Taste and See

In a recent sermon by Jason Little at our church, he made mention of new medical devices meant to substitute one sense for another, i.e., that allow blind people to see by routing sensory information through touch. Specifically, the devices work like this: a camera attached to the patient’s body compresses visual information into a small, gray, pixellated square, the coding of which is then converted into tiny electrical charges that are mapped onto a corresponding sheet placed on the patient’s tongue. The tongue then interprets this map and routes it through the brain, which interprets it as vision.

Basically, the device works like one of those pin art things, except the pins are on your tongue and you can train your brain to create images this way. Or it’s like echolocation, but with your tongue. Whatever–it’s a tongue-centric process.

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The concept that blind people can learn to see through taste struck my imagination, and it seemed like a perfect illustration of spiritual truth.

Of course, as fallen humans, we’re blind to the truth of the spiritual realities underlying the visible world, and we’ve desensitized ourselves from spiritual perception. Blindness is a consistent metaphor for sinful rebellion in the Scriptures.

But the healing of blindness is also linked with the apprehension of spiritual truth (Jesus’ words to John the Baptist’s messengers, the scales falling from Paul’s eyes). And, more significantly, there’s Psalm 34:8: “taste and see that the Lord is good!”

Taste and see. The psalmist is seeing with his tongue. He tastes of the savor of God’s mercy and “sees” the Lord’s goodness.

And of course we are also invited to taste and see. Every week at our church, following the sermon, we celebrate the eucharist together–that concrete, sensory experience meant to tie together the spiritual and the material. In the Supper, we use our senses to apprehend a spiritual truth, the truth of redemption. The truth on our tongue heals the blindness of our spiritual eyes.

Augustine argues that God provided Jesus in the flesh because our worldly hearts only worship what we can see and touch. Everything else that fits this description is an idol, because God is Spirit. But in Jesus, the exact thing to which we are blind becomes, in a divine conversion, something we can sense. For Augustine, Jesus is God’s merciful accommodation to our desire for sensate worship. Jesus is the God that we can see.

He’s also the God that we can taste, spiritually feeding on Him in the bread and wine. Now, no longer bodily present with us, He has provided another means by which we can “see” Him. When we forget the invisible God, let us remember to see with our tongues.

 

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Saruman as Satan

Besides the clearly demonic Sauron, Tolkien’s other major antagonist is also quite Saruman as Satandeliberately portrayed as Satanic. But whereas Sauron epitomizes Satan’s tyrannical power, Saruman is the quintessential tempter. Just like Satan, he begins as an angel and falls into evil through pride and jealousy. Like Satan, he seeks to exalt himself above others, and while he sometimes uses physical coercion to accomplish his goals, he prefers to manipulate others into using force for him. This devilish form of evil manifests as an external power dominating the will of others through temptations and persuasions that work upon the inherent flaws of the hearer. The Devil operates on the hearer’s internal desires from outside. Tolkien’s description of this seduction must be quoted at length:

Suddenly another voice spoke, low and melodious, its very sound an enchantment. Those who listened unwarily to that voice could seldom report the words that they heard; and if they did, they wondered, for little power remained in them. Mostly they remembered only that it was a delight to hear the voice speaking, all that it said seemed wise and reasonable, and desire awoke in them by swift agreement to seem wise themselves. When others spoke they seemed harsh and uncouth by contrast; and if they gainsaid the voice, anger was kindled in the hearts of those under the spell. For some the spell lasted only while the voice spoke to them, and when it spake to another they smiled, as men do who see through a juggler’s trick while others gape at it. For many the sound of the voice alone was enough to hold them enthralled; but for those whom it conquered the spell endured when they were far away, and ever they heard that soft voice whispering and urging them. But none were unmoved; none rejected its pleas and its commands without an effort of mind and will, so long as its master had control of it (TT iii.X, 183).

This is a powerful description of temptation in the primary world—if we substituted Satan for Saruman it could stand in any systematic theological textbook on the nature of sin and seduction to evil. For example, one often goes along with sin in order to appear pleasing in the eyes of others. We also know that when a person is in the midst of temptation, it is a form of temporary madness. We may easily be able to see the destructive result of another man’s extramarital affair and think we would never be so foolish—until we meet that attractive woman and become entranced. Satan is cleverer than we are, and knows just how to play on our desires in order to achieve a fall. When, in the form of a serpent, he tempted Adam and Eve, he worked upon their desire to be like gods, insinuating doubt into their minds about God’s goodness and forthrightly challenging the reasonableness of God’s stricture against eating the fruit. The Devil plays the strings of our psychologies like a master violinist. We can resist, but if we think our resistance will be easy we should take extra care—this may be exactly part of his plan.

Not all temptations work on all people, however. This is, according to Gandalf, Saruman’s downfall. He tries to seduce each member of the group piecemeal (185). But this is exactly the importance of the Church. Not all members will be tempted with envy, so they can help the one who is so tempted to resist by reminding her of the truth—and vice versa for other sins. If Saruman’s hearer does not already wish to appear “wise and reasonable” or otherwise keeps their ethical perspective in proper order (i.e. “It’s more important that you committed atrocities than that I be seen to be wise”), the voice has little effect. Gimli is unfazed by Saruman’s appeal for peace with Theoden, while Eomer is too angry about Saruman’s slaughters to consider a political alliance. Instead Eomer calls Saruman “an old liar with honey on his forked tongue…dealer in treachery and murder” (185, cf. John 8:44)—a perfectly apt description of Satan, ophidian imagery and all. Gimli remarks that “The words of this wizard stand on their heads,” (184) that Saruman calls aid ruin and ruin aid. One is reminded of Isaiah 5, “Woe to those who draw iniquity with cords of falsehood…Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight…”

But to the members of Theoden’s party, Saruman succeeds in placing seeds of doubt about Gandalf’s goodness into their minds. “Over their hearts crept a shadow, the fear of a great danger: the end of the Mark in a darkness to which Gandalf was driving them, while Saruman stood beside a door of escape, holding it half open so that a ray of light came through,” (184). Once again, we read shades of Satan—“Has God really said…? Surely you will not die,” (Gen. 3:1-5). Theoden finally realizes this. “You are a liar, Saruman, and a corrupter of men’s hearts,” (185). His diabolical machinations are exposed, and Saruman grows angry. “To some suddenly it seemed that they saw a snake coiling itself to strike” (186)—more serpent imagery. In fact, Saruman’s very name means “cunning, crafty,” and the Satan-serpent in Genesis 3 is introduced as “more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made,” (Gen. 3:1).

Saruman’s dialogue with Gandalf is also highly revealing. For example, Saruman tries to tempt Gandalf, but the spell is dissipated by laughter (187). C.S. Lewis appended two quotations to the front of his Screwtape Letters—one from Martin Luther and one from Thomas More. Both advocate that the best way of overcoming the Devil is to mock and laugh at him (BTW The book is dedicated to Tolkien).

Gandalf also remarks, “I fear I am beyond your comprehension,” (187) and wonders whether Saruman ever understood him at all. This is because evil cannot comprehend the good: it is twisted in on itself and can no longer follow the straight line of reason, love, or rightly ordered desires. It is, ultimately, absurd and irrational, since rationality and true understanding are grounded in God the Logos. Gandalf gives Saruman every opportunity to repent, but can do nothing to save Saruman since “pride and hate were conquering him,” (187). Again, with reference to the work of Lewis, the doors of Saruman’s personal hell are quite literally barred from the inside.

The idea of self-condemnation is also present in Dante. Saruman refuses to repent because of his pride. “He will not serve, only command,” explains Gandalf (190)—Saruman would rather be a prisoner in an Orthanc he believes he controls. This is quite clearly a reference to Milton’s famous Satanic maxim, that it is better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.

When Saruman attempts to leave, Gandalf commands him to return. “To the amazement of the others, Saruman turned again, and as if dragged against his will” presents himself before Gandalf. Saruman must move on his leave only. Gandalf breaks his staff by declaring it so. We are reminded here that while evil may occasionally triumph over the servants of God, God Himself is never so overtaken. Gandalf, the Christ-figure, is given authority from above to subdue this Devil with a word (189, cf. 2 Thess. 2:8).

Tolkien is therefore quite deliberately piling on allusions to Satan in this passage, arguing through narrative the role of the Devil as tempter—an outside supernatural force that works on the creature’s internal will and desires, one that condemns itself through pride and is ultimately responsible for its own destruction.

The Hermeneutics of Justice League

SPOILER FREE! And don’t take the following too seriously.

img01Justice League is out, and it’s been controversial in a completely different way than the previous entry in DC’s film oeuvre, Batman V Superman. Strangely, a lot of folks are now clamoring to see Zack Snyder’s original vision for the film, rather than the one Joss Whedon retooled and finished. For those of you that might be unaware, Snyder (director of Man of Steel, Batman V Superman, Watchmen, 300, etc.) stepped away from the film due to a personal tragedy, but not before already commissioning Whedon (Avengers, Avengers 2, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Toy Story) to cover reshoots, editing, and general clean-up and polishing duties. Again, Whedon was contracted before Snyder’s unforeseen departure. Reshoots were astronomically expensive and insiders suggest that Whedon changed about 20-30% of what he was handed, though Ben Affleck still insists that this is Snyder’s film.

It’s this issue of dual authorship that has viewers in such a furor, and which seems to have dominated the reviews of the film. Which parts are Snyder’s? Which are Whedon’s? Did Justice League fail because it tried to “go Marvel” rather than remain true to the more mature BVS vibe? What was Snyder’s “original vision” for the movie, and does that vision exist in viewable form somewhere?

Holy Higher Criticism, Batman!

Biblical studies people might feel a strange sense of familiarity with the whole conversation. Drawing lines between varying sources with differing intentions, contrasting between a “pure” original kernel and a late redaction, attempting a “Quest for the Historical Superman” … in a very strange way, the methods and concerns of source criticism have been brought to bear upon a piece of pop culture.

There are those who insist that the pre-Whedon Justice League was the “true” Justice League, that Snyder is a cinematic genius forced out of his own process by the imperializing and greedy powers of the Studio (read here Roman Empire or Ecclesiastical Authorities), whose interests lie not at all with the beauty of film but with holding on to box office power. Whedon has thus diluted and commodified Justice League, introducing alien concerns.

On the other side, there are those who see in Snyder’s dark and brooding picture of superheroes a backwards worldview out of touch with the needs and desires of the contemporary world. Clearly, everyone knows Marvel’s movies have succeeded in large part by being light and fun, yet Snyder insisted on a burdened Superman and a cynical Batman, a tone which would have continued into Justice League if some reports are to be believed. As such, Whedon’s happy touch was absolutely necessary to avoid the evils of BVS and speak to modern culture. Here, the “original manuscripts” were hopelessly antiquated, violent, and alienating, and needed to be reinterpreted in order to be meaningful.

A third category, perhaps less ideologically motivated than academically curious, have sought to detect by various means the seams between the “Whedon” elements and the “Snyder” elements. Evidence of Superman’s CGI-elided mustache is a clear indicator that this shot comes from the Whedon pickups, when actor Henry Cavill was contractually obligated not to shave his face for Mission Impossible 4, rather than Snyder’s original footage. Snarky one-liners and sight gags are highly suggestive of the “W” school.

In like manner, more “epic” footage found in trailers released while Snyder was still at the helm, but now missing from the final product, obviously demonstrate that certain scenes have been redacted by the W source to address contextually-motivated concerns. The Junkie XL-penned soundtrack of the “S” school, now replaced by the perky Danny Elfman themes of the W school, also points in the same direction. “Extra-textual” sources such as Instagram posts, crew interviews, etc. can give important insights into the original form of the S author,  and provide bases for theoretical reconstructions.

But all of these discussions beg methodological questions. What is the “canonical” form of the film? Is it the final form, the version that people actually see in theaters? Is it the form as originally conceived in the mind of the S author? Can we speak of a meaning to Justice League as a whole, or must we restrict ourselves to discussions of meanings of its constitutive elements, or even to affirming Justice Leagues rather than a single authoritative film?

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Forget JEDP, this is where the real scholarship lives.

A Question of Canon

I don’t want to be one of those people who are content to criticize without constructing, or to pose questions without answering. So I’d like to evaluate Justice League not from a source critical, but from a canonical context. And given the fact that Justice League is not divinely inspired, my approach will be a bit different from that laid out by guys like Kevin Vanhoozer and John Peckham. But first we need to understand the concept of canon, which governs whether a superhero movie is a good and faithful one.

The idea of “comic book canon” is a well-established one. Despite the fact that both canonical and non-canonical stories are equally fictitious, the former reserves more reality than the latter. Why is this? Perhaps because canonical materials are created by duly authorized figures imbued with the power to create canon. But such power is not intrinsic; rather, it is derived from the mutual consent of the readers. A DC Superman story is canonical and a Bollywood crossover is non-canonical because the community of interpretation deems it so. The canonical reality of Action Comics stems from the recognition of a “good performance” of the community’s implied standard for what the character means. In this we follow Lindbeck, Hector, and others.

Over time, a semi-independent concept of the character’s identity forms, and itself begins to exert influence over the community of interpretation. I’ll call this the “archetype.”

A fascinating phenomenon: sometimes, bad stories set in the official continuity are collectively rejected on the grounds that they were inauthentic representations of the characters depicted in those stories. Most often, however, the pressure of canon still exists to such an extent that an in-universe explanation has to be given for the change. As such, the archetype, though arising solely as a contingent element of the community, now stands in a semi-authoritative relationship over against that community. Characters have an identity from which any faithful story cannot depart too severely. If we begin to detect a swerve from the archetype, the board will often be reset (rebooted). How many times have Superman and Lois Lane been married and then un-married?

At the same time, writers and audiences expect continual novelty. Creators must show us new things about our beloved characters, reveal new sides to classic figures. But Superman is almost 80 years old, and has appeared in thousands of stories. What else is left to be said? This is the tension comic book canon faces: the work must be familiar enough to be recognizable as a faithful interpretation of the archetype, but fresh enough to be exciting.

And here enters Justice League.

Justice League: A Canonical Reading

First, while it may be amusing to do the source critical thing, we should accept that the final form IS the canonical form. Snyder, the original author, authorized Whedon’s interpretation, so barring some popular uprising (which may be in the process of happening) we ought to accept and evaluate the film as it stands. Likewise, any future extended “Snyder cut” will also be canonical.

In my opinion, Justice League is a basically faithful interpretation of the archetypes, but an insubstantial contribution. By contrast, BVS was a less faithful interpretation but a weighty contribution to the social discourse. Someone in a comment section somewhere described the difference between BVS and Justice League as “flawed cinema vs. solid movie.” This seems right to me.

Like most Marvel movies, there isn’t really anything wrong with Justice League. The character motivations are clear, the pacing is excellent, there are minor arcs for each member, and the plot isn’t overly complex. Yet I left this film wanting more; I was not as satiated as I had been for Man of Steel or BVS. This film seemed to lack the weight of significance.

What does Justice League mean? One could very well say what happened, but what the film is about is a different question. Like most Marvel movies, it’s solidly constructed but without a lot of subtext or thematic depth. At least Snyder’s movies were about something. In Man of Steel we grapple with what it means for Superman to be “for the world” rather than a private individual, and in Batman V Superman the tug is between hope and pragmatism. I struggled to find such a theme in Justice League. The closest thing would probably be the movement from individualism to teamwork.

Marvel-esque movies have succeeded because they are inoffensive, while Snyder’s movies have polarized audiences because they make statements.

Superhero stories succeed because they tap into archetypal cultural themes, and package them in exciting trappings. We can use them as lenses through which to reflect on the shifting importance of such themes in a society. Darowski demonstrates this with Superman, and Boudreaux and Latta reflect on why our culture seems to be fascinated with heroes fighting other heroes rather than villains.

The fact that the most divisive DC films have been about Superman signals something important, at least to me. Superman differs fundamentally from virtually every other comic book character because Superman is the most transparent stand-in for pure goodness. Which Superman is “right?” Is it Snyder’s burdened savior, Whedon’s “itchy” McGuffin, Morrison’s olympian sun god? The way we decide the question is already decided by our concept of what a pure hero looks like.

We disagree about Superman because we disagree about the nature of the good. Whether moviegoers are satisfied with a Superman that smiles or a Superman that feels mythic is in large part a result of their metaphysics.

The archetype of Superman combines two seemingly opposite qualities: gravitas and joy. Superman is important, he’s not some popcorn flick poster boy meant to spout witty comebacks. There should be a certain heft to his appearing. This was what Snyder’s previous two films cashed in on. But Snyder often neglected the other side of the equation. Superman, unlike the Hulk or even Batman, likes what he does. He is honored to be a hero, to have the opportunity to help people. It’s not forced upon him, it’s something he deeply longs to do. Snyder’s Superman finds the weight of the world on his shoulders and wishes to be rid of it. Peter Jackson’s Aragorn is in almost exactly the same situation compared to his canonical version, though he fares better in the joy department. We can have gravitas without much joy, or joy without gravitas. But we as a culture are too ideologically fractured to be able to hold both together very easily.

Only Christianity, that faith of paradox, can hold both in constructive tension. Only Christianity finds its source of ultimate importance in that self-existing, eternal fount of infinite joy and love, the Triune God. Only Christ the King and Savior, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising its shame, can properly model what it means to be Superman.

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Ocean metaphor? Why not Aquaman?

A world that rejects objective standards for justice and goodness for the shallowness and shifting waves of culture will find that if it attempts to please everyone, its cultural offering will not be very deep or lasting. Those who attempt to wade into the depths may leave behind those too afraid to take the plunge, and without a Lifeline may find themselves going off the deep end. Do not conform your object to everyone, rather conform everyone to the object of faith. This was the dilemma upon which Justice League foundered.

Then again, it’s only a superhero movie, right?

Eucharist means Thanksgiving!

aHR0cDovL3d3dy5uZXdzYXJhbWEuY29tL2ltYWdlcy9pLzAwMC8xMTgvMDU2L2kwMi9UaGVfRmlyc3RfVGhhbmtzZ2l2aW5nLmpwZz8xMzg0ODgyMTI1Since we Americans are all stuffed on stuffing and dozing from post-feast fatigue, I’ll keep this post as short as the losing side of a wishbone and as sweet as apple pie.

It’s hardly groundbreaking to observe that the Greek word from which we get eucharist translates into “thanksgiving.” But when one makes a few more parallels there’s quite a nice extended metaphor that’s apropros for this particular holiday.

First, 1 Peter 2:9 calls the Church “a holy nation,” and we’d do well to think of being a Christian as “having our citizenship in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). Rather than consider ourselves American, we should replace national identity with Christian identity. The Church is in many ways a spiritual nation, dispersed among the earthly nations. While Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, a Christian has many similarities to a resident alien in a foreign culture.

  • Loyalty to a different ruler. Christians worship and obey Jesus Christ as King, rather than Caesar.
  • Distinctive cultural values. Rather than preponderant social mores like sexual freedom and self-constituted identity, Christians are often countercultural, valuing family, children, etc. Often this can make us seem backwards and culturally ignorant, just as that foreign family down the street can often fail to sync with the step of the neighborhood.
  • Distinctive dress. Hopefully not just confined to denim skirts, Christians are to appear modest and avoid vanity. If you’re high church, you can add robes.
  • A national history. Laid out in the Holy Scriptures and continuing through the history of the Church. AKA redemptive history + church history.
  • Special holidays. You know the ones. They’re the good ones. Not like stupid Columbus Day.
  • An identity founded in a martial victory over oppressors. Jesus triumphed over the powers of the earth on the cross, defeating death and the Devil. His victory created a community able to dwell in freedom.
  • Distinctive language. Are you aware that there is such a thing as “Christianese?” Your version may be mutually intelligible with English, but your vocabulary and syntax are different.
  • Distinctive meals & meal rituals. Some may think casserole is distinctively Christian, but I’m thinking more along the lines of the bread and wine. Lots of us pray over food or don’t eat certain foods on certain days.
  • Compulsive military service. Yes, the whole armor of God/spiritual warfare thing.

Second, given this equation (Christianity = Nationality) we can draw one important implication and one further parallel. The implication is that dual citizenship is awkward. Most countries don’t like having you as a citizen if you’re actively serving in the army of another country and loyal to another ruler. In fact, that’s often why Catholics have been ostracized politically. So the fact that for so many of us, Christianity can so easily sit alongside the platform of any particular political party, or that many of us see the USA as God’s chosen vessel in the world, ought to give us pause.

The further parallel is the equation (Faith = Patriotism). Let’s take a look at a few of the overlapping elements here.

  • Both are badges of identity serving to distinguish the “nominal” member from the “true” member. Anybody can be born American, but in some sense you can only appropriate your American identity by ascribing to the American idea. Likewise, faith is the dividing line between the visible and invisible Church.
  • Both ultimately boil down to trust and obedience. “My country, right or wrong” is immoral. To be a patriot, you probably have to trust that your country is basically doing the right thing; treason is also frowned upon. Benedict Arnold = not a patriot.
  • Both bleed into the whole of life. Faith and patriotism both entail not just a political stance but an entire lifestyle.
  • Both are only beautiful if they are free. There is a word for compulsory patriotism. It’s called fascism. Patriotism cannot be legislated; it can only be adopted in freedom of conscience. In the same way, faith cannot be forced or encapsulated in rules of observance. Both faith and patriotism are internal, attitudes of the heart.

Okay, so where is this going? We were talking about Thanksgiving. What is Thanksgiving, exactly? For Americans, it’s a unique national holiday based in a providentially arranged, life-saving communal meal. It emphasizes familial togetherness and is centered on gratitude for deliverance. It was celebrated by pilgrims and exiles. We receive it as we give thanks to God for His provision.

So basically Thanksgiving and the Eucharist are pretty similar.

The Advent of a King

This piece was originally published in the Henry Center’s online magazine, Sapientia.

On December 25th, we commemorate the story of the King and the beginning of his mission.

To hear it fresh we will tell it a bit strangely. And so this story of a king is also the story of a kingdom. Many hundreds of years before, this kingdom had been divided into two, north and south. Over time, the northern kingdom fell to invaders while the southern kingdom survived, continuing the unbroken line of their forebear, which was foretold never to fail. But fail it did, or so it seemed, and the royal house suffered exile, disgrace, and worse—it was forgotten. The restoration of the true king became something expected only by a remnant, those with long memories and steadfast faith. When the time was ripe, and the child who would be King was born, his parents fled with him from their homeland and lived in another exile, fearing the evil powers seeking his life. They called him Hope.

When he grew to maturity, he spent his time wandering from place to place, without honor in his own country. He gathered a small group of friends and followers, those who knew his name. He knew he would be king, but he kept himself hidden, not letting those who knew his true nature move him to the throne before the appointed season. Those who held the throne in the pride of earthly power would never accept him. When the time was ripe, however, he came to his royal city—not in triumph, but as a bringer of healing. He had been there many times before, of course, but this time was different. This time the people who had once ignored him whispered like fire in the streets: the King has come back! But he did not take his throne, even then. Instead, as it had been foretold that he trod the paths of the dead and led death captive, suffering outside the walls of the city, he marched then into the gates of hell where the Evil One was cast down.

The people of his kingdom had lived so diminished for so long that they had forgotten what a true Man was meant to be.

That was his victory, and the victory which led to the restoration not only of his crown but of all things. His kingdom, so long travailing under the oppression of the dark enemy, was free. The King reigned in justice. He became the king of the new united kingdom, and of much more. The people of his kingdom had lived so diminished for so long that they had forgotten what a true Man was meant to be. But here, in this king—the rightful son of the first man, the rightful heir to the blessed kingdom—the beauty of God’s purpose for Man shone forth undimmed. And after this mighty warrior triumphed over evil, he became a bridegroom, finally fulfilling the pledge he had made so many years ago. He restored and renewed all things, and set to rights all that had been bad and broken in the world, even to the ends of the earth. But all of this began on December 25th.

The 25th is, of course, the day that the Fellowship of the Ring departs from Rivendell on their quest, and the king is Aragorn.

Aragorn is portrayed as a Christ figure—that’s obvious. But it’s less obvious just what sort of Christ figure Aragorn is. He doesn’t die and return like Gandalf; he doesn’t endure the sacrificial and mediatorial suffering of Frodo. Aragorn is the coming and reigning King.

He’s also the main human hero of the story, and for Tolkien, to be a Man is about much more than being the “normal” species in a world populated by Elves and Dwarves. In fact, to be a Man and to be a King are intimately related.

Tolkien’s Hierarchical Universe

Tolkien constructed an explicitly hierarchical universe. Among mortal beings, God placed Men and Elves (his “children”) above Dwarves and other intelligent creatures, and these above animals. Men, the late-comers, themselves hold a special destiny that sets them apart from Elves—they are free from the weave of fate, their destiny after death is a mystery to the Elves, and it is even rumored that Eru Himself will one day walk as one of them. While Elves are bound to the circles of the world, Men will transcend them. They are the centerpiece of creation.

But among Men, the kingdom of Númenor acts as the people specially blessed of God, and when Númenor is destroyed for its rebellion, a single faithful branch of the royal family is preserved. This is Elendil, with his two sons Isildur and Anarion, who will rule the kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor and eventually defeat Sauron for the first time in the Last Alliance. The bloodline of Númenor is almost sacred, coming as it does down from generations upon generations dwelling within sight of the shores of Valinor. The heirloom of the kings is the Ring of Barahir, given by Finrod the Elven-King himself, who first discovered Men in the world. So Aragorn eventually wears on his hand a signet that betokens an Adamic heritage, a special preeminence.

Tolkien often hints at the dangers of intermixing with other, lesser lines, and by the time of The Lord of the Rings the people and princes of Gondor have fallen far from the pure (because divinely blessed) Númenorean lineage. Middle-earth is unabashedly monarchist and probably Pseudo-Dionysian too (remember the Valar and Maiar?). We may balk at such thinking. But before we do, we should ask how this sort of hierarchy and supremacy play into (1) Aragorn’s typifying of Christ, and (2) Aragorn’s epitomizing of humility, service, and sacrifice.

Tolkien is appealing to the beauty of an ordered creation—a particularly pre-Modern, medieval beauty. Planets revolve in circular orbits, animals typify human virtues. The whole human edifice is constructed like a multi-tiered wedding cake. And the King is the topper. For most of human history, the king was the guarantor of order in society and the safeguard against chaos. He was the link between the people and the land, between the ploughman and the Most High God. He existed for the sake of the people, and received special privileges in recognition of this. The Bible has a hierarchy too—not of ontological status, but of holy instruments. God continually refines and narrows His chosen vessels until God’s agent in the world culminates in a single, supremely significant individual.

Matter → Animals → Humans → Abraham → Israel → Judah → David → Jesus

In Middle-earth, the hierarchy familiar to Jews and Christians is amplified.

Matter → Animals → Thinking beings → Elves → Men → Númenor → Elf-friends → Line of Elendil (the kings) → Aragorn

The King of the united realms of Arnor and Gondor is not merely some puissant political figure. This is the King descended from Eärendil the Blessed, from Beren and Lúthien, from Melian the Maia, from Elros brother of Elrond. Aragorn is the descendant of two houses of Elves who dwelled in the heaven of Valinor, an angel, all three noble houses of the first Men. . . In short, virtually every noble hero and royal house of the Silmarillion flows down into Aragorn. He is a cosmic King, reunifying the disparate and broken elements of Middle-earth, tying the frayed strands of the story into a single cord. In him the races of Elves and Men, mixed only thrice before (and all among his ancestors) intertwine, gifting the world with the bravery of Men and the beauty of Elves, turning the West into a triumphant and glorious kingdom of light—a restored creation. All that is sad comes untrue under Aragorn’s just hand, as he returns ancestral lands in good faith and exalts the humble.

The Hands of a King

That is the point, after all—the ruler with an iron fist and a single indomitable will is not Aragorn but Sauron. Aragorn comes into his kingdom not as a conqueror but as a servant, humble and other-centered. As they said in Gondor, “The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known.” So it is in fact through Aragorn’s service toward others that his kingship is revealed, and his people’s loyalty is secured by his refusal to seize the crown before political peace can be assured—demonstrating that he places their welfare above his own power. If all of creation invests its authority and glory in the single figure of King Elessar Telcontar,So it is in fact through Aragorn’s service toward others that his kingship is revealed he immediately returns the gifts entrusted to him with grace and kindness. When Frodo and Sam come to Aragorn’s celebration feast at the field of Cormallen, Aragorn rises from his throne and places upon it these two hobbits, still dressed in their orc-rags. The king deigns to create a mutual interweaving of honor and ebullient, joyful giving between himself and his subjects. He gives back tenfold what is offered to him, and so he himself increases in honor.

But of course, that is the end of the story. On December 25th, Aragorn looks like nothing so much as a weathered, scraggled, hard-bitten wild man. Boromir refuses to accept his claim to the throne. The hobbits have in all likelihood never even heard of Gondor. Here, on this side of Mount Doom, Sauron seems invincible and the very thought that he could be overthrown, that the King should have his crown again, seems awkward and escapist.

But the Wise know. Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel—even Bilbo Baggins of Bag End—they believe.

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.

Tolkien firmly believed in the power of fiction, what he called sub-creation, to illuminate truth and give “glimpses” of the reality we often ignore. And it seems rather common that we often ignore the cosmic epic of Christmas. Another Christian writer, G.K. Chesterton, put it this way in “The Ethics of Elfland”:

“These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water. . . All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.”

The power of good fiction is precisely that it reminds us of the wonder of the real. This Advent, let us remember the King who came through many dangers into His kingdom, and now places the crown upon the heads of His people. In the Incarnation, let us proclaim that the blade that was broken is reforged, and is wielded to cut a mortal blow against death and sin. In this Man, the true Man, the jewel in the crown of all creation, we see that for which all things have been waiting in eager expectation, that which we all along ought to have been, the recapitulation and restoration of all that has come before. Everything sad comes untrue. But it starts on December 25th.

What hath Lovecraft to do with Lewis?

I was in Providence, Rhode Island for the 69th annual H. P. Lovecraft, June 1934Evangelical Theological Society conference last week, and what better to blog about than Providence’s famous writer of the fantastic, H.P. Lovecraft? Less well-known than fellow Providence horror writer Edgar Allen Poe, Lovecraft’s horror and sci-fi influence is felt anywhere puny humans battle against tentacled and incomprehensible monstrosities from space, or where a hapless student opens up a forbidden tome of knowledge titled “Necronomicon.” Lovecraft lived in Providence for virtually his entire life, and associated his own existence so closely with the place that his tombstone reads, “I AM PROVIDENCE.”

This post won’t attempt to give a biography of Lovecraft or to grapple with the very real problems his work leaves us (racism, misanthropy, nihilism), just to pick out a couple of Lovecraftian themes and tease them out theologically. The key question is: why is Lovecraft’s horror effective? Why are we scared of things like tentacles and chitin and amorphous blobs and nameless things of that nature?
To me, Lovecraft’s horror works because he finds his enemy, his horror, not in death or the supernatural but in life and in the universe itself, and he’s scared that the order and beauty we see in the world could actually just be a thin veneer over something much more chaotic and meaningless. We can see this even in his use of shapelessness or ineffability. It’s the breakdown of matter and of language. Even geometry can kill you.

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His material consists of hillbillies and backwards degenerate people inbreeding with fish monsters. This is all a breakdown of created order. Lovecraft finds horror in this because, of course, he is a “civilized” man: he loves literature and classics from prior periods of history before the advent of “modern science” and the looming fear of meaninglessness. We see, for example, that he talks about how if he were alive during the American Revolution he would be a crown loyalist. He’s subconsciously longing for days in which there was a definite order and structure to society, and his horror stems from the dark suspicion that there may actually be no order and meaning to creation. He doesn’t have a doctrine of creation. The world, the universe, is the enemy.

There is a sort of unholy trinity in Lovecraft: Azathoth, Shub-Niggurath, Yog-Sothoth. Azathoth is power or energy; Yog-Sothoth is time and knowledge; Shub-Niggurath is creation and life and matter. Lovecraft twists all of these ideas into something horrific. These beings are, in a way, the personifications of different aspects of Lovecraft’s cosmology. Since he has no transcendent God, his divine stand-ins are elements in the world apotheosized: unthinkably powerful forces or alien consciousnesses.

Azathoth, the blind idiot god at the center of the universe, represents primordial matter and energy. Energy here is not exactly wholesome. Rather than a source of vitality and renewal, it’s something more like a nuclear bomb going off. Matter here is, as Aristotle says, shapeless and formless, such that without the imposition of structure, it’s dangerous and primeval chaos.

Neither is the knowledge represented by Yog-Sothoth a good thing, because as the first line in “The Call of Cthulhu” points out, only “the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents” keeps us from going insane. Knowledge is something that brings destruction and consciousness of the futility and terror of existence.

Creation, too, is subverted. Nothing pure gets created in a Lovecraft story. There are only monsters and madness. The paradigm for this is Shub-Niggurath, the Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young. Whereas traditionally we see life as a source of beauty and something to be cherished, Lovecraft portrays it instead as a “loathsome fecundity,” a cancer that spreads and bubbles out into swarms of teeth and claws and eyeballs and fleshy tumors. Life for him is a teratoma. So Lovecraft sees even the fundamental building blocks of the universe as fundamentally horrific.

If you’re in the frame of mind of an H.P. Lovecraft, you can look outside and, instead of seeing a tree as a tree, see it as some sort of malformed fungus-like entity clawing upwards towards the sky The beauty of everything is absolutely robbed and twisted into a sort of meaningless chaotic growth. So beauty and order and time and language and meaning are all distorted and shown to be nihilistic.

In contrast to Lovecraft, there are Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien, who emphasize the simplicity and naturalness of the Good.

Y3eWknRAgain, why are things like fungi and invertebrates scary to us? I think this horror of degeneracy and of primitive things contains an implicit judgment to the effect that there is a created structure and a hierarchy to the universe, and the horror comes at points where that order is threatened or breaks down. It’s not bad to be a pig and ignorant, it’s bad to be Socrates and ignorant. Likewise, it’s not horrific to be a crustacean, but if you’re a human being that turns into a monstrous vermin, then you have a problem.
Even if, instead, we assert that the issue is the revelation of alien forms of order antithetical or repulsive or indifferent to human standards, demonstrating the relativity of our concepts of good and evil, it remains the fact that human beings share such standards. This is what C.S. Lewis points out:

A wish may lead to false beliefs, granted. But what does the existence of the wish suggest? At one time I was much impressed by Arnold’s line, “Nor does the being hungry prove that we have bread.” But surely, tho’ it doesn’t prove that one particular man will get food, it does prove that there is such a thing as food! i.e. if we were a species that didn’t normally eat, weren’t designed to eat, would we feel hungry? You say the materialist universe is “ugly.” I wonder how you discovered that! If you are really a product of a materialistic universe, how is it that you don’t feel at home there? Do fish complain of the sea for being wet? Of if they did, would that fact itself not strongly suggest that they had not always been, or would not always be, purely aquatic creatures?

If this is right, then the the whole premise of Lovecraft’s horror actually rests upon the necessity of an instinctual structure to the universe. Lewis notes that a fish doesn’t know it’s in water, and the person that sins doesn’t know they’re in sin. And so a person completely lacking in moral intuitions about an ordered universe would not find these things horrifying. The argument may not be airtight, but it’s certainly suggestive.

Lewis directly addresses a Lovecraftian scientific nihilism in Perelandra.

While most “traditional evils” can be scary, moral irrationality is actually scarier. Nihilism doesn’t rest content with evil, but also takes away the goodness of good. Lovecraft’s heroes are ordinary people fighting against the darkness even though they know it to be hopeless. They know their resistance is ultimately going to be futile and meaningless. Even the good is reduced to nothingness. I think that’s a unique terror of the modern age: the threat of meaninglessness even in our good actions. Everything is going to be destroyed in the heat death of the universe anyway, and if the ultimate forces that shape our universe are actually chaotic and drive human beings to madness then it’s not just that the heroes fight against evil, it’s that they’re fighting against evil with nothing to fight for. Goodness is also destroyed.

This can sometimes backfire. In Lewis’ That Hideous Strength,  Mark Studdock’s experience in the “Objective Room” (a conditioning program meant to reveal that moral values are subjective) leads to an unexpected consequence. He returns to a belief in goodness through the the stark juxtaposition of an ostensibly meaningless, nihilistic universe against his own moral intuitions.

As the desert teaches men to love water, or an absence first reveals affection, there rose up against this background of the sour and the crooked some kind of vision of the sweet and the straight. Something else—something he vaguely called the “Normal”—apparently existed. He had never thought about it before. But there it was—solid, massive, with a shape of its own, almost like something you could touch, or eat, or fall in love with. It was all mixed up with Jane and fried eggs and soap and sunlight and the rooks cawing at Cure Hardy and the thought that, somewhere outside, daylight was going on at that moment.

Chesterton said of course that fairy stories “make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.” The ordinary is a miracle! Chesterton too is an exact antithesis to Lovecraft: where he finds the hidden evil and meaninglessness in good things, Chesterton, in reading a horror story, would use it as Lewis does–to find the implicit goodness that, were it absent, would make these evil things fail to terrify. The shadow actually makes the light stand out more strongly and can lead a person to faith, in the right circumstances. So it’s quite possible that in reading Lovecraftian atheistic fiction, a person could perhaps be increasingly struck by the bravery of the heroes and see in fact that this bravery is ultimately irrational unless there is some sort of a moral order to the universe. But the heroic impulse is hard to tamp down. We could see that Lovecraft might actually serve some sort of a reverse apologetic purpose.

Read this short essay by Chesterton (titled “The Nightmare”) and keep Lovecraft in mind.

Go deeper: Alison Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians