TagC. S. Lewis

Why Tolkien?

A few pastors from my church are very wise and godly men; they are literate and literary, discerning and spiritually intuitive–then we have those who hosted this past week’s Extra Podcast.

I can forgive their derision of Star Wars fandom and can the ridiculous claim that Episodes I-III are terrible–evidenced by writing like this.  But I cannot tolerate groundless ridicule of Tolkien.

Mocking those who know the difference between a dwarf and an elf is like mocking someone for reading a book without pictures.

This segment of the podcast was a celebration of ignorance.  The host who has read the most Tolkien, couldn’t get past the middle of The Two Towers.  And derides those who are able to read beyond chapter six of the Silmarillion.  He went on to characterize The Fellowship of the Ring as “one of one of the most boring reads you will ever have in your life.”  This is the sort of reaction we usually get from people who think Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2012) was a good movie.  I can only surmise that this host equates reading with the recognition of words on the page.

Did the other host really suggest that Tolkien was a troll?  Motivated only by testing the limits of his future fans’ ability to digest his “drivel”?  In a pathetic attempt at concession, it was acknowledged that some might appreciate Tolkien for his “cultural impact” or his membership in a “Christiany” group called “The Foundlings.”  Allowing that some might appreciate Tolkien’s work because there is “all sorts of biblical imagery,” this host may fail to realize that simple imagery, biblical or otherwise, does little to recommend a literary work, and hardly goes further than lexical comprehension.

Then, the bombastic leader of this triumvirate then asked why so many people who love J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, anathematize J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series.

Here’s my answer:  To do so is indefensible.

[tweetshare tweet=”Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings counter our cultural individualism.” username=”Dryb0nz”]

Both the Harry Potter Series and The Lord of the Rings trilogy are in the same genre, both ought to be read for the same reasons.

In both stories, the protagonists are collaborative and interdependent.  Harry Potter often contributes to victory over evil, but no more than Hermione, Ron, and any number of secondary characters who step up and do their part.  In the climax of the final book, Harry does very little except willingly lay down his life for his friends.  Neville Longbotton, it might be argued, does as much to defeat evil as the eponymous hero of the Harry Potter series.   In Tolkien’s fictive world, one of the main characteristics of the Good is its movement toward fellowship, and that of Evil, toward fragmentation.  The examples are plentiful.  The fellowship begins with the hobbits, including a Baggins, a Took and a Brandybuck.  Hobbits usually stick with their own; not their own species, but their own family group.  But the mixing has only just begun.  When the Fellowship of the Ring is created it includes, not only three types of hobbits, but a wizard, two men, an elf and a dwarf.  Perhaps podcast hosts don’t know the difference, but the dwarves and elves certainly do–and they don’t like each other at all.  Yet, in the context of The Fellowship, they become fast friends.  Difference is celebrated and the fellowship enjoined.  The mock-fellowship of the Ringwraiths is a fellowship of sameness a loss of individual identity.  Further, the forces of evil fragment.  The Sauron has become a disembodied eye, and the emblem of Saruman is the white hand.  Exposure to the Ring, the embodiment of evil, has separated Smeagol from himself–he has two identities, the other being Gollum. Is not this imaginative encounter with biblical truth at least as effective as a rational understanding?  One of the reasons Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings ought to be read is that it counters our cultural individualism.  I think this is a big deal.  We need to counter the cultural narratives with which they are bombarded that proclaim the autonomous individual as the solution to every antagonist.  In the case of individualism, these stories are countercultural in the same sense and direction that the church is, or ought to be.

Escape FROM Reality

It is important to counter individualism, but even more vital to challenge the materialism that so dominates our culture.  Those under the spell of materialism slander these stories as being an “escape from reality.”  Tolkien was familiar with the argument that escape through fantasy literature is harmful.  His response to this charge is found in his essay “On Fairy Stories.” He accepts the term “escape,” but he says it is not an escape from reality, but an escape to reality.  His argument is that we misunderstand reality, and in so doing, misunderstand the nature of escape.  Materialists will certainly be threatened by fantasy literature, but those who believe in an “enchanted” reality, as do Christians, ought to embrace it.  Those who feel compelled to mock Tolkien and authors like him, ought to take an honest look at their attitude to determine if they are possibly walking too deeply into materialist territory.  If so, one of the best ways to recover enchantment and to escape materialism is to read the very books you mock.

Escape TO Reality

G. K. Chesterton reminds us that there is no such a thing as an ordinary thing.  In a faerie story, we encounter a golden apple and this brings back to us the “forgotten moment,” and the ensuing thrill, when we first discovered that they were green.  We come to see the creation, not as slavishly following a deterministic law, but joyfully producing green apples again and again, like a child who wants to be thrown into the air one more time.  “Again . . . again . . . again.”  It is not law, but “magic” that we find in creation.  There is no wonder associated with law, but there always is with magic.  It is because they ought to invoke our sense of wonder, that Chesterton can claim “[a] tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree.  Water flows downhill because it is bewitched.”

[tweetshare tweet=”Tolkien and Rowling’s books present an enchanted world and can help to re-enchant the world we live in. ” username=”Dryb0nz”]So, Modern individualism and materialism are countered by Tolkien and Rowling.  Tolkien also challenges modernism’s Myth of Progress.  Out culture believes that we are progressing.  Humanity is getting better and better.  We have the mistaken idea that just as our technology, transportation, communication and medical advances are proof of this progress.  These are indicators of certain kinds of progress, but just watching the evening news tells us that we are not making progress in some very important ways.   In many respects, we are little different than when we lived in caves.  We still lie, cheat, steal and kill.  Tolkien’s world is an ancient world, and the men and women of ages past were better than we are today.  If you read the Silmarillion, you learn of the great ancient race of men and women called the Numenorians, superior to modern men in every way.  But they were proud, and this resulted in their downfall.  This is the pattern of human beings–we can make and do some awesome things, but we never change morally–we always fall.

These are just the beginnings of a thousand reasons why, when asked, “What book would you want with you if you were stuck on a desert island, and you’re not allowed to say The Bible?” I would say, without hesitation, The Lord of the Rings.

We don’t get people to be less individualistic, less materialistic, less confident in progress, by telling them to stop being that way.  In order to affect change, people need to be convinced at a level deeper than reason, deeper than emotion, deeper even than belief (where things like “worldview” live).  We need to live out of a different story, and a transformed imagination.  We have the Bible, we also have experience and tradition, but it is a foolish thing to read these with reason alone.  Lewis would probably say that to look at these imaginatively is at least as important as exploring them rationally.

Let’s talk Glorfindal–apparently deserving of ridicule by one of our would-be, spiritual leaders.  Contrary to representation on the podcast, Glorfindal finds Frodo and his companions and rushes then along to Rivendell, taking breaks only for the exhausted hobbits.  When they are set upon by Black Riders, Glorfindal sets Frodo aback his horse for a mad dash to Rivendell.  When the Ford of Bruinen separates the exhausted Frodo, the Ringwraiths attempt to lure Frodo back to them.  Frodo musters his last bit of strength and says, “You shall have neither the ring nor me.”  Here we have, perhaps, the weakest representative of the forces of good, standing before nine of the top ten representatives of evil in Middle Earth.  And he defies them.  He defies them with confidence even though he has no clue that the river has been enchanted.  For all he knows, they can walk through it as easily as he did, but he defies evil anyway.  It’s not in his own power that Frodo is confident.  The Ringwraiths have never read Romans.  This is an inconsequential event in the story, yet, because of Tolkien’s genius, we can see such profound theology behind almost every act, or under every mushroom.

It seems to me, Tolkien’s work should be regularly referred to in sermons as we educate, not only the mind but also the imagination.  And the Silmarillion ought to be one of the central resources for all Master’s of Divinity degrees.

[tweetshare tweet=”The Silmarillion ought to be one of the central resources for all Master’s of Divinity degrees.” username=”Dryb0nz”]Lest my readers misunderstand, this blog was written knowing full well that the hosts of the Extra Podcast were probably not serious in their ridicule of Tolkien or his admirers.  However, if there is even the tiniest piece of sincerity in their critique of Tolkien, or in that of their listeners, I submit this rebuttal. And I recommend From Homer To Harry Potter: A Handbook on Myth and Fantasy (see link below) for further reading on this subject.

 

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 — The Tale of Two Daddys

 

SPOILER ALERT

In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Peter Quill finds his father.  He actually finds two.

These fathers embody contrary philosophies.[tweetshare tweet=”In The Guardians Vol. 2 two fathers embody contrary philosophies, that of heaven and of hell. ” username=”Dryb0nz”]

The philosophy of heaven and the philosophy of hell.

Ego, played by Kurt Russell is the representative of the philosophy of hell.  This perspective is described by senior tempter Screwtape in C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.

The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good, and your good is yours. What one gains another loses. Even an inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from the space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same. With beasts the absorption takes the form of eating; for us, it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger. “To be” means “to be in competition.”

This is also the vampiric approach–to take from the other (to their detriment) for the benefit of the self.  It is selfishness to the extreme.

The philosophy of heaven is, I suppose, the reverse.  It is extreme selflessness.  To give up ones life for the other.

In John 15, Jesus commands his followers to

love one another as I loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

Jesus follows this up by doing it, for us, on the cross.

Yondu Udonta is not Peter’s biological father, but by the end of the movie, Peter realizes that he is his “Daddy.” He embodies the philosophy of heaven.  He gives up his life so that Peter could live.

 

Why Christians Ought to Be Royalists

Last week my school received a visit from the Honourable Judith Guichon, the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia. The lieutenant governor the representative of Queen Elizabeth II in BC.  The visit followed the expected protocols–teachers dressed formally; Her Honour was accompanied by an Aide-de-Camp in full RCMP dress uniform; she entered the assembly in a processional and various other formalities were followed; we sang the national anthem and “God Save the Queen.”

Some Canadians love all things royal. They’ve got a picture book on their coffee table and commemorative plates on their walls. Others like the idea of Canada’s relationship with the English monarchy. It’s part of our history and what makes us unique–it gives us a little class, and how can you not admire the depictions of Elizabeth II on Netflix’s, The Crown. But some people think the whole business is a royal waste.

I have concluded that Christians ought to celebrate the monarchy.
The Royal Family has an important role. Never mind the good that they do through the Royal visits and causes they for which they advocate. Even if you take all these significant contributions off the table, they play a significant role by just being royal.

One of the reasons some might question the value of royalty, indeed the whole English aristocracy, is because we believe in equality. We have come to accept equality as a foundational truth and a desired end. It follows that democracy is the best sort of government, and aristocracy and democracy don’t go together.

But we would do well to remember Winston Churchill’s quip that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Democracy doesn’t work very well because it needs a citizenry that is good and wise, and people are usually neither. The reason democracy is better than all other forms of government is because it takes the fact of human depravity and decentralizes it.

In a 1943 essay titled “Equality,” C. S. Lewis explains how the value of equality and democracy is grounded not in Creation, but in the Fall.

I do not think that equality is one of those things (like wisdom or happiness) which are good simply in themselves and for their own sakes. I think it is in the same class as medicine, which is good because we are ill, or clothes which are good because we are no longer innocent.

According to Lewis, equality is a necessity to mitigate the power of evil in a fallen world. Equality came after the Fall to counter the desires of evil men to oppress and exploit each other.

Lewis from “Equality”:

[T]he function of equality is purely protective. It is medicine, not food. By treating human persons (in judicious defiance of observed facts) as if they were all the same kind of thing [like widgets], we avoid innumerable evils. But it is not on this we were meant to live. It is idle to say that men are of equal value. If value is taken in a worldly sense – if we mean that all men are equally useful or beautiful or good or entertaining – then it is nonsense. If it means that all are of equal value as immortal souls, then I think it conceals a dangerous error. The infinite value of each human soul is not a Christian doctrine. God did not die for man because of some value He perceived in him. The value of each human soul considered simply in itself, out of relation to God, is zero. As St. Paul writes, to have died for valuable men would not have been divine but merely heroic; but God died for sinners. He loved us not because we were lovable, but because He is love. It may be that He loves all equally – He certainly loved us all to death. . . . If there is equality, it is in His love, not us.

In Western cultures we accept as normative the virtues of equality and of democracy. The “you are no better than I am” sentiment results in a reluctance to submit to legitimate authorities–the boss, the coach, the government, our parents. This sort of thing seeps into the Western Church as well. There is a hesitance to submit to the church leadership. Some denominations are made up of autonomous congregations. Some congregations don’t even have a denominational affiliation. These conditions lean away from God’s creational design.

As Canadians, we have a connection to the Royals that the Americans do not. Americans have their Declaration of Independence which tells them that all men are created equal. It just ain’t so. As Canadians we have an advantage over our American brothers and sisters in that we have in the Monarchy a powerful symbol to remind us who we really are–and I don’t mean, former British subjects.

The benefit of the Royal Family and the aristocratic class is that they ground us in reality. They are not just a symbol of a faded empire, but of a Creational truth that we are not, in fact, created equal. They remind us of the Biblical truth that our value is not is our “equal value as immortal souls,” but in Christ’s love for us. There is some value in our “inequality,” in our uniqueness, as we serve as different (unequal) parts of The Body (Romans 12).

[tweetshare tweet=”The benefit of the Royal Family is that they ground us in reality. They are not just a symbol of a faded empire, but of a Creational truth that we are not, in fact, created equal. ” username=”Dryb0nz”]Perhaps the main reason why people argue that the Royals are irrelevant is out of a misplaced allegiance to equality. Perhaps not, but as we watch Downton Abbey or The Crown or the various visits, appearances and events featuring the Royals, it might be a beneficial, even spiritual, discipline to reflect on what all the pomp and circumstance might signify, and how it might bring us toward the truth of who we are in the Kingdom.

[tweetshare tweet=”Perhaps people argue that the Royals are irrelevant is out of a misplaced allegiance to equality. ” username=”dryb0nz”]

The Modern Malaise

Free-Photos / Pixabay

Do you ever feel that life is a little flat?

If you do, you are not alone according to Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor.  He calls it “the modern malaise.”

Taylor says that the experience of living in a secular age is one of “flatness.”

This feeling comes about because of a new view of reality which affects how we experience reality. The view goes by various names–Naturalism, Physicalism, Philosophical Materialism, or Exclusive Humanism.  It is the belief that there is nothing over and above the physical.  There is no spiritual dimension to reality.

“Nature has no doors, and no reality outside herself for doors to open on”

C. S. Lewis, Miracles.

This loss of the transcendent results in a malaise. Without God, the world lost the enchantment it derived from his presence; meaning is more difficult to come by; it’s not so easy to anchor truth to anything absolute, the same goes for the good and the beautiful.

In the absence of a transcendent source of meaning, where do we look for it?

Other Sources of Meaning

The Romantics looked for it in Nature and the Modern thinkers in Reason.  In the postmodern context, these have become inadequate.  In our current context, we look for meaning within the individual mind, says Taylor.

Well, that’s cool!

Is it?

Any meaning to be found in the universe is to be found in my head. I get to decide if a thing is good or true or beautiful. I don’t know; I feel inadequate to the task.

“I told you once you’d made a God of yourself, and the insufficiency of it forced you to become an atheist.”

— Robertson Davies

Without the higher things, our experience of reality is flattened. Hence, the malaise of modernity.

The symptoms for the modern malaise:

  • We ask, “Does anything have meaning?”
  • We seek “an over-arching significance” in life.
  • We tend to commemorate important life events, but feel as if these efforts were all for naught.
  • We have a sense of the “utter flatness, emptiness of the ordinary.”

People are obscenities. . . . A mass of tubes squeezing semisolids around itself for a few decades before becoming so dribblesome it’ll no longer function.”

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

So how do we bring some fullness into our experience to counter the flatness?

  • Family
  • Membership
  • Sports
  • Toys
  • Vacations
  • Parties
  • Halloween
  • Etc.

These can sometimes mask the symptoms, but fail to cure the real illness.

A Prescription for the Modern Malaise

  1. A broader conception of time.
  2. The recovery of objective reality.
  3. The re-enchantment of the cosmos.
  4. Recovery of the transcendent.

I’ve covered the first in previous posts, the first of which is here.

The other three will be addressed in the posts which follow.

 

YOLO: The Wisdom and the Folly

szanyierika97 / Pixabay

“YOLO” — You may have heard a young person say this just before they do something stupid, or as an explanation as to why they did something stupid. It means “You Only Live Once.”

It suggests we ought to live for the present, as opposed to think too much about the future.

The Wisdom of YOLO

On the surface, there is some wisdom in this. Focusing too much on the future is foolish.

I know I think too much about the future. I think about the airplane crashing. I think about my future health. I think about next year’s writing projects and potential speaking engagements. I think about retirement. I don’t think I am alone in my obsession with the future.

Our obsession with the future plays right into the hands of the demonic powers–this is C. S. Lewis’ view articulated in The Screwtape Letters. Senior tempter, Screwtape, says that God wants us “to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which [we] call the Present.” The devils purpose, then, is to get us “away from the eternal, and from the Present.” They do this by making us ” live in the Future, because thinking about the Future “inflames hope and fear.”

By thinking about the future we are focused on “unrealities.” I can simultaneously worry about never marrying (being alone for the rest of my life) and about marrying the wrong person (being miserable for the rest of my life).  That both of these would occur is impossible, still I manage to fear both.

And one lifetime is not enough to encompass all that I have ever hoped for. I will not get one of those $20,000 grand pianos that play all by themselves. I won’t live in New York City and write books. Won’t get PhDs in history, philosophy and literature. I won’t work as an author/artist in Brittany. With all its hopes and fears, the future is filled with unrealities, and to live in the future is to live outside of reality.

We [says Screwtape] want a man hag-ridden by the Future . . . We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present.

[tweetshareinline tweet=”The YOLO mantra correctly breaks us away from obsessing on the future, and turning toward the present.” username=”Dryb0nz”]Coffee can only be enjoyed in the present.

A good book can only be enjoyed in the present.

A friend can only be enjoyed in the present.

A lover can only be enjoyed in the present.

We can only be kind in the present.

We can only be happy in the present.

We can only be honest in the present.

The Foolishness of YOLO

But if you dig a little deeper into the YOLO philosophy, you will find it empty.

Lewis says that the Present is the most real component of time, and it is “the point at which time touches eternity”; it is “all lit up with eternal rays.”

The YOLO philosophy says that the present is important, but not because “it is all lit up with eternal rays,” but because it is all there is.  This life is all there is. When it is over, there is nothing. So if you don’t do it now, you will never do it. There is no eternity, so have fun while you can. Live for pleasure; live for the present.

Christianity asserts that every individual human being is going to live for ever, and this must be either true or false. Now there are a good many things which would not be worth bothering about if I were going to live only seventy years, but which I had better bother about very seriously if I am going to live for ever. –Mere Christianity

Christians are Anti-Progress

ProgressB

Christians are often resistant to progress, sometimes when they shouldn’t be.  Christianity does not call us to be generally anti-progress.  But in one sense, we ought to be a little anti-progress.

The Good, traditionally understood, is in the transcendent category.  We are much more materialistic these days and, consequently, are suspicious of, or flatly reject, the category.

We haven’t lost the idea of “The Good,” but it has moved from a higher ideal to the material realm.  It now lives at the end of every line of progress, which we see everywhere, even when progress is an illusion.  The good is now “just what happens next.”

Progress Degrades Commitment

Pastor and blogger Toby Sumpter (“Committed as Christmas”) argues that living in this “evolutionary universe” erodes commitment.  The Biblical worldview emphasizes commitment–God is so committed to humanity that he would die for us.  People exhorted to be committed to God, parents, spouses, children, governments, neighbours, church and creation.  But, a commitment to commitments is out of step with the dominant culture.  Sumpter says that this “is why marriage . . .  is not merely an old fashion custom, it is positively anti-progress.”

Change and Permanence

It is not inappropriate to find pleasure in change.  We were created to desire change.  I love the changes between the seasons and, although I love steak and mashed potatoes, I don’t want to eat them two days in a row.  But we were also made to crave permanence.  The things that human beings love most are a balance between change and permanence:

Baseball always has four bases that are positioned 90 feet apart and there are always three outs per inning.  These permanent qualities are complemented with change, for no two games are alike.  In this blend of constancy and variety is the appeal of baseball.

The same is true of our fascination in watching a lava lamps, a campfire, or waves crashing onto the beach.  Our fascination is rooted in the balance between newness and change.

The problem arises, when we lose the balance between permanence and change.

In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis attributes our obsession with new experiences to demonic activity.

Now just as we [the tempters] pick out and exaggerate the pleasure of eating to produce gluttony, so we pick out this natural pleasantness of change and twist it into a demand for absolute novelty.  This demand is entirely our workmanship. . . .  Only by our incessant efforts is the demand for the infinite, or unrhythmical, change kept up.

The task of the demons is made much easier by the evolutionary worldview, that progress is always good, that dominates popular thought in our culture.

Change is a good, but it is not The Good.  So in a sense, it is appropriate for Christians to be labelled inherently anti-progress.

 

The Myth Progress

 

Photo by Prateek Verma on Unsplash

The most dangerous phrase in the language is, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’

This quote is attributed to Rear Admiral Grace Hopper. I don’t think it’s true. For one thing, I don’t think it is necessarily the most dangerous phrase — others are more dangerous. For instance, “because we’ve always done it this way, let’s try something else” would be more dangerous when applied to driving on the left or eating glass.  Sometimes the way we’ve always done things is the best way to do it.

That’s the way it is with sayings; they aren’t universally true, but they communicate a truth.

Hopper’s saying resonates particularly with Westerners because we love change. We tend to equate change with progress.  We believe that new ways are better than old ways.

Time and Decline

Interestingly, the ancients actually assumed the opposite.

Book five of The Iliad follows Diomedes’ busy day on the plains before the city of Troy. In one episode, Diomedes has just killed boastful Pandarus with a spear throw that severs the braggart’s tongue. Aeneas attempts to recover Pandarus’ body, but has to face Diomedes who “picked up a stone, a massive rock which no two men now alive could lift. He threw it all by himself with ease.” The Greeks thought that the great men of old were better than the men alive in their time, and not only in terms of physical strength.

The book of Genesis in the Bible shows the same idea.  The first men lived far longer than we do today.  Adam 930 years and Methuselah made it to 1069.

Time and Progress

The Modern story, however, holds that our times are better than previous times. The increase of knowledge in the area of science and the conversion of knowledge to power through technology certainly can give the impression that civilization is advancing.

Check out this Radio Shack flyer from twenty-five years ago. The author of the accompanying article points out that the function of almost every item from the coolest page in the newspaper in 1990 is now on the phone in my pocket. If that ain’t progress, I don’t know what is.

It is progress, but only in two categories–scientific knowledge and technological sophistication.  This is not the same as cultural or moral development.  In these we’ve not progressed at all; human beings remain the same. The problem is that our scientific knowledge and technological power do not make us better, they only increase the effects of what we do–be that good or evil.

Human cultural and moral progress is a myth.

Chronological Snobbery

Agent Colson told us as much  in the pilot episode of Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D.

People tend to confuse the words, ‘new’ and ‘improved.’

C. S. Lewis also argues that is that time is not structured by progress.

“The idea of the world slowly ripening to perfection, is a myth, not a generalization from experience. ”

— (“The World’s Last Night”)

In Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, an experienced demon, Screwtape, offers advice to his nephew, Wormwood, a novice tempter, on how to undermine the faith of “the Patient” and thereby secure his soul for damnation. One of the diabolical strategies for populating hell, is to control how modern man understands the past.

Screwtape describes the “the intellectual climate which [the devils] have at last succeeded in producing throughout Western Europe” (139). He jubilantly reports,

Only the learned read old books and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so. We have done so by inculcating the Historical Point of View. The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. . . . To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge—this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded. And since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is important to cut every generation off from all the others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another. (139-140)

Lewis calls this view of history, “chronological snobbery,” and defines it as “the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited” (Surprised by Joy 167).

Blinded by our technology, we stubbornly cling to the Myth of Progress.

“The depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact.” –Malcolm Muggeridge

We are certainly progressing technologically, and we are moving steadily toward a more free, open, liberal or tolerant society. But make no mistake, humanity is making no progress culturally, politically or morally.  Nor will we–ever.

Mad Max: Fury Road

I just got back from watching Mad Max: Fury Road .

[SPOILER ALERT]

It didn’t take me too long to wonder if I had made a mistake–it’s a bit over the top. The world into which we are dropped is pretty terrible–I expected it to be terrible, but not that gross. But the filmmakers are building upon so many other movies in this genre since the original post-apocalyptic Mad Max and its sequel, Road Warrior, that they obviously felt they needed to ratchet up the terribleness a notch or two. I can’t say that I ever got to the point where I felt all the dirt, defects, and disgusting were worth it, but the movie does make a pretty important and interesting religious statement.

Mad Max? Religious?

Mad Max: Fury Road–Christian Imagery

Yes, the terms hope, redemption, and salvation are uttered by the characters and the story is built upon these religious ideas.

It’s an allegory. We live in a world that’s pretty horrible–scarcity, exploitation and religious fanaticism are the order of the day.

At the top are the exploiters. Their power is maintained through a combination of withholding life-giving water, and other physical necessities, occasionally offering a meager “gift” from their bounty.  The exploiters let the oppressed fight each other for these gifts and through promises of rewards in the afterlife, they buy loyalty and sacrifice in this world.

These are the basic evils that concern your average middle-class North American and, more so, the world’s poor.

Sehnsucht

Human beings long for a better world–C. S. Lewis uses the German word Sehnsucht to describe this inherent “longing,” or “yearning” that results from knowing we live in a world that we know this isn’t the way it is supposed to be.

Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron, is a character of Sehnsucht; her dissatisfaction with the world comes from a childhood memory of “The Green Place”–read, The Garden of Eden. It is her mission to get back to the green place with four beautiful women who have been used as breeders for the corrupt warlord of The Citadel.

It is interesting that where the Biblical narrative moves from a garden in Genesis to a city in The Book of Revelation, the story in the new Mad Max movie moves from city to garden. This reversal is central to the religious statement at the centre of the film.

Heroic Women

One of the things I like about this movie is that the women are actually heroic rather than passive victims waiting to be rescued by a man. This is also a reflection of a positive trend in our culture. There are two men that help out a lot, but the success and fulfillment of the women does not rest solely in the hands of the male heroes.

Max and Furiosa are equally heroic and they even swap traditional gender roles; Furiosa is the better shot, where Max is the healer.  The rest of the band of heroes are comprised of young and beautiful, but also capable, girls and the old, sandy, wizened, desert women which are also formidable in their fight against the exclusively male band of evil guys.

Firiosa is going to lead her crew, sans Max, across the salt flats where they hope they can find a place to begin life again and perhaps plant the invaluable seeds that they carry. They are, allegorically, going to re-establish the Garden, but, in the context of the movie, the garden is blended into the future hope of Heaven.

Max turns them from this goal toward Eden/Heaven.  It’s not certain that such a place exists.  What is certain is that The Citadel has enough water to begin again. They turn away from uncertainty toward certainty.

They return to The Citadel, conquer the bad guys and distribute water to the thirsty masses.

Allegory of Hope

Mad Max: Fury Road is an allegory that describes how a lot of people in our culture understand hope, redemption and salvation.

Our world has some big problems and we need salvation from the rich, powerful, or religious exploiters if we are going to have a better world.   But we no longer believe our redemption will come from an afterlife–our only hope is to do it ourselves, here and now.  This will take courage and sacrifice (and men and women working together), but we just might have a chance if we get out from under the control of the 1% and the religious leaders who exploit the rest of us for their own personal gain.

In a nutshell, Mad Max: Fury Road shows that, rather than risk an uncertain Heaven, we'll take a degraded Eden of our own making. Click To Tweet

Although many found this movie entertaining, I’m afraid they won’t find it satisfying. The Sehnsucht we are experiencing will not be satisfied by crawling out from under the thumbs of the exploiters. Nor will it result from a hard flight to return to the Garden.

Our true longings will only be satisfied when we live in the city for which we were made–the City described in Revelation 21.

A God Shaped Hole?

TeroVesalainen / Pixabay

Everybody asks big questions at some time or another.

Questions like “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” “Why is there suffering and death?” “Why bother?”

Human beings ask a lot of questions and we are strongly compelled to answer them.   We cannot live without seeking answers. Seeking answers to questions asked of the material world is at the core of our sciences.   But we also ask questions beyond the material using human reason. Asking questions and compulsion to seek answers and meaning is foundational to being human.

Luigi Giussani says that if we have a hundred questions and answer ninety-nine of them, the one we can’t answer drives us crazy.  And the thing about the so-called “big questions,” they are not answerable.  Hamlet quite correctly says,

“There are more things, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophies.”

As we seek answers to our questions, we come to the conclusion that we can’t answer all of our questions. This is a tough situation for us. On the one hand, we have an insatiable desire to understand and on the other hand, we are limited to what we can know. The tension created by the disparity between our ideals and our actualities suggests the existence of a source of ultimate fulfillment.

C. S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity

Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

This from Blaise Pascal in Pensées VII

What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.

According to Lewis and Pascal, the big questions, which seem to be foundational to human consciousness, affirm the existence of an Ultimate.  We cannot answer the big questions, yet we crave and even expect an answer. This expectation suggests that there must be an Other from which we crave the affirmation of our existence that an answer would give.

Giussani says that our inability to answer these questions leaves us sad, but to deny the possibility of an answer is to disconnect man from himself because the desire for answers is structural–foundational to being human. To deny the possibility of an answer is to declare everything meaningless–this leads to the opposite of sadness–despair. As Macbeth says, it would be as if life is

“a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

There must be an answer, and a human being cannot live without seeking that answer. Giussani says that a human being can’t live five minutes without affirming “the existence of a ‘something’ which deep down makes living those five minutes worthwhile” (57).

The disparity between our questions and our inability to answer them leaves us sad. Denying the possibility of an answer leads us to despair.

 

Humans are Amphibians

Gellinger / Pixabay

Humans beings are amphibians.  This is because, as C. S. Lewis says, we are “half spirit and half animal. As spirits [we] belong to the eternal world, but as animals [we] inhabit time.”

Because we are amphibians, we experience two realities–one linked to the physical world and the other to the spiritual.

The Measurable

The material world has the qualities of height and depth and weight and temperature–these are all measurable. To measure is to compare the whole to one of its parts. A can of Coke can be broken down into millilitres, a human body into pounds and inches.

By their very nature material things are can be broken down into parts. This divisibility is closely related to mutability.  All material things are subject to change. If a student puts the apple on my desk on the last day of school in June, I will find the gift greatly altered by the following September. This holds true even if the gift was a diamond, although the time would be considerably longer for the alterations to be noticed.

As human beings, we are aware of the measurable and the mutable–it is part of our identity. We are material; we are animal.

The Immeasurable

But we are aware of something else that is just as essentially part of us as the material elements–an immutable element. Luigi Giussani (The Religious Sense)  identifies idea, judgment, and decision as aspects of the human individual that are unchanging, indivisible and unmeasurable. He offers an example of each:

    • Idea: We have an idea in our head of something we call “goodness.” When I was a child, I thought my mother good. Even after all these years, I use the same criteria to determine that my mother is still good–this idea is unchanging.
    • Judgment: My declaration, “This is a piece of paper” will still be true in a billion years.
    • Decision: The act of deciding that I like a specific person establishes forever the definition of the relationship.

These things do not change on their own, like the diamond or the apple necessarily do. The ideas, judgments, and decisions endure. The decision may be wrong, I may discover the person I liked had betrayed me and now I no longer like them, but this is a new decision. Each is indivisible and unchangeable in itself.

The point of all of this is to recognize that both the measurable and the immeasurable aspects are part of the experience of our “I”.  And we should not reduce our experience to one or the other of these two realities.

The important conclusion one can draw from all this is that the animal (body) and the spiritual (soul) are not reducible to each other.

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