not to redress faith so that it can be squeezed within another ideology but rather to live Christianly amid, within, over or against every other competing claim. If Jesus is Lord, then this assertion defines reality. Everything else must fix itself to that bare truth.