Review of ‘The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade’ by Philip Jenkins

The-Great-and-Holy-War Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (New York: HarperOne, 2014). Hardcover / Kindle

The Great War (1914–1918) is a turning point in world history. It destroyed empires and created nations. It wrecked Christendom, catalyzed secularism, and unleashed global religious forces that continue to affect the world today. “Only now, after a century,” writes Philip Jenkins in The Great and Holy War, “are we beginning to understand just how utterly that war destroyed one religious world and created another.”

Many books have been published to mark the centennial of the start of World War I. Some narrate the history of the entire conflict; others study this or that aspect of it in depth. Jenkins’s book belongs to the latter category. It focuses on how European combatants framed the conflict using the holy war rhetoric of medieval Christendom. Nations used this rhetoric whether or not they had an established state church. Soldiers were viewed as martyrs. They claimed angelic and miraculous interventions on the battlefield. Among the heterodox, paranormal, occult experiences were common. Even radical social movements such as Soviet Communism, though they were avowedly godless, expressed their aspirations in apocalyptic and millenarian terms.

After surveying the religious dimension of the rhetoric and experience of the combatants, Jenkins then shows some of the global consequences that arose in the aftermath of war. The Great War was truly a world war in that the empires fought over their colonies and enlisted their colonized subjects to fight on European soil. As they enlisted this or that colonized group to fight for them, they unleashed forces such as Zionism, anticolonialism, Armenian genocide, African indigenous churches, and politicized Islam—forces that had sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit religious dimensions.

These forces continue to influence world events today. Consider the Israel-Gaza conflict. The British Mandate in Palestine came about because of the Entente Powers defeat of the Ottoman Empire, which until then had held sway in that region. The United Kingdom had promised Zionists that it would work to establish a national Jewish homeland in Palestine in 1917. But it also made promises to Arabs, and established Hashemite kingdoms in Transjordan and Iraq after the war. Facing Western dominance in their ancestral homelands, Arabs developed two contrary responses: a secularized Arab pan-nationalism and a politicized Islam. Secularism was the choice of many Arab Christians and other minorities, who longed for Arab statehood but did not want Muslim dominance. Politicized Islam, on the other hand, longed to reestablish the caliphate, the Muslim umma (peoplehood, empire), and sharia as the law of the land. In Palestine, the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Hamas represent these contrary responses.

Or consider the depredations of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has been in the news of late for expelling Christians from their ancestral homelands. Until the Great War, the Middle East, though predominantly Muslim, contained substantial Christian minorities, groups that claimed direct links to the Apostolic Age and whose tenure in the land preceded the rise of Islam by centuries. This was especially the case in the region now known as Turkey, whose major cities were mentioned in the New Testament and which had been the Byzantine heartland in the 1100 years between Constantine and the fall of Constantinople. In 1915, fearing that the Entente Powers—who explicitly interpreted the Great War in terms of crusade and holy war—would destroy the caliphate and restore Christendom in Asia Minor, the Ottoman Turks began a genocide and expulsion of the Armenians, the Ottoman Empire’s largest Christian minority, as well as against Assyrian and Chalcedonian Christians. The genocide of the Armenians gave the Nazis hope that they likewise could murder the Jews with impunity. “Who, after all,” asked Adolph Hitler, “speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

It is easy for a Christian to point out these problems, which involve politicized Islam. But Christian readers of The Great and Holy War need to take to heart the lesson it teaches us about how easily biblical images and rhetoric, as well as the images and rhetoric of Christian tradition, can be used to incite, support, and sustain brutal warfare that kills millions. “[I]t is God who has summoned us to this war,” proclaimed Randolph McKim of Washington DC’s Episcopal Church of the Epiphany as the United States entered the war in 1917. “It is his war we are fighting.… This conflict is indeed a crusade. The greatest in history—the holiest. It is in the profoundest and truest sense a Holy War…. Yes, it is Christ, the King of Righteousness, who calls us to grapple in deadly strife with this unholy and blasphemous power [Germany].”

But just three years earlier, German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Vorwerk had reworked the Lord’s Prayer to say, in part, this: “Our Father, from the height of heaven, / Make haste to succor Thy German people. / Help us in the holy war…. In thy merciful patience, forgive / Each bullet and each blow / That misses the mark. / Lead us not into the temptation / Of letting our wrath be too gentle / In carrying out They divine judgment…. Thine is the kingdom, / The German land. / May we, through Thy mailed hand / Come to power and glory.”

Even granting, as Jenkins does, that the Entente Powers had more justice in their cause than the Central Powers had in theirs, the contrary rhetoric of the Christians on both sides of this conflict call into question whether God was truly on either side or whether each was simply using him to justify their nation’s actions. No wonder, in the aftermath of the war, Christendom died in Europe and secularism began to take its place. It had been killed by Christians.

For revealing the religious contours of a European (and American) religious world order now gone; for demonstrating that Christians—not just Muslims—have a history of politicizing their religion for violent purposes, even in recent times; and for showing how the religious world we inhabit is one birthed in the fires of the Great War, I highly recommend Philip Jenkins’s The Great and Holy War.

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my review page.


Review of ‘In the Gap’ by Wilfredo De Jesús

InGap-Book Wilfredo De Jesús, In the Gap: What Happens When God’s People Stand Strong (Springfield, MO: Influence Resources, 2014). Paperback / Kindle (Also in Spanish: Paperback / Kindle)

Nearly eight months ago, my wife and I became foster parents to two sisters, who are 19- and 2-months old. The experience has been rewarding, of course, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it also has been hard. We used to be able to pack our son into the car and go on extended road trips. We don’t do that anymore. We used to be able to go out for date nights. That’s now a rare occurrence. We used to get a full night’s sleep. Now, we wake up two to three times a night to feed someone else’s baby.

“A gap,” Wilfredo De Jesús writes in his new book, “represents a place of weakness, vulnerability, and danger. It is a defenseless location of exposure and limitation, a point where people face real threats.” My foster daughters were “in the gap,” so to speak, when they came into our home. It fell to my wife and me to stand in the gap for them and become a source of strength, health, and safety for them.

Based on my personal experience, I read In the Gap with real interest. Pastor Choco—as De Jesus is known popularly—outlines the traits of “gap people,” drawing on the examples of biblical characters:

  • Nehemiah identified a problem to solve,
  • Esther understood her times,
  • Noah was “all in,” no matter what the cost,
  • David was anointed by God to do the work,
  • Barnabas saw hidden potential,
  • John the Baptist was willing to take risks,
  • Gideon was sensitive to the voice of God,
  • Deborah earned a reputation of wisdom and strength, and
  • Caleb had a “different spirit.”

As I read about these biblical characters, I realized that my feelings of inadequacy, loss of comfort and ease, and occasional desires to throw in the towel were not unique to me. If you stand “in the gap,” you put yourself in harm’s way, you make your life more difficult, and you experience crises of faith. But you also—and this is the most important thing—do what God wants you to do by trading your comfort for the wellbeing of others. Isn’t this what Jesus—the Ultimate Gap Man—meant when he said, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give my life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45)?

Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t think my wife and I are heroes. I know us all too well—our struggles, doubts, and frustrations—to say anything so arrogant. Indeed, I ask myself why it took me so long (I’m 45 years old) to stand in the gap for little children whom Jesus loves and blesses.

Rather, I share my story in order to explain why I profited from reading this book. This book encouraged me to keep on doing whatever I can do to make my life a blessing for others, especially those in places of weakness, vulnerability, and danger. I hope, when you read this book, it will have the same effect on you.

In the Gap includes discussion questions at the end of each chapter, which can be used for personal reflection or group discussion. It has a self-evaluation tool at the back of the book to help you determine “where God is already at work in your life…and where He may need to do a little more to sharpen and shape you.” Finally, it includes useful suggestions for how to use the book in small groups and classes.

(Full disclosure: I know Pastor Choco personally, and I work for the Assemblies of God, which is the parent company of Influence Resources.)

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my review page.

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