One of the most famous tales of World War I began when a fantasy fiction writer wrote a story in 1914 about British soldiers crying for help while facing overwhelming German forces near Mons, in France.
Their prayers summoned heavenly hosts of archers attacking the “heathen horde.”
Soon, veterans started claiming that they saw these “angels” with their own eyes. Images of the Angels of Mons began appearing -- as fact -- in posters, paintings and popular songs.
It’s hard to imagine a world in which nations led by rational, scientific elites could embrace these claims, said historian Philip Jenkins, in recent lectures at King University in Bristol, Tennessee. That world is impossible to imagine because it was swept away a century ago by waves of change that few saw coming.
”What happened in the victory? ‘Oh, angels appeared. The dead arose to fight for us,’” said Jenkins, a distinguished professor at Baylor University and author of 27 books. “When the Germans launched their great offensive in 1918, of course, what else could it be called? It’s Operation Michael, after the leading archangel -- who by this point has become something like a German war god.
”If you look at the propaganda of the time, the assumption is that Christ is absolutely with US -- whoever WE are, the Germans, the Americans, whatever.”
Before World War I, most global leaders followed a radically different set of assumptions, with ironclad ties between their governments and major religious institutions, he said. Many soldiers believed that St. Michael the Archangel, the Virgin Mary and even Joan of Arc would fight by their sides. As the war began, Germany experienced fervor many called a “New Pentecost,” with Martin Luther as a messianic figure.
While it’s common to believe that religion evolves slowly over time, in a linear manner, the evidence suggests that history lurches through periods of “extreme, rapid, revolutionary change, when everything is shaken and thrown up into the air,” said Jenkins. Every 50 years or so, new patterns and cultural norms seem to appear that never could have been predicted.
World War I is a classic example. For instance:
-- British troops defeated a Turkish army at Megiddo, the site of the biblical battle of Armageddon. Soon, the Balfour Declaration sought the creation of a Jewish homeland.
-- Bolsheviks crushed Tsarist Russia, martyring millions of Orthodox Christians. Turks began radical persecutions of Eastern Christians, changing the Middle East.
-- The war severed missionary bonds with emerging nations, unleashing the explosive growth of uniquely Asian and African forms of Christianity -- a boom beginning in 1915 that continues today.
-- Secular France sent Catholic clergy to the front lines, shaping scholar-priests who later challenged the relationship between faith, war and the state. Did Vatican II begin at the Battle of Verdun? Then again, an Italian priest who carried stretchers to military hospitals would later become St. Pope John XXIII.
Yes, it’s tempting to ponder what is happening in 2018.
Radical forms of Islam are growing, but so is secularism in many Islamic cultures, said Jenkins. Birthrates are collapsing in Europe, but also in parts of India and Asia. Africa’s population keeps growing among Muslims and Christians, suggesting even more tensions where these faiths collide.
Meanwhile, who can predict the next bolt of technology that could change everything again?
Think about 1968, noted Jenkins. In the ‘60s, it was easy to spot emerging youth cultures and the sexual revolution. There were assassinations and riots and early signs of radicalized Islam. Mainline, establishment churches began their rapid decline, while Pentecostal Christianity exploded worldwide.
Then there was a lecture in San Francisco on Dec. 9, 1968. That was when Douglas Engelbart demonstrated a “X-Y Position Indicator for a Display System” -- he called it a “mouse” -- along with other digital innovations that would connect with the upcoming ARPANET project, a giant step toward the internet.
”Think of the religious implications of I.T., personal computing and of social media,” argued Jenkins. “Think what that means in terms of consciousness, of how we develop and exchange ideas, how we interact and remember. ... Should we not count all this as among the most significant religious developments of the modern age?”
It was, he argued, yet another time when the “future suddenly became visible.”
(Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.)