As promised, here’s a follow-up to my review of Brad R. Torgerson’s military science fiction novel, The Chaplain’s War. Specifically, I want to expand on Torgerson’s treatment of the military chaplaincy and the role of faith in the personal, military, and speculative fiction contexts.
The Chaplain’s Mission
Here’s a little background from the U.S. Army Chaplains Corps website. The chaplain’s mission doesn’t seem to have changed much in Torgerson’s future multinational armed forces:
The mission of the U.S. Army Chaplains Corps is to provide religious support to America’s Army. Chaplains advise commanders to ensure that the ‘free exercise’ rights for all Soldiers are upheld – including those who hold to no faith.
The Chaplain Corps’ motto is “Pro Deo et Patria” – For God and Country – and points to their dual role in our Army. As personal staff officers, chaplains advise commanders on matters relating to free exercise of religion, unit morale, ethics, and the impact of religion on operations. As religious leaders, chaplains are qualified clergy who are endorsed by their denomination or faith group.
In the pluralistic setting of the military, the Chaplain Corps provides religious support to individuals from all faith traditions. To achieve this, Chaplains cooperate with one other without compromising the standards and tenets of their faith tradition.
At the unit level, a chaplain and chaplain assistant form a Unit Ministry Team, or UMT, and are embedded throughout all three components of the Army – Active, Guard and Reserve.
The subtitle of the website is: “Nurture the Living, Care for the Wounded, Honor the Fallen.” and that’s a good summation of what we see from Torgerson’s protagonist, Harrison Barlow. He begins the story as one half of that Unit Ministry Team, the chaplain’s assistant, who serves as the chaplain’s aide and armed defender in combat, as chaplains are forbidden to carry weapons and are defined as noncombatants with special access and protections defined by international treaties and laws of war.
The chaplain is a pastor, and his flock is the unit which he serves, and their families. He lives, trains, deploys, and goes into combat alongside his unit (for a taste of what it’s like, from a chaplain’s perspective, listen through this podcast series from an Army chaplain in Afghanistan).
Private communications with a chaplain are privileged, like unto attorney-client privilege, by military law—the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Such communication is in some respects even more protected than attorney-client privilege. Barlow’s chaplain remarks at one point that he’s like a bartender, in that people can tell him things they wouldn’t dare tell anyone else (for details, see Army Regulation 165-1, paragraph 16-2).
The All-Faiths Chapel
Chaplains need to be versatile. People in the military come from a plethora of faith traditions, and there are only so many chaplains to go around. If you’re a Southern Baptist chaplain, you may be called upon to provide spiritual support and guidance to, say, a Jewish troop in a manner consistent with that tradition while remaining true to your own. Likewise, if the Rabbi’s handy, but you’re not, one of your Baptist troops may find herself getting some counseling with a rabbinical flavor. It’s something of a balancing act.
Military chapels are typically multi-faith facilities in which the accoutrements of several different religions are wheeled in and out of the sanctuary as necessary to accomodate the service at hand. Torgerson illustrates this by making Barlow’s little stone chapel a home for all sorts of religious memorabilia that find their way onto the altar as his diverse congregants gradually shape their own worship space.
This broad accomodation of religious faiths and practice has resulted in the chaplaincy being accused of facilitating a sort of stealth pantheism, where all faiths are presented interchangably without any real conviction or devotion. Other critics see chaplains as government-sanctioned religious proselytizers and a threat to the separation of Church and State. Both views are distorted and blind to the very difficult and heroic role chaplains play in the military communities they serve.
The Alien Question
Do aliens have souls? Can they be evangelized? Should they? Torgerson’s answers seem to be yes, yes, and God will deal with them in a manner suitable to their condition and context. Some of the Mantes are curious by nature, and they come looking for answers on their own initiative. They also perceive a spiritual gap in their very structured, rational culture that needs filling. In this story, it helps that Barlow is functionally incapable of proselytizing anybody, and he shares a common journey with the Mantes in their search for the meaning of life and the nature and identity of God.
I’ve encountered folks in the Christian Speculative Fiction world who believe that any alien life is almost certainly not sentient, or if it happens to be sentient, must be evil, perhaps irredeemably. It always seemed odd, especially in a community that claims C.S. Lewis as an exemplar. Torgerson is a Mormon, and that fellowship has some very distinctive convictions about how “life down here…began out there.” This story isn’t an LDS tract, by any means (he does note the presence of Mormon missionaries in his little colony with a couple of affectionately humorous asides), but I think a science fiction writer’s task is facilitated by a fundamental openness to the possibility of other sentient life in the universe. It certainly yields more interesting conversations.
God’s Hand in History
One thread that winds throughout the pages of The Chaplain’s War is the idea that God intervenes in history by placing ordinary people in a time and place where they can do extraordinary things. One of Barlow’s military superiors characterizes him as “a mature troop who tries hard,” and that’s a pretty good assessment. His greatest virtue is that he’s willing to do whatever he can, even when he’s certain it won’t amount to anything. He constantly finds himself in situations where he’s uniquely equipped to make a difference, despite his shaky faith and lack of confidence in his own abilities.
As readers, we can, of course, shrug off Barlow’s knack of being in the right place at the right time to the author’s artifice, but even a casual glance through human history provides many examples of seemingly undistinguished individuals who helped humanity avoid very nasty descents into darkness by simply being who they were, where they were, and doing what they could. The Bible affirms this phenomenon again and again, such as in the stories of Joseph and Esther. By the story’s end, Barlow has reached a point where he’s forced to admit his journey can’t be dismissed as a series of fortunate coincidences. And thus, Torgerson poses a gentle, unspoken question to the reader: “What about your life? Might it be something more than a succession of random happenstances?
Read it anyhow. Lots of good things happen along the way, and Torgerson spins an entertaining military space actioner that interweaves important questions about the nature of faith and our journey to understand God—in a manner that is both unobtrusive and thought-provoking. If you think religion and science-fiction can only produce noxious gas when they mix, The Chaplain’s War may cause you to reevaluate that opinion.