Category Archives: Reading

Doubt, unbelief and the community of believers.

“…two of the monks remarked in different ways that although Thomas did not believe in the resurrection of the Lord, he kept faithful to the community of the apostles. In that community the Lord appeared to him and strengthened his faith. I find this a very profound and consoling thought. In times of doubt or unbelief, the community can ‘carry you along,’ so to speak; it can even offer on your behalf what you yourself overlook, and can be the context in which you may recognize the Lord again.

“[the Abbot] remarked that Dydimus, the name of Thomas, means ‘twin,’ as the Gospel says, and that the fathers had commented that all of us are ‘two people,’ a doubting one and a believing one. We need the support and love of our brothers and sisters to prevent our doubting person from becoming dominant and destroying our capacity for belief.” (Henri Nouwen, The Genesee Diary, 56-7)

More from Tolkien’s letters.

Some more fun and interesting tid-bits from Tolkien’s letters:

From 1959, in response to a request from cat breeder to register a litter of Siamese kittens under names taken from The Lord of the RIngs:

I fear that to me Siamese cats belong to the fauna of Mordor, but you need not tell the cat breeder that. (300)

An example of something that has become quite clear in reading Tolkien’s letters. The man had a sense of humour.

On writing fiction specifically for children (including “appropriate” vocabulary, etc.), which Tolkien did not like (he regretted much of how he’d written at least the first half of The Hobbit):

I am not interested in the ‘child’ as such, modern or otherwise, and certainly have no intention of meeting him/her halfway, or a quarter of the way. It is a mistaken thing to do anyway, either useless (when applied to the stupid) or pernicious (when inflicted on the gifted). I have only once made the mistake of trying to do it, to my lasting regret, and (I am glad to say) with the disapproval of intelligent children: in the earlier part of The Hobbit. But I had not then given any serious thought to the matter: I had not freed myself from the contemporary delusions about ‘fairy-stories’ and children.

… I think that this writing down, flattening, Bible-in-basic-English attitude is responsible for the fact that so many older children and younger people have little respect and no love for words, and very limited vocabularies—and alas! little desire left (even when they had the gift which has been stultified) to refine or enlarge them. (309-10, 310-11)

Tolkien on a film adaptation of Lord of the Rings.

I picked up The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien again last night (the blurb on the back says, “J.R.R. Tolkien was one of the twentieth century’s most prolific letter writers.” How could they possibly know this?) and came across some interesting stuff regarding an American film adaptation that was in the works in the late 1950s. Tolkien was given a treatment of the film to read. His comments are scathing and more or less completely disapproving.

A few simple words stood out to me: “He [the film writer] has cut the parts of the story upon which its characteristic and peculiar tone principally depends, showing a preference for fights…”(271). As good as Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings were, I’ve always thought that they included far too much fighting, too many battle scenes. As I recall, in the books the details of battle are generally limited and implied. The films focus quite a bit on battle heroics (and in The Hobbit Jackson went to far as to make warrior-heroes out of character who had no business being such), but as I suspected, Tolkien would likely not have approved. (And on a personal note, I’ve always found those portions of the films to be the most dull.) I believe in The Hobbit we don’t really see any of the battle up close at all, but see everything from Bilbo’s vantage point away from the fray. I suspect we won’t get that from Jackson’s third Hobbit instalment. “Showing a preference for fights,” indeed.

Something else of note: the Black Riders’ signature ‘screams’ as heard in the films, are unnecessary. From the same letter: “The Black Riders do not scream but keep a more terrifying silence” (273).

Fans were miffed when they discovered that there would be no Scouring of the Shire in Jackson’s adaptation. It seems that was omitted from the 1950s proposal, too, but Jackson may have followed Tolkien’s advice in this case (I assume Jackson and his team would have read at least those letters that were relevant to making a film version):

[The writer] has cut out the end of the book, including Saruman’s proper death.In that case I can see no good reason for making him die. Saruman would never have committed suicide: to cling to life to its basest dregs is the way of the sort of person he had become. If [the writer] wants Saruman tidied up…Gandalf should say something to this effect: as Saruman collapses under the excommunication: “Since you will not come out and aid us, here in Orthanc you shall stay till you rot, Saruman. Let the Ents look to it!” (277)

This is, if memory serves, more or less what Jackson did.

Worship and the Psalms

“Good liturgy, whether formal or informal, ought never to be simply a corporate emoting session, however ‘Christian,’ but a fresh and awed attempt to inhabit the great unceasing liturgy that is going on all the time in the heavenly realms. (That’s what those great chapters, Revelation 4 and 5, are all about.) The Psalms offer us a way of joining a chorus of praise and prayer that has been going on for millennia and across all cultures. Not to try to inhabit them, while continuing to invent non-psalmic ‘worship’ based on our own feelings of the moment, risks being like a spoiled child who, taken to the summit of Table Mountain with the city and the ocean spread out before him, refuses to gaze at the view because he is playing with his Game Boy.”

~ N. T. Wright, The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential, 6.

 

Jayber Crow: “Did Jesus put on our flesh that we might despise it?”

I’ve just started reading Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow. I’m going in with high expectations, so I hope I’m not disappointed. I’ve come across some good bits so far, though:

“A window opening on nothing but the blank sky was endlessly attractive to me; if I watched long enough, a bird or a cloud would appear within the frame, and I watched with patience. A window that looked out into a tree was a source of inexpressible happiness, for it permitted me to observe the foraging of the birds and the life history of leaves.” (34)

An odd thing to quote, I suppose, if it wasn’t for the fact that it is true of me as well.

Later, the main character (Jayber Crow) is thinking through what he thought was a call to preach. He thinks back to the orphanage he was at (The Good Shepherd) and the Bible college he’s at now (Pigeonville College) and how his views don’t seem to line up with those of his teachers.

“I took to studying the ones of my teachers who were also preachers, and also the preachers who came to speak in the chapel and at various exercises. In most of them I saw the old division of body and soul that I had known at The Good Shepherd. The same rift ran through everything at Pigeonville College; the only difference was that I was able to see it more clearly, and to wonder at it. Everything bead was laid on the body, and everything good was credited to the soul. It scared me a little when I realized that I saw it the other way around. If the soul and body really were divided, then it seemed to me that all the worst sins—hatred and anger and self-righteousness and even greed and lust—came from the soul. But these preachers I’m talking about all thought that the soul could do no wrong, but always had its face washed and its pants on and was in agony over having to associate with the flesh and the world. And yet these same people believed in the resurrection of the body.” (49)

Exactly. This is the way the old dualistic Gnostic heresy—spiritual world=good, physical world=bad—creeps in. Jayber wonders, “Did Jesus put on our flesh that we might despise it?” (50) What a great question!

What if rest came first?

That last post was actually written a week or two ago. I’m now about halfway through Alan Fadling’s An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus’ Rhythms of Work and Rest. So far he’s written about apprenticeship to an unhurried Jesus; our notions of productivity; and being unhurried enough to resist temptation, to care (or pay attention), and to pray.

I’ve just started the chapter entitled “Rest: The Rhythm of Creation” and came across this interesting insight (it begins with a quote from Eugene Peterson):

“The Hebrew evening/morning sequence conditions us to the rhythm of grace. We go to sleep, and God begins his work. As we sleep he develops his covenant. We wake and are called out to participate in God’s creative action. We respond in faith, in work. But always grace is previous. Grace is primary. We wake into a world we didn’t make, into a salvation we didn’t earn. Evening: God begins, without our help, his creative day. Morning: God calls us to enjoy and share and develop the work he initiated. Creation and covenant are sheer grace and there to greet us every morning.

The Hebrew mindset saw the day beginning with rest, not with work. In the West, our day begins at sunrise and, basically, with work. This sequence, as Peterson points out, is telling. We tend to see rest as the place we fall into after we’ve worn ourselves out with work. But what if our best work begins from a place of rest? What if rest takes first priority rather than the last?” (110)

What if indeed? Rest in our culture is often seen as weakness, as laziness, and Christians are often no different. But perhaps this is another place where Christians are called to live in a way counter to the culture, to live, as it were, prophetically.

Unhurried time

I just started reading a book called An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus’ Rhythms of Work and Rest, which was given to me in my registration packet at Midwinter (denominational pastors’ conference) this year. I’ve only read the first chapter, but it promises to be a good read.

I tend to think of myself of as a generally relaxed person, but this line stuck out to me: “I feel hurried inside even when nothing actually urgent is on my schedule… Even when nothing outward is pressuring me to pick up the pace, I feel an internal impulse to get to some ill-defined ‘next thing’ that needs my attention” (10). I would have put these feelings down as “anxiety” related to other things, and perhaps they partly are that as well, but there is a sense of strong hurriedness and vague urgency in me these days.

The basic argument of the book is that Jesus led an unhurried life and that his followers should do the same. “Since, for example, Jesus often stepped away from the needs of people to be alone with his Father in unhurried communion, might we, his followers, do well to learn to do the same?… I live not at the mercy of the culture’s pace, but blessed by the mercy of my unhurried Savior” (16).

So this has me thinking about urgency, time, a hurried pace and a hurried heart. I’ve been reading through the gospel of John with my junior high Sunday school class, and reading the story of the death (and raising) of Lazarus in chapter 11 a week or two ago, I was struck by these words: “So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days” (v6). Lazarus was sick enough to warrant sending a message to Jesus about it, but Jesus waits two days to start the journey to Lazarus’ home in Bethany. One commentator suggested that Jesus spent these days in prayer to hear the Father’s will about this situation (which would account for Jesus thanking the Father for hearing a prayer not mentioned in the text [vv. 41-42]), though we can’t know for sure.

I don’t want to read too much “follow by example” into Jesus’ actions here, but it does suggest something: a need is not necessarily as urgent as we may think it is. Of course, I’m not suggesting that we ignore illnesses and emergencies so that we can pause to pray and find out what God wants us to do about them. However, sometimes we get unnecessarily anxious about things and they become much more urgent in our minds than they really are.

The author calls for a major change in our perspective, taking the long view: “How would our pace of life be affected if we fully realized that, as followers of Christ, we are living eternal life now? Since eternal life isn’t just a dim future promise but a vital present reality, what could be different about how we live our moments and our days?” (18)

If eternal life has already begun, what are we hurrying for?

This puts me in mind of the story I heard about the 2005 documentary called “Into Great Silence.” It follows the lives of a monastic order in France (who have taken vows of silence). The story goes that the director had an interest in entering the monastery to film its life, so he wrote them a letter requesting as much. Sixteen years later—sixteen!—they wrote back to say they would allow it.

Quite a remarkable thing. It’s a good story precisely because that’s not how our world works or how it expects things to happen. We have deadlines to keep, we have the courtesies of time to respect. The notion of an even larger story that has a different perspective on time—after all, what does time really mean if it’s eternal?—is so foreign in our culture that even as Christians we have difficulty breaking ourselves free from hurry. In fact, I write this with a certain amount of hesitation, as schedules and deadlines and punctuality are so deeply embedded in my own worldview.

From “I” to “We”

From John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, set in the Dust Bowl/Great Depression years in the US:

One man, one family driven from the land; this rusty car creaking along the highway to the west. I lost my land, a single tractor took my land. I am alone and I am bewildered. And in the night one family camps in a ditch and another family pulls in and the tents come out. The two men squat on their hams and the women and children listen. Here is the node, you who hate change and fear revolution. Keep those two squatting men apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each other. Here is the anlage of the thing you fear. This is the zygote. For here “I lost my land” is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows the thing you hate—”We lost our land.” The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one. And from this first “we” there grows a still more dangerous thing: “I have little food” plus “I have none.” If from this problem the sum is “We have a little food,” the thing is on its way, the movement has direction. Only a little multiplication now, and this land, this tractor are ours. The two men squatting in a ditch, the little fire, the side-meat stewing in a single pot, the silent, stone-eyed women; behind, the children listening with their souls to words their minds do not understand. The night draws down. The baby has a cold. Here, take this blanket. It’s wool. It was my mother’s blanket—take it for the baby. This is the thing to bomb. This is the beginning—from “I” to “we.”

If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin, were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into “I,” and cuts you off forever from the “we.”

(from the Steinbeck Centennial Edition of The Grapes of Wrath, 2002, pp. 151-2)

Reciting the creed as counter-cultural act.

Luke Timothy Johnson, in The Creed, says that reciting the creed—he means the Nicene Creed, but I think it works for the Apostles’ Creed or others as well—is a counter-cultural act. What is being done when the creed is recited:

In a world that celebrates individuality, they are actually doing something together. In an age that avoids commitment, they pledge themselves to a set of convictions and thereby to each other. In a culture that rewards novelty and creativity, they use words written by others long ago. In a society where accepted wisdom changes by the minute, they claim that some truths are so critical that they must be repeated over and over again. In a throwaway, consumerist world, they accept, preserve, and continue tradition. Reciting the creed at worship is thus a counter-cultural act. (40)

That’s not to say that churches need to be counter-cultural for the sake of being counter-cultural. However, the gospel is itself counter-cultural and yet the church is often pro-cultural—and often subconsciously so—so to be consciously counter-cultural in our worship serves as a good reminder about where our allegiances lie.

Some people are uncomfortable with certain aspects of the creeds—say, the virgin birth—that they may be reluctant to recite it, thinking that doing so would lack integrity. Justo Gonzalez, writing about the Apostles’ Creed in The Apostles’ Creed for Today, has this to say in response:

…think of the creed not so much as a personal statement of faith but rather as a statement of what it is that makes the church the church, and of our allegiance to the essence of the gospel and therefore to the church that proclaims it. (7)

To recite the creed with that in mind is also a counter-cultural act.

[Added: I'm reading up a bit on the ecumenical creeds of the church for a small group discussing the basics or essentials of faith. We don't recite the creed (or at least we haven't in my time) at our church and our denomination is "non-creedal" while still affirming the major ecumenical creeds, but these writers make a convincing case!]

An old Inuit song for Advent

Just finished Farley Mowat’s classic book, Never Cry Wolf. It’s apparently autobiographical, though this is controversial. Whatever the case may be—fact or fiction—it was a fascinating and enjoyable read. In anticipation of finishing the book, I put the 1984 Disney film-of-the-book on my birthday wish list and Dixie was kind enough to gift it to me. I watched it last night.

The plot of both the the book and the film follows a biologist who the government sent to the Canadian north to study the relationship of arctic wolves to the declining caribou population. In the more specific details the film is quite different from the book, but it’s beautifully done and stands on its own.

The film ends with an epilogue, an “Old Inuit Song”, which I thought quite beautiful:

I think over again my small adventures,

My fears,
These small ones that seemed so big,

For all the vital things
I had to get and to reach.

And yet there is only one great thing,
The only thing,

To live and to see the great day that dawns
And the light that fills the world.

A fitting song, it seems, for Advent.

Not that it needs the connection, but the song put me in mind of Zechariah’s song in Luke 1, which says,

By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace. (vv. 78-79)