Reading a book on the virtues would not be most people’s idea of a good time. Who would want to read a 220
page book about how you should behave and why? I’ve done that. “The Practice of Godliness,” by Jerry Bridges was over 260 pages of enlightening but somewhat tedious reading. I read it willingly because I wanted to learn more about the subject, but I can’t imagine that it’s a big bestseller.
“On the Shoulders of Hobbits: the Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis,” by Louis Markos, is nothing like that book. Trust me. This book deserves to be a big bestseller, both in the secular market and, especially, the Christian market. Markos joins such writers as C.S. Lewis, Dallas Willard, N.T. Wright and Richard Foster in arguing that being a Christian means more than holding a belief. His path to illustrating this truth is not theological, however. Being an English professor, he takes us down the Story road.
“On the Shoulders of Hobbits” is divided into four parts: The Road, The Classical Virtues, The Theological Virtues, and Evil. After a nice foreword by philosopher Peter Kreeft on how people become good or evil, Markos explains his purpose in an introduction titled “Stories to Steer By.” Being an educator, he is very aware of the rampant secular humanism that has saturated our school systems and culture in America today. This secular worldview is not much concerned with creating good human beings. It wants to produce career-ready people who fit into a secular society with a minimum of friction. The increasing emphasis in our schools today on science, math and technology testifies to this. Pretty much the only “virtues” taught to our children are environmentalism, multiculturalism and, of course, tolerance, which these days means (incorrectly) that anybody’s lifestyle is just as good as anybody else’s. This is a form of egalitarianism: all people, all ideas, all cultures are the same. According to Markos, this trinity of postmodern virtues will produce “a colorless, passionless, amoral existence.”
So how can we avoid this dreary, utilitarian future that the secularists are trying to force on us? Markos’ answer is simple: we need stories. Not the politically correct drivel that is dished out to our children (and us) daily in television and movies, but the grand heroic narratives Western civilization has long cherished and passed on to countless generations. Epics such as The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Divine Comedy. Epics like J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. And stories bearing eternal truths like C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. Markos likens Tolkien and Lewis to knights of old, carrying on the old understandings of good and evil, right and wrong, through their stories. Thus The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia are the tales used in this book to examine the virtues our culture so needs in these times.
Throughout my delving into this wonderful book in future posts, I’m going to have to resist the impulse to quote Markos too often. He makes it difficult, however, because of his plentiful insights and observations. Thus I will give in to temptation and finish this post with a quote that, to me, makes clear the great need for the ideas in this book:
Our modern (and now postmodern) age has cast off – sometimes deliberately, but most often unthinkingly – many of the beliefs and virtues and disciplines that are necessary to the continuation of civilized life and the preservation of individual dignity and purpose.
To that I can only add, “Amen!”