Past is Prologue

Michael Metzger

The terrorist attacks in Paris have a prologue. A century ago, the religious order unraveled within a very short space of time. The Paris attacks are one outcome.

This past Friday evening, terrorists—some with AK-47s, some reportedly with bombs strapped to them—attacked sites throughout the French capital, including a stadium where a soccer match was underway. ISIS claimed responsibility.

ISIS terrorism is one outcome of the First World War, a conflict Americans are generally unfamiliar with. Exactly 100 years ago, a conflict initially thought to last no more than six months was stalemated in its sixteenth month. The Western Front featured a trench system running 475 miles. Along that span, the trench lines did not move more than a few miles in either direction between 1914 and 1918. Home to several million fighters, it was “grotesquely, one of the world’s largest urban centers.”1

It was also the world’s largest killing field. Over the course of four years, the conflict took the lives of an estimated 9.7 million military personnel and 6.8 million civilians. It also destroyed much of Western Christianity, according to Philip Jenkins, Professor of History at Baylor University. As he shows in The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade, most of the nations on both sides of the conflict invoked the name of Christ in their quest.

In 1916, for instance, a group of 60 leading U.S. clergymen, including preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick, evangelist Billy Sunday and John Hibben, president of Princeton University, rebuked Woodrow Wilson for not leading the US into the European conflict. They warned that a just God, “who withheld not his own Son from the cross, would not look with favor upon a people who put their fear of pain and death… above the holy claims of righteousness and justice and freedom and mercy and truth.”

Arthur Winnington-Ingram, Bishop of London, implored soldiers to “kill Germans” in this “war for purity.” Russians invoked the name of God, as did a German pastor in Bremen who likened the war to “a New Pentecost.” On the Eastern and Western Front, Christian images championed each combatants’ cause. “The First World War,” writes Jenkins, “was a thoroughly religious event, in the sense that overwhelmingly Christian nations fought each other in what many viewed as a holy war, a spiritual conflict.”

After the war, explanations based on religious belief declined because the destruction had been so vast. This had profound consequences for the church. It launched apocalyptic interpretations of history among evangelicals, giving rise to the End Times movement. New seminaries were launched, including Dallas Theological, with the then-novel idea that Christ’s saints would be rescued or raptured before the final cataclysm.2 They gave impetus to modern-day evangelicalism with its emphasis on evangelism as the primary task since the world was doomed to get progressively worse.

The war also had profound consequences for Judaism and Islam. The 1917 Balfour Declaration, signaling Britain’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, led to more than 100,000 Jews migrating to Israel between 1919 and 1930. This stirred the fires of jihad in Islam, along with the effective end of the caliphate in 1924 when the last caliph, Abdülmecid II, left Constantinople to reside in France.

Changes like these are why Jenkins concludes that World War I “destroyed one religious world and created another.” I would recalibrate that a bit. The war destroyed one religious world and began to create another. The 1920s sparked a resurgence of Islamist fundamentalism. It also kindled Christian fundamentalism, with Christians evacuating leading institutions to create parallel (inferior) institutions such as “Christian” schools, books, and films to protect believers from the big, bad world.

Another outcome was the first hint of religious “nones” and exiles. In 1919, the British churches issued a despairing report noting that “Christianity and the churches have failed, are out of it,” and “disliked.” Christians were becoming disenchanted with the church. Those outside the church began to view the faith as been there, done that.

We didn’t feel the full effect of these outcomes for a while. The market crash of 1929 caused the world to hit the pause button. World War II focused attention on defeating fascism (but note the absence of religious invocations and images). In 1954, the stock market returned to 1929 levels. The decline of religious belief resumed—in mainstream churches (1960s) and more recently in evangelicalism (2000s). The 1973 Arab oil embargo began to redistribute the world’s wealth, underwriting various Islamist groups committed to jihad. And now we’re seeing a significant rise in religious nones and exiles.

In William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Antonio urges Sebastian to murder his sleeping father to become king. The moment is ripe. “What’s past is prologue.” All that’s happened up to the present is prologue to a great future. Philip Jenkins draws the same lesson from World War I. If the religious order of a century ago could so quickly unravel, “the religious world we know might indeed be turned upside down within a very short space of time.” This seems to account for the recent rise of religious nones, and exiles as well as ISIS, which is committed to reestablishing the caliphate. That requires jihad. If Europeans and Americans weren’t so ignorant about history, they’d see how Paris is another horrific instance of how the past is often prologue.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

1 Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (New York: HarperOne, 2014), p. 43.
2 James H. Moorhead, World Without End (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011)


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  1. Seems to me that we’ve been in another trench war given the stalemate of our own making – not choosing to win at war swiftly and decisively. But that’s because we’re not only horrible at military strategy (wasting excellent soldiers & machines), we’re horribly corrupt as a governmental / political power. We keep despots in power – then they fall – and we have nothing better to offer. Mike, where do you want to go with the snapshot you’ve provided? You often offer excellent guidance for Christian behavior in culture building. But what about Christian choices in war? And perhaps the prospect of a genocidal response by U.S. & allied forces? Perhaps there’s no ending of the ISIS threat except in total victory – in the same way Israel wiped out
    enemies. Are you going to explore the ways and means of war?

  2. Too, the mainline churches and institutions were already in long decline in 1914, slip-sliding away from from any prior sense of excellence. And reactions to reactions always beget further decline. Thus Dave T poses a good question needing further address. My questions are these: 1) What is the theological proactive that can free us from reactions rooted in prior reactions? And 2) As well, can Islam be said to be rooted, A.D. 632ff, in anything but a theological reactive?

  3. I defer to those who have thought long and had on what defines a just war. I believe in the theory, but also know there are better authorities on this subject.

    John: this is why I wrote a piece a few weeks back–“Skating to where the puck will be.” I do believe there are ways to get ahead of the curves of cultures. I’m working with a handful of leaders who want to do this–to exhibit a faith that is more likely to be taken seriously by Christians as well as nones and exiles in 2030 (when the latter two will comprise @70% of the US population).

    I say ‘handful’ because anticipating future cultures has never been an evangelical strong suit (it’s not the same as “casting a vision”). Furthermore, the field of predicting the future is littered with junk. So, I’ve only found to date a small handful of believers who think long and hard about the recent rise of religious nones and exiles (and decline of the evangelical population) to the point that they are prepared to do something about it. There are of course many who are doing this–I just haven’t bumped into them yet. But we’re beginning–just beginning–to pull together those who seek to skate to where the puck will be in 15 years, in 2030.

  4. Mike,
    I respectfully disagree. While it’s not hard to find historians quoting politicians and clergy invoking God’s favor for their team, I don’t think much of anything about World War I was religious in nature. The geopolitical stew at that time was quite thick, and volatile, and the war was in some sense inevitable. That both sides called on God to root for them is more evidence of the fact that the Christian consensus that had begun to fade with Marx and Darwin in the late 1800’s had not entirely left the building.

    You are right, though, about the consequences of the war. The carnage helped many to arrive at a place of unbelief, which in turn helped many believers to dig deeper trenches, some of which we still occupy.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post, as always.

  5. Jesus would say that we should stick to our primary mission, that as we go along where we are, to make disciples and baptize them and teach them to practice all that He taught. A saving faith in Jesus is the only answer to true peace. Praying that many will be shaken to their core so that they question their illusionary world and turn to the one true God who never changes and has demonstrated his authentic love.

  6. Mike, another good look at our teacher, history. Maria’s post resonates with me fully. As we go, it seems that we need to keep our eye on where the puck will be and tune our missional planning to keep on track with the present realities. This indeed involves awareness and relevant adjustments in our personal and corporate approaches. How to do this with fidelity and balance seems illusory and challenges my personal capacities.

  7. David:

    Since I know you read a great deal and are a thoughtful reader at that, I can only urge you to read Jenkins’ book. The vast array of religious imagery and icons associated with all sides of the conflict surprised me. It might surprise you as well.

  8. I note your narrative, , Mike, and observe that the deconstruction of the phrase ‘The war destroyed one religious world and began to create another’gives the intensity of the contention. Sadly, primarily ‘institutional and structural(cultural) ‘war'(‘battle’)mentalities choose to reduce actions to to an immediacy of life and desth, at the expense of personal transition journeys.IMO the wisdom of the gardener and athlete prevent the number of ‘crusades’that are conducted.The reduction of the situation to ‘protesting”doctrines’inevitably amplifies conflict, without any sense for communal resolution.

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