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The Judas Field – By Howard Bahr – Book Review

by Howard Bahr

I read a powerful book about a month ago: The Judas Field, by Howard Bahr. (I’m working my way through his series of Civil War novels.)

In The Judas Field, Bahr described, more truthfully than most things I have read, the proper place of God and his connection to our human existence.

This particular novel follows the journey of three Civil War veterans who return to a battle site twenty years after the war, accompanying a childhood friend suffering from cancer, who is gripped by a desire to unearth the bodies of her father and her brother who died at Franklin and bring them home. As the veterans wander through the battlefields–both real and remembered, they try to make sense of the carnage and waste war requires.

Included in their reverie was a question asked of God: “Where were you?”

“Well, where was He?” asked Lucian (an orphan newly conscripted to the company).

“He was there,” said Roger (a piano teacher ill-suited for war). “He was there all along, watching and grieving. If we live, I will take you over the next field myself, and maybe you will learn what you can only learn the hard way: that God is there with you, and whatever sorrow you are feeling–well, how infinite must the sorrow be in His heart? It is the only way. Once a man decides that God planned all this, once he points to God as responsible, then his faith is gone. No mortal can bear that, no matter what he says. We have lost pretty much everything, but faith we cannot lose. That is why we pray, and fervently–but not for preservation, mind. That article is left to you and your pards, not to God. To ask Him for it, and be spared when so many are not, will only doom your faith.

“What do you ask for then?” said the boy.

Roger pulled the quilt around his shoulders. “To be forgiven,” he said. After the battle, Lucian, the orphan who has joined the company, wanders, dazed and deafened through the battlefield:

Lucian knew Cass [self-appointed, reluctant guardian of both Roger and Lucian] spoke to him, but he was still deaf and couldn’t hear his voice, only felt it. He couldn’t hear, but he could see, and he could smell the odor that hung over the battlefield as if the earth itself were bleeding. . . what Lucian beheld by [the illumination of the torches] was more terrible than anything old Pelt [the preacher at the orphanage] had ever told of hell. He remembered how the little ones of the orphanage had listened to old Pelt. They cowered and were silent, and later in their dreams they saw once more the torn and blistered souls consumed in flame, burned and swollen to bursting, only to be made whole again, to burn again. Still that was only imagination. Now, at Franklin, the boy . . . had come to that place old Pelt had spoken of, and he knew [Roger] was right: God, if he loved as He was said to love, could not be blamed for this, could not have planned this back when planets were still being flung across the sky. Something else–vanity, madness, illusion, he would never know–had risen from the Will of Man and laid all this under the moon. God grieved among them, as bent and helpless and alone as any, while each prayer of the dying pierced Him like a nail. God suffered more than any, for He had seen this countless times before and knew He would see it again and again, and the hammer would ring again and again. God was greater than them all and must suffer more than any, and suffer for them all.


In the closing moments of The Judas Field, Cass, the sole surviving soldier stands in the cemetery at the grave of his adopted son Lucian, watching a cat play death games with a mole who has surfaced, unluckily, in just the wrong spot:

In spite of all he had seen, Cass still believed in the fundamental decency of cats and men. He knew that God believed in it, too, in spite of all He’d seen–in spite of all His grieving and all the lies told about Him down the bloody ages. He was God after all, and had made all creatures, and He had taken the noble chance of granting to one of them a will of its own, and in the end, the gift had been worth all the trouble. Maybe the right to choose was the best gift of all and the best proof of love. It was more precious even than life itself, for without the possibility of defeat, the victories would have no meaning.

The significance of this for me?

The realization that God does not always deliver us from evil, while costly, is perhaps the most liberating of all realizations. Why? Because then it’s not all His fault. It’s my fault. It’s my neighbor’s fault. It actually is, despite my protestations about the system, my child’s fault. It’s a random universe. It’s Matthew’s rain that falls on the just and the unjust. It’s Job’s trouble and sparks flying upward. It’s the shadow cast by other’s self-absorbed choices. It’s the evil, vanity, and selfish will that can rise up in all of us and wreak havoc–loud, bloody destruction or quiet, multi-generational, rippling havoc.

The Judas Field made me think!

The price of this realization requires me to give up my notions that God controls my world; that He sat idly by, blithely playing the fiddle while my world burned. It requires me to place myself fully centered in my own life, responsible for my acts and reacts. It forces me to abandon my anger that God didn’t intervene. It does not allow me to abandon Him in a pique of self-preservation or indignation. Now, there is no reason–unless one can fault Him for the gift that allows us all to become, in all our terrifying, glorious forms. Because I know this, now I must ask the right questions. Not, where were you? Or, how could you? But, what have I done? What can I do? How can I help?

Reviewed by Tessa Meyer Santiago
May 2009

Tessa has a blog at giraffes make me laugh

Read more of her insightful, unsettling and humorous observations on life.

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