Shantung Compound: The Story of Men and Women Under Pressure
by Langdon Gilkey
One of the most fortuitous things that can happen in history occurs when a gifted story-teller lives an exceptional life and then finds time to write about it. I’m astounded that Ralph Moody actually experienced all the things he did; I’m doubly astounded when I read his Little Britches books and find that he has the ability to convey the wonder he experienced. Likewise with James Herriot: it seems more than enough to be a gifted veterinarian living in such a fantastic place—but the real magic (and I mean that in the jaw-dropping, how-did-he-do-that sense) comes when he’s able to share that life with us through stories.
I can’t quite claim the same thing for Langdon Gilkey, but it’s close. Gilkey is no story-teller—but he’s a thinker who lets us see a rare event: a man discarding his worldview because it doesn’t match reality.
Gilkey survived an incredible experience: as an American teacher in China during World War II, he was captured by the Japanese and sent to a concentration camp. Because the Japanese believed Western civilization was exceptionally foreign, they created a special camp for Western prisoners and instituted a bizarre system. Japanese guards still prevented people from escaping, but the infrastructure of the camp had to be created by the prisoners. Raw food was delivered, but food preparation, sanitation, housing, law and government, were the responsibility of the Westerners themselves.
As Gilkey recognizes, this is an incredible experiment in sociology. Members of Western civilization were asked to re-create a civilization in miniature, right away. Time couldn’t be wasted experimenting with the right housing policy or the right method for distributing food—everyone needed food and shelter immediately. The two thousand prisoners represented a well-educated mix of young and old from places as far-flung as Australia, America and England. Could they cooperate and create a functioning society within the four walls of a prison camp?
Not very well. Although they had every reason to band together and aid one another to survive and flourish under the eyes of their captors, they behaved selfishly. Men who claimed to be eminently reasonable became unreasonable whenever their personal comfort was threatened. And Gilkey, who entered the camp believing in man’s basic goodness, was forced by this experiment to adopt the biblical view of man: “What the doctrine of sin has said about man’s present state seemed to fit the facts as I found them.” Though the success of the prison camp depended upon everyone living sacrificially, people couldn’t do it: “Though quite free to will whatever we wanted to do in a given situation, we were not free to will to love others, because the will did not really want to. We were literally bound in our own sin.”
You see now why Shantung Compound is a must-read! Gilkey hoped to find man ready to build a mini-utopia from scratch; instead, he found men ready to scratch and claw for the sake of their own skin. An objective look at reality forced him to face the sinfulness of man and thus, man’s need for the saving work of Christ on the cross.
by Jeff Baldwin