The Faith of Tolkien

On the advent of the release of the third and final installment of The Hobbit films, and in honor of Advent the greater, I’m amused at the giant story of faith sitting hidden in plain sight in the American culture.  J.R.R. Tolkien was not only a devout Catholic, he was an evangelist.  And his quiet evangelism has shaped a legacy for modern evangelicals in a way that few of us are aware of.  If you, on the other side of this screen, are an evangelical Christian in America or Europe, there’s a pretty good likelihood it’s because of the guy who wrote the Hobbit.  If you hate evangelical Christians in America, you should likewise hate the guy who wrote the Hobbit (troll that you are).

Tolkien describes, in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” the great turn of events that must happen in every Fairy Story for it to legitimately qualify for the genre.  He calls that crisis and redemption a “eucatastrophe.” He writes,

At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite—I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.

He then describes how the gospels are a form of Fairy story, though true, and he calls the resurrection of Jesus a eucatastrophe.

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my Tolkersfeeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy- story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self- contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.

Now it’s exactly this kind of thinking that Tolkien shared with his friend C.S. Lewis.  They both worked at Oxford, Tolkien as a professor and Lewis as a tutor.  They gathered together in a pub with friends to drink and read their writings to one another in a group they dubbed The Inklings.  And sometimes they strolled down the Addison walk at Magdalen College together.  On these treks, Tolkien talked to Lewis, then an atheist, about how God wrote himself into his own story in order to bring redemption out of the tragedy of the human condition – the greatest eucatastrophe of all.  Tolkien was influential in bringing Lewis to faith.  Lewis, in turn, encouraged Tolkien to publish his works about hobbits and orcs and dragons.

Most people know what a significant influence Lewis has had on Western European and American society through books like Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and the Chronicles of Narnia.  Lewis was a passionate defender of a propagator of the Christian faith after Tolkien helped him get there.  Most pastors in America have at least dabbled in Lewis, and to this day it is not uncommon to hear him quoted in the Sunday sermon.  His Narnia series alone has sold over 100 million copies, making him one of the most read fiction authors in history.

So the quiet little walks with the evangelical Tolkien created one of the greatest evangelists and Christian authors of the 20th century, one who is still shaping preachers and congregations and readers today.

So as the Hobbit releases this week, Christians should hail this as the great achievement of one of their direct spiritual ancestors.  All the fiery impulse of the good underdog standing up to bullying evil is captured in this Fairy story.  And keeping stories like this alive in our culture will always awaken a moral impulse that makes people wonder at the source of good and evil.  It makes us long for the triumph of good, for the eucatastrophe of our broken world.  Rather than settling for preachy, two-dimensional Christian movies that are painfully overt and poorly written, Christians ought to celebrate works like the Hobbit.  And we ought to call attention to the fact that the literary legacy of one of our most devout is now being fawned over by the movie going public on Saturday night, while his spiritual legacy once-removed is still prodding congregations on Sunday morning.

Book Review: “Hardwired: Finding the God You Already Know” by James Miller

J.W. Wartick - Reconstructing Faith

hardwired-jmIrreverent. That’s how I would describe Hardwired by James Miller in one word. Miller appeared unimpressed by Natural Theology, and perhaps even less impressed by current scholarly apologetics. Yet this is, unabashedly, an apologetics work. It’s just not the type that many readers would expect going in. Miller’s approach is presuppositional: that is, he sought to discuss the questions about faith by analyzing those things that people already assume or know.

Illustrative was his comment early on in the work. Miller was approached by a mother who was heartbroken over her son leaving the faith. She asked him, “‘How do I convince him there is a God?'” Miller’s answer is indicative of his apologetic method: “He already believes in God.” This startling statement forms the basis for the rest of the book. Miller’s approach revolved around showing people the God they “already know.”

How might one justify this outlandish…

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Changing My Mind on Darwin

ImageSo I’ve changed my mind about Darwinism.  I guess I have to tell you where my mind was to tell you where it now is.

I’ve never invested much study in evolution because I was neither threatened by it theologically nor enchanted by it philosophically.  The biology teachers taught it to me.  I can explain it.  As a follower of Jesus, I can see a viable explanation for how God could do it that way.  I’m also not overly confident that science is fueled by objective curiosity rather than passionate self-interest and ideology, money and power.  Science is motivated reasoning on its best days.

When I listen to militant Christians talk about Darwinism, it’s pretty clear they aren’t scientists, don’t know what they’re talking about, and aren’t even open-minded enough to think about the subject.  When I listen to militant Darwinists, it’s pretty clear that they aren’t scientists, don’t know what they’re talking about, and aren’t even open-minded enough to think about the subject.  I guess there are just so many fundamentalists in this debate on both sides, I’ve stayed away from it entirely.  I read a few books about it years ago and felt like there were a few intelligent people arguing for and against, surrounded by a cacophony of lunatics.

I’ve just read Stephen Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt.  Meyer is a Cambridge PhD in philosophy of science.  He hangs out with the Intelligent Design people.  His writing is fluid, detailed, and reasonable.  He seems to know what he’s talking about.

The book makes the case for the fact that the fossil record doesn’t support Darwinism.  The sudden appearance of new phyla without sufficient time for the mutation and selection process to work is simply unaccounted for by the rocks.

The problem is that when Meyer says things like, “the Precambrian fossil record simply does not document the gradual emergence of the crucial distinguishing characteristics of the Cambrian animals,” how on earth should I know if he’s right?  I don’t have time to immerse myself in paleontology.  I’ll never be an expert.  I just have four hundred pages of articulate, self-assured, well-documented evidence for Meyer’s case.

So here’s how I find my way into a conversation on subjects that are not my primary field of study.  I read the reviews that are antagonistic to the source and just look at the logic that’s employed.  I find that this often gives me the best read on a work.  If the critics are sincere, the reviews are usually precise.

The New Yorker’s review began with a genetic fallacy, presented arguments that Meyer had refuted without mentioning that Meyer had addressed them, and then deferred to another blogger for the scientific content of the review.  It then called Meyer “absurd,” which, given how shoddy the review actually is, was an absurd thing to do.

Then I read the review from which the New Yorker piece got its “science,” which was actually written by a grad student at Berkeley.  Now I have to say that Berkeley is, in fact, one of my fields of expertise, and I know exactly how Berkeley grad students go about their “work.”  Somehow Berkeley selects the crazies and the militants who show the most promise and then teaches them that knowledge is a completely subjective power tool which should be manipulated by those on an ideological crusade to undermine authority.  I’m not kidding.  I went to Berkeley.  That’s what we did.

What’s interesting about the grad student’s review is that it was posted 24 hours after the release of Meyer’s book, and it’s filled with snark.  He’s not having an intelligent conversation, he’s insulting Meyer in order to defend something religiously.  In a later, defensive review, the grad student says that he read the book “during lunch.” He read over 400 pages of scientific material during lunch, and then posted an insulting review.  He says his detractors are just “slow readers.” People who win speed reading competitions tend to cover 1,000 words per minute (maybe 4 pages) with 50% comprehension.  That level of comprehension is almost useless, and it becomes less useful the more information-rich the content.  A book of Meyer’s size would have taken an hour and forty minutes at that pace, with minimal retention, and that’s if you’re not, oh, say, eating lunch.  On top of that, the review is almost 10,000 words long, which would take some time to write, making it highly suspicious that the review was written after the book was read and not before, in anticipation of the book’s release.

See, this is how I know who to trust in academic communities.  The charlatans have no character.  You read the grad student’s defenses of his review (and they sound a little panicked), and you realize that he has been following Christians around and arguing with them for years with an inquisitor’s zeal.  There’s a personal agenda here, and his approach to new information on the subject is anything but scientific.

Now I start to smell a rat, and I change tactics.  Now I really want Meyer to be wrong.  I want one, good, solid review by an objective thinker, maybe even a Christian, who can debunk Meyer.

So then I read Donald Prothero’s review.  He’s a paleontologist and a scholar.  It begins with a caricature and a smear, saying that anyone who questions evolution suffers from confirmation bias (explain Thomas Nagel?).  He then says they have PhD’s in the wrong fields and thus aren’t qualified to discuss evolution (Meyer, again, studied philosophy of science).  Then he launches into unsubstantiated accusations, saying there are errors on every page.  He says Meyer claims the Cambrian explosion happened “all at once.” Now look, I just read Meyer, and he doesn’t say that at all.  This isn’t a mistake.  This is a lie.  The truth comes out as he goes on to refer to Meyer’s religion as a “fairy tale.” Again, I haven’t found a scientific mind.  I’ve found another fundamentalist.

Now I start to sweat.  A host of scientists have endorsed the book (http://www.darwinsdoubt.com/blurbs/).  I want one to reject it on perfectly level-headed grounds, with no patronizing rhetoric.

Another definitive work on the Cambrian Explosion came out in January of this year.  Called The Cambrian Explosion, it attempts to give a scientific explanation for how so much variety erupted in such a short time.  The authors say “the Cambrian explosion can be considered an adaptive radiation only by stretching the term beyond all recognition.” That means the evolutionists are saying the fossil evidence doesn’t bolster evolution in this particular era.

The New York Times ran a science article last month that said that scientists will spend the coming years trying to figure out what combination of environmental triggers caused the Cambrian explosion.  It doesn’t mention Meyer.  It also seems to leave a big, open question mark about why we need to defend Darwinism at points where the evidence leans away from it.

So now I’ve changed my mind.  I don’t think the fossil evidence does support the current representation of Darwinism.  I think there are some otherwise well-trained scientists who are freaking out, and doing it in widely public and observable ways.  Their lack of command of reason is a tell-tale sign that their motives for defending their orthodoxy are not scientific.  And I believe the failure of the scientific communities to engage in this conversation in a rational way is a manifestation of power brokering rather than honest intellectual engagement.

Could humanity have evolved?  Sure.  But the case isn’t as strong as they told me in biology class.

The Bestselling Jesus

A review of Killing Jesus, by Bill O’ReillyImage

By James W. Miller

The Last Temptation of Christ witnessed lines of moviegoers and waves of bookbuyers when it was released, largely because Christians threatened to boycott it.  The Passion of the Christ made over $611 million dollars from the hands of the passionately faithful and the militantly opposed.  Zealot, a book that depicted the historical Jesus as something less than the Messiah of God, raced to the bestsellers lists this year, though critics say it offered no new twist on the historical retelling of the life of Jesus.  Bill O’Reilly’s new book, Killing Jesus, is not bound for that kind of glory, for one simple reason: it doesn’t say anything controversial.

Released on September 24th, Killing Jesus, by O’Reilly and cohort Martin Dugard, hovered around #4 on the Amazon bestseller list in the days leading up to it.  By the end of the first day, it was still at #3, standing behind the latest Stephen King and the fourth installment in a young adults science fiction series.  Then on his evening Fox TV show he proclaimed that his book is creating controversy, and that some people think he’s “going to hell for writing it.” Who are these critics?  A few unnamed letter writers.  O’Reilly had a priest and a pastor on the show.  He told them he was getting a lot of heat from evangelicals.  The pastor told O’Reilly that evangelicals “ought to love this book.” O’Reilly replied that “the anti-Christian people” don’t want anyone to read this book.  The priest told O’Reilly that people won’t like the book because it defends the Bible’s accuracy.  O’Reilly assured the audience that the book is footnoted with the facts.  The ordained yes-men assured him he was right.   “I learned a lot,” said the priest.

Finally made it to #2.

But honestly, there’s no controversy here.  The book alternates between a fairly straightforward retelling of the biblical story with only minor narrative expansion, and a fairly unsurprising retelling of the details of the Roman Empire.  As to the latter, the authors hone in on that which is most violent and most sexually depraved, without any particular exploration of the psychology of the Caesars.  The story runs from Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, through the assassination of Julius Caesar, through bloodthirsty stories of Roman military conquests to vile sexual exploits of the subsequent Caesars.  None of this contributes meaningfully to the story of the life of Jesus.  And apparently it’s not scary enough to top Stephen King.

What the book does rightly is to show insistently that Jesus’ life and teachings are inextricably interwoven with the claim to his deity.  This isn’t just a demythologized, historical Jesus narrative, despite the fact that the authors tend away from the miraculous (the disciples “claim” to have seen him walk on water).  And there is an evangelical quality to the book for that reason.  There may be some stragglers who don’t read the serious literature about Jesus but pick this one up from the airport newsstand and end up in some kind of serious exploration of faith.  The Lord works in mysterious ways.  If you just wanted some superficial historical details about the first century world, it’s a fairly painless way to get them.  But the book’s popularity won’t come from a serious literary merit.

Of course, the drawback is that the rising population of Millennials will no longer take the story of Jesus from the hands of Caucasian men in their 60s who talk more about their political agendas than their faith.

The two Catholic authors previously partnered on bestsellers Killing Lincoln, which was criticized for factual inaccuracies, and Killing Kennedy, which the New York Times called “gerund-happy” while accusing the authors of “word mangling.” Both of them stayed on the bestsellers lists for months, the first one for more than a year.  Killing Jesus will be a bestseller as well.  The O’Reilly Factor has around 3 million viewers, and if history serves, he’ll spend the coming months promoting it on a daily basis.  Plus, it’s just hard to get around the fact that Jesus is still a subject that everyone wants to hear about.  But the book won’t be remembered for contributing anything new to conversations about Jesus, either historical or theological.

hardwired cover  Check out Hardwired:Finding the God

  You Already Know (Abingdon 2013)

Rob Bell’s Mental Furniture

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Talking about Talking About God

Rob Bell gave a lecture tonight at First Baptist Church of Pasadena to promote his new book, “What We Talk About When We Talk About God.”  He kept repeating a phrase that was incredibly revealing.

 

THE CROWD

The crowd was about 300 people, almost all students of Fuller Seminary, which had promoted the event.  I should say, in the world of hipsters, hats are apparently completely out after having been completely in for about a year.  The crowd was maybe 50/50 on the gender split, mostly around 30 years old, and heavily Caucasian.  An one hat.

The hour long lecture was a funny and warm-hearted verbal rendition of the first chapter of Bell’s book.  Literally almost word-per-word in some sections, with all the same punchlines.  For first timers, it was a lot of fun.  For anyone who had read the book, it was like watching the same episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond” for the second day in a row.  You’re like, “Yeah, I remember that being funny.”

 

QUESTION TIME

At the end, in a Q&A period, a couple of students asked some really smart questions.  They asked them humbly and hesitantly, so I’m not sure if everyone understood how sharp they were.  One person observed that Bell keeps talking about the God who is “ahead of us, pulling us forward.” In Bell’s cosmology, God’s primary goal is progress.  God is working to get us to “the next step,” and there’s no judgment for being in your present place (I’m not sure if these means theologically, morally, or in terms of mental health).  “What about the fact that the Bible seems like it’s behind us then?” the student asked.  Bell rambled on this one.  He said that the Bible was in fact progressive for its time, which only left open the possibility that it’s not progressive in our time.  Rather than linear answers that addressed the questions, Bell tended to float around verbally to different illustrations which were not always on topic.

Another student followed up, “Let’s say you have a friend who is a spiritual seeker who reads about Joshua killing the Canaanites,” he began.  “Who picked that text?” Bell teased.  Then he answered that “You can just start with Jesus and work your way back from there.” He referred the student to a British theologian whose name he couldn’t remember who argues that it wasn’t actually genocide (I think he’s referring to Christopher Wright, though Wright actually says that the Canaanite slaughter was as bad as it sounds, and God was just accommodating that context). Bell simply dodged the question.

 

THE BIG ISSUE

Which brings me to absolutely the most interesting part of the night.  Several times Bell referred to doctrinal accuracy with the phrase, “Getting the mental furniture in order.” He said, “Instead of trying to get the mental furniture in order, which you’re never going to do…”, we should instead gather around the eucharist and make sure everyone’s needs are met.  What’s shocking about this is that Bell isn’t taking his own advice.  Bell very clearly thinks he understands God’s nature, and very clearly thinks that “the institutional church” is getting it wrong.  He says that if we believed (aka got the mental furniture in order) that God was with us, for us, and ahead of us, this generation would be more interested in God.

This is just contradictory.  If getting God right is important, we can’t very well dismiss doctrine.  Bell threw in an aside, “Sure, some doctrines are helpful.” But he seems to be missing the heart of the exercise that he himself is taking part in, which is the revision of doctrine.  He’s absolutely right about what’s at stake – a mistaken understanding of God turns people away from God.  The problem is that the God who is always leading people towards progress without judgment isn’t an entirely accurate picture of the biblical image of God.  Bell has moved the furniture while denying that the placement of the furniture matters.

The upside of Rob Bell is that he really believes that people need love.  He thinks that they need to know Jesus.  He just doesn’t seem to think Jesus jibes with the God of the Bible, including the God that Jesus himself describes.  Bell needs to have a come-to-Jesus talk with himself where he admits that he has intentionally ordered the mental furniture to arrive at his present theology.  Then he might realize that he’s got the furniture in the wrong places.  And maybe then we’ll find the hat rack.