Our 2019 Children’s Books of the Year stand out from an increasingly troubling crowd
Two victims. Two severed heads. One black-masked, knife-wielding executioner—who, instead of screaming Allah akbar! spoke in conversational English with a British accent. Within days the internet buzzed with speculation that he might be Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, known professionally as the rapper L Jinny.
Days or weeks earlier, Bary had tweeted a picture of himself holding up the head of a hostage from the Syrian civil war, over a caption reading, Chillin’ with my homie or what’s left of him. Whether or not the masked executioner of James Foley and Steven Sotloff is the same man, he is almost certainly a British subject, meaning he was probably not driven to the ghastly extremes of jihad by ignorance or poverty. He’s not alone: Since 2012, thousands of U.K. and U.S. citizens have left their comfortable homeland to become “jihadi tourists.” Why?
“[A] yearning for a transcendent cause that liberal society can have trouble satisfying,” wrote Ross Douthat in The New York Times.
“His discontent … is driven by ideas, and by the human needs those ideas seek to satiate,” observed Charlie Cooke at National Review.
“The Islamic State not only has the romance of revolution and the promise of action and power, but also religious and apocalyptic appeal,” concluded Michael Brendan Dougherty of The Week.
“Because it gives meaning to life,” Michael Ledeen summed up on his own blog.
In other words, they thought their pre-jihad lives were meaningless.
The West could presumably summon a bit of “meaning to life” by gearing up to stop those who find their meaning in pillage, rape, and butchery. The problem is, the West has spent the last two centuries chasing true belief from the main stage of public life. Pluralism, our highest communal value, requires no one to believe anything that would render anyone else’s beliefs invalid.
Or something like that—when truth retreats, it’s hard to defend whatever is left. Nineteenth-century skeptics like Matthew Arnold saw the difficulty coming. “Ah love, let us be true to one another!” he cried, in his iconic poem “Dover Beach.” When the “sea of faith” withdraws its ringing declarations, all that’s left is personal feeling, which like sand easily falls apart. The poverty of pluralism becomes apparent when rootless young Muslim men find transcendent meaning in slaughtering infidels—a purpose which also happens to feed their violent instincts. It fulfills a need that won’t be satisfied at any bargaining table. It will have to be fought and defeated.
But faith can only be fought with faith, and Western culture has undercut itself. It picked the juicy low-hanging fruits of Christianity while disregarding the Son who shines on them, valued the comforts but discounted the Comforter. That leaves “men of the West” (to borrow a designation from Tolkien) in an ignoble position: called to defend air conditioning, Walmart, upscale brands, Miley Cyrus, and all the other creature comforts and passing fads that constitute our “way of life.” For many of us, it doesn’t seem worth the effort.
For a Christian, though, the commonplace is always worth defending, for it is shot through with glory. It’s where the Lord meets us: on the road, at the dinner table, through the checkout line, in the flesh. Christians should never be sunk into everydayness, but of course we often are.
That sense of “meaningless, meaningless” tends to set in when we’re not paying attention, or not “being intentional.” Routine casts a haze over the days, making them all run together in a wash of the same old, same old. Here’s the reality: Our often-hurried prayers and distracted worship are weaving eternal union with the Holy Trinity, whose grace lavishes every step we take. Our jihad is in the workplace and school and home, not with bloody swords but gracious words and manners. Our transcendence is found not in passing moments but in the shining stitches that hold them together.
Violent conflict can look glamorous, especially to young men of a certain temperament. Humble service seldom does, even when humble service requires rushing into battle. Yet moment by moment, it lays up treasure in heaven.