08 June 2011

review: making the corps

Thomas E. Ricks, Making the Corps (New York: Scribner, 1998).

About nine years ago someone I know recommended this book to me. I didn't take the time (during my graduate school work) to read it then, and I have often thought about it over the subsequent years. So I eventually made the time to get this want-to-read to the top of my list. At the time I first heard about the book I was managing Denver Seminary Bookstore, and the recommender was one of the leaders in the training and mentoring program. When he came to special order the book he explained to me, "Everyone that I [spiritually] mentor is required to read this book as we begin the process."

I am the son of a Marine and have great respect for all members of the United States Military. To discover some sort of correlation between that life and spiritual formation intrigued me, especially since Ricks does not write with the intention of making this connection. There is, if you choose to explore the contents of both of these worlds, a definite similarity. (Perhaps the two have something to learn from each other.)

Sixty-three men make the journey to Parris Island, South Carolina, to enter Basic Training as Marine Corps recruits. The book follows their journey through the eleven weeks, highlighting various recruits' backgrounds, successes and failures. It is a journey into a culture - a way of life - that makes the Marine Corps different from the other branches of the United States Military. How they draw undisciplined young men and women into this culture holds powerful lessons for what it means to be disciples.

A point which is drawn out early in the book is the distinction which Marines voluntarily hold from the Army, Navy and Air Force. Throughout the recruiting process you will find advertisements for the military which, like good commercials do, try to give you good reasons for joining their particular organization. The Marine Corps, however, have taken a completely different approach. They are the few and the proud, and maybe you are good enough to become one of them. Such an identity drives the community ethos of the Marine Corps, giving them a distinct identity.

Throughout the book Ricks also has an emphasis on the culture wars which exist between the Marine Corps and average American society. Since so much of Marine life is discipline and dedication, there is a strong potential (and often reality) for a cultural gap between those whose lives are dedicated to the Marine Corp and those who wander through life. Many of the young men whose stories are included in this book come from such a background themselves, and begin to transform into disciplined Marines. This will later become an issue for a few who struggle to hold both lives in some sort of balance.

In broad strokes this is what one finds in this book.

The parallels to Christian discipleship are many. Although we do not approach membership in the church with the mentality of exclusivism, it would do well to hold the challenges and rigors of spiritual life in high regard, lest we continue to perpetuate disciples who know not how to count the cost. It was Jesus himself who said that those who walk this path will be few.

Further, when we talk about Christian discipleship are we talking about transformation? Are we thinking in terms of a cultural identification to a community? Does the church understand that we are taking people from their existing way of life and are introducing them into a whole new realm of existence? Probably not. At least, probably not to the extent that we are speaking of here.

And when the church does make disciples, are we preparing for their entrance back into their former lives? The Marine struggles with going back to his/her civilian life - old friends and hang-outs and activities - and must learn to adapt in order to remain a successful Marine. Similarly, those who are believers still exist (most often) in their 'former' lives and must learn how to negotiate the demands of Christian discipleship in 'civilian' territory. (As a side note: Too often the church removes new believers from their former context, replacing all of their friends and activities with church friends and spiritualized activities. Unfortunately, this mostly becomes a removing of the witness from the community which needs it most!)

The last chapters of the book talk briefly about post-Parris Island life for the Marines who emerged from boot camp. Some go on to relative success in the Marine Corps, there is one particular stand-out appearing, a handful become disenfranchised with the Marine Corps (for one reason or another) and drop out, a few discover that they cannot adequately balance their external lives, and most simply do their duty and go home when it is finished.

Just like the church. Real life affects all sorts of commitments, especially ones which demand duty, honor and discipline. Some will fall away, others will become jaded, most will simply become what they were trained to be.

No comments: