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Review of “The Great and Holy War” by Philip Jenkins

Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (San Francisco: Harper One, 2014), 448 pp. Page references are inserted in parentheses.

Philip Jenkins is a rare scholar in the current American scene.  A theologian, a historian and a excellent communicator, this academic is able to make comprehensible, huge social religious movements that have occurred in world history.  Whether it is the Global South’s religious explosion in his previous work, The Next Christendom, or the near-collapse of Eastern Christianity by Islam in The Lost History of Christianity, Jenkins articulates the broad sweep of history in an accessible way to a 21st century reader. He has done it again in The Great and Holy War, where we are confronted in 448 pages with a century-old story that resonates and relates to the modern world of 2015.

Jenkins tells us that the First World War created our reality. His thesis is that World War I was a religious event where nations with overwhelmingly Christian populations fought each other appealing to their own Christian theologies. Except for the Ottoman Empire, a Muslim-majority belligerent in the conflict, this was a war between Christian peoples. The First World War was as religious as the Crusades or the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century. While religion does not go unmentioned in histories of this period, it usually doesn’t take center stage in most narratives. Jenkins reminds us that, unless you understand the religious dynamics of the 1914–1918 period, you miss much of the story.

World War I redrew the world religious map. And it was the most radical change in European Christianity since the 16th century. During this war, the Orthodox Church’s primacy in Russia collapsed. Several European states disestablished the church from their governments, Zionism blossomed in Palestine and Europe, and sub-Saharan African Christianity grew indigenous and began its rapid growth that continues to this day. Islam first became radicalized as the Ottoman Caliphate collapsed, Hinduism and Islam grew to see each other as opponents in what are now the nations of India and Pakistan, and the murder of millions in the Middle East began the exodus of Christian peoples from that area that continues to this very day.

As the war progressed and the huge land battles destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives, the combatant nations all became more mystical and apocalyptic in their understanding of the times in which they lived. The great irony is how the most modern, secular, materialistic nations in the world could be so affected by  tools more familiar to the Middle Ages: mysticism, astrology, the occult, omens, voices and visions, good luck charms, dream interpretations, spiritualism, theosophy, even witchcraft. The visions of Fatima, the cult of Joan of Arc, the apparitions of angels or spirits were unique to the First World War and were not to be repeated in the Second World War a mere twenty-five years later.

In the history of World War I, grim and terrible chapters are the genocides, the murder of Armenians and other Christians by the Muslim Turks, the death of hundreds of thousands of Jews in the war zones of Russia (long before the Holocaust), and the Russian civil war that followed the Bolshevik Revolution. Christians participated in the deportation of whole Jewish villages and the theft of their property during the war. The responsibility for the Armenian Holocaust that began in 1915 and killed at least 1.5 million of them is still an unresolved issue between the Armenian community and Turkey, one hundred years after it began. This is a wound that has not healed in Europe.

German Lutherans are especially critiqued by Jenkins for their participation in the religious justification of the First World War. Jenkins tells us that the Lutheran church was an ardent supporter of nationalism and militarism (79). Great German scholars of the 19th and 20th centuries were advocates for German imperial and military ambitions. When I was in seminary in the 1970s, we studied Adolf von Harnack, Emanuel Hirsch, Werner Elert, Paul Althaus, Ernst Troeltsch, Gerhard Kittel, and other great lights in the German liberal and mostly Lutheran theological universe. Yet Jenkins reports that during this period, jingoistic and crudely pro-war sentiment came forth from many German theological intellectuals. Von Harnack would even call Germany “the militia of Christ.” Jenkins comments that “Luther selectively quoted was a splendid patron saint for a totalitarian regime.” Some of those who survived until the Second World War would repeat this as they became viciously anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi. Paul Althaus would later call the events of the Nazi takeover in 1933 a “gift and miracle of God” (212). Not just the professors, either; Lutheran pulpits were sources of state worship and war worship, too. German Lutheran pastors, laity, and bishops were clear. Germany was a divine state doing God’s will!

Thus, the 400th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation in 1917 was turned into a German patriotism festival. German peace parties in 1917 sought compromise and peace, but not the Lutherans who stuck to the agenda of 1914 (173–4). Jenkins, however, does not lay the imperialism of Germany or the Nazi regime at the door of Luther or the Protestant Church in Germany. “Some older historians attempted to place much of the blame for Nazism on Luther’s legacy and even to draw a straight line from Luther to Hitler. Any such attempt is unfair to Luther and to most Lutherans, intellectual leaders as well as ordinary believers. But at least some theologians and scholars were prepared to follow the extremist line to its logical conclusions” (213). German Lutheranism was a loser in World War I. Jenkins summarizes: “Perhaps when holy war rhetoric reaches a certain extreme, it discredits itself beyond redemption and becomes its own gravedigger” (369).

Most Christian denominational leaders in all warring states joined the military, at least rhetorically. All used “crusade language” in their attempts to put a theological blessing on their nation’s efforts. “Christians in all combatant nations including the United States entered wholeheartedly into the spirit of cosmic war,” Jenkins reports (page). Roman Catholic priests in Germany, France, and Austria entered the war firmly on their nation’s side, even as Pope Benedict XV worked tirelessly but in vain to secure an early armistice. There was no doubt from the clergy in the United States that God was on the side of the Americans.

The historical theologian in Philip Jenkins shines through when he discusses the effect of World War I on the theological development of Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The collapse of the prevailing cultural faith during the war effort provided the basis and the future for the neo-orthodoxy of these great Protestant thinkers.

Christendom has faded, but not Christianity. In a short one hundred years Europe has almost totally secularized. Jenkins believes this is not the future for the world. Quoting sociologist Grace David, Jenkins believes that secular Europe is an “exceptional case” (371). As the secular state has grown in importance and control, religious loyalties worldwide have not diminished. Indeed, Christianity and Islam are growing very fast, especially in the southern hemisphere. Jenkins concludes that we are in the midst of revolution in religious life and doctrine, but “[o]bserving a revolution is quite different from comprehending it. Only now, after a century, are we beginning to understand just how utterly that war destroyed one religious world and created another” (377). Reading this book by Philip Jenkins is worth your time.

Thomas A. Skrenes is bishop of the Northern Great Lakes Synod.

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