The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 48, The New Isildur

As the clouds of war gather around Minas Tirith, the story swings back to Rohan in the decisions facing Théoden and Aragorn as to how they will come to the aid of Gondor. For his part, Aragorn does two things. 

First, after the fall of Isengard, Aragorn looks into the palantir of Orthanc to face Sauron. Why? Well, it's revealed that, as the heir of Isildur, Aragorn is the rightful owner of the palantiri. And as the rightful owner, Aragorn acts to wrest control of the seeing stone away from Sauron.

Second, seeing in the palantir a threat to Gondor coming from the south, Aragorn elects to take the Paths of the Dead. By taking this route to Gondor, Aragorn seeks to reverse the curse Isildur placed upon the Men of Dunland, who broke their vow to support Isildur in the War of the Last Alliance against Sauron. Isildur's curse caused the Men of Dunland to linger upon the earth as restless shades. In taking the Paths of the Dead, Aragorn will reverse the curse of Isildur by enlisting the shades of the Men of Dunland in the coming battle of Gondor.

And beyond these two actions, there's the general plot line that Aragorn's entire life has been devoted to undoing the damage Isildur unleashed upon Middle Earth in failing to destroy the Ring of Power when he cut it off Sauron's hand. 

In all of this we see in Aragorn the coming of a Second Isildur, which is why the last book of the trilogy is called "The Return of the King." And as the New Isildur we see Aragorn repairing the damage of the Old Isildur. The palantir is regained. The curse on the Men of Dunland is lifted. The Ring of Power will finally be destroyed. 

We don't think about him much in this way, but Adam was a king, given dominion and rule over the earth. But that primordial king damaged the world. Good things, like the palantir, became corrupted. Curses were placed over sinners. Evil was unleashed into the world. 

But in Christ a new King has come, a Second Adam. And through this Adam, the damage that was done by the first is healed and mended. In theology, this is called the recapitulation theory of the atonement, how the Second Adam undoes the damage of the First Adam, the new king repairing the damage of the old. This was a hugely influential theology of salvation among the early church fathers, but one we don't hear much about today as we have focused on penal and forensic visions of atonement. 

But the atonement theology of The Lord of the Rings is recapitulation. We don't see any of the principal characters die in a way that might image the crucifixion of Jesus. What we do see is the return of the king, salvation coming in the New Isildur who repairs and mends the damage of the old.

Washington's Journey: A Crescimento Limpo Update

As you contemplate end of the year giving, I wanted to share an update about Crescimento Limpo and the amazing work my dear friends Mark and Ali Kaiser are doing in Brazil. 

Crescimento Limpo continues to grow and expand. The cafe they have created at the garden has become a local favorite for lunch as it provides work for the residents at the house. A meal for the homeless is served there each week as well, which goes back to the origin story of this ministry which started with Mark and Ali inviting the homeless off the streets and into their house each week for a simple meal of rice and beans. 

The farming at CL has also continued to expand as they have acquired a plot of land on the end of town, just a few minutes walk from the garden. The farm also provides work and employment for the CL residents. 

CL began by serving those struggling with addiction and homelessness, but over the last year they've been increasingly working with Venezuelan refugees, finding them stable housing. 

Finally, many of the long term residents of CL have now started moving out of the main house to enjoy independent living. Below CL shares the story of Washington. It's a wonderful example of how CL accompanied him through every step of his journey, from homelessness to health to employment to now living on his own. When I was in Brazil a few years ago, I got to have lunch with Washington, who was living in the main CL house at the time. It's a joy to see where he is today:


If you would like to get more information or support the work of Crescimento Limpo please visit and give through their Global Giving page.

Sin as a Power

Yesterday, I wrote about how Paul describes sin as a power and force that is independent of human agency, a contrast between Sin and sin.

If you've never seen this in Paul's writings, Romans especially, here's how Paul describes Sin in Romans 6 and 7:

Sin as an Enslaving Tyrant:

Do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. (6.12) 

For sin will have no dominion over you. (6.14) 

You are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness. (6.16) 

You, having been set free from sin. (6.18) 

I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. (7.14)

Sin as a Conscious Agent:

Sin, seizing an opportunity. (7.8) 
 
Sin sprang to life. (7.9) 
 
Sin deceived me. (7.11)

Emergence, Sin and Downward Causation

I just recently ordered Matthew Croasmun's new book The Emergence of Sin: The Cosmic Tyrant in Romans

I'm interested in the book as Croasmun uses emergence theory and downward causation to understand how Paul describes Sin as a "power" at work in the world. To catch everyone up, Paul talks about both sin and Sin. "Little s" sin is the classic "missing the mark," our moral mistakes and failures. But Paul also describes "Capital S" Sin, a power acting upon humans as an independent force and agent.

Emergence theory comes from the physical sciences and describes how complex, higher-order properties "emerge" from simpler, lower-order dynamics. More than that, once these higher-order properties "emerge," they can exert what is called "downward causation," directing and constraining the lower order dynamics.  

That explanation is a bit abstract, but the reason I was interested in Croasmun's book is because I used emergence theory and downward causation to explain Sin, the Devil and the Powers in Reviving Old Scratch. Here's how I describe emergence and downward causation in the chapter "The Wizard of Oz," using an ant colony and meteorology:

Think of an ant colony. No single ant has the blueprint of the ant colony in its head. No one ant is running the show, directing the ants to forage, build, or defend the colony—all these things happen with no one running the show or calling the shots. What we observe from on high, looking down at the ant colony as a whole, is order and pattern, an order and pattern that, once established, has causal effects upon the individual ants, directing and organizing their behaviors. A pattern emerges from the parts and then exerts a downward force upon those parts. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

But this causal force can’t be located in or reduced to any of the parts being affected. If you could ask the ants, “Who’s in charge here?” they’d be stumped. No single ant is the Wizard of Oz running the show behind a curtain. Instead, the Wizard is everywhere, an unseen force at work in every microscopic interaction between the ants, organizing and directing their behavior. And the Wizard of Oz is much older than the ants. As the lives of ants begin and end, the pattern organizing them persists, outliving the individual ants.

The ants die. But the Wizard lives on.

Or think of a cloud. A cloud is a structure that emerges from a collection of individual water molecules. Clouds can’t be reduced to those water molecules, but clouds, once they exist, start bossing around those water molecules, throwing them around in thunderstorms and hurricanes. 

The idea is that, once the large scale structures emerge, those large scale structures--colony or hurricane--start to push around the lower order structures--the ants and molecules--that gave rise to the higher order structure. Emergence, then downward causation.

The idea, then, is that Sin is more than an individual's moral failure, Sin can be an emergent structure--historical, cultural, and sociological "weather" if you will--that pushes and pulls individual human behavior in dark and destructive ways. Not that we aren't free. Just that no person exists as an island. We are born into these emergent structures, and they continue to persist long after we are gone. We die, but the Wizard lives on. A dark invisible force, everywhere at work.

Generational and Collective Guilt

If you've ever tried to wade into conversations with people, family, or friends on the political right about racism in America, one of the issues that you frequently bump into is the issue of generational and collective guilt and responsibility. You often see attempts to reduce guilt and responsibility for the historical sins and legacy of racism by drawing a hard line between "now" and "the past," and what our "forbears" did versus what "I" have done. The notion is that slavery was a sin of the "past" and that, since "I didn't own slaves," I'm absolved of any guilt or responsibility for the ongoing legacy of slavery.

Today I was thinking again of generational guilt and responsibility from a Christian perspective. The trigger that prompted the reflection was an conversation with an upset member from our church, objecting to some of our recent attempts to begin hard but long overdue conversations about racism in our congregation and country. In providing reasons for having those conversations, the church has pointed to the legacy of slavery and racism in our country and how we need to take responsibility for it. The upset member shared with me that, in his opinion, the notion that we are complicit in the sins of our ancestors is a theologically and biblically bankrupt idea.

But what's exceedingly strange about that contention is that the Old Testament is full of statements describing God as "visiting the sins of the father upon the children unto the third and fourth generation." Also, the Children of Israel suffer the Babylonian exile for over a hundred years, children paying for the sins of their ancestors. And finally, there's the legacy of Adam, the consequences of his sin affecting all of humanity, the children paying for the sins of our ancestor.

And yet, despite all this very clear biblical evidence, there is something in the American Christian conscience that rejects the notion of generational and collective guilt and responsibility. 

For example, I was asked to help draft a statement for our church about our need to wrestle with the legacy of racism, and in that draft I had a line about "the sins of the fathers being visited upon the children," making an explicit biblical point that the sins and guilt of the past echo down through the generations, the dark ripples in the pond of human history. We inherit and are affected by those ripples. The guilt gets handed down, and we have to share in the responsibility of addressing past wrongs. No generation is an island in history. No individual is free of their inheritance. The present is the past, and the past is the present. It's all connected, and it's all very biblical.

But guess what? That line I drafted in our statement got nixed. It's all right there in our Bibles, but it's just too much for anyone to hear.

First Sunday of Advent


As regular readers know, over the last few years I've written and shared poems during the weeks of Advent. This year, as a gift to you, I've gathered these poems into a PDF booklet entitled "Glory Here in Straw and Blood": Poems for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. The poems that will appear this year over the next three Sundays of Advent are also included in the collection.

I've also written a little introduction to the collection to share why I write these poems each year.

I pray this little gift blesses you during this beautiful and holy season.

Here is a link to the PDF booklet and it is embedded below: 

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 47, "I Also Am a Steward"

With the opening of Book V the action turns away from Frodo and Sam, back to the rest of the Fellowship. After the fall of Isengard, we ride with Gandalf and Pippin to Gondor to finally enter the city we've heard so much about: 

Minas Tirith.

But the reception they receive is frosty. Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, is suspicious and hostile toward Gandalf. In their testy exchange, Denethor pontificates that, in his role of Steward, his duty is clear: Put Gondor first, above any other interests or considerations. To which Gandalf responds:

“The rule of no realm is mine, neither of Gondor nor any other, great or small. But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail of my task, though Gondor should perish, if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come. For I also am a steward. Did you not know?”
In many ways, The Lord of the Rings is a prolonged meditation upon power. At the center of the saga is the Ring of Power. To one side of a moral divide are those who seek power, Sauron and Saruman and those who follow them. Opposed to these are Gandalf and Aragorn, individuals of enormous power who either eschew power or put their power to work in the service of others. And then there are the contrasts we observe in those who swirl around the Ring and its allure of power, Gollum versus Frodo, Boromir versus Faramir. 

And because the story is fundamentally about power, it's also a story about kingship and rule. What does it mean to have and wield power? What does it mean to be a king?

Soon, Aragorn, when he comes to Minas Tirith, will give us a clear vision of kingship, especially in the Houses of Healing. But here, in his confrontation with Denethor, Gandalf also paints us a picture.

Beyond Sauron, Gandalf the White is the most powerful figure in Middle Earth. And yet, "the rule of no realm" is his, neither over "great or small." Instead, all that power is used to be a steward--a protector, guardian, and caretaker. This is the same role we observed with Aragorn, who, as the rightful of Gondor, spent decades of cold and hungry nights in the wilderness guarding and protecting Middle Earth. 

Moreover, the scope of Gandalf's concern stands in sharp contrast to the "Make Gondor Great Again" politics of Denethor, who intones: "Yet the Lord of Gondor is not to be made the tool of other men's purposes, however worthy. And to him there is no purpose higher in the world as it now stands than the good of Gondor."

Where Denethor's concern is pinched, narrow and nationalistic, Gandalf's care is universal in scope. Yes, Gandalf cares deeply for Gondor--goodness knows that's why he's in Minas Tirith in the first place--but he cares because he cares for the entirety of Middle Earth, cares for "all worthy things that are in peril."

And it's not just the scope of Gandalf's care, it's also the scale. As he says to Denethor, the great city of Gondor may perish, but should anything "still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again" then Gandalf's work would not have been in vain. Gandalf's care encompasses the great and the small. Gandalf's concern condescends to the flowers.

After all, that care for small things is why Gandalf was interested in the Hobbits, a people so insignificant that both Sauron and Saruman ignored them. Flowers matter to Gandalf, and so do Hobbits.

All this is to simply say that, here again, we encounter one of Tolkien's great Christological moments, a vision of Christ: a mighty power who chooses to serve and protect rather than lord over and rule, a king whose care is not narrow and nationalistic but embraces the whole world, especially the small and the weak. 

Think of the Cross

Think of the Cross when your rise and when you lie down, when you go out and when you come in, when you eat and when you walk and when you converse, when you buy and when you sell, when you labor and when you rest, consecrating and sealing all your doings with this one mental action, the thought of the Crucified. Do not talk of it to others; be silent, like the penitent woman, who showes her love in deep subdued acts.

--John Henry Newman

Common Cause?: On History, Justice, Hope, Grace, and Materialism

Last week The Atlantic published a wide-ranging interview with Barack Obama upon the release of the first volume of his memoirs A Promised Land

The part of the interview that jumped out at me was Obama's observations about optimism, materialism, and religion when it comes to political progress. Here are the passages:

[T]emperamentally I am sympathetic to a certain strain of conservatism in the sense that I’m not just a materialist. I’m not an economic determinist. I think it’s important, but I think there are things other than stuff and money and income—the religious critique of modern society, that we’ve lost that sense of community.

Here’s my optimistic view. This gives me some hope that it’s possible to make common cause with a certain strand of evangelical or conservative who essentially wants to restore a sense of meaning and purpose and spirituality…a person who believes in notions like stewardship and caring for the least of these: They share this with those on the left who have those same nonmaterialistic impulses but express themselves through a nonreligious prism.
I both agree and disagree with this assessment. Well, I don't disagree as much as I have some reservations. 

First of all, I think it's incredibly insightful, from a theological perspective, for Obama to highlight in this conversation the impact of materialism upon our views of life and politics. That is to say, if you read the entire essay, Obama's political pragmatism and hope is rooted in his non-materialistic view of life and history. And, crucially, it's this non-materialist view that separates Obama from people like Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is an atheist, in how they differ on the question concerning the moral arc of the universe. Does it bend toward justice (Obama's view) or toward chaos (Coates' view)?

All this I heartedly agree with, how hope and a pragmatic politics is rooted in a non-materialistic view of reality. 

That said, where I disagree with Obama is with his optimism that "common cause" can be made between the materialists and the non-materialists in the fight for social change and justice. 

First of all, I don't think there's much left on the conservative, evangelical side of the equation to partner with when it comes to finding "a person who believes in notions like stewardship and caring for the least of these." Evangelicalism has become, to borrow from Revelation 18, "a dwelling place of demons and a haunt for every unclean spirit."

And second, to level a critique toward those on the left, I don't think the materialists (i.e., social justice warriors) can work with justice-minded and sympathetic non-materialists. I think this is the flaw in Obama's theology and argument. In contrast to materialists like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Obama's non-materialistic view of history gives his politics both hope and grace, making him open to compromise and incremental change. These virtues are wholly absent in the materialistic pursuit of justice, precisely because materialism rules out both grace and hope. 

Simply put, Obama is correct, there are shared values between the materialists and the non-materialists. And those shared values lead us to think we can share "common cause." We want to. And we try. All the time. But that "common cause" is perpetually undermined as these values are embedded within two very different metaphysical worldviews. In the non-materialist worldview, grace and hope season hate toward political enemies and impatience with the lack of progress in our lifetimes. Non-materialists can play the long game, graciously and hopefully, because they believe in a long game. By contrast, materialists, since there is no long game and the winners write the history books, will be driven to hate those who oppose them and become violently impatient in the face of conversation, compromise, and incrementalism. Given the pressing urgency of the Revolution hope and grace are moral failures, each dampening the passions needed to change the world. 

And given the contrasting logics of these worldviews, how can a sustainable common cause be made? In summary, and here is where I'm more skeptical than Obama, more than "shared values" is necessary. There needs to be a shared metaphysics as well. 

And so, what's my proposed solution? Well, God, obviously. We need to convert the evangelicals as if they were pagans, because that is what they are, calling upon them to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. And we also need to covert the social justice warriors, for non-materialism is the only sane and proper view of history. Politics, like all of life, only works with hope and grace. 

The Cosmological Strangeness of Hart's New Testament: Part 7, Fallen Angels, Giants, and Demons

As we've seen in this series, when reading the footnotes to Hart's New Testament by far the most references are to 1 Enoch and the book of Jubilees, books which aren't in Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox Bibles. Hart turns to these books to educate readers about the cosmological worldview of the biblical authors and audience. The stories shared in 1 Enoch and Jubilees are strange to us, yet they break into the Bible in many different locations. 

Here's from Wikipedia describing 1 Enoch:

The Book of Enoch is an ancient Hebrew apocalyptic religious text, ascribed by tradition to Enoch, the great-grandfather of Noah. Enoch contains unique material on the origins of demons and giants, why some angels fell from heaven, an explanation of why the Genesis flood was morally necessary...

The older sections (mainly in the Book of the Watchers) of the text are estimated to date from about 300–200 BC, and the latest part (Book of Parables) probably to 100 BC.

Various Aramaic fragments found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as Koine Greek and Latin fragments, are proof that the Book of Enoch was known by Jews and early Near Eastern Christians...Authors of the New Testament were also familiar with some content of the story.
A large part of the cosmological strangeness of Hart's New Testament is when he draws attention, in either translation or footnote, to the influence of 1 Enoch and Jubilees upon the text. A great example comes from 1 Peter 3:19-20. Hart's translation:
Whereby [Christ] also journeyed and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison. To those in the past who disobeyed while God's magnanimity bided its time, in the days of Noah when the ark was being fashioned, by which a few--that is, eight souls--were brought safe through the water.
The text speaks of Christ, after his death, evangelizing "the spirits in prison." These imprisoned spirits are also somehow connected to Noah. Most modern readers, I expect, have no idea what this text is talking about. So Hart provides a footnote, sharing the story from 1 Enoch and Jubilees:
These are notoriously obscure verses, but the difficulty they pose is often exaggerated...This is because at this point the reference [about "the spirits"] is not to human beings who have died, but to angels or daemonic beings imprisoned until the day of judgment (they are also mentioned in 2 Peter 2:4-5 and Jude 1:6). During the intertestamental period, before the "official" canon of Hebrew scripture was generally established for either Jews or Christians, among the most influential holy texts for both communities were visionary books such as 1 Enoch and Jubilees, which (among many other things) recount the apostasy and punishment of various angels and their offspring in the days after the expulsion of Adam and Eve, and the evils these angelic dissidents visited upon the world--the ultimate  consequence of which was the flood, sent by God to rescue the world from the iniquity they had set loose. The idea of a pre-cosmic fall of the Archangel "Lucifer" or "Satan" was a later development of Christian thought...; in the flood narratives known to the earliest Christians, the only angelic rebellion was that of those "sons of Elohim," or angels, who, according to Genesis 6:2, were drawn by the beauty of "the daughters of men" to wed them; and according these texts the mysterious "nefilim" of Genesis 6:6 (understood as monstrous giants) were the children sired by these angels on human women. According to 1 Enoch there were two hundred of these sons of Elohim, or "Watchers," who abandoned God's heavenly court, led by a Watcher called Semyâzâ; they not only became fathers of the nefilim, but taught their human wives to practice sorcery; and one of them, Azâzêl, taught humanity how to make weapons, jewelry, and cosmetics (with predictably dire results). On being informed of these transgressions by four of his Archangels, God sent the Archangel Michael to imprison the celestial dissidents in the darkness below and to slay the nefilim; but the ghosts of the nefilim then became the demons that now haunt the world. According to the book of Jubilees, the angels who became enchanted with the beauty of human women were angels of a lower order assigned to govern the natural elements and kinds of this cosmos. In that version of the tale, the celestial angels imprisoned these fallen cosmic angels in the dark below to await final judgment, while the nefilim were driven to fall upon and kill one another. After the flood, however, the ghosts of the nefilim were still wandering the earth as demons under their leader Mastema or Beliar (assuming these are the same figure). When God ordered these bound in prison as well, Mastema prevailed upon him to allow a tenth of their number to continue roaming the world till the last day, so as to test humanity and punish the wicked; and thus Mastema comes to serve as "a satan" (that is, an Accuser) in this age. The reference to Christ journeying to these spirits to make his proclamation to them seems to echo the account of Enoch journeying to their abode in order to proclaim God's condemnation upon them (in chapters 12-15 in 1 Enoch).
As mentioned by Hart in this footnote, the other two references to God casting these rebellious angels into prison are 2 Peter 2:4-5 and Jude 1:6:
And if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but rather cast them into Tartarus in bonds of nether darkness, held there for judgment, and did not spare the ancient cosmos, but preserved the eighth person, Noah, a herald of justice, having brought a flood upon the cosmos of the impious... (2 Peter 2:4-5)

And the angels who did not maintain their own position of rule, but instead deserted their proper habitation, he has kept in everlasting chains under nether gloom for the judgment of the Great Day. (Jude 1:6)
So that's the story. Fallen angels, now chained in darkness, fathered the giants, the ghosts of which, after the flood, became the demons.

Somebody really needs to make this into a VeggieTales...

The Cosmological Strangeness of Hart's New Testament: Part 6, The Archon of This Cosmos

Throughout the New Testament, Satan is described as the "ruler" or "prince" of demons (e.g., Mk 3.22), the world (e.g., Jn 12.31), or this age (e.g., 1 Cor. 2.6).

The Greek word for "ruler" or "prince" in these passages is archón. And in his translation of the New Testament Hart transliterates the word, giving us translations like "the Archon of the demons" or "the Archon of this cosmos." You see this in other familiar passages as well, like Ephesians 6.12:

Because we are wrestling not against blood and flesh, but against the Archons, against the Powers, against the Cosmic Rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the celestial places.

Just who or what were these Archons, Powers and Cosmic Rulers? Hart comments in his footnotes on some of these texts:

[T]he reference is not to earthly rulers but to celestial spirits or angelic beings governing the nations, in whom most of the peoples of late antiquity believed in one form or another, and who were quite prominent in Jewish apocalyptic tradition (influenced by Persian thought)...[These texts are] full of associations with the complicated angelology and demonology of late antique Judaism and Christianity, dependent to a large degree on such intertestamental texts as 1 Enoch and the book of Jubilees. One should not assume, incidentally, that these superterrestrial powers were understood simply as fallen beings; elsewhere in Paul's thought (Galatians 3:19 in particular) there seems to be a mention of angels who function as deputies of God, yet perhaps do so ineptly or recalcitrantly; and there is even a suggestion (not necessarily intended as irony) that an angel might deliver a false gospel (Galatians 1:8). Moreover, central to Paul's eschatology is the certainty that in the Age to come creation will be freed from subjection to all celestial powers and ruled solely by Christ and, through Christ, the Father (see, especially, 1 Corinthians 15:24-28).

As Hart elsewhere notes about the origins of these Archons:

For Paul, these "powers on high," "archons," and so on are are the gods worshiped by the several nations, but are ultimately only angelic governors of the cosmos, often either rebellious or incompetent; this seems to include even the angel governing Israel, who, according to Galatians, delivered a defective version of the Law to Moses. In Paul's time, the idea of angelic "gods of the nations" would have been, for instance, an unproblematic interpretation of Deuteronomy 32:8-9, which describes God as dividing the nations among the "sons of God"...[It] is a large part of Paul's understanding of the gospel that these cosmic "gods" have been conquered and placed under proper order by Christ and will, at the end of time, be handed over in proper subordination to the Father so that God may be "all in all."

If you're a regular and long time reader of this blog, all of this will be very familiar to you, as I've written a lot about "the principalities and powers," the angels of the nations, and Christus Victor visions of salvation. All that to say, Hart's translation has the virtue of bringing all this cosmic strangeness into view.

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 46, Sam's Choice

The "deep narrative" of the story reemerges at the top Cirith Ungol as Sam kneels beside the dead body of Frodo.

Well, Sam thinks Frodo is dead. And we've jumped ahead quite a bit. 

En route to the secret entrance into Mordor, Sam and Frodo are captured by Faramir and his men. In their time together Faramir comes to know the full story of Boromir's death. But unlike his brother, Faramir is able withstand the temptation to possess the Ring. He consents to let Frodo and Sam go, even if their plan is to enter Mordor through Minas Morgul, the city of the Witch King.

Gollum leads Frodo and Sam past the City of Shadow, climbing up the mountain using stairs that lead to the pass of Cirith Ungol, and from there over into the land of Mordor.

But Gollum has set a trap at the top of the pass, leading Frodo and Sam into the lair of the giant spider Shelob. Gollum attacks Sam and Shelob attacks and stings Frodo. But Sam puts Gollum to flight, and then, against all odds, wielding Sting and the Phial of Galadriel, Sam is able to wound and chase off Shelob. 

But it seems that Sam is too late to save Frodo, who appears dead after Shelob's venomous sting. And there, in the midst of his great grief and pain, Sam has to make a choice. Shall he give up all hope or take the Ring from his dead Master to carry on the quest?

Sam chooses to take the Ring and carry on. Or does he? Here we find "the deep narrative" rushing back into the story as Sam ponders the choice before him:

"What? Me, alone, go to the Crack of Doom and all?" He quailed still, but the resolve grew. "What? Me take the Ring from him? The Council gave it to him."

But the answer came at once: "And the Council gave him companions, so that the errand should not fail. And you are the last of all the Company. The errand must not fail."

"I wish I wasn't the last," he groaned. "I wish old Gandalf was here or somebody. Why am I left all alone to make up my mind? I'm sure to go wrong. And it's not for me to go taking the Ring, putting myself forward."

"But you haven't put yourself forward; you've been put forward. And as for not being the right and proper person, why, Mr. Frodo wasn't, as you might say, nor Mr. Bilbo. They didn't choose themselves."

You haven't put yourself forward, you've been put forward. They didn't choose themselves.

Okay, then who did put Sam forward? And who chose Bilbo and Frodo? 

Again, following Fleming Rutledge, these are the moments where God shows up in Tolkien's masterpiece. On the surface, the story is irreligious and godless. But when you track the deep narrative, you see the fingerprints of God everywhere you look. 

All of life is like this. Spotting the divine presence involves a perceptual shift. "Do you not see?" Jesus asked his followers over and over again

Life is like that famous optical illusion. What do you see, a rabbit or a duck? Nihilism or meaning? Despair or hope? Randomness or purpose? Chance or providence? Determinism or freedom? Matter or mind? Shame or grace? Divine absence or presence? Atheism or God?

Rabbit or duck?

And over and over Jesus asks,"Do you not see?"

The Cosmological Strangeness of Hart's New Testament: Part 5, The Age to Come

The aspect of David Bentley Hart's translation of the New Testament that has received the most attention and commentary has to do with how he translates the Greek word aionios

The word aionios is generally translated as "eternal" and "everlasting" in modern translations. Hart translates the word differently, and his translation fits with his larger project articulated in his book That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation. In fact, Hart has said that his translation of the New Testament functions as a companion piece for his argument in That All Shall Be Saved. And the primary supporting work his translation provides that argument has to do with the translation of aionios. 

As Hart points out, there are only a small handful of passages in the Bible that, in modern translations, speak of "eternal punishment." One passage is Matthew 25.46, from the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats:

And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

And yet, as people familiar with these debates will know, there's a great deal of controversy about if "eternal" is the proper translation of aionios. Hart translates aionios as pertaining to an "age" or the "Age." For example, his translation of Matthew 25.46 reads as follows:

And these will go to the chastening of that Age, but the just to the life of that Age.

Regarding translating aionios as "age" or "Age" over "eternal," it is true that aionios can refer to a period of endless duration, but its far more common meaning was simply a "long span of time," or even just "a specific span of time," like a historical epoch, past or present. 

Also, aionios can indicate qualitative distinctions (rather than quantitative durations), contrasting a mundane earthly existence with a blissful spiritual existence. This usage is common in the Gospel of John where we're told we are experiencing and participating in "aionios life" here and now, right in the midst of normal human life, the two "lives" existing side by side, a qualitative spiritual distinction here in the moment rather than a serial temporal sequence

Finally, there are words in the Greek that do exactly mean "endless," but that word isn't aionios.

Hart also points out that the Jewish writers and the early church fathers closest to the New Testament texts didn't use aionios to mean "eternal," at least not primarily or exclusively.

All that to say, while, yes, aionios can mean "endless" it doesn't necessarily mean that, and odds are it doesn't mean "eternal" if you look at how the word is typically used. 

So Hart chooses to translate aionios straightforwardly, reflecting its most common usage, as referring to a span of time, to an "age." And also, when context indicates this, an "age" with a qualitative distinction, "the Age" to come. You see that choice in effect in the translation of Matthew 25.46 above, a chastening or reward that awaits us in "that Age." Duration unspecified.

The Cosmological Strangeness of Hart's New Testament: Part 4, Psychical Bodies and Psychical Man

Other locations where Hart makes visible the cosmological strangeness of the New Testament world is in his translations of of the Greek word psyche

The word psyche is used throughout the New Testament and, due to its range of meanings, is translated with a variety of English words like "soul," "life," "heart" or "mind." And yet, as Hart points out, when we use a variety of English word to translate a single Greek word readers miss the fact that the same Greek word is operating across all these various instances. This obscures how categories of New Testament thought are a bit different from modern categories.

For example, if you translate the word psyche as "mind" or "soul" it can trick the modern reader into making a distinction between the material and the spiritual, between the psychological and the supernatural. Modern people make a hard metaphysical distinction between having a "mind" versus having a "soul." But this is an distinction foreign to the New Testament. In short, by alternatively translating a word like psyche as either "mind" or "soul" modern translations allow readers to superimpose their metaphysical assumptions onto the New Testament, obscuring just how differently the New Testament conceived reality. The Bible becomes metaphysically comfortable to us, conforming to our assumptions, rather than strange and startling.

Again, Hart seeks to highlight and draw attention to these differences in his translation. In the case of psyche, the overriding meaning of the word is akin to "life," "life force," or "life giving principle." The Greek word psyche is similar to the Latin word anima. As Hart points out, psyche was considered to be part and parcel of physical existence. Where we make a hard distinction between the material (body) and the spiritual (soul) components of human beings, the ancients saw more of a unity. The psyche was the force of material, animal, animate life. Consequently, the "soul" (psyche) was as mortally contingent as the body.  

Which brings us to the word pneuma, translated as "spirit."

As used by the New Testament authors, pneuma points to life and power outside of the material realm. Thus, where modern readers might read "soul" and "spirit" as synonymous, the New Testament makes a distinction. Specifically, where modern readers would tend to group "soul" with "spirit," the New Testament would group "soul" more with "body." Schematically:

Modern Metaphysics: Soul/Spirit vs Body

New Testament Metaphysics: Body/Soul vs Spirit

You see this at work in Hart's translation in the way he highlights how psyche and pneuma are set up as contrasting adjectives in some Pauline passages, which makes for some very unusual translations. For example, here is 1 Corinthians 15.44-47, Paul contrasting our mortal bodies with the resurrection body:

It is sown a psychical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a psychical body, there is also a spiritual. So it has also been written, "The first man Adam came to be a living soul," and the last Adam a life-making spirit. But not the spiritual first, but rather the psychical, the spiritual thereafter. The first man out of the earth--earthly; the second man out of heaven.

Yes, this is a weird, jarring translation. But Hart's translation does capture how psyche is being contrasted with pneuma, a contrast between a "soulish" or "physically animated" body versus a body that, in the resurrection, will be constituted from something more durable and lasting--a spiritual, heavenly, pneumatic body. 

Here's another instance of Paul using this contrast from 1 Corinthians 2.14-16:

But a Psychical man does not receive the things of God's Spirit; for to him it is folly, and he is unable to know them, since they are discerned spiritually. The Spiritual man, moreover, discerns all things, yet is discerned by no one. "For who has known the mind of the Lord, who will give him instruction?" And we have the mind of the Anointed.

Yes, "Psychical man" is really weird, but that's the virtue of Hart's commitment to strangeness. For example, consider how modern translations render ψυχικὸς δὲ ἄνθρωπος (psychikos de anthropos) in this text: "natural man" (NIV), "those who are unspiritual" (NRSV), "the natural person" (ESV).

Only Hart's very straightforward translation of psychikos de anthropos as "psychical man" alerts the reader to the fact that the Greek word psyche is in play here, the word that is often translated as "soul." You'd never know, reading modern translations, that the word often translated as "soul" is associated with things like "natural" and "unspiritual" as it is in this text.

However, if we appreciate the point above, that in the New Testament imagination the "soul" was the life force of the body, we can see Paul's contrast and point. A "soulish" or "psychical" person is just a normal, natural, animate person--the human animal. The "spiritual" or "pneumatic" person, by contrast, has been infused with a power that comes from beyond the physical and psychical realm. 

And if this pneumatic infusion is hard to wrap your head around, think about the Transfiguration of Jesus.

The Cosmological Strangeness of Hart's New Testatment: Part 3, "For God So Loved the Cosmos"

Here's how David Bentley Hart translates the famous verses John 3.16-17:

For God so loved the cosmos as to give the Son, the only one, so that everyone having faith in him might not perish, but have the life of the Age. For God sent the Son into the cosmos not that he might pass judgment on the cosmos, but that the cosmos might be saved through him.

This is one of those places where Hart's translation jars you. You reach a familiar text like John 3.16, and instead of the expected "For God so loved the world" you get "For God so love the cosmos."

But the Greek word translated as "world" throughout the New Testament is the word kosmos. And Hart translates it as "cosmos," not to be weird or contrarian, but to alert the reader to the cosmological strangeness of the New Testament. As Hart comments:

[T]he word "world" as we use it today simply does not capture what is most essential to the ancient concept of "cosmos," a word that most literally means "order" or "arrangement" or even "loveliness of design." For us, the "world" is either merely the physical reality of nature and society "out there," or it is the human sphere with all its attendant moral and historical contingencies. For the late antique cultures from which the New Testament came, the "cosmos" was quite literally a magnificently and terribly elaborate order of reality that comprehended nature (understood as a rational integrity organized by metaphysical principles), the essential principles of the natural and animal human condition (flesh and soul, for instance, with all their miseries), the spiritual world (including the hierarchies of the "divine," the angelic, and the daemonic), the astral and planetary heavens (understood as a changeless realm at once physical and spiritual), as well as social, political, and religious structures of authority and power (including the governments of human beings, angels, celestial "daemons," gods, terrestrial demons, and whatever other mysterious forces might be hiding behind nature's visible forms). It is a vision of the whole of things that is utterly unlike any with which most of us are today familiar, and that simply does not correspond to any meaning of "world" intuitively obvious to us. For the author of 1 Peter or of 1 John, for instance, to tell his readers to have nothing to do with the "cosmos" is to say something far more comprehensive, imponderable, and astonishing than that they should avoid vice and materialist longings, or that they should withdraw from society. It seemed better to me to risk oddity of expression [in my translation] than to risk losing sight of these truths.

The Cosmological Strangeness of Hart's New Testament: Part 2, The Vale of Abraham

In Luke 16 there is the famous parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. After their deaths, the Rich Man finds himself taken to Hades, a place of torment, while Lazarus is taken to the "bosom" of Abraham.

In David Bentley Hart's translation of the New Testament, he gives us this translation of Luke 16.22-23:

And it happened that the poor man died and was carried off by the angels into the Vale of Abraham; but the rich man also died and was entombed. And lifting his eyes in Hades, being in torment, he sees Abraham far off and Lazarus in his vales.

Bosom or Vale? 

The Greek word in question is kolpos, which carries a general meaning of "fold." This fold can be about the body, like a bosom or a womb. It could be folds of clothing, like a pocket. Or it could also refer to a fold in the land, like a bay or a valley.

Obviously, Hart translates kolpos as a valley, using the word "vale" to give that valley some otherworldly spookiness. Hart offers two reasons for this translation. 

The first is that the word kolpos appears twice in the text, the first use in 12.22 is singular, and the second use in 12.23 is plural. As seen above, Hart translates the second use as a plural: "he sees Abraham far off and Lazarus in his vales." Most modern translations, by contrast, just ignore this change, keeping the second use of the plural word as a singular, Lazarus sitting at Abraham's "bosom" or "side." 

Hart's second reason for translating kolpos as "vale" goes to the point of this series, his highlighting the cosmological strangeness of the New Testament imagination, in this case how it imagined the Realm of the Dead. As Hart writes in the postscript of his translation:

Fully to appreciate all the ways in which the late antique vision of reality differed from ours today, one must look not only to the physical and spiritual features of the living world as it was then imagined but also at those still more mysterious dimensions lying beyond the borders of life, in the region of death or in the Age of the world that is coming. If I may dilate upon some remarks I made in my footnote to Luke 16:22-23...My most obvious departure from convention here is the choice to render κόλπος (kolpos) not as the familiar "bosom" but as the aggressively unusual "vale."... It is possible, I grant, that Luke uses kolpos here as an equivalent to the Hebrew cheyq, which is to say either the breast or the fold in a man's garment located at the level of his chest. But Luke did not write Hebrew or Aramaic, and he lived in a Hellenistic and Roman Mediterranean world, and he used its language, and he conceived reality in the terms common to his time. And, seen within that picture of things, the rich man and Lazarus after their deaths should not be regarded as occupying, respectively, the hell and the heaven of later Christian imagination. Rather, they occupy two distinct regions of the one realm of the dead (Hades or Sheol). As all good scholars of late antique Judaism, Christianity, or paganism are aware, in the first century the most common picture of the afterlife, shared by practically everyone, was of a region of the dead in which there are places both of torment and of beatitude.
Hart then goes on to make a connection between Luke's vision of the realm of the dead with the book of Enoch. As Hart comments,

It is difficult to exaggerate how influential the intertestamental "Noachic" literature was for the Jews and then Christians of the first century. On the whole, too many New Testament scholars over the years have neglected to assess properly not only the three centuries of Hellenistic culture in which Jewish culture had been steeping by the time of Christ and apostolic church but also the profound importance for the early church (quite explicit at numerous places in the New Testament) of the angelology, demonology, cosmology, and the eschatology of texts like 1 Enoch and Jubilees...No one, however, who knows how intermixed the cultures of the Hellenistic world really were should be surprised by the suggestion that Luke's picture of the realm of the dead looks very much like the one that was, by his time common to just about every Mediterranean and Near Eastern culture. Much less, however, should it surprise anyone to learn that Luke's imagery resembles that of the Book of Enoch (from which, I think it likely, it was a least partially drawn)...In "The Book of the Watchers," the first section of Enoch, chapter 22 describes the region of the dead as being set among a chain of mountains and comprising of four "hollow places" or "vales"...entirely separated...from one another; one of these values is full of light and flowing water, while the other three are dry, deep, and dark. Here the dead await the judgment, the righteous in the place of light, with its refreshing springs, and the various classes of the unrighteous in the places of suffering and darkness. Here to, I believe, in some very similar topography of Hades, Luke has placed Lazarus and the rich man: the one in the Vale or Vales of Abraham, the other in a dark, dry, fiery valley of suffering.

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 45, The Chief Hero of the Story

Gollum leads Frodo and Sam out of the Emyn Muil and through the Dead Marshes to the gates of Mordor. Facing the Land of Shadow, Frodo and Sam despair but resolve to try to enter Mordor through the front door. Gollum, fearing that the Ring will fall back into the hands of Sauron if Frodo and Sam follow through with their foolish plan, convinces Frodo to follow him into Mordor by a secret path. Wary and distrustful, but having no other real options, Frodo consents to follow Gollum to this hidden entrance.

From here on out Sam starts to feature large in the story, fulling coming into his own as a character in the drama. As Frodo grows increasingly burdened by the Ring Sam's care and attention for his Master increase exponentially:

Sam's mind was occupied mostly with his master, hardly noticing the dark cloud that had fallen on his own heart. He put Frodo in front of him now, and kept a watchful eye on every movement of his, supporting him if he stumbled, and trying to encourage him with clumsy words.

Over the pages to come, Sam will become the incarnation of agape. Wholly other-oriented, scarcely thinking of himself, sacrificially devoted. Visually, but more importantly, affectionally, Sam will "put Frodo in front of him." Sam watches, supports, encourages. That's what love is, it's putting the beloved "in front of you." 

Through Sam, the role of love begins to grow and blossom in the story, and eventually comes to take its place at the heart of the drama. Love is how the battle is won, the sword that will slay Sauron. 

Sam's love is what makes this story so deeply Christian, and why Tolkien described Sam as "the chief hero" of the story.

The Cosmological Strangeness of Hart's New Testament: Part 1, Keep the Bible Weird

In 2017 David Bentley Hart released his translation of the New Testament to mixed reviews.

It's not hard to see why the translation created such diverse reactions. The translation is very odd, often jarring. But that was exactly what Hart was trying to accomplish, and what makes his translation so delightful and interesting. 

Both the text and world of the New Testament are strange. And modern translations tend to hide that strangeness. As Hart points out, far too often modern translations don't translate the text, they explain the text. 

Hart, by contrast, set himself the task of making the text and world of the New Testament transparent, to bring out and draw attention to its strangeness. Jarring oddity was the entire point of Hart's enterprise. 

Many of Hart's choices have been discussed at length since the publication of the translation. Hart's responses and defense for many of his choices are collected in the paperback edition of the translation in a "Concluding Scientific Postscript." This postscript is a very interesting read. 

In this short series I'd like to share an observation about the translation, one that I haven't see talked about a lot, about how Hart's translation highlights the cosmological strangeness of the New Testament world. 

Debates about translations tend to swirl around how to translate certain Greek words that carry a lot of theological baggage. For example, the papers and books that have been written about how to translate pistis ("faith," "faithfulness") and the dikaio-cluster ("righteous," "righteousness," "justify," "justification") in Paul would fill many, many dumpsters. And to be clear, Hart does wade into those issues.

But this series isn't going to focus on the meaning of Greek words. It is, rather, a brief look at how Hart uses his translation to draw attention to the cosmology of the New Testament, and how odd and strange that cosmology is to modern readers. Encountering this strangeness might be unsettling to many, but I've found it delightful, more rabbit holes to explore, more things to learn. 

There's a saying in Austin, Texas: "Keep Austin Weird." That's an apt description for what Hart set out to do: Keep the Bible Weird. And if you like weird, like I do, Hart's translation is a fun, fascinating read. And I'll be sharing some of that weirdness with you.

A Sense of Style: Part 3, To Express That Beauty Always Anew

After using the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery to illustrate Jesus' "sense of style," Hart goes on to say, "Admittedly, it is a difficult style to catch hold of, and not everyone cares to try."

For my part, I've always wanted to try. I've always been absolutely transfixed by how Jesus moves through the world, and obsessed with pondering how that style would translate into my own life.

And Hart's absolutely right, it's not a style you can emulate trying to piously follow a set of rules. Largely because this sense of style plays out spontaneously in human interactions, especially how you treat people, often on the fly. Do the people you encounter this day feel safe, seen, and loved by you? Not just and only our best friends during an intimate chat over coffee, but complete strangers whom we bump into the rough and tumble of the day in our hurry, distraction, and stress. Do those people, the mass of strangers, receive from you the beautiful gesture?

If we were to classify Hart's argument, it's a species of virtue ethics, acquiring habits of heart, mind, and action. Christian moral action is less about working through ethical puzzles than training oneself to respond to life, in an almost automatic, unconscious way, in ways that conform to the style of Jesus.     

What Hart helps us see is the artistry involved in this process. Discussions in virtue ethics and spiritual formation can sound grim, all about discipline and training. And it is that when you start. If the moral life is like learning to play an instrument, creative artistry built upon a foundation of technical skill, your early lessons are going to be rote and rudimentary. It's only later, with advancing skill, where you'll be able to preform and create in beautiful ways.

And the purpose of this beauty in the moral life isn't some evolutionary spandrel, an unnecessary add-on, like so much Christmas tree tinsel. The purpose of beauty is to reflect and draw us toward God, the ontological heart of the cosmos and of your very existence. As Hart wraps us his essay:

[The story of the adulterous woman] enunciates no exact principles or laws, but it compellingly, beguilingly invites us to adopt the style pervading Christ’s actions as, so to speak, the most exquisite imaginable dernier cri [Note: French for "the latest fashion"]. In dispersing the woman’s accusers with a cool irony that leaves them haplessly silent, and in then granting her a forgiveness wholly unencumbered by any ponderous expressions of disapproving decency or piety, and without even any prescribed penance, Christ demonstrates how a single graceful gesture, per­formed with sufficient moral and aesthetic skill, can express all the dimensions of the beauty of charity. It may seem somewhat perverse, as I have noted, to suggest that the ethical should in this sense be ultimately reducible to the aesthetic; but it should be, even so, for the simple reason that what draws us to the good is that it is also eternal beauty. God himself is beauty, that is, and in the end, for Christians, we are joined to him in seeking the beautiful as he has taught us to recognize it in Christ, and in therefore seeking in every circumstance, however unanticipated, to express that beauty always anew, in ever more novel variations on that original “theme”—that unique and irresistibly attractive manner. At times, a sense of style really is everything.

A Sense of Style: Part 2, Neither Do I Condemn You

Our actions should balance the true, the beautiful and the good. We must work to imitate Jesus' sense of style. 

But what does that look like? In his essay "A Sense of Style: Beauty and the Christian Moral Life" David Bentley Hart goes on to give an example from John's gospel:

To see what I mean, consider for instance the story of the woman taken in adultery: it is a tale that in a sense refuses to leave us with any exact rule regard­ing any particular ethical situation, much less any single rule for all analogous situations; but it definitely provides us with a startlingly incisive exemplar of an extremely particular manner for conducting oneself, even in circumstances that might be fraught with moral ambiguity, or even with terror, and for negotiating those circumstances by way of pure bearing, pure balance. Christ’s every gesture in the tale is resplendent with any number of delicately calibrated and richly attractive qualities: calm reserve, authority, ironic detachment, but also tender­ness, a kind of cavalier gallantry, moral generosity, graciousness, but then also alacrity of wit, even a kind of sober levity (“Let him among you who is without sin . . .”). All of it has about it the grand character of the effortless beau geste [Note: French for "beautiful gesture"], a nonchalant display of the special privilege belonging to those blessed few who can insouciandy, confidently violate any given convention simply because they know how to do it with consummate and ineffably accomplished artistry— aplomb, finesse, panache (and a whole host of other qualities for which only French seems to possess a sufficiently precise vocabulary). And there is as well something exquisitely and generously antinomian about Christ’s actions here. It embodies the same distinctive personal idiom that is expressed in the more gloriously improbable, irresponsible, and expansive counsels of the Sermon on the Mount—that charter of God’s Kingdom as a preserve for flaneurs and truants, defiantly sparing no thought for the morrow and emulous only of the lilies of the fields in all their iridescent indolence—and that is expressed also in everything about his ministry and teachings that, say, Nietzsche could interpret only as the decadence of a dreaming symbolist.

This is David Bentley Hart, so feel free to Google definitions. I had to check "insouciandy" (from the word "insouciant" meaning "showing a casual lack of concern, free from worry, or anxiety; carefree; nonchalant").

An important word to track down for what Hart is saying is his descriptions of Jesus' actions as "antinomian," meaning "relating to the view that Christians are released by grace from the obligation of observing the moral law." 

If you're unfamiliar with antinomianism you may want to explore that rabbit hole of Christian history, thought and controversy. But at its heart Christian antinomianism simply follows St. Augustine's famous line, "Love, and do what you will." The idea being that, if we truly love others, we don't need to follow any moral rules, code or law. Love, on its own, will create a good moral outcome. As Paul famously wrote, "Love is the fulfillment of the law." 

And all that goes to Hart's argument about Christian moral action embodying a sense of style rather than an adherence to a long list of Do's and Don'ts, or treating life as a Christian ethics class. As Hart writes about Jesus' treatment of the woman caught in the act of adultery, "it is a tale that in a sense refuses to leave us with any exact rule regard­ing any particular ethical situation, much less any single rule for all analogous situations; but it definitely provides us with a startlingly incisive exemplar of an extremely particular manner for conducting oneself."

The story leaves us no moral rules. If anything, Jesus seems antinomian in how he blows off the rules. Consequently, it's hard to translate Jesus's actions into hard ethical guidance. Rather, what is passed on to us is a sense of style, a beautiful gesture, an "extremely particular manner for conducting oneself."  

And it's that style that Christians try to capture and emulate.

A Sense of Style: Part 1, The True, the Beautiful and the Good

I want to share a few posts reflecting on the conclusion of David Bentley Hart's essay "A Sense of Style: Beauty and the Christian Moral Life."

The essay is Hart's attempt to fuse the beautiful with the moral. Specifically, in light of Christian metaphysics, the three transcendentals of the true, the beautiful, and the good are not three, separate, distinct goods. They are, rather, reflections or aspects of a single, underlying unity, windows in the nature of God.

And if that's so, our moral life isn't just about the true and the good, it's also about the beautiful. The moral life of the Christian should be artful and beautiful. In short, Christianity should have a "sense of style." And for Hart, this sense of style helps us live beyond dry, rigid ethical systems. We don't have long lists of moral rules and prohibitions dictating our actions in every conceivable situation. What we have is Jesus and his sense of style. Catching and imitating that style gives us creative and innovative space to act both morally and beautifully.

Hart summarizing toward the end of his essay:
I confess, I do not know how to think in terms of “ethics,” at least not if one takes the word as the name of some distinct field of inquiry; and I certainly do not believe in something called “Christian ethics,” either as a dis­crete topic within theology or as a mere invariable canon of precise prescriptions and prohibitions. What I really believe in is, for want of a better term, a sense of style. What I put my trust in as a true guide to practical reason is the cultured ability to recognize, appreciate, imitate, develop, and vary certain forms of liv­ing in this world, certain seductive fashions. The formation of virtue within us, however any particular moral tradition might understand the form that it should take, must be a process of gaining mastery in the exhibition of a very particular personal manner: ideally, a manner that accords as beautifully as possible with all the transcendental ends that call us to themselves within the most primordial motives of the rational will, and so a manner that, in being mastered, naturally instills in us an ever deeper longing to arrive at the transcendent wellspring where all those ends are one; a manner that expresses something of the vast range of moral possibilities those ends provide and yet one whose fluid and lovely equipoise harmonizes them in a thoroughly plausible unity of character. For Christians, obviously, this cultivation of virtue consists in attempting to shape one’s life in conformity with Christ’s, precisely by trying to capture and adopt something of his unique style, and to preserve it as far as possible even in those situations when clear prescriptive clarity proves agonizingly elusive.
To live as Jesus lived is not a course in ethics, but is, rather, acquiring his sense of style, his way of living life in a way that unified the true, the beautiful and the good.

But what does that mean, or look like? Tomorrow we'll explore Hart's example from the gospels.

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 44, The Bondage of the Will

The story now turns back to Frodo and Sam. When we return to them we find them lost in the tricky, difficult, and confusing terrain of the Emyn Muil. There, Gollum comes into view to finally take his place in the story, offering to lead Frodo and Sam to the gates of Mordor.

It's been a long time since Gandalf and Frodo talked about the "pity of Bilbo" in the Shire. But the ripple from that pebble thrown into the pool of history has now reached the shore. The fate of Middle Earth now depends upon the intimate drama that will play out between Frodo, Sam and Gollum. After the grand sweeping events in Rohan and Isengard, the story now gets very small as we journey closely with these three into darkness.

The drama is also more psychological and spiritual as we behold the struggles of Frodo and Gollum. We find Gollum to be a nasty, loathsome creature, but broken as well, so broken Frodo also shows pity. And with Gollum's proximity to the Ring we observe his enslavement to it as he comes to serve Frodo as the "Master" of the Ring. And we also bear witness to the struggles of Frodo as he carries the Ring closer and closer to Mordor. The weight of the Ring grows materially but, more importantly, spiritually and psychologically. Sam starts to worry as he watches the changes come over Frodo.

In Christian theology there is a notion called "the bondage of the will." Martin Luther wrote a whole book about it, but the idea goes back to Augustine and St. Paul. There are ways in which our will becomes corrupted and broken. The sickness and rot of sin goes deep, affecting our ability to make healthy, virtuous choices. As Paul describes in Romans, we want to do the right thing but we cannot. The will is in bondage. The issue is less about making bad choices--what we coulda, shoulda, woulda done--than moral incapacity, even futility. We're stuck.

Going forward, as we witness Gollum and Frodo's struggles with the Ring, this bondage of the will becomes the focal drama at the heart of the story. The decisive events will be internal and interior. Will Frodo and Gollum eventually succumb? And if they do, how can anyone be saved?

I'm assuming you know how the story ends. Today I'm just drawing our attention to the theological drama that now takes center stage in the narrative, how we, over many, many pages, begin to watch the Ring work on the wills of both Frodo and Gollum, a profound meditation on sin working at a very deep psychological level.

Sin is more than making a mistake or "missing the mark." Sin is a slavery that penetrates to the deepest recesses of our being. And as Tolkien helps us see, it's not a pretty picture.

The Weight of Glory: Part 7, There Are No Ordinary People

I love the surprising ending to C.S. Lewis' sermon "The Weight of Glory."

Having talked so much about our eschatological longings, our desire for heaven, one could ding Lewis' sermon as escapist, sentimental and self-absorbed. The argument has been swirling around my emotional needs and angst.

But at the very end of the sermon, the "weight of glory" falls upon other human beings culminating in the demand to respect, love, and care for each other. Since we are, to use the biblical phrase, "citizens of heaven," we are eschatological creatures. We are, as Lewis will say, "immortals." Each of us carry that glory and birthright, and it lays upon us a weighty moral burden. As Lewis draws the sermon to a close:
Meanwhile the cross comes before the crown and tomorrow is a Monday morning. A cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our great Captain inside. The following Him is, of course, the essential point. That being so, it may be asked what practical use there is in the speculations which I have been indulging. I can think of at least one such use. It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you say it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all out dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations— these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit– immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously– no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner– no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, you neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat — the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.

The Weight of Glory: Part 6, Welcome Home

Lewis finally turns to the word "glory" in his sermon and he shares the twofold definition he initially held about the world "glory." The first is that glory involves "luminosity," like beholding "the glory of the Lord" or "the glory of a sunset." This luminosity is what we're artistically depicting when we paint halos around the heads of Christ and the saints in icons.

The second definition of glory involves fame or winning accolades.

Both definitions, Lewis shares, initially left him cold. Regarding fame and accolades, that sort of glory smacks of competition and pride. As for luminosity, Lewis says, "who wishes to become a kind of living electric light bulb?"

But as Lewis explored the Christian tradition he discovered that "glory," for humans, means "fame with God, approval or (I might say) 'appreciation' by God." Glory is God looking at us and saying, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant." As Lewis describes it:
To please God...to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or father in a son--it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.
The "weight of glory" is the happy, incomprehensible fact that God loves and delights in us.

With that definition in hand, Lewis returns to his argument from desire and shows how glory is "good news" for us.

Specifically, while we have a longing for our true Home, it still is a longing, often a longing full of pain and anguish. We're not Home yet, and standing on the doorstep we wonder if we will ever be let inside. We feel this exile and alienation keenly. In those moments, the universe seems coldly indifferent to us. As Lewis says, we "sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers." The cosmos doesn't seem to notice our sorrows or care about our heroic struggles to make it through just one more day.

But it's here, in that alienation, where we find the gospel of glory. Our longings and desires will finally be met with an open door and a "Welcome home!" Lewis writes,
And surely, from this point of view, the promise of glory, in the sense described, becomes highly relevant to our deep desire. For glory means good report with God, acceptance by God, response, acknowledgement, and welcome into the heart of things. The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last.

The Weight of Glory: Part 5, Waking from the Evil Enchantment

Having set out his argument from desire in "The Weight of Glory," evoking our longing for our true Home, C.S. Lewis then makes this statement:
Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years. Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modem philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth.
Rather than casting the debate as being between faith and reason, Lewis sees the conflict as one of dueling enchantments. Secularism and materialism is an "evil enchantment," and Lewis' argument from desire appeals to romanticism--our deep inner longings and desires--because it is a "spell" he's casting "for breaking enchantments."

The wicked spell of the secular age is the conviction that the deadening materialistic gaze of science is the sole arbiter of "the truth." But that is insanity. The power of science is empirical description, but it's also an acid that strips the world of value and meaning, the magic that make human life human. Lewis' argument from desire may be dinged for being an emotional appeal, a spell he's casting, but at its heart the argument is trying to breath value and meaning back into life. To do this, Lewis evokes fairy tales in a move similar to the one J.R.R. Tolkien makes in his famous essay "On Fairy-Stories." Fairy-stories, says Tolkien, help us recover the world:
Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness. Of all faces those of our familiars are the ones both most difficult to play fantastic tricks with, and most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces. This triteness is really the penalty of “appropriation”: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their color, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them. 
The evil enchantment of science is this possessiveness, this "we say we know them," this acquiring, this mental appropriation which strips the world of value and meaning, of its strange, startling magic. The scientific gaze is like Smaug, it locks the world up in a materialistic box.

The point of the argument from desire isn't an attempt to see things as they are but to "clean the windows" so that we might gaze again at the world the way we were meant to see it.

The Weight of Glory: Part 4, Unapologetic

Though associated with C.S. Lewis, the argument from desire is still alive and kicking. As I mentioned, I'm putting it to use in my upcoming book Hunting for Magic Eels.

My favorite contemporary example of the argument from desire comes from Francis Spufford's wonderful book Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. As you can tell from the title, Spufford's fierce, bracing, combative, and often profane defense of Christianity is rooted in the emotional appeal and coherence of Christianity. As Spufford writes at the end of Chapter 1, his book is "a defense of Christian emotions--of their intelligibility, of their grown-up dignity." It's a book I highly recommend.

Given the mental health struggles of the post-Christian West, it would appear that the argument from desire is coming into its own, as witnessed by books like Unapologetic. There's something emotionally ailing us in this secular age. Materialism is making us sick. Books like Unapologetic help us trace the contours of our pain.

As Blaise Pascal once wrote:
The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things. It is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason. This, then, is faith: God felt by the heart, not by the reason.
It's not Cogito Ergo Sum but Sentio Ergo Sum.

The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 43, Saved By Grace or Luck?

Before turning our attention back to Frodo and Sam in Book 4, one last note about the "deep narrative" of the story appearing with the Company.

After the fall of Isengard, Gandalf takes with him the palantír, the round crystal ball Saruman was using to communicate with Sauron.

For some reason, the palantír holds an allure for Pippin, who is drawn to it in way that serves as an allegory of desire and sin. In the night, Pippin steals the palantír from Gandalf and looks into it.

Looking into the palantír Pippin comes face to face with Sauron, who questions him. Pippin cries out and awakens Gandalf.

Upon learning what Pippin has done Gandalf examines Pippin and finds that no damage has been done to him. Relieved, he shares this with Pippin:

But mark this! You have been saved, and all your friends too, mainly by good fortune, as it is called.

Is Pippin saved by grace or by luck? Gandalf seems to hint that what we call luck might actually be grace. We could be misdescribing our lives. There's a joke I've been telling for years. When something fortuitous happens, I'll say, "We were lucky, or it was providential, depending upon your metaphysic."

Not a real knee slapper of a joke. But it illustrates Gandalf's point. Is your life a story of grace or luck? Is someone watching out for us or is it all just random chance? It reminds me of M. Night Shyamalan's movie Signs. In the movie you may recall Mel Gibson's character is a priest struggling with faith, and at the start of the movie he shares this:

People break down into two groups. When they experience something lucky, group number one sees it as more than luck, more than coincidence. They see it as a sign, evidence, that there is someone up there, watching out for them. Group number two sees it as just pure luck. Just a happy turn of chance...deep down, they feel that whatever happens, they're on their own. And that fills them with fear. Yeah, there are those people. But there's a whole lot of people in group number one...they're looking at a miracle. And deep down, they feel that whatever's going to happen, there will be someone there to help them. And that fills them with hope. See what you have to ask yourself is what kind of person are you? Are you the kind that sees signs, that sees miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky?