Posts Tagged ‘Left Behind’

The Lord of the Rings and Apocalyptic Writing

October 21, 2014

This is a rough draft of the lecture I offered to one of my church’s adult Sunday School classes on Oct. 19, 2014.  I was rewriting and reorganizing up until the last minute; in particular, I could not decide whether to discuss the “Character Sketches” or “The Lord of the Rings as Apocalyptic Literature” first.  Also, I didn’t cover the material in italics at all.  However, you might find the information useful, if you are the sort of reader who cares more about ideas than style.

The Lord of the Rings

 

As discussed last week, Tolkien saw four purposes to fairy stories: Fantasy, Recovery, Escape and Consolation. I would summarize the relationship between these four thus: Fantasy allows us to see the familiar and commonplace as magical and extraordinary, and to see the possibility for the extraordinary to break into the familiar and commonplace. As C. S. Lewis put it, talk of enchanted woods helps us see all woods as enchanted; that is Fantasy and Recovery in action. And as Samwise Gamgee put it, the people in those stories had lots of chances to turn around, and didn’t, because they were holding onto a hope that there was still some good left and that good can still come to us even when so much bad has happened; that is Escape and Consolation at work. The Lord of the Rings is a fairy story, and these are its central functions. However, as Tolkien also says, to understand the story, we need to look at the particularities of that story. The storyteller has a reason for telling it just this way.

            Not only was this a three part series, but each part has two volumes; so it is a very complicated plot. Considering that writing wasn’t even his day job, it is amazing that it only took from 1937 to 1949 to write. It took another six years to get the entire series into print; Tolkien first offered it to Collins Publishing, which rejected it, then turned to Allen & Unwin. Tolkien’s first choice to follow up on the success of The Hobbit would have been to publish The Simarillion, but Allen & Unwin had suggested he write “more hobbit stories;” so starting in 1937 he began composing a new tale, including hobbits but also picking up on many of the themes and much of the tone of The Simarillion. For those of you who have not read the books or seen any of the movies, first, how long have you been in al Qaeda? And second, here is a brief recap. The story begins pretty much as “Hobbit: The Next Generation,” some 60 years after the events of The Hobbit. So yes, I’m telling the story out of sequence because I wanted to end with The Hobbit in celebration of the coming film. Bilbo is an old man, preparing for his 111th (or “Eleventy-First”) birthday party. His favorite cousin and legal heir, Frodo Baggins, is 33 and therefore has just legally become an adult. Gandalf arrives, ostensibly for the party and to provide fireworks; but actually, he is there for a much more serious reason. He has become suspicious of the magic ring Biblo found on his adventure with the dwarves, and has determined that he should separate Bilbo from it. With assistance and some pressure from Gandalf, Bilbo slips away to Rivendell, the kingdom of the elves, to retire, leaving the ring and all his possessions to Frodo. After further investigation Gandalf returns, having confirmed his fears that Bilbo’s ring is actually a powerful talisman, the “One Ring to Rule Them All” created ages ago by Sauron, servant of Melkor, and worn first by him in his attempt to conquer Middle Earth. He tells Frodo to take the Ring and his faithful gardener, Samwise Gamgee, to Rivendell, where the wise elf Elrond will help decide what to do with it. The two hobbits pick up two more, meet a mysterious human called Strider, and after adventures and mishaps manage to reach Rivendell. There it is decided that the Ring must be returned to Mordor, the land Sauron rules, and there destroyed in the very volcano where it was first forged. Frodo volunteers to take the Ring, and representatives of the Humans, Elves and Dwarves agree to accompany him, along with his three hobbit friends. After adventures, hardship, war and suffering, Frodo succeeds in his quest. The Ring is destroyed, Strider is revealed to be the true King Aragorn and takes his rightful throne, and at the end of the movies the elves and wizards, together with Bilbo and Frodo, leave Middle Earth forever to return to the western lands where elves originated, the White Shore, which is essentially Heaven. In Tolkien’s writings, it is revealed that the Elves all leave Middle Earth to return to the Creator, the Dwarves tunnel deeper into the earth and are eventually forgotten, the Hobbits gradually grow taller and become humans. The kingly line begun with Aragorn peters out anticlimactically, eventually leaving a less magical world with more mundane terrors and joys, in which we now live.

            Now that I’ve totally ruined the story with a flat and rushed retelling, let me try to say something about why it is far more significant than my synopsis suggests. This work is part of Tolkien’s overall project of creating a mythic backdrop for England and the modern age. He aims first to write the best stories possible, using all his gifts of Sub-Creation and Fantasy to offer his readers a chance to see a new world, and to see their own world anew. He imbues his stories with Christian themes and values, though he rarely mentions even the elvish religion described in The Simarillion. This is an ancient, prehistoric world from our perspective; God has not been revealed. We therefore see little in the way of religion and no signs of religious institutions among the peoples of Middle Earth. Tolkien despised allegory; he preferred give his readers plenty of room for their own exercises of Fantasy. Therefore, unlike the Narnia stories which were appearing at the same time, he has no direct Christ figure (Aslan), no overt biblical references (such as referring to humans as “Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve”), and in general no “code” such that a reader who didn’t get the reference could be said to have misunderstood the book. Instead, Tolkien presents a story much more in the form of a fairy-story or legend about a quest to accomplish some task, overcoming monsters and other challenges moral and physical along the way, through which the inner heroic nature of some persons is revealed, while others fail in the quest and fall tragic victims of their inner flaws.

The Lord of the Rings as Apocalyptic Literature

The Ring can be analyzed as Fairy-Story, or even Epic; today, it is discussed more as Action-Adventure or perhaps Sword and Sorcery. As a theologian, I consider it as another literary genre: Apocalyptic. This is what I argued in my paper for SECSOR, though there I had more video to show off. Apocalyptic is a genre of Biblical writing, which appears in later portions of the Old Testament as well as in the New. According to Stephen Harris, the author of the textbook I used when I taught Intro to New Testament at Santa Fe College, the word “apocalypse” means “revelation,” and “is thus a disclosure of things previously hidden, particularly unseen realities of the spirit world and future events. Apocalyptic writers typically describe visions or dreams in which they encounter supernatural beings ranging from hideous monsters to angels who communicate God’s future intentions.” Harris lists several qualities of apocalyptic literature in the Bible. Since my main interest here is to compare Tolkien not so much to the Bible as to other 20th Century writers, I will try to be brief.

  1. Universality: the writers typically do not merely discuss a particular city or even nation, but address the whole world.
  2. Cosmic Dualism: particularly, there is a dualism between matter and spirit, with the spiritual realm having great power to act in and control the material world.
  3. Chronological dualism: apocalyptic writers describe how this age is evil, but will be swept away by a future good age.
  4. Ethical dualism: people are either material and evil and walk in darkness, or they are spiritual and good and godly. The evil will be destroyed when this evil age is destroyed; the good will live in blessedness thereafter.
  5. Predestination: whatever will happen has already been foreordained by God.
  6. Exclusivism: reject the world and its evil ways completely, show total fidelity to God.
  7. Limited theology: no sympathy for outsiders; they are damned and deserve it.
  8. A Violent God who wreaks judgment and vengeance.
  9. Eschatological preoccupation: much interest in what comes after death, etc.
  10. Use of symbols and code words.

Apocalyptic writing and preaching has been important in Christian preaching for a long time. What is interesting here is how, starting in the 20th Century, there began to be a number of apocalyptic fictional writings and movies. In the 1970’s there was A Thief in the Night, which was a relatively low-budget production aimed at showing Evangelicals, particularly youth, a literal understanding of the events predicted by apocalyptic Biblical writings, as these are interpreted primarily by 19th and 20th Century Protestant Evangelical Dispensationalist theologians. In 2000 the movie The Omega Code opened in December near the top of the box office sales. But the real phenomenon has been, of course, the Left Behind series, which first saw publication in 1995 and became a series of movies beginning in 2001. The books have sold many millions of copies, often topping the New York Times bestseller lists despite the fact that the NYT does not generally count sales at purely Christian bookstores, where many copies were sold. For those of you who never saw or read such a thing, here’s a taste:

[SHOW CLIP: RAPTURE SCENE ON THE PLANE: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j7tOcyBkLEQ]

 

These movies show many of the classic traits of Biblical apocalyptic literature, particularly emphasizing ethical dualism, limited theology, predestination and an image of God as judgmental and harsh, willing to leave millions to suffer on Earth because of their lack of faith or doctrinal purity. They do differ from the Bible in one respect: they try to present everything as literal fact. Therefore, they tend to interpret or eliminate the code words and symbols presented in the Bible. A really literal presentation of John’s Apocalypse would look like a Japanese monster movie; instead, “The Beast with seven heads” becomes a human being, usually the Secretary-General of the United Nations, with other symbols being similarly interpreted. Generally, this also means that other supernatural elements are downplayed as well.

To begin to make my case that The Lord of the Rings is apocalyptic literature, let me start with this clip (Aragorn Arrives at Helm’s Deep):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D1oJFbPr5X8

 

First, the qualities that LOTR shares with apocalyptic literature from the Bible: First, it is universal. This is not just the battle of one kingdom against a tyrant; it is the battle of humanity against utter destruction. It is an army bred not just to conquer a kingdom; it is an army bred to destroy the world. In such a battle, there is no middle ground; even those who seek to remain neutral will eventually either take sides or be destroyed by the evil. The Bible has a cosmic dualism; Tolkien does not divide reality into “spiritual and material,” but between Primary World and Faerie, the Perilous Realm. While John told his story of being taken up into Heaven and seeing visions, Tolkien tells stories of a Secondary World where magic, monsters and elves are real. Unlike the apocalyptic norm, however, Tolkien’s Illuvatar is neither vengeful nor overtly controlling. Tolkien might point out that we should look at the story’s origin, the Storyteller, to understand the tale. Most Biblical apocalyptic was written to people undergoing violent persecution. To them, the assurance that God is firmly in control despite all appearances was vitally important. Tolkien aims at an audience that may or may not currently believe in God, though he hopes to nudge them along. His primary interest is to provide moral ideals and imaginative role models. He wants the reader to be able to put himself or herself in the character’s place. He wants us to feel the moral challenge Frodo and Sam feel when confronted with Gollum, or Borimir’s struggle against the Ring. Thus, he needs free will. As the elf Galadriel tells Frodo the hobbit, “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future .” (in the movie The Two Towers). Even if you think you are the most insignificant person alive, you matter, and may even save or doom the world; so every choice you make matters.

By contrast, in the Left Behind movies you hear the repeated refrain, “You cannot go against the word of God.” Ultimately, nothing any of the characters in the movies does matters one whit. You cannot fight the Antichrist; everything that happens, even the evil of the Antichrist, is part of a script God wrote before Time began, which must be followed until the last line.

This is why I object to the Left Behind theology. Unlike the original, Biblical audience, it is not really directed at the persecuted. The characters in that movie were all pretty middle-class and comfortable. Evangelical theology grew out of the revival tradition, which generally aimed first to make the listener of the sermon as uncomfortable as possible. The message was not, “Take comfort, for God is in charge;” it was, “You are sinners in the hands of an angry God; be afraid, for God is in charge.” While Tolkien hopes his reader will be empowered to make moral choices and act decisively, the Evangelical emphasis is not on doing good but on believing correctly. This is shown most dramatically in the movie through the character of a young preacher, who knew the theology and who preached to his congregation, and all of them are raptured away and he is left in an empty church, because he didn’t believe enough. (A Thief in the Night has a similar Christian character who is left to endure the reign of the Antichrist because she attended a church that didn’t teach Evangelical theology.) In the end, there is a real paradox here, that begins to peek out when you read the back of the box for Left Behind. The box asks you, which character would you be? How would you be in this story? But every viewer of that story is expecting NOT to be anyone. We good people will be raptured away; you bad people, who looked down on us and said we were silly, will be forced to live through the Tribulation while we look on from Heaven. Tolkien invites you in, to participate as one or maybe several of the characters, and to really imagine yourself facing these terrors; Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins invite you to escape all the troubles and all the fear and all the suffering, and to move from the relative comfort of your middle-class life to the complete joy of Heaven without any of the suffering of any of the people in the stories. The ones who suffer are good, but they weren’t good enough or they didn’t believe enough or believe rightly; now you can do better than them and learn, not from imitating them but by avoiding the mistake that put them in the story in the first place.

One of the purposes of “the stories that matter” is that the reader or listener can put himself or herself into the story and learn something from it. This is why Beowulf fights monsters instead of fellow Norsemen. I read a promotional tag for Left Behind; “Which one would you be?” But the problem with Left Behind is that it seeks to speak “literal truth” and thus to evoke Primary Belief. And if this is a tale of the Primary World, there is no way anyone should want to see himself or herself in the story. It becomes a cautionary tale, not an inspirational one. Before the characters could become role models, we first have to see them as fictional. When we see them as fiction, we can resolve to make them real, in us. That is the genius of Tolkien and the failure of this sort of literalist dispensationalism. I can meaningfully ask, “What Would Frodo Do?” and when I answer myself, I can try to do that in my own life. The fact that The Lord of the Rings is a fairy-story makes this all the easier. Before I can learn any such lesson from the slurry of biblical images and party politics that is today’s dispensationalist theology, I have to stop taking it literally; which is the one thing I am told NOT to do.

The Lord of the Rings and Left Behind are both tales about the end of the world. One purports to be Fantasy, a fairy-story, that is shot through with religious lessons. The other purports to be a literal reading of the Christian Bible and a road-map through the future. One offers images of how to face challenges; the other seeks to frighten the reader or viewer into avoiding those challenges by giving the story Primary Belief. One invites the reader or viewer to enter the story for a time and then return to the Primary World; the other urges the reader or viewer to avoid becoming part of the story. And one promotes the Christian virtues, and particularly humility; it is the totally unheroic hobbits who save the world. The other promotes self-righteousness coupled with fatalism. I can illustrate that with one line that comes up repeatedly in the “Left Behind” theology: “You cannot go against the Word of God.” The dispensationalist is thoroughly convinced that he or she knows exactly what the future holds; our only job is to speak the lines God wrote for us. After the Rapture, the characters agree that they cannot hope to overthrow or meaningfully oppose the Antichrist; the only thing they can do is “witness.” There is no point in trying to reduce the suffering around them, since this suffering is foreordained; all they are to do is tell people that this suffering was all predicted by their theology. In a similar way, Evangelical preacher Kay Arthur said “You cannot go against the Word of God” as she described how Israeli Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated to prevent peace between Israel and the Arabs; after all, such a peace would prevent the battle of Armageddon.[1] Others say that poverty is part of God’s plan, so we shouldn’t try to eradicate poverty. Others say God is raising the Earth’s temperature, and that any attempt to protect the environment is literally doing Satan’s work (this from a large church near Sun City, Florida). Tolkien, on the other hand, says that God entices and urges, but does not overrule our freedom. God uses our freedom as part of His design. Even Gollum’s sin becomes an integral part of saving the world. And Tolkien’s writings take the mistakes people make, and the suffering these cause, seriously. The dispensationalist may gleefully look forward to the Battle of Armageddon, confident that he or she will be safely in Heaven watching everyone else suffer and thinking smugly, “I told you so!” Tolkien looks at war as grim, full of suffering and pain, even when it is also necessary and honorable. The dispensationalist may say God and only God rules the world, so we shouldn’t think about the environment; Tolkien uses Saruman’s desolation of the land around Isengard to show us the effects of our modern mind of metal and wheels. Tolkien’s style invites us to see ourselves as imitators of the characters, as Paul offered himself, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” The lessons he offers reaffirm that call to be sub-creators and co-workers with Christ. The “Left Behind” theology, by contrast, encourages a proud sense of having secret knowledge, a superiority over all those around you who disagree with your right views; and in style, by claiming to be literal, Primary World truths, they actually discourage one from imitating whatever positive examples one might find.

The Cast of Characters

I can’t possibly discuss the full significance of all the characters; even if I were up to such a task, time doesn’t allow it. Instead, I will focus on a few characters who seem to me to be particularly interesting from a theological perspective. And since this is “The Lord of the Rings,” I will begin with a character which is not a person, has no spoken lines, and yet moves the entire story: the One Ring.

Without going too much into the details of the mythology of The Simarillion, the Rings of Power are said to have been made from the essence of the original light of Creation, stolen by Melkor the rebel and then used by his lieutenant Sauron after Melkor’s second and final defeat. While the elves were persuaded to make rings for themselves, the dwarves and for men, Sauron forged the One Ring for himself, which would give him control of the others or at least neutralize them. With this magic, Sauron nearly conquers Middle Earth, until the ring is cut from his finger by Isildor, a human king and warrior. However, Isildor decides to keep the ring for himself and use it to maintain his own power. Eventually the ring slips from his finger at a key moment, and he is killed. The ring then passes to Gollum, then Bilbo, and finally to Frodo Baggins, a good-hearted and unassuming hobbit.

Some have tried to argue that the Ring is a symbol for the atomic bomb, a power so destructive that it should never have been made. Tolkien rejected that and all other attempts to reduce his writing to straightforward allegory. The One Ring is a metaphor for evil, for the desire to control, but it is not meant to represent any one “real world” evil. That would limit the meaning and the applicability of Tolkien’s story too much. What the Ring does represent is the nature of evil, and temptation.

The Ring has three primary powers: invisibility, longevity and coercion. The invisibility aspect seems to have begun in The Hobbit before Tolkien had decided to make this anything more than a lucky ring. However, he knew the story from Plato’s Republic of the magic Ring of Gyges. That tale argued that anyone who had a ring of invisibility would be shameless; knowing his deeds could not be seen by others, he would stop at nothing to satisfy his own appetites and ambition. Its second power, longevity, answers particularly to the fear of moral humans: death. The ultimate result of both of these is made visible in the character of Gollum. He lives in darkness, where no one can see him. To be invisible means to be cut off from community with others, to be solitary. His greatly lengthened lifespan is no gift either, as his life has length but no corresponding content; it is just an endless repetition of eating raw fish and the occasional murdered goblin to satisfy his hunger. The Ring’s power of coercion is primarily seen in its control of Gollum, who is nearly consumed by the Ring. In the hands of a powerful wielder, like Isildor or Sauron, it becomes the ability to command others against their will.

Evil rarely tempts head-on; generally, it appeals to our virtues first. Gandalf sees this and fears to even touch the Ring for a second, knowing his own pity for others would lead him to want to control them, for their own good, and thus destroy their personhood. Boromir is a brave warrior who wants only to save his homeland; but his bravery is used against him by the Ring, to tempt him to kill Frodo, steal the Ring for himself, and then replace Sauron as the Lord of Middle Earth. Frodo, and Sam briefly, and Bilbo are able to handle the Ring more safely, probably because they are hobbits: simple, rustic, unpretentious, rightfully humble hobbits. They have no desire to dominate others and no belief that they could. There is simply very little for the Ring to grab onto.

As to the original Lord of the Ring, Sauron, he has invested so much of his own power into creating the Ring that he has no real physical form anymore. In a very real sense, he is The Ring. His will radiates out from his stronghold in Mordor, to control the orcs and other evil things that serve him; but he lives only because the Ring still exists, and until he is united with it he is divided and weakened. In the end, Evil is defeated by humility, by weakness and not strength, as the hobbits Frodo and Sam throw the Ring into the volcano where it was forged and the only place it can be destroyed.

Next I would like to discuss Legolas the Elf and Gimli the Dwarf, and more generally with elves and dwarves. Illuvatar the Creator made the Valar to be his servants and co-workers, and delegated much of the work of creation to them. He directly created two beings: Elves and Men. Only Illuvatar could do this, because only God can create a free-willed being; the work of the Valar was to create a world with lesser beings where these two peoples could live. The Elves were immortal in that they don’t die of old age, though they can die either violently or voluntarily.   They were intended to live in Valinor, also known as the Undying Lands, a Paradise created by Illuvatar as their home. However, one group of elves disobeyed. Having been seduced, morally weakened and then betrayed by Melkor, the rebellious Valar who serves as a Lucifer figure, this group of elves left the place the Creator assigned them to chase their evil foe to Middle Earth. Ultimately they failed to defeat him, and found themselves exiled from the Undying Lands.

Dwarves have a different origin from either Elves or Humans. They were created by one of the Valar, who desired to imitate Illuvatar and make a people. As we saw last week, it is natural for the created to imitate the Creator. However, Illuvatar was not pleased, because the Valar had not asked permission first and Illuvatar wanted the Elves to be the first people; at the time the Dwarves were made, the Elves had not yet been awakened. Also, the Dwarves had no free will, since only God can make a free-willed person. Their maker therefore prepared to destroy them in obedience to the Creator, but the Creator knew that this was not a rebellion but just over-eagerness on the Valar’s part; and he also took pity on the Dwarves. Therefore, he gave the Dwarves free will, but said they must wait until the Elves were awakened before they could be brought to life on Middle Earth.

Thus, Elves are created by Illuvatar the Creator, and are the very essence of Faerie: magical, immortal, and from another land, Valinor, not really native to this world. The Dwarves are said to have been created in the depths of a mountain, so they are much more “of this earth.” They are long-lived but mortal. They are as skilled craftsmen as are the Elves in many ways, but not as magical or wise. And their maker created them tough, to fight Melkor, and they seem to be even more resistant to the temptations of Melkor and his lieutenant Sauron than the elves were. They are said to be “step-children” of Illuvatar, since they were not made by him initially but he took care of them and gave them full personhood. Tolkien writes that there is much tension between elves and dwarves, partly due to their different temperaments (elves being rather “out there” and otherworldly, dwarves being solid, stolid and practical). Sometimes this led to dwarf nations staying neutral in the battles between good and evil, preferring to ignore the rest of the world rather than ally with either the elves or the evil orcs.

Legolas the Wood Elf and Gimli the Dwarf represent old enemies. In The Hobbit, the Wood Elves capture a party of dwarves trying to cross through their forest to reclaim their kingdom which was destroyed by the dragon Smaug. Gloin, Gimli’s father, was one of those dwarves who was captured, then freed by Bilbo the Hobbit. The climax of The Hobbit (and the end of the movie series) is “The Battle of Five Armies,” where an army of Wood Elves (led by Legolas’ father, the Elf King) attempts to take the dwarves’ treasure by force, together with a group of Men, only to ally with the Men and Dwarves to fight a goblin army that arrives (watch the movie to see who the fifth army is).

In The Lord of the Rings, Legolas and Gimili are initially rivals; Gimli’s father had been imprisoned by Legolas’ father, so neither really trusted the other’s people. They each join the Fellowship to destroy Sauron and the evil Ring of Power initially to keep an eye on each other. Their rivalry becomes a competition to see who can be the bravest and most effective warrior; rather than fighting each other, they compete to see who can do the most good. Through shared hardship and willingness to sacrifice themselves, they become fast friends. After evil is defeated, Elves eventually return to Valinor, leaving this world to the Men. Dwarves simply disappear from history; I’ve looked and I can’t find where they went. But Gimli and Legolas are such great friends that after many years of traveling together and visiting each other’s lands, Gimli joins Legolas for the final voyage to Valinor, becoming the only dwarf to enter the Undying Lands.

Legolas and Gimli illustrate Tolkien’s belief that good, and only good, brings people together, through shared endeavors and through service to one another. Good induces and invites; it does not override freedom. Thus the friendship between Legolas and Gimli had to develop on its own. Despite personal, historical and even metaphysical reasons to oppose each other, they become the best of friends.

By contrast, the origins of the Orcs reveals the nature of Evil. The Orcs were created by Melkor, not in obedient imitation of Illuvatar but in rebellious envy. Melkor wanted a people of his own. However, Evil cannot create anything; as St. Augustine said, Evil is only the absence or lessening of Good, not an independent reality. To make a people, Melkor had to parasitize the good creation. He corrupted and mauled captive elves to make them into his creatures. They are creatures of pure hate; they hate themselves, they hate other races, and they hate their creator and lord. Evil never has true community, or true freedom; it knows only coercion and violence. The orcs show this in their squabbling and murder of one another, as well as other creatures. They are said by Tolkien to make no beautiful things, but many clever ones, particularly for war. They aren’t stupid; they are simply evil. They are incapable of voluntary cooperation at all, because they are incapable of either trust or service to neighbor; they only work together when forced to by a stronger leader.

The contrast between dwarves and orcs shows the difference between genuine sub-creation and illegitimate invention. The maker of the dwarves could not match God’s creative activity, though he tried to imitate the Creator as best he could. When he realized he could not and should not have tried, he even offered to destroy his work in contrition. Because of this, God gave that sub-creation real existence. By contrast, Melkor would not be humble before God, and his attempts at creation are all not in imitation of God but attempts to supplant God. This sort of work cannot be redeemed. It is evil and all it does is evil. It is not true creation at all, but merely a twisting of what was originally created good. And ultimately, evil is self-destructive, just as good is nourishing and truly creative.

This contrast shows up again in the contrast between Gandalf and Saruman. Both of these are maiar, spiritual beings who took physical form at will and served the Valar in their work of creation. Five of these spiritual beings took the form of wizards. Two went east and play no major part in any stories. Radagast the Brown is mentioned in passing in the published books, becoming a much more important character in the movies. The two principle wizards are Saruman the White and Gandalf the Grey. Saruman is the mightiest and wisest, but his greatness is the source of his temptation. He seeks to understand his own nature, better to control the power rather than merely serve it. He thus refracts his own white, becoming Saruman the Many-Colored; his apparently white robe is found by Gandalf to actually be millions of different threads of every hue. As Gandalf says, “he who breaks a thing in order to understand it has left the path of knowledge.” Instead of serving the good, Illuvatar the Light, Saruman has splintered his light, thinking this would make him even more knowledgeable and powerful; instead, it leaves him too shrewd for his own good, and he tries to join forces with Sauron to gain still more power and safety. He is described by Tolkien as having a mind of metal, full of wheels and machines. He is the archetypal modern industrial scientist, using his creative powers without regard either to nature or to other persons, seeking only his own safety and power. In the end his politicking, plotting and betrayal failed, and he wound up escaping imprisonment only to be defeated by an army of hobbits led by Samwise Gamgee. What could be more pathetic?

Gandalf the Grey, on the other hand, grows stronger by not seeking his own good, but that of others. He is said by Tolkien to have been particularly close to the Valar of Mercy, and it is pity and mercy that drive him. While he is known for dire prophecies, he always acts for the good of others. In the end he offers his own life to save his friends and ensure the quest to destroy the Ring will continue. As a result, he is reborn to the place where Saruman would have been, becoming Gandalf the White. It is in service to others that the faithful find true greatness. He does not seek to master this new power for his own ends, as Saruman did, but rather serves it and uses it for others.

I will not try to do justice to the other main characters here. I will suffice to point out perhaps the major difference between the Narnia tales and The Lord of the Rings: a gaggle of Christ figures. C.S. Lewis wrote evangelical (small “e”) allegories, so he has a straightforward Christ symbol: Aslan the Lion. Tolkien is determined to depict a world before Christ or even Abraham. However, as he said in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” all fairy tales are a sort of precursor or echo of the Gospel consolation. If every fairy story is a kind of Gospel, Tolkien can have several characters who are a precursor of Christ. And in fact, he would say, every Christian should be an imitator of Christ, in his or her own way. Aragorn is a type of Christ the King who returns; he offers literal healing and redemption even to the dead; and he offers his life in a suicidal attack on Mordor to give Frodo a better chance to succeed. Frodo bears our evil upon himself and suffers for it, and finally rids us of it. Gandalf lays down his life for his friends and comes back to life again. But even humble Sam the Gardener has his part to play, as a type of St. Christopher, the Christ-Bearer, who carries Frodo the last few steps.

[1] Bob Simon, “Zion’s Christian Soldiers,” 60 Minutes, Oct. 6, 2002, http://www.wrmea.org/2002-december/zion-s-christian-soldiers-the-60-minutes-transcript.html (accessed October 13, 2014) or see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JsJ-dDPiTbk and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=adyUNQ7U8NQ

A Gamer Looks at Politics: the government shutdown (pt. iv)

October 16, 2013

A Gamer Looks at Politics:  the government shutdown (pt. iv)

So let us be blunt about it: we must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.

—-Gary North

 

Thus far, I have tried to discuss the strategy of the Republican party by looking at its moves.  I have shared my impression that their opposition to health care reform was a political tactic to attempt to win the White House, a tactic which failed; and now, faced with the consequence of having lost their best chance to meaningfully influence the health care debate, they are attempting to derail all reform efforts as part of their ongoing presidential campaigning.  In order to regain the leverage they threw away, they are engaged in political brinksmanship, threatening to essentially destroy the United States as the preeminent nation on the planet unless they are allowed to dictate the terms of its survival.

All of this assumes, however, that the GOP actually wants the nation to survive.  Some clearly are patriots; whether you agree or disagree with their policies, it is obvious that there are millions of Americans, from the rank-and-file to some of the leaders, who deeply love this nation.  In fact, some studies have shown that the more deeply someone loves the symbols of the nation, or the more deeply someone is grateful to the military for its work defending the nation, or the more generally patriotic a person is, the more likely it is that this person will be conservative.  This is not surprising; the person who loves what the nation is will naturally want to conserve it, while the one who wants radical change is likely not to feel any great commitment to things that are or have been.  This does not, however, prove that Republicans as a whole, or as a party, are more or less in love with the nation than are Democrats.

Many Republicans openly doubt that Democrats are committed to this nation.  They view the Democrats as a collection of gays, racial minorities, feminists, non-Christians and the poor who care only about their own little group.  However, when you add up the list of people who are seen as “other” by the people Sarah Palin referred to as “real America,” you find that the really real America is in fact that polyglot, cacophonous amalgam.  No doubt there are still many millions with allegiance more to their own group than to the nation; but for the most part, the old revolutionaries of my childhood have stopped trying to chop holes in the hull of the ship of state, and now spend their energies wrestling over the wheel.

The GOP, on the other hand, has become an alliance of groups that openly admit they do not have the best interests of the nation at heart, if “the nation” is the United States, established according to the Constitution and governed by principles of representative democracy.  For the last forty years, one of the most powerful blocs within the Republican party has been the Evangelicals, or so-called “social conservatives.”  They are impelled by a range of motives.  Some simply love Jesus and seek to express their faith as they understand it.  Some believe that the problems of the nation will be solved if everyone becomes an Evangelical.  Of these, there are two main types:  social conformists and Deuteronomistic patriots.™[1]  Social conformists believe that the greatest problems facing the nation are social division and disagreement; if everyone would just have the same values and goals, all our other problems would quickly vanish. The Deuteronomistic patriots, by contrast, are those Evangelicals whose patriotism is shaped by the view of history that underlies the “Deutonomistic History” in the Old Testament.  The Deuteronomistic History includes the books of First and Second Samuel and First and Second Kings, and outlines how God blessed Israel when it followed the covenant with God as described in Deuteronomy, and cursed it when the people broke the covenant.  This way of thinking holds that if the United States suppressed “sin” (such as homosexuality and female equality) then God would protect the nation from harm.[2]  This may be superstition and may be a reaction to the free-floating anxiety many feel, but it is not essentially anti-American.

Many Evangelicals, however, have little allegiance to the United States, precisely because they are Evangelicals.  Many are eschatological anarchists.  They do not care what happens to the United States or the world, because this world is the realm of Satan.  Any strong governmental or quasi-governmental power is likely the future tool of the Antichrist.  Better to have war, genocide, persecution and mass rape than to have the blue-helmets of the United Nations rolling across the landscape with their ever-efficient and all-powerful “Peacekeeper” armies, imposing the world dictatorship of their Secretary General (see the Left Behind books and movies).  Wars, earthquakes, famine, ecological and political disasters are all signs of the End Times, and therefore a good thing; and in particular, war in the Middle East shows that we are one step closer to Armageddon, when Jesus will finally return to rule the world.  Of course, eschatological believers don’t expect to actually have to endure most of these horrors they wish to unleash; they expect the Rapture to carry them away into Heaven before the seas become lifeless and the skies burn (whether from nuclear war, global warming or the star Wormwood).

The other powerful group within Evangelical political thinking are the Dominionists.  This group expects that the kingdom that Jesus will establish for his followers will be on this Earth, once Christians have replaced the representative democracy of the Constitution with a theocracy.  They openly proclaim that they intend to use the democratic institutions to undermine democracy, since democracy means allowing rights to non-evangelicals of all sorts.[3]  To the Christian Dominionist (particularly according to the Christian Reconstructionism advocated by Gary North and Rousas Rushdoony) anything that weakens any aspect of the United States as it exists today is good, because that will help create the power vacuum into which the true followers of Jesus can take over.  They promote the politics and economic theories of Ayn Rand (while ignoring the fact that Rand thought all religious believers were nut jobs more dangerous even than the Communists) because her sort of extreme laissez-faire capitalism means a weak central government unable to prevent a theocratic revolution.  They promote the destruction of all government social services, because they want people to depend entirely on churches for education, health care, and help for the elderly.  They seek to replace public education with homeschooling and religious schools, and promote state vouchers to divert funds from the public school system as a way to weaken it.  They promote fear and hatred of Muslims and other religions, because they want Christianity to be the ruling religious and political power.  They despise most other Christians because the vast majority of Christians would oppose their plans to impose a Mosaic Covenant theocracy on the nation.

To the Evangelical Anarchists, a debt default would be quite literally a godsend, something they will unhesitatingly work towards.  The eschatologists expect to be snatched up into Heaven as the economic and political chaos begins.  The Christian Reconstructionists want to cause political anarchy so they can take over; a national default will force a bankrupt America to shut down, leaving them to take over all functions of government.  And for every self-conscious Christian Anarchist, there are countless others in the Religious Right who endorse these policies without realizing the intent behind them or the inevitable conclusion that would follow if these policies were ever fully implemented.

A second group that has recently coalesced to sabotage democracy is the neo-Confederates, a.k.a. “Tea Party.”[4]            We can argue that the Tea Party is a fraud created by FOX News to gin up ratings (who can forget the footage of a FOX news producer leading the crowds in anti-government chants at a Tea Party rally?[5]) and financed by billionaires seeking tax breaks and weakened consumer protection laws, or that the Tea Party is just a rebranding of the Religious Right.[6]  However, it is also a revival of the political theories and, to a large degree, the aspirations of the Confederacy.  Much of its political theory rests on the writings of John C. Calhoun, the South Carolinian politician who fought long and hard for the preservation of slavery and the rights of Southern states to preserve their “peculiar institution” despite the fact that the pro-slavery vote was a minority view among voters nationwide.[7]  His theories, particularly the Tea Party favorite, “state nullification,” were designed to empower a white population that feared being overrun by non-whites; and even today, the racist motivations of Calhoun’s doctrine haunt Tea Party political thinking like some covert possession by the ghost of the Old South.  In fact, focus group studies have found that racial fears motivate much of the GOP rank-and-file.[8]  There is a widespread perception that “real America” is being swallowed up by racial minorities, gays, non-Christians, and generally people who are not the core Republican demographic:  whites, particularly older white males.  When the Old South saw that its traditional ways were being threatened by increased immigration and the voting strength of the North, Southern politicians like Calhoun began to argue that their states had a right to either leave the Union outright, or to simply ignore all national laws they didn’t like.  Today, the neo-Confederates see the future, where gays can get married and whites will be a minority and Muslims will soon reach 2% of the population and become the second-largest religious group in America; and they don’t like that future any more than Calhoun liked the idea of blacks voting.  It isn’t usually hatred, exactly; I wouldn’t call it “racism” as much as “xenophobia.”  It is just a fear that these new voters will change things for the worse, that they are not yet ready for the rights and burdens of democracy, and that their political aspirations have to be suppressed until they are.  And if it takes wrecking the greatest superpower the world has ever seen to save that romanticized, “Father Knows Best” world a little longer, that is a small price to pay.

As a game player, all of this does make a certain sense to me.  After all, as I look at the moves and try to determine the strategies of both parties, it certainly seems as if one party is consistently pushing the nation closer and closer to a complete breakdown.  Why do that, if you seriously love this nation and want to preserve it?  Simply because of a misreading of Ayn Rand?[9]  Or is their patriotism more like the love a weak, insecure man professes for his wife right before beating her, until he finally kills her rather than lose control of her?  Or, perhaps, is the solution to the mystery to reject the initial premise, that they love America at all?

Plato compared the state to a ship, and the leader to a captain.  If the GOP is the would-be captain, then Calhoun is the iceberg-lover who drew its chart; the Tea Party is the First Mate who wants to crash the vessel against as many icebergs as it takes to sink it; and the Religious Right is the pilot who believes that ramming through icebergs is the only way to reach Tahiti.  It seems logical, given the fact that we have seen the GOP steer straight for the iceberg of default more than once, to conclude that at least part of its strategy is dictated by groups that really want to sink the ship.  Perhaps the best analogy is something like “Betrayal at House on the Hill,”  “Battlestar Galactica” or “Are You a Werewolf?”   Some of the players are trying to solve the problem, but one or more are actually trying to sabotage the group.  Ostensibly, they seem to be cooperating; but when the moment is right the traitor turns on them and tries to feed the whole group to the monsters or robots or whatever.

As I write this, the news is that the Senate is struggling to find a plan to avoid default on the national debt and reopen the government, while the Tea Party, or anarchists, or neo-Confederates, or Cylons or werewolves (choose your term) in the House of Representatives argue that default is not a bad thing after all, and is certainly better than allowing Obama to win by letting the Affordable Care Act begin to go into effect.   Putting everything together and reflecting on the results, it seems very likely that the Tea Party will refuse any real compromise, demanding either surrender or default.  Most of their constituents have less stake in preserving the United States or avoiding another economic meltdown than they have in promoting their anti-national agenda.  In essence, they are gambling with someone else’s money, since they win even if they (and we) go broke.  Boehner and McConnell have to decide whether to let them stay in the game, knowing they will flip the table if they get mad, or kick them out of the room so the party leaders can finish the game with the Democrats as strongly as they can.  Given the tensions in Team GOP, it is really hard to predict what its next move will be.  Are the Republicans going to play “Presidential Monopoly,” read the polls that show the public demands a solution, and try to find one?  Or are they going to play “Werewolf” and try to win by destroying the group?

The Democrats seem to be made up of some who mix of “Sim City” or “Civilization,” trying to build a strong nation by balancing taxes, infrastructure, military and economic development, while others play “Monopoly” and try to get as many government services (utilities and railroads) and different colors (purples, greens, etc.) as they can.  They don’t want to play “Werewolf” anymore, and are refusing to play anything if that is their only choice.  Given that the Democratic games are more pragmatic and less paranoid, they will probably seek to make some sort of a deal.  However, they are winning the “Monopoly” game and have little reason to give up.  Also, they may not fully realize that the their opponents are playing a different game, and may not want to “win” at all.

Since the Democrats assume that the Republicans are still playing Presidential Monopoly, as they are, they will interpret the GOP intransigence as a political tactic, one which is backfiring or which is designed to help particular Republican Congressmen but not the party as a group.  If the GOP leadership can rally the “moderates,” then this is in fact the game they will be playing, and at the last possible moment, when both sides believe they have extracted as much as they can from the other, they will end this.  But if the GOP is led by the Tea Party, the game will become more like Russian Roulette with one player who is suicidal and another who doesn’t realize the gun is really loaded.  The Tea Party and Evangelicals will gladly pull the trigger for both sides.


[1] All right, I can’t trademark “Deuteronomistic patriots;” nevertheless, I coined the phrase and I am laying claim to it. Until I drop anonymity, please footnote the phrase and attribute it to “Philosophical Scraps” if you use it.

[2] This sort of thinking underlies the claim by Rev. Falwell and Rev. Robertson that the 9/11 attacks took place because of the widespread feminism and liberalism of the United States in the 1990’s, that Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans because of the Gay Pride parade held in the French Quarter earlier that year, or that Hurricane Sandy was punishment for legalized abortion.

[3] See for example Deborah Caldwell’s exposé, “The Far-Right Christian Movement Driving the Debt Default,” Huffington Post, 10-14-2013 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/deborah-caldwell/christian-dominionism-debt-default-_b_4097017.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000009 )

[4] Bruce Bartlett, “For Many Hard-Liners, Debt Default is the Goal;” New Republic 10-14-2013 (http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/14/for-many-hard-liners-debt-default-is-the-goal/?partner=yahoofinance&_r=0 ) ; also Michael Lind, “The South is Holding America Hostage,” Salon, 10-13-2013 (http://www.salon.com/2013/10/13/the_south_is_holding_america_hostage/)

[5] Danny Shea, “Fox News Producer Caught Rallying 9/12 Protest Crowd in Behind-the-Scenes Video,” 11-19-2009, (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/09/19/fox-news-producer-caught_n_292529.html)

[6] Chadwick Harvey, “Tea Party Activists are just Evangelicals in Colonial Disguise;” PolicyMic 6-26-2012 (http://www.policymic.com/articles/10086/tea-party-activists-are-just-evangelicals-in-colonial-disguise)

[7] Sam Tnenhaus, “Original Sin:  Why the GOP Is and Will Continue to be the Party of White People;” New Republic, 2-10-2013 (http://www.newrepublic.com/article/112365/why-republicans-are-party-white-people)

[8] Stan Greenberg, James Carville, and Erica Seifert, “Inside the GOP:  Report on Focus Groups with Evangelical, Tea Party, and Moderate Republicans;” Democracy Corps,10-3-2013 (http://www.democracycorps.com/Republican-Party-Project/inside-the-gop-report-on-focus-groups-with-evangelical-tea-party-and-moderate-republicans/)

[9] ANYONE who claims to be a Christian and to be a follower of Ayn Rand has definitely misread Ayn Rand.

Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise? Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. xvii)

July 6, 2013

            I don’t know that Kierkegaard really helps us understand role-playing games, except insofar as his distinction between “imagination’s way out” versus “religion’s way out” can help us remember that religious fantasy is still fantasy and not religion.  I saw an advertisement once for a visit to a local church by one of the authors of the Left Behind books.  This was said by the flyer to be “prophecy.”  Religious fiction is not prophecy; it is fiction, “religious poetry” in Kierkegaard’s terminology, presenting possibilities to the imagination but not truly inviting the individual to a personal relationship with God.  A religious role-playing game has the same limitations; and both “religious” and “non-religious” games can provide one of God’s secret agents the opportunity to work.  The “non-religious” one might have the advantage of providing cover, making the secrecy easier to maintain.  I think, though, that role-playing games throw more light on Kierkegaard than Kierkegaard throws on the games.  As Kierkegaard said, “boredom is the root of all evil;” and though he said this pseudonymously and ironically, it has truth.[1]  Boredom is the symptom showing that one’s life is meaningless.  The conditions that make a role-playing game boring are not entirely different than those that make real life boring:  pointlessness, lack of goals or values to make one’s striving be “for something,” a lack of coherence (or narrative structure), or a game/campaign that thwarts one’s individuality for the sake of some external agenda (either the group’s or the referee’s).  Likewise, the game is interesting when one has individual goals that are supported by also being part of group that affirms both individuality and participation; when one strives for goals that have a meaning beyond simply gaining levels; and when what happens in the game and in the character’s life has a coherence rather than being disjointed episodes unrelated to the past or future.


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, v. 1, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, with introduction and notes (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1987) p. 285

 

 

Philosophy and Politics in the Age of Anxiety: postscript (pt. 2)

September 17, 2012

Philosophy and Politics in the Age of Anxiety:  postscript

Continued from pt. 1

            For that matter, and I have not said enough about this, it is clear that much of the Obama mania of 2008 was also an anxiety reaction.  In the chaos brought on by Republican economic dogmatism, many people were looking for a messiah, a miracle man who would change everything by his mere presence and our faith in him.  I listened to Obama’s speeches, and I heard a call to action; but I for one never thought it would be easy.  Clearly, judging from the profound disappointment of many, there were a lot of people who were literally expecting miracles.  I think giving him the Nobel Peace Prize may have been a bit of magical thinking, although even more it represented the profound relief of the rest of the world that the U.S.A. would not be led by a party publicly committed to imposing its own will rather than working cooperatively.  Heck, if I lived in another country, and I understood that the Republican Party is dominated by Christian apocalyptic teachings that the United Nations was or soon would become the Antichrist and try to take over the U.S. I’d be more than relieved to see any Democrat take over.  White anxiety, fear marketing and a patently flawed interpretation of the Gospel into the “Left Behind” Christian Zionist/Prosperity Gospel/Doomsday cult amalgam that is Corporate Evangelicalism may be a toxic brew for American politics; but for American foreign policy, it is Angel Dust, a euphoric to be sure but also a potentially psychosis-inducing, rage inducing poison.  Would YOU want to live next door to a heavily-armed, extremely wealthy PCP abuser, who was convinced of his own invulnerability and immortality as well as of your essential evil?  That is how the U.S.A. appeared to much of the world from the time of the Iraq invasion until 2008.  They saw Obama, by contrast, as the healing angel (or fairy or whatever) who would immediately cure America’s blood-madness and end all conflicts.  Instead, he turned out to be merely a pragmatic, rational human, quite willing to kill his nation’s enemies, and lacking the omnipotence to end injustice and conflict everywhere.

So the disappointment some foreigners and many Americans feel about Obama is testimony to the irrational expectations they had.  These expectations are furthermore testimony to the anxiety that drove them.  Pragmatism would say that it took nearly a decade to inflate the housing bubble, and that it will likely take about that long to fix the problems its bursting exposed.  Anxiety, by contrast, says only that before it was at peace, now it is in turmoil, and something needs to happen right away make everything feel right again.  Anxiety says, just do something, anything!

If this is right (and I wouldn’t be a very good Kierkegaardian if I didn’t admit that nothing is certain, including my pronouncements), then November will bring one of two outcomes.  If Obama wins, it most likely won’t be with the desperate, magical hopes that carried him to victory, but rather with the pragmatic (if not grim) realization that there’s a lot of work to do.  After all, “Change” is something magical; “Forward” is something you say to an army moving towards a decisive challenge.  In the meantime, the fear merchants and anxiety demagogues are already predicting armed civil war when Obama opens up the death camps he’s been secretly building (this from elected Republican officials and candidates, as well as prominent spokespersons and leaders of the conservative movement today).  They will either retreat back into their echo chambers to shout doom to one another some more, or strike out preemptively against the evil Feds.  Anyone remember Oklahoma City?

On the other hand, if Romney wins, it will be largely because of the same anxiety-fueled faith that originally propelled Obama to victory.  The people who wanted America to return to the stable, powerful status quo they remember from childhood will feel victorious.  But America can’t go back.  Those “illegals” are actually, in many cases, legal American citizens.  Minority births outpaced white births, according to the most recent census estimates.[1]  That means that America will continue to change.  Mosques will continue to open where they weren’t before, and to expand where they are already.  Spanish will be spoken aloud on streets and in workplaces.  Technology will lead to new social patterns.  The heroes of your youth will die.  And people will question your settled values and certainties, just by existing as your neighbors and holding different views.  Anxiety is not going away.  And pragmatically, rationally speaking, there is significant empirical evidence that the Obama stimulus plan worked, and that at least some jobs were saved or created, which most of the jobs that were lost disappeared before he took office or before the stimulus bill was passed.  Also, there is significant reason to believe that returning to the economic philosophies that caused the economic meltdown are unlikely to solve it.  Kevin Phillips has been saying for a decade that wealth gaps like we have are unsustainable; and he started saying that when the wealth gap was much smaller.[2]  That is the same Kevin Phillips who was the chief economist for President Richard Nixon, and the one who predicted the Republican Revolution that propelled Reagan into power.  This is no commie-come-lately; this is a bona fide conservative economist, once one of the esteemed inner circle, now cast out of favor because he began predicting that just as Democrats lost power for breaking faith with the middle class, so too would Republicans soon lose power for the same reason.  Romney’s professed intentions (and God alone knows what he’ll actually do) are to exacerbate the wealth gap, accelerate the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few plutocrats, and shift more of the tax burden to the poor and middle classes.  In fact, a Republican shibboleth these days is that we need to “broaden the tax base,” (which means we need to make poor people pay more in taxes) “so we can reduce the burden on the job creators” (which means cutting taxes for the wealthy).  Economists estimate that we would have to seize 100% of everything the poor have to offset the tax cuts that have been planned for the 1%.  That is not going to happen.  Since that is not going to happen, the fact is that the numbers don’t add up, and Romney will not be able to deliver on the expectations his base have for him.

What Republican political strategists are saying is that, given the demographic shifts already occurring, the Republican Party will have to change.  And “change” is anathema.  When Sara Palin mockingly asked, “How’s that hopey-changey thing workin’ for y’ah?” a huge crowd cheered.  Their hope was that there would not be any change.  If only nothing had changed, then everything would be great today!  But change was always inevitable.  If Romney changes, the base will be livid.  If he doesn’t, then the world will change and the base will be livid.

Ergo, as long as our politics is based on anxiety, we should expect wild political swings, political polarization, and rampant paranoia, on all sides.


[1] Hope Yen, “For First Time, Minorities Surpass Whites in US Births;” Associated Press 5/17/2012 (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/47458196/ns/us_news-life/t/census-minorities-now-surpass-whites-us-births/#.UDeuRnC5hds)

[2] “Wealth and Democracy,” PBS Newshour, July 17, 2002, (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/business/july-dec02/democracy_07-17.html)

The Rapture or the Ring postscript: Is Tolkien racist?

September 28, 2011

When I presented this paper, the other presenter raised a troubling criticism of the Middle Earth stories:  that there is an implicit racism in the entire structure of the mythos.  After all, the whole Ring trilogy is structured around a clash of good versus evil, and the evil is not even human–talk about “demonizing the enemy”!  The death of a protagonist is a major event; the slaughter of orcs is treated as not just necessary but as positively celebratory.  Does Tolkien dehumanize and delegitimize the Other in a way that makes genocide acceptable?

I’m not a full-blown Tolkien scholar, so doubtless there are people out there who could write far more about this.  But they aren’t here, and I’ve always regretted that I didn’t have a ready response to that critique of Tolkien.  It is a legitimate concern.  As I see it, there are three questions here:  first, is Tolkien advocating genocide of the evildoers in his description of the wars with the orcs?  Second, is Tolkien perhaps not consciously or deliberately genocidal, but unconsciously or unavoidably so?  And third, is there something inherently racist or even genocidal in apocalypticism, of any variety?  The second and third of these are related, and the third will help to address the second; but I will begin with the first question.

There is something very strange about Tolkien’s treatment of the “bad guys” in his stories.  The orcs are impersonal and thoroughly evil, suitable only for extermination.  The nazguls and the men of the South are little better:  the first were men who were tricked and enslaved by Sauron to become inhuman and immortal ringwraiths, while the second are humans who have sided with Sauron voluntarily and fight beside the orcs willingly.  And then there’s Gollum, a murderer, physically degenerate beyond recognition as a hobbit himself, and literally psychologically dissolute to the point of having dissolved into two separate personalities: one completely corrupt, and the other weak, fearful, still pretty disagreeable, at times infantile and tending towards bestial, but still with some good in him.  Tolkien treats Gollum with a fair degree of sympathy.  There is hope he can be redeemed, more hope for him (even after his centuries of exposure to the Ring) than for the Men of the South or the Hill-Men who trouble Rohan.  Frodo spares Gollum and tries to bring him around to goodness, coming to trust him too much; can we imagine anyone trusting an orc?

After the SECSOR conference I did a little more research on Tolkien’s non-Middle Earth writings, and most relevant here, on his revolutionary essay on Beowulf (“The Monster and the Critics).  Many of us who grew up on Tolkien were unaware that he was first a professor of languages, and well versed in the study not only of ancient languages but also of mythology.  He is credited with reviving study of the epic of Beowulf, which was until then treated as something of a Gilgamesh or Illiad for savages.  Tolkien’s interest in mythology predates Joseph Campbell, and if there was any influence of Jung I am unaware of it.  Instead, his theories were based more on his own sensitivity to the ancient Celtic/British soul as expressed in the language and tales they shared and passed down, as well as his comparison of the ancient tales and priorities with those of his own Catholicism.  To Tolkien, the story of Beowulf, and the story of the pagan in general, is the story of death.  Tolkien likened the ancient self-image with a bird that flies in out of the darkness into the light and noise of a bustling mead-hall, flies the length of the longhouse amidst the sounds and sights and smells of life and conviviality, and then disappears again into the darkness.  That, Tolkien said, is life for the pre-Christian European:  come from darkness, live for a time, enjoy what you can, boast and fight and love, and then return to oblivion.  And that, he said, is what the Beowulf cycle reflects.  Beowulf’s monsters are not just beasties to fight, turning an otherwise good war story into a fairy tale fit for children and barbarians.  They are symbolic representations of the threats to humanity that we all face.  Grendel is humanity twisted by evil.  He has the basic form of a human, but the heart of a beast.  He invades the king’s mead hall, where brave men were supposed to be able to come together in fellowship, to slaughter and plunder, to conquer and spoil the place of community that he his incapable of joining himself.  Beowulf’s defeat of Grendel and his mother represent his defeat of those forces in the human soul that would tear our humanity from us.  Beowulf conquers a deadly threat, manifestly deadly in the story and symbolically deadly as an instantiation of all that is cruel, selfish and hateful in human nature.  By contrast, the dragon appears at the end of his life.  There is nothing human about the dragon; if anything, a dragon has traditionally represented the power of inhuman Nature.  This is Death, pure and simple.  There is no way Beowulf can hope to defeat it.  But just as in his youth he overcame fear and cowardice and all that was base in human nature to become the wise, brave and good hero-king, so in his old age he faces his death bravely, setting out to fight the dragon because he must, as a hero and leader of men.

The orcs are evil as the dragon in Beowulf is evil.  In Tolkien’s mythology, elves are equivalent to angels:  the Creator’s first and most perfect creations, immortal, beautiful and good.  The orcs are twisted, mutated elves; if the elves are angels, then orcs are demons.  Evil cannot create on its own, Tolkien believed, (as any Catholic knows, evil is a privation of good, not a positive power), so when Melkor arose to oppose the Creator he had to seduce and distort what was originally created good. Now, however, the beings that he thus seduced are completely enthralled to evil.  They are no longer what they once were.  They are outside of our nature, an external threat of subjection and destruction; to oppose them is to oppose death itself.

Gollum, on the other hand, is more like Grendel.  Gollum represents our nature, fallen and corrupted by the desire for power (symbolized by the Ring).  He was, after all, once a hobbit, and hobbits are essentially human (perhaps humans as they ought to be:  humble, agrarian, enjoying life’s simple joys).  The orcs were never human:  they were superhuman and thus when they fell they had no human nature to lose, so they became subhuman.  To hate Gollum is to hate ourselves, individually and as a species.  We must hope that his redemption is possible, because we need redemption so; and because we need redemption so, we ought to have an essential sympathy with him, and in fact with all those we otherwise think of as evil.  That is not to deny Gollum’s evil, but it is a refusal to deny his humanity.

To accuse Tolkien of racism or genocide for his treatment of the orcs is to misunderstand the symbolic/mythological role of the orcs.  As fallen elves, they are more extensions of evil’s power in the same way that demons are extensions of Satan more than individuals themselves.  The proper way we should think of our fellow humans is the way Frodo thought of Gollum:  he fought when he had to and would have killed him if necessary, but as far as he could he sought to win him over.  Sam’s refusal to trust Gollum or to help the sinner’s repentance may seem to have been validated by Gollum’s final relapse; but at the same time, Sam’s judgmental hostility towards Gollum is his least admirable characteristic and ultimately contributes to Gollum’s failure.  The dehumanizing of the Other can often prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy:  if you say “you can’t trust those types” often enough, you will not be able to trust them and, in fact, you will push them towards the very undying enmity you predicted.

Whether he is unconsciously or inadvertently racist is another question.  First, there is the question of whether as an Englishman born a colonial and raised as a citizen of the British Empire, he might reflect and unconsciously accept the prejudices of his culture. That, however, is not a question that interests me.  Even when we recognize the failures of our culture, we cannot help but be dyed by it.  For example, Tolkien describes orcs as physically resembling the worst example of “Mongol-types;” but that is not intended as a criticism of Mongolians.  It simply reflects that as an Englishman, a fair-skinned person living at the beginning of the 20th Century, his aesthetic preference is for fair-skin, and “swarthy,” dark-skinned, dark-haired, and narrower eyes seems foreign and generally unattractive; so when he sought to describe the orcs he put it in terms of “think of those foreigners and imagine the worst possible physical distortion along that continuum.”  This may be unfortunate, but is not really malicious or dangerous; we can grow out of that sort of thing with experience.

But the question of whether Tolkien was perhaps unavoidably racist or genocidal comes back to the third of our questions:  is apocalypticism in itself dangerous?  And if so, I would ask a further question:  are some forms of apocalypticism more dangerous than others?  The danger that the criticism implies is that anytime we think of the “other” as evil, particularly as cosmically evil, we are in danger of dehumanizing that other, and can easily justify anything we might do to that other.  This is pretty much inevitable in literal apocalypticism.  As I discussed in the first paper, that is the problem with the Left Behind sort of apocalypticism.  The blurb on the back of the film box may ask, “Who will you be?” and invite the viewer to identify with one of the protagonists; but they were all “left behind.”  They were good, too good to fall for the Antichrist’s wiles, but not good enough to be saved. The viewer expects to be raptured away, and to watch these events unfold for others who didn’t believe the right way or the right things.  This lacks earnestness.  It is an aesthetic sort of religiousness, not true faith.  Faith is earnest; faith does not need Nathan to say “Thou art the man,” because the earnest person always assumes that the story is told about the hearer.  The earnest approach to apocalypticism does not have to deny the literal truth of the prediction, but the literal prediction is the least important part of the truth; the earnest truth is only whether it is true of me.  If the Left Behind story gives me valuable role models, shows me how to resist temptation and endure persecution, then wonderful; if they lead me to judge those others who don’t believe and distract me from examining myself first, last and always, then they are worse than useless.

The Tolkien apocalypse lends itself to earnestness better because there is no temptation to use it as a prediction of the future, or to mine it for knowledge to satisfy my curiosity about the past.  I may dismiss it as idle entertainment, but I may also take it as a mirror to examine myself, and see it proposing possibilities that I could dread or aspire to in my own life.  I can imagine myself in that situation and ask what I might do, for good or ill.  I can even imagine that situation as some sort of analogy to my own life.  If I think of the Ring stories earnestly, there seems no danger I am going to attempt to identify “who the orcs are.”  Just as the monsters of Beowulf are paradigmatic of the existential threats of all people (in Tolkien’s theory), so too the orcs are paradigmatic not of some particular person or people, but represent the threats to my life, which I must face with courage and perseverance.  Since the War of the Ring is self-consciously a myth, and intends to be taken as such, it is a lot more natural to take it symbolically and metaphorically.  By contrast, if one believes the Bible must be taken literally, then it is natural to ask, “Who is the Antichrist?’  And that is not an easy question to answer.  For this reason, many millions of believers go beyond the literal word of the Bible, often unconsciously, to accept some one person’s interpretation.  Nothing in the Bible says the Secretary General of the United Nations is the Antichrist; in fact, the words “Secretary-General” never appear at all!  Most likely, original readers would have thought the Antichrist was Nero.  If you reject that theory, then you probably wonder who the Antichrist actually is.  But the earnest perspective would be to say that whomever the Antichrist is, what matters is how I live, how I will face persecution or troubles of any sort, and so on; speculations about whom the Antichrist might be is idle curiosity and a distraction, even an intoxicant.

I believe that Tolkien’s mythology has the elements of apocalyptic writing, most notably in the cosmic good-versus-evil theme; but Tolkien is earnest and his apocalypse is earnest, and thus it avoids the racist and genocidal tendencies of so much other apocalypticism.  However, he cannot avoid the danger of someone taking his writings without earnestness, and thus misinterpreting them as an indictment of “those others” rather than as an invitation to self-reflection.  This is the danger with all apocalyptic, but it is of course worse when it is presented by someone who lacks earnestness or at least lacks clarity about the nature and task of earnestness.  This is the problem with so much apocalypticism today.  To use a particularly notorious recent example, Harold Camping’s predictions seem to be more about the sense of power one feels when one is able to know the future.  It is about control.  I know the exact moment when the world will end, so I know how long I have to enjoy my money and when to give it all away to earn a place in Heaven.  I have special knowledge that makes my wisdom superior to others’, whether I choose to gloat privately or feverishly proclaim the secret wisdom I have to try to convince others.  It is “us” and “them,” insiders and outsiders.  The earnest person knows that whether the world ends October 21st or December 12, 2012, or never, doesn’t really matter.  My world will end, because I will end.  Will my death catch me “like a thief in the night,” unready to face my Maker?  How should I live, knowing that the world may outlast me but that either way I will not outlast me?

In earnestness, there is no time or motive for judging “those others,” those outsiders who are a different race or class or politics or whatever.  My concern is not to identify the Antichrist, because as 1 John 2:18 suggests, there are in fact many antichrists, any of which may attempt to destroy my faith.  My search for one is simply my attempt to escape the anxiety of uncertainty, which is the essential human condition.  When I can rest in faith, and sit in the darkness without striking a light for myself (as Isaiah puts it, Isa 50:10-11) then I can wait for the future to unfold without anxiously inquiring what will happen, or looking around for the evildoers to fight (as if there were no evil in my own heart enough to worry about).  I can even avoid that worst sin of all:  looking for others to blame and punish when things go wrong in my life, as when Falwell sought to blame 9/11 on the ACLU, instead of saying with Job, whatever comes from the Lord, is good.

The Rapture or the Ring: Kierkegaard’s Two Views of Death and Eschatology in Film

September 14, 2011

ABSTRACT: (Originally presented at the 2005 meeting of SECSOR.)  In this paper I intend to contrast Kierkegaard’s category of “the earnest thought of death,” which he treats as the fundamental entrance into the religious life, with his depiction of the “esthetic,” or pre-moral view, which Kierkegaard said was the most common life view.  Kierkegaard worked to clarify religious thought and concepts, and I will in turn use the categories he developed for this purpose to examine the evangelical science fiction of the Left Behind movies (among others), and the equally eschatological Lord of the Ring series directed by Peter Jackson. I will discuss why, from the Kierkegaardian perspective, the Left Behind films are extremely problematic, and why the Tolkien films seem closer to Kierkegaard’s definition of “religious” even though they are products of secular cinema.  Finally, I will consider what existential messages are inherent in these films and speculate as to what cultural and political implications this may hold.

The Rapture or the Ring:  Kierkegaard’s Two Views of Death and Eschatology in Film

In this paper I first intend to present Kierkegaard’s category of “the earnest thought of death,” which he treats as the fundamental entrance into the religious life.  I will contrast this with his depiction of the “esthetic,” or premoral view, which Kierkegaard said was the most common life view.  Kierkegaard worked to clarify religious thought and concepts, and I will in turn use the categories he developed for this purpose to examine two very different genres in “religious” film today:  the evangelical science fiction of the Left Behind movies (among others), and the equally eschatological Lord of the Ring series directed by Peter Jackson. I will discuss why, from the Kierkegaardian perspective, the Left Behind films are extremely problematic, and why the Tolkien films seem closer to Kierkegaard’s definition of “religious” even though they are products of secular cinema.  Finally, I will consider what existential messages are inherent in these films and speculate as to what cultural and political implications this may hold.

Kierkegaard’s Two Views of Death

Kierkegaard’s discussions of death were probably leading causes for his reputation as “the gloomy Dane,” and I hesitate to raise that simplistic image again.  However, he felt that the individual’s attitude towards death was crucial to that individual’s own spiritual maturity, so it is impossible to ignore the discussion.  I will begin by comparing two discussions he presents:  first, his upbuilding discourse “At a Graveside” from Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions; and second, his observations under various pseudonyms in “In Vino Veritas” and the first volume of Either/Or.

The Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions, unlike his eighteen previous discourses, are distinguished not by their text or topic but by the fictitious setting of each.  Kierkegaard sets his last discourse in the context of a funeral, not for anyone important but apparently for a rather ordinary citizen.  The one distinguishing characteristic of his fictive deceased is that he “recollected God” all the days of his life, and in particular recollected that one day he would die and stand before God.  There is no discussion of pearly gates or such, but rather a vigorous discussion of the significance of death and mortality.  Kierkegaard claims that it is the earnest thought of death that gives this life meaning, and that moves the individual from the “esthetic” life of egoism and shallowness into the rich depths of the religious.

Kierkegaard says a great deal about what the earnest thought of death is, and what it is not.  It is not being somber, wailing at a funeral, being fearful or gloomy; it is not a mood of any sort.  Primarily it is the thought that I will dieI will die:  not just all flesh or those I love but me.  I will die:  not rest from my labors or find peace or any of the other evasions and euphemisms we commonly rely on.  All that I care for, my every project, hope, dream, desire, and fear will be cut off permanently.  Death is absolutely certain and absolutely uncertain; I know it will happen but cannot know when.  When I truly realize this, much that might have seemed important is shown to be utterly trivial; my career, my fame, my wealth, and more will vanish as if they had never been.  And much that I might have delayed or ignored becomes terribly urgent:  repenting of my sins, apologizing to my neighbor, telling my wife and children that I love them, or finding peace with myself and my life as it is, to name some.  The earnest thought of death relativizes life, but it also renders every moment more precious.  Time is, after all, running out, so one cannot afford to cling to life like a man on a burning roof afraid to leap to safety; and neither can one afford to drift thoughtlessly along as if one had all the time in the world.

Within a day of publishing the slim volume of discourses on imagined occasions, Kierkegaard published the massive Stages on Life’s Way.  Whereas the first is simple, direct, homiletic, and acknowledged, the second is convoluted, poetic and philosophical, and written under a variety of interlocking pseudonyms.  Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms are not mere pen names; they are characters intended to embody the existential views they represent as well as describe them.  The first of the stages, the “esthetic” stage of premoral and prereligious egoism, is presented in “In Vino Veritas,” a collection of speeches given at a banquet.  This chapter, like the discourse at the graveside, is prefaced with a (very different) discussion of the importance of recollection; and like the discourse, the banqueters are summoned by one of them to “the earnest thought of death.” However, for them it leads in an opposite direction.  Where meditation at a graveside led to sobriety, here it is the prelude to drunkenness.  In the discourse, the thought of death leads one to seriously contemplate one’s relationship to eternity; for the banqueters it leads only to greater immersion in frivolity and estrangement from eternity.  And the reason why is fairly obvious:  the earnest thought of death at the graveside is your thought of your death; for the banqueters, it is the thought of the death of everything else.  To them, recollection of death means to be gloomy and cynical, to meditate on how everything dies, and yet somehow to imagine looking on after one’s death as others go through your funeral.  A dead body is amusing, and a dead wife can be the inspiration for her beloved’s poetic genius; the significance of death is that it happens to others to make one’s own life more interesting or creative, to loosen one’s own bonds to the real world of relationships and commitments and moral values so that one may float free in the world of ideas.  The contrast becomes even more striking when one takes the literary hint Kierkegaard builds into the Stages by using pseudonyms from his earlier book, Either/Or.  The first volume of this work is full of meditations on death, despair, and boredom, showing how the esthete fails to take death or life seriously and winds up with a meaningless existence.  To the esthete, life seems interminably boring; to the earnest one (says Kierkegaard) it is not boring precisely because it is terminal.  To the esthete, life is mood and emotion; to the earnest one it is commitment and striving, with joy to be sure but not with the pursuit of pleasure as the ultimate goal.

The esthete considers death third-person, objectively.  While this may evoke a strong mood or emotional reaction, the esthete never really allows death to “get to” him or her.  The religious person, by contrast, considers death personally, subjectively.  Whereas the esthetic and objective way leads to unclarity, lethargy, and beckons one to become lost in mood, the earnest thought of death summons one back to the urgency of life’s task and to the true reality before God which life’s finitudes and illusions otherwise obscure.[i]  The two views of death Kierkegaard offers can together serve the individual as a touchstone for evaluating alleged spiritual insights.  If a poet or orator comes with enthralling words and dazzling insights, and one is taken to see these as signs of true spiritual depth, one can ask:  does this poem, speech or sermon evade the reality of death, or obscure for me my personal mortality?  Does it trivialize what should be paramount, or magnify what death reveals to be meaningless?  Then look elsewhere for spiritual insight, no matter how esthetically beautiful the words may be.  Or, does this sermon, advice, or manner of life take seriously the preciousness of one’s time on Earth, and truly show what really matters and what does not when measured by the decisiveness of death?  Then there is something profound here, even if it is masked in plainness or seeming triviality.

Eschatological Moviemaking and the Earnest Thought of Death

Kierkegaard resorts to eschatological language and scriptures in his discourse on death; but it is significant (and consistent) that he does not interpret these concepts eschatologically.  For Paul, it is the Day of the Lord which comes “as a thief in the night;” for Kierkegaard it is the individual’s death.[ii]  The end of the world is unimportant, or unessential; what matters to you is that you will end, and what matters to me is that I will end.  What happens to third persons, even to billions of third persons, is still not earnestness.  Kierkegaard would probably say that an apostle can use such language, because an apostle is a different sort of existence than an ordinary person, even a “genius.”  But for the rest of us, it is unhealthy and basically esthetic to speculate about the Rapture or the Final Judgment.  Whether Jesus is coming tomorrow, you can’t know; but you do know that God is coming for you, personally, at the day of your death.  That is the fact which should focus your attention.

Eschatology went Hollywood in the 20th century, and the dawn of a new millennium has done nothing to slow this down.  In fact, the general unease that has pervaded American culture since 9/11 seems to have heightened interest in literalist interpretations of the books of Daniel and Revelation.  In the second half of the 20th century there have been documentaries, feature films, and innumerable books purporting to present the script for the Last Days.  The classic in this genre, which I would describe as fundamentalist Christian sci-fi, is A Thief in the Night, released in the 1970’s by Mark IV Films (an evangelical production company).  During the Christmas movie season of 2000, The Omega Code, produced by Trinity Broadcasting and starring Michael York as the Antichrist, debuted among the top 10 moneymakers for the week.[iii]  Shortly after this, the movie version of Left Behind, based on the amazingly popular book of the same name, was released first on video and then in theaters.[iv]  In this movie, Kirk Cameron stars as a hotshot reporter who is caught up in the middle of the Rapture, the rise of the Antichrist, and the fulfillment of the prophecies found in John’s apocalypse.

Each of these films has slightly different interpretations of scriptural predictions, based partly on the particular “literal” interpretation each follows. But when one considers common elements in all three movies and the various books, T.V. sermons, and other popular presentations, general themes emerge.  There is a general distrust of international multilateralism, since the Antichrist will be a world leader who will unite many nations.  There is an emphasis on believing over action; this is not to say that one isn’t expected to live by the evangelical moral code, but it is clear that it is believing the literal truth of Revelation (or rather the interpretation of its obscure symbolism being offered) which saves, not good will towards one’s neighbors or even moral action.  Often (but not always) the United States is depicted as resisting the Antichrist.  But what is most common and, for my purposes, most relevant is that in virtually all of today’s popular versions of the evangelical Christian apocalypse, the believer is not in fact in any danger.  The millions of believers of these predictions, whether they follow the theories of Tim LeHaye or Hal Lindsey, all expect to be raptured out of the physical world.  They will not in fact die, though the world itself will.  Their focus therefore is not, as Kierkegaard would have it, on the “earnest thought” each individual can have when he or she considers his or her own death; instead it is really where Victor Eremita would have it, on the passing away of the world while you, the viewer or reader, look on from a safe distance.  In short, the fundamentalist eschatology reflects an esthetic worldview.

If eschatological films have such potential to lead viewers away from the religious consciousness and towards the esthetic, is it possible to create films which heighten earnestness instead?  Kierkegaard paid a great deal of attention to religious communication, and his observations on print media are relevant to film as well.  The fundamental (no pun intended) mistake of most Christian science fiction, and indeed of most fundamentalist eschatology, is to imply that the good person will avoid trials and tribulations.  Evangelicals generally do know better, but that is the message that is conveyed. In fact, the Apocalypse of John does not claim that Christians will be raptured away to escape the tribulations he describes; rather, his message to readers is to remain faithful to Christ through the tribulations and to trust that God is Lord of history.  Neither do Paul or the Gospels state that after the Rapture there will be a time of persecution for those Christians who weren’t good enough or evangelical enough to escape, but are still too good to go along with the Beast and his minions; rather, it is assumed that Christians will be caught up to Heaven only when Jesus appears to judge the world, at the end of history.  The Biblical witness is, therefore, that speculations on what will happen “after the Rapture” are misleading.  Nothing will happen; the Rapture is the last event in the world’s life, just as death is the last event in the individual’s life. The lesson of apocalyptic is how to live in the last days.  And from a Kierkegaardian perspective, every individual lives in the last days, I in mine and you in yours.

How might we tell such a story?  Kierkegaard offers some hints in his work, Two Ages.  This short piece is a literary review of a romance novel published in Copenhagen in 1845.  By placing the ethical and religious message in an apparently nonreligious medium, the author gains two things.  First, the message is slipped in on the reader, who likely did not expect to find a call to “leap into the arms of God” in a literary review. When the message comes where it wasn’t expected, it can startle, and perhaps seem fresh and new.  Second, when the religious message comes through a novel or a review of one, it comes “without authority,” to use another of Kierkegaard’s favorite terms.  It does not thunder from heaven; it stands next to you and talks face-to-face, as an equal if not a servant.

How could one make an eschatological movie like that?  The film versions of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings are just such movies.  Instead of writing preachy, avowedly Christian and “prophetic” books, Tolkien wrote “without authority.”  Instead of didactic prose which would require only acquiescence from the reader, he wrote complicated tales of fantasy which demand imagination and reflection, and effort.  It is a gospel that can sneak up on you and suck you in without you knowing what is happening, at the risk that you might wander in and out without detecting the good news offered to you there.  By contrast, the eschatological Christian science fiction is presented as literally true, or about to become true, with fictional elements thrown in to make an interesting story.  Instead of fairy tales, they present avowed prophecy, with the implied threat that if you don’t listen to the warning you will suffer as the characters in the story do.  It would seem as if no two genres could be further apart:  how can one usefully compare them?

Comparing such films as The Omega Code and Left Behind to The Lord of the Rings is further complicated by the fact that the production team for the Tolkien trilogy was not particularly religious. So we have the subtle symbolism and metaphor Tolkien employed in the books being further muted in being conveyed through a secular film project.  The task of comparing these films to the evangelical Protestant sci-fi films would seem to be an “apples and oranges” project which could have no real significance.

The first point of contact between these two bodies of film is that both are literally “eschatological.”  The evangelical films clearly deal with the death throes of a fallen world. The Lord of the Rings is likewise framed in eschatological terms of struggle against cosmic evil and chaos, and the impending death of the world. The more usual claim perhaps is that Middle Earth is “changing,” but this change is a real ending:  the immortal and magical elves are leaving, the days of wizards is passing, and soon the world will be left to Men.  Tolkien’s tales may seem to be more creation than eschatology, as the death of Middle Earth allows for the rise of the world of Men; but this combination is not absent from Scripture or fundamentalist films either, as the overthrow of the reign of the Antichrist clears the way for the New Jerusalem.[v]

The door to comparison has been opened; can we push through further?  Can we find anything meaningful or useful behind that door?  I believe Kierkegaard offers a way we can answer both questions, “Yes!”  First and more generally, there is much for even an evangelical to gain by appropriating Kierkegaard’s individualized use of apocalyptic language.  Kierkegaard himself did not really seek to discredit literal readings of Creation or eschatology or Scripture in general.  However, he did feel that the literal truth mattered less than the personal appropriation. Secondly and more specifically, we can analyze these very different eschatologies the way Kierkegaard compared various claimants to the Christian pedigree in his own day:  by examining their earnestness.  The earnest thought of death is intended, partly, to serve the individual as a touchstone for examining his or her own existential state.  It can also serve as an indicator of the earnestness of a religious understanding offered for one’s approval.  One point that comes through strikingly in the Ring trilogy is the seriousness with which the films take death.  True, in the Return of the King Gandalf tells Pippin of the blessed land that awaits them after death, leading the hobbit to affirm, “Well then, that’s not so bad.”  By contrast though, think of the distress Arwyn shows as Frodo lies dying on the border of Rivendell, or Sam shows as he lies apparently dead in Shelob’s lair.  Think of the profound grief of Theoden at the grave of his son.  Death is always seen as a loss, both for the dead one and those that loved him (or her).  Likewise, the death of Middle Earth is not eagerly or joyfully anticipated as a release from bondage or beginning of a new age; it is a fearful and mournful thing, even if it can lead to a happier future when the returned king will rule in peace and justice.  Tolkien treated (and Jackson treats) death as something which is indeed a loss, even if it is on another level a gain.

Of course, part of the reason for this is that it is by no means certain (at least not to the characters) that the death of Middle Earth will lead to anything good.  The quest of the Fellowship is a desperate gamble, “a fool’s hope” as Gandalf puts it.  Much depends, then, on how Middle Earth dies.  If it chooses shrewdness, caution, selfishness, or arrogance, it will lead to the age of the orc; if it dies fighting for what is good and true, defending the weak and giving to the needy and foolishly hoping and striving, it can lead to the age of Men.  That this Middle Earth will die is certain; the films chronicle only the manner and the results.

Finally, there is the films’ orientation towards their viewer.  Kierkegaard himself devoted considerable attention to the matter of the author’s method and intent if the reader was to be “built up.”   Tolkien came to similar views through his consideration of myth and fairy stories.  Both desired that the reader put himself or herself in the tale, identify with it, learn from considering its values and insights, and personally appropriate what seemed good.  This aspect certainly comes through in the film trilogy as well.  The hobbits in particular are Everyman.[vi]  They are ordinary, and they know it.  Tolkien thought of himself as a hobbit, and there is nothing put-offish about the hobbits to keep the viewer from identifying with them.  But whichever character one might see oneself reflected in, they are examples and exemplars.  They do what is right simply because they refuse to give up.  And it is precisely because of their stubborn goodness that they must undertake the quest, and why they suffer.  As Saruman says to Gandalf and might have said to all of them, “You have chosen the way of pain.”  Because they are good, they suffer, they strive, and some even die.  Evangelical eschatological sci-fi films, by contrast, invite the viewer not to identify with the main characters.  It is only the mediocre Christians who are to be “left behind” to suffer tribulations and persecutions.  For the good ones, the true believers, the death of the world is a spectator sport.

Conclusions

There are a number of films which claim to be earnest Christianity, perhaps even prophecy.  These works claim to be literal Scripture depicting possible, probable or almost as good as certain versions of future events.  Some of thee films are produced for internal consumption by the Church while others are sent into the general marketplace to seek an audience among the unconverted as well.  I have argued that many of these near-future Christian science fiction films fail the test of earnestness, tend to lead their viewers away from the earnest thought of death, and hence are esthetic, no mater how sincerely they are offered as true gospel.  I have also argued that the Tolkien film trilogy, despite the fact that the films are not presented as religious, still contain enough true earnestness within the fairy tale medium to act as evangelium (as Tolkien would say) and to build up the viewer (as Kierkegaard would phrase it). The Tolkien movies use the death of Middle Earth to say something about the life of the individual who must choose whether to struggle to bring something better out of life or simply to surrender to the darkness.  By contrast, evangelical science fiction claims that what you do has no importance to the outcome.  All that matters is if you accept or reject the established will of God.  An oft repeated phrase, in these films and in much evangelical preaching today, is that “you cannot oppose the word of God.”  Whatever has been prophesied will occur, and there’s nothing you can or should do to change it.

The heroes of “Left Behind” are not exactly evil; if they were they would not be persecuted by the forces of the Antichrist.  But if they had been truly good, and particularly if they had believed the theology of the filmmakers, they would be safely in Heaven, watching the Tribulation from a safe distance.  The death of the world has no significance for the truly faithful, except as its onset moves them into the express lane to Paradise.  It is only a problem for other people.  This third-person relationship to the eschaton can lead to a similar detachment from the thought of one’s own death.  And this in turn can have profound consequences for political theology and theological politics.  For example, in The Omega Code 2:  Meggido, we see the President of the United States in hand-to-hand combat with the Antichrist.  By resisting first the blandishments and then the threats of the evil leader of the European Union, the President and most of the U.S. military has remained on God’s side.  The President has tried to personally kill the Antichrist, and of course has failed; but soon Jesus will come to throw him into the lake of fire.  Ultimately, all the actions anyone has taken have no greater significance than to help determine his or her own fate; success and failure are swallowed up in the final Paradise which follows the carnage of Armageddon.  In a report on the television newsmagazine 60 Minutes titled “Zion’s Christian Soldiers,” several prominent evangelical leaders are shown repeating the theology of these movies as Christian doctrine, and suggesting (or outright claiming) that it is God’s will and the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy that Israel should expel the Palestinians from the West Bank, that the Israeli Prime Minister who attempted to negotiate with them was assassinated for opposing the will of God, and that a nuclear world war triggered by Middle East tensions is absolutely unavoidable and is to be welcomed as the prelude to the return of Jesus.  Here we see the final payoff for the esthetic eschatology:  nationalism, reckless confrontation, unconcern for the other, and blind confidence in one’s own righteousness and one’s coming reward.

So the comparison I would draw between these film eschatologies is this:  In the Tolkien films the end of the world is frightful, the good bear an unfair portion of the suffering and may even die, the hand of Providence is often hidden and must be trusted on faith (“a fool’s hope”), and the death of an individual is tragic even if it is not the final end.  On the other hand, in Christian evangelical science fiction the end of the world is frightful only for the bad or mediocre people who do not escape it through the Rapture, the truly good do not suffer at all or bear any burden on behalf of the world, and one’s own actions do not matter in the slightest because the hand of Providence has written the whole story down already for those who believe.  Despite the fact that Tolkien deliberately wrote myth which veiled his Christian message, there can be no doubt that the films based on his writings come closer to the existential condition of the original Biblical writers and readers.  The Jews under Antiochus Epiphanes could hardly have believed that the prophecies of Daniel were intended to suggest that the good people were to be spared suffering.  Christians who witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem by the legions of Titus would never have thought the apocalyptic writings in Mark’s gospel didn’t apply to true Christians but only to false believers.  Christians who endured the persecutions of the Roman emperors certainly believed that they were living through the last days described by John of Patmos.  The apocalyptic writings on which evangelical Christian sci-fi is based were all written by and for believing communities which were enduring hardships at that very moment, by and for individuals who faced imminent death for the sake of their faith, who were living in the condition not of the blessed raptured ones but of those “left behind” in the movie.  The existential orientation of the apocalyptic Scriptures is that of the uncertain, powerless, innocent ones in a hostile world struggling to keep the faith with God and one another, even when God seemed far away.  The intent of those writings was to give the audience a message of hope and examples of faithful suffering obedience to imitate.

Despite the secular influences on them, the Lord of the Rings film trilogy comes closer to putting its characters and its viewers into a situation and state of being similar to that experienced by actual Bible-age people than do the so-called “literal” presentations of evangelical sci-fi.  In that state of being, the viewer is better enabled to make the sort of choices the original readers were called to make.  Fundamentalist sci-fi invites its viewers only to choose whether to believe the theology and thus escape all the hardships, or to suffer like the people in the movie.  It is really a disengaged stance which they are invited to adopt; which is also to say and esthetic stance, or as Kierkegaard also named it, an idolatrous stance.

The stories of the Ring and the Rapture come to us from earlier centuries; and yet both have resonated with the 21st Century American consciousness.  The story of the Rapture continues to offer what it always did:  the assurance that God reigns and justice will prevail, that history means something and is leading towards a beautiful consummation, and that in the end we will see that everything makes sense within the whole.  The Ring stories reassure us differently, by showing that we can make sense, and bring sense out of the senselessness we feel surrounding us.  The first I might call a cosmological consolation, the second an ethical consolation.  Both give reassurance that evil and chaos are not the end.[vii]  American culture has struggled for years to hide from the hard necessities of mortality.  The result is a multibillion dollar industrial complex of health care and cosmetics designed to remove sickness, age and death from our sight.  9/11 dealt a serious blow to that illusion.  It is harder to believe oneself immortal and omnipotent after such a devastating event brought about with such relative ease.  As the insecurity of mortality produces anxiety, the ground is prepared for true earnestness to take root.  It is natural and desirable that the popular culture should produce stories which seek to place individual lives and apparent chaos into a wider, ultimately rational and benevolent context.  It is also natural and desirable that the popular culture should produce stories showing how individuals can face and conquer their fear and the chaos of an often hostile world, be good and finally help produce goodness despite it all.

If I had to choose, I would choose the Ring stories over the Rapture films.  I have already discussed my theological and psychological reasons for this preference.  Even stronger are my political concerns.  Rapture theology has been used and is used to demonize “them”  and exalt “us,” rendering self-criticism all but impossible and making the other nothing more than a stock villain in one’s own play.  Rapture theology often inspires not only confidence in God’s final victory, but also a disregard for the present reality and people.  In an age that sees such things as the Tulsa bombing, the Sarin gas attacks in Japan, and the destruction of the World Trade Center, this sort of “religion” (which I, following Calvin and Kierkegaard both, would name “idolatry”) is too dangerous for words.  It is not just a casual concern whether a religious phenomenon is “true” or not; all should be concerned when esthetic, shallow passions masquerade as religion and take on divine prerogatives in order to lay a road of destruction for the individuals to follow.  And it should be a concern for everyone to strive for that true earnestness, and to urge others towards earnestness, which can help each one best deal with these anxious times and best preserve oneself and the whole.


[i] Three Discourses, pp. 83-84

[ii] 1 Thess. 5:2; also 2 Peter 3:10, Rev. 3:3, and others

[iii] The Omega Code:  TBN Films, Inc. 1999.

[iv] Left Behind:  the movie  Cloud Ten Pictures, 2000.

[v] Revelations 21-22

[vi] Verlyn Flieger, Splintered Light:  Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World;  (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI 1983) pp. 134-35

[vii] These are not necessarily mutually exclusive; one can both see one’s fears and burdens as part of a larger story and strive to play out one’s own part in it as best it can be.  Tolkien’s characters certainly see themselves as parts of the greater story, without this leading them away from earnestness.