Christianity is a militant faith, a religion of holy war. All of us, even our strange Anabaptist friends, believe that being Christians means that we are in a fight. It is a fight against the world, the flesh, and the Devil. The Devil stalks like a lion seeking whom he may devour, sin crouches at the door, and, in theory at least, dying on the arena's bloody sand is a normal way for a Christian to end his life.
How we perceive this combat in our lives decides the direction of our spiritual personalities and culture, and that perception is determined by our eschatology. This, I venture, is why Dispensationalists are legalists, be they Bob Jones, holiness Pentecostals, or garden-variety Southern Baptists.
The eschatologically optimistic view the combat of life as a victorious war. Because it is victorious, the strategic situation is never desperate, even if at individual and corporate levels we experience desperate fighting. Desperate fighting feels very different when you're moving forward. And because it is a war, not a battle, we behave as if we were in a war. That is, we can take in stride the variety of life: the long periods of boredom, the never-ending work, the brief times of happiness, the constant marching from one place to another, the moments of terror.
The eschatologically depressive, on the other hand, are not fighting a war. They are fighting a battle. In the optimistic world of imagination we've created here, the most desperate battles we fight are Bastognes, or, at worse, Chosin Reservoirs (surrounded="they've got us right where we want them"). But the depressive world of imagination is just one battle, the same losing desperate battle, the entire time, as we wait to be withdrawn at the Rapture. In this scenario, victory equals admitting that God lost the world and will have to launch heavenly ICBMs to win. For the depressive, victory is defined by body count, not by conquest or liberation. Victory is declared because every enemy is dead, which makes a battle in Vietnam the perfect comparison. Maybe Dien Bien Phu or Khe Sanh. The depressive promise of victory is that we may lose Vietnam, but in the end we'll just nuke everybody.
The problem with this, of course, is God said he was going to save Vietnam. Dispensationalist theologians are the PR officers assigned to explain to us why a slagged world of molten glass is a victory for the good guys. "The world" in "saving the world" ends up being defined as "whoever we managed to get out before the embassy was overrun".
Because Dispensationalists live their entire lives as if they were the ten hours the Foreign Legion held out in the hacienda Camaron, the best of them go through life with a grim, determined Christian professionalism, while the worst suffer through life in a frantic panic, looking for a sergeant who will tell them how the relief column will certainly arrive in time.
The perception of life as war v. battle explains the cultural differences between the eschatologically optimistic and the depressive.
It is why the eschatologically depressive are ritually informal. Marines may love their dress blues, but they're not for fighting. On top of that, many converts of the eschatologically depressive were surprised to find themselves suddenly in the middle of a firefight, and are fighting in their skivvies anyway, since there's definitely no time to put on battle dress.
The eschatologically optimistic, on the other hand, have the time to love their rituals, just as the Marines or the Foreign Legion do. Their rituals are a core part of how they create and reinforce their culture, which makes the tip of the spear that much harder when it goes into combat.
It is why the eschatologically depressive are legalistic. When you're surrounded and someone yells that the enemy is over there in that skirt that goes above the knee, or in that beer, you're only going to get in the way if you try to argue that there's nothing there. Every threat must be taken seriously, and those who don't do so are not part of the team; heck, they might even be the enemy.
It is why the eschatologically depressive don't drink, even if they can't quite bring themselves to say it's a sin. Because it's all well and good to have a beer with your buddies when you're off duty, but you're never off duty in this life. In fact, you're never even out of the fight. Only the most badass and the most irresponsible would drink on a battlefield, right? So beer might not be a sin, but you definitely shouldn't drink that beer right now because the enemy is at the gate!
It is why the eschatologically depressive can't have a party. Or can't dance. Can't paint. Can't ascend to the top of their professions or to the top of their art forms. Can't build a decent building. Can't build culture. They're on the radio right now, trying to get everybody in the world into the choppers, LZ is hot.
By the way, have you ever noticed that the eschatologically abstract, being neither optimistic nor depressive, sit right in the crappy middle of this paradigm? They have formality, but very spare, so as to not be labeled ritual. They won't tell you how long your skirt should be, but they will unconsciously talk about their confessions in the same way they talk about Scripture. They'll drink a beer, and might even brew it at home. But they'll only have two. They'll build culture, but only by contributing slightly to the world's. 'Cause, you know, two kingdoms. We should do a poll of gardeners and poets to see how many of them are amillenialists.
All the songs about being a soldier for God date from the mid-19th century on. Some of that has to do with the etymology of the word, but mostly I think it has to do with the loss of suffering as a Christian virtue. Jesus is coming back now, tomorrow, to relieve us. Our fight is to get somewhere where our suffering will be minimized. After all, we're not fighting to win this world, so why suffer for it? Our abstraction to "heaven" has made us soldiers, but not warriors or martyrs.
The Son of God Goes Forth to War was written in 1812. In it, Jesus is the one who goes to war, and a noble army follows in the train of his blood-red banner.
Rise Again Ye Lion-Hearted was written in 1712. The talk is of combat and battle by being lit by love, rejecting temptation, and dying bright-eyed and selflessly. It self-consciously hearkens back to the saints of early Christendom, whose strength is their martyrdom.
I'm not saying we're not soldiers. The Christian can be described as a soldier. And as a farmer. As a harvester. And as a slave. If we are only soldiers, we have lost perspective on the war itself.
The disciples and their contemporaries struggled with the idea that the rich might not be especially blessed by God. We think this was because they were not sufficiently spiritual. Today, we believe that those who suffer for God's sake are cursed, because we are overly "spiritual": we are abstract.
The rejection of suffering as a virtue, the refusal to see life as a long and arduous campaign, is what has led us to the prosperity gospel. The prosperity gospel is the rule of fear in the Christian's life; it breaks us down and turns us from a liberating army to a looting mob.
We must be men with chests. Complete men. Renaissance men. Warrior-poets. Gentleman farmers. Slaves who are tutors. Engineers who are gardeners. Men in full who will die for this world.
Jesus made our world, our lives, and our stories fully full-throated things. Life's a long song. The verses unfold and your soul suffers the long day. We mustn't panic. This is not a battle in which the Devil takes the hindmost. This is a war. There is time to make sons into arrows, songs into swords, swords into plowshares. There is time to suffer and write sad songs and not be afraid. And indeed there will be time, times and half a time, time to murder and create, time to read Prufrock, time to see that it is true but not ultimately. Time to hesitate and despise hesitation. Time to rejoice in mid-life conversions and death-bed conversions and unceasing Gospel proclamation. There is time to build. Time to acknowledge that the borders have fallen for me in pleasant places. Time to suffer and to kill and to die for those borders and pleasant places. You could even say that there is a time to every purpose under heaven.
This is a war, not a battle. It is a winning war, a conquering war, a liberating war. We must be optimistic. We must be hopeful for this world. God so loved the world that he sent his only Son.
If we are liberating, then we must be building and rebuilding.
Garden planting and bridge building and song writing is our war.
“The great Gaels of Ireland are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry, and all their songs are sad.”
G. K. Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse