Archive for the ‘Review’ Category

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” Review (pt. 7)

March 13, 2018

So Falwell’s faulty exegesis points towards a deeper problem that, in Niebuhr’s eyes, undermines Falwell’s entire project and makes him a “false prophet:” pride. His inability to imagine that America might have faults, might have mixed motives in its foreign aid policies for example, or that racism, segregation and apartheid might be as abhorrent to God as is Stalinism are all examples of this. Really, though, his pride runs deeper than this, to the very foundation of his entire theological enterprise. Falwell’s crusade is based on the claim that America is essential to Christ; without the United States to use as a launching pad for missions, the Gospel could not spread or survive in the world. Falwell’s entire argument rests on this belief. It justifies and motivates his argument that America must stay militarily strong, so that it can cow other, godless nations. It justifies denying help to the poor and vulnerable, since the sole purpose of the State is to be an army guarding the Church, and any penny spent on Social Security or education takes away from the military budget. Those poor people demanding help from their government are dangerous parasites, weakening the State when it has to be strong. Quite simply, the State doesn’t exist to serve the poor; it exists only to serve the Church by physically protecting it from foreign armies and local criminals, and then by getting out of its way. But that “Church” it serves is not, again, just any old religious establishment, and not even any and every Christian institution; it is only the Evangelical churches that spread the properly conservative, economically laissez-faire capitalist message that will empower the business world and the military to do their jobs of making the USA the most kick-ass power on the planet whether on the battlefield or in the boardroom. Other religions, even other Christian denominations, risk God’s wrath and thus weaken the nation, undermining its sole purpose of spreading Christian fundamentalism.

Why does God, who is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones here (Matthew 3:9), need the United States? Why does the Church, which spread under the persecution of pagan Rome as well as the God-fearing religious leaders of its day, need an army so desperately that God must accept a state whose economic policies impoverish other peoples as well as many of its own citizens? It seems incredibly arrogant to claim that the United States is the essential nation, or even an essential nation in God’s plan. This pride prevents any meaningful, prophetic voice from being raised; if the United States is the essential nation in God’s plan, it must be a “godly” nation by definition, and anyone who says it is falling short is challenging God’s judgment in having chosen it and made it the cornerstone of the Kingdom.

And in particular, the purpose of the State seems to be nothing more than to perpetuate and strengthen the State, and otherwise to leave the Church free to send missionaries wherever it wants. Insofar as it does anything else besides strengthen and enrich itself, it imposes controls on individual lives, restricting religious expression that doesn’t conform to Fundamentalist Protestantism, restricting sexual expression, restricting freedom of speech if that should entail criticizing Fundamentalism or capitalism, or in short, the State is to use force to impose Falwell’s theology. Anything else risks God’s wrath, which is the only thing that could weaken the nation. This reasoning was in full evidence on September 13, 2001, when Jerry Falwell Sr. and Pat Robertson agreed on national television that the reason terrorists had been able to attack the United States was because of feminists and other people who disagree with their beliefs.[1] Their pride cannot accept that perhaps bad things happen for no morally good reason, and even less can they allow that maybe they themselves are the ones who are morally judged, despite repeated warnings in the Prophets, Gospels, and Epistles that God will judge nations based at least partly on how they treat the poor. The one sin they recognize is Not Being Like Us; that is what God punishes, because God needs the United States and needs it to be conformed to the theological vision of Jerry Falwell.

In the final days of Judah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel argued against false prophets who preached that God would never allow Jerusalem to fall, no matter how corrupt its government nor how decadent and oppressive its wealthy class, because God needed the Temple. 2500 years later, the pride of the 20th Century gave rise to similar false prophecy. And that pride bore fruit in the Prosperity Gospel: the belief that God rewards good people and good nations with wealth, health and power, so anyone you see who is strong and rich must also be godly and good; and contrariwise, anyone who is suffering, or poor, or a nation that is weak, must be wicked and deserves whatever it gets and even whatever the “godly” people do them. This thinking starts from a sound Biblical starting point: the book of Deuteronomy, the one Christ is said to have quoted from the most. In that book, Moses warns the people that if the nation strays from its covenant with God, the nation will be cursed. From this idea, it was deduced that whenever we see sickness, that person must have done something wrong; and when we see national disaster like famine, the nation must have done something wrong. And likewise, if we see a rich, healthy person or a strong nation, it must be because God has blessed that person or nation for being so good. However, this goes beyond the actual message of the Bible. The entire book of Job aims to refute this simple equation of suffering with wickedness; Job is a righteous man, yet he suffers. His friends insist that he must in fact be wicked, and urge him to repent. He refuses, insisting on his innocence. Finally God rebukes the friends, and says that Job is the one who spoke truly (Job 42:7-9). Jesus, too, criticizes the easy equation of virtue and wealth, or sin and suffering (Luke 13:1-5; Luke 16:19-31; John 9:1-3). Anyone following the logic of the Prosperity Gospel, or even the simplistic, prideful interpretation of Deuteronomy, would confidently claim that the blind beggar or the poor Lazarus were certainly sinners, or at least that their parents sinned and their sins were being visited upon the children. Or, today we might say that Lazarus must be lazy and the blind beggar’s parents were foolish not to have bought health insurance or to have worked hard enough to be able to provide for their son. The idea that perhaps the only “purpose” of suffering people is as a call to the rest of us to do God’s work by caring for them and caring about them—that idea simply does not fit human pride. It would mean admitting that evil and destruction are beyond our control, even when we are doing everything we can to conform to our understanding of righteousness and to force others to do so as well. It would mean admitting that we need to repent, just as much as “they” do. And it would mean that we can be judged even if we have good things that we got lawfully and honestly, simply because we were callous and self-indulgent.[2]

[1] Marc Ambinder, “Falwell Suggests Gays to Blame for Attacks,” ABC News, Sept. 14, 2001 (http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/story?id=121322&page=1) The 700 Club, Sept. 12. 2001 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kMkBgA9_oQ4)

[2] Remember, in Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, there is no word that the rich man did anything “wrong;” he wasn’t a thief, and he didn’t fail to go to Temple. He was a good, laissez-faire capitalist, as far as the story depicts; and since it is a story, we can’t just say “well, he must have been a bad man, Jesus just didn’t mention that he was an embezzler.” That’s our pride talking, rewriting the Bible to fit our own standards. The only facts that exist about the Rich Man are that he had a good life, and anyone looking at him would have thought him blessed by God; but he ignored the poor man, and for that lack of love for his fellow human being, he wound up in Hades.

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Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” Review (pt. 6)

March 13, 2018

“Falwell… stands labeled by Niebuhr as ‘false prophet.’”[1] And despite praising Falwell’s contention that the Christian must be involved in politics, and despite having misgivings about some aspects of Niebuhr’s theology, the analysis in this thesis largely agrees. Understanding why and in what ways Falwell is a false prophet not only shows us the heart of this thesis, but offers hints into Comey’s own motivations.   These hints are more for the reader’s exercise, since mindreading is an inexact science; so I will try to summarize Comey’s critique of Falwell and let you entertain yourself by speculating what part all this might have played in Comey’s controversial decisions of 2016 and 2017.

Falwell claims that his theological pronouncements are the clear word of God, supported by direct warrant from Scripture. He does not mean by this that there is no room for interpretation; he is not a strict literalist in the sense that if the Bible says to let the word of God be inscribed on your right hand, that you must literally write or tie Scriptures there (Deut 11:18). Or as Comey points out, the mere fact that the Bible reports similar events differently does not mean that Jesus at one time fed 5000 people with no commentary, then did it again with extensive commentary, despite the differences between Mark’s and John’s accounts; rather, we must interpret the Scriptures to make them harmonize. But Falwell does claim that, correctly interpreted, the Bible provides the Christian with direct instruction, and that this instruction is largely identical with the political and moral proclamations of Falwell himself. And upon close examination, this notion does not hold up. Many of Falwell’s claims seem to have, at best, indirect warrant from Scripture, requiring some degree of analogical or imaginative thinking. This is true not just of peripheral issues, but of claims that make up the heart of Falwell’s message. Falwell’s claim that God endorses capitalism and that capitalism is in fact the only economic system that God approves is highly dubious. As Comey points out, Falwell relies on Proverbs for his claim, but the proverb he cites is not particularly direct; it only reflects the idea that hard work should be rewarded and laziness leads to poverty. Falwell simply ignores large portions of Scripture, particularly the Sermon on the Mount and the Prophets, where the Bible makes its most sustained ethical teachings, and which seriously question the unlimited right to property and profit. Instead, Falwell, like other fundamentalists influenced by Rousas Rushdooney, relies primarily on selective reading of the Torah and Wisdom literature. But even in the Torah, the right to property is severely limited. For example, in the Year of Jubilee all debts are to be cancelled, all slaves set free, and most radically, all land sold by anyone is to be returned to that person’s family (Lev 25:8-17). Leaving aside questions like the ownership of Manhattan and assuming that this law only applies to “godly” nations like Israel and (according to Falwell) the United States, imagine what this would do to the real estate sector alone! While houses in “walled cities” may be sold permanently, no one in America lives in a walled city; and in any case, even if you stretch the definition of “walled city” to include any metropolis, this would still exclude suburbs, small towns and rural areas. Every fifty years, all this land would be returned to the original seller’s family. That’s a pretty serious restriction on capitalism! What this points to is that while the Bible allows for people to profit from their own work, or to make a reasonable and fair profit from business, the true source of capital in biblical times, the land itself, belonged to YHWH, which God Himself had distributed to particular tribes and families to manage. It was therefore a mixed economy, neither wholly socialist or wholly capitalist; the ultimate means of production, the land itself, belonged to God and by extension to the nation and people as a whole, while all profits from the land belonged to the individual. Even here there were restrictions, such as the prohibition against going back over your own fields to gather up anything the harvesters missed the first time (Lev. 23:22). Instead, even when dealing with what was unarguably “private property,” the landowner was required to provide for the poor. Again, the treatment of landowners in the Torah is not like the unlimited property rights asserted by Ayn Rand or even John Locke, who claim that private property is an essential right based on one’s right to one’s own body and thus to the “fruits of your labors.” It is not even like a franchise, where a largely absentee owner gives out a license in perpetuity for the franchisee to run the local gas station or McDonald’s as if he or she owned it outright provided certain minimum standards are met. Instead, the Torah treats landowners much more like managers, whose books are subject to evaluation on a regular basis by the true boss, which is God. And in a theocracy like Israel is described and like Falwell seems to want America to be, to say property is owned by God is to say that it is owned by the State as God’s agent. The socialists have a strong case if they wish to claim direct warrant from Scripture, at least as strong as the capitalists do.

The point is not to say that the Bible provides direct warrant for socialism, communism, capitalism or any other sort of “–ism;” the point is that the Bible does not provide direct warrant for our human “–isms” and that we commit idolatry when we claim it does. It is another example of our pride, leading us to exalt our particular preference or heritage to divine status.

[1] Comey, p. 89

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” (Review, pt. 4)

September 19, 2017

Jerry Falwell claims repeatedly in his writings that he has direct warrant from the Bible for everything he is saying. Comey convincingly argues that this is not always true. Sometimes, Falwell does indeed cite a specific Scripture that really does state a particular principle fairly unambiguously, as when Falwell cites Romans 13 to argue that all governmental power ultimately derives from God. But often, at crucial points in his political argument, Falwell cites either weak evidence or none at all. Furthermore, Falwell ignores large portions of Scripture that would complicate his simple (or simplistic) theological argument. This is not merely when he glosses over points that would make it difficult for him to argue that the Bible is without contradiction. That’s an important point, since if the Bible really does have contradictions that have to be resolved by the reader/interpreter, then the entire modern fundamentalist project is suspect; but Comey describes these as “small, troublesome passages” which suggests that they are not essential to understanding the Bible’s message as a whole.[1] At the very least, it is easy for Falwell’s exegesis to flow smoothly so long as all he is ignoring are “small” passages. It becomes more difficult to ignore when Falwell ignores entire sections of the Bible, specifically the entire Prophetic tradition, much of the Wisdom tradition, and any portions of the New Testament that do not fit easily into his truncated vision of God’s word.[2] Falwell largely ignores such essential Christian passages as the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells his followers to be peacemakers, not warriors; meek, not proud. Jesus tells his followers to each see to himself or herself; Falwell says that Christians must strive to impose strict sexual ethics on others—sexual ethics, but not ethics about care for the poor, or personal humility, themes that are central to the teachings of Jesus. These words of Jesus are to be left to the individual’s own conscience, and fundamentalists even argue that it is a sin to seek to create laws that would “impose acts of charity” by taxing well-off people to provide even basic aid for the poor. So government can impose heterosexuality, and seek to punish sexual license or at least try to make it as dangerous as possible so people “take responsibility for their actions;” but asking them to take responsibility for their neighbor’s wellbeing, or to take responsibility for how their actions might harm the neighbor’s economic opportunity, is seen as out-of-bounds.

Falwell claims Old Testament backing for his nationalist fundamentalist interpretation of the Christian message; but the Old Testament prophets also had a great deal to say about God’s care for the poor, which Falwell ignores. He has a lot to say about saving souls, but nothing to say about how Amos condemns the nation of Israel for allowing the rich to oppress the poor. By contrast, Niebuhr, who rarely claims direct warrant for his theological positions, is able to deal with far more of the Old and New Testaments much more effectively. Niebuhr would say that the Bible reveals God’s Law of Love, which is our ideal. This ideal includes care for the poor and powerless, and equality of all before God—all people, and all nations. This includes even provisions such as the Year of Jubilee, where all those who had bought property from a fellow Israelite were required to return it—not exactly the ringing endorsement of the private property which Falwell claims to find in Scripture! In fact, there are many passages in the Torah that limit personal profit, including restrictions on collecting debts from the poor, restrictions on using one’s own land (such as allowing the poor to walk into one’s fields to glean), and instructions that one invite the poor and resident foreigners into one’s religious feasts to enjoy the meal. The prophets go on to condemn the people who have largely ignored these laws, refusing to forgive debts or free slaves during the Jubilee or who buy the ancestral fields from others and refuse to return the property. Niebuhr would say that this shows again that the Law of Love is an ideal towards which we should strive, but not one that we ever fully achieve in this life; for that reason, we need justice as a fence to protect the powerless from the powerful and to establish a legal and political equality that approximates the full equality of us all as creatures before God. The prophetic condemnations of economic oppression serve as God’s message that social arrangements matter, that their impact on individuals matters, and that any political or legal structure that allows the powerful to run roughshod over the weak violates God’s Law of Love.

[1] Comey, p. 7

[2] Comey, pp. 88-92

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” (Review, pt. 3)

September 6, 2017

Niebuhr is claiming that the Bible is not early science or “superscience,” nor is it history or any other sort of strictly factual report. It is also not a set of laws and proclamations by the Cosmic Legislator. Rather, Niebuhr sees Scripture as an expression of the true nature of God, the cosmos, and ourselves. This truth is that God is love, and we are free beings capable of living by the law of love but who inevitably choose otherwise because we are anxious. We are anxious because we are free and self-aware creatures. As creatures, we are finite and hence not fully in control of our own fate; we suffer loss and eventually death, and often for reasons that are either unforeseen or unpreventable. Unlike animals (says Niebuhr) we are self-aware, and thus recognize our own limited and mortal nature. As free beings, we are essentially capable of choosing how to react to our nature; we can live in love with one another and in humble reliance on God, or we can fall into anxiety and seek to preserve ourselves and our peace of mind by denying our true nature as creatures before God and in community with others. Because of the pervasive effects of anxiety and our own constant temptation to self-medicate (through prideful attempts to deny our creaturely limits, or sensual attempts to deny our rational and spiritual potentials, etc.) we inevitably sin. As creatures that are essentially created to be good and loving, but who are also anxious and inevitably succumb to sin, we have to rely on justice to approximate the sort of society we should have.[1] Justice is the human attempt to actualize God’s law of love. It is never perfect, but God shows us what perfect love is and calls us to strive to emulate that. The commandments, the prophets, and even the teachings of the Gospel are not so much instruction manuals or to-do lists as they are pictures of what a loving world should look like, and condemnations of what an unloving, sinful world looks like instead. To rely strictly on those words would be to absolutize the historical contingencies of the world where they were first spoken and written, a world very different from our own, where people lacked the factual knowledge that we now have, and where even social experience was primitive. By and large, fundamentalist Christians today tacitly admit this; only a few would insist that diseases are caused by evil spirits instead of germs or that slavery is acceptable. Niebuhr would say that examples like these show that we can and should use the knowledge we have to understand the world, and then apply the law of love in solving the problems that knowledge shows us using the tools that knowledge gives us.[2]

Jerry Falwell takes a very different strategy to understanding the fundamental message of the Bible and to applying it to the Christian’s political life.[3] He does not purport to be discussing the meaning “behind” the words or God’s nature revealed “through” the words; he claims instead that the political principles he advocates are directly spoken by God to the authors of the Bible, who wrote them down without error or contradiction. Proper political activity thus is simply a matter of taking the direct warrant of God’s word and creating laws and enforcement mechanisms as these command. The Bible says that righteousness exalts a nation, so if we want America to be strong we need to be “righteous” and “holy,” which Falwell says means we must uphold strict sexual ethics with heterosexual monogamy or chastity the only options. Falwell asserts that the Book of Proverbs clearly defends the principle of private property, so the Bible supports capitalism as the only righteous economic system. Jesus told us to “make disciples of all the nations,” so America must remain militarily strong so that it can serve as a launching pad for worldwide evangelistic missions. If, at any point, science, moral philosophy, economics or any other area of human thought seems to contradict the Fundamentalist teaching that traditional, patriarchal, laissez-faire conservative American values are God’s will and the true expression of reality, then that science or ethical insight is to be cast aside as a temptation, which has been superseded by God’s revealed truth.

Politically, the difference between the two views is stark. For Niebuhr, the goal of politics is “justice,” which is the human attempt to express the law of love. Such an approach means that the Christian’s political activity should focus on finding where people are suffering, or where people are being denied full and equal participation in society, and trying to adjust the laws of the nation (and international relations) to reduce the suffering and oppression. For Falwell, “justice” is a matter of determining what the law of God is, and making sure to punish lawbreakers. The goal is not to make a more “loving” society, but a more “holy” one, one more pure, more devoted to obeying God’s commandments as spelled out in the Bible, in order to preserve social order and to make America strong. If America is strong, it can serve as the base for evangelism overseas; and if it does that, God will reward it with miraculous wealth, victory over its enemies and every other manner of blessing.

As Comey points out, Falwell’s claims of direct warrant for all his policy recommendations do not bear close examination. His claim that the Scripture is one harmonious message is only sustained by deliberately ignoring passages that seem to contradict each other. As Comey writes, Falwell’s harmonization of Scripture “flows smoothly in large part because small, troublesome passages are ignored.”[4] And while he offers direct warrant for his claim that all governmental authorities are ordained by God, citing Romans 13, he offers no such citation for his claim that life begins at conception because there is in fact no such obvious, clear scriptural backing. The Bible simply doesn’t discuss abortion at all.[5] It wasn’t an issue. His claim that God endorses capitalism is similarly baseless. Falwell often, at crucial points in his argument, simply claims to be speaking the plain and clear word of God when he is doing no such thing. Instead, Comey points out that Falwell’s own autobiographical statement is that he was a patriotic American before he became a born-again Christian, raising the possibility that Falwell is interpreting the Bible selectively to support his conservative political assumptions rather than deriving his political claims from the Bible as he says.[6]

[1] Comey., pp. 25-33

[2] Comey, pp. 33-54

[3] Comey, pp. 55-74

[4] Comey, p. 7

[5] Comey, pp. 9-10

[6] Comey, p. 93

Niebuhr is claiming that the Bible is not early science or “superscience,” nor is it history or any other sort of strictly factual report. It is also not a set of laws and proclamations by the Cosmic Legislator. Rather, Niebuhr sees Scripture as an expression of the true nature of God, the cosmos, and ourselves. This truth is that God is love, and we are free beings capable of living by the law of love but who inevitably choose otherwise because we are anxious. We are anxious because we are free and self-aware creatures. As creatures, we are finite and hence not fully in control of our own fate; we suffer loss and eventually death, and often for reasons that are either unforeseen or unpreventable. Unlike animals (says Niebuhr) we are self-aware, and thus recognize our own limited and mortal nature. As free beings, we are essentially capable of choosing how to react to our nature; we can live in love with one another and in humble reliance on God, or we can fall into anxiety and seek to preserve ourselves and our peace of mind by denying our true nature as creatures before God and in community with others. Because of the pervasive effects of anxiety and our own constant temptation to self-medicate (through prideful attempts to deny our creaturely limits, or sensual attempts to deny our rational and spiritual potentials, etc.) we inevitably sin. As creatures that are essentially created to be good and loving, but who are also anxious and inevitably succumb to sin, we have to rely on justice to approximate the sort of society we should have.[1] Justice is the human attempt to actualize God’s law of love. It is never perfect, but God shows us what perfect love is and calls us to strive to emulate that. The commandments, the prophets, and even the teachings of the Gospel are not so much instruction manuals or to-do lists as they are pictures of what a loving world should look like, and condemnations of what an unloving, sinful world looks like instead. To rely strictly on those words would be to absolutize the historical contingencies of the world where they were first spoken and written, a world very different from our own, where people lacked the factual knowledge that we now have, and where even social experience was primitive. By and large, fundamentalist Christians today tacitly admit this; only a few would insist that diseases are caused by evil spirits instead of germs or that slavery is acceptable. Niebuhr would say that examples like these show that we can and should use the knowledge we have to understand the world, and then apply the law of love in solving the problems that knowledge shows us using the tools that knowledge gives us.[2]

Jerry Falwell takes a very different strategy to understanding the fundamental message of the Bible and to applying it to the Christian’s political life.[3] He does not purport to be discussing the meaning “behind” the words or God’s nature revealed “through” the words; he claims instead that the political principles he advocates are directly spoken by God to the authors of the Bible, who wrote them down without error or contradiction. Proper political activity thus is simply a matter of taking the direct warrant of God’s word and creating laws and enforcement mechanisms as these command. The Bible says that righteousness exalts a nation, so if we want America to be strong we need to be “righteous” and “holy,” which Falwell says means we must uphold strict sexual ethics with heterosexual monogamy or chastity the only options. Falwell asserts that the Book of Proverbs clearly defends the principle of private property, so the Bible supports capitalism as the only righteous economic system. Jesus told us to “make disciples of all the nations,” so America must remain militarily strong so that it can serve as a launching pad for worldwide evangelistic missions. If, at any point, science, moral philosophy, economics or any other area of human thought seems to contradict the Fundamentalist teaching that traditional, patriarchal, laissez-faire conservative American values are God’s will and the true expression of reality, then that science or ethical insight is to be cast aside as a temptation, which has been superseded by God’s revealed truth.

Politically, the difference between the two views is stark. For Niebuhr, the goal of politics is “justice,” which is the human attempt to express the law of love. Such an approach means that the Christian’s political activity should focus on finding where people are suffering, or where people are being denied full and equal participation in society, and trying to adjust the laws of the nation (and international relations) to reduce the suffering and oppression. For Falwell, “justice” is a matter of determining what the law of God is, and making sure to punish lawbreakers. The goal is not to make a more “loving” society, but a more “holy” one, one more pure, more devoted to obeying God’s commandments as spelled out in the Bible, in order to preserve social order and to make America strong. If America is strong, it can serve as the base for evangelism overseas; and if it does that, God will reward it with miraculous wealth, victory over its enemies and every other manner of blessing.

As Comey points out, Falwell’s claims of direct warrant for all his policy recommendations do not bear close examination. His claim that the Scripture is one harmonious message is only sustained by deliberately ignoring passages that seem to contradict each other. As Comey writes, Falwell’s harmonization of Scripture “flows smoothly in large part because small, troublesome passages are ignored.”[4] And while he offers direct warrant for his claim that all governmental authorities are ordained by God, citing Romans 13, he offers no such citation for his claim that life begins at conception because there is in fact no such obvious, clear scriptural backing. The Bible simply doesn’t discuss abortion at all.[5] It wasn’t an issue. His claim that God endorses capitalism is similarly baseless. Falwell often, at crucial points in his argument, simply claims to be speaking the plain and clear word of God when he is doing no such thing. Instead, Comey points out that Falwell’s own autobiographical statement is that he was a patriotic American before he became a born-again Christian, raising the possibility that Falwell is interpreting the Bible selectively to support his conservative political assumptions rather than deriving his political claims from the Bible as he says.[6]

To be continued…

[1] Comey., pp. 25-33

[2] Comey, pp. 33-54

[3] Comey, pp. 55-74

[4] Comey, p. 7

[5] Comey, pp. 9-10

[6] Comey, p. 93

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” (review)

August 28, 2017

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.”  Honors thesis, College of William and Mary, 1982.

 

After President* Donald Trump fired James Comey, several news stories appeared discussing his undergraduate senior thesis on Reinhold Niebuhr and how his theological convictions might have affected his performance of his duties as Director of the FBI. My first thought, naturally, was, “Wow! A religion major found a job!” My second though was, “ I have got to read that thesis!” So much is on-line these days that my first thought was to Google it. No luck there. So I went to the public library, found the thesis title listed in a database of college theses, and requested it through Interlibrary Loan. Unless I get permission from the College of William and Mary to post it, I suggest you go to your library and request it yourself; it is a fascinating read, well-written and informative, reflecting some deep thinking from its young author.

Comey’s thesis compares two theologians who each had a powerful effect on Twentieth-Century American politics. The first, Reinhold Niebuhr, was one of America’s most influential religious thinkers from the 1930s through the 1960s, still widely read after his death in 1971. The second, Jerry Falwell, was at that time something of the new kid on the block, described by Comey as “a well-known fundamentalist television preacher” and an example of the Religious Right, which had been very influential in the 1980 presidential election. [1] Both were Protestant Christian theologians who urged Christians to become involved in politics as part of living out their faith. However, while both rejected Communism and urged the United States to oppose its spread, they had very different political agendas and very different strategies for linking their political teachings to their biblical studies. Comey’s project was to compare the two theologians, to examine each one’s approach to the Bible, politics and the task of connecting them, and to critique the strengths and weaknesses he found in each writer’s position.

To be continued….

[1] Comey, p. 1

Is Islam More Violent?

June 9, 2016

Is Islam More Violent? A Response to Nils Petter Gleditsch and Ida Rudolfsen

 

War and civil war have decreased — leaving, primarily, fighting in Muslim countries

—-Nils Petter Gleditsh and Ida Rudolfsen, “Are Muslim Countries More Violent?”

 

 

In their article, “Are Muslim Countries More Violent?” authors Nils Gleditsh and Ida Rudolfsen reject the idea that violence around the world is driven by a “clash of civilizations.”[1] They point out that in fact, there is relatively little violence around the world that rises to the level of “war,” and furthermore that almost none of that warfare is between nations. Instead, they point out, most of the world’s large-scale violence consists of civil wars within predominately Muslim nations within a broad geographic swath stretching from central Africa to South Asia. They then consider several explanations that have been commonly offered as to why this is the case. They discuss and largely reject the notion that Islam is itself inherently more violent than any other religion, correctly pointing out that most major religions have both violent and peaceful messages which human agents choose to emphasize to suit their own purposes. Jerry Falwell famously argued on the television show 60 Minutes that Mohammed was a terrorist, while Jesus and Moses were men of peace.[2] The pacifism of Moses would come as a surprise to the Amalekites, or other peoples who opposed Israel on its march towards Canaan; and Moses’ successor Joshua destroyed entire city-states from the fighting men down to even the animals. The pacifism of Jesus is more pronounced, but the pacifism of Christians is largely refuted by the words of the evangelists interviewed by Bob Simon. For example, prominent televangelist Kay Arthur insists that God sanctioned the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin. Christians who, like Arthur and Falwell, wish to find excuses for violence in the name of God are able to do so, largely by mining the apocalyptic literature; those like the Amish or Quakers who wish to push for total pacifism can find other passages, particularly the words of Jesus; and those like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas who wish to argue for a more moderate “just war theology” emphasize other texts, particularly Paul’s letter to the Romans. Other major religions present the same varied inheritance; neither Christianity nor Islam are markedly more or less inclined to violent rhetoric than these others.

Gleditsh and Rudolfsen also consider the argument that the civil wars in Muslim nations have more to do with economics in those societies than their religion. The fact is that the nations with the most violent civil wars are also nations with past histories of being colonized, with the resultant poverty and lack of political development today; they are nations with little industrialization or other economic assets aside from oil; and they are generally nations with a small rich elite while the majority live in poverty with no economic opportunity. Once you control for the economic factors, the argument goes, the Muslim nations are no more violent than are any others. However, the authors ask, what if the religion is itself contributing to the economic and political dysfunction? If that might be the case, is it in fact feasible or truthful to “control for” and ignore the religious issues?

While their article points out some bad questions and points the way towards some better ones, in the end it doesn’t really attempt to answer the question it asks in its title. For me, the most interesting aspect of the article was that it reminded me of a very helpful book I read in seminary, Islam in the World by Malise Ruthven, and particularly of his comments on the intersection of Islam and politics.[3] Written decades before the Arab Spring and even five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, this book offers insights into Muslim history and political theory that prove prescient, while still being accessible to an amateur like myself. One of the first interesting nuggets is his observation that “the Prophet had been his own Caesar.”[4] Western culture is shaped largely by Christianity, and Jesus was utterly lacking in official power or worldly authority. For the first formative centuries of Christian history, the same can be said of his followers. Islam from the start had to work out the relationship between temporal ruler and the bearer of the divine message. This puts the whole discussion of “the secular state” versus “the Mosque” into an entirely different context. Christians had to learn to live under the political sovereignty of pagans long before they had to work out how to faithfully live while wielding political power themselves; Muslims began with the problem of how to wield political authority over themselves and others, and only later had to deal with the crisis caused by largely losing that autonomy to foreign colonizers.

In the 20th Century, strains of thought originating from this well of the original Medina community nourished Islamic responses to the Cold War.[5]            The former colonies were often ideological battlegrounds between Soviet Communism and Democratic Capitalism. In many cases, local responses sided with one or another of the superpowers and adopted an Islamized or Arabic version of some foreign philosophy (Baathism, with its debt to both Fascism and Soviet support, is a good example of this). But for nations that sought an ideology that was truly neutral between the contending sides of the Cold war, political Islam offered an alternative that was truly different and truly rooted in the culture of the people. Drawing not only from the Quran and hadith but also from the history of Islamic civilization and philosophy, thinkers such as Sayyid Abu’l Ala Maududi strove to work out systems of governmental authority and economic interaction that were something other than just adopting authoritarian collectivism or individualist capitalism. And in particular, these Islamic political theorists sought to work out a theory of political-economic society that rejected the secularism assumed by both Soviet and Western societies.

When I started teaching religious studies a few years after reading Ruthven, Germany was united and even Russia and China were moving towards free-market economics. The Cold War was over. At the same time, there was not yet any talk of a “clash of civilizations” to replace that global polarization. I remember remarking, referring to Ruthven’s observation that Islam offered a third ideology for peoples who did not wish to be either Western or Soviet, that with the elimination of the Soviet alternative the only two ideologies were Western secular liberalism and political Islam. At that time, I wondered how that fact might work itself out. Jumping ahead twenty years, today we see two major forms of political violence: terrorism and civil war. And as Gleditsch and Rudolfsen observe, these civil wars are almost all in Islamic countries with at least one party expressly pursuing an Islamist ideology. I suggest that this is not so much because Islam causes the violence, but that people disaffected enough by the status quo to resort to civil war move towards Islam as a political ideology, to provide some conceptual framework and intellectual foundation for their group. Without this ideology, they would simply become the intellectual mirror image of their enemies, with no distinct characteristics of their own.

Gleditsch and Rudolfsen also point out that while Islamic terrorism gets a lot of attention from the Western press (and is intended just for that purpose), by far most of the victims of Islamic violence are themselves Muslims. Furthermore, FBI statistics suggest that most U.S. terrorists are not Muslim, but anti-government, or white supremacist, or Christian dominionist agents.[6] If you are in America, you are far more likely to be killed by a self-avowed Christian terrorist (like Timothy McVeigh or Eric Rudolf) than by a Muslim terrorist.

Perhaps what we see here is that with the collapse of Communism as a viable political ideology for terrorists, would-be insurrectionists are turning to other ideologies and “tribal” loyalties to justify and conceptualize their violence. And in doing so, they generally turn to some theme within their own culture. In Islamic nations, this means Islamism. In the U.S. this more often means some sort of Christian Dominionism or Christian Identity. “Christian Identity” refers to any of a group of pseudo-Christian groups that believe non-whites are subhuman, that the British people are descended from the biblical Israelites and are the only true heirs to the messianic promise, that Jews are Satanic and that Jesus wants his followers to start and win a race war. They generally are not much of a threat to our democracy for the simple reason that they are so obviously dangerous. The white hoods or Nazi tattoos serve much the same purpose as the bright colors of a wasp.

Christian Dominionism more insidious. Followers of this ideology state that their goal is to use democratic means to elect leaders who will then abolish democracy and establish a Christian theocracy. The more intellectually honest among them argue that the religious tolerance advocated by the Founding Fathers was a mistake; the more willfully schizoid argue that this is a Christian nation founded by Christians and religious tolerance was never intended to apply to atheists or pagans, or to Catholics who include too many “unbiblical” practices such as prayers to saints, or to moderate Protestants who are too tolerant of Catholics and non-Christians. They simply choose to ignore Jefferson taking a pair of scissors to the Bible to cut out all the miracle stories that he thought too silly, or the other Deists, as well as a few Catholics and even an atheist or two who were prominent leaders of the American Revolution and the later Constitutional Convention. If Rev. Rafael Cruz had been an avowed racist (leaving aside for the moment that the Christian Identity movement wouldn’t accept a Latino), his son would never have been a serious politician without first loudly and repeatedly renouncing this poisonous theology. But as a Dominionist, Rev. Cruz can reject the Constitutional separation of Church and State, and insist that God wants Christians to impose their religion and morality on others by force, and his son Ted can be elected a U.S. senator.

Am I saying that Ted Cruz has ties to Christian terrorism? No! But, I am saying that the divide that leads to civil war in some Islamic countries is also inspiring division and even violence in this country, too. The primary ideological opposition to Western democracy is no longer Soviet Communism; it is theocracy. Rafael Cruz, Cliven Bundy, Tim McVeigh and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi are all on a continuum, and the essential similarity between them is more decisive than the fact that some claim to be Christian and others claim to be Muslim. So I say that the question is not whether Islam is more violent than Christianity. One could argue that Mohamed was a general and political leader who ordered the execution of whole tribes, while Jesus was a pacifist who submitted to an unjust death sentence; but in fact, Christian Dominionism undoes that difference by leaping ahead to the prophesized return of Jesus, and seeks to make him Caesar now. The same dynamic can be seen in Buddhist and Hindu nations as well; where there is a modern group and another group that resents them, those often turn to some religiously-justified ideology.

In his article, “Why They Hate Us,” Fareed Zakaria writes, “Islamic terrorists don’t just hate America or the West. They hate the modern world, and they particularly hate Muslims who are trying to live in the modern world.”[7] The same can be said of Christian terrorists who bomb abortion clinics or Olympic Park; they hate modernity, they hate and fear the changes that are occurring in the world that clash with their preferred values and lifestyle, and they hate their fellow Americans and fellow Christians who disagree with them. And this is a phenomenon that transcends nationality and religious identity today. In every major religion there are those who accept that the world is changing and try to navigate lives of faith given these changing currents, and others who rage against the tides.

 

 

 

 

[1] Nils Petter Gleditsh and Ida Rudolfsen, “Are Muslim Countries More Violent?” The Washington Post May 16, 2016 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/05/16/are-muslim-countries-more-violent/)

[2] Bob Simon, reporter, ”’Zion’s Christian Soldiers,’ The 60 Minutes Transcript;” Washington Report on Middle East Affairs December 2002 (http://www.wrmea.org/2002-december/zion-s-christian-soldiers-the-60-minutes-transcript.html)

[3] Malise Ruthven, Islam in the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984)

[4] Ruthven, p. 29

[5] Ruthven, pp. 326-29

[6] See Zalid Jilani, “While King Targets Muslims, There Have Been Twice as Many Plots since 9/11 from Non-Muslim Terrorists;” ThinkProgress March 9, 2011 (http://thinkprogress.org/security/2011/03/09/149537/king-muslims-plots-terrorists/) and Washington’s Blog, “Non-Muslims Carried Out More than 90% of all Terrorist Attacks in America;” Global Research; centre for research on globalization May 1, 2013 (http://www.globalresearch.ca/non-muslims-carried-out-more-than-90-of-all-terrorist-attacks-in-america/5333619)

[7] Fareed Zakaria, “Why They Hate Us,” CNN, May 24, 2016 (http://www.cnn.com/2016/04/08/opinions/why-they-hate-us-zakaria/)

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, second edition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984) pt.1

March 23, 2015

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, second edition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984)

 

….(T)he problem about real life is that moving one’s knight to QB3 may always be replied to with a lob across the net. (p. 98)

Alasdair MacIntyre begins his signature work with a rather audacious proposition: that all of today’s culture has forgotten what morality is, and what moral language really means, and therefore no moral philosophy and no moral agreement is really possible. Once moral philosophy sought to describe the “good life” and those “virtues” (character traits) that are part of the good life. Over time, particularly since the Enlightenment’s rejection of tradition and culture as essential elements of human life, we have lost the shared sense of what a “good life” would be or how to obtain it. However, we have kept the moral language of good and evil, virtue and vice, duty and justice and so on. We all use the same words, but rarely do we speak the same language. Much as an English speaker, seeing “sin” in a Latin sentence might think the Latin refers to wrongdoing (when in fact it is a conjunction meaning “if however”), two postmodern English speakers can use words like “good” or “rights” without realizing that they have different definitions for those terms. By the Twentieth Century, this sorry state of moral language had led to the rise of emotivism: the philosophical claim that all moral language is nothing more than an emotional declaration by the speaker, roughly translatable as “Hurrah for (x)!” or “I approve of (x), you should too!”

 

It is possible to argue with MacIntyre’s historical argument as applied to Western philosophy as a whole. However, it makes even more sense when applied to the United States of America, and the moral culture that arose here. This land was first settled by humans thousands of years ago, and many varied cultures arose. Most of these were destroyed with the arrival of Europeans, through a combination of disease and deliberate cultural genocide. Settlement of North America was not done in a cultural vacuum, but most of the new immigrants from England and elsewhere did not pay much attention to the spiritual or philosophical values of those they displaced. England itself, however, was not culturally homogenous. During the early settlement of the “New World,” England underwent a series of religious upheavals, and the American colonies were settled by disparate and at times hostile groups of Catholics, Anglicans, Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers and others. In addition, the New York area was originally settled by the Dutch, with their own values and moral traditions. During the various conflicts between English, French, Spanish and original nations, people from many different cultures came to be “Americans.” Thousands of Germans too came to be in the Thirteen Colonies, first as settlers and then as mercenaries fighting for the British Crown who simply never returned to their native lands. By the time the Constitution of the United States of America was written and ratified, there were many conflicting philosophies and theologies in the various states, as well as regional differences between the states. European nations generally had organic origins. They grew out of prehistoric tribes over thousands of years. The United States had a definite beginning and a definite social contract, in writing. It is, to put it simplistically, an artificial nation. We didn’t wake up one day and discover we had become one culture. We resolved to be a free people and to create a new culture together. As our original national motto put it, we are one made from many: E pluribus unum. And because of this, our Constitution is written largely as a way for those conflicting groups and conflicting values to compete peacefully and politically, rather than on the battlefield. Democracy is basically a way to have conflict while avoiding civil war.

MacIntyre argues that the Enlightenment project of trying to find a universal basis for morality apart from either Aristotelian notions of telos or religious notions of divine covenant and command led more or less inexorably to the rise of emotivism in the 20th Century. We still have the words for ethical thinking, but we have no settled definitions for those words. It is therefore impossible to really seek for “the good” even when we say we are doing so, and even when we think we are doing so. Instead, those words function merely as expressions of approval and as tools to manipulate others into approving of our values. Moral discussions don’t involve rational debate over how to achieve the best human life, but only a contest of wills as the contestants strive to maneuver one another to accepting his or her own preferences. It is for this reason, MacIntyre claims, that public discourse has become “shrill” and “interminable.” It is literally interminable, he says, because it is rationally impossible that any of our crucial debates should find a terminus. There is no agreed-upon standard of what an “end” should be. MacIntyre does not discuss the supposed decision-maker in our Lockean social contract: the will of the people. However, anyone can see that even “majority rule” settles nothing. Sometimes the majority is simply morally wrong, as it was when the majority of the nation approved of slavery. Sometimes the majority is right, or at least not demonstrably wrong. At times contending sides can agree on a framework and engage in something resembling rational debate. More often, however, this does not happen and is not even attempted. For every reasoned debate between two contestants of good will seeking to find a truth both could recognize, we have a dozen televised “panel discussions” of “pundits” and “spokespersons” trying to shout over each other, twisting one another’s words, claiming “facts” that seem to have no root in empirical reality while simultaneously ignoring “facts” that seem to contradict their settled views.

It is the interminability of public disagreement that leads to its shrillness. We know those “others” will never listen to “our” reasons and arguments, so we don’t even try. And often, on some level we know ourselves that our preferred values have no basis beyond our own chosen moral framework. How can I rationally argue that homosexuals should not have the same rights as heterosexuals, if I know that my only reasons are my emotional revulsion and my religion, neither of which you share? And if I cannot even appeal to the will of the majority, how can I continue to argue? Only by sheer volume, or rhetoric, or by political maneuvering.[1] While a rational argument is ostensibly an appeal to or search for truth, what we have instead is manipulation of others and a contest of wills.

 

To be continued…

[1] See “Kentucky Students Get Hard Lesson in Politics from Lawmakers,” ABC News http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/wireStory/kentucky-students-hard-lesson-politics-lawmakers-29565223, accessed March 19, 2015

Review: David R. Law, “The ‘Ultimatum’ of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, Part Two, and the Two Upbuilding Discourses of 16 May 1843

February 13, 2013

David R. Law, “The ‘Ultimatum’ of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, Part Two, and the Two Upbuilding Discourses of 16 May 1843;” in The International Kierkegaard Commentary, vol. 4:   Either/Or, Part II, pp. 259-90

 

 

Law compares the general message of the “Ultimatum” and the two upbuilding discourses that “accompanied” it.  Law argues that while the three discourses may use different language, all three treat the ethical as “the Law” in Pauline/Lutheran theology, the “disciplinarian” that educates the individual up to the state of being ready to move from the ethical to the religious, and even to prompt the individual to move to the religious by presenting the breakdown of the ethical project.  At the same time, Law argues that all three discourses do not move completely beyond the ethical, either, since all three grant the self some self-sufficiency since it does have the power to surrender to God, to accept that as against God we are always in the wrong, that every thing that comes to us from God is a good gift, etc.  instead of conceding that even the will itself may be corrupted by sin and in need of grace.

In the discussion of the second discourse, Law points out that doubt about the future is concern over nothing; compare this to The Concept of Anxiety.  Are these discourses the beginnings of discussion of anxiety?  But anxiety is “the dizziness of freedom,” a fear of responsibility; concern about the future does not necessarily involve one’s own freedom, but only one’s stance in relation to the possibilities of the future.  Finally, Law argues that both these discourses and the “Ultimatum” present a Kierkegaardian theodicy, based on the book of Job’s argument that human reason is simply too limited to judge God or to complain about “evil” so we should have faith that what God wills is in fact good.

 

Review: “Kierkegaard’s Great Critique: Either/Or as a Kantian Transcendental Deduction;”

February 6, 2013

Ron Green, “Kierkegaard’s Great CritiqueEither/Or as a Kantian Transcendental Deduction;” in The International Kierkegaard Commentary, vol. 4:   Either/Or, Part II, pp. 139-53

 

 

Ron Green has really taken the lead in exploration of Kant’s influence on Kierkegaard.  While the Hegel-Kant connection has been debated by many writers and from various angles, Green has leapt past Hegel to look at the Kantian roots.  His book, Kierkegaard and Kant:  The Hidden Debt, examines (among other things) how Fear and Trembling can be fruitfully interpreted as a response to Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone; this article goes even further back to examine how Kant’s influence can be seen in the writings of Judge William.  There are some issues of content that are obvious:  Kant discusses duty in terms of “universal law,” William in terms of the “duty to realize the universal.”  Green goes further in also looking at the form of the argument in E/O, comparing it to the structure of Kant’s Critiques. As he points out, Kant undertakes his transcendental deduction following a form laid down in German law, governing property claims between petty nobles:  start with what is granted by both, explore the lineage of the claim, and deduce what must be true for this given to have been true.  The first Critique starts with sense experience, and with the claim that sense experience is all that there is.  Exploring the nature of sense experience, Kant argues that in fact a number of a priori concepts must be assumed for sense experience to be what it is.

William does something similar, although his manner is far less formal and systematic.  The experience he starts with is first love.  A writes extensively about love, falling in love, the passion of love, and so on; and the Judge points out to him that he really does believe in first love.  However, A also believes that only the aesthetic is real; he rejects eternal ethical principles and claims that as soon as duty is mentioned, love goes out the window.  Judge William points out that the promise of love is that it is forever; lovers say things like “I shall love you as long as there are stars in the sky,” swear that their love will outlive life itself, and (regularly in dramas and occasionally in life) even die for love.  William argues that A’s principles cannot explain this, which is why he ends up mocking first love even though he really longs for it (see his review of Scribe’s play).  Only the ethical believes that first love can endure, and it does so by arguing that it ought to last, lovers ought to keep their promise to one another, and (as Kant would say) “ought” implies “can.”  When the ethical makes love a duty, it is saying that love can last and therefore your love ought to last.  This is what aesthetic love wanted and even believed all along, but could not fulfill on its own principles.  Therefore, it is necessary to accept these other principles, ethical principles, for the aesthetic experience of first love to be true.

Green’s interest in the first Critique is more in the formula than in the content; he doesn’t discuss Kant’s notions of causality or God as expressed there.  Green finds more direct evidence for the content of the Critique of Practical Reason, even referring to the Judge’s arguments as a working out of Kant’s argument for freedom (p.  151).  Since Green is discussing William’s position and in particular his defense of marriage, he never discusses sin; so the usefulness of this article to my purposes is simply in reinforcing the Kantian nature of William’s ethical thought.

Review: The Hobbit: an unexpected journey (pt. i)

January 4, 2013

Review:  The Hobbit:  an unexpected journey

 

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

—–J. R. R. Tolkien

 

First, I’ll try to do a little of what seems to be customary in reviews:  help the reader decide whether or not to see the movie.  I shall not say much about the acting skills of the stars and so forth, because I have little expertise in such matters; I shall simply offer some observations and advice.  Then, I shall proceed to what I consider much more interesting:  a philosophical discussion of what the story is saying.  Every story reflects the world and changes it at the same time.  If the reflection is accurate, it can help one to see one’s world better; if the reflection is encouraging, it can change it for the better; if it is deceitful or demoralizing it can make the hearer and the world a bit worse.  Attending to the story can help blunt the bad and sharpen the good; simply absorbing thoughtlessly can allow the good to wash over one and away, while the bad sinks in and stains the soul.  But first to the esthetics: and as a final warning, if you didn’t want spoilers of some sort you should just go to the movie and not read reviews like this one.

General review:  Do you want to see this movie?  If you enjoyed Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, you will probably enjoy The Hobbit:  an unexpected journey as well.  On the other hand, if you enjoyed the original book by Tolkien, you may not enjoy the movie so much.  The reason for both of these is the same:  Jackson has added a great deal of material to his version of the Story of the Hobbit, some gleaned from unpublished Tolkien writings and some original to the movie, that strengthened links between the story of Bilbo Baggins and the tale of world war and cataclysm to follow.  As a reader of Tolkien, I found The Hobbit to be a brighter, lighter tale.  There is more humor, and rarely is Bilbo in as much danger as he is in discomfort.  And the book moves faster; it is a shorter story with less detail.  For example (this is from the book and does not enter the current movie at all), there is the adventure when Bilbo must save the dwarves from giant spiders.  He alone is not caught, and he saves them not by force of arms but by taunting the spiders, throwing rocks and insults.  Tolkien writes:

 

 

Practically all the spiders in the place came after him:  some dropped to the ground, others raced along the branches, swung from tree to tree, or cast new ropes across the dark spaces.  They made for his noise far quicker than he had expected.  They were frightfully angry.  Quite apart from the stones no spider has ever liked being called Attercop, and Tomnoddy of course is insulting to anybody.[1]

 

 

Once the spiders are distracted hunting him, Bilbo sneaks back to the dwarves and frees them from the webs.  These are talking spiders, not merely huge ones, and thus as liable to temper and folly as anyone.  They are not merely animals or monsters chasing a noise, but rather bad-tempered villains whose pride has been wounded.  We can’t really imagine Gandalf distracting the Balrog with choice insults, or Samwise luring Shelob away from her prize with a few rocks and some stamping.  Even in its darkest moments, The Hobbit remains a fairy-tale, while The Lord of the Rings is an apocalyptic epic.  The earlier book is lighter even in its darkest moments, with elements of humor and tales of cleverness defeating brute force and malice.

Elements of this remain in Jackson’s most recent movie, but there have been significant expansions.  The expansions are generally more somber, as they aim to foreshadow the return of Sauron and other fateful events leading to the War of the Rings.  Jackson has also added some violence, with Bilbo actually attacking a goblin and killing him in a scene that originally had Bilbo and his friends hiding trees awaiting a grim fate.  And finally, there is the greater visceral impact of visual over print depictions of violence.  It is one thing to write that Thorin killed a goblin; it is another to show extremely detailed and believable depictions of sword-and-ax fighting, with heads and limbs severed and flying across the screen (I can only imagine what this would look like in 3-D[2]).  True, there is no real blood; but I think that anyone who does not think this is nightmare material for small children has forgotten childhood.  This movie is rated PG-13 with good reason.  It may better suit a young audience than The Lord of the Rings, but not by much.

But as I said, if you enjoyed the earlier trilogy, you will enjoy The Hobbit.  It does have more humor than the Ring films, and thus does have a slightly lighter mood.  It also has a smaller focus; the War of the Ring is an apocalyptic struggle, while this is the story of a rather fussy homebody thrust into the company of thirteen adventurers, now trying to keep up and do what his heart tells him is right.  Gandalf the Grey is a bit less grey, Bilbo is considerably younger than when we last saw him (and played by a different actor), the dwarves generally less gruff than Gimli (Thorin is plenty grim, but as a general statement of all thirteen dwarves I think it is true).  Radagast represents a somewhat darker moment, warning of the coming evil he has seen; but any character who rides a sled pulled by giant rabbits cannot help but cheer you up a little.  And those rabbits, and the goblins, trolls, giants and other creatures and details of the world, all show the marvelous tools modern special effects offer to the imaginative moviemaker.  About the only criticism one could offer in this regard would be to complain that it is too much like the Ring trilogy.  Perhaps, when we see more of Smaug, we will really say, “This is something totally new.”

To be continued…..


[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, or, There and Back Again, revised edition (New York, Ballentine Books, 1978) pp. 157-58.  The original version was written in 1936, three decades before publication of The Fellowship of the Ring.

[2] as I myself have no depth perception, besides which I saw only the 2-D movie.