Memphis Belle Theology

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B17Painting

We’ve looked at two kinds of “theology,” by which I really don’t mean merely our intellectual systems of doctrine, but the wider reality of our doctrinal convictions in the context of our character and relationships. The crash-and-burn of the Hindenburg airship, which resulted from the essential design features of the airship, lead to a catastrophe. The corrections of these dangers, while still staying usefully aloft, is illustrated by the Goodyear Blimp. Now, seriously, I don’t know many people who want to say “Yeah, my spiritual life is kinda like the Goodyear Blimp…” Admittedly, it’s a limited analogy. The greatest weakness, though, of the Goodyear Blimp analogy is that our faith is not intended simply for cruising around, photographing the SuperBowl and advertising tires. Nobody in their right mind would consider the Goodyear Blimp a weapon of war (though airships have tactical uses). Even full of non-explosive helium, they still are not exactly warbirds! And in case you haven’t noticed, we all live out our faith in a world of conflict and struggle. We get shot at, sniped at, attacked, distracted and ambushed all the time. And no, our enemies don’t always miss. Sometimes the forces arrayed against the Christian faith,galloway it’s doctrines and practices, its life in the world, its manifestation in our individual lives, scores a devastating hit. Even though helium is not explosive, the old Goodyear Blimp still burns very nicely when set ablaze by other forces. We’ll be shot at. We’ll take hits. We’ll be wounded.

Which brings me to my last aeronautical analogy (for now): the B17 bomber, recognized by almost anybody, famous for the “Nose Art” commissioned by the crews, with memorable names like Suzy Q, Hang the Expense, My Gal Sal, and Just A’Snappin’. The plane and its men were immortalized in the move Memphis Belle, which uses the skeleton of the story of the real Memphis Belle and its final mission as a plot on which to hang all sorts of other episodes about these amazing aircraft and the flyboys who served, fought and died in them. The discrete episodes are largely true, but of course did not all happen in connection with one plane and crew.

In the movie Memphis Belle, the WW2 B17 bomber gets shot to pieces on its last run before its crew can return home. Engines are sputtering out, the gear is stuck in the up position, the belly gunner is stuck in his bubble, doomed to be crushed to death if Memphis-Bellethe landing gear cannot be lowered. The men are desperately cranking down the landing gear by hand, but it requires hundreds of strokes on the piston and gravity is not kind to those needing a little more time. Control surfaces are damaged, stuck, some are non-functional. Somehow though, our flyboys lock the gear down just as the tires smoke onto the tarmac and the Memphis Belle completes her final mission.

However loose the movie was with the history, it presented an undisputed  aeronautical truth: the B17 bomber had an astounding ability to sustain overwhelming damage and still return its crew safely to base. Of course, a lot of planes didn’t make it home. Still, more returned than anyone would have ever predicted, given the damage they took. Every discrete episode in the movie had a counterpart in history. Unlike many modern aircraft that can be brought down by almost any malfunction, the B17 could take heartless pounding and stay aloft. The annals of WW2 give us pictures of B-17’s with the empennage nearly severed from the fuselage, left stabilizer clean gone. Chunks of wing missing. Engine pods dangling. Shot to doll rags, wires and cables best-military-photos-b-17-g-damageddragging in the wind, limping home…arriving home.

I suspect by the time I get to heaven, my theology–and my life–won’t look very much like the Goodyear Blimp placidly floating among the clouds. “Look mommy, the Goodyear Blimp! Isn’t it pretty!” I suspect I’ll look like one of those shot-up B17s. Dropping precipitously, wobbling, two engines smoking, one engine gone, pieces of wing and fuselage blown away by enemy strafing, hatches flipping in the wind, windscreens shattered, control surfaces flapping lose, wallowing and dipping through the air as the crew desperately hand-cranks the landing gear down–but when the tires scotch the tarmac, it’s home, and all things are made new in the victory won at such sacrifice.

Then, it won’t matter that I’m not a very likely looking saint, or that I’m just not very pretty, or that a few things…okay, a lot of things…have just stopped working.

In the end, there’s only lost…and home.

 SmokingB17

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I’m 60 years old, professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. I love my wife of 36 years, my three adult children and children-in-law. I love our three horses, two cats, and whatever other creatures decide to call our place home. I hate mowing grass, hanging pictures or shelves, or anything involving punching or drilling holes in walls. I love my job of studying and teaching the Old Testament. I’ve recently contracted a fierce interest in archaeology. I also enjoy guitars, jazz, vintage firearms, airplanes, photography, drystone masonry and, visiting the lands of the Bible.

3 COMMENTS

  1. My grandfather flew one of those over Italy. He flew one very rocky mission that he barely landed on 15 December 1944, the night my dad was born.

    I am reminded by your post of a Rich Mullins story. He was talking about a recent trip to Ireland and how each of the Fisherman Knit sweaters was unique. The reason for this was that fish don’t eat wool and should the worst happen, when the bodies washed up they could be identified by their sweaters.
    He said “I imagine washing up on heaven’s shore after this life, beaten and bedraggled. Angels walk by and nudge me with a foot ‘What IS that? I’m not even sure it’s human!’ and then Christ comes and says “That one is mine. I recognize the sweater.”

  2. I’m 54 years old, professor of nothing. I loved my wife best i could, but she left me and my two children are dead. I don’t own a horse, nor cats, but I love whatever creatures visit my patio and front yard. I’ve read the Old Testament, New Testatment and gave my life to Jesus several times, but the devil wanted me more. I hate my life and I hope the horrors I’ve suffered count for something on the day I die.

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