Christ vs. Christianity

“Maybe commitment to Christ means not being a Christian.”

– Anne Rice, author of Christ The Lord: Out of Egypt, reaffirms her commitment to Jesus while renouncing her association with Christianity (i.e., the religion).

Background here (Rice herself links to this article on her Facebook page).

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Wrestling with pigs

Ross Douthat reviews a book:

Helprin variously describes his foes as “wacked-out muppets,” “crapulous professors,” “regular users of hallucinogenic drugs,” “a My Little Pony version of the Khmer Rouge,” “a million geeks in airless basements,” “mouth-breathing morons in backwards baseball caps and pants that fall down” and so forth. The overall effect is like listening to an erudite gentleman employing $20 words while he screams at a bunch of punk kids to get off his front lawn.

Orwell Versus Tolkien: Human Nature

Human Evolution Garden of Eden

Post by nebcanuck, Stephen’s son: Orwell Versus Tolkien is a series of posts which seek to compare key components of the worldviews presented in Orwell’s 1984 and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings by considering excerpts in tandem.

In establishing the worldviews of both 1984 and The Lord of the Rings, one can almost assume certain facets of the theories that follow. However, before more abstract subjects are considered, it is a necessary act to establish the overarching view of human nature which accompanies each worldview. Concepts of human nature are perhaps the most critical portion of a worldview, since it is this which directly affects how one sees almost every intangible or abstract component of life. One cannot understand hope, justice, freedom, love, or any other principle without first understanding human beings, because these ideas are directly linked with a facet of humanity which is not immediately visible in the rest of nature: Imagination. Without imagination, it is impossible to speak of anything beyond immediate, tangible experience. So how we perceive human beings, and thus their capacity to imagine, seriously impacts how we understand those things which are most important to the human experience. Both books manage to give a distinct image of human nature, and although there are a few passages that point to this understanding clearly, as a general rule the concept of human nature tends to rest beneath most of the overt messages of the book, propping them up and introducing both conflict and solutions.

Consider Orwell’s depiction of human nature. This scene comes on the brink of Winston and Julia’s first time having sex. As a rule, sex is forbidden between Party members who are physically attracted to one another. The very first act of rebellion which the two heroes of the story engage in is to sneak off to a field and have sexual intercourse.

“Listen. The more men you’ve had, the more I love you. Do you understand that?”

“Yes, perfectly.”

“I hate purity, I hate goodness! I don’t want any virtue to exist anywhere! I want everyone to be corrupt to the bones.”

“Well then, I ought to suit you, dear. I’m corrupt to the bones.”

“You like doing this? I don’t mean simply me: I mean the thing in itself?”

“I adore it.”

That was above all what he wanted to hear. Not merely the love of one person, but the animal instinct, the simple undifferentiated desire: that was the force that would tear the Party to pieces. He pressed her down upon the grass, among the fallen bluebells. This time there was no difficulty. Presently the rising and falling of their breasts slowed to normal speed, and in a sort of pleasant helplessness they fell apart.

Because of the naturalist humanist perspective which is presented by 1984, human nature is linked very closely with “animal instinct”. If there is no active God, then human beings are only different insofar as they have evolved beyond other animals. As a result, those things which are most natural to human beings are often those things which are most animal-like: sex, consumption, violence… essentially, anything which contains that “pleasant helplessness”. Of course, reason and intelligence play a factor here. There’s no sense that Orwell is denying that humans can think. After all, Winston is very thoughtful and deliberate in his defiance of the Party. But ultimately, those things which are central to the human being are individual desires which run contrary to the cold reason of the Collective.

However, this establishes a conflict in itself. For the Party, which understands this side of people, utilizes instincts to exert control. One example is the constant warfare which takes place in the society. By creating a sense of fear — and a very powerful desire for safety — the Party manages to convince members to suppress their other desires. This is also seen in a more direct sense, where the Thought Police manage to bring about even more fear for the individual. So afraid are Winston and his fellow citizens that they can literally control their external features from demonstrating any emotions, to avoid the ever-present eyes of the Party. But, because of the acknowledgement that other animal instincts will emerge eventually, the Party also arranges for a variety of events — the Two-Minute Hate, Hate Week, show trials — which allow an outburst of anger and violence periodically. In a sense, this societal suppression is a dampening of human nature. In another sense, though, it fulfils human nature, since we are naturally collective beings.

The result is a very Freudian depiction of human beings. The Freudian model is Id (desires) -> Ego (reason) -> Superego (society). In 1984, the animal desires are present and undeniable, but the society’s desires and power are sufficient to generally oppress the individual desires. The result is that men and women generally suppress those desires for long-term preservation, and find ways to express those desires in more constructive, socially-acceptable ways. In the case of Winston and Julia, the Ego seems to have found a way around the Superego, but the entire time it is apparent that their rebellion will be short-lived.

The Lord of the Rings has a very different concept of human nature. Because it is flowing from a Christian worldview, Tolkien’s writing focuses on a very different contrast than the Freudian model. Consider this passage, which comes on the wake of Gandalf explaining to Frodo the life story of Gollum:

“Gollum!” cried Frodo.”Gollum? Do you mean that this is the very Gollum-creature that Bilbo met? How loathsome!”

“I think it is a sad story,” said the wizard, “and it might have happened to others, even to some hobbits that I have known.”

“I can’t believe that Gollum was connected with hobbits, however distantly,” said Frodo with some heat. “What an abominable notion!”

“It is true, all the same,” replied Gandalf. “About their origins, at any rate, I know more than hobbits do themselves. And even Bilbo’s story suggests the kinship. There was a great deal in the background of their minds and memories that was very similar. They understood one another remarkably well, very much better than a hobbit would understand, say, a Dwarf, or an Orc, or even and Elf. Think of the riddles they both knew, for one thing.”

“Yes,” said Frodo. “Though other folks besides hobbits ask riddles, and of much the same sort. And hobbits don’t cheat. Gollum meant to cheat all the time. He was just trying to put poor Bilbo off his guard. And I daresay it amused his wickedness to start a game which might end in providing him with an easy victim, but if he lost would not hurt him.”

“Only too true, I fear,” said Gandalf. “But there was something else in it, I think, which you don’t see yet. Even Gollum was not wholly ruined. He had proved tougher than even one of the Wise would have guessed — as a hobbit might. There was a little corner of his mind that was still his own, and light came through it, as though a chink in the dark: light out of the past. It was actually pleasant, I think, to hear a kindly voice again, bringing up memories of wind, and trees, and sun on the grass, and such forgotten things.”

The Christian perspective offers a binary in place of a trinity for human nature. Men were created perfect and in the image of God. In their “natural” state, they would live collectively, and appreciate one another’s company. The Shire is an idyllic portrayal of a quasi-human society, such that one can perhaps see it as a pre-fallen world. Hobbits have minor conflicts, but these do not result in violence, but simple disgruntlement. In general, they live comfortably, close to the land (even living in pits), close to one another (giving and getting gifts at least once a week), and close to God (the Shire is the point which is geographically closest to “Heaven” in Tolkien’s maps). However, another component of human nature is the fallen portion — Sin. In this excerpt, the Ring which Gollum found impacted his life for the worse. The influence of Sin not only affects the individual, it permeates him, replacing his nature with a new one which is tainted and ugly. So different is a person under the Ring’s influence that it is disgusting to compare the idyllic human to him. And yet, it is inevitable and necessary to understand concepts like good, evil, and salvation. All of these depend on the interplay of the two sides of humanity, and the conclusion that something within the individual is potentially good still, even when the Ring has impacted them so.

In both books, and thus both worldviews, humans are depicted as part of an internal conflict which defines their self as well as the society around them. The real difference between the two is centred around the overall worldview. In Orwell’s writing, humans are evolved animals, and thus expressing animal instincts is a manifestation of freedom while society is an entirely oppressive force. In Tolkien’s writing, humans are endowed with good traits by God, and evil traits subvert this goodness by exerting their own influence. The human is shaped much more by external forces than by themselves. Both of these will set up the primary conflicts and resolutions (or lack thereof) within the books.

Orwell Versus Tolkien: Worldviews

1984 LOTR Cover

Post by nebcanuck, Stephen’s son: Orwell Versus Tolkien is a series of posts which seek to compare key components of the worldviews presented in Orwell’s 1984 and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings by considering excerpts in tandem.

Having just finished George Orwell’s 1984 Thursday night (okay, technically Friday morning…), I felt an intriguing desire to reread Lord of the Rings. This is an interesting circumstance for a couple reasons. First, as a bit of a side note, I’m surprised I had never felt the urge to read 1984 in the past, since it is considered a staple of political thought and I am studying politics at Trent University. Also, I don’t often reread books, so the desire to read The Lord of the Rings a second time is a testament to the degree of love I have for the work, as well as the power of my thoughts concerning 1984. But the real reason behind this desire, I believe, is because both books consider very similar topics — albeit in a very different manner — but that each discusses those topics from a different worldview. Orwell’s thoughts are very much derived from a natural humanist viewpoint, while Tolkien’s writing conveys a deeply Christian understanding on issues. It is this difference in worldview that drew me to The Lord of the Rings in response to 1984, and which has inspired this series of posts.

Before considering specific issues, this first post is designed to establish a mutual understanding of what is meant by each worldview. Consider this passage from 1984:

“I know that you will fail. There is something in the universe — I don’t know, some spirit, some principle — that you will never overcome.”

“Do you believe in God, Winston?”

“No.”

“Then what is it, this principle that will defeat us?”

“I don’t know. The spirit of Man.”

“And do you consider yourself a man?”

“Yes.”

“If you are a man, Winston, you are the last man. Your kind is extinct; we are the inheritors. Do you understand that you are alone? You are outside history, you are nonexistent.” His manner changed and he said more harshly: “And you consider yourself morally superior to us, with our lies and our cruelty?”

“Yes, I consider myself morally superior.”

1984 contains a powerful interplay between a natural humanist perspective on morality, and an entirely subjective perspective on morality. It was very well done, and without giving too much away, it’s sufficient to say that the subjective perspective wins out in the book, at least as far as maintaining power is concerned (which you could see coming from the start — it’s a dystopic novel). This passage provides a perfect example of what I will refer to as “natural humanism”. This philosophy consists of two components. First, it is naturalist, in that it denies the existence of God, or at least it denies his presence and interference in human affairs. Second, it is humanist, in that it attempts to place some value on human life by depending on empirical commonalities. Although the subjective moralists win in the book, the emotions of the reader are clearly drawn out in favour of Winston the Humanist, who believes in freedom and the goodness of human nature.

This particular scene demonstrates both aspects effectively, although both are at constant play throughout the novel. First, the concept that God is the central figure of the story is undermined, with the statement by Winston that he does not believe that God exists. This is in fact a bit misleading, as Winston entertained the idea of God earlier in the book, stating that he sometimes believes it, sometimes doesn’t. However, what is clear is that even if a God does exist, he doesn’t intervene in human affairs, doesn’t stand up for Winston, and any morality is not intrinsically derived from him or his nature. This is a very good picture of naturalism, as it does not necessarily deny that there is a God, but it holds to the fact that he does not directly alter the flow of nature Nature is absolute and autonomous.

This scene also demonstrates the humanist aspect of the book effectively, with the statements that follow the discounting of God. First, the idea that there is some indomitable “spirit of Man” which exists. This spirit is individualist, although also universal and communal. It believes in truth and the value of the observed. It follows natural inclinations, such as desiring sexual intercourse and loving music. It exists most freely — although most unconsciously — within uneducated people. Although the characteristics vary from argument to argument, this is essentially the core idea of humanism — that common values and traits give human beings as individuals some moral value. Thus, when Winston says that he is morally superior, it is on the grounds that he accepts what he observes (which the Party attempts to alter — the “lies” mentioned by the interrogator, O’Brien), and he values human life (which the Party doesn’t, as demonstrated by the torture surrounding this excerpt). Although O’Brien eventually forces Winston’s will to break, Orwell’s desire seems to be to stand up for these things which Winston himself represents, and the dystopia is made complete when it manages to overcome Winston’s resistance. Just because lies may hold some power does not mean they are correct — which is the core of Orwell’s humanist argument.

Combined, the two form a naturalist humanist perspective, which is the core of all of Orwell’s implied or stated arguments within the novel.

On the other hand, Tolkien’s writing takes a different bent. Consider this passage from The Lord of the Rings:

Frodo sighed and was asleep almost before the words were spoken. Sam struggled with his own weariness, and he took Frodo’s hand; and there he sat silent till deep night fell. Then at last, to keep himself awake, he crawled from the hiding place and looked out. The land seemed full of creaking and cracking and sly noises, but there was no sound of voice or of foot. Far above the Ephel Duath in the West the night-sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.

The Lord of the Rings is not written from an overtly Christian viewpoint. Unlike C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings is not directly allegorical.  There is no reference to the Christian God (although the prequel, The Silmarillion, is much more theologically-constructed). There is not even a Christ figure, unlike a series like Harry Potter. However, despite this, Tolkien’s masterpiece is embedded with Christianity. In some senses, this is represented by God appearing behind the scenes in the text. In other senses, it is conveyed through the absense of God. Tolkien’s book ends on a rather melancholy note, and it is said that the reason for this, as stated by Tolkien, is that the lack of Christ means that ultimately these characters have no true purpose in life. He apparently could not bring himself to write a sequel because the future of Middle Earth is far darker than even The Lord of the Rings.

However, for the sake of comparing the two books, the most important aspect of Tolkien’s work is the Christian Worldview which lies underneath the entire book. This passage is an excellent sample, and one I will refer to again. There is no universal Christian Worldview, however certain characteristics are essential, and it is these which Tolkien uses in The Lord of the Rings. One is that God exists, in and of himself, from eternity past to eternity future. Another is that he created the world, and ultimately he has control over the world, and can stop the world from existing as easily as he created it. These are important factors in Sam’s realization in Mordor. By looking out upon the sky, he is considering the limited nature of the world and his own circumstances. The conclusion — that it is all unimportant in the grand scheme of things — is only reached because of the eternity which Sam observes. Although Tolkien does not state that God is the reason for this, it is clear that God’s eternity is the factor Tolkien is pointing us to. A Christian worldview is key to understanding The Lord of the Rings‘ interpretation of things like freedom, hope, humanity, and morality.

These two worldviews can be compared through the two works. Both give an excellent perspective on the main problems faced by each worldview, and the ways that they deal with those problems. Without going into detail of the arguments to be presented later in the series, it is important to establish that each of these worldviews is present and consistently applied within the books, because the overall impact of each one largely rests on the underlying assumptions and solutions to problems.

History repeats itself

This is the second tidbit in A Prayer For Owen Meany to catch my attention:

May 9, 1987—Gary Hart, a former U.S. senator from Colorado, quit his campaign for the presidency after some Washington reporters caught him shacked up for the weekend with a Miami model […].

Americans don’t want their presidents to have penises but they don’t mind if their presidents covertly arrange to support the Nicaraguan rebel forces after Congress has restricted such aid; they don’t want their presidents to deceive their wives but they don’t mind if their presidents deceive Congress—lie to the people and violate the people’s constitution!

A Prayer For Owen Meany was published in 1989. John Irving was writing about Gary Hart and President Reagan (the Iran-Contra affair) but his comments foreshadow the Clinton and Bush administrations.

Americans disapprove when a President violates his marriage vows, but they look the other way when a President violates the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions.

Talk about straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! That’s what happens when your morality begins and ends with sexual taboos.

I wish [President Reagan] would spend a weekend with a Miami model; he could do a lot less harm that way. […] We ought to find a model for the president to spend every weekend with! If we could tire the old geezer out, he wouldn’t be capable of more damaging mischief.

The quotes are from pp. 268-69 and 274-75 in my edition of the novel.

Tyrannical defenders of democracy

A quote from A Prayer For Owen Meany:

My Aunt Martha—like many Americans—could become quite tyrannical in the defense of democracy.

John Irving published A Prayer For Owen Meany in 1989. I guess tyranny in defence of democracy isn’t strictly a post-9/11 development.

The quote is from p. 114 in my edition of the novel.

From Happy Days to Revolutionary Road

If you wanted to demonstrate a change in the way people think about the world, you might compare Happy Days, the TV sitcom that ran from 1974-1984, to Revolutionary Road, the 2008 movie.

I watched Happy Days as a teenager. I watched Revolutionary Road on a plane yesterday evening. Both the sitcom and the movie are set in the 1950s.

Happy Days depicts the era as idyllic. You might guess as much from the title alone. Even Fonzie was portrayed as a nice guy — not the knife-wielding thug that he would have been in real life.

cast of Happy Days                                            All smiles!

Fast forward to 2008, and a fresh take on the 1950s. The era is now regarded as a kind of living hell.

Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprioFrank and April Wheeler, with whiskey

Kate Winslet plays a woman who loves her husband and her kids but who, nonetheless, is profoundly unsatisfied by life as a suburban housewife.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays her husband, mostly as a grade “A” asshole. Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler have several screaming fights during the movie. Frank often says cruel things to April, and comes very close to beating her on a couple of occasions. Meanwhile, Frank diddles a young woman from the secretarial pool, to enliven his own boring existence.

Or merely to remind himself that’s he’s still a man. Because April isn’t the only Wheeler who is bored and unfulfilled. We see footage of Frank catching the train into the city, with hundreds of other men dressed just like him (jacket and tie, plus a fedora), on the way to workplaces that are all indistinguishable from one another. On his 30th birthday, Frank bemoans the fact that he ended up in the same mindless office job as his father.

April remembers when Frank dreamt of bigger things. She proposes something radical — revolutionary, even. ("Revolutionary Road" is, ironically, the name of the very conventional suburban street the Wheelers live on.)

Quit your job, honey, April tells Frank. We’ll sell the house and move to Paris. I’ll work instead of you. We’ll live off my income plus our savings plus the proceeds from the sale of the house. You’ll study, and read, and think. You’ll have all the time you need to figure out what you want to do with your life.

It’s a crazy idea, and the viewer immediately thinks, This is going to end very badly.

Maybe. But the movie’s perspective is summed up by Frank, who describes suburban existence as “hopeless emptiness.”

Frank is talking to the only character in the movie who agrees with their scheme to bugger off to Paris. That character is on leave from a psychiatric hospital, where he has undergone dozens of electroshock therapy treatments. He responds, Lots of people recognize the emptiness, but it takes real courage to acknowledge the hopelessness.

Thus one lunatic encourages two other lunatics in their fantastic idea. Except — from the movie’s perspective, the lunatics are sane, and the sane people are lunatics.

But let’s return to our comparison. Happy Days represents one extreme:  the 1950s were 100% wholesome and everyone was happy all the time. Revolutionary Road represents the opposite extreme:  the 1950s consisted of people wasting their lives in unthinking toil, like ants. The move imagines that smart people (particularly women) were tormented to the point of madness because they saw the truth very clearly but could not escape their lot in life.

Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road

Now imagine that you had to choose between those two interpretations of the 50s:  which one is a closer approximation of historical reality?
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