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Middle East

There are Atheists in Foxholes

...intriguing theological sensibilities, too.

Will Higgins's report on attendance levels at Holy Week services at a military base in northern Iraq is intriguing on several levels. First, although there are some 4,000 soldiers stationed at the base, the chaplains deemed 150 chairs and 3 Easter services more than sufficient to accommodate the number of soldiers inclined to attend. A Good Friday screening of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ drew only four soldiers, two of whom snoozed their way through it.

While such anecdotal evidence from a solitary military base is by no means enough to establish statistical significance, it does at the very least challenge conventional wisdom that there are no atheists in foxholes. Looking around for other media coverage of Easter services among American military in Iraq, I found little of interest save a small collection of photos that revealed services most notable for their sparse attendance (Be sure to click on the third photo to see if you can identify the gun at the foot of the praying soldier's feet). Sergeant Christopher McFadden of Indiana National Guard's 76th Infantry Brigade Combat Team finds the low attendance "dumbfounding." "If you saw the possibility of dying in front of you," he continues, "now would be the time to open the door and at least look inside."

Although I tend to share McFaddens' surprise, low attendance levels at Easter services is not the only aspect of the article I find intriguing. For one, the article points out that McFadden, an ardent Christian, carries around a metal-bound Bible printed during World War II for distribution to American soldiers, a Bible whose carrier in three previous tours of duty–in WWII, Vietnam, and Iraq–has returned home safely. McFadden had hoped this Bible and its 3-0 record would provide an entry point for evangelizing his comrades. Instead, he sincerely laments that for them this Bible is "more of an artifact, a good-luck charm, than a symbol of God's power." McFadden's comments raise interesting questions about the locus of God's power, and how we associate that power with particular material objects. Where does the power of Bibles–metal-bound or otherwise–reside? Is it in the "thing" itself and indifferent to the disposition of its carrier, or do its readers, hearers, and heed-ers know the power of God to save from death via receiving the Living Word that is not limited to any one particular copy of the Bible?

Second, the article contains a sidebar indicating that Franklin Delano Roosevelt included a foreword to the special-issue Bible "commending the reading of the Bible to all who serve in the armed forces of the United States." Operating in a cultural climate sensitive to questions of church and state, such words at first sounded odd to me–from another time with different sensibilities. But when I read the words of McFadden's pastor just a few lines down, I was reminded that these sensibilities are still with us. Apparently, just before McFadden departed on his tour of duty, his pastor told the congregation to think of McFadden as any other missionary, "except this one's paid for by the government."

Most intriguing of all, however, is the cryptic quote from "missionary" McFadden that closes the article. In an attempt to make sense of the war and his place in it, McFadden employs an oft-used interpretive lens in reflecting on the mysteries of divine providence: "We're in the desert for a reason. God has put us here to find ourselves." McFadden's quote shows us that for at least one soldier, making sense of the war is a "bottom-up" affair that begins with personal experience and plays out in the terrain of the heart rather than the combat zone of northern Iraq or the landscape of contemporary geopolitics.

Sgt. McFadden leaves me wondering which is more notable–the apparent lack of faith among the military, or the theological ruminations of one of the faithful.

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