Friday, February 20, 2015

The Tom Bombadil Option

     There is a good essay up at the Front Porch Republic.  It is one of the better ones, I think, on the subject of Tom Bombadil, and by virtue of that, I think it is one of the better essays on The Lord of the Rings.

     Some people, including me, can remember where they were when they heard that President Kennedy had been killed; and some people, including me, can remember where they were when they first read The Lord of the Rings.

     It was the early summer of 1968, and I was home from my first year in college.  The Vietnam war was red hot, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were freshly dead, George Wallace was running for President, the Summer of Love was a year in the past and the summer of Woodstock was a year in the future.  For a summer job I was working in the family printing business, and I had just purchased the complete set of Tolkien's books -- paperback -- on the recommendation of a good college friend named Jay.

     This particular edition, from Ballantine Books, had psychedelic covers. (I bought the poster.)  The Hobbit was subtitled "The Enchanting Prelude to The Lord of the Rings," and that was where I began. I read the whole set at one time.  I think it took me about four days to read the four books.

     My mind was greatly, and permanently, changed.

     At that time, I knew absolutely nothing about "Tolkien lore," or C. S. Lewis and the Inklings and their place in English Literature.  And although I was living in a world that was being deeply modified by these very conscious and active men,  I also knew nothing about John Paul Sartre and his writings on existentialism, nor of Allen Dulles and his reflections on the craft of intelligence, nor of Wendell Berry and his place on earth, despite the fact that all of their writings were quite available at the time.  And although I had had real interactions in all three of those modes of thinking and living of which they wrote, I was, quite simply, unaware.  

     I liked to read well enough.  I had read some of Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo, Jack London and Jules Verne, Zane Grey and Allen Drury -- my tastes were, I guess, somewhat eclectic.  But I'll credit J.R.R. Tolkien with opening a kind of good door in my mind that has led to my discovery of some very interesting places and people.

     What was it about this story that could open a person's awareness (mine) -- not just to a "fantasy world," but also to that part of the "real" world all around him that to him (me) was still un-real?

     New as I was in those days to the world of Tolkien's understanding, I could still see that Tom Bombadil was in some ways the most interesting character.  Who was he, that he could laugh and toss the Ring with no seeming ill effect?  So I was sorry, when the otherwise very good movie trilogy was released, that Peter Jackson had left him out completely.  I had thought that Bombadil was in some sense the unmoving pivot around which the entire War of the Ring revolved.  I have never lost that sense, even if Peter Jackson seems never to have found it.

     So here is the link to Front Porch Republic, with its essay by Chris Wiley, "The Bombadil Option." I think that I have found, at least in some sense, a kindred spirit.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Permanence In Place

     I was reading today -- re-reading, actually -- in Wendell Berry's book,  A Place on Earth.  It is one of his earliest works of fiction, written about fifty years ago in the early 60s.  The book is about people who were living in a Kentucky farming community in the mid-40s, twenty years earlier, in the closing days of the Second World War.  Wendell Berry lived that life himself as an observant boy of eleven or twelve, listening to what the older folks were saying and the stories that they told about their lives.  Twenty years later, he was writing those stories.  When you read A Place on Earth, you are reading a whole lot of well-told truth.

     In one of his stories, a fifty-ish farmer named Mat Feltner is walking in one of his fields, and talking with his young daughter-in-law, Hannah, who is far along in her first pregnancy, carrying his grandchild.  They have recently received word from the government that her husband Virgil, his son, has been reported missing in action in the war, and they are coming to terms with the knowledge that this means, really, that he is dead.  He will not be coming back to his family, or the farm, or his unborn child.

     Here is a snippet of the conversation that caught my attention:  Mat is telling Hannah about a conversation he had had with Virgil a few years earlier, when Virgil had first begun farming for himself and had made a serious, destructive mistake in how he had cared for a plowed field:

     ". . . I told him that a man's life is always dealing with permanence -- that the most dangerous kind of irresponsibility is to think of your doings as temporary.  That, anyhow, is what I've tried to keep before myself.  What you do on the earth, the earth makes permanent."

     Wendell Berry, speaking in the voice of Mat Feltner, says, "What you do on the earth, the earth makes permanent."  And so it does.  But most of us do not live much on the permanent earth.  Instead we live mostly in cars, or in buildings, or in McMansions, or in front of electronic screens flickering with data and commercials and entertainment, and none of these is even remotely permanent to us -- they are simply conveyances that get us safely and comfortably from this morning to this night.  And our far horizons -- and we all have them -- are often no farther than the next season of sports, the next installment of the franchised movie, the next job, the next election, the next war, the next person we look forward to hooking up with and having an "its complicated" relationship with on social media.  For a couple of generations now we have talked easily of "starter houses"; and indeed it makes no sense for most of us to live our lives in the same place from marriage to old age.  And now we have girls and young women frankly talking about "starter husbands" -- will the next guy we plan to hook up with be the one that we have a wedding with, and then a kid or two, and then divorce for someone better?

     "The most dangerous kind of irresponsibility is to think of your doings as temporary," Mat Feltner says, and I think he is right.  And I think that there has been a lot of irresponsibility recently, and for a long time past, and I'm not seeing it getting better right now.

     I am very sorry that the ISIS murderers are proudly killing their enemies, abusing their own citizens, and executing their prisoners.  I am also sorry that these ISIS killers were recruited, armed, and trained by agencies of our own government (as well as the governments of our "allies" in NATO and the Middle East), acting under the bi-partisan oversight of our politicians, duly and democratically chosen by us in elections that are shams, orchestrated by corporate powers and brought to us by the media for our faux "approval" or our equally faux "outrage," as the case may be.

     The soldiers and civilians who have died -- "ours" and "theirs" -- are permanently DEAD.  Those who have had arms and legs blown off by IEDs are crippled for life.  The wedding parties blown up by our brave drone warrior-pilots, the children in Gaza burned by exploding shells filled with white phosphorus, or the ones in Afghanistan maimed when they picked up the exploding "toys," the depleted-uranium dust scattered around Iraq twenty-some years ago that has induced hideous birth defects, the "Gulf War syndrome" that has affected many thousands of our veterans and that our government has avoided taking care of --

     Plenty of people can always be found who will volunteer to kill people and smash things; and they need nothing more than boundless energy to fulfill their visions, so I suppose that if we can just keep the military spending at current levels (with supplemental appropriations for active wars, of course), they can do what they want, or like, or need, to do.

     And then there are plenty of people, really a whole lot of them, you know, who just like to watch!  Can we have some more shock and awe, please?  Fire?  Explosions?  With a self-serving of grief and tears and grim determination?  Some designated enemies to fulfill our need for "two minutes of hate"?  Give us sound and fury, even if it signifies nothing.  Especially if it signifies nothing.  We'll just think of our doings as only temporary.  What do you mean, "It's the irresponsible thing to do?" Hell, it's not the irresponsible thing to do, it's the right thing to do.  After all, we can endlessly reconfigure "reality," as you can see.  Praise the Lord and pass another war "resolution."

     Of course there are always some people left who get to try to pick up the pieces.  That would have been you, Mat Feltner and Hannah, in your day.  And Virgil, if he had lived.  But he didn't.  And the baby about to be born, too, I guess.

     Now its our call.  Or our calling.  Or not.  Anyway, it's our situation.  Serious, permanent damage, much of it difficult or impossible to reverse.

     Well, I was originally going to write something engagingly alliterative about place, permanence, and patience, and I didn't get to the patience bit.  I got sidetracked there, thinking about all the damage that has been done.  It will not be repaired in my lifetime.






Thursday, February 5, 2015

The President And The Prayer Breakfast

     President Obama spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, February 5.  This annual meeting is perhaps the closest thing we have to a civic expression of our individual, mutual, and collective responsibilities before the One Lord God.  It would seem that the President's remarks (which are reported in full, from the White House, here) created a stir.

     After a few jovial introductories, the President got to the point with a rhetorical question:  "So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities -- the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends?"

     Well, even though it is probably unanswerable, that is a good question.  So the President addressed the problems we have faced in Europe, in America, and in India.

     "Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history.  And lest we get on our high horse and think that this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.  Michelle and I returned from India -- an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity -- but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs. . . .  So it is not unique to one group or one religion. . . . There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith. . . ."

     There can be no doubt of the factual truth of the President's remarks.  Any well-read history student knows this beyond reasonable doubt.  So what is the stir?

     I'd say it's that folks don't like being told any uncomfortable truth.  And they definitely don't like it when they are being called out on their American Christian Exceptional Rightness.  But they especially don't like to hear it from a man that they do not like, for whatever reason.

     Well,  there's a fair amount that the President has done that I don't like, either.  But these remarks by the President happen to be the sober truth, and it is a sober truth that American Christians need to hear.  And most of us are not hearing it in church.

     Say it, Mr. President.  Say it again, loud and clear.  Loud enough that we can hear it through the walls of our churches -- and synagogues --  and mosques.

     "So it is not unique to one group or one religion. . . . There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith. . . ."


     I encourage you to read all of the President's remarks, here.  I frankly prefer them to the political posturings from the Congress, the arrant nonsense of the so-called "Christian" media, and the often goofy slogans that bounce among Christians on Facebook.