All Quiet on the Western Front is a simply told war story that is powerfully anti-war. It’s author, Erich Maria Remarque, was a German who fought during the First World War and was wounded five times—the last time severely. Published in 1928 and quickly translated into other languages, it brought Remarque, aged 33, fame and wealth. He spent the rest of his life writing against war.
By today’s standards his book is not graphic, but by simply describing the scenes and the feelings of the main character he makes the point more forcefully than descriptions of horror could. The story focuses on the war from the perspective of Paul Baumer who, with three friends—all 19-year-olds—volunteer to fight.
The book ends with the war almost over. The now disenchanted Baumer, having seen so many die, waits for the war’s end. That’s it. His story is told.
Except for one thing. An additional note adds, “He fell in October 1918 . . .” He’s found face down, lying on the earth as though sleeping. The army report for his area that day was one sentence: “All quiet on the Western Front.”
On Planet Earth, there’s war. Even when all is quiet, when all seems to go well, the battle is still underway. It’s a spiritual battle with, often, physical consequences. It may seem quiet on some fronts, but it never is, not really. Someone, somewhere is hurting. Someone is dying.
Another time. Another place. Another world war. Elie Wiesel is in barracks after transferring from one concentration camp to another. His story, as a Jewish boy, is dramatically told in his book Night. The Jewish prisoners were forced to make a mad dash on foot in the middle of winter across snowy ground. They’re exhausted.
Night falls and they’re herded together in incredibly cramped quarters. Later, in pitch darkness, Wiesel is startled to hear the sound of a violin. His friend Juliek plays a piece from a Beethoven concerto. He’d dared to carry his violin with him!
“Never before had I heard such a beautiful sound. In such silence. . . . [It was] as if Juliek’s soul had become his bow. He was playing his life. His whole being was gliding over the strings.”1
In the darkest moments we can have reminders of good. Light and darkness remind us that there are two sides in this battle, in this great controversy between good and evil.
For Adventists, the great controversy theme is one we’ve made our own. Joseph Bates was the originator of the concept,2 but Ellen White popularised it. It’s highlighted in the full title of her book, The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan.
Her understanding of the great controversy theme is the “organising principle” undergirding Adventist theology and “the most significant topic in all her writings”.3
The Great Controversy is the last of five books in what is known as her Conflict of the Ages series. It begins with Patriarchs and Prophets and the entrance of sin in the universe—it ends in The Great Controversy with sin no more.
What the Great Controversy concept does is help us understand the problem of good (if there is no God, how come there’s so much good?) and the problem of evil (if there is a God, how come there’s so much evil?).
It takes responsibility for evil away from God and places it where it belongs, with Satan. We can argue about what God allows or when He chooses to intervene, but we should be cautious in giving motives to God.
Significantly, the Conflict of the Ages series begins and ends with three words, “God is love.” Whatever our situation we know that God is there for us. Love does that.
1. Elie Wiesel, Night, Farrer, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2006, pages 94, 95.
2. George R Knight, The Apocalyptic Vision and the Neutering of Adventism, Review and Herald Publishing Association, Hagerstown, Maryland, 2008, page 43.
3. Richard Bowen Ferret, Charisma and Routinisation in a Millennialist Community, The Edwin Mellen Press, New York, 2008, page 129.