“I just had to try. . . . If we don’t try, we don’t do. And if we don’t do, why are we here on this earth?”
In the classic Civil War drama Shenandoah (1965), Mr. Anderson (Jimmy Stewart) asks this question following a failed attempt to rescue his son, taken prisoner by the Union Army after being mistaken as a Confederate soldier. When he returns home from the voyage, he takes count of his losses: half his children are now dead as a result of the rescue effort. If you’ve seen the movie, you know this is exactly what he was trying to avoid. It’s why he wouldn’t let any of his sons enlist in the war.
By the last scene, Mr. Anderson and the audience alike will understand the helpless state in which humans flounder. If we’re to find a bulwark, a fortress in this life, we’ll have to look outside ourselves. Indeed, the film ultimately concurs with Fleming Rutledge: “The message of Jesus Christ, in sum, is this: Salvation is not in your hands.”
Vanity of Vanities
Protecting his children is Mr. Anderson’s sole mission in life. Before his wife’s death some 16 years earlier, Anderson apparently promised her as much. He also promised, at her request, to raise the children with faith—something he does only begrudgingly, as evidenced by the prayer he offers before dinner early in the film:
Lord, we cleared this land. We plowed it, sowed it, and harvested. We cook the harvest. It wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t be eating it if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you Lord just the same for the food we’re about to eat. Amen.
After coming home, what’s left of the family returns to the dinner table with a cloud of grief surrounding them. Mr. Anderson tries to pray his usual prayer, the one that accentuates his own efforts and minimizes God’s, but he can’t make it through. He shakes his head and stumbles out of the house and down to his wife’s grave:
I don’t even know what to say to you any more, Martha. There’s not much I can tell you about this war. It’s like all wars, I guess. The undertakers are winning. And the politicians who talk about the glory of it. And the old men who talk about the need of it. And the soldiers, well, they just want to go home.
At the grave, Mr. Anderson realizes the futility of all human effort, not just his own. For all his striving, for all his work, for all the work of the politicians and old men, all is still lost. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
Our Striving Would Be Losing
Standing graveside, Anderson says: “I wish. . . I wish I could just know what you’re thinking about it all, Martha. And maybe it wouldn’t seem so bad to me if I knew what you thought about it.”
Just then, the church bells ring. “You never give up, do you?” Anderson says.
He makes his way back up to the house, rounds up the family, and goes to the church he’s reluctantly attended for the past 16 years. As he walks in, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is being sung. Anderson sits as an embodiment of Luther’s words: Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing.
Anderson confided in himself, and he lost everything. He plowed the field, but there was no harvest. Yet there is hope in his eyes. Having experienced the “striving would be losing” reality of confiding in himself, he now believes the lyric that follows:
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing: Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is he; Lord Sabaoth his name, from age to age the same, and he must win the battle.
As the song concludes, the long lost son—“Boy”—limps into the church. Tears well up in Anderson’s eyes. At this moment—at his weakest, at his most vulnerable, when he’s finally not confiding in his own strength—he experiences restoration. His wholeness is a gift from Lord Sabaoth, the God of Rest. With his arm around his son, Mr. Anderson sings the Doxology:
Praise God, from whom all blessings flow; Praise him, all creatures here below; Praise him above, ye heav’nly host; Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Life of Thanks
Shenandoah is about many things—the ethics of war, family, the role of the citizen to the state—but chiefly it’s about one question: Why are we on this planet? By the final scene, the film portrays a decidedly Christian answer: the true life is the eucharistic life, the life of thanks.
The true life is the eucharistic life, the life of thanks.
Indeed, I like to picture the Andersons after the church service, back at the table for Sunday lunch. In lieu of his typical prayer, perhaps Anderson dusts off a copy of one of Martha’s books—one by Luther would seem appropriate after singing “A Mighty Fortress”—and he’d read to the family the following passage:
We cannot give God anything; for everything is already His, and all we have comes from Him. We can only give Him praise, thanks, and honor.
Then, he and his family would do just that.