Now, for a little change of pace. I am reading, just now, an absolutely fascinating book by Paul Fussell that I stumbled upon a few weeks ago, and since it looked interesting I sent away to Amazon for a copy. It’s entitled The Great War and Modern Memory. It it is not so much a history of the First World War as an account of how that war affected modern culture; indeed, it explores the way that many of the things that we take for granted culturally had their origins in the Great War (as it used to be called before a second came along to top the first). What particularly interests me in this post is the way that, in the midst of the first truly modern industrial war, “primitive” thinking, especially at the front lines, began to make a reappearance.
I had never heard of Paul Fussell before, so I’ll just point you to the Wikipedia entry if you haven’t heard of him before either. He died this year, which is why, I suppose, that a new illustrated edition of The Great War and Modern Memory was published, which is why I came to hear of it and him. The fourth chapter is called “Myth, Ritual, and Romance,” and in it Fussell explores the way that myths and rituals came to dominate the minds of so many men at the front. Stories of angels, or even the presence of Christ figures, and the language of baptism and resurrection and being born again were part of the texture of the life of soldiers mired in the brutal slogging match in which millions were killed in a blighted landscape on which, even today, you can still trace the patterns of war.
As Fussell says:
That such a myth-ridden world could take shape in the midst of a war representing a triumph of modern industrialism, materialism, and mechanism is an anomaly worth considering. 
I suspect it is more than just an anomaly. Indeed, it strikes me as providing some insight into the origins of religion, and even though it is possible now to discover the origins of some of the rumours and legends that sprang up in the midst of the strange and almost unreal conditions of life and death in the static trench warfare that seemed to the men fighting it that it would go on forever, and swallow generations of young men in their turn, it seems to have produced conditions in which myth, ritual, legend and superstitious belief flourished. Recent research into developed societies in which religion is still a dominant force seem to indicate that religion is likely to flourish in conditions of stressful uncertainty. Thus, countries like those in Scandinavia, where social democracy had been the rule since the Second World War, are much less religious than the United States (in particular), and the difference seems to lie in the insecurity of people in the United States, where many live at or just below the poverty line whilst others prosper, and where reliable medical care is available only to those who can afford it. With decaying inner cities and a lack of opportunity for a significant proportion of the population, religion, superstition and conspiracy theories are rife.
These conditions of insecurity, senseless violence, and hopelessness were paralleled by the conditions of those who were fighting and dying in their thousands and hundreds of thousands on the Western Front. “Big pushes” and artillery barrages that consumed millions of shells in a few days, the stench and discomfort of the trenches, where lice infested men’s bodies, and rats grew sleek off the bodies of dead soldiers in No Man’s Land, days spent in idleness and nights in feverish activity, repairing trenches and battlements, rescuing the wounded (who often cried out in desperation for days on end), and patrols sent out in useless forays in the dark: this was the context in which superstition and legend, rumour, and speculation were rife.
The Angels of Mons, for example, a story which it was widely thought unpatriotic to question, has a known source. The angels were believed to have appeared on the battlefield and to have shielded the British retreat from Mons had its origin in a story by Arthur Machen, “in which the ghosts of the English bowmen dead at Agincourt came to the assistance of their hard-pressed countrymen by discharging arrows which killed Germans without leaving visible wounds.” (141)
But here’s the strange part. Apparently Machen was embarrassed by the misunderstanding, but, says Fussell:
he was assured, especially by the clergy, that he was wrong: the angels — in some versions angel bowmen — were real, and had appeared in the sky near Mons. 
Myth-making was in full swing, and those who dealt in myth affirmed that the myths were real! However, not only were new myths created, but much older myths were assimilated to the experiences of those at the front. Especially powerful were stories of crucified soldiers, like the story of the Crucified Canadian:
The usual version relates that the Germans captured a Canadian soldier and in full view of his mates exhibited him in the open spread-eagled on a cross, his hands and feet pierced by bayonets. 
Fussell points out that the image of the crucifixion was always accessible to those at the front because of the existence of many physical calvaries at French and Belgian crossroads, and, of course, to assimilate their sufferings to the crucified Saviour was one way in which soldiers’ experience could not only be explained, but, in a sense, dignified.
This last point often struck me when, on the Sunday before Remembrance Day (11 November), we often sang (in church) Awkwright’s famous hymn, “O Valiant Hearts,” which makes this identification explicit:
O valiant hearts who to your glory came
Through dust of conflict and through battle flame;
Tranquil you lie, your knightly virtue proved,
Your memory hallowed in the land you loved.
Proudly you gathered, rank on rank, to war
As who had heard God’s message from afar;
All you had hoped for, all you had, you gave,
To save mankind—yourselves you scorned to save.
Splendid you passed, the great surrender made;
Into the light that nevermore shall fade;
Deep your contentment in that blest abode,
Who wait the last clear trumpet call of God.
Long years ago, as earth lay dark and still,
Rose a loud cry upon a lonely hill,
While in the frailty of our human clay,
Christ, our Redeemer, passed the self-same way.
Still stands His cross from that dread hour to this,
Like some bright star above the dark abyss;
Still, through the veil, the Victor’s pitying eyes
Look down to bless our lesser Calvaries.
These were His servants, in His steps they trod,
Following through death the martyred Son of God:
Victor, He rose; victorious too shall rise
They who have drunk His cup of sacrifice.
O risen Lord, O Shepherd of our dead,
Whose cross has bought them and whose staff has led,
In glorious hope their proud and sorrowing land
Commits her children to Thy gracious hand.
I can myself testify to the emotional weight of that hymn sung in the context of remembrance. (It is sung to a very plangent melody, which you can hear here.) The idea, not only of sacrificial death, but also of the comforting presence of the risen Jesus, which was a common tale told by soldiers, has very strong associations, and can be deeply moving when considering the deaths of fallen comrades. I have seen grown men cry when singing this hymn.
Fussell quotes from a letter written by Wilfred Owen, one of the most outstanding English war poets, to Osbert Sitwell, about training troops in England:
For 14 hours yesterday I was at work — teaching Christ to lift his cross by numbers, and how to adjust his crown; and not to imagine he thirst until after the last halt. I attended his Supper to see that there were no complaints; and inspected his feet that they should be worthy of the nails. I see to it that he is dumb, and stands at attention before his accusers. With a piece of silver I buy him every day, and with maps I make him familiar with the topography of Golgotha. [quoted 146]
Which, as Fussell points out, is an outstanding piece of prose. But the easy identification of the soldier with Christ, and his sufferings with the pains of Golgotha, is apparent. Mythical language is the only language that makes sense when the rest of the world seems mad.
What is interesting about this is the all but inevitable tendency to resort to myth when under great stress. Consider the position of primitive man, for whom the world, largely unknown, must have been a terrifying mystery, and the tendency to tell stories that would both provide the opportunity for emotional release, but would also provide what must have seemed an element of control over uncontrollable forces. If it was possible for such myth-making activity to arise in the conditions of trench warfare, when the men, driven from behind by the Staff and having nothing before them except the blasted landscape of No Man’s Land, even though the fighting men came from societies in which scientific reason was the most predominant form of thought, and the materials and tools they used were the outcome of greater knowledge about the world than had ever been possessed, the propensity for devising storied escapes from reality must be exceedingly strong.
It is thus easy to see how religious language gets its purchase over the lives of believers. Life is, very often, a cruel, uncertain affair. This is one reason that some people take the new atheists to task for speaking as though everyone lives in comfort, and all we need is to celebrate the wonders of the universe, and the particular beauties and profundities revealed by science. I am reminded that in his book Wings of Illusion, John Schumacher suggests, I think, though he does not say it outright, that consciousness is a protective mechanism that shields us from the brutal reality of life. We exist, he suggests, in a state of mild hypnotic trance most of the time. We are infinitely suggestible, and, as Schumacher points out, “suggestibility has been a central feature of the human mind since the dawn of the paranormal belief imperative.” (41) And he goes on a bit later to say:
Illusion works best in the form of paranormal self-transcendence. It provides high-quality untruth which gives us a reassuring sense that we are part of something other than chaotic nonsense and meaninglessness.
(Here is where minimally counterintuitive stories, spoken of by contemporary science of religion, fit in.) Thoreau once said that most people live lives of quiet desperation. What myth and story telling do is to allow us to escape this state once in a while. “In a manner of speaking,” Schumacher says, we
escape from freedom and reality in order to arrive at a set of beliefs that will enable us to perceive the world as having order, purpose, and meaning. 
One of the problems with this, of course, is that the “high-quality untruths” that we devise to provide this meaning and purpose, which may have worked their magic for the men on the front line, in ordered social conditions that are not so chaotic and challenging, as, for example, being trapped in the midst of a great war, have a tendency to impose those untruths on those who can neither accept them as helpful untruths, nor see them as anything but an intrusion into lives which they attempt to live in accordance with the best information and reason available to them.
Perhaps a key point that is made in Fussell’s chapter on myths, rituals and romance is the remark that it came to be thought unpatriotic to deny that there were angels during the retreat from Mons that shielded the British troops from harm. When myth becomes prescriptive in this way it ceases to answer the questions that are currently being asked, and is imposed, rather than bubbling up in an organic way from within the lives of people themselves. It is then that myth becomes an impediment to full life, because it is an artificial structure, often from a distant past, with no obvious relevance to the present. The myth of the dying and rising god, for instance, found a ready application in the conditions of life on the Western Front, but it is not obvious that it can simply be applied to the lives of ordinary people living out their lives in routine types of activities in factories or fast food joints or supermarkets. These life conditions should have stories of their own, if stories there must be. To impose the stories, and try to make them fit conditions other than those which gave rise to them, will not succeed in providing the kinds of high-level untruths which may be needed to make life tolerable in otherwise intolerable situations — which may explain some of the febrile earnestness of those trying to retail such stories to others.
Of course, I am just playing with ideas here, but the point seems to me important. One thing that clergy do is to try to make the stories fit the situation of their parishioners. This is not such an easy thing to do, for first century stories, in general, have no application, without major revisions, to people who live in the 21st century. What happens, instead, is that the stories tend to become fixed in historical time, so that they do not present themselves as high-level untruths at all, but as high-level truths which must be believed to be true in order to derive benefit from them. It is not surprising that, in the process, people should become concerned about the fact that others refuse to accept the stories as meaningful or useful at all, so that a kind of uneasy standoff exists between those who “believe” and those who do not. The problem lies in the pretence that we are dealing in genuine historical truths, and the perfectly natural processes of myth-formation are lost in minute disputes as to what must be believed. The fact that these disputes have institutional representation, as well as being embodied in physical monuments and other cultural artifacts, also has the effect of betraying the psychological work that myth-making has traditionally done in the psychological economy of individuals and society. This is perhaps where New Age religion comes in, for this is contemporary myth-making energetically at work, but of course the problem is that even New Age religion has a tendency to adopt age-old institutional forms of objectification, supposing that its imaginings truly reflect the deep structure of reality, as things like “quantum spirituality” attest.
This post does not have an obvious conclusion, because it is a fairly desultory consideration of a few ideas generated by reading Paul Fussell’s very attractive study of the Great War and its follow-on effects in Western culture. One of those effects, I think, is to have placed a big question mark over religious belief and theological speculation. After the madness that was the carnage on the Western Front (and elsewhere too, of course), the comfortable certainties of religion, already called into serious question by the rapid advance of science in the 19th century, could only survive by means of revision and attenuation. That religions are regaining their confidence, notwithstanding the continuing advance of science, may have a something to do with that advance itself, and the insecurities that have been produced by a world in a constant state of change, not to speak of the economic uncertainties that global economies have produced. Those who are concerned about the dangerous effects of religion in the contemporary world should perhaps explore more closely the relationship between the apparent demise of liberal theology and the contemporaneous flourishing of fundamentalist certainty. That Ken Ham’s lucubrations sound as dotty as some of the front line myths of the Great War is possibly a sign that people find modern life as meaningless and as threatening as those whose lives were put in question by experience of the sheer madness of life in a constant state of war.