Comparing Tolkien and Bukvich

A teacher who is ardently devoted to their discipline will go above and beyond what is required to pull their paycheck. I think we find this in all the great pedagogues.

Here, Tolkien’s tenure and Oxford is described:

What, in practical terms, did it mean to be the Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford? The simplest answer is that it meant a good deal of hard work.

The statutes called upon Tolkien to give a minimum of thirty-six lectures or classes a year, but he did not consider this to be sufficient to cover the subject, and in the second year after being elected Professor he gave one hundred and thirty-six lectures ad classes.

-Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, p.140

Job requirement: 36 hours.

Actual time: 136 hours.

Where have I seen something like this before? Oh yes. Dan Bukvich of course. By far the most effective teacher I encountered in university. I’ve written about him before.

Job Requirement:

Teach freshman music theory
Teach Freshman ear training
Give private percussion lessons (once a week per student)


Teach freshman music theory
Teach freshman ear training
Write and continually revising the textbooks for both these courses
Give private percussion lessons (TWICE a week per student)
Direct large jazz choir (his most pubic role)
Direct small jazz choir
Compose and personally arrange huge piles of music for these choirs to sing
Teach “Theoretical Basis of Jazz”
Direct percussion ensemble
Direct the annual “Dancers Drummers Dreamers” show
Oversee directed studies in composition
And much much more…

That’s all I can remember. And that’s just his job. What did Tolkien do on the side? He wrote The Lord of the Rings, the greatest novel of the 20th century. Bukvich? Composed a multitude of music for choir, concert band, orchestra, percussion ensemble, and so forth. These exist in a smaller circle of influence than a novel read worldwide, but by many measures are no less significant.

I had other good professors in college, but none had near the impact on my education. Talk about “above and beyond”. Thanks Dan!

Smart women around the Inklings

Tolkien and colleague E.V. Gordon worked together to translate the Anglo-Saxon poem Pearl. Unfortunately, the work was interrupted by the untimely death of Gordon in 1938. This discouraged Tolkien, who was already to busy with other projects to see it through completion.

However, the footnotes of his Biography note:

Tolkien intended to complete the Pearl edition, but he foud himself unable to do so (by this time he absorbed in writing The Lord of the Rings). It was eventually revised and completed for publication by Ida Gordon, the widow of E.V. Gordon, and herself a professional philologist.

-Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, p.145

Here we find one of the few well education women surrounding the Inklings. Carpenter mentions her later in the Biography as one of the few wives who had skills or ambitions beyond the domestic. I’m curious her relationship with her academic husband looked like.

The only other lady I’ve ever come across mentioned in connection with the Inklings is Dorothy Sayers.

Dreams as source material

It appears that key elements in both Lewis’s and Tolkien’s fiction come from their own recurring dreams.

Lewis decided to make Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia a lion after a spate of lion-themed nightmares. Charles’s William’s metaphysical novel The Place of The Lion may have also had something to do with it.

Here, we discover that Numenor/Atlantis became prominent the mythology of Middle-Earth in a similar way:

Tolkien’s legend of Numenor, the great island in the West that is given to the men who aided the Elves in the wars against Morgoth… It had one of its origins in the nightmare that had distrubed him since childhood, his “Atlantis-haunting” in which he “had the dreadful dream of the ineluctable Wave, either coming up out of a quite sea, or coming in towering over the green inlands”.

-Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, p.173

Our creativity can be influenced by all sorts of things. It makes perfect sense for a dream to inform these things. What is interesting about a dream though is that it’s origin can be utterly subconscience and intuitive. They are in our head, but even after much pondering we cannot always make the connections as to where they came from. If you like to have things resolved, dreams like this will always stay curious. I think the very fact that we are unable to make the connection sometimes gives the imagery special significance.

Frodo’s forshadowing dreams figure heavily into The Lord of the Rings, though they seem to rarely be discussed. They don’t end up being important to the story. It’s almost as if Tolkien had some sort of explanation in mind for them but never got around to telling us what it was.

Violent Psalms and “Biblical” criticism of the Bible

What do you do with all those violent psalms?

Most people ignore them completely, without even giving a reason. Throughout my entire childhood and religious education, these were never dealt with. It’s like they weren’t even there.

On the flip side, some insist on integrating all of them, verbatim, into the worship service.

May his children be fatherless
and his wife a widow!
May his children wander about and beg,
seeking food far from the ruins they inhabit!
May the creditor seize all that he has;
may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil!
Let there be none to extend kindness to him,
nor any to pity his fatherless children!

-Psalm 109:9-12

How about following that up with another rousing chorus of “Jesus Loves the Little Children”, right?

The possible reasons they are in there are many and some are rather complicated. I’m not going to get into that here. There is a decent outline here.

Atheists and antagonists love to point out how much bloody violence is in the Bible. We shouldn’t hum and haw and make excuses for this though. If there is something confusing in the scriptures, our first reaction shouldn’t be to apologize for it (slavery anyone?), but to seek to understand what God is trying to tell us by keeping it preserved throughout the years.

I’ve acquired a few killer points from reading a (relatively) recent essay on the subject by the great sage of violence himself, Rene Girard. He uncovers a fascinating clue by contrasting it with ancient pagan literature. If the Bible is nasty violent, it’s violent compared to what exactly? And when did we become so worried about this?

Many commentators today want to show that far from being nonviolent, the Bible is really full of violence. In a sense, they are right. The representation of violence in the Bible is enormous and more vivid, more evocative, than in mythology and even Greek tragedy. If we compare Judaic texts to pagan ones, we find that the amount of represented violence is greater in the first than in the second.

He goes on to provide more examples of how the psalms of malediction are, surprisingly, worse than nearly anything that shows up elsewhere. C.S. Lewis, who knew the classics inside out, also noted the same thing.

There are other texts in the Bible that forbid human beings to pray to God for the destruction of their enemies, and this is precisely what these psalms do. C. S. Lewis in his Reflections on the Psalms finds them shocking and does not hesitate to say so: “In some of the Psalms the spirit of hatred which strikes us in the face is like the heat from a furnace mouth. In others the same spirit ceases to be frightful only by becoming (to a modern mind) almost comic in its naïveté.” 1 Lewis finds these texts especially problematic in view of the fact that this intensity of hatred is not found in pagan writing:

Here he quotes Lewis again:

If we are to excuse the poets of the Psalms on the grounds that they were not Christians, we ought to be able to point to the same sort of thing, and worse, in pagan authors. . . . I can find in them lasciviousness, much brutal insensibility, cold cruelties taken for granted, but not this fury or luxury of hatred. . . . One’s first impression is that the Jews were much more vindictive and vitriolic than the pagans.

Now what’s up with that? Girard argues that the nastiness is in the pagan mythology too, but it’s sanitized. It’s from the viewpoint of the victors. The “winners” wrote history. They glamorized, and softened their own deeds.

Once we realize that we must be dealing with the same social phenomenon in the Bible and in mythology, namely the hysterical mob that will not calm down until it has lynched a victim, we cannot fail to become aware of the fact of a great biblical singularity, even a uniqueness.

In mythology, the collective violence is always represented from the standpoint of the victimizers and therefore the victims themselves are never heard. We never hear them bemoaning their sad fate and cursing their persecutors as they do in the psalms. Everything is recounted from the standpoint of the persecutors.

I know I’m pasting large chunks here, but in this case Girard’s writing is so concise (unusual) it’s difficult to summarize. Read on though. It’s loaded with goodies.

No wonder the Greek myths, the Greek epics and the Greek tragedies are all serene, harmonious, and undisturbed. In pagan cultures, the persecutors are in charge. We never hear the victims. We only hear the persecutors who always have the last word, and who are unaware of their own arbitrary violence.

The psalms, in my view, tell the same basic story as many myths but turned inside out, so to speak.

The psalms of execration or malediction are the first texts in history that enable victims, forever silenced in mythology, to have a voice of their own. These spontaneous scapegoats understandably feel horribly betrayed by their friends, their neighbors, even their relatives. And no wonder. They are victimized by everybody without exception inside their own community.

These victims feel exactly the way Job does. The Book of Job must be defined, I believe, as an enormously enlarged psalm of malediction. If Job were a myth, we would only have the viewpoint of the friends.

And finally bringing it back to face the original criticism:

The current critique of violence in the Bible does not suspect that the violence represented in the Bible might also be there in the events behind mythology, although invisible because it is unrepresented. The Bible is the first text to represent victimization from the standpoint of the victim and it is this representation which is responsible, ultimately, for our own superior sensibility to violence. It is not our superior intelligence or sensitivity. The fact that today we can sit in judgment over these texts for their violence is a mystery. No one else has ever done that in the past. It is for biblical reasons, paradoxically, that we criticize the Bible.

-Rene Girard, Violence in Biblical Narrative, Philosophy, Vol. 22, No. 2, October 1999

Now isn’t that ironic? Post-Christian morality bites again! We criticize the bible for being too violent and yet the root of our being appalled at this sort of violence in the first place is… you guesed it – the Bible. Secular humanism is Biblical morality sanitized of diety and metaphysics. Liberal social values were UNTHINKABLE in antiquity because they were only lately derived from the shell of Christianity.

Back to Girard’s essay for a sec. Doesn’t that just lay the smack down hard? So someone comes to trash the word of God and demand some answers. Now you could give them good answers (which exist), or you can kick the table over and show how the very motivation behind their question is sourced in how deeply the Bible has already shaped their ethics and thoughts.

I think this happens all the time. The kinds of questions we care about every day come from Christianity itself and its 2000+ year shaping of our western minds. We find that even when we curse God, we still do so on his own turf.

Update: You can read the full text of Girard’s essay here.

The importance of place

One thing I haven’t posted much on is “place”. A theology of place. A psychology of spaces. The personal significance of geography. It’s something a few others have thought about a lot and is one of those things that I has always been important to me, even though I never realized it.

It’s come up in three different pieces I’ve come across lately and struck me as very profound. I don’t have much to say about it now, so I’m just collecting snippets. Who knows, maybe it will take years to digest, like a lot of things.

Here, in C.S. Lewis’s autobiography, he talks about distance and how the automobile and quick travel has destroyed our sense of place. What good is a long pilgrimage now?

I number it among my blessings that my father had no car, while yet most of my friends had, and sometimes took me for a ride. This meant that all these distant objects could be visited just enough to clothe them with memories and not impossible desires, while yet they remained ordinarily as inaccessible as the Moon. The deadly power of rushing about wherever I pleased had not been given me. I measured distances by the standard of man, man walking on his two feet, not by the standard of the internal combustion engine. I had not been allowed to deflower the very idea of distance; in return I possessed “infinite riches” in what would have been to motorists “a little room.” The truest and most horrible claim made for modern transport is that it “annihilates space.” It does. It annihilates one of the most glorious gifts we have been given. It is a vile inflation which lowers the value of distance, so that a modern boy travels a hundred miles with less sense of liberation and pilgrimage and adventure than his grandfather got from traveling ten.

-C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Hope, p.157

I want to take a walking pilgrimage if, for no other reason, just to regain a sense of this. I am certain this is why some people enjoy hiking.

This sort of travel power also created the modern American suburbs, broke apart church and family relationships from their geographical chains. Not all chains are evil. Perhaps we function best as human beings within their restrictions.

I’ve mentioned before that GPS and global mapping is the last nail in the coffin on this. There is no longer an unexplored jungle or mountain. You can pick out individual bushes and shrubs on the side of mount Olympus from the safety of your laptop and Google Earth.

If some people are so adamantly against the idea of a virtual/internet church, I suspect it’s more because of the breakdown of a sense of place than because communication is really so stifled by it. Its proponents have proven that communication is often enhanced. They (the opponents) often don’t appeal to the sense of place though. It sounds silly, like religiosity. But Lewis, Tolkien, and the other Inklings weren’t afraid to appeal to it. They realized how powerful it was.

For the record, I’m against virtual/internet church for most of the typical reasons given, though I’m certainly FOR some aspects of it. Am I not blogging right now? I think I’ll move “sense of place” out of the shadows now though and near the top of the list.

Shifting gears, Travis Prinzi mentioned this piece by Caleb Stegal. It’s full of insight.

It is more and more difficult for us to imagine making Odysseus’s choice to forsake eternity for home. Liberalism’s ideas have consequences—from widespread divorce to mass marketing to spaghetti interchanges—but those consequences also shape ideas, reinforcing the frame of mind that gave birth to them. They break our ties to imagination, to craft, to the land, and to the shop, so that our cities and pastures alike are blighted. Because we have repeatedly bowed at the altar of convenience, we are isolated from the very things that would feed and nourish our imagination. It should be no wonder that civil society has largely lost its ability to mediate between the individual and society at large. It should be no wonder that people live with a vague sense of lostness. We have become a people without a place.

Individualism. Consumerism Separation from family, friends, and neighbors. Our technology (cheap cars, planes, telecommute, quick financing for real estate sales, well-stocked supermarkets, etc.) increasingly facilitates this. We are so mobile. We change jobs, schools, careers, cars, real estate, and even spouses at a fast pace. Does the call of God look like the fast lane? I’ll bet it’s more likely to look like settling down:

If modernity is an exercise in un-sticking ourselves from family, job, and home, the discipline of place is an exercise in re-sticking.

The good life, and the good society, begins only when we unhitch our hearts from radical individualism. Civil society will only be worthy of the name when people begin to make Odysseus’s choice: to step out of the void, gather together the permanent things scattered and strewn throughout their lives, and begin the hard work of cherishing.

-Caleb Stegal, Practicing the Discipline of Place

Also, God does not just speak to us as solitary individuals, alone on an empty Cartesian plane. Look at how often his words to us are to us in the context of where we are. It’s almost too simple to notice.

The sorrow of Job had to be joined with the sorrow of Hector; and while the former was the sorrow of the universe the later was the sorrow of the city; for Hector could only stand pointing to heaven as the pillar of holy Troy. When God speaks out of the whirlwind He may well speak in the wilderness.

-G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, p.109

Here, Prinzi draws from other pieces of Chesterton to relate to the wonder of place and the wonder of theology. It’s hard to pull excerpts from.

Fighting weeds while trying to restore a backyard that’s suffered 15 years of neglect puts me in a place and makes me have to do one of two things: get bitter that I don’t have more time for sitting in front of a computer debating theology with people dumber than me, or find the wonder in creation, consider the tragedy of the fall, and find even greater wonder in redemption.

Most people are bored with the monotony of one place, and we’ve become very transient people. I think that boredom is a weakness which plagues us, and I’m fighting hard against it.

It is much more often foolishness, not wisdom, that makes people want to move away from family and community for ideas of finding a “better life.”  We’re bored with the monotony.  We’re thinking we’re better than this place.

Yes? Eh, I think so.

Rejoice, you have been cleansed

For some of us, this exhortation from Leithart is like the wiping a thick layer of grime off the windows to find a sun blazing behind them again.

In it’s entirety:

“With what disgust, contempt, and hatred Christ must look upon every second of our lives, the reviewing of which must be a long torture for us, were such a judgment in our future!”

These are the words of a Presbyterian minister, writing in a prominent evangelical magazine. He’s trying to refute the belief that we’ll be judged according to works at the last day. He’s wrong on that point. Paul says clearly and repeatedly that everyone will be judged according to his works. But that’s not my main interest this morning. My interest is the attitude this writer attributes to Jesus.

Do you think Jesus is filled with “disgust, contempt, and hatred . . . every second of our lives”? Many Christians do, and there are others who want to reinforce that view. Job’s friends did. They posed as “comforters” but they were really little “satans,” accusers more interested in convicting than comforting.

Job’s response is not meekly to turn over and take it. His response is not, “Well, you’ve got a point there. I admit I’m totally depraved.” His response is to deny their accusations and defend himself. That should be our response too. But how? We know how sinful we are, how often we fail and fall. How can we defend ourselves with the same confidence as Job?

The answer will come in a few moments, as it comes every week in the liturgy. As we enter the Lord’s presence, we first need to be cleansed by confessing our sins. When we’ve confessed, the Father tells us how he regards us, and He doesn’t express disgust, contempt, or hatred. What He expresses is free and absolute forgiveness, love, favor, brotherly kindness, mercy. Because you are in the Son, “He forgives you all your sins.”

When the accusations come, don’t grovel and don’t let yourself be manipulated. Instead: Remember the words of absolution and realize that even more than Job you have grounds to protest your innocence. Remember the declaration of forgiveness, and believe that in Christ your sins are completely, utterly gone. Remember that you have been cleansed, silence the satans, and know that Jesus Christ by His Spirit is the true Comforter.

The next time some sophisticated theological accuser, some Confessional satan, wants to convict you of sin, you’ve got a choice: Believe the accuser, or believe God.

More notes on evangelism proper

In further exploring what I’ve talked about yesterday, I’ve been reading the rest of David Fitch’s posts on the subject. I want to condense some of the more pertinent ideas down here.

I believe a host of problems in American evangelicalism originate in our disregard for community. Indeed, our hyped up attraction approach to church has put the individual first in such a way that community becomes an afterthought which creates problems for discipleship, catechesis of our children, as well as evangelism. We seek to draw the individual in, sell him/her a message, and then provide communities. Community by definition becomes commodified. Instead of an individual being grafted into the Body of Christ as the very foundation of his/her salvation, this individual becomes a consumer of what kind of community best suits the kind of Christianity he or she can fit into her life. The ramifications for discipleship are disastrous.

I would agree with this. Our “evangelism proper” is highly individualized. What’s important in being a Christian looks something like this:

Confess Jesus Christ as your personal savior

sinning less…


I think the word he used, “afterthought” is a good way to describe it.

Roman’s Road is solid stuff. It’s not scholarly, but it’s still almost completely rational. The rhetoric masters take something akin to this approach: Convince someone that God exists and repentance and discipleship will follow naturally as they are enlightened of the error and ignorance of their ways. But really changed lives are always way more complicated than that, and the thing that complicates them (good and bad) is tied up in community.

Michael Spencer comments:

Apologetics deals with reasons, evidence, objections, etc. But I have almost never seen apologetics alone have any sort of evangelistic impact. Our problem, at root, is not intellectual or evidential, but moral.

OK. Pop quiz. Moral change is facilitated/nurtured most by:

A) The Holy Spirit
B) Reading your Bible more
C) Attending worship services
D) Moral company (Godly parents, friends, peers, and leaders)

Well (A) is a given. The Holy Spirit produces real change. (Perhaps ALL change depending on your theology.)

What about (B)? “I have hidden your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” – Psalm 119:11. OK. You can’t discount that one.

(C)? Singing worship songs. Listening to a preacher. Real moral change? Really? Perhaps. Maybe when it’s like (B). Or maybe when it’s like (D). How often is it really like either of these? (millage may vary)

And finally (D). “Do not be deceived: Bad company corrupts good morals” – 1 Corinthians 15:33. And the opposite? Living in a community of Godly men and women nurtures real change.

Fitch really lays it down in this post about how real community is NEVER easy to break in to. Sorry.

…any community of any significant depth will present barriers to entry for the new person. The community will already know each other deeply, the visitor will not. The community will have shared a journey, struggles, pains, sorrows and joys. We will already understand deeply our purpose, our Mission as worked out for our context because we have spent months, maybe years, praying and listening to God.

We should always be hospitable in inviting others into this great life we have been called to share. But frankly, it cannot be communicated or extended through the exchange of simple pleasantries after church gathering on Sunday morning. Unfortunately, there will always be these communal hurdles to becoming part of such a community of Mission.

It takes long-term commitment. I think that the Walmart-like greeters who wear a smile and have a system to greet you going into the large church are a sign of the loss of this community. It is false, a simulacrum, and it eventually breeds cynicism.

So what do you do? If attractional evangelism is by it’s very nature shallow and low milage, but deep community is naturally a walled garden, how do we bring in new believers? How do we find this community if we move into a new community (geographically or otherwise)? Is the burden put on us to work hard to find it and break into it or even create it from scratch? Where is the Holy Spirit in all of this.

The answers you give to these questions have huge implications in church sociology, missions, and even family relations. A large portion of what I’m trying hardest to grasp and wrestle with falls under these headings.

Common ground and strange fellows

While waiting in line at our local coffee shop, I perused some of the books on display in large shelf against the wall.

I came across Bound Only Once, a collection of essays criticizing Open Theism, edited by our local and prolific Reformed folk.

Open Theism could be described several ways. Arminianism on steroids is one of those. It is the belief that God doesn’t actually know the future. He knows all POSSIBLE futures and does shape things, but the end of the story is rather vague.

In the collection of essays, they again go out of their way to say they are NOT attacking Arminianism, but only this particularly heretical flavour of it that has surfaced a lot more often lately. They say that Open Theism IS more logical than classic Arminianism, but in the opposite direction of Calvinism. So it is more intellectually honest, but also more wrong and therefore, dangerous.

I remember that critics of Wild at Heart had their biggest beef with some of the Open Theism that shows up in John Eldridge’s controversial book. For the record, my feelings on it are rather mixed. It has a lot of problems, but also a few brilliant passages.

Anyway, throughout Bound Only Once, Open Theism is given a human face in Greg Boyd, a notable pastor, scholar and proponent of the theology.

So just today at the BHT, is this quote from Boyd:

When followers of Jesus aren’t careful to clearly distinguish the Kingdom from their own nation, we easily end up Christianizing aspects of our national culture we ought to be revolting against.

Good stuff. Where have I heard this before? From Wilson, Leithart, and the other contributors to the book in question of course! They actually don’t spend much near as much time writing and preaching against things like Open Theism as they do writing and preaching against the subversion of Chritianity by the culture (especially American culture). If someone had given me the quote above and asked me who said it, I probably would have said Wilson.

Funny what people can still have in common. Are there heretics on your team?

Unfunded goals

Programmer/writer Chad Fowler has some killer commentary on consumerism. Can you see yourself in any of this? Wow.

Experiment: next time a really important goal comes along, I’m not allowed to do any discretionary spending related to that goal.

My hypothesis is that unfunded life goals stand a better chance of being met.

Read the whole thing (it’s short).