The Taser's Edge

Matterhorn (Grove Press, 2010) by Karl Marlantes

When Matterhorn came out last year, I immediately knew I would read it. I’d love to know more about Vietnam, yes. More interesting than that was the author, Karl Marlantes, who served as a Marine inVietnam and then spent three decades writing this novel.

Unsurprisingly, Matterhorn is an ugly experience. The opening conflict, for instance, is a man getting a leech inside his urethra on patrol; no one but a medic is available to help him, and that’s not the most comfortable of impromptu surgeries. The book shares a lot of its spirit with Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, and has a similar effect on the reader. I entered in more fully to both novels because I knew that they wrote out of their authors’ experiences. (For the record, however, Tim O’Brien is better than either Marlantes or Mailer at the actual craft of writing, and I’d re-read his stuff before any other war author except perhaps Hemingway.)

Matterhorn is a big book, and it took me a long time to get into it. I tend to be someone in love with the well-crafted sentence, while Marlantes is more in the powerful narrative school of writing (a la Graham Greene). By the end, however, Marlantes had me stylistically satisfied.

Beyond learning my history and spending my leisure time, I read war novels and watch war movies because, unsurprisingly, I came out of Duke Divinity thinking about Christianity and pacifism. If you read this blog, you’ve heard the following spiel:

Some activists are actually pacifists; some thinkers (Hauerwas included) are actually pacifists; however, no one under 30 is a real pacifist unless they’ve been through something extraordinary. Pacifism is too hard for someone that young to get.

Matterhorn is not an anti-war novel in the sense that Full Metal Jacket is an anti-war movie. Full Metal Jacket says war is evil. Matterhorn says war is unavoidable because the world is fallen. It’s difficult to emphasize how strong of a difference that is, so I’ll try again.

FMJ shows that war is hell through showing what it does both to the “bad guys,” to civilians, and to the “good guys.” That, to me, is what most of the best anti-war art does and claims: War is hell, therefore we need to exercise non-violent means of change. Some of it just says, War is hell, full stop.

Matterhorn, however, says that war is not the problem, but the symptom. You can try fighting the symptom but it will always return because the underlying sickness continues on. The way that the nations and peoples of the world relate to one another doesn’t just make war possible; it makes war inevitable because it’s necessary.

So my question then is, Do pacifism and non-violence get at the underlying disease or are they just symptom management?

Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir by Stanley Hauerwas

This book so makes me want to be a theologian.  It so makes me want to trust God, because at its heart, it is a book about how God faithfully forms us into saints and witnesses to the person and work of Christ.  Really admirable.

I came to Duke Divinity in 2006 having not read a word of Hauerwas, having barely heard his name.  While at Duke, I took a class with him, read one of his books and a handful of articles.  Other faculty also made clear their opinions on his work.  But reading Hannah’s Child reminded me once again how much Hauerwas has shaped Duke Divinity and every student who goes through it.

It’s certainly interesting to think of myself as part of his legacy even though I am by no means a disciple.  On his most famous stance for instance, Christian pacifism, I can only say I ‘lean toward’ pacifism and don’t feel capable of making a ‘decision.’  Furthermore, I don’t think it any accident that Hauerwas came of age as a theologian and came to embrace pacifism during the Vietnam War while Reinhold Niebuhr came of age as a theologian and came to reject pacifism during World War II.  Those are wholly different circumstances in which to understand what Christianity means for those who live in this world.

On another core piece of his work, a return to the virtue tradition, I love many of his ideas and find myself often repeating his emphases and language as I describe my own conception of how Christians become Christian, but I find that he lacks an overt pneumatology which I believe any account of the Christian life needs.

When I have been inside Hauerwas’ work for any length of time (2 books and 1 course), I have always had a vague sense that I can’t quite get on board wholeheartedly.  In the case of Hauerwas’ book with Charles Pinches on the virtues and Hauerwas’ class on the virtues, I came to the conclusion already mentioned: he leaves out the needed piece of a description of the work of the Holy Spirit.

In the case of Hannah’s Child, the part that leaves me unsettled is that I am a naturally introspective person reading a memoir by a man who at least claims to eschew introspection, and who provides an account of his life in which he says he is too busy for introspection even while doing it.  Furthermore, although the book is subtitled, A Theologian’s Memoir, it would just as aptly be named A Theological Memoir.  Duke graduates, whether they love or hate Hauerwas’ work, are ‘supposed to’ reflect on the world around them through a theological lens, and this is exactly what Hauerwas does here.  I personally wonder, however, whether one of the largest self-deceptions possible in self-reflection is exactly that assigning of theological meaning to our life experiences.  (Conversely, theological reflection can also be one of the best practices in our lives.)

My current mental review of the book compares it to Augustine’s Confessions.  Both it and Hannah’s Child could bear the subtitle, A Theological Memoir.  Both speak of the work of God as at times despite us and at times entirely indistinguishable from our own work in the world.  Both invite me to loosen my grip on trying to control the long-term or the day-to-day of my life, even toward the admirable goal of seeking God.

I would highly recommend this book, but with the caveat that if you know some contemporary theology you will get much more out of it (something which could also be said of knowing some theology when approaching Augustine’s own ‘theologian’s memoir’).


Update: Theophiliacs tells me this–“originally Hauerwas had wanted the subtitle to be ‘A Theological Memoir’ rather than ‘A Theologians Memoir’ but Eerdmans didn’t think it would sell well.”

Soldiers of Conscience

Apparently this PBS documentary, “Soldiers of Conscience”, came out a couple years ago.  I never heard about it until today, when the Ekklesia Project blog pointed me to America magazine’s set of excerpted interviews.  Those excerpts are well worth watching, and I’m working on tracking down the film itself, as the DVD is dang expensive.

From the official website:

Soldiers of Conscience is a dramatic window on the dilemma of individual U.S. soldiers in the current Iraq War – when their finger is on the trigger and another human being is in their gun-sight. Made with cooperation from the U.S. Army and narrated by Peter Coyote, the film profiles eight American soldiers, including four who decide not to kill, and become conscientious objectors; and four who believe in their duty to kill if necessary. The film reveals all of them wrestling with the morality of killing in war, not as a philosophical problem, but as soldiers experience it – a split-second decision in combat that can never be forgotten or undone.