Language in Wartime
In defense of normal activities
In 1939, C.S. Lewis preached his now famous sermon Learning in Wartime. In it, he addresses the question normally on everyone’s mind during times of war and conflict — why bother? If WW3 really is around the corner; if globalist influencers really have penetrated the highest levels of government; if the global food supply really is on the brink, then aren’t we all just wasting our time doing anything except surviving?
Lewis argues such a response is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the world and our purpose in it. The truth is that all our lives are lived on a precipice. The idea that we are somehow safe when things are settled is an illusion afforded to us by the comforts and conveniences of modern life. And like most illusions, none of it means we’re actually safer. The only “safe” place, if we insist on using such a word, is to walk by faith. Faith doesn’t scry into the future to try and assess danger. It acknowledges the precariousness of our position and trusts to the one “who prepares a table for us in the midst of our enemies.”
There’s an application for us here where it concerns language. It’s tempting, during seasons of keen moral stupidity, to reduce words and language to the polemical.1 Just as it is tempting, if you believe a nuclear winter is right around the corner, to spend your days amassing recipes for squirrel pie. Why spend time doing anything else?
Lewis tells us why:
Before I went to the last war I certainly expected that my life in the trenches would, in some mysterious sense, be all war. In fact, I found that the nearer you got to the front line the less everyone spoke and thought of the allied cause and the progress of the campaign; and I am pleased to find that Tolstoy, in the greatest war book ever written, records the same thing — and so, in its own way, does the Iliad. Neither conversion nor enlistment in the army is really going to obliterate our human life. Christians and soldiers are still men; the infidel’s idea of a religious life and the civilian’s idea of active service are fantastic. If you attempted, in either case, to suspend your whole intellectual and aesthetic activity, you would only succeed in substituting a worse cultural life for a better.
And so does Tolkein:
I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which 'Escape' is now so often used […] Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?
So there it is. Yes, language is a sword; but it’s not only a sword. It’s also medicine, palette knife, blanket, framing hammer, chainsaw, and one of those beautiful old Victor gramophones. It’s also a telescope, to remind us and anyone who might be listening “That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”
This is primarily an encouragement for those on various front lines who feel that all they seem to do anymore is fight. I am aware there’s a whole other swath of Christians who feel the best way to live in wartime is to pretend there’s no war. Or who perhaps live in the stale glory of bygone wars. This is the other ditch, and it’s just as ugly.
In the vain hope of braining both of these birds, perhaps I’ll close with a somewhat fanciful excursus based on Chesterton’s “Ballad of the White Horse,” which I highly suggest you pick up and read.
There’s a time to build and a time to fight. And wisdom discerns what time it is.
“Sow them steady,” Eldred, sweaty,
Told his eldest, eager, ready
Arcing ‘round with careful measure,
Fanning drifts of barley seed.
Rambled off he to the edges
Underneath the shaded hedges
Gaining to the rustic pleasure,
Waiting bowls of golden mead.
There he rested as he chided
Jokingly the lad derided
Raw attempts and awkward strewing,
Inward glowed a waxing pride.
Eldred dozed beneath the flowers
‘Midst the heated blazing hours,
‘Till a far-flung haze spied brewing,
Traveler of turning tide.
High above a cloud bank lofting
Sudden o’er the sun went wafting
Shadows running through the grasses,
Eldred felt his spirit sour.
As the horseman reached the pasture,
Portent of a dark disaster,
Eldred knew he’d not surpass this,
Tidings of a drearing hour
“Alfred thou dost bring a ruin,
On this farm a sore confusion,
In thine eyes a headwinds dooming
Present green and growing life.”
Wearied from the miles counting,
Alfred sighed midst slow dismounting
Sees his friend the dread consuming
In his heart three sons and wife.
“Brother, do I wish it ended
That our lands were full defended
All our foes in fast retreating
Leaving us to build in peace.
Alas the truce is fast decaying,
Every day the pagans slaying
Price of freedom bears relaying
‘Till all wars shall ever cease.”
Eldred nodded slow and steady,
In his spirit, battle ready
Though in truth his heart was tearing
Once again to leave his fields.
Alfred waited for his brother
Briefing sons to keep their mother
Striding out with sword and swearing,
“Let us go to shatter shields!”
Join the fringe!
Expressing or constituting a strongly critical attack on or controversial opinion about someone or something.