Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Love Not the World: Love It Like God Does

The public domain picture above was edited by me with a passage from JRR Tolkien's Return of the King. In the midst of a land where life was actively being destroyed, being replaced by death, Sam was able to find beauty in the ugliness. And the knowledge the darkness could never reach and overcome the "light and high beauty" gave him assurance and peace regardless of the outcome of their quest.

In an op-ed in yesterday's New York Times, David Brooks speaks to the lack of toughness in today's college students. The usual dialog among older adults blames this "emotional fragility" on hovering parents who never required millennials to work hard. Middle-aged adults were/are tougher because they had it tougher growing up. Admitting there may be truth in that line, Brooks asserts it doesn't tell the complete story.

There’s a lot of truth to that narrative, but let’s not be too nostalgic for the past. A lot of what we take to be the toughness of the past was really just callousness. There was a greater tendency in years gone by to wall off emotions, to put on a thick skin...
Perhaps it’s time to rethink toughness or at least detach it from hardness. Being emotionally resilient is not some defensive posture. It’s not having some armor surrounding you so that nothing can hurt you.
Brooks insists what makes people tough is finding their "telos, their purpose for living." "We are all fragile when we don’t know what our purpose is..."

If you really want people to be tough, make them idealistic for some cause, make them tender for some other person, make them committed to some worldview that puts today’s temporary pain in the context of a larger hope.... People are really tough only after they have taken a leap of faith for some truth or mission or love. Once they’ve done that they can withstand a lot.

That's what happened to Frodo and Sam. They found their purpose in life. In focusing on the star instead of the destitution around him, Sam was able to put his "temporary pain in the context of a larger hope."

Our world is filled with destruction, disease, and pain. Atheists and agnostics are not the only ones who ask how this can be if a loving, capable God exists. Even honest believers have struggled with this since before Job. And it's not like the Judeo-Christian tradition is blind to the fact the world is not right. The very idea of the Fall indicates things are screwed up. Why God would allow this has been the subject of myriads of papers, articles, and books. I do not claim to understand it all, and will not attempt to do so here in this blog post.

What I do believe is that there is beauty in this world—beauty which is not easily explained without the existence of a loving God. Or so some have argued. (See Atheism and the Problem of Beauty.) But that argument is not where I want to go with this post, either.

What I would like to address is the need for believers to look for beauty in this world. God's beauty is being marred, which is why He came into this world – to reverse the ugliness and destruction, and restore the beauty. The Apostle John famously spoke about this in the fourth Gospel.

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. [3:16-17 NKJV]

Many of us have heard these words so often we have ceased to examine what is really there. I am no theologian or Greek scholar, but I do know how to use the reference books available to help understand the original languages. The word translated "loved" here is the agape love you may have heard or read about. Some have described agape as the type of love which seeks the best for the beloved, and in many contexts of the Bible that description fits. But not always. It does also have the idea of dearly prizing someone or something (Amplified Bible), or being devoted to their welfare.

The word translated "world" three times in these verses is translated from the Greek from which we get the word "cosmos." The word carries with it the idea of an organized system. The assumption by most evangelical scholars is John is referring to the people of the world, in contrast to how it is used in John's first Epistle (2:15). (See below.) But is John speaking of more that just saving individuals? (Bear with me before you presume where I'm going with this.)

"Believe" in the Bible implies trusting what you believe (with resulting action – James 2:18-19).

A fairly literal translation of the John 3 passage could be: For God is so devoted to the system the He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever trusts in Him should not be being destroyed, but have perpetual life. For God did not commission His Son to come into the system to judge the system, but that though Him the system might be being saved. (See the online interlinear New Testament.)

Could it be John is talking about more than just individual salvation is these verses? Could it be he is saying Christ came to rescue the organized world system (the world as a whole)... and that He is doing it by giving life in place of destruction to individuals who trust Him? I am not speaking of universalism here. I am speaking of the consummation of  God's desire to bring beauty into the world. The new heavens and new earth. The true Narnia, if you will, where the shadows become real.

This brings us to the passage in John's first Epistle.

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. [2:15 NKJV]

God loves the world, but we are not to love the world. Why the difference? We are told elsewhere in scripture to love everyone, including our enemies. So John can't be talking about not loving the people of the world. The traditional approach has been to say John 3 is talking about the people of the world, while this passage is talking about the corrupt system by which society operates. This does seem to be supported by the verses immediately following.

For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever. [2:16-17 NKJV]

In John 3, we have a world (system) which God wants to rescue, but in 1 John 2 we have a world (system—same Greek word) which in passing away, contrasted with those who do God's will and continue on and on. It seems there is a world God will save, and a world that will pass away. John does not want us to be devoted to (love) what is passing way. He doesn't want our telos to be trying to amass to ourselves everything which seems physically pleasurable (lust of the flesh and eyes), and living a life of ostentation (pride of life).

There are two ways to treat beauty. You can either try to own it, or enjoy it for its own sake without having to have it. I can appreciate the mountains without having to own the land. I can appreciate the beauty of the female form without desiring to make a conquest out of every woman I see. I can appreciate a delicious meal without making a glutton out of myself.

Some have the idea if they are to "not love the world" that means they are to give up every form of enjoyment there is. We are not to trust in accumulating wealth, but trust "God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy." [1 Timothy 6:17] But when we miss the beauty around us, and the pleasures God has given, we actually miss God. An approach to life in which we ignore the beauty around us – in people made in God's image, in flower, hill, and star, in pop culture and leisure activities – causes us to miss what God has intended us to experience in order to understand Him better.

We love the world when we try to possess it, not when we appreciate – and enjoy – the beauty within it.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Remembering the Premiere of the First R-Rated Tolkien Film

A year ago today, I posted an article on (now defunct) about the then forthcoming showings of the three extended versions of the Hobbit movies in theaters by Fathom Events. October 7, 2015 would be the date of the first public showing of the extended The Battle of the Five Armies, one week before the digital version became available for download. The following reproduces the text of the article. My discussion of the "adult" nature of The Hobbit I feel is important to preserve with the context intact. 

All three extended version 'Hobbit' movies to hit select theaters in October

It's official. Fathom Events announced Tuesday they will show all three extended versions of "The Hobbit" in select theaters this October. Rumors of these events surfaced as early as August 3, but details were sketchy. Last Friday, Fathom Events had reportedly posted links to buy tickets, but this was apparently premature. The announcement made yesterday to the media is official, and you may now purchase tickets online through the Fathom Events website.

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" extended edition will be shown Monday, October 5, 2015 at 7:30 p.m. The extended edition of "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" hits the big screen Wednesday, October 7, 2015 at 7:30 p.m. And, a week before the movie becomes available on Digital HD, and over a month before it will be available on DVD and Blu-ray, the extended edition of "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" makes its cinema debut Tuesday, October 13, 2015 at 7:30 p.m.

The longer version of "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" will be the first of Peter Jackson's Middle-earth films to be rated R. This had been reported as early as August 6, and was confirmed by the official press release. The MPAA rating is ironic given the fact the Lord of the Rings books are much darker than the "children's book" titled The Hobbit.

Greg Wright, who edited the coverage of Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" films on, wrote an article for back in 2007 when the Hobbit movies had just been greenlit. His comments are of interest given the more adult nature of the Hobbit films—especially the last extended edition.

"Complicating matters is the general perception amongst many fans—a sentimental, romanticized, and unexamined perception—that The Hobbit is a light, whimsical fantasy. It is not. It is, in fact, an allegorical bildungsroman, a coming-of-age tale, a story of loss of innocence. It’s about children no longer covering their eyes in terror and imagining giants and bogies, but rather coming to see the world with eyes wide open and finding out that the most dangerous monsters may be some of their fellow adventurers. The conventions of fantasy may dispose of Smaug quite neatly; dealing with Thorin—or Bilbo’s own complicity in a Great Wrong—is another matter entirely, but one which is at the heart of The Hobbit."

For Wright, the adult nature of The Hobbit comes not so much from the violence between good and evil, but how Bilbo learns to deal with the evil he finds within his friends... and himself. Greg goes on to speculate about how the book on film would play out, and rightly predicts Jackson and crew would choose to follow the darker tone of the previous trilogy, "regardless of the 'violence' it does to Tolkien’s original tale."

For better or worse, the R rating is Jackson's final stamp on his vision of JRR Tolkien's Middle-earth. What exactly that will look like remains to be seen – on screens small and large. 

Monday, August 22, 2016

Latest Tolkien title explores the roots of Middle-earth

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016 
This very brief review appeared on on May 14 this year. Since all Examiner content has been removed, I am re-posting here in an ongoing effort to save my writing for posterity. 

The Story of Kullervo

If you are a J.R.R. Tolkien fan looking for a new "Lord of the Rings," or even "The Silmarillion," "The Story of Kullervo" will probably disappoint you. But, if you have an interest in the origins of Tolkien's storytelling, and the underpinnings of his mythology of Middle-earth, "Kullervo" may be just what you are looking for.

Edited by one of the foremost authorities on Tolkien, Veryln Flieger, the book includes Tolkien's re-crafting of the story from the Finnish Kalevala, which roughly translates to "Land of Heroes." The Kalevala was an anthology of Finnish folk songs complied by Elias Lönnrot in the mid-nineteenth century. It was a source of national pride, and is credited as helping to inspire Finland's declaration of independence from Russia in 1917. [pp.x-xi] Tolkien would eventually use the character Kullervo as the inspiration for Túrin Turambar, who appears in "The Silmarillion" and the posthumously published novel "The Children of Húrin." The earlier iteration based on the Finnish story was penned by Tolkien before World War I, while a student at Oxford. It was written mostly in prose, but includes several poems. Although never finished, it does include a plot synopsis at the end, indicating how he wanted to finish it.

Flieger's edition does not stop with reproducing the retelling (a "reorganizing" is what Tolkien called it) of the story. She adds extensive notes, and includes two versions of an essay Tolkien delivered on the Kalevala, and her essay on Tolkien's Kullervo and its influence on his later mythology. Professor Flieger's excellent discussion ties everything together, and corrects much of the old impressions and inaccurate chronology about The Story.

Until this year, "The Story of Kullervo" was only available in a British version from HarperCollins, but is now available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the United States. The story itself is certainly not as developed or captivating as his other works, but many Tolkien devotees will find this early attempt a welcome addition to their library.