Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Last Earth Day: How will this planet end?

Today is Administrative Professionals Day (I remember it as Secretary's Day.) in the United States. It is also Earth Day around the world. The former was created to help us remember the importance of Administrative Professionals. The latter was founded by the late Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson to help us remember the importance of treating our planet properly.

There have been a flood of movies released lately that emphasize the importance of taking care of our planet, from the humorous Wall-E to the suspenseful The Day the Earth Stood Still. Although I believe much of the hype about catastrophic climate change is most likely greatly inflated, we certainly do have a responsibility to care for the earth.

In The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008), the alien Klaatu says that it is more important for the Earth to survive than it is for human-kind to survive. There are few planets that can sustain complex life, he says, and it would be better to destroy humanity and let the earth have a fresh start than to let humanity turn the world into an uninhabitable rock. It must be decided whether humans are capable of improving to the point that they are not a threat.

Some time back, I wrote an article about an essay by C. S. Lewis from Christian Reflections titled “The Funeral of the Great Myth." The "Great Myth" for him was the idea that humankind is progressing and gradually becoming better and better. Develpmentalism is not a new Hope that has just shown up recently. It has been popularized in science fiction for decades. Somehow we will overcome our proclivity for destroying ourselves-whether by war or by pollution. Peace will reign on Earth, and we will take our place among the stars.

C. S. Lewis wrote an article in 1958 for the Christian Herald titled "Will We Lose God in Outer Space?" (Published as "Religion and Rocketry" in the C. S. Lewis anthology The World's Last Night--1960, still available as a reprint.) While logically explaining why life on other planets would not preclude God or Christianity, he wonders whether God would allow us to venture out with the possibility of contaminating unfallen races. (A subject which, of course, he delves into in his Space Trilogy.) Lewis did not believe that we would progress to a point where we would no longer be a threat to hypothetical worlds.

In the 1951 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still, the reason for Klaatu coming to Earth was not to save it from us, but to save the other planets from us. The concern was not what we were doing to our own species or our own planet, but what we might do if we were to travel to other worlds. Klaatu explains how these worlds have solved the problem of hostility and war not through progressing beyond it, but by controlling it. Robots have been programmed to take action against any aggression. The peace is maintained by the threat of force.

Lewis believed that the final peace will come by force. In 1952, he wrote "The Christian Hope--Its Meaning for Today" for Religion in Life (titled "The World's Last Night" in the above anthology). He believed the Second Coming of Christ would be apocalyptic in nature. No gradual "bringing in" of the Kingdom, but a sudden, forceful take-over. He presents sound theological reasons for supporting such a Coming, and uses the same arguments against Develpmentalism that he used in “The Funeral of the Great Myth."

Lewis does remind us that Christ said no one knows the day or hour of His Coming--He did not even know it Himself (one of the great mysteries of the incarnation). But we should live with the reflection that it could be at any moment, and that He will come in Judgment.

We cannot always be excited [about His Coming]. We can, perhaps, train ourselves to ask more and more often how the thing which we are saying or doing (or failing to do) at each moment will look when the irresistible light streams on it; that light which is so different from the light of this world--and yet, we know just enough of it to take it into account.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Tolkien's Bio: The Carpenter Benchmark

JRR Tolkien, the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, expected to live beyond the 81 year he was given. His ancestors had lived much longer. But although death surprised him in September of 1973, he had long since prepared to hand over his literary legacy to his son. Christopher, who had long collaborated with his father about his mythology, spent the next few years editing The Silmarillion for publication.

It is also evident that Tolkien knew that a biography would be forthcoming, and he prepared "a few pages of recollections" and made notations on a number of old letters. Humphrey Carpenter, a friend of Tolkien's children, was given access to the family's private papers, and interviewed family, friends, and Tolkien himself. This biography has been the standard since it was published in 1977, and has been the basis for virtually every Tolkien biography that has been written since. Not until John Garth's Tolkien and the Great War (2003) was much added to the general knowledge of his life history. (I hope to review Garth's book in the coming months.)

Tolkien himself did not think that much could be learned about an author's writing by looking at his life. But it is evident that his life and interests had an influence upon his imagination. Three details jumped out at me as I re-read this book: Tolkien's faith, his affection, and his perfectionism. Each of these affected how his imagination was put down on paper.

While Tolkien's works are not overtly Christian, they are framed with the Christian worldview, and based on Christian morality and ethics. The God behind Middle-earth is clouded from our view in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but is a little more obvious in The Silmarillion. Middle-earth is not about his faith, but his faith certainly is ingrained within it.

Tolkien had a genuine affection for people. Companionship is a recurring theme in Middle-earth. In The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, there is the camaraderie of friends and companions. His deep love for his wife is seen in The Silmarillion's story about Beren and Lúthien.

Tolkien's perfectionism helped create what he would call the verisimilitude of the story. The painstaking detail he went through to make sure the details have continuity is extraordinary. This desire to get every bit of minutia just right was many times a hindrance to completing the task, but we who read are blessed with the "suspension of disbelief."

And we are blessed that Humphrey Carpenter was able to take up the task of writing about Tolkien's life. There is something for everyone in this volume. The Tolkien novice will find the text easy to follow, while experienced aficionados will find an opulence of detail, including background on some of Tolkien's more obscure works. There are also helpful appendices with a genealogical table, chronology of events and bibliography of Tolkien's published works.

The Authorized Biography is a valuable resource that every Tolkien fan should have in their personal library.