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Tag Archives: Western Civilization

The Wisdom of Hobbits, Wizards and Lions: Part 2

Reading a book on the virtues would not be most people’s idea of a good time. Who would want to read a 220

English: Map of Narnian world as described in ...

English: Map of Narnian world as described in The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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!”

 
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Posted by on March 23, 2013 in Book Review

 

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The Circle of Life Is a Grind

That there is a cyclical aspect to existence can’t be denied. Day into night into day. Winter,

English: Botticelli, Scenes from the Life of M...

English: Botticelli, Scenes from the Life of Moses (detail 2) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Spring,Summer,Fall. Birth, life and death. It’s the “Circle of Life” and it’s been glorified in children’s movies and other places over the years. But a circle is a closed figure, with no beginning and no end and if you’re inside the circle you are basically in a prison.

In Thomas Cahill’s book, “The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels,” ( Nan A. Talese/ Doubleday, 1998) he shows us how the Western mind escaped from this prison.

The primeval human’s religion and worldview were so different from what we experience today that it’s very difficult for us to imagine how they saw their lives and world. The great wheel of life and death was truly a grinding wheel. There was no past, present or future as we view it, only an endless cycle. Every event has happened, is happening now and will happen again.

Further, there was no sense of the individual for humans at that time. There was only the “world of groups, tribes, and nations, in which all identity and validation comes only from solidarity with a larger entity.” There were no dreams of a better life for you or your family, only the class or archetypal group you were born into.

To the modern mind this is nearly incomprehensible. Haven’t humans always seen the world the way we see it? How could it be viewed any other way? But what is even more amazing is how our modern worldview came into being out of the mind-numbing repetition and the soul-nullifying class systems of the ancient world. According to Cahill, we can thank the Jews for our escape.

After a short course on the ancient Sumerian civilization, Cahill dives into the Old Testament to show us what these “gifts” are and how they came about. In particular, he focuses on the stories of Abraham, Moses and David. I won’t try to detail all the gifts he brings to light, but I will highlight the ones that he emphasizes.

It begins with Abraham, whose life would have been just fine had he remained within the circle of life and his own family group. But he hears the voice of God, promising him “something new, something better, something yet to happen, something – in the future.” Not only will Abraham become a father in his old age, but God will make of him a great nation. All he has to do is “go forth” into the unknown. So he does, right out of cyclical time and into linear time. Time now contains past, present and future and we now have the idea of history.

With Moses came new gifts, one of which changes religion forever. Ancient religions were not about spirituality. Far from it. Cahill describes them as “impersonal manipulation by means of ritual prescriptions.” Christian author Eugene Peterson characterizes these rituals as “impersonal, nonrelational, acquisitive religious technologies.” It was all about using the gods to get what you wanted. The gods really didn’t care that much about man, but they controlled things that man wanted, things like rain to ensure good crops, fertility for large families and plentiful herds, strength and good fortune for war and the blessings of good health. Man initiated his rituals to obtain these things. But the God of Abraham and Moses is different. He is the One who initiates contact with man.

In Moses’ case, God grabbed his attention via a burning bush that wasn’t consumed. When Moses turns aside to see this wonder, God begins speaking to him. Suddenly, religion isn’t only about manipulation anymore. God has initiated a relationship with man and He and Moses enter into an actual conversation. The Holy one invites Moses to take off his shoes and tells Moses His name. Then comes the part Moses wants nothing to do with: God has a job for him. He is to go back into Egypt and lead the people of Israel out of slavery. This endeavor leads to a close, personal relationship between God and man, an amazing and somewhat terrifying gift. It also leads to another gift, one of the greatest of all, the concept of liberation and freedom.

With David comes another gift, one that we moderns think of as self-evident: the sense of self, theof our interior life, our individual identity. This is something not found in ancient literature. But it is abundant in the book of Psalms. According to Cahill, “The Psalms, some of which were undoubtedly written in the tenth century (BC) by David himself, are a treasure trove of personal emotions from poets acutely attuned to their inner states.”

I could go on, but you get the idea. Cahill sums it up this way: “We dream Jewish dreams and hope Jewish hopes. Most of our best words, in fact - new, adventure, surprise; unique, individual, person, vocation; time, history, future; freedom, progress, spirit; faith, hope, justice – are the gifts of the Jews.”

And they are the gifts of God.

 
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Posted by on February 16, 2013 in Book Review

 

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