Photographs, printed on paper, have a way of falling out from the books and boxes where we’ve buried them, and, suddenly, the past is again, quite literally, at hand. Digital photos seem superior to those on paper in almost every respect, yet they are so ephemeral that, once having been consigned to a hard drive, disk or cloud, they can easily disappear into the shear infinity of cyberspace. A website is only as alive as its number of hits. But sometimes the past should fall off the shelf. There can be a grace in remembering, even that which we’ve worked hard to forget.
It’s unfortunate that Nicholas Stargardt’s The German War: A Nation under Arms, 1939-1945 is a long read. Released the year before Britain has weighed European unity and found it wanting, it recreates, by way of diaries and letters, the personal experiences of a European nation at war. It also illustrates how the most diabolical aspect of evil is its ability to hide itself, even to take on a semblance of righteousness.
We think that the slaughter of innocents happened behind barbed wire or deep in forests. Most of it did, but turning terror into a weapon isn’t new, isn’t something invented by Islam. Atrocities, first those perpetrated by the Germans and then those inflicted upon them, follow one another in the work, like a stream gaining waters. That’s the nature of war. To choose evil is to unleash it. The past should remind us that the promise of a better tomorrow is only that, a promise we make to ourselves.
Today, our media delights in the delivery of atrocious images, “to put a face on the tragedy.” Dependent, we devour them and wait for more. That’s morally questionable, but the addicted don’t ask moral questions.
Stargardt retrieves the deeply troubling role that physical photographs, passed hand to hand, played in the war. In October of 1939, in the occupied Polish village of Schetz, a mass shooting of primarily Jewish civilians was carried out.
Moral evil, the corruption we bring into the world, may well be the great sign of God’s existence. Yes, one can ask how God could permit such evil, and God’s defenders will be hard pressed to proffer answers. But it seems equally difficult to claim that evolution should produce moral evil. Animals eating one another makes a certain, queasy sense, but humans killing one another is utterly irrational. Photographing the act, for the purpose of titillating, even less so. And is there a better word for a society becoming addicted to such images than “diabolical?”
Jesus said something to his disciples, which our generation of preachers ignores as patent nonsense.
In his work New Testament and Mythology, Rudolf Bultmann, the great liberal Protestant theologian, perfectly expressed the spirit of our age, our way of hearing the sacred Scriptures, when he wrote, back in 1941:
We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament (4).
Bultmann dismissed anything in the New Testament that seemed unexplainable by science. Modern rationalism measured scriptural assertions and dismissed the supernatural as mythic overlay, the folk expressions of primitive peoples. But why should it be difficult to believe that evil appears to act purposefully in our world, that it displays the mark of personhood, that it is, in short, diabolical? Haven’t all of us encountered an evil, whose sheer depth mocks the notion of randomness? And how could a German Lutheran theologian, writing in 1941, dismiss the diabolical as unreasonable? It is certainly irrational, but cannot the irrational be real? Wasn’t it quite obviously real in 1941?
Do we prefer to ignore the Scriptures, on the question of demons and angels, not because we find them incredible but because they reduce our own place in the world? To speak of angels and demons is to assert that we are not the only powers, the only persons, to have come forth from God. Do we react to angels and demons the way a small child responds to reports about his parents before his birth? “I am not the center of this story. I can make no sense of it. For me, it just as well need not exist.”
Of course, in speaking of angels or demons, one mustn’t use Hollywood’s images. Think rather of pure intelligences, active within our world.
One can argue that demons dismiss our own culpability. Maybe, but perhaps they also suggest that, when we choose evil, we opt for something every bit as creative and intelligent, in short, as personal, as ourselves. Is it truly hard to believe, when we acknowledge the ugly irrationality of our own sin, that a power more malignant, more creative than ourselves, seduced us?
Of course, the Gospel only raises the issues of demons to announce our deliverance from them in the person of Christ. But there’s the crux of the issue. If you don’t think that you need to be saved, if that notion is itself meaningless to you, then how can Christ be your savior?
Christ isn’t a redeemer in modern thought. He’s reduced to the role of a teacher. He preaches something to consider and then, perhaps, to consign to the irrational prejudices of primitives. Let’s hope that modern thought is right. Otherwise, in casting away demons, we’ve cast out our redeemer.
Isaiah 66: 10-14c Galatians 6: 14-18 Luke 10: 1-12, 17-20