Sunday, March 26, 2006

Is The Lord of the Rings a Racist Work?

In an opinion piece about the implicit racism in Peter Jackson’s cinematic remake of King Kong, James Pinkerton casually asserts a connection between the film and the medieval-inspired epic romance The Lord of the Rings by Oxford professor JRR Tolkien (1892-1973). This is not the first time that Professor Tolkien’s novel has been charged with racism. Pinkerton’s passing comparison with King Kong, however, seems too facile and convenient, especially when considering his equation of a Hollywood screenplay with the life’s work of a careful philologist and methodical Anglo-Saxon scholar. Pinkerton may simply be echoing the latest fulminations from some of the literary critics who balk at the continued success of Tolkien’s imaginative fiction. Apparently there are some who seem unable to entertain the possibility that a piece of serious literature can have wide-spread popular appeal. In such cases, the only solution available is to stigmatize the exception. This does not mean that The Lord of the Rings is beyond criticism. There exists a substantial and growing body of serious and nuanced Tolkien scholarship and criticism carried out by able and honest scholars. Some are sympathetic to Tolkien’s fiction, some are not.

Was JRR Tolkien a culturally-bound individual with native prejudice? No more so than any other Oxford don of his era. Anyone familiar with the shape of Tolkien’s life, career, fiction, and the cultural attitudes he articulated in his letters would recognize that he was an anachronism even in his own time. He loathed the dehumanizing consequences of industrialization, which not only encroached upon the idyllic meadows of his childhood home, but also wrought with easy dispatch the deaths of so many of his Oxford classmates in the trenches of France during World War I. The Great War, as experienced by Tolkien at the Battle of the Somme, was an “animal horror,” and unlike other literary figures who survived that conflict, Tolkien’s experience confirmed to him the need for a reinforcement of traditional Roman Catholic culture, social teaching, and morality. He resented the loss of place, land, and belonging that was brought about by the thoughtless and uncritical uses of ever-advancing technology, and he recognized in the atom bomb that “Mordor was in our midst.” Perhaps this is why so many readers with disparate political and social worldviews resonate with Tolkien’s writings, be they environmentalists or oil executives, traditionalists or new-age hippies, believers or non-believers, and conservatives, liberals, or libertarians. Such factors seem to undermine any serious charges of racism. It appears that the best Pinkerton can muster is the shallow observation that the evil minions in The Lord of the Rings tend to be dark-skinned brigands. A careful reading of the work reveals, however, that skin color has little to do with the propensity for evil. Several of the principal antagonists in the story are Caucasian-like in appearance, and there are examples of characters of color joining the protagonists in the fight against Sauron’s encroaching darkness. Such criticism, however, misses the deeper point of Tolkien’s story.

Mr. Pinkerton is correct in his assertion that The Lord of the Rings was—for Tolkien—a meditation on Western uniqueness. English uniqueness would probably be more precise. Every culture, Pinkerton admits, believes itself to be unique. Is that racism? I suppose it would depend upon how such belief in that uniqueness manifested itself in a culture’s actions and customs toward other societies and peoples. Tolkien loved England, and he possessed a life-long desire to create for and dedicate to his native land an imaginative mythology worthy of English history, culture, and language. He argued that the proper designation English referred to the Anglo-Saxon period in English history from before the Norman Conquest. Tolkien viewed the Arthurian legends as not English through and through. He believed that many of the cultural and historical elements in those legends were imported into English lore, especially from France. The sophisticated social antagonism between the English and the French was particularly strong in the early part of the 20th century, so one can understand Tolkien’s English antipathy toward French culture. In this, he probably was prejudiced. No doubt, he would have been amused at and then irritated by the current cliché that designates all things Caucasian as generically “Anglo-Saxon.”

Why does The Lord of the Rings continue to be so popular? Why does it elicit such shrill criticism from some members of the literary aristocracy? If it is a racist work, why do those who read and re-read it come from so many different ethnic, cultural, and social perspectives? Why has it been translated into over 40 languages? Perhaps readers discover within its narrative noble human virtues that are common—though increasingly rare—to most cultures: moral courage, heroic sacrifice and self-denial, honor, duty, loyalty, love of land, kin, and custom, and resisting evil in the face of ambiguous circumstances and seemingly insurmountable challenges. At the same time, the narrative also reinforces moral caution: power corrupts, evil cannot be used to destroy evil without evil consequence, evil’s craft is subtle enough to seduce even some whose dispositions are otherwise honorable, and human virtue can be manipulated by evil for nefarious purpose. Those who successfully resist evil to the end nonetheless bear the scars of that resistance. Moreover, the epochs of history that seem a slow march toward defeat still occasion glimpses of a hopeful future on the farthest shore. In an era when many of these archaic and parochial virtues are viewed with contempt by the intelligentsia and academic elite, who seem bent only upon deconstructing them as oppressive expressions of class, gender, and race, it is little wonder that a work of such moral imagination and depth as The Lord of the Rings continues to attract, fascinate, and inspire so many people. Modern society needs more thoughtful and reflective traditionalists like Professor Tolkien. His epic legendarium has challenged, influenced, and redirected some of my own perspectives, in directions that have been, for me, unexpected and surprising. Gospel, myth, and story often pack the punch of ethical persuasion more viscerally than ideological expository tracts or abstract cultural critiques.

Let me encourage you, fellow reader: have a go at Middle Earth. If you travel there even for a short time, you will not return unchanged. The only risk in the reading itself is the sheer joy of a numinous wonder.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

On the Importance of Old Books

CS Lewis once suggested that for every modern book one reads, one should read three old books. What an antiquarian and archaic point of view. The current destruction of traditional Western culture may indicate that modern society (this includes the convenient moniker of "post-modernism") is not following Lewis' suggestion. In fact, the elite doorkeepers of contemporary culture in the academy and the media are working overtime to accelerate the destruction of the cultural artifacts and monuments of Western Civilisation (note that I use the older spelling with "s" as opposed to "z"). Nowhere is this more apparent than in the so-called "AP English" courses in our contemporary high schools.

Now, there are different forms of destruction, some passive, some active. It would seem that our current high school teachers, filled with the latest fads from departments of education in our colleges and universities (my college is no exception) seems engaged in the destruction of Western literature, not so much by active means; who can realistically call for the destruction of Shakespeare as a cultural icon and whose work has been so clearly a part of the "canon" of the Western literary tradition for so long? No. Rather, the destruction of great literature, as literature, is occurring by passive means; namely, neglect. In Fargo there is, currently, controversy surrounding the teaching of a particular modern novel in an Advance Placement English class. Certain parents believe the novel to be too graphic and adult for high school students. Of course, the typical calls for censorship are flying and the parents in question are being branded as narrow bigots, etc. ad nauseum. Moreover, the educational experts assert that the novel in question makes an important contribution to the discussion of racial tensions in communities. A worthy topic for examination, to be sure.

My observation is simply this. Given CS Lewis' suggestion, is the particular class in question required to read an additional three "old" books, after reading a modern book? Since I don't know the answer to the question, I shall have to refrain from final judgement. My experience, however, suggests that such a formula for reading is not being followed, and that the majority of the traditional canon of Western literature is being neglected. Think of the implications. If an entire generation of young people are fed modern books with no reference to the great books of the past, there is no possibility for the preservation of cultural memory, and the neglect leads to the destruction of culture. The key word, much maligned and despised, is "tradition."

I spoke with a very bright and intelligent student about her experience in high school regarding literature. She had not heard of the Old English epic poem Beowulf. She had, however, attended a high school whose curriculum was centered on "environmental studies." I am sorry for her, not because she isn't curious, bright, or motivated to learn; she demonstrates that to me each week in my work with her as a teacher. Rather, I am sorry that she has been fed a curriculum based upon a sociological paradigm that is extraordinarily fragile and thin, namely that the most important knowledge gained by a student is not that which enhances, enriches, and expands the life of the mind in appreciation of that which is good, true, and beautiful (there's that "old" Platonic idea again), but that such a student should be given knowledge that is going to help her think and act a particular way in modern society. If this is not indoctrination, then the word has no meaning. To base a high school curriculum on specific desired sociological paradigms, which change so drastically from decade to decade, seems the heighth of imprudence and foolishness. Of course, this student may discover for herself that she has been lied to, and in so doing, will be saved from supporting the cycle of fads and lies that often accompany new curricula. Perhaps she will yet encounter the delight, and eucatastrophic and numinous sense that Beowulf, Shakespeare, Milton, and company create in their readers. Once bitten, she, like all students thus bitten, will never be the same. One can only hope.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

To Pledge or Not To Pledge

There has been a lot of ink spilled in the last few weeks over a recent court ruling on the wording of the Pledge of Allegiance. It seems that the two words "under God" have generated a lot of heat between secularists and religious believers. Both sides claim dire consequences for the public life of the nation if the wording is or is not removed.

It seems to me, however, that there is a larger issue concerning the Pledge of Allegiance that deserves our careful consideration. A pledge is an oath, and the taking of oaths, in my opinion, is a very serious matter. I am not opposed to the idea of oath-taking. What I question is the assumption that having children recite an oath on a daily basis in taxpayer-funded schools is always proper, right, or wise. To be fair, I grew up reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in the various public schools that I attended, and I never gave this action much thought. It was just something that students did at the start of each school day, at football games, or at school assemblies. This daily occurrence in my early life did not turn me into a brain-washed citizen who blindly trusts the government. There is no doubt that one of the goals of public education is to produce a citizenry that makes positive contributions to the country for the good of the society. It is not unreasonable for that educational goal to include the inculcation of loyalty and duty to one's country.

Yet, because of the serious nature of oaths, I think it might be prudent to think through exactly what is being pledged. Words mean one thing and not another, so the wording of an oath is very important. When a person covers their heart and recites the Pledge, they are binding themselves to do that which they pledge. However, does the wording of the Pledge convey truth? Are the things to which a person pledges himself true? Is the united States of America a republic? Is this one nation? Is this a nation under God? Is this nation indivisible? Is liberty and justice available to all of the citizens? These are debatable questions which are capable of sustaining more than one answer, depending upon the perceptions and perspectives of those who think this or that about the questions. Are the political qualities numerated in the Pledge always desirable? Does this pledge function as an ideal to which the citizens promise to aspire? Or does it function as a statement of being; an assertion of current reality?

However one answers the questions, the missing piece seems to be the lack of understanding of the binding character of an oath. When a person takes an oath, he is binding himself to something he believes is greater than his own life. He is taking on a promise to behave and act a certain way toward something or someone, for which the breaking of that promise is serious and has tangible conseqences. The act of taking an oath also assumes that the thing or person to whom the oath-taker binds himself can fulfill its or his side of the bargain. Given the current voracious nature of modern government, I doubt that it is wise or prudent to swear allegiance to that same government. Such a government is happy to have its citizens' loyalty, it is can also easily take everything else from the citizen too.

As a Christian, I believe that an oath, a vow, or a pledge--they are the same things--is to be taken only for the most momentous and important aspects of life. My marriage vows are sacred because I pledged myself to my wife before God, who will judge me for my failure to keep that vow. My oath as a parent to raise my children in the Christian covenant given to them at their baptisms is just as momentous, for my pledge to God affects the eternal souls of my children. If the civil magistrate asks me to take an oath of honesty in any court matter, I am obliged to speak truthfully, because I have promised to do so in God's name. When it comes to pledging allegiance to political ideals or political realities, I doubt that the gravity is quite the same. The character of nations change. History is repleat with the rise and fall of nations who began with virtue and ended with corruption. There is every indication that the unique and virtuous character of our original constitutional republic has passed away.

Now, I am not willing to prevent the practice of the Pledge on a voluntary basis. Any principled commitment to liberty for oneself and other requires a great measure of tolerance (not in the politically correct meaning of that word, but in its original virtuous meaning). However, given the sensitive nature of the young, who always seek approval and to please those in authority, expecting a child of a dissenter to refrain from reciting the Pledge without tacit retaliation from peers, teachers, or others is naive. Is there a place for the taking of this Pledge? Perhaps. In the classroom everyday? I am not certain.

Friday, October 07, 2005

I am a libertarian

"...aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may live properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one."

"...Now to such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living."

--St. Paul to the Christians at Thessolonica

In writing to the Christians at Thessolonica, St. Paul succinctly encapsulates a simple form of government: self-government. Christians are to govern themselves by living quietly, minding their own business, working with their own hands in order to earn their own living, setting a proper example for those outside the faith, and to be dependent upon no one. Perhaps St. Paul was a proto-libertarian; someone whose view of liberty tended towards leaving people alone to govern their own affairs.

The image of an ordinary human being making an honest living and minding his own business probably best displays what the vast majority of adults around the world do every day. The question Charles Murray, a noted advocate for political freedom, asks is "What does this person owe the government other than to keep on doing what he is doing?"

I, as a Christian, owe many things to many people and institutions--to family, friends, community, church, workplace. These obligations are always voluntary. I can choose to forsake those obligations and certain consequences will follow, or I can fulfill those obligations--called obedience--and receive benefit and blessings. In fact, when I do so, often times they cease to be "obligations" and become privileges; something I desire and want to do.

However, an obligation to the government is unique. When the government decides you owe something, that decision is backed by law. If you violate a law, a government can compel you by force, at the point of a gun barrel, if necessary, to fulfill your obligation. The right to initiate the use of physical force, usually called the police power, is what makes government different from all other human constructs.

What should people who are living quietly and minding their own affairs owe the government? Not much. This is the substance of what it means to be a libertarian. Notice that I use the word in the lower case. I am less interested in the development of an actual political party--which like most organizations, after a time, seeks to perpetuate itself apart from its purpose--than I am with living a quiet life while minding my own business. Anyone who makes an honest living and minds his own affairs isn't hurting me. He isn't forcing me to do anything. I as an individual don't have the right to force him to do anything. A hundred of his neighbors acting as a mob don't have that right. The government should not have that right either, except for stringently limited functions, imposed under stringently limited conditions. An adult making an honest living and minding his own business deserves to be left alone to live his life. He deserves to be free.

(Adapted from Charles Murray's book, "What it Means to be a Libertarian.")

Monday, July 25, 2005

1865 Requiescat in pace.

There is a lot of talk these days about constitutional jurisprudence. In the wake of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's retirement, our politicians, talking heads, and media personalities all appeal to the US Constitution as a means of supporting or opposing this or that nominee who will take Justice O'Connor's place on the nation's highest bench. That choosing a nominee for the Supreme Court is serious business, no one would dispute. This is as it should be. And while all juridical and philosophical streams appeal to the US Constitution for their justification and legacy, few seem to note that these appeals to the history and tradition of constitutional jurisprudence run dead center into a brick wall that cannot be breached or leveled. That brick wall was built in 1865. In that year, the Constitutional Republic of the united States of America was buried. She will not rise again.

How is this so? When the Cotton States set out upon their illusory and ill-thought-out path, they unknowingly set in motion the destruction of the very political foundation upon which they based their arguments for secession. It was understood by all previous generations of citizens that a state could remove itself from the Union, just as the colonies removed themselves from the rule of England. The long train of abuses and usurpations, so eloquently set forth in the Declaration of Independence, were of such substance that it is clear to all who look back upon it that the colonies had a right to withdraw from England and form a government suited to their own culture and sensibilities. The Cotton States believed they were in exactly the same position as the colonies, and few in the South disputed that secession was the only means of redressing the grievances they believed they were suffering. That a great many in their population suffered in brutally enforced servitude, deprived of the very rights for which the South believed she were fighting, seemed to go unoticed by many citizens of Dixie, though there were notable and noble exceptions.

But the course of precipitous action by South Carolina and all that followed her example was seized upon by Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party as the opportunity to re-shape the basic outline of the federal government. By the time the bloody conflict ceased, and the aggressive and unprincipled reconstruction of the defeated South was accomplished, the old constitutional order lay mortally wounded and expired.

Our modern constitutional jurisprudence traces its genesis to this restructuring of the constitutional order, and no return to the principles of strict constructionism will undo that which has come about. Nor would many desire it. The events of war and Reconstruction fundamentally altered this nation's self-understanding. We no longer think of ourselves as Minnesotans, North Dakotans, Missourians, Virginians, etc. We think of ourselves as Americans. The former emphasis on the many in e pluribus unum has been replaced by the emphasis on the one. This is why all of the noise about Supreme Court nominees is probably much ado about nothing. There is no judge on the bench today who believes that the 14th Amendment is inimical to the safeguard of the 10th Amendment and that it has trumped all other considerations of limit to federal power. The nominee who came closest to this was Robert Bork. But even he would have fallen short of disputing the legitimacy of the 14th Amendment. Rhenquist, Scalia, and Thomas all assume the 14th amendment in all of their judgements.

No, the old order is gone. And few mourn. I am one of them. I would have risked the continuing mess of chattel slavery. It passed peacably away in many other Western nations without bloody conflict in the same century; it could have in the US. I would also have risked the sectionalism that plagued the Congress in order to preserve the old republic. I think that although we gained freedom for blacks and renewed sense of unity, we lost much for which we are now suffering. Our jurisprudence has trumped the legislative option, and now we face the prospect of continued centralization of federal--national--power, the loss of liberty in the wake of our fight against terrorism, and culture wars which inevitably play into the hands of radical cultural revolutionaries.

The thickest irony is that what was set in motion by the events and leaders of 1861 was lost even upon the many brave federal troops in the Army of the Potomac who defeated the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg and beyond. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain would probably not have relished a phyrric victory of such magnitude and consequences. And while it is too late for a return to the principles of the old republic, we can only hope that God, in his wisdom and mercy, will spare our children and grandchildren the final harvest of bitter fruit that has grown upon our national tree. Perhaps they will see God act afresh to bring about a civil order that will cherish the safeguards of liberty that were so well set forth in the original constitution. In the meanwhile, may God grant us vigilance to grip tightly that which remains of our liberty, to uphold the freedom of Christ's Bride, the Church, and to pray for a change of heart and mind in the populace that would allow a return to the first things of 1789.

Requiescat in pace 1865.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Why Reading CS Lewis is Dangerous

In Letters to Malcolm, CS Lewis gave his correspondent an unusual perspective with regard to corporate prayer, the liturgy. He asked him to consider that, as laymen, we should accept what we are given. Now this is a most un-American perspective, for it follows the historical commitment to custom and tradition for which the English people are so well known. Yet there is something instructive about this attitude that perhaps we American protestants would do well to examine.

Americans in general, and conservative protestants in particular, tend not to act as laymen. We have been so conditioned to be "Bereans"--which I am not certain means what many believe it to mean--that we act as if God has laid upon each of us individually the responsibility and authority to determine the meaning and application of the Faith for ourselves (all too often, for others, too). This burden may stem in no small part from our modern democratic and everyman sensibilities, which are instilled in us from our earliest years. Hence, we are all equal, so says our political, cultural, and social constructs, therefore we must be equal in the ability and responsibility to determine the meaning of Scripture. Responsibility implies authority, for no one can long bear the responsibility for a task without possessing the authority to carry that task out. Authority, however, implies ability or qualification.

Am I qualified to determine Scripture's proper meaning? Do I possess the necessary knowledge and training? Even if I do, does that possession imply authority? From where do I obtain this authority?

No doubt, many would answer these questions with a pallate of Scripture verses from both testaments that prove and affirm the very notion I am questioning. But, such answers already assume the authority and responsibility I am questioning, and so it would seem the cart is before the ox. Let me put the question another way: Since Scripture contains all things necessary for Christian faith, and since the language of Scripture means one thing and not other things, who has the authority to determine its proper meaning? Who is given the power to judge and interpret Scripture?

I suspect the real answer may trouble and disturb most of us. What if God has not granted us the individual authority to carry out this task as individuals, as laymen? What if God has actually given this task to His Church, through her duly ordained ministers? Even in this, perhaps the minister has not authority on his own to make these determinations, but must rely on his fellow ministers--whether living or in heaven--for counsel, affirmation, and confirmation of what Scriptures mean regarding this or that portion of the faith. Now this perspective should be distinguished from the attitude of those who are content to warm the pews and "let the professionals do all the work." No. What I am suggesting does not require relinquishing a life of reading, thinking, studying, and applying the faith to one's life. But it does mean carrying on these things within the counsel of the Church. And this is risky, because we live in an age where people are taught to distrust any kind of authority, most of all ecclesiastical authority. The Church is led by sinful men, called by God to fight against their sin and feed and lead His flock. God also calls His flock to follow the shepherds He has appointed. This is difficult, for it mean giving control to others who are sinful. But since I am also sinful, why should I have any greater confidence in myself, than in those whom God has set to watch over my soul?

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Show Us Your Papers

Yesterday the House of Representatives passed an intelligence reform bill that grants sweeping intelligence gathering powers to the federal government through the creation of a new cabinet position. Bad idea. Even worse, buried within the bill--which the Senate is set to pass today--is a provision for standardizing state issued driver's licenses for the purposes of information sharing. This is nothing less than the establishment of a national ID card. Members of Congress know that US citizens are wary of such a move, and so the provision seems benign. By using the language of "standardizing" driver's licenses, Congress is providing political cover for themselves. It does not take rocket science to see the ramifications of such a provision.

Authoritarian states have always controlled the movements of their citizens through the use of identification papers. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Empire were very adept at keeping their citizens in line by such means. That we have reached the technological sophistication of computer-read cards does not lessen the potential for abuse at the hands of a national government, even a government that acts with good intentions for the sake of its citizens' safety.

I can understand the fear and frustration associated with the threat of terrorism. This, however, is the price of maintaining a free society. Freedom is risky business. Government imposed security will not make us safer, and it will make us less free. I am willing to risk terrorist threats, trusting that God is in control, and that all things are in His hands. I am not willing to risk my freedom or my family's freedom for the sake of the convenience and expediency of government intelligence gathering. We must stand against such a fundamental assault on our civil liberties.