Eight (8) Myths of Popular Piety in Good Omens

Last night I finished watching through the Amazon Prime show, Good Omens. I was already familiar with the story, having read the Pratchett/Gaiman book several years ago. The show itself was reasonably entertaining, theologically absurd, sometimes hilarious, often dumb, but through it all David Tennant and Michael Sheen really shone as a pair of 6000-year-long friends haplessly trying to prevent the end of the world.

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Good Omens isn’t really about Christianity. What it’s about is, well, itself, and part of that self is to parody the 1976 film The Omen, in which the antichrist is born, placed in the care of an American diplomat, and through those channels brings about the imminent end of the world. Good Omens is that story, but gone screwy, partly because of the actions of Aziraphale, a compassionate but somewhat dimwitted angel, and Crowley, a clever but only accidental demon, who together happen to have struck up an unlikely friendship over the past millennia. Things go wrong, some things go right, some things are silly, and if you like those sorts of things, then Good Omens is definitely worth a few nights of your life. But if your knickers get into a twist over any irreverence associated with Christianity, then this show ain’t for you.

In fact, criticizing Good Omens (as some have been doing), is a pretty clear Proverbs 26:4 moment—that in answering the fool according to his folly, we become fools like him. The show is absurdism, and critiquing it makes the self-styled critic absurd. Much like getting upset about satire, raging about Good Omens proves that the joke’s on you.

In the next paragraphs I’m about to offer a critique of eight religious myths present, and prominent, in Good Omens. But let’s be clear that I’m not really talking about Good Omens. I’m talking about these myths of popular piety that are so common, and so prevalent, that they become part of the fabric of Good Omens without our batting an eye. Let’s dig in.

Adam and Eve with Apple

  1. There’s no mention of an apple in the Adam and Eve story.

I think this is still a surprise to many people. The Genesis text mentions two trees—the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The serpent tempts Eve to take fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but we’re never told what the fruit is. It could have been an apple, yes, but it also could have been a pear, peach, plum, or pomegranate. Come to think of it, since none of us has ever seen a tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we’ve no idea what its fruit looks like anyway. All we know is that it looked good to eat.

  1. Few people in the early history of Judaism/Christianity thought the world was 6000 years old.

The earliest authoritative interpreters we have for the Genesis text (Origen and Augustine) explicitly urge caution in reading the Genesis 1-2 story literally. Much of church history followed their lead, and yet the passion for maths + scripture (which always = confusion) was irresistible for some. It appears that many of the more modern numbers (i.e., 4004BC as creation date) are, in fact, more modern, stemming from new understandings of dating and the sciences. Many early Christians, following Augustine, believed the earth was created instantly, out of nothing, at an unspecified time. All that to say, there is both no consensus in the Church about the age of the earth, and most people in history haven’t lost any sleep over it. I suggest we join them in that practice.

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  1. Satan is, in fact, just another angel.

In popular piety, Satan is considered a superbeing, coequal with Christ and God’s chief opponent—as the embodiment of evil—in the universe. But the truth of the matter is that Satan (we believe) is nothing more than a fallen angel. He’s more like Crowley and Aziraphale than like Christ. In fact, some have speculated, his chief opponent in heaven is Michael the Archangel, rather than anyone else. What is more, as many angels appear to have specific functions (see the Angel of Death in the Exodus narrative), Satan also seems to have a specific function—he is the accuser (that’s what ha satan means in Hebrew). He shows up in Job and, well, accuses. He shows up in the Garden and, well, accuses (that God is deceptive). That’s his function. Furthermore, as a (former) angel he has no corporality. That’s what it means to be an angelic being. He also doesn’t have the power to create anything, so the idea that Satan is going to cause a child to be born—his own son—after the pattern of God and Christ is, again, absurd. He doesn’t have that power. He can’t create. He’s just a spirit.

Harrowing of Hell_Fra-Angelico-c.-1440-Museo-di-San-Marco-Florence

  1. Hell belongs to Jesus.

I grimace a little whenever I hear people claim they want to go to hell because that’s where all the party people are. The thing they don’t realize is that Jesus descended into hell, released from there its captives, took Satan himself captive, and now reigns as lord of Heaven, Earth, and Hell itself. Hell isn’t the domain of evil, it’s the place of the dead. The domain of the evil is, for the moment, the earth. At the end, Satan and all his followers will be cast into hell, but they aren’t there yet. When they do go there, they’ll be under the command of Jesus. (That’s right, in Christian theology there’s nowhere to go from Jesus at the end.)

  1. The “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” serve Jesus.

No image of the apocalypse has been more evocative than the four horsemen—war, famine, plague, and death, who come to the earth bringing stages of destruction. In Good Omens, the four horsemen are the friends of the antichrist, his servants to bring about the end of the world. But the truth of the matter is that these four horsemen are agents of God. He summons them, they do His bidding, and they serve a function—that is, to remove our capacity to trust in politics (war), wealth (famine), health (plague), and life itself (death). Later in John’s Revelation, another horseman shows up—this time on a white horse, with the words, “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” written on his clothes. I wonder, who could this white horseman be?

angel-of-death-3If you really want to get your brain in a pickle, there’s a good chance all the horsemen are angelic powers as well. Death looks a lot like, well, the Angel of Death. War looks a lot like, well, the Angel of War—Michael the Archangel. Plague and Famine are less easy to place, but the plot remains suspiciously similar: functionaries, they serve the functions of the Almighty.

  1. Antichrist is a way of being, not an individual.

Popular piety seems to love the idea of antichrist being a specific person, a kind of anti-Jesus who is the incarnated son of the devil—someone we can look for, and check our news sources to find. But (per myth 3), if we remember that Satan is merely another angel with no creative power, then we’re already in trouble. If we also remember that Satan isn’t even remotely God’s equal, things get more troubling still. And even more worrying is the warning in 1 John 2:18, “Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour.” Wait, what? Many antichrists? And they’ve already appeared? What’s going on?

The solution to the puzzle is to realize that antichrist is a way of being, not a specific person. If we can discern what it is to be in the way of Christ, then we can work out by deduction what it means to live anti that way. What is the way of Christ? Self-sacrifice, power surrendered in service, kingship by means of a cross. When Satan tempts Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, he offers him all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worship. Jesus refuses, and while the temptation may seem bald and obvious (why worship Satan?) the real sting of it was in the opportunity to skip the cross. Come along, Satan may have whispered, you can have all that is yours without the costly suffering and shame. Just bend a knee! To be in the way of Christ is to embrace a difficult suffering after the pattern of Christ. It follows, by deduction, that to be in the way of anti-Christ is to reject self-sacrifice, to cling to power in the service of what we think is right, and to take kingship without a cross. This is how there can be, and have been, and are at this very moment, many antichrists.

New Jerusalem

If you really need evidence for why we’ve got to be informed readers, and competent interpreters of difficult imagery, just look at the stuff created by people reading John’s Revelation too literally.

  1. The world doesn’t end in the Bible, it’s made new.

The whole idea of the world ending is a little odd, especially since our religious text makes it more than explicit that no such thing happens. Revelation 21:1-2 is quite clear, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband.” The end of the world is, well, a new world. It isn’t the end, it’s a renewal. And not only is it a renewal, if you look closely you’ll realize that nobody goes to heaven at the end of the story. Instead, heaven comes down. That, in point of fact, is what the book of John’s Revelation is all about—not the end of the world, but the arrival of heaven.

  1. John’s Revelation is not about the future, but the present.

The most pervasive and unfortunate myth of popular piety is that John’s Revelation is about the future. It isn’t. Or, at least, most of it isn’t. Most of it is about the present. There’s a bit of confusion about the language of “end times.” They aren’t coming in the future, they’ve been going on since Christ rose from the dead. The end times are now, and have been now for the past 2000 years. Take the four horsemen again. They systematically strip away all human hopes for change—through power, wealth, health, or the imagination of immortality. When have war, famine, plague, and death not been part of our human story? The horsemen aren’t coming in the future, they’re here now—and they are challenging you to place your hope in something else. Something more powerful, lasting, and eternal. The four horsemen disrupt our false confidences so that we can place our confidence in a more lasting place—on the fifth horseman.

I’m certain that these myths aren’t going away. They’re too deeply entrenched in our religious and cultural subconscious. They also make for such entertaining stories! Of these, Good Omens is good fun, but that’s all it is. If you don’t go to it for your eschatology, you’ll be fine. But you shouldn’t have been doing that anyway.

Naked and Unashamed—Friendship and Dating

As mentioned a few weeks ago, I’ve recently had the joy of publishing, along with Jerry and Claudia Root, a book on marriage called Naked and Unashamed: A Guide to the Necessary Work of Christian Marriage (Paraclete Press). For the past fifteen years now, the material at the heart of this book has been shaping and nourishing my own marriage to Liesel. It’s a huge pleasure to be able to share its blessings with more people now.

Jerry and ClaudiaLiesel and I met with Jerry for five or six sessions back in 2003. We’d come over to his house, hang out on couches, and listen to him talk about marriage. Then, we’d stay afterwards and pepper him with further questions about life, marriage, parenting, and faith. It was a fantastic series of months. Those five sessions have now become a book of fifteen chapters, digestible, straightforward, and hopefully easily accessible to couples of all types and stages of life.

In today’s excerpt, we’ve got a passage on friendship and dating. As I said last time, please read! And be encouraged! Be a little challenged! If you feel like you want more, you can find copies in bookstores, on Amazon.com, and on the Paraclete Press website. (Also, if you are interested in a review copy, send me a note with your email address and I’ll pass your information on to the publisher!)

“Friendship and Dating”
Excerpted from, Naked and Unashamed: A Guide to the Necessary Work of Christian Marriage (Chapter 4)

As we hope you can see, these shared interests become the basis of your ongoing friendship as a couple. And it is important to note that a couple with good experiences together, common interests, and positive regard, is significantly buffered against the everyday stresses of life in the world and life together. A couple who commit to being and becoming friends very nearly guarantees the success of their marriage as well as a high level of relational happiness.

Why should this be the case? Consider something C.S. Lewis wrote in his book on the four loves,

Lovers are always talking to one another about their love; Friends hardly ever talk about their Friendship. Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest. (The Four Loves)

The gaze at, while wonderful, is insufficient to keep a couple throughout life—there must also be a gaze alongside. In this, the couple strive to find places of commonality—shared books, shared experiences, shared interests—which will keep them fresh and interesting as the years progress. All too often it happens that couples neglect this critical aspect of their relationship, allowing work, then children, to crowd out their investment in one another. The result, tragically, is that at some point the children move out of the home and the husband and wife discover to their mutual dismay that they are married to a virtual stranger. If you would have love thrive in your marriage for the long term, you would be wise to seek to share passions beyond simply one another.

Many couples implicitly feel that dating belongs to the time before marriage, and that once they are married they no longer need to date. Indeed, many challenges begin to arise as life becomes more complex. Finances, children, hiring babysitters—these things can make dating your spouse seem like more trouble than it’s worth. But dating clearly is a key way to continue to develop friendship and interest with one another—whether it be eating at a favorite restaurant, or seeing the latest film together, going on a walk, attending a play, sitting on a blanket together in a park, or simply getting dessert and talking. A date is an activity which bridges the gap between the gaze which looks at your spouse, and the gaze which looks together with your spouse. In the words of the author of Ecclesiastes,

Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up. Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone? And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)

Perhaps, in this circumstance, the third strand of the cord which strengthens a couple is their cultivated interest in subjects which bring life to their relationship—in their commitment to friendship, dating, and a life together grounded in a look alongside one another.

Toyohiko Kagawa, and Why You’ve (Probably) Never Heard of Him: A Warning for the (American) Church

When Toyohiko Kagawa visited America for a preaching tour in the 1930s, hundreds of thousands of people went to hear him speak. He would speak in multiple venues each day, while newspapers covered his travels extensively. For a time, he was a household name—a Japanese Christian of impeccable character and real, lived-out faith, who came to America to preach the gospel and share his passion for social change on the basis of that gospel. He was friends with E. Stanley Jones, and he met Gandhi, and he was regarded as one of the greatest Christians of his time. Why is it, then, that we’ve never heard of him?

Kagawa

Christianity and World Order

A short, fascinating little book.

I came across Kagawa when reading Bishop George Bell’s Christianity and World Order, a book published just before WWII that looked forward to the reconstruction of the world after another global conflict. Bell, well connected in the ecumenical movement, was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s contact in England, and friends to other German luminaries such as Martin Niemöller, and it was clear in his little book that he also thought very highly of this figure, Kagawa, of whom I’d never before heard. Especially since I’ve got an interest in non-Western Christianities, I decided to check him out.

Kagawa, illegitimate son of a samurai family in Japan, converted to Christianity at a young age under the influence of a few Western missionaries. An avid, prolific, and wide reader he dug into advanced books of Western philosophy and theology, even translating some of them into Japanese as a young man. Convicted by the Sermon on the Mount, he decides to go and live in the slums of Kobe in order to live a practical Christianity among the poor. His experiences there change him for life—not only does he maintain and carry a sincere concern for the state of the poor, but he contracts trachoma and is affected by spells of blindness for the remainder of his life. At this time Kagawa came to realize that many people, because of their social condition of extreme poverty, would not be able to accept the gospel as good news until there was a change in their economics. This conviction motivated much of what followed in his life. In the midst of his astonishingly busy schedule working in the slums, Kagawa begins to write books, and from this time on he publishes several books each year of his life. Extremely successful as an author, he donates all the money from the sale of his books to his projects to assist the poor in Japan. After several years he travels to America to attend seminary at Princeton, where he meets and befriends E. Stanley Jones. He returns to Japan, and becomes a strong labor advocate. This, of course, is the early genesis of the labor movement, when strains of it are threatening to move into communism or socialism, but Kagawa’s focus is on a deeply Christian call for fair wages, healthy working conditions, and reasonable hours and pay. In the midst of this, Kagawa becomes enamored of co-ops as a model for bringing economic social change to what is still a feudalistically minded economic world in Japan. He advocates for better farming practices, teaching poor farmers about crop rotation and the planting of trees to protect against erosion. It is around this time that Kagawa comes to America for his national tour, and where he is so widely accepted and revered. In the following years, as the world began to gear itself up for another war, Kagawa advocates for demilitarization and peace. But this sets him against his own government quite starkly, and Kagawa’s calls for peace fall on increasingly deaf ears.

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The biography I found was written by Robert Schildgen, a figure in the co-operative movement in America, who has written a somewhat hagiographical (with reference to early 20th century socialism) account of Kagawa’s life.

It is here that something startling happens. During the war, Kagawa was strongly censored by the Japanese government. Then, from within Japan, his tone began to change. He wrote, and spoke on radio, in defense of the Japanese empire. He began to speak about the war being rooted in “racial aggression,” by which he didn’t mean Japanese racial aggression against China, Korea, and the Philippines, but Western racial aggression against Japan. He became (and remained throughout the rest of his life) a strong supporter of Emperor Hirohito. The grim result of this period, of course, is the colossal loss of Japan and the unveiling of Japanese atrocities throughout East Asia.

After the war Kagawa became an advisor for Japan’s reconstruction, and he played an important role in advocating for the development of Japanese democracy. However, his name had been tarnished by his association with Japanese propaganda during the war, and at one point he was even considered by the American occupying forces for “purge”—that is, for the isolation and removal of those ultra-nationalists who had instigated the war in the first place. He avoided that purge on the merits of his pre-war work, but a shadow now hung over his name. In part because of this, a post-war American tour had little of the thrill of his pre-war efforts. For the remainder of his life Kagawa would advocate for world peace and nuclear disarmament. He died in 1960.

Kagawa_Getty

The most fascinating moment in Kagawa’s life is his meeting with Mahatma Gandhi. War is on the horizon, and Kagawa has explained to Gandhi that his opinions are not terribly popular in Japan—in fact, that he is a “bit of a heretic.” He petitioned Gandhi’s advice—what would he do? Gandhi’s answer is pithy and to the point: “I would declare my heresies and be shot.” This is an astonishing moment if only because this is precisely what Kagawa failed to do. When the crucial moment came, he capitulated.

Why don’t we know about Toyohiko Kagawa? I think there are two reasons. First, we don’t hear much about Kagawa because his version of Christianity is uncomfortably intermixed with early 20th century socialist politics. Now, from my (limited) read of Kagawa’s life and work, I think that those things for which he advocated are wholesome and good. He was possessed of a sincere desire to see the situation of the poor changed, and he saw in Christianity a model for that change which might give life to the world. He felt that a Christianity which didn’t address the practical needs of real people wasn’t much of a Christianity at all. To this, I give my full assent. However, the swing of labor movements away from Christianity in the intervening years makes it difficult to hear and accept his concerns today. Additionally, his presentation of Christianity becomes uncomfortably close to a political platform. The platform hasn’t succeeded, and unfortunately the Christianity has fallen alongside it.

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Second, I think we don’t hear much about Kagawa because of his capitulation during the war. Before the war, he had stood for Christianity, the gospel, and for peace. During the war, he stood for the political ends of his government—for Japan, for their advances into East Asia, and for military aggression. What is worse, Kagawa used (or allowed) his platform as a minister of the gospel to advance the political aims of the day. That intermingling is simply corrosive to gospel witness. It is difficult to recover one’s authority when it has been abused in that way.

So, what’s the warning for the (American) Church? It should be obvious. When Christianity is intermingled with a political platform, the end result, if the platform fails, is the discrediting of the Christianity. Irrespective of the truth of the Christianity itself, defeat of the platform brings about the dismissal of the faith that infused it. You cannot serve both God and Mammon. Second, when Christians capitulate with the propaganda and rhetoric of their nation it does irreparable damage to their witness to the world. Christianity does not and cannot stand in support of political aims. It is corrosive to our gospel witness.

Toyohiko Kagawa was a fascinating, influential, but flawed follower of Jesus. I think it would be wise to learn from both his successes, and his failures.

The Adventures of Robin Hood—A Book Worth Reading

Robin Hood_CoverIt’s much easier to write book reviews for bad books—it’s easier to find the problem and diagnose it than it is to tell you, “Go read this book.” But I’m not going to do that today. Instead, because The Adventures of Robin Hood, by Roger Lancelyn Green, is such a great, fun little book, I’m going to tell you that you should go read it.

Roger Lancelyn Green was a pupil of C.S. Lewis who later became a friend and sometime member of the Inklings. He was among the first to read the Narnia books, and was an important encouragement to Lewis in continuing to write the books. In his own work, he produced a series of accessible renditions of famous myths and stories—Myths of the Norsemen, Tales of the Greek Heroes, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and, of course, Robin Hood. His books are readable, entertaining, researched, and each worth your time.

But right now I want to tell you why I thought Robin Hood was so good, and fun, and worthwhile. Perhaps above all else there was a certain wholesomeness to reading it. “Oh, yeah,” I thought as I read, “this is what great young adult books used to be like.” It’s not violent, or scary, or disturbing, or distorted. Instead, it’s a rollicking adventure, full of fighting, and friendship, and oaths, and loyalty, and duty—all the stuff a growing boy needs. You’re probably familiar with the story—Robin of Locksley becomes an outlaw on account of the nefarious policies of King John and the Sheriff of Nottingham, opposing them by stealing from the rich and giving to the poor until King Richard should return from the Crusades. You might feel that the familiarity would make the story not worth reading—not so! The familiarity is part of the fun, and I expect I’ll read and re-read it again. After all, it is the classic good-guys bad-guys story.

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Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, was a surprisingly solid rendition of the story. Also, Alan Rickman was STELLAR as the Sheriff.

And yet it is also is so much more. Often, it seems to me, older stories like this one get accused of being simplistic (as if simplicity were innately bad, and as if somehow moral complexity were innately good—this is a dubious claim!). But it’s not simple, it’s simply clear. When Maid Marian swears an oath to remain a Maid until King Richard returns, she keeps her promise (and so do all those in the forest with her, to keep her from Sir Guy!). When a new recruit joins the Merry Men in Sherwood, he swears an oath, and he means it. When various personages attempt to lie to Robin about the money they carry, Robin takes from them—when they tell the truth, he does not. When Robin bests Little John at staves, they become friends—in fact, whenever Robin bests someone (or is bested, on occasion!) the result is mutual respect and friendship. Throughout it all there is a deeply refreshing honesty about the characters in the story—an honesty you will probably want to emulate yourself. In fact, we can frame the poles of characterization as follows: in the story of Robin Hood honesty is praised, while dishonesty is ridiculed; loyalty is virtue, and disloyalty is unthinkable; friendship is natural, while enmity is irrational; and goodness is, well, good, and wickedness is petty and smallminded.

Here I want to stay for a moment, because Green captures something of the nature of good and evil that I find to be compelling, tragic, and important. (Note: if you’ve not read the book and you don’t know about Robin Hood’s death, and if you don’t want to know until you’ve read it, stop reading now!) Throughout the book goodness is conceived as desirable, and important, and worth fighting for. Goodness is also conceived in ordinary terms—the keeping of a promise, the rescuing of a friend, a meal and wine with your peers. Fundamentally, goodness is so good that sometimes good people must become outlaws in order to preserve the good. By contrast, evil—no matter how grand in scope—is fundamentally petty. King John wants more power, and to get it he robs the people. But what will he do with the power if all the people hate him? What kind of fellowship can he enjoy if his compatriots are dishonest swindlers? He may put out the eyes of a child for killing one of the king’s deer, but the truth is that he can never truly enjoy it himself—not in the way that they do in Sherwood. And so, Robin and his Merry Men fight for goodness, by means of goodness, against the petty and persistent evils of John, the Sheriff, and Sir Guy.

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Tight tights.

But here’s the sting—in the end they lose. Richard returns, sets things aright, and Robin marries Marian. All well and good. But then Richard dies, and no sooner is he gone than King John, now lawfully king, takes up his vengeance. He locks Robin in a tower and runs off to capture Marian once and for all. Robin escapes, but falls and wounds himself. He is able to take Marian to a nunnery and entrust her there, but he must run off. On the run for a long time, he returns to the nunnery to find Marian. In the meantime, King John has promised that if Marian ever leaves, he will destroy the entire nunnery. The Prioress, knowing who Marian is, and knowing that if Marian is a widow she will inherit Locksley estate, has convinced her that Robin is dead so that she will take her vows and so that her property will be added to that of the nunnery. When Robin finally shows up, weak and ill, the Prioress performs a bloodletting, but in the process, knowing who Robin is, intentionally lets too much blood. She murders him, in fact, so that she can take his estate.

Roger Lancelyn Green

Roger Lancelyn Green

Pause to think about the tragic irony of this. Robin, who loves the church, loves his wife, loves his King, and who has tirelessly served the poor, is in the end destroyed by the petty evil of an acquisitive nun. This is the pettiness of evil in action. It is stupid. Its fruits are vapid. It is self-destructive. It destroys good things. And in view of this, we are reminded that, indeed, the fight for good is very often boring, and pedantic, and fundamentally draining because it is a constant war with the petty proclivities of average people. Evil only seems nice because it cheats its way to some other good; the reality is that evil inevitably corrupts the goods it achieves. And therefore, to fight for the good is the most important, and yet most mundane, activity that the average human will ever perform.

To my mind, this is precisely why we need heroes like Robin Hood. We need reminders that goodness is good and that evil is stupid, and we need to be jolted, sometimes painfully, with the knowledge that even though we might lose, goodness was worth fighting for.

Book Review: The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth (On Bad Literary Criticism)

Messiah Comes to Middle Earth_CoverPhilip Ryken. The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth: Images of Christ’s Threefold Office in the Lord of the Rings. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017, xiii +136pp., $16.00/£11.79

(Note: This review appeared originally on Transpositions, the blog for ITIA, the Institute for Theology, the Imagination, and the Arts here at St Andrews. I re-blog it here by permission.)

J.R.R. Tolkien never hid the fact that he was Christian. He was forthright as well regarding the fact that Christianity played an important role in the creation of The Lord of the Rings. At the same time, Tolkien had little patience for readers who were all-too-eager to ‘decode’ his books for their Christian significance. He wanted them, above all else, to be read for the story, to be enjoyed, and he wanted critical readers to avoid projecting their own presuppositions upon the tale. Tragically, the temptation has been far too strong for far too many, and a host of subsequent books have attempted to explicate and explain the ‘inner’ Christianity of Tolkien’s world. Oh, that more authors had heeded his advice—for few of these books have succeeded.

Regrettably, among them must be counted Philip Ryken’s 2017 volume, The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth: Images of Christ’s Threefold Office in the Lord of the Rings. In this book—originally offered as a series of lectures at Wheaton College’s Wade Center—Ryken links the threefold office of Christ (as Prophet, Priest, King) to three characters in Tolkien’s great work (Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn, respectively). Gandalf, for example, images the office of prophet in his performance of sign acts, words of council, and foretelling. Frodo and Sam image the priesthood (of all believers) in the bearing of burdens and friendship. Aragorn images the office of king by, you guessed it, becoming king. Each lecture follows a similar pattern: a focus on a specific office, a note of its theological pedigree (specifically, from the Reformation), discussion of the Tolkien character who mirrors that office, notation of Tolkien’s concerns about precisely this kind of reading, comparison of the office in question to the role of college president, and a concluding section of application. The resulting book is messy, intrusive, overplayed, and deeply dissatisfying, an awkward mash-up that exhibits invasive categories of evaluation and that, in the end, does real disservice to Tolkien’s clearly expressed concerns about theologically projective readings. It is, in short, one of the best examples of the very worst kinds of Christian literary criticism. In what follows, I want to use Ryken’s book to highlight some hallmarks of bad Christian literary criticism.

First, a key hallmark of bad Christian literary criticism is disrespect for the source material. Tolkien has been explicit—in both the introductory text to The Lord of the Rings, as well as in his letters—about the kind of reading he hoped readers would perform. Above all else, The Lord of the Rings is meant to be read as a story—a reclaimed and pre-Christian mythology for England, but one that nevertheless honours the Creator in its architecture and execution. Christianity does indeed sit behind the books, but in a self-consciously implicit way. This makes any ‘Christian’ reading of the books suspect, and Ryken’s—despite his explicit acknowledgement of these factors!—even more so. The result, against Tolkien’s explicit wishes, is to read his book in a way it was never meant to be read—as a foil for Christian teaching.

In addition to being read as a story, Tolkien’s book was written as a kind of pre-Christian mythology—it is, in that sense, proto-evangelical more than properly evangelistic. Such a world, crafted as Tolkien intended, left a number of elements consciously on the outside. Among them, arguably, are any of the Semitic elements of Christian religion—such as prophets and priests. Let’s be explicit: there are no prophets in Tolkien’s world (if there were, they’d probably be Southrons). There is very nearly no religion, as a matter of fact. Consequently, Gandalf is presented as a figure of wisdom, of lore. His signs are due to magic, and he predictions are made on account of his wisdom and lore. In fact, if there is any corollary to be made with our world, then in Tolkien’s conception Gandalf most represents an angel.

In similar way—again because there is consciously no religion—there are also no priests. No one offers sacrifice, or performs religious rites. Frodo does indeed ‘bear a burden,’ but this looks very little—if at all—like priestly intercession. The very idea of introducing these concepts to the story commit an invasive violence to its self-contained harmony.

A second hallmark of bad Christian literary criticism is the dominance of ‘Christian’ categories. By ‘Christian,’ let me be explicit, I mean evangelical categories—language, terms, ways of thinking. Take, as a brief example, Ryken’s treatment of Frodo as a priest. In order to make the connection, Ryken must appeal to the Reformation doctrine of the ‘priesthood of all believers,’ and from this to extrapolate a ministry of burden bearing and of friendship. But does such a concept of priesthood accurately reflect either a) Christ’s priesthood of self-sacrifice and intercession, or b) Tolkien’s concept of priesthood as a Catholic? I think the answer on both counts must be no. In this, and in many other places, it feels like Ryken’s evangelical language stands at odds with what we know to be Tolkien’s (staunchly!) Catholic convictions. For example, Ryken appeals on numerous occasions to the category ‘biblical’ as a meaningful reference point for his claims. But would Tolkien claim to be biblical? Or would he rather claim to be “Catholic,” or even simply “Christian”? In these ways, Ryken’s utilization of evangelical language sometimes feels like a whitewashing of Tolkien’s Catholic identity. In one place, Ryken even describes Gandalf as having a “gift of discernment”—a phrase so out of place in the world of Middle Earth that when I told my wife she exclaimed, “Gandalf no more has a gift of discernment than he has a size medium robe.” [15] It is an invasive, jarring presence that simply doesn’t fit Tolkien’s world.

A third hallmark of bad Christian literary criticism is its preponderance of teachiness. There is a longstanding trend in evangelical thinking to prize something only when it can be utilized in teaching. If a book, a song, or a movie can helpfully illustrate a practical theological point, then it has spiritual value, but not otherwise. In view of this, at times Ryken’s book came to feel like a long, overdrawn, sermon illustration. In fact, Ryken’s appeal to his personal office as college president (which reads very oddly, I should say), and the three sections of application at the end of each chapter, both serve to reinforce this perception. The book ends up feeling like a (rather pedantic) sermon. Christ is a king, Ryken argues. Here are some scriptures to prove it. Aragorn is a king, Ryken argues. Here are some passages in Tolkien to prove it. As a personal example, college presidents are also like kings (or priests, or prophets), here are some reasons why. Point, proof-text authority for point, next point. This is teachiness in action.

In practice, what teachiness does to literary criticism is to keep us from reading the book on its own merits. Instead, we read it for some other reason, for something else that it can give us. In this way, Christian critics of literature are often little better than, for example, Marxist readers of the Bible. They read with large, coloured glasses on, glasses which only admit certain wavelengths of acceptable light. If the practice is infuriating when Christians want readers to read the Bible for what it is, how bad must be our witness when we execute the same injustice on other books?

Tolkien’s world possesses immense imaginative power—not only in its own creation, but in its capacity to operate as a kind of proto-evangelism. Christ is indeed present in the books, and yet his presence is masked; he is in the architecture, hiding in the walls, lurking in the laws and physics of Middle Earth. He is the Logos of both our world and Tolkien’s, and yet the conscious masking of his presence in The Lord of the Rings was and is a powerful rhetorical tool that we violate when we make explicit.

George MacDonald, writing about the fantastic imagination, once said, “We spoil countless precious things by intellectual greed.” Greed for meaning, greed for significance, greed, in Christian circles, for a kind of acceptable orthodoxy. May we not spoil The Lord of the Rings in such a spirit of greed. In fact, for God’s sake let’s just read and enjoy the books!

The Paragraph Sentence and Other Horrors

I read a lot of books. I enjoy a lot of books. Because there are so many books to read in the world, I try to focus my limited time on books that are worth reading. That doesn’t mean I don’t read candy—after all, one of my favourite genres is fantasy and sci-fi. But there’s a trend I’ve been noticing lately that causes my eyes to roll and my blood pressure to rise, causes me to snort in disgust at authors and publishers alike.

I’m talking about the paragraph sentence.

It hangs there, alone, pregnant, the typesetting equivalent of those three notes that play after a big reveal on old television shows—dun dun dun! It suggests significance and meaning, but doesn’t deliver; tantalizes the reader, making a big claim that begs you to read on. A cliff-hanger by formatting, click-bait for readers.

Dun-Dun-DUUUUUN-penguins-of-madagascar

It has to stop.

It has to stop because it’s bad writing. It’s the formatting equivalent of excessive exclamation points, of SENTENCES IN ALL CAPS!!!!!!1! It shouts at the reader like a decrepit Facebook user, invites nuanced meaning with all the skill and talent of a lovestruck teenager who only speaks in txt. It’s becoming habitual in books, blogs, and stories on the net (did the bite-sized demands of an internet age contribute to its rise and acceptance?). Like italics and scare-quotes, it uses formatting to stress the “appearance” of being meaningful.

They’re not especially meaningful.

Sure, the words appear meaningful. Sure, their situation on the page, or altered font, invites a veneer of meaningfulness. But the truth of the matter is that their meaning is borrowed from the formatting. The sentence paragraph is a cheat which pretends that its contents are especially significant, in the hope that terse phrasing and special formatting will make up for a lack of creativity, insight, and ability. Instead of writing well, of leading the reader wisely through a given passage, the sentence paragraph exposes the temptation to make formatting do a special work for the writer—instead of utilizing the vast scope of powerful literary tools at hand, instead of serving up a dish of vocabulary, word order, description, evocation, metaphor, simile, sound, and rhythm, the lazy author retreats to a simple emotive trope.

And tropes should be avoided.

Edward_George_Earle_Lytton_Bulwer_Lytton,_1st_Baron_Lytton_by_Henry_William_Pickersgill

The man for whom the dark and stormy night was something fresh and original. Check out his wiki entry for other famous phrases he coined!

Tropes can be useful, of course, and I’ll be the first to admit that abuse does not negate proper use. Tropes can get a story started, can be useful, humourous, recontextualized, or subverted. When Edward Bulwer-Lytton opened his 1830 novel Paul Clifford with the words, “It was a dark and stormy night…” he had no clue what he was about to unleash on the world. The thing to remember is that when he said it, it wasn’t yet a trope. Now, the stuff of jokes, it takes on its own life and meaning and can be utilized to great effect. But when writers excessively rely on these canned features they betray a deep literary laziness, even a contempt of the reader.

It is we who should be contemptuous of them.

State of Fear: A Bad Book with a Good Point

State of Fear_CoverI’ve been a Michael Crichton fan since I was in the eighth grade and read Jurassic Park for the first time. The experience was, to my thirteen-year-old self, life-changing. I never knew there could be books like this in the world, and Crichton’s inventiveness, plausibility, and capacity to generate thrills were addictive. I went on to read many of his other novels, enjoying them to similar effect—Sphere and Airframe, Eaters of the Dead and Prey. With that in mind, you’ll appreciate some context, and disappointment, behind my claim that State of Fear is the worst Michael Crichton novel I have ever read.

But not for the reasons you might think.

State of Fear is a novel about global warming—put succinctly, it is about a conspiracy of left-wing environmentalists who attempt to orchestrate a series of environmental disasters in order to bolster their position as global warming advocates. Catastrophic weather events are timed to coincide with global warming announcements so that people will ‘wake up’ to the looming danger of climate change. The novel contains many of the hallmarks of Crichton’s style—mysterious, business-like characters with unclear motives, stooges who die out of ignorance, a scientific ‘feel’ including diagrams, research, and charts, and so forth. However, it is seriously hindered by a farfetched plot, ham-fisted dialogue, and the strange interplay of Crichton-esque science-fiction and what appears to be his underlying message of suspicion about global warming. The main character is a man who begins as a full global warming supporter, is brought to question these convictions, and concludes as a sceptic. A main mechanism for this transition is a series of conversations that Crichton arranges between advocates and sceptics. Advocates, having drunk the global warming Kool-Aid, are universally foolish. They spout speeches about the need for saving the planet, all the while quoting dreamily from half-baked sources and displaying, overall, great ignorance of the real data about the natural world. Counterpoint to such figures, Crichton’s sceptics have wised up to the global warming façade. They preach (with footnotes) data-driven contradictions to the ill-reflected global warming rhetoric. Every single one of these conversations feels forced, and one gets the feeling that they exist as an excuse for Crichton to tell us what he thinks. They are artlessly executed. For these reasons it can be an infuriating book to read.

If you were to read some reviews of the novel you would quickly discover two camps of critics. On one side stands a group who love the book, and they love it chiefly for its suspicion of global warming. These readers are excited that someone as esteemed as Crichton would stand up publicly and publish such an unmasked critique of the global warming movement. On the other side stand the group who hate it for precisely the same reason. How dare Crichton, such an esteemed novelist, publish something so backward, regressive, and ignorant? (Very ironically, some of these critical reviews sound a great deal like the ignorant characters in Crichton’s novel. Do they prove his point?) Unfortunately, both groups are wrong, but not for that reason.

State of Fear is a bad novel because it is ham-fisted, awkward, far-fetched, and obvious. State of Fear is bad because it lacks the finesse, the tension, and the characterization that makes other Crichton novels great reads. State of Fear is bad because Crichton’s agenda—to raise questions about the role of climate change science in public policy—is so poorly executed that it interferes terminally in the telling of his story.

bill-clinton-nba-all-star-game

Photo Courtesy of William Jefferson Clinton.

However, within this bad novel Crichton has a good point to make, and he makes this good point most effectively in the two afterwords that follow the book. The first, consisting of a series of bullet points, articulates clearly Crichton’s concerns about both the ways that we as a culture are using science, and about the limits of our capacity to make judgments about said science. His broad point, put tersely, is that we just don’t know enough. The second afterword, titled “Why Politicized Science is Dangerous,” highlights the well-accepted role of eugenics some 100 years ago. Crichton notes how it was ‘accepted science,’ how it formed national policy, and indeed how it lead to extraordinary horrors. He also notes, with interest, how we conveniently neglect to mention this part of our history. In other words, about 100 years ago something that was considered ‘accepted science’ (which now nobody believes) was utilized to generate public policy. However, upon reflection, the science was wrong, and consequently the policies were detrimental—if not damning (eugenics formed a basis for Nazi extermination of ‘undesirables’).

Short History of Nearly Everything_BrysonThese are points worth sitting with. (It is also, we should note, a point which runs through much of Crichton’s oeuvre.) Recently I read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, a absolutely marvellous little book of scientific history. One of the keystone points of the entire book, however, centred on the limits of our human knowledge. Bryson points out again and again—to brilliant humorous effect—just how little we know. For example, we didn’t know about plate tectonics until about sixty years ago. Think about that—a generation of people alive today were taught in school that earthquakes are caused by volcanoes. A hundred years ago, we thought we knew pretty much everything there was to know about human origins. Again and again, we think we’ve got a great deal figured out, but in the grand scheme of things we’re still pretty much pea-brains. We could do, in our scientific pronouncements, with a good deal more humility.

However you may feel about global warming, Crichton’s State of Fear contains a really good point couched in an unfortunately bad novel: we don’t know enough, we deceive ourselves if we think we’ve got it all figured out, and we should be really suspicious of those things we don’t know when they are turned into issues of public policy. With that message, I find I am in full and complete agreement.