Virtual Voices

Weekend Reads: Military motivation and lessons on living

Books

Endowed by Their Creator

Edited by Donald D. Ray

First Principles Press

Opening this volume at random, one is liable to find a contribution from William Ellery Channing, while one of John Calvin’s prayers adorns the facing page. Endowed by Their Creator: A Collection of Historic American Military Prayers, 1774-Present (First Principles Press, 2013) can be a bit of a lottery.

The book originated as an appendix to a court brief arguing that the Virginia Military Institute ought to be allowed to retain its custom of offering prayer before each meal. In the professional military opinion of leading commanders throughout American history, prayer is an essential element of military life. Furthermore, reports the book’s introduction, a massive study of World War II veterans found that “prayer was selected most frequently as the soldier’s source of combat motivation”—more frequently than the desire not to “let the other men down” or to “finish the job in order to get home again.” And indeed, the volume’s historical and sociological case for military prayer is highly compelling, as are many of the prayers.

But far more troubling is the book’s theological understanding of what prayer actually is. Citing with apparent approval George Patton’s demand for soldiers to rely on “Religion, Prayer, or God,” the volume seems unclear on the distinction between civic religion and the real deal. Should military forces be praying? Absolutely. But to Whom should they be praying? As an anonymous postscript (the editor’s?) at the end of Endowed by Their Creator argues, “Prayer must be offered in Jesus’ name, and under His authority, and all other prayers are false, ineffectual, and worthless.” This is slightly exaggerated (the Lord’s Prayer doesn’t end in Jesus’ name). Rather, prayer must be offered to the Triune God. Endowed’s explicitly Trinitarian prayers, drawing on millennia of Christian piety, are by far the best it has to offer. Just don’t tell Channing that.

Death By Living

By N.D. Wilson

Thomas Nelson

Part sermon, part memoir, and occasionally just a Christian trashing the nonsense of nihilistic thinking as only a skilled novelist can, Death By Living: Life Is Meant to Be Spent (Thomas Nelson, 2013) is N.D. Wilson’s latest gesture toward a vision of Christianity and culture.

Wilson has elsewhere called stories “catechisms with clothes on.” If so, Death By Living is something of a striptease, as the catechism takes its indicative clothes off to issue some naked imperatives. Be grateful; be generous; live with both hands open. Why? “Living is the same thing as dying. Living well is the same thing as dying for others.” Do you want to grasp as much of the vanity of this world for yourself as you can, or do you want to wear out serving God by serving the people He has placed in your life?

Wilson’s sentences beg to be read out loud. His stories of touring Europe with nine small children are hysterically funny, and the stories of his grandfathers will inspire tears—and courage.

This, Wilson insists, is a spoken world, held in being by the Word of God. Our lives are narrative, too. Imagine writing a novel in real time—because you are. What kind of story is it? Adam had the chance to make his story come out right, by executing God’s wrath on the serpent and then saying, “God, take me instead.” He chose the opposite.

Adam didn’t ask for a serpent. He’d done nothing wrong. But that’s life; paradise wasn’t easy either. In God’s world, the reward for passing one test is a harder test: Life is lived on an ever-increasing scale of difficulty. Like it or not, you are living.

Caleb Nelson
Caleb Nelson

Caleb grew up on a ranch in northern Colorado and is currently pursuing ordination in the Presbyterian Church in America. He lives in Greenville, S.C.

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