Books! We wants them, yes, precious!

Let me bring to your attention two recent books that belong in the library of every Christian college, Christian school, and Evangelical seminary—and in the personal libraries of many of their professors of English literature and theology–not to mention hordes of their students!  Not to mention yours.

First is Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis (Baltimore: Square Halo Books, 2016).  Diana Glyer says, “Williams has done the impossible: he has written a highly readable overview of C. S. Lewis’s theology.  He draws from the deep well of a lifetime spent studying literature and theology and Lewis.  My understanding has been greatly enriched; yours will be too.  This book is a marvel.”  Lewis was the greatest apologist and one of the most influential Christian thinkers and writers of the Twentieth Century.  Yet until now we have not had a study of Lewis’s theology that was both comprehensive and critical, asking, “What is the theology that lies behind the Narnia books, the Space Trilogy, and the popular apologetics, and what are its strengths and weaknesses as a guide to biblical truth?”  Clearly this book meets a critical need.

Then there is An Encouraging Thought: The Christian Worldview in the Writings of J. R. R. Tolkien (Cambridge, OH: Christian Publishing House, 2018).  Jim Prothero writes, “This book on Tolkien is not only readable, it is profound. The counter-culture movement latched onto to The Fellowship of the Ring more than a decade after its 1954 publication and never let go. The ultimate irony is that many of those young people were looking for alternative world-views to traditional values. And all the while, Professor Tolkien was a devout believer writing stories that reflected precisely traditional Christian beliefs and values. Donald T. Williams explores all the nuances of that irony here with humor and insight.”

Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was listed as the book of the century in three separate polls, and remains one of the most popular and beloved books of all time.  And it was built on the biblical worldview of its author, as he himself said, “unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.”  That grounding in the Christian worldview is less obvious and in-your-face than in his friend Lewis’s books, but Williams brings it into clear focus here.  Tolkien’s vision is a lens that lets us see the Gospel as true in the real world too.  Williams is a good guide to why that is true and to what difference it makes.

Donald T. Williams (M.Div., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, PhD, University of Georgia) is R. A. Forrest Scholar and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls College in the hills of NE Georgia.  The author of eleven books and countless articles, he is a border dweller, camped out on the borders between theology and literature, serious scholarship and pastoral ministry, Narnia and Middle Earth.  These books are most easily ordered from Amazon.

Soli Deo Gloria!

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WHAT ARE THEY SAYING?

What are people saying about “An Encouraging Thought”: The Christian Worldview in the Writings of J. R. R. Tolkien, by Donald T. Williams (Cambridge, OH: Christian Publishing House, 2018)?

“This book on Tolkien is not only readable, it is profound. The counter-culture movement latched onto to The Fellowship of the Ring more than a decade after its 1954 publication and never let go. The ultimate irony is that many of those young people were looking for alternative world-views to traditional values. And all the while, Professor Tolkien was a devout believer writing stories that reflected precisely traditional Christian beliefs and values. Donald T. Williams explores all the nuances of that irony here with humor and insight.”  —  Jim Prothero, author of Gaining a Face: The Romanticism of C. S. Lewis

“Williams is always worth reading for his thoughtful engagement with a vast range of disciplines, topics, and perspectives. What is compelling in this new book is the greater sense of play: interspersed with poetry, infused with personality, and bound together with humor and good cheer. Whether or not you agree with each and every observation and interpretation, it is hard to resist the sense that you are being personally invited into a rich and nourishing conversation with ideas that deserve your best attention. I thoroughly enjoyed it.”   —  Diana Pavlac Glyer, Professor at Azusa Pacific University and author of The Company They Keep and Bandersnatch: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings

“I enjoy the way Williams provides meaningful insight into Tolkien’s writings in a very personal way. He takes the reader through an interesting journey of when he first encountered LOTR and how he began to understand the Christian underpinnings and how that helped strengthen his faith.”  —  William O’Flaherty, author of The Misquotable C.S. Lewis

“This book deserves to be savored with a deep bowl of Longbottom leaf and a pint of the Prancing Pony’s best.”  —  WinterReader, on Amazon

To receive a $4.00 discount, order it here:

http://www.christianpublishers.org/apps/webstore/products/show/7721662

Review: Jackson’s “Battle of the Five Armies”

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After finally watching Peter Jackson’s THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES, I was pretty much unmoved, either to admiration or to anger. I was surprised by that, because there was plenty of both to report about all the earlier films. The truth is that there is really nothing left to learn from one more Jackson film about either Middle Earth or Jackson’s version of it. The parts that were good and the parts that were unnecessarily stupid and lame were pretty predictable from the first two Hobbit films. Jackson’s Middle Earth is what it is, and there really isn’t anything left to say about it that I have not said before.

Except one thing: I am never left unmoved by re-reading Tolkien.

OK, what are some of the things I had said before?  Now that Jackson’s entire interpretation of the legendarium is complete it might be worthwhile to revisit some of them.  If you want them in full versions, they can be found here:  http://lanternhollowpress.com/2013/02/04/review-the-hobbit-part-1-directed-by-peter-jackson/;   http://lanternhollowpress.com/2013/02/11/9196/;   http://lanternhollowpress.com/2014/02/03/review-the-desolation-of-smaug/.  For now, I will sum up:

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Skipping the obvious (the visuals are mostly authentic and usually breathtaking), I understand that the change to a new medium requires changes to the story.  So I’m not a purist.  I didn’t mind, for example, Bombadil being dropped or having the characters of Arwen and Glorfindel conflated.  So saying that “It’s different from how Tolkien did it” is not, by itself, a valid criticism.  There are even a couple of changes to the legendarium that are actual improvements.  [I pause for all the Tolkien fans who know me to gasp in horror.]  First, it actually makes more sense for Narsil to be in a shrine in Rivendell than it does for Aragorn to be carrying a useless sword around with him in the wild.  Anybody who has done any serious backpacking knows that dead weight is the last thing you want with you.  Aragorn is the most experienced outdoorsman in Middle Earth.  I rest my case.  Second, it makes sense for Aragorn to have kept the Army of the Dead with him through the end of the Battle of Pellenor Field.  His little band of thirty Dunedain plus an elf and a dwarf, however good they might be, would not have been enough to turn the tide.

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I object to two things:  Changes that are just dumb and changes that alter the basic meaning and philosophy behind the work.  First, the dumb.  OK, it’s a movie, and we have CGI now.  There is still a difference between an epic and a video game.  This became most pointedly evident in the first two Hobbit installments, where people fall down five-hundred-foot cliffs and get up and walk away as if nothing had happened, dwarves randomly fall out of a tree onto Eagles’ backs who just happen to be passing below at the right time instead of being plucked from them (Nobody is that lucky, even if you add the phrase “if luck you call it”), and two ninja elves double-handedly kill more orcs than Saruman and Sauron put together ever bred.  Tolkien added the laws of magic to Middle Earth, but he did not allow himself to break the laws of physics.  All the physical feats performed are physically possible.  Not in Jackson’s Middle Earth.  Even in a movie, it makes the art less serious.

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The Professor

 

Much more problematic are changes that alter the moral meaning of Tolkien’s tale.  Here the prime example (there are many others) is Faramir.  How do you get from “I wouldn’t pick this thing up if I found it lying in the road” to “Tell my father I send him a powerful weapon?”  There is no logical path from the one place to the other.  The reason so many of Tolkien’s characters have to be “complicated,” some, like Faramir, to the point that they are unrecognizable, is that Peter Jackson lacks the moral imagination to believe that virtue is believable to a modern audience.  Tolkien has evil characters (Sauron, Saruman by the time of LOTR), he has morally compromised characters (Gollum, Theoden, Denethor, Thorin) in whom either good (Theoden, Thorin) or evil (Denethor, Gollum) finally triumphs, and he has good characters with integrity (Aragorn, Faramir, and many others).  We meet more people in the middle category in real life, true.  But Tolkien believed that we need positive portraits of integrity to feed our moral imaginations on.  Jackson either does not understand or rejects as impossible that belief.  It is that difference in philosophy that makes his movies, for all their brilliance, ultimately unsatisfactory to people who truly love and understand Tolkien’s work.  For more on this point, see my article “The World of the Rings: Why Peter Jackson Was Unable to Film Tolkien’s Moral Tale,” Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity 26:6 (Nov.-Dec. 2013): 14-16).  To see it online, go here:  http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=26-06-014-v.

The Professor
The Professor

The last installment of Jackson’s Hobbit adds nothing new to this account.  Jackson’s Middle Earth is what it is, and there really isn’t anything left to say about it that I have not said before.

Except one thing: I am never left unmoved by re-reading Tolkien.  I hope some of the things I have said above help to explain why.

To see more of Dr. Williams’ writing, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams, Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed., or Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy:  Poems and prose in pursuit of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty!

 

A book that fights back against the encroaching darkness.
A book that fights back against the encroaching darkness.

 

 

The Language of Middle Earth

“In the beginning was the Word.”

LANGUAGE AS THE FOUNDATION OF MIDDLE EARTH

If you are not yet sufficiently awed by the profound depths of which the human mind is capable through the mystery of human creativity, ponder the fact that you have just successfully read this sentence. It has quite a complex structure, with an independent clause and three subordinate clauses, plus four prepositional phrases. It contains thirty different words used thirty-seven times.  The odds that you have ever seen them before combined in precisely that order are, for all practical purposes, zero. I could spend a whole chapter just analyzing that one sentence without taxing my own patience (yours is another matter). Yet I created the sentence effortlessly, and most of you probably understood it with little or no conscious effort.  Both of those facts are just plain stupefying.  And usually we do not even waste the adjective creative on expository prose of the kind I am writing now!  But without this almost indescribable human capacity for creativity, language could not work.  Without consciously doing any of the formal analysis (until after the fact), I spontaneously created a structure that allowed you to recreate with some accuracy in your mind the fairly complex and sophisticated meaning I was attending to in mine.

Where Shakespeare learned his grammar
Where Shakespeare learned his grammar

Where does this astounding ability come from? Man’s creation in the image of God is the source of the difference between us and the rest of the animal creation.  But what is the imago Dei (image of God)?  Is it our amphibious nature combining matter and spirit, our rationality, our moral (or immoral) nature, our capacity for relationship with God, or is it simply the position we occupy as His regents, representing Him as stewards and governors of creation?  None of these attributes is irrelevant to the imago, but neither is any of them its essence.  Theologians can spend interminable pages debating the details to no purpose, because they have never bothered to read Genesis for its narrative flow in context.  When we do, the answer is very plain.

Where Lewis and Tolkien practiced grammar
Where Lewis and Tolkien practiced grammar

The first statement that God intends to create Man in His own image occurs very early, in Genesis 1:26.  We are in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible.  So let us start from scratch.  So far we have only seen two attributes of God in action; they are all that has been revealed to this point, hence all we know of Him.  First, He is creative; second, He is articulate.  And these two facts are related:  He uses language as the means of His creativity, first declaring things into existence and then giving them both form (separating light and darkness, water and land, etc.) and value (it was very good). 

And God said, "Let there be light."
And God said, “Let there be light.”

So if we are then told that Man is going to be “like” God, one would think that this likeness must refer to the only attributes that have so far been introduced into the narrative.  Man too will be creative and articulate. And this reasonable assumption is confirmed by the story.  Adam is the first creature to be personally addressed by God’s speech; after a long string of third-person “let there be’s” he is called “thou.”  And he immediately starts talking back.  His first official act is to create the first human language:  God brings the animals before him, and whatever Adam calls each one is its name. So Man, like God, is creative because he is articulate. The core of the imago Dei is language.

Calvin abuses the gift of language.
Calvin abuses the gift of language.

Language allows us to contemplate things not immediately present in the physical environment and then to manipulate them in our heads.  It is therefore the foundation of our capacity for abstract thinking and reason. Language allows us to render an account to God of our stewardship of His creation.   It is therefore the foundation of the fact that, in a manner not true of the other animals, we are accountable for our actions, i.e., have  a moral nature.  That accountability allows us to function as His regents, the stewards of creation. We see then that all the major facets of our uniqueness that have traditionally been related to the image of God find their unity in language; it is the characteristic we share with Him that makes all the others possible.  Like Him, we are creative and articulate, articulately creative and creatively articulate.  We are language users because we are language makers, made in the image of the Word.

One who used the gift of language well.
One who used the gift of language well.

It is therefore no accident that the greatest story teller of the Twentieth Century, who propounded as well as practiced the theory of Secondary Creation, began the creation of the most believable, consistent, and compelling imaginary world ever known with the ultimate act of human creativity:  the endeavor to create a language.  Tolkien discovered that in order for Elvish to have a convincing sense of reality as a language, it required a people to speak it, a world for them to live in, a history and a mythology for them to remember, and other languages (spoken by neighboring peoples, who would have all the same requirements) to be related to.  And that is both how we got Middle Earth and one reason why it is so convincing.

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For more on the gift of language and how we may best thank the Giver by using it well, see Dr. Williams’ book Inklings of Reality, available in the Lantern Hollow E-Store!

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Listen Up, Reader! Listening Is Receiving

It is a true universally acknowledged that a reader in possession of a book must be want of more books.

So says the Law of The List, the ever-growing selection of books we want to read but have no ability or hope to finish. One cannot simply pick up a copy of Jane Austen and have her appetite whetted for the whole canon, or find her curiosity picked into exploring other British authors of the nineteenth century. Suddenly, the reader finds herself with a budding List that will only expand with each book she reads. Hopeless? No, for most readers find joy in exploring stories though they know they can never get through them all. Daunting? Probably, unless you have a talent for speed reading.

I have no talent for speed reading. One of my chiefest impediments during my undergrad years was my inability to get things read in a timely manner. “You read so slowly,” a good friend would tease me. He could have most of his material completed before I even got through a quarter of my reading. But I process information slowly. I look at the words on a page, and it takes me longer to translate the words into a mental picture. It may take me an hour to read a small selection, but I have to read slowly to comprehend the material. So, I would find myself in a Catch-22: I could skim the reading and miss the meaning but get done faster, or I could take my time and receive the information but exhaust hours reading when I could be doing other things. And even a slow reading did not guarantee comprehension. Sometimes, I would read the text and still feel as lost as if I had scanned the selection. So, reading an entire chapter on the various methods of teaching English as a foreign language or perusing through Jane Eyre took me forever or left me puzzled and exhausted.

Speed Reading?
Speed Reading?

That’s one of the reasons I stuck to children’s literature. These books are amazing stories told in language I can easily access. I read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in a day and the rest of the series in less than a month. My love for Harry Potter lead me to Tolkien, but I found his novels inaccessible. Years later, I turned to audiobooks to help me with enjoy Tolkien.

I never realized how amazing an author could be until someone else read him aloud. I had heard the Rob Inglis’s recording of The Lord of the Rings about four years ago, and I learned to appreciate Tolkien more because of the reader’s narration. I noticed Tolkien’s craftsmanship with description and characterization. I could actually picture Middle Earth’s sprawling country, high mountains, and dangerous forests. I fell in love with the characters, especially Sam Gamgee, Frodo’s bumbling but warm-hearted servant. I could imagine each one of them because of Inglis’s reading, though he tended to overlap the voices of the characters. Sometimes, I thought Gandalf was speaking, but it turned out to be Aragorn or Gimli. And did you know The Lord of the Rings was a musical? I noticed the songs before when I read the novels in high school, but Inglis actually put the songs to music, and I again gained a new-found appreciation for Tolkien’s talent for narrative and poetry.

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Recently, my high school seniors and I read The Hobbit for class. To get through the novel with some understanding, I purchased the audio recording of The Hobbit, also read by Inglis. Again, I listened with attention and walked away appreciating once again Tolkien’s gift for storytelling. I would play some parts of the story for class, and the students also found the audio helpful in imaging the scenes and capturing the dialogue. We would later listen to selections of BBC’s radio adaption of John Milton’s Paradise Lost and enjoyed readings of Romantic and Victorian authors. By listening to the selections, the students claimed they understood and enjoyed the works more than if they had read them normally.

For me, I still read but hearing a story helps me envision the content better. Listening doesn’t make reading any faster; it ensures I adequately comprehend the information. I wouldn’t be reading any faster than the narrator would anyway. But listening has made my exploration of my own List a little less daunting and more hopeful. And that is a truth I am willing to acknowledge.

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What audio recording helped inspire your love for literature or redeemed a book for you? Leave a comment and let me know!

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