Shell Shock

Our 'post-Christian' society barely conceals the great brokenness beneath it

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Atheism

As part of research for a separate project, I recently came across this ten-minute video about shell-shocked soldiers from World War I; it’s gut-wrenching but ought to be seen by everyone (link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvTRJZGWqF8). It shows men twisted and deformed, body and mind, by the horror of war.

I had often thought of shell shock as mainly a psychological condition, producing wide-open eyes frozen in perpetual fright, on an empty face. But the video above — and this longer documentary (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=faM42KMeB5Q) — taught me that shell shock destroys the body and often renders the sufferer incapable of walking, standing, or even sitting up.

As I was watching the first video linked above, something struck me. One explanation offered for shell shock is that the sufferer has undergone a psychological collapse. The person he thought he was is not who he now believes himself to be. Most of us, I imagine, do not think of ourselves as murderers, as people who wallow in mud, fit only for lice and rats to feast on, as people at whom enemies lob explosive shells. These illusions are shattered in the trenches.

Not only this, but, as many soldiers in WWI attested, the no-man’s land between the trenchworks was often strewn with dead bodies — the machine-gunned, the gassed, the men with limbs and brains blown away by whistling shrapnel. To venture out to retrieve the dead would be to die oneself. So, there the dead lay, week after week in some cases. The open eyes of some might be looking at the trenches from which the men had leaped up to charge not long ago. The mouths, open with bloating and rigor mortis, seemed, perhaps, to convey some wordless warning: stay back. Stay away.

But one was stuck. One lived in the stench of that field. The happy memories of childhood, of one’s sweetheart back home, of rowing out to a pond island for a Sunday picnic, dissolved in the endless thunder of the shelling, in the nightmare of just being alive.

Watching the above videos, I got, for the first time in my life, an inkling of what is meant by post-Christian. It is an academic-sounding phrase, and is often used as such. It’s sociological. It denotes a shifting of religious belief in the aggregate, a broad societal agreement that the Bible is not true and the Church is just one institution among many, with no more legitimacy than its members choose to give it. Post-Christian means the “democratization” of the universe, the transformation of immediacy into process, of a cosmos into a Hobbesian Hell where one can never be added to one, where all numbers are one and all ultimately equal zero. It’s the “disenchantment” of things, the “twilight of the gods.” And so forth.

I had always seen this as a slow-motion turning, a global push against which the Church had tried to fight, and then with which, in Vatican II, had tried to find accommodation.

But now I see post-Christian as shell shock. Look at us. Who walks as though walking in the way of the Lord? Who speaks as though speaking from the Holy Ghost? We are like the ghouls in C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, unaware of the magnitude of our perdition, trying to carve out little footholds of excuses and petty half-truths in a world which has been thrown down in complete ruination. I recall one dead soul from that book, a woman grotesque and disfigured in her damnation who nonetheless tried putting on lipstick and rouge to appear attractive.

She just didn’t get it. Neither do we.

Please watch the above videos, friends. Watch the men jerking, twitching, bouncing, going catatonic in fear. Now imagine that, over and with such men as these — such men and women as we — a society has been constructed. The society tries to hide the horror underneath. Everything about the society is designed to conceal the brokenness at bottom.

That is our post-Christian society, is it not? Or did we think we could lose God and still muddle on as before?

 

Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.

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