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A little less than two years ago, Father Malcolm Guite hosted a series of lectures on the Inklings. In his first, lecture, he dealt with the Inklings as a group, and with their common characteristics as thinkers and as writers. Father Malcolm argued that the Oxford Inklings, among whom he included CS Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, and John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, were more cohesive and presented a more common front against modernism, nihilism, and reductionism that than they are generally credited for doing. Most critics view the group as a subset of the personal friends of CS Lewis who shared a reactionary frame of mind and who were uncommonly fond of fables and stories. Indeed, if Tolkien had not singlehandedly created a market for epic and heroic fantasy, it is possible that the whole group would have been written off as a literary curiosity and quickly forgotten.
After introducing the Inklings as a group, Father Malcolm discusses each of them in turn; first CS Lewis, whose spiritual biography Father Malcolm presents as a healing of that great divide which was just beginning to open in lewis’ day between what was true, that which could be verified by Science [always capitalized], and that which Mattered, which was all of these myths and stories that moved the soul so deeply but which were of no value for discerning the truth. From Lewis, Father Malcolm proceeds to a discussion of one of Lewis’ earliest and closest friends, Owen Barfield. Barfield is hard to discuss in Christian terms; he comes with a lot of Anthroposophic baggage, but Father Malcolm does a first-rate job in addressing Barfield’s idiosyncrasies in a way that can help the average Christian to begin to process them. The Barfield lecture comes with an extra surprise; Barfield’s grandson, namesake, and literary executor Owen A. Barfield joins Father Malcolm to discuss the reprinting of his grandfather’s imaginative works, of which there were a lot more than saw publication in his lifetime.
Father Malcolm then moves on to a discussion of Charles Williams, and his exegesis of Williams’ biography and the class-related handicaps with which Williams struggled all his life were particularly illuminating to this American. Father Malcolm treats Williams’ poetry as central to any understanding of Williams’ thinking, which is something that Williams himself would have wanted. Charles Williams’ poetry gets overlooked because it is difficult. I don’t think Father Malcolm addresses this issue clearly, but those who find his criticism, his theological writing, and his hermetic novels difficult because of his private vocabulary are bound to find his poetry almost inaccessible. I know I do. However, Father Malcolm points out that Williams, out of all the Inklings, is a better place to start than any of the others for a criticism of our common economic life, and this last five minutes of the Williams lecture are highly recommended because of this.
Ending with Tolkien, Father Malcolm saves the most famous of the Inklings for the last. Surprisingly, he doesn’t spend a lot of time on the great trilogy, but discusses a lot of Tolkien’s attitudes towards his own work. He reads Tolkien’s poem Mythopoeia for a glimpse into what Tolkien understood himself as doing; subcreating in the image and after the fashion of the great Creator. Then Father Malcolm investigates a lot of Tolkien’s source material; the Norse myths, the Anglo-Saxon literature with which Tolkien as a professor of Anglo-Saxon was intimately familiar. The best line in Father Malcolm’s discourse comes towards the middle; ‘you have this one remarkable individual replacing an entire race as a creator of mythological material’, which of course, is precisely what Tolkien was and did.
It would be jejune for me to think I could fault Father Malcolm for what he failed to cover in this wonderful lectures. If the good father is amenable to adding a second series [he has already moved on to Blake, a poet with whom I badly need to acquaint myself], he may wish to discuss Tolkien fandom, Charles Williams’ concept of co-inherence and the perichoreisis of the Holy Trinity, Owen Barfield’s links to Goethe and others of the the German Romantic Naturphilosophie, and Lewis’ literary criticism, especially The Allegory Of Love and The Discarded Image.
Links to the podcasts are hosted on this blog. More people need to hear them. The first lecture is here. Press on the Magic card below to download the corresponding lecture on that Inkling. There were some issues with the volume which I addressed in reposting them.
Full size Magic The Gathering cards:
There, far away, beyond sad Gondor now overwhelmed in shade, the Sun was sinking, finding at last the hem of the great slow-rolling pall of cloud, and falling in an ominous fire towrds the yet unsullied Sea. The brief glow fell upon a huge sitting figure, still and solemn as the great stone kings of Argonath. The years had gnawed it, and violent hands had maimed it. Its head was gone, and in its place was set in mockery a round rough-hewn stone, rudely painted by savage hands in the likeness of a grinning face with one large red eye in the midst of its forehead. Upon its knees and mighty chair, and all about the pedestal, were idle scrawls mixed with the foul symbols that the maggot folk of Mordor used.
Suddenly, caught by the level beam, Frodo saw the old king’s head: it was lying rolled away by the road side. ‘Look, Sam!’ he cried, startled into speech. ‘The king has got a crown again!’
The eyes were hollow and the carven head was broken, but about the high stern forehead there was a coronal of silver and gold. A trailing plant with flowers like small white stars had bound itself across the brows as if in reverence for the fallen king, and in the crevices of his stony hair yellow stonecrop gleamed.
‘They cannot conquer forever!’ said Frodo. And then suddenly the brief glimpse was gone. The Sun dipped and vanished, and as if at the stuttering of a lamp, black night fell.
JRR Tolkien, The Lord Of The Rings , II, Journey To The Crossroads
“There are only so many people capable of putting together words that stir and move and sing. When it became possible to earn a very good living in advertising by exercising this capability, lyric poetry was left to untalented screwballs who had to shriek for attention and compete by eccentricity.”
“You can’t trust reason. We threw it out of the ad profession long ago and have never missed it.”CM Kornbluth
Father Stephen Freeman, on his popular blog, Glory To God For All Things, swings for the fence a lot. He is the kind of blogger who isn’t content to hit singles and doubles consistently and get on base, but he expects to hit a bases-loaded home run each time he steps out of the batting box. With his latest post, A Crisis Of Beauty, he does precisely that.
Father Stephen lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, a community that received in the 1940s the sobriquet of being “the ugliest city in America”, and has recently been anointed as the “most Bible-minded city in America.” Father Stephen meditates on the ugliness of modern American life and wonders why it has to be so, especially in a community that is so ‘Bible minded’. The comments that the good Father’s post engendered discuss a number of possible causes, from the baleful influence of popular Evangelical Protestantism, to the Malthusian argument that there are too many [of the wrong kind of] people, to the corruption of oligarchic market capitalism.
Ugliness was one of the marks of evil in Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord Of The Rings. Orcs were ‘ruined elves’, and the cannon fodder of the Dark Lord. It was a mark of their degradation that they hated beauty. The poor deformed creatures could create no beauty of their own, and the mere existence of it reminded them of their lost estate, so they hated beauty and defaced it whenever they encountered it.
I think something orc-like has entered into the soul of Late Imperial America. Ugliness sets up a self-reinforcing feedback loop. Working in an ugly building, living in an ugly, cookie-cutter house, eating tasteless, corn syrup-based foods in an ugly AppleChili’s Red Olive Barrel, worshiping in a gymnasium or a hangar to a cacophony of electronically distorted noises, makes you uglier, and this internal ugliness produces in turn more ugliness, and worse, a contentment with ugliness and eventually, a resentment of beauty. But there us another force at work, something that will not prove easy to undo, because it has lodged in one of our most basic and most primal human passions.
What I have to say here is going to be controversial The pornification of American culture has played a key role in uglifying it. A frequent Orthodox poster on blogs pertaining to modern relationships between the sexes remarks that about the only personal characteristic that 21st century cares about is sex appeal. Everything else is secondary, maybe even superfluous
The problem is that porn is boring. There are just so many ways that you can rub body parts together, and eventually, the itch you are trying to scratch becomes larger than anything you can scratch it with. Additionally, for some reason not immediately apparent to me, use of pornography sears a sector of the human soul that appreciates and evaluates beauty. As the flesh and the sexual passions clamor more insistently, little by little, the other pleasures recede and lose their ability to charm, entice, or motivate.
I don’t think that even 20 years ago, it was apparent that our society would become as highly sexualized as it currently is. The Sexual Revolution is, of course, very old news, and the original impetus for it came from Scandinavia and France, were traditional attitudes towards sexuality dissolved before they did here in the US. The message that you can have sex with whomever you want whenever you want with no adverse effects is one that is always going to find fertile soil, though.
The increasing sexualization of society has a side-effect. We are primates, and whatever your view of human origins and our relationship to monkeys, apes, and lemurs, human females share an observable tendency that they share with other female primates – they are attracted to males who exhibit what is called conspicuous consumption. These days, the most desirable females come with a very, very high price tag. This is, I believe, the motive force, the engine behind the ruthless exploitation of resources and rapid monetarization of anything that provokes even a momentary interest. A market will be found, and usually it will be ignited by the image of an appealing young woman.
Which is a shame. Americans are not an ugly people, more that any other other people who dwell on the face of the earth, and we were, as recently as the early forties, exploring our own way of creating beauty. There are English ways of being beautiful, French ways, Russian ways, Chinese ways, and if you have ever heard the Cherubic hymn sung by a Kenyan choir, African ways as well. Indeed, a lot of what it means to be beautiful is what it means to be beautiful right here, right now. There is an Beauty of This Moment and This Place which is not transferable to There and Then. It is the increasing homogenization, the franchising of America [as Father Stephen calls it] that is a key element to its uglification.
American Beauty, which is essentially a regional beauty, even a local beauty, was strangled in the crib by a rising advertising/promotional industry, an industry whose goal was to decouple the purchasing will from the higher brain functions and make it as reliable as breathing and circulation by attaching it to our most basic passions. Once the link to sex was discovered and ruthlessly exploited, there was no more room for American Beauty.
Lent has started, and my belly is rumbling. Even though the freshness of the Fast has yet to fade and the initial enthusiasm is still riding high, I know that before long the drab meals, the prostrations, and the abstention from electronic entertainment will begin to take its toll on my good nature. My family, unfortunately, will be the first to pay the price. Sooner or later, the Great Fast will bring me face to face with an undeniable fact about myself that I try energetically to deny the rest of the year; that I am a sinner, someone who puts his own comfort and convenience ahead of even the most legitimate of claims others have on me.
By the time the fourth week in Lent rolls around, my bruised and battered self-righteousness may be ready to pray this lovely prayer, and mean it:
“I have outdone the Publican in my transgressions,
yet I do not emulate him in his repentance;
I have not gained the virtue of the Pharisee,
yet I surpass his self-conceit.
O Christ my God, in Thy supreme humility
Thou hast upon the Cross destroyed the devil’s arrogance;
make me a stranger to the past sins of the Publican
and to the great foolishness of the Pharisee;
establish in my soul the good that each of them possessed,
and save me.”
The Orthodox Church is a good place for sinners. There are a lot of us here. As a former Evangelical, it has been quite costly to jettison the concept of the “regenerate Church”. The field of Protestantism is full of formerly “pure churches” where the hands currently on the rudder are steering their barques in a direction that I don’t believe the original pilots would have wanted them to take. It is hard anyway to keep a church in pristine form longer than one or two generations, and it would take a heart of diamantine hardness and abstraction to look down at your newborn child and see only an unregenerate heathen, cordwood for the fires of Hell. I think this may indeed be the genesis of that peculiar informal Protestant doctrine of the “age of accountability” , which if it were true, would make abortion something of a mercy rather than a misfortune.
Unfortunately, the Orthodox Church in the United States is a wonderful place to indulge a spiritual elitism that would be the envy of the most fastidious supralapsarian Neo-Calvinist or the most prophetically endowed Third Wave Pentecostal. Our parishes are for the most part small, the regular attendees at Liturgy are mostly pious and those who attend Vespers and Orthros even more so. Ehrmergerd! All of this and we’re in The One True Church as well? Talk about dropping the bacterium of Phariseeism into a Petri dish full of yummy sugar water…
Thank God as Holy Week approaches, more and more of the marginal members of the parish start showing up; that rough looking guy with the flashy wife and the tattoos on his knuckles, the couple who own the nightclub, the Coptic girl who’s married to a Muslim and wears a hijab, the husbands and wives of parishoners who you see so seldom that it is hard to remember who goes with whom. Its hard to talk with them at coffee hour, but they remind you that the Church is indeed for everyone. James Joyce made the remark about the Catholic Church – “Here comes everyone!” With a change in geography, the same could be said of the Orthodox Church. I wonder if I lived in a traditional Orthodox society whether I’d see these ‘marginal’ types more often. Would I see them as brothers and sisters in Christ, or would I see them as part of the mission field?
JRR Tolkien, in one of his letters to his son, recommended that he embrace the catholicity of the Church as a spiritual discipline :
“Also I can recommend this as an exercise (alas! only too easy to find opportunity for): make your communion in circumstances that affront your taste. Choose a snuffling or gabbling priest or a proud and vulgar friar; and a church full of the usual bourgeois crowd, ill-behaved children – from those who yell to those products of Catholic schools who the moment the tabernacle is opened sit back and yawn – open necked and dirty youths, women in trousers and often with hair both unkempt and uncovered. Go to communion with them (and pray for them). It will be just the same (or better than that) as a mass said beautifully by a visibly holy man, and shared by a few devout and decorous people. It could not be worse than the mess of the feeding of the Five Thousand – after which our Lord propounded the feeding that was to come.”
PS – Sorry about the super-heroes.
It is amazing what you remember as you get older. You would think that the really important things would stick with you; the first time you realized that your parents had an existence prior to your own, your first day at school, the first time you realized that boys and girls were different, and the first time that really mattered. Instead, your very first memories are often of something very trivial; the shape of a bridge near your house as you walk under it, an argument with your sister the outcome of which you remember as being completely different from what your parents told you. Some events are backlit by great emotion, such as when your first kitten ran out into traffic and was run over. Other events may be permanently inaccessible due to a trauma or a catastrophe.
Then there are the anomalies. You can remember every detail of a remote event as if you were there, but you can’t remember for the life of you where you were or what you were doing there. It was in the spring of 1974. I remember that because the Sun was shining and there were a lot of people outside. Since I was living in Michigan at the time, and the event was some kind of a Christian event – rally, concert or some such – it had to be in the spring of 1974. Prior to late 1973 I wouldn’t have voluntarily attended a Christian event, except maybe to argue with Christians. Ergo, it had to be during the spring or early summer of 1974. Some friends of mine brought a nun to me. I still don’t know why. The nun was young, not much older than we were, and kind of cute, even without make-up. She was clearly confused. My friends pushed the nun at me. The nun looked at me, and she said this;
“You have to demythologize what you read in the Bible, then remythologize it.”
I didn’t know how to respond. I heard the word “demythologize” which immediately triggered an association with the German philosopher/theologian Rudolph Bultmann, and this immediately raised a red flag in my head – “caution, liberal Christianity ahead!” The nun looked strangely grave. Why would a slightly older celibate Catholic girl, a girl I might have been interested in dating had she not been a nun, be looking at me like this, as earnestly as any of my Evangelical friends? She wanted me to respond.
‘I guess what you’re trying to say is that we don’t have to believe Jonah was actually swallowed by a fish to preach the gospel.’ I replied as best and a truthfully as I could at that time. ‘Yes!! Exactly!!’ the nun responded. ‘But it’s the remythologizing that is even more important!” I was flummoxed. I had absolutely no idea what the good sister meant by “remythologizing”. I don’t think I said anything. The literal snapshot memory ends with the good sister’s response, but something marked that tiny almost 40-year-old exchange as significant, since I can remember it vividly despite remembering nothing else about that day, not even why I was there.
Now, Rudolph Bultmann, as a German existential theologian, made a great noise about the de-mythologization of the message of the New Testament. It was his claim that ‘modern’, ‘scientifically-minded’ people couldn’t be expected to believe the miraculous, “obviously” mythological stories in the New Testament. Of course, Bultmann was not the first to point this out. North Atlantic, Anglo-Celtic society has been undergoing a three century-long process of demythologization, in the sense that no one believes, for example, in the story of Jonah and the Fish the way their seven-times-great-grandparents did. Even the ones who “believe” it feel a need to defend its historicity. Now, this is hard for me to think about, much less put into words, but when you cast a myth in terms of its “historicity” you have already lost that sense of primacy which the myth held before there was any controversy of whether it is “historical” or not. Nobody these days believes that Baldur the Good was slain by a twig of mistletoe guided by the hand of Loki the Trickster. It is a beautiful story, but here is the kicker; no one alive today understands what it meant for someone to believe it was true. Was it understood as historical by the Viking who stepped out of his boat into the surf, coming ashore on a beach in Northumberland? Did he invoke Baldur’s aid? What did he expect when he did so? This is what I had in mind when I posted about Neil Gaiman and the Neo-Pagans. The point that Mr. Gaiman was trying to make was not that neo-pagans were evil people, or hypocritical in the practice of their religion [although there are hypocrites and slackers in every religion], but that there isn’t any organic continuity between what they believe and what somebody believed about the same gods back in the seventh century. The stories about Baldur and Thor had been demythologized already, effectually, by the triumph of a superior mythology – that of Christianity. With the pruning back of Christianity in competition with rationalistic Modernism, room has been made for experiments like neo-paganism and neo-paganism is a remythologization. However, it is a re-mythologization that still lacks a myth, and apparently still in the salvage mode. Perhaps, and this is a big, big perhaps, there is a nexus of spiritual energy out there that was once known as ‘Thor’ or ‘Odin’. Maybe, and this is an even bigger maybe, and much more dangerous, that nexus may be relatively benign. People invoking ‘Thor’ or ‘Odin’ will have experiences with whatever is behind these names. Stories will circulate about these experiences, and they will be smoothed and embellished as stories inevitably are, and a new myth will arise.
Western Europe and its cultural outposts in the Americas are not the only society to have suffered demythologization. What took three centuries in Europe evaporated in a single week in August 1945 in the skies over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Japanese world view, their mythology, their belief in themselves as a people especially favored by heaven, and of their divine Emperor, dissipated immediately after their surrender to General Douglas MacArthur. This ended World War Two, and inaugurated a deep spiritual malaise in the Japanese soul. For a few decades, the spiritual malaise generated by this forcible demythologization was held at bay by a rising tide of prosperity, but this receded after the bursting of the Japanese economic bubble in the 1990s. The Japanese are great storytellers, and during this post war period, they generated a number of cautionary tales about the effects of atomic warfare, but all in all their stories were about the omnipotence of science and the triumphant march of modernity. Now, their comics [manga] and cartoons [anime ] are devoured in industrial quantities by sensitive and thoughtful Western young people as the Japanese struggle with questions of transcendence and identity, and attempt to rebuild their shattered mythological structure. Needless to say, this project is being very closely tracked by their co-sufferers in the West.
My next post will be about super-powers.
Not too many years ago a young monastic aspirant went to Mount Athos. In talking with the venerable abbot of the monastery where he wished to stay, he told him, “Holy Father! My heart burns for the spiritual life, for asceticism, for unceasing communion with God, for obedience to an Elder. Instruct me, please, holy Father, that I may attain to spiritual advancement.”
Going to the bookshelf, the Abbot pulled down a copy of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. “Read this, son,” he said.
“But Father!” objected the disturbed aspirant. “This is heterodox Victorian sentimentality, a product of the Western captivity! This isn’t spiritual; it’s not even Orthodox! I need writings which will teach me spirituality!”
The Abbot smiled, saying, “Unless you first develop normal, human, Christian feelings and learn to view life as little Davey did – with simplicity, kindness, warmth, and forgiveness – then all the Orthodox ‘spirituality’ and Patristic writings will not only be of no help to you-they will turn you into a ‘spiritual’ monster and destroy your soul.”
A while back, blogger with similar interests to mine posted that Christians ought not, and Orthodox Christians most definitely should not, read fantasy literature:
Fantasy… is a pure expression of the passions. Basically it’s whatever the mind imagines ends up on paper. So then we end up with werewolves and vampires and a celebration of evil that in the modern genre completely lacks what the original characters were intended to portray. In this way, a genre that was meant to lead someone toward Christ now pulls them in the opposite direction by tantalizing every wicked fantasy and passion imaginable, and infusing it with a lustful voyeurism so that people constantly want more and more perverse and graphic fantasies.
On the surface, I have to say that I agree with her. “Man’s imaginations are wicked from his youth”, Genesis says. I made an offhand comment about fifteen years ago to a friend on the ‘darkening’ of the fantasy genre; most of the material that was coming out at that time seemed to be concerned with the demonic, and with the infernal side of occultic powers. There didn’t seem to be any celestial counterweight and a lot of fantasy material seemed to be moving from the Tolkienesque to the “gritty”, “realistic” outlook. The best of it was pagan/stoic and the worst of it was flatly demonic. Once the pornification of Western society got underway in earnest, wrought in great part by the Internet, fantasy literature followed suit, and now you can’t turn a page without some sexual practice that would have shocked a jury forty years ago described in painstaking detail between orcs and elves.
It is not fantasy material exclusively that as fallen prey to this; romances are saucier and kinkier; simple murder no longer suffices to carry a detective novel, you need cannibalism or torture. The problem is that there is no longer any intermediary between the head, the eyes, and the loins. Lewis’ Men Without Chests have arrived, and they are worse than any glittering vampire or werewolf out of the latest potboiler. There is in Tibetan Buddhism the concept of the Hungry Ghost (ཡི་དྭགས), an entity with overdeveloped mouth and stomach, but with a neck and chest too thin to allow for the passage of food. This parcel of decayed human energy lives in constant torment as its enormous stomach demands input from its hypertrophied mouth, but there is nothing in between that can mediate the transfer. We have starved the sentiments for so long that we may be said to exist in a state of spiritual diabetes. We devour and devour all manner of stories; fantasies, romances, novels, but we seem incapable to extract even the minutest nutrition from any on them, We are like those who lack a vital digestive enzyme.
Forty years ago, Father Seraphim Rose also noticed this strange deficiency in young pilgrims coming to his California monastery for spiritual guidance:
[There is a] problem [which] lies in the poverty of our modern soul, which has not been prepared or trained to receive the depths of true Christian experience. There is a cultural as well as a psychological aspect to this poverty of ours: The education of youth today, especially in America, is notoriously deficient in developing responsiveness to the best expressions of human art, literature, and music, as a result of which young people are formed haphazardly under the influence of television, rock music, and other manifestations of today’s culture (or rather, anti-culture); and, both as a cause and as a result of this–but most of all because of the absence on the part of parents and teachers of any conscious idea of what Christian Life is and how a young person should be brought up in it–the soul of a person who has survived the years of youth is often an emotional wasteland, and at best reveals deficiencies in the basic attitudes towards life that were once considered normal and indispensable
Father Seraphim went on to say that what was needed in this situation was a “Dushevni diet”, one that would nourish the middle soul, the Chest, in Lewis’ vocabulary. The idea of the “Dushevni diet” is to allow the soul to learn those responses to an object which those objects ought naturally to invoke, or which a well-trained soul should naturally feel. Lewis himself, in The Abolition Of Man, uses the example of Samuel Johnson’s observation that
That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force
upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the
ruins of Iona.
with the caveat that the man whose patriotism does not swell at Marathon or whose piety is not warmed at Iona will inevitably complain that because his [lack of] patriotism and his [lack of] piety are neither strengthened nor fortified at either Marathon or Iona, it must follow the idea of these places doing either is a subjective fantasy, and that his feelings of tedium and his desire to find an inn where he can grab a beer and watch the soccer matches are just as valid as all that sentimental nonsense about brave ancient Athenian citizen-warriors or Celtic monks standing waist deep in freezing water chanting the Psalms. I’m sorry, but those thoughts are the grandfathers to the complaints of overweight women that they are equally as desirable to as wide an array of men as their slender sisters. That just is not so. Value is as objective as anything measured by the positive sciences. It is just that the instrument used to measure it is not a scale, or a measuring stick, or a pipette, but rather the human soul itself. If that soul is faulty or unbalanced, it will perforce register a different value for the object than will the purer soul.
Until this point, I have said nothing that Fr. Seraphim and Dr. Lewis have not said before me, and much more eloquently. However, as far as an Orthodox Christian who enjoys and appreciates the fantasy genre as I do, I would like to make the following observations:
First of all, salvation is offered to us through What Is, not through what we would like it to be. The very first time I saw an Orthodox icon of Christ, I was struck by the Greek legend Ὁ ὮΝ, “That Which IS”, in the nimbus of his halo. In itself, this would appear to be reason enough to exclude anything of a fantastic nature from Fr. Seraphim’s “dushevni diet”, and with the vast majority of modern fantasy, I would be in complete agreement with myself. There is a lot of brutality, a lot of anxiety, a lot of lasciviousness, and a complete lack of transcendence in most fantasy material these days, both Western and Eastern. I include Eastern fantastic literature because Japanese and Korean manga (comics) and anime (cartoons) are occupy the same literary niche for young people of my son’s generation that The Lord Of The Rings and the Narnia books occupied for me when I was younger.
But there is an important point I would like to make: For all the popularity of the ‘gritty’, ‘realistic’ fantasies of Joe Abercrombie, George R. R. Martin, and China Mieville, we would do well to remember that they are considered ‘realistic’ because of one important point; their narratives unwind in created worlds that resemble our own in one essential way; they are closed worlds where even magic is technological in nature. It obeys ‘rules’ that cannot be broken, which can be observed and mastered, and using techniques which can be perfected through experimentation and practice. There is no help coming from beyond the circle of the invented world. Self-interest rules all things, and the struggle of omnes contra omnes continues apace. In the hands of the aforementioned authors, this “realistic” approach to fantasy has produced some engaging yarns. They are gifted writers, and, interestingly, Mr. Mieville has produced a story which points beyond itself in a way I’m not certain the author didn’t intend.
In The City And The City, Mr. Mieville has created two separate cities, Beszel and Ul Quoma. The two cities occupy the same physical space, and may even share buildings and streets. Each ‘city’ has its own airport and port district. Citizens of each city can dimly glimpse, at times, residents of the other city or the outlines of buildings. However, to admit to this is to commit Breach, risking arrest and incarceration. Citizens of both cities have been strictly trained since earliest childhood to disregard all evidence of the other city. The narrative of Mr. Mieville’s book unwinds as a policeman in the less wealthy city, Beszel, is investigating a murder of a young woman which implicates a well-connected functionary in the corresponding, wealthier city of Ul Quoma. His distress increases as he realizes that the world in which he grew up believing does not correspond to the world as it actually is.
In the same way, there is something fantastic about the life we live in our sanitized, corporatized, modern world. We fly across the landscape like Djinn in metal boxes. We know the thoughts of others at multiplied hundreds of leagues. We hear no animals bawl out their agonies when their time comes to keep us nourished. In addition, a constant barrage of intellectual static that attempts to convince us that This Truncated World Is The Real World, that nothing exists outside of what can be measured, monetarized, and manipulated. If you want to maintain little fantasy religious worlds or little counter-cultural worlds within strict boundaries of a “religious” or “intentional” community, you are by all means free to do so (We are not tyrants, after all, is another song that is sung constantly). If you try to smuggle anything out from behind those well-guarded frontiers, though, you will find yourself committing Breach and arousing the ire of the Gatekeepers. In this way, something like The Lord Of The Rings, or even Spirited Away, can serve to cast doubt on the Official Narrative. Spiritual forces and proper human sentiment can be experienced as liberating and empowering, and in this way, the Real World, The Only One That Truly Is, that which is signalled by the Greek letters in the halo, can be made more real than this dreary official fantasy in which we find ourselves.
1. City Of Ember
This movie came out in 2008, and to the present, I and my family are the only ones I know who have seen it. I didn’t save this flick for last because it is the best movie among the ten. It isn’t. That distinction would have to go to either The Travelling Circus of Dr. Lao or The Iron Giant. I think I saved it for last because it is the most obscure. It has some strong performances, especially by Tim Robbins and a very young Saoirse Ronan before she became a hot property in Redemption.
Ember is a city that was built underground to preserve a portion of the human race from some unmentioned apocalypse. Everything about the environment is artificial. The night sky, with which you are greeted at the opening of the film, is nothing more than a collection of electric lights suspended oer the city and one of which burns out and falls with a great racket to the streets far below. It is a warning that things are beginning to run down in Ember. As the story progresses, we learn that the sojourn underground has lasted nearly twice as long as the city’s founders intended, and all of the life support systems on which the Emberites depend are more than a little threadbare.
As far as the spectrum between parable and myth goes, City Of Ember falls leadenly into the parable category. Here is a world where everything is running out. You can go to any warehouse and request canned goods, but anything except turnip greens and refried beans are in short supply. There are frequent blackouts due to the testiness of the aging dynamo at the city’s core, and the residents seem not to notice. They are lulled to sleep by official pronouncements of how good it is they have it in Ember, and pull the comfort blanket of Singing Day [a very thinly veiled swipe at religion] around them when things get difficult.
Of course, two Plucky Youngsters™ discover The Truth, and most of the dramatic tension in the movie results from their desperate attempt to escape the doomed city and from the obstacles placed in their way by others who know the truth but hav a vested interested in maintaining the status quo, even though it means extinction for everyone. Of course the Plucky Youngsters™ succeed intheir Quest, and are amply rewarded by the Grandmother of All Light Shows. I’ll leave it at that.
Recently I saw another very good Korean Sci-Fi flick, The Doomsday Book, in which a Buddhist robot attains enlightenment. It’s on Netflix streaming. Seek it out as well.
In case you were curious, the other films in this series are:
2. The Circus Of Dr. Lao
3. The Last Starfighter
4. Hearts In Atlantis
5. Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji
6. Brendan And The Secret Of Kells
7. Fantastic Planet
8. The Iron Giant
9. Enemy Mine
I admit I’m in kind of a quandary.
The pastor at the the Assemblies of God church my wife attends spent 45 minutes last Sunday pleading with God for a “community wide revival”. Now, although I was baptized in a church that isn’t known as a hotbed of revival, I spent around thirty years of my life between 1973 and about 1996 in and out of different revival-oriented churches. Somehow, I had gotten the idea that the church into which I was baptized was not a church to be taken seriously by serious Christians, and in 1973, I considered myself a serious Christian. You see, I had a serious “come to Jesus” moment. After several years in the late sixties, early seventies drug-and-rock-and-roll culture, something of a revival broke out among people my age. It was called The Jesus Movement, and I don’t want to think about the influence it had on American Protestantism because dwelling on that depresses me profoundly. Suffice it to say that in 1968, Protestantism was a pursuit for grown-ups and for those young people who aspired to that label. Fast forward forty years and the most important thing in Protestant Christianity is that it be relevant, i.e. amenable to a group of people who, as CS Lewis said of Susan Pevensie, want ” to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as [possible] and then stop there as long as [one] can.” Boomer fingerprints are all over early 21st century Protestant Christianity, and you can barely see inside for all the smudges.
The church into which I was baptized was a Constantinian church, that is to say, a state church or an ethnic church. It was old-school. A Christian was someone who was born into the ethnic group and who had been baptized into its fellowship as an infant. The Assemblies of God church I found refuge in in 1973 was what I guess you would call a Revival church. Father Stephen Freeman, on his excellent blog Glory To God For All Things, does a very good job of explaining the difference. You become a member of a Revival church by “getting saved” and undergoing baptism as an adult. It was implied that something was defective if you had only the first level of Christianity. It was implied that the only thing baptism accomplished for you as an infant was to make you wet. I remember the Assemblies of God pastor and many of the more eminent layfolk considering people in my native church valid objects of evangelism. I did too, and it led to some embarrassing incidents where I displayed too much zeal and too little discernment. There are a lot of very pious people in the Assemblies of God. I could tell the difference even when I was very young. A Congregational minister in whose choir I sang because my mother earned a stipend as their choir leader often allowed his Assemblies of God-ordained sister to preach when he was absent. The difference was between night and day. It took a while, and a lot of growing up, before I could appreciate the serious Christians in my ancestral church.
The “Jesus Revolution” started in earnest in my neck of the woods in the early 70s. A lot of the ne’er-do-wells I hung around with at the time put down the hash pipes, picked up Bibles and headed for the churches, especially the more progressive, cooler ones that embraced coffee houses with lots of espresso and folk-rock bands as a means of attracting truculent, “hard to reach” young people. The idea was that we would funnel from the coffee houses into the churches, eventually. What a surprise to find that the coffee houses digested the churches and now it is very, very difficult to find a church that still acts like the churches of my parents’ generation, what with introits, Kyries, responsive readings, and all of that panoplia. Indeed, it is hard to find a church that will admit to being a church at all – we are overwhelmed with Worship Centers, Family Life Centers, Gathering Places, Deliverance Ministries, etc, and sometimes you have to dig pretty hard to find out what brand of Christianity is subscribed to.
Now, I did not leave Evangelicalism/Pentecostalism because I was “disillusioned” with Evangelicalism/Pentecostalism. Evangelicalism fulfilled its purpose in my life. It introduced me to Jesus Christ, which 20 years as a member in good standing in my ancestral Reformed church did not do. This bothers me, because it was not that I didn’t have ample opportunity to meen Jesus in the Reformed church. It was that I wasn’t paying any attention. When I finally started paying attention, it was the Pentecostals who benefitted. It was the miracle stories, really, I guess. The Pentecostal God was the kind of God I assumed from my glancing knowledge of the Scriptures. But once Evangelicalism introduces you to Jesus, there isn’t a whole lot further it can take you. It’s a design flaw, really. Everything about Evangelicalism is designed to get you to Jesus as quickly and as painlessly as possible. Whether you stay with Him is pretty much entirely up to you.
I left Evangelicalism in its Pentecostal variety because I encountered the Orthodox Church, and I was convinced of her claim to be the apostolic Church founded by Jesus Christ on the foundation of the Holy Apostles. That meant that the original design was much more like my ancestral Reformed church than it was like any of the Revivalist churches I spent time in afterwards. People are born into it and find their spiritual subsistence there. Pastors of revivalist churches often scratch their heads when I explain this to them, because nobody in the Orthodox Church is “born again” according to their lights. Except the converts from Evangelicalism, who by those rights should be the ‘best’ Christians in the Orthodox Church, but who usually aren’t.
But once again, I wonder what Orthodox spiritual renewal looks like. I know the Orthodox Church went through some very decadent times, when the faith of the faithful was reduced to a handful of superstitions and family customs. Apart from this historical understanding, the stories of St. Cosmas of Aitolos and St. Nektarios of Corinth make little sense at all. I mentioned to my parish priest that the career of St. Cosmas of Aitolos reminded me a great deal of that of John Wesley, his contemporary. Now the Orthodox Church does not do “revivals” or “renewals”, like you see so often in the history of Western Christendom, but SS Cosmas and Nektarios were instrumental in “reOrthodoxing the Orthodox”; like Wesley, they founded churches, schools, and orphanges, rekindled parish life. Father replied, “Wesley, sadly, provoked a schism. St. Cosmas created unity.” That started me thinking. In every major Protestant awakening, from the first flutterings of Pietism and Puritanism in the 17th century to the Emergent movement in the 21st, the price of increased spirituality always came to be paid in the coin of schism, with one group of Christians labeling their predecessors as lacking in zeal and not really worthy of the term. Maybe monasticism takes the place of this in the Catholic and Orthodox Church.
I know what my wife’s pastor is saying. The darkness of this age is getting so thick it is nearly palpable. At a time when we need to love each other or perish, we cannot abide the sight of one another. Jesus has gone from being the Savior of penitents and the Lord of the Church to a nosegay for our culture and an issuer of seals of approval for our political positions, left or right.
But I don’t want another revival. Please, Lord, don’t send another revival. We won’t survive another revival.
Send the Holy Spirit, but Lord, to be honest, I haven’t been Orthodox long enough to know what this would mean for my wife’s pastor’s community, for my county, for my city, right now.
Where is that apple? I can smell it!
“I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago — the other day. . . . Light came out of this river since — you say the Knights? Yes; but it is like a running blaze on a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the flicker — may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday. Imagine the feelings of a commander of a fine — what d’ye call ’em? — trireme in the Mediterranean, ordered suddenly to the north… Imagine him here — the very end of the world, a sea the colour of lead, a sky the colour of smoke, a kind of ship about as rigid as a concertina — and going up this river with stores, or orders, or what you like. Sand-banks, marshes, forests, savages, — precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink. No Falernian wine here, no going ashore. Here and there a military camp lost in a wilderness, like a needle in a bundle of hay — cold, fog, tempests, disease, exile, and death — death skulking in the air, in the water, in the bush. They must have been dying like flies here. Oh, yes — he did it. Did it very well, too, no doubt, and without thinking much about it either, except afterwards to brag of what he had gone through in his time, perhaps. They were men enough to face the darkness. And perhaps he was cheered by keeping his eye on a chance of promotion to the fleet at Ravenna by and by, if he had good friends in Rome and survived the awful climate. Or think of a decent young citizen in a toga — perhaps too much dice, you know — coming out here in the train of some prefect, or tax-gatherer, or trader even, to mend his fortunes. Land in a swamp, march through the woods, and in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him — all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There’s no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination — you know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.”
Joseph Conrad – Heart Of Darkness
It was as dark as the Dark Ages got, then, in Britain. Classical civilization, what was left of it, hugged the shores of the Mediterranean during the Indian Summer of Theodoric’s Ostrogothic kingdom. Like the blood in the arteries of a severely wounded accident victim, it refused to circulate to the extremities. It was at this time, a century or so after the departure of the legions and a century yet before the arrival of the Roman mission, that a holy man was born. He had the sad misfortune to be born in a very hardscrabble time, in a very hardscrabble place. People didn’t have much time or inclination to record their doings, indeed, it would be hard to imagine that the people who lived at this time would have thought their struggle for survival worthy of recording.
So what survived were stories, stories vivid enough to be remembered. Stories such as the one about the wandering Briton princeling who was travelling far from home when he came upon a maiden bathing in a stream and was overcome by lust. He forced himself on her, and she conceived. It was a brutal age, and it appears the leaven of the Gospel had little power to soften men’s passions among these jettisoned folk, and none among the pagan Saxons already coursing far inland. She carried the child for nine months, refusing on one occasion to allow a local ruler to terminate her pregnancy. She gave birth in a women’s monastery, and her child was raised there.
This child, grown to be a man, began to preach the gospel in his corner of the world. The reputation of his sanctity spread, and he began to become known as y Sant, or simply, the saint. It is unusual that the saint would come to be called the Illuminator of Wales, as his country was not known by that name at that time. Most likely, his country was still known by her Roman name: Britannia, and her people spoke Latin after their fashion as well as their native British, now Welsh. Like a formerly prosperous family fallen on hard times, they must have cherished these small remnants of Roman civilization, and maybe, just maybe, Christianity was one of these remnants. It is by no means certain that the saint’s countrymen were all Christian. It had been the legal religion of the Empire for only a scant 20 years before the legions departed, and there were many pagans for the saint to convert.
The full flower of his manhood is punctuated with many stories. The saint was preaching to a crowd of people, and the crowd grew to such a proportion that those on the fringes were unable to hear his preaching. He prayed, and the earth rose under his feet, forming a hillock so that all could hear his words. Some farmers nearby were complaining that there wasn’t enough water for their crops, so he prayed, pushed his staff into the ground, and a fountain of water sprayed up to provide the farmers what they needed. The monks at this time must have been quite lax, although it is remarkable that there were any monks at all. Brittania was the other side of the world from Christian monasticism’s center of gravity in Egypt and Palestine, but monks there were, and many followed the saint. He founded many monasteries and guided his monks with a rigorous discipline. They were forbidden the use of draught animals, and had to pull their plows themselves. In addition, they were enjoined to forswear beer and wine, and drink only water, a real test of faith in a day before chlorine tablets.
Not that Brittania was hermetically sealed from the rest of the Christian world. Perhaps because Pelagius himself was a Briton, the saint found it necessary to refute him in several local councils. It is a shame that his arguments against Pelagius have not survived, and Augustine’s did. It would have been informative to compare the two. Towards the end of his life, the saint found it necessary to travel to the center of the remaining Empire, to Palestine, and receive the bishopric of his country from the Patriarch of Jerusalem. Whether the saint took the land road or the sea road, it must have been a long and arduous journey, and the good patriarch must have felt like the Archbishop of Canterbury appointing the rector of the parish on St. Helena. The saint returned to his native Brittania, founded one last monastery in the extreme west of his land, and died there on this day, March 1, supposedly in 589. His last words to his disciples were
Be steadfast, brothers, and do the little things.
The saint’s country changed dramatically after his death. The pagan Saxon marauders pushed the Britons father and farther north and west until they were bottled up onto the extremities of the island, but they never found the Dark Ages to be all that dark. They had another name for it: Oes y Seintiau – The Age Of Saints. They named their country Cymru, the land of the people, and their tongue became Cymraeg. The ungracious Saxons named them the Wealas, the foreigners, but admitted that they were great warriors and greater poets and singers. Little by little, first the Saxons and later the Normans dragged this people of the retreat into the even longer and more tragic general retreat of the West into feudal Catholicism, Calvinism, secularism, and unbelief
This is Dewi Sant, Saint David, patron of Wales in the undivided Church. Interestingly, Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican all honor him, and his last church is now a great cathedral. The Welsh still love him, and his day is their national day.
He is also my patron, and I would like to share a story of a miracle I believe was wrought by his intercession. When my family and I moved to Atlanta late in 2007, the area been suffering a severe drought for many years. The drought was so absolute that people were not allowed to wash their cars or water their lawns. I hadn’t been Orthodox longer than a few months, but I noticed that St. David had worked many miracles that were related to water. I besought his intercession on our behalf and rested the matter with him. On his day, March 1, 2008, Atlanta experienced a freakish snowfall of several inches that effectively broke the drought. The commentator on the radio noted that this was the best way to drop so much precipitation on a drought-hardened ground. Five years later, even though water levels have yet to return to normal, at least the lawns are being watered and the cars washed.
Dewi Sant, gweddia ni
Saint David of Wales, pray for us