(Christian Courier column, Nov. 23, 2015)
Recently I read, back to back, three very different books about WWII: Eric Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption and Anthony Doerr’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winner, All the Light We Cannot See.
Although credible reviewers have scolded Metaxas for “evangelicalizing” Bonhoeffer’s theology and minimizing its Barthian influence, the biography has been generally well-received. Metaxas authenticates Bonhoeffer as an extraordinary Christian — not only a gifted academic, but a thoughtful activist. Although he was safely overseas, Bonhoeffer chose to return to his homeland, not flinching from the gritty work of shepherding his family, students, colleagues and the broader Christian church in the crisis that was Nazi Germany. He prompted national and international conversations about Hitler’s anti-Christian platform and was among the first to name and resist the anti-Semitism fanned by the National Socialists.
Today Bonhoeffer’s convictions and actions hold up as uniquely perceptive and courageous in a muddled time. Also distinctive was his participation in an unsuccessful assassination plot against Hitler. His involvement in the conspiracy was eventually uncovered and he was hung by the Nazis shortly before the end of the war.
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy is dense but inspirational reading. The last few weeks of Bonhoeffer’s life reveal the consistency of his character and the integrity of his faith. He was imprisoned alongside Dr. Rascher, a Nazi scientist fallen out of favour, a man who had supervised the construction of gas chambers, and who, as chief medical officer at Dachau, had victimized numerous prisoners in horrific experiments. Nearing their inexorable end, Bonhoeffer behaved pastorally to all his fellow-inmates, including even this enemy. He spent his final days comforting Wassily Kokorin, a young Soviet atheist. Hours before his death, he led a church service, preaching on Isaiah 53:5 and 1 Peter 1:3. He spent his final minutes in prayer.
Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, is the remarkable biography of Louis Zamperini, American Olympian and WWII pilot. The story is told with raw simplicity. Zamperini’s plane was shot down and he survived a harrowing ordeal lost at sea. He was subsequently captured by the Japanese and endured unspeakable deprivation and torture. After the war, Zamperini struggled to find equilibrium, succumbing to alcoholism and other post-traumatic stress symptoms. Eventually he was led to Christ and, in time, was able to forgive his captors, even the brutal commander who had targeted him for relentless punishments designed to break his will. A sobering read, this book broadened my understanding of the Pacific theatre.
All the Light We Cannot See deserves the high praise it has received. In the young lives of a blind French girl and a talented German radio operator, Doerr spans WWII in a cohesive way that is sufficiently elastic to encompass the eastern and western fronts and fragments of all the absurdity in between. Nonetheless, Doerr’s war-torn setting is backlit with a gentle hopefulness that counters despair. Like the sightless Marie-Laure and orphaned Werner, we too are often unaware of the light beyond our own cataclysms, but tenacious acts of love ground out in the midst of chaos confirm its existence.
Doerr’s novel took ten years to complete. Its liquid narrative flow is the result of that painstaking workmanship. Details establishing the historicity of the tale are never forced. Like similar examples of our very best art – Picasso’s “Guernica” or the Canadian National Vimy Memorial – All the Light We Cannot See takes human wartime experience to a cathartic place, where appalling truth and redemptive beauty mesh.
Each year, when Remembrance Day rolls around, I’m overcome afresh at the staggering cost in human lives, the monumental destruction of culture, the massive topographical upheaval, the myriad individual stories of gallantry and infamy that emerge from the World Wars and other global conflicts. As I watch documentary footage of Hitler or Mussolini, I sense the yawning distance of the intervening decades, how caricaturish these leaders seem in all their demagoguery. How easy and convenient it would be to dismiss such evil as rooted in isolated 20th century events or to attribute a lack of sophistication to the combatants, a “sound and fury” from which we’ve progressed.
These books situate me in WWII’s present. They convince me of the need for literacy, libraries, historians, journalists. They caution me to resist the crushing digital obsession with “what’s happening right now.” They also cause me to turn to God. Only in him do I find the solace to bear being human. In his light I see light.