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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

book response: The Sparrow by Russell (1996)


Cover of
Cover of The Sparrow: A Novel
I read Mary Doria Russell's premier novel, The Sparrow, this past weekend. I forced myself to take breaks from it so I could be a participating member of my family. It was very good. Since it is a 16 year old book, I don't feel bad discussing the ending, but this is a spoiler for those who don't know, like me, who are new to this book.

I don't read much fiction, but sometimes on a lark from a recommendation at a blog I enjoy, I take a risk. It was a good risk. Ultimately, this is about God, the problem of evil, rape, death, sacrifice, and despair.

I am very interested in Russell's jab at the problem of evil, which comes at the end. The Jesuit interplanetary missionary ends up the lone survivor of an exploration party to an alien civilization. But he survived because he became an exotic sex toy to one of the alien species and he suffered repeated sodomy. (This is quite the irony in light of the scandal of the pederastic priests who came to light in the 90's.)  He thought God had lined up all the circumstances to visit this new civilization but his party all ended up dead, and he was violated. His anger at God was so visceral his only options were that God did not exist, meaning that all this pain was brought on by himself, or God, in effect, raped him, meaning he was a wicked god. He couldn't believe the latter, so he chose the former. But his fellow Jesuits sought to bring him to a place of healing, not necessarily belief, but relief from his internalized pain. His cathartic moment comes at the end when he speaks out loud that he was raped, repeatedly. But where does leave God in the Jesuits' mind?
"So God just leaves?" John asked, angry where Emilio had been desolate. "Abandons creation? You're on your own, apes. Good luck!" [Deism - JPU]
"No. He watches. He rejoices. He weeps. He observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us, and remembering."
"Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine," Vincenzo Giuliani said quietly. "'Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.'"
"But the sparrow still falls," Felipe said.
They sat for a while, wrapped in their private musings. (p.401)
Her answer to the problem of evil is that God knows, and feels, but he doesn't usually intervene. I can go with that. We are always looking for patterns. The patterns that predominate our news cycles are those which it appears God doesn't intervene. There aren't as many stories about close calls and near misses, who knows if we are even conscious of half of those. If the miraculous were normal, there wouldn't be, by definition, any miracles. In the case of the book's main character, Father Emilio Sandoz, there were dozens of unusual circumstances, referred to as turtles on top of fenceposts, that could only be explained by God's doing. (A turtle on a fencepost can only happen by the action of an intelligent agent.) His response to his assaults is that, if God were real, then God raped him.

"But God." God permits evil. If this life is all we have, then evil has won. But if there is a life beyond our mere 70 odd years, a life a million multiples greater in length than this one on earth, the evil permitted will not continue to overwhelm our world. Healing and redemption and justice will come. It may take longer than our life span on earth to complete the healing, but it will be complete.
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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Matthew's gospel and Batman: The Dark Knight Rises

I saw The Dark Knight Rises last night and it had a scene at the end which reminded me of a cryptic scene in Matthew's gospel when Christ is crucified. So this is your spoiler alert, if you haven't seen the movie and are planning on it.
Here is the passage from Matthew 27:52,53
The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many.
It's an interesting couple of verses because it's so miraculous it borders on near absurdity for even an evangelical. When evangelical theologian Mike Lacona wrote a massive defense of the historicity of the resurrection, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, he ended up resigning from his job for writing that his understanding this passage is not literal. He wrote, "Based on my reading of the Greco-Roman, Jewish, and biblical literature, I proposed that the raised saints are best interpreted as Matthew's use of an apocalyptic symbol communicating that the Son of God had just died..." All I'm getting at is this passage is controversial, but, for me, Batman helped me understand it a little better.

In the movie, Batman dies for his city, sort of like Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia, and Jesus in the gospels. But his death is a victory for those who were trapped in the city under the oppression of Bane's lawless gangs. Batman freed an army of police officers who were able to defeat the gangs as he located the nuclear bomb. Their victory was empty until the time bomb was neutralized. He neutralized it. He delivered them from their certain deaths. Then there was this cool scene in the movie that made me think of Matthew. I don't know who the narrator's voice was, perhaps the Commissioner's, commenting as people started opening their front doors and stepping out again onto the formerly deadly streets, that the prisoners were set free or that the entombed were coming out, I don't remember which verbiage was used, but it resonated with me, as if someone struck a gong. In my head, this was straight from Matthew's gospel. This is the non-miraculous interpretation of Matthew's report of the zombies walking around Jerusalem. He's the only gospel writer to report this. Is it possible, as other orthodox Christians like Licona have, to find room for a metaphorical or apocalyptic interpretation? I guess, for today, I'm starting the Batmanalytical school of thought...

The tombs were opened [the self imposed cells were unlocked] the bodies of the saints [those who believed in Jesus] who had fallen asleep [went into hiding because of his death] were raised [they came out celebrating and saying "What now! I told you so!"] and coming out of the tombs [there homes where they hid in shame and despair] after his resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many [tooting their Jesus horns].

Saturday, July 21, 2012

book response: Helmet for my Pillow by R. Leckie (1952)


Cover of
Cover via Amazon
After watching HBO's The Pacific recently, I was reminded that this book, Helmet for my Pillow by Robert Leckie, has been on my "to read" list since I read Sledge's "With the Old Breed." Sledge wrote really well, but Leckie writes on a different level. Sledge writes with the spotlight more on his internal turmoil, but Leckie looks around him. He was a reporter before he enlisted in the Marines and went back to that career after the war. His vocabulary is extensive and college level, keep your dictionary at hand, or read it on your Kindle, like I did. His style is also thorough, even meandering at times, a style I appreciate because I'm also guilty.

His observations on humanity are timeless, also the behavior of humans seems to be the same over the last 70 years at least.
It is an American weakness. The success becomes the sage. Scientists counsel on civil liberty; comedians and actresses lead political rallies; athletes tell us what brand of cigarette to smoke. Loc. 117-18
Some things remain the same, including our society's use of the f-word. I was so impressed how Leckie would refrain from the foul language in his recounting, and let his reader's imagination do the heavy lifting without offending his reader.
Always there was the word. Always there was that four-letter ugly sound that men in uniform have expanded into the single substance of the linguistic world. It was a handle, a hyphen, a hyperbole; verb, noun, modifier; yes, even conjunction. It described food, fatigue, metaphysics. It stood for everything and meant nothing; an insulting word, it was never used to insult; crudely descriptive of the sexual act, it was never used to describe it; base, it meant the best; ugly, it modified beauty; it was the name and the nomenclature of the voice of emptiness, but one heard it from chaplains and captains, from Pfc.’s and Ph.D.’s—until, finally, one could only surmise that if a visitor unacquainted with English were to overhear our conversations he would, in the way of the Higher Criticism, demonstrate by measurement and numerical incidence that this little word must assuredly be the thing for which we were fighting. Loc. 290-96
He was honest about the heroics, but also with the tragedies. Their were the tragedies on the US side.
This is the terror I mean; this is the terror that strangles reason with the clawing hands of panic I saw it twice, I felt it pluck at me twice. But it was rare. It claimed few victims. Loc. 1395-96
There were the tragedies on the Japanese side.
Nevertheless, they attacked us. They attacked us, some one hundred of them against our force of some twelve hundred, and, but for the prisoners, we had annihilated them. Were they brave or fanatical? What had they hoped to gain? Had their commander really believed that a company of Japanese soldiers could conquer a battalion of American marines, experienced, confident, better armed, emplaced on higher ground? Why had he not turned around and marched his men home again? Was it because no Japanese soldier can report failure, cannot “lose face?” Highlight Loc. 3810-14 
As he walked around the bodies piled up after the massacre he reflected on our souls. This is a long quote, but so good I had to tweet it.
I stood among the heaps of dead. They lay crumpled, useless, defunct. The vital force was fled. A bullet or a mortar fragment had torn a hole in these frail vessels and the substance had leaked out. The mystery of the universe had once inhabited these lolling lumps, had given each an identity, a way of walking, perhaps a special habit of address or a way with words or a knack of putting color on canvas. They had been so different, then. Now they were nothing, heaps of nothing. Can a bullet or a mortar fragment do this? Does this force, this mystery, I mean this soul—does this spill out on the ground along with the blood? No. It is somewhere, I know it. For this red-and-yellow lump I look down upon this instant was once a man, and the thing that energized him, the Word that gave “to airy nothing a local habitation and a name,” the Word from a higher Word—this cannot have been obliterated by a quarter-inch of heated metal. The mystery of the universe has departed him, and it is no good to say that the riddle is solved, the mystery is over—because it has changed residences. Loc. 3824-31 
Leckie was raised Roman Catholic, and seemed to retain some of his faith through the war and after. He seems to indicate here that he still believes in an afterlife. Like E.B. Sledge, the war didn't take his faith away. It challenged his faith, but it was still there. I had to tweet this as well,
Because it is gone you cannot say it will not return; even though you may say it has never yet returned—you cannot say that it will not. It is blasphemy to say a bit of metal has destroyed life, just as it is presumptuous to say that because life has disappeared it has been destroyed. I stood among the heaps of the dead and I knew—no, I felt that death is only a sound we make to signify the Thing we do not know. Loc. 3834-37
He fought on Guadalcanal, Gloucester, and Pelileu, where he was injured enough from a Japanese shell exploding close to him to be sent back to the U.S. He was grateful that the atomic bomb forced the Japanese to surrender, yet he ends the book, praying to God and asking forgiveness for "that awful cloud," in reference to the mushroom cloud.
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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

book response: A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead (2011)

Caroline Moorehead in A Train in Winter:An Extraordinary story of women, friendship, and resistance in occupied France paints a devastating portrait of lives who were shoved into the Nazi meat grinder leaving only a few alive. A few survived, but were broken by their own citizens who collaborated with the occupiers and by the SS in the death camps in Poland.

The initial organized resistance came from the French communists, who were influential  in the trade unions as well as assisting the Spanish resisters of Franco. Their organization was in place when Hitler's armies rolled in and Petain capitulated. They went right to work publishing underground broadsides and essays as well as defacing Nazi posters. Eventually they moved into violent resistance. However, the French police were active in tailing and bringing down the resistance. They were able to make mass arrests. The arrests ended in execution for many by the SS.

In the face of such utter waste of French blood, with the assistance of French magistrates, the temptation to despair was great, but more resisters were inspired. This quote, by a new resistance editor inspired me.
And I know that there are those who say: 'they died for precious little,...To such people, one must reply: "it's that they were on the side of life."' (p.119)
This French passion for life sustained so many of them beyond what I can imagine enduring. As executions continued in the French prison, leaving more and more widows in the jails the helplessness must have been overwhelming.
Many years later, one of the women described her last moments with her husband. 'When I was called that morning, something in me stopped, and nothing can set it off again, like the watch that stops when the wearer stops living.' But though she wanted to die, she chose to live, to defy the Germans, and not to yield to anyone. 'I had to hold fast to the end, and die of living.' (p.166)
It's obvious that Caroline Moorehead knows how to find the quotes that grab the heart.  Moorehead portrays in the lives of these women that even the smallest flame is extremely bright in the deepest darkness. When the women were moved to Birkenau, to be worked to death, instead of sent to its gas chambers, a slower death instead of the quick one, they banded together even more than in the Paris prison, where their husbands and brothers and fathers were killed. They learned to steal and share and physically support each other, so they could survive until the end of the war. Their experience confirms the assertion of John Chrysostom, the great preacher of the early church, "Nothing so makes friends and rivets them so firmly as affliction." If war can make a band of brothers among soldiers, it just as well can form a band of sisters, and this story demonstrates that. The horrors they saw in Birkenau devastated those who survived, and just like so many soldiers who witness the gore of war, they also suffered from nightmares for the rest of their lives, likely untreated PTSD. One of many examples is the slaughter of children.
One night, Marie-Claire heard terrible cries; next morning she learnt that because the gas chambers had run out of Zyklon B pellets, the smaller children had been thrown directly on to the flames. 'When we tell people,' she said to the others, 'who will belive us?' (p.241) 
One survivor was able to testify at the Nuremburg trials, to bear witness to the atrocities committed in the camps. Tragically, after the war, their experience at the hands of French collaborators did not fit the political needs of de Gaulle, who wanted a myth of a majority of resisters. So their stories were hidden. They didn't get their validation by their fellow citizens for decades. They lived haunted lives. Their neighbors were not riveted to them by affliction. They terribly missed their sisters who succumbed to the Nazi camp system. Their fellowship was with ghosts and memories. Their were no groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars to which they could belong and process their stories over and over. The book ends on a brutally sad note.
So she decided not to talk any more about Aushwitz. 'Looking at me, one would think that I'm alive...I'm not alive. I died in Auschwitz, but no one knows it.' (p. 317) 
The extremeness of the their trials made the membership in their fellowship so small and desparately lonely. I'm glad their story has been publicized for the English reader by Moorehead. In response, I can only pray for the peace of their souls.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

pastors and political advocacy

Who should religious leaders advocate for in political dialog? I'm not of the opinion that pastors should wear political muzzles, they are indeed participants in the societies they serve. However, should they affiliate themselves with people or parties? Who did Jesus affiliate with? He pissed off every political party in his neck of the woods, the religious parties (Pharisees and Sadducees) and the political party (the Herodians). Jesus said he came for the sick not the healthy (self-righteous). He sided with the outcasts repeatedly, the lepers, the handicapped, the poor, the traitors, the whores, the drunks, the half-breeds, the non-Jews, the women and children, all who were marginalized by those with political power. He had a pleasant conversation with one insider in particular, it seemed the the guy was getting it, Jesus' message of a kingdom based in hearts, not land. So Jesus told him all he needed to do was sell everything and give it to the poor. The guy left crestfallen because he was rich.
Matthew 19:21 Jesus said to him, "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." 22 When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. 
Jesus seemed to interact with and on behalf of individuals and principles rather than compromise with parties. I believe that is our model as sojourners and pilgrims, citizens of a heavenly kingdom. In the United States, one party claims to advocate for the poor and marginalized yet also advocates the murder of the unborn. The other major party claims to advocate for the poor by advocating for those who employ them and take advantage of them hoarding their cash reserves and laying off thousands or squandering their retirement investments in a self-induced "froth" of economic bubbles or underpaying them in a low employment economy while also claiming to care about the unborn but not willing to fund healthcare for those mothers most likely to abort.

The two parties rake in hundreds of millions of dollars from those who exploit. They affiliate with news organizations who serve as propaganda voices on their behalf. In the meantime, the poor get poorer and the rich get richer. We are still surrounded by the least of these. Jesus teaches, Matthew 25:40 And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.' When Christian leaders parrot the talking points of political parties we ally with that party. When we ally with a party, we unnecessarily exclude those who think in a different way politically. When Christian leaders parrot the talking points of Jesus, hopefully, we'll annoy all political parties, and show our alliance to the "least of these," the "sick" that Jesus came to heal. Who are the least of these, Jesus lists a few,
Matthew 25:35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.' 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?' 
Here are some of Jesus' talking points. Food for the hungry. Water for the thirsty. Welcome for the stranger. Clothes for the naked. Comfort for the sick and imprisoned. The church can't do it all. Some laws need to be changed to enable us to do these things. Those laws would be a stick in the eye to both parties. Can we please fail to compromise and advocate from the pulpit, from Twitter, from Facebook, from our blogs and published essays, these kinds of policies? Can we stop regurgitating the crap of the major parties? Can we get off their bandwagons?

For full disclosure, over my years, I have voted for both major parties, but I also vote third party frequently wishing we had a more parliamentary system and encouraging those outsiders.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Biblical numerology for dummies

I don't even know what numerology is, much less the biblical version, but as I read Revelation 7 with a few high school kids we got talking about numbers.

In this chapter 12,000 comes up 12 times, adding up to 144,000. One of their questions is what's with those numbers? I told them,holding onto those numbers literally got the Jehovah's Witnesses in trouble in the early 1900's. They thought the end was near and only 144,000 would make it to heaven. But their recalculated dates kept passing with nothing happening except cause stress. Then they got more than 144,000 members. I then pointed out that the 12 tribes listed there aren't the 12 sons of Israel. In this list Dan is missing, and Joseph is listed as well as his son Manasseh, but not Ephraim. So I concluded with them that God likes certain numbers, more as themes than as headcounts. So with "twelve" there are a dozen sons of Israel, but when Levi's tribe didn't get an inheritance in the promised land, Joseph's 2 sons got tribal inheritances instead, preserving the concept of 12. Jesus picked 12 disciples. Twelve is also the number of months in a year. It takes 12 moon cycles, and change, for a complete year. So twelve seems to be a symbol for a complete entity.

There are other numbers. In our read through of Revelation, seven shows up many times. Here's a crazy example from Revelation 5:6 And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.We concluded that Jesus is being represented by a zombie mutant sheep. But that's if you can't process metaphors. Seven days makes a week, which is almost a quarter of a lunar cycle. It's also a 40th of human gestation period. It's also a complete unit. For Jewish readers, the 7th day is God's day, the Sabbath, when God chilled out from creating and wants all his people to chill as well. So seven seems to be a number for worship.

Another frequent number is forty. It rained on Noah for 40 days. Moses and the children of Israel wander in the wilderness for 40 years. Jesus fasts and is tempted for 40 days before beginning his ministry. There are many more instances as well. But it's not unlike a human's 40 weeks of gestation. There's trial and tribulation then joy.

The links to the number stuff are included for funsies. These are molehills, not mountains. It's fun to read the Bible with goofy high school kids, while they mess around on their phones and throw stuff at each other, anticipating ice cream sandwiches and frisbee, but find gems together like this, that sometimes numbers are symbols.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

book response: Hell in the Pacific (2012)

I had too many books in my hands from the new book shelf at my local library. Since I only get them for two weeks, I needed to make hard choices. I'm happy I kept Hell in the Pacific: A Marine Rifleman's Journey From Guadalcanal to Peleliu, the story of Marine Jim McEnery written with Bill Sloan. Sloan has written several books on the Pacific Theater of World War 2. I had to warm up to this book though. This is not With the Old Breed by Sledge, which I recently read, but McEnery had met Sledge and fought with him in theater. Sledge is quoted several times, as well as several other writers on the war.

As friends were made by McEnery, only to have them die, I realized that this was a different kind of story than Sledge's. This book was not about the big picture, although he did take frequent swipes at "Dugout" Douglas MacArthur, but the small picture of one soldier, who survived Gaudalcanal, Cape Gloucester, and Peleliu without earning a Purple Heart. His worst physical injury was popping some ligaments in his leg as he was under fire while sliding down a steep creek bank. Emotionally and spiritually though he was desperately wounded. It seems his Catholic faith helped him keep his sanity. Under continual fire, watching good soldiers and good friends die randomly, engaging in hand to hand combat with Japanese who would only fight to the death, he returns over and over again to the Lord's Prayer just like Sledge. He prayed for his friends' souls. He prayed it to make peace in his soul as he watched in the middle of the night for the Japanese who would slip into foxholes to kill Americans in the dark. He prayed as shells fell all around him.

He had the terrible experience to be one of few soldiers who watched the greatly loved officer "Ack-Ack" Andrew Haldane, also honored by Sledge, killed by a Japanese sniper with a bullet to the head. In the midst of his shock, he was pulled back from the edge of his sanity by his responsibility as the replacement senior Marine on that patrol.

McEnery was able to return to the U. S. mainland after Peleliu. He doesn't tell, like Sledge, if he suffered from years of nightmares. He mostly speaks of the good things in his life when he came home. His wife, his daughter, his jobs in the Marines and after the marines, his pride in the Marines and the affinity he still feels for his group that is now in Afghanistan. This is his story, with the view from the ground, and he keeps it grounded there, which makes it worth reading.
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Thursday, July 05, 2012

book response: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (2010)


Mockingjay
Mockingjay (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
My eldest really wanted me to share this world of Suzanne Collins with her, so she had put her name on the long reserves for this series so she could read them, The Hunger Games trilogy, then give them to me to read. This last book was a better read for me than the previous one. As I wrote previously, Collins is not Tolstoy, and the voice of a teenaged girl is so foreign to me, but I liked Mockingjay better than Catching Fire. The morass of the teenaged girl's inner world is still there to wade through, but didn't seem to occupy as many pages as the previous book.

As a parent who read aloud to his children a couple times Collin's previous series, Gregor the Overlander, I chuckled at Collin's reuse of an underground world for her setting. It was an underground civilization that Gregor from above discovered and adventured, much like Katniss in District 13, the nuclear equipped district that successfully seceded from Panem and survived by emulating ancient Sparta. As I read about District 13, I thought "Sparta" but I didn't feel confirmed in that until the acknowledgment section where Collins thanks her mother for teaching her about ancient Rome. In the story, the Bread and Circuses of ancient Rome is explicitly acknowledged, and then I started thunking my head with the heel of my hand. The Avox are people with their tongues cut out, avox would be without voice in Latin.

For us adult readers, especially as we enter another even more banal election cycle in the United States, Collins warning behind the story, the invective against our own decline into being a populace concerned mostly with being fat and happy, demanding ever more disturbing entertainment, is certainly convicting. So be a Katniss. Unplug your cable TV. Ignore the minor differences between the two major parties and vote for someone else, a third party. Or go occupy someplace and unnerve the oligarchy. Neither Coin nor Snow should rule Panem...


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Tuesday, July 03, 2012

book response: 1493 by Charles C. Mann (2011)

I really enjoyed Mann's previous work 1491, see that report here, but this one was even better. My biology concentration at UConn, oh so many years ago, was in ecology. The interconnected web of the life sciences is a thrill to me, as it is in my current career as a ADME biologist. But I also enjoy the interconnectedness of history. This book, 1493, explaining how the world changed after Columbus landed in Caribbean in 1492, is an exemplary web and enthralling to read. Since I borrowed the book from my local library I refrained from dog earring the pages, but if I had my own copy, it would be a mess. The concept I most enjoyed was the homogocene. There's no good link out there for this concept, so I'll take a stab at explaining it. Once Columbus enabled the Spaniards to establish beach heads in the Americas they biomes of the continents started to mix. Then when the Spaniards crossed the Pacific and established a trading post on the western side of the Philippines to trade with China further mixing occurred. And when Africans were imported for labor to the Americas, all the continents, except Antarctica were connected. The oceans no longer provided a barrier between biomes. Everything became susceptible to homogenization. Smallpox wiped out American empires, then European armies wiped out the rest. The Europeans brought malaria with them to the Americas where it flourished. The only reliable labor came from malarial resistant populations, Africans, who were imported by the millions to mine American mineral riches (silver, gold, guano) and farm American agricultural riches (latex, sugar, tobacco). These were shipped, not only back to Europe, but also to China, who traded silk and porcelain that went East again, through Central America back to Europe.

The American potato kept Europe out of regular famine cycles. American tobacco got Europeans and Asians addicted and regular consumers. American guano islands fertilized the soil to keep up production of those things. An American potato virus caused the Irish famine. The potato and corn enabled Chinese peasants to have more food stability than rice provided.

Slaves regularly escaped. Some were formerly military leaders who had become prisoners of war in Africa sold to European slavers. Their experience enabled them to lead successful rebellions and escapes and keep fellow escapees alive and well in the forests of the new world. They lived alongside Native Americans, intermarrying with some tribes, and finding great success with their resistance to malaria, using it as an ally to weaken Europeans determined to bring order. What couldn't be done with the usual weapons of warfare, was done by waiting until the mosquito season resumed when more soldiers would be killed. These villages of escapees thrived in Brazil, Florida, and Nicaragua. The heritage of these escapees continues today in the generations that have thrived into the modern world.

The details are too numerous, which is why I heartily recommend reading this book. There is no way to summarize it, when everything is important.
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Sunday, July 01, 2012

Kreeft on Christ in The Lord of the Rings

My beloved wife is totally into Tolkien and his world. She audited a class at her alma mater, Connecticut College, this past spring and has continued tracking down lots of critical works on The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien. She has a thesis brewing in her mind about J.R.R.'s biblical inspirations. One of the books recommended to her by her professor is by Peter Kreeft, The Philosophy of Tolkien: The worldview behind The Lord of the Rings (2005). When she finished it, she thought I would enjoy the concluding chapter, subtitled, "Can any one man incarnate every truth and virtue?" The answer is, yes, but only one, Christ.
Cover of
Cover via Amazon


There is so much good in this brief chapter, which is published in full online here. It's written like an old time sermon. I need to quote a few paragraphs from it.
Throughout the New Testament we find a shocking simplicity. Christ does not merely teach the truth, He is the truth; He does not merely show us the way, He is the way; He does not merely give us eternal life, He is that life. He does not merely teach or purchase our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption, but "God made [Him] our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption" (1 Cor. 1:30). How can all these universal values and truths be really and completely present in one concrete individual person? Only if that Person is divine (thus universal) as well as human (thus particular); only by the Incarnation; only by what [C. S.-jpu] Lewis calls "myth become fact". p.221
I'm impressed with how much theology Kreeft just did there in so few words. I have much to learn from him as a communicator. In the next paragraph, he explains to us non-Catholic readers, what theology accompanied Tolkien to the story.
Tolkien, like most Catholics, saw pagan myths not a wholly mistaken (as most Protestants do), but as confused precursors of Christianity. Man's soul has three powers, and God left him prophets for all three; Jewish moralists for his will, Greek philosophers for his mind, and pagan mythmakers for his heart and imagination and feelings. Of course, the latter two are not infallible. C. S. Lewis calls pagan myths "gleams of celestial strength and beauty falling on a jungle of filth and imbecility" (Perelandra, p. 201)...
Tolkien's Catholic tradition tends to have a high opinion of pagans who know and follow the "natural law", for it interprets these pagans not apart from Christ, but as imperfectly knowing Him. For Christ is not just a thirty-three-year-old, six-foot-tall Jewish carpenter, but the eternal Logos, the Mind of God, "the true light that enlightens every man" (Jn. 1:9). So Christ can be present even when not adequately known in paganism. pp.321-322
I must admit how impressed I am with the grace of the Roman Catholic theology to unbelievers. But the grace, truly magnificent as it is, was not the main reason I wanted to share a few paragraphs from Kreeft's book. I have a more mundane reason, his understanding of how Tolkien hid Christ in the Lord of the Rings.
There is no one complete, concrete, visible Christ figure in The Lord of the Rings, like Aslan in Narnia. But Christ is really, though invisibly, present in the whole of The Lord of the Rings. The Lord of the Rings is like the Eucharist. Under its appearances we find Christ, who under these (pagan, universal) figures (symbols, not allegories), is truly hidden: quae sub his figuris vere latitat. [what really lies in the forms- jpu via google translate].

He is more clearly present in Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn, the three Christ figures. First of all, all three undergo different forms of death and resurrection ... Second, all three are saviors: through their self-sacrifice they help save all of Middle-earth from the demonic sway of Sauron. Third, they exemplify the Old Testament threefold Messianic symbolism of prophet (Gandalf), priest (Frodo), and king (Aragorn). These three "job descriptions" correspond to the three distinctively human powers of the soul, as discovered by nearly every psychologist from Plato to Freud: head, heart, and hands, or mind, emotions, and will. For this reason many great tales have three protagonists: Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn; Mr. Spock, Bones McCoy, and Captain Kirk; Ivan, Alyosha, and Dmitri Karamazov; St. John the philosophical mystic, St. James the practical moralist, and St. Peter the courageous leader and Rock. pp.222-223

I admire anyone who can interconnect Frodo, Bones McCoy, and St. James. I think I've shared the best stuff, but the rest might hit you with more impact. So please take the time to read the rest of Kreeft's essay, your almost halfway through it already.

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