World View
World View

World View

An annotated reading of your world, including war and sacrifice, PTSD, and John Oliver.
September 1 st 2014
Appears in Fall 2014

The Guns Of August | That is the title of Barbara Tuchman's masterful, now-classic history of the Great War that we, in retrospect, with a serial designation that covers the horror, call the "First" World War. A century ago and a world away—except that the convulsions of Europe this summer rouse worrisome memories.

Our looks backward upon the centenary of the war can easily slide toward the nostalgic, the sort of mythologization of war that only civilians indulge. This kind of myth-making is excoriated as a dangerous fiction by Erich Maria Remarque's novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, in which young soldiers are propelled into service by the paeans of Kantorek, one of their teachers. "There were thousands of Kantoreks," the narrator recounts, "all of whom were convinced that they were acting for the best—in a way that cost them nothing."

Perhaps there's a fine line between romanticizing a past and paying homage to those who went before us. The older I get, with my soft hands and even softer middle, I am not just humbled but almost humiliated to think what generations of men before me were willing to do. But this isn't some clamouring after the "glory" of war; it's a deep-seated wondering about courage and cowardice mixed with an awe of what store clerks and teachers were willing to do in 1914.

But that respectful awe is coupled with an angry bewilderment at what they were asked to do. As Tuchman aptly puts it, emperors and kings, parliaments and generals strategized as if they were "spending lives like bullets in the knowledge of plentiful reserves to make up the losses." Such slaughter in the heart of "Christian Europe" should not only disabuse us of any nostalgia; it should haunt all of us newly convinced about the good of culture-making. As Paul Bãumer, Remarque's narrator, laments:

How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torturechambers in their hundreds of thousands. A hospital alone shows what war is.

Soul repair and social Architecture | We picture soldiers' homecomings decorated with yellow ribbons and bunting, punctuated by parades and salutes. For many soldiers, the reality is very different. For example, though veterans make up only 7% of the U.S. population, they account for 20% of all suicides. (Because the Canadian Armed Forces does not track veterans' suicides, it's difficult to know exactly the situation in Canada, but evidence suggests a similar picture.) And such sad statistics don't begin to capture the struggles of living veterans.

The English soldier and poet, Siegfried Sassoon, chronicled not only the horror of the trenches but also the disorientation of return to civilian life: "There's things in war one dare not tell / Poor father sitting safe at home, who reads / Of dying heroes and their deathless deeds." And more angrily:

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

I have an old friend whose son fought with the Canadian forces in Afghanistan. After acclimating to the daily hell of that place, his son didn't know how to function in the banal rhythms of what we consider everyday life. And so he had to constantly create conflict around him like a security blanket, because only when his adrenaline was running did he know how to live. The fist fights and assault charges and overall surliness were twisted lifelines for him in a foreign country, which just happened to be his own.

Remarque's Bãumer knew the same: "And this I know: all these things that now, while we are still in the war, sink down in us like a stone, after the war shall waken again, and then shall begin the disentanglement of life and death."

No matter your politics or pacifism, the body of Christ is called to minister to returning veterans who grapple with all of those demons implanted in them by war. Research by the Veterans Administration in the U.S. now recognizes the wounds of what it calls "moral injury": when those whose consciences have been formed for peace, care, and concern are then re-made as soldiers and asked to kill, it inflicts a wound as real and as significant as amputation. Indeed, in some ways, this existential wound is more disorienting. And it doesn't heal the wound or solve the problem for us—who sent them—to simply say, "It's OK. You did what you had to do." No, what's needed, scholars have found, are rites of penance, liturgies of forgiveness, rituals of re-formation. That is the argument of Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury After War by Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini. And it is the focus of the Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, TX. I commend both as resources for the church as they learn how to care for those morally wounded by the wars in which we're embroiled.

No Laughing Matter | You probably wouldn't know from the pages of Comment that our team loves to laugh. We're incredibly serious about our mission and work, and I suppose the magazine's default mode is earnest sobriety. That's not going to change. But don't let that fool you: editorial meetings are regularly disrupted by uproarious laughter and a particularly Canadian brand of jocular razzing of one another. Senior editor Brian Dijkema seems to end up the most frequent target of all this—unless our publisher Ray Pennings is in the room.

This good-natured humour that binds a team in friendship feels qualitatively different from the ironic smirking that seems to be a favourite pastime of devoted watchers of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, or the latest addition to this genre: John Oliver's Last Week Tonight. The mix here seems toxic for democracy: there is just enough "news" to fool people into thinking they are informed citizens, but those snippets of rehashed information are dispensed in ways that are both cynical and partisan, while pretending to be neither.

Columnist Jonah Goldberg gets at the core of the problem here in his assessment of Oliver's program: "He doesn't tell his audience anything it doesn't want to hear, he just gives them new and occasionally funny reasons to feel good about themselves." What's disturbing about the way humour works in these programs is that it depends upon confirmation bias: treat (mostly liberal) platitudes as true and then laugh at any who might possibly disagree with "us" enlightened ones. It's the very knowingness here that is no laughing matter. It masks a know-nothing-ism that parades as cultural enlightenment. Such ironic, cynical distance eviscerates the curiosity, humility, and empathy that society needs to flourish.

Town And Country | The Fulton Street Farmer's Market is a hallowed place for our family. For a decade, the market was pretty much our front yard, so we easily fell into almost daily rhythms that incorporated the market. Having moved just a mile away hasn't made much difference: visiting the market is a nonnegotiable liturgy in our house. In fact, if you ever visit the refurbished Fulton Street Market in Grand Rapids, peruse the memorial bricks that line the upper square and look for a brick that simply exhorts, "Practice resurrection." That's ours.

After our final visit of each year to find a Christmas tree, we impatiently wait through the dark, cold vegetal desert that is winter for that first Saturday in May when the market re-opens. We then visit every week, excited to fill our basket with the latest seasonal offerings: "Is asparagus almost done?" we ask. "Raspberries next week?" we hope. "Is the corn ready yet?" Eventually the Boetsmas' tables are spilling over with a rainbow of burgeoning piles: green peppers and red radishes and white cauliflower and yellow corn and earthy potatoes. This cornucopia of color is the gold that emerges from the famous Hudsonville muck—a ribbon of fertile soil outside of town, the rich remnants of an ancient river-bed.

We even go to the market on days we don't need anything, just to rub shoulders in what functions as our town square. In a metropolitan area of half a million people, we'll always run into folks we know: fellow shoppers, but also longtime vendors like "the garlic ladies" or "the honey guy." There is something humanizing about commerce in such a place.

It's also an intersection, a space where town meets country. Like the "market days" of old, even this twenty-first century market still replays the country coming to town. For some of us city slickers, this is as close as we'll get to the soil. And I sometimes wonder what these farmers and their children must think. They rose at 4:30am, throwing on their sweat pants and a cap, to begin packing the trucks and heading into town to open and await our advent. "We" then begin to arrive, in our Subarus and Volvos, pushing $300 strollers in our Patagonia jackets, Starbucks lattes in hand. The later crowd arrives with their beards and tattoos and blonde dreadlocks and babies swaddled about them in homemade baby slings asking whether the broccoli is organic. We're all so earnest. What a sight we must sometimes be.

And yet here we all are, town and country, farmers and philosophers, butchers and bearded artists, enjoying the fruit of creation, the produce of their cultivation, engaged in the creational good of market exchange—and it is good.

There is a common grace in the very stability and durability of the market and what it makes possible. This year I've been particularly struck when I look at the Visser Family Farm booth. The man in charge now—with his burly shoulders and closely cropped red hair, who manages the whole scene with a simple smile but firm hand—was probably thirteen years old when we first started coming here. Back then he had a shock of unruly red hair and was already eager to serve. He had an uncanny ability for small talk with adults who lived in another world. You could see that he was being apprenticed. Now he is the master. I depend on him in ways he could never know.

James K.A. Smith
James K.A. Smith

James K.A. Smith was the editor-in-chief of Comment from 2013-2018, and teaches philosophy at Calvin College where he holds the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. He is the new editor-in-chief of Image Journal


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