The Fortress of Christian Higher Education — by Crystal Downing

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Enjoy this post by Wade Center Co-Director, Crystal Downing, that first appeared on the Christian Scholar’s Review blog on June 10, 2021.

Decades ago, when I informed an acquaintance that I had accepted a tenure-track position at a Christian college, he shifted his eyes awkwardly before smiling out, “Sounds like a nice place to send my daughters.” I repeat the appalling comment—appalling on many different levels—in order to contrast it with a different kind of parental approach that has disturbed the professorate in more recent years. In March, 2019, the New York Times published an essay on “bulldozer” or “snowplow” parents who illegally clear the way to get their children into fortresses of financial success. Christian bulldozers seem to have a different fortress mentality, the enemy often being professors themselves. Several years ago a parent called during my office hours to protest the “C” his son received in my poetry course, saying “I thought you worked at a Christian college! What kind of Christian would do this to my child?” In these bulldozing incidents, institutions are regarded as bastions of (anything but) learning, bastions that must be conquered.

I started thinking seriously about Christian college as fortress while teaching at a secular university during summer term. Agreeing to help a student who was allergic to the inside of both classrooms and books, I met with Sue (as I shall call her) at an outdoor picnic table, upon which she placed a huge wooden box with a glass top. Inside was her textbook, which she read through the glass lid, turning the pages by inserting gloved hands into holes cut into the side of the box. Because Sue was both smart and conscientious we had great discussions, and at the end of the term she invited me to have dinner with her family to thank me for my help.

Because she was the daughter of a well-known pastor, I felt comfortable driving into the mountains where Sue lived with her mother and sister in a former logging cabin, all three sharing the same allergies. As I mounted the rickety porch, the door opened only enough to reveal a pair of lips, which asked me to spit out my gum in the woods across the road. After doing so, I remounted the porch, only to have the same lips tell me to go into the shed across the yard, undress, and put on the clothes laid out for me. Wanting to be sensitive to the special needs of my hosts, I put on the oversized outfit and shuffled my way back to the porch, discretely trying to keep the woolen slacks from falling to my ankles. This time, instead of the mysterious lips behind the door, a hand shot out—holding a shower cap to cover my hair.

Finally allowed to enter the cabin (feeling quite lovely), I noticed that every inside wall was lined with aluminum sheeting, all surfaces of wooden furniture were wrapped in aluminum foil, and a television stood behind thick glass in the fireplace. Fortunately, the women were so friendly that after our organically-grown dinner I felt free, despite my fashion dis-ease, to ask “What are your symptoms that necessitate such drastic measures?” After a long pause while glancing at each other for support, one finally answered with “We get irritable.” My reaction, though unexpressed at the time, was probably the same as yours right now. Though allergies are nothing to sneeze at, I wanted to hear about symptoms considerably more dramatic than irritability.1

Unfortunately, the history of Christianity is filled with stories of aluminum-lined fortresses, as when, in the 1940s, The Protestant Truth Society demanded censorship of BBC radio plays about Jesus because they failed to use King James English; worse, the plays were infected with the allergen of contemporary slang. The author of the plays, Dorothy L. Sayers, wasn’t killed by Christians as was Tyndale, whose English translation of the Bible, upon which much of the King James is based, was in its own time considered a debilitating allergen. When I start getting irritated by Christian resistance to new signs, however, I remember an incident in grad school when I was invited to dine with a group of ABD’s from another department. After someone made a sneering comment about the mental deficiencies of Christians, the hostess said, “Crystal is a Christian and she’s smart.” Suddenly ten pairs of eyes turned on me, excoriations on my character soon to follow: “Christians suppress women”; “Christians perpetuate racism”; “Christians are homophobic”; and so on. Somehow I was able to counter each attack: the closest thing to speaking in tongues I have ever experienced, the Spirit giving me words that subverted each attacker’s reason to denounce Christianity. I certainly wasn’t smart enough to do it alone (and they weren’t smart enough to ask really tough theological questions). As the group became quiet, their arsenal of objections depleted, one grad student finally said, “I wish Bill were here; he can argue better than we can,” and all nodded in agreement. In other words, rather than think, “Wow, this grad student has undermined every reason I have for refusing to take Christianity seriously,” they merely donned new shower caps. Christians aren’t the only ones sequestered in aluminum-lined fortresses.

This explains why I value a Christian liberal arts education. At its best, it gently removes shower caps from students terrified of new ideas and practices. Defying a bulldozing mentality, it dismantles aluminum beliefs in order to inspect them, to consider where they came from, how they block our vision and hence our understanding of people and ideas outside our house of faith. More often than not, after such an inspection, the lining will be nailed back up as important to the structural integrity of our house. But in the process of taking it down, Christian college professors help students look through the gap in the wall that the aluminum once covered up in order to understand and assess what is outside. Jacques Derrida called such a process deconstruction, explaining that “The movements of deconstruction do not destroy structures from the outside. They are not possible and effective, nor can they take accurate aim, except by inhabiting those structures. Inhabiting them in a certain way, because one always inhabits, and all the more so when one does not suspect it.”2 At its best, a Christian college encourages inhabiting the house of faith in a certain way: a way that is open to the other. Derrida, in fact, once defined deconstruction as “openness toward the other.”3

Significantly, the Greek word for “other” is allos—from which we get our word “allergen.”  Allos + ergon means other-work. Christian liberal arts allow the other to work on our thought–without, as Derrida specialist John D. Caputo summarizes, “surrendering the mastery of one’s house.” 4 The Master, instead, welcomes us in, shower caps or not.

Footnotes

  1. Except for the introductory paragraph, the preceding is extracted from my book Changing Signs of Truth: A Christian Introduction to the Semiotics of Communication (IVP Academic, 2012), 167-68. The publisher gave me permission to quote, and I have made minor revisions for clarity.
  2. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (John Hopkins University Press, 1976), 24, his emphasis.
  3. Qtd. in “Dialogue with Jacques Derrida,” in Dialogues with Contemporary Continental Thinkers: The Phenomenological Heritage, ed. Richard Kearney (Manchester University Press, 1984), 124.
  4. John D. Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion (Indiana University Press, 1997), 355nt2.

Academic Freedom: From Ram-skit to Bull-dung — by Crystal Downing

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Image Source: Siora Photography, https://unsplash.com/photos/ZslFOaqzERU

Enjoy this post by Wade Center Co-Director, Crystal Downing, that first appeared on the Christian Scholar’s Review blog on May 14, 2021.

Theater was very important to Wade authors. George MacDonald invited locals to plays in his home performed by his entire family; G K Chesterton, recognizing the power of theater, wrote several plays; and Dorothy L. Sayers transfixed England with her powerful theatrical productions. In fact, it was theater that turned Sayers into an outspoken advocate for Christian truth. In 1936 she was asked to write a play about the history of Canterbury Cathedral, and her life was never the same. Because all of these Wade authors recognized that drama was important to Christian tradition, this blog grapples with the subversive power of theater.

My first lesson in academic freedom came not long after completing my Ph.D., at which time I was invited to teach a course in Medieval Drama at a Research-I university. In addition to allegorical morality plays, wherein Everyman must negotiate attacks from the World, the Flesh, and the Devil, medieval playwrights dramatized Bible stories and legends about saints. Hence, in addition to the thousand-plus page tome my predecessor had required for the class, I added as a course text the Bible, introducing students to the hermeneutic tradition in order to establish that literary works must be understood within their historical and cultural contexts. Because it was a secular institution, I was very careful never to share my own faith in class, or even sermonize on doctrinal profundities in the plays. Instead, after providing sociological and theological backgrounds, I merely guided discussion about medieval words inspired by the Biblical Word.

It was tremendous fun. Students were shocked by the humor of medieval clergymen who wrote the plays, authors whom they assumed would be dour docents of dry doctrine. The fourteenth century Wakefield Cycle is a special delight. The Second Shepherd’s Play highlights a comically self-serving couple who hide a stolen sheep in a baby’s crib, only to be exposed by shepherds on their way to visiting the crib containing the baby Jesus. The tale of Noe is filled with slapstick fighting as Noah’s wife refuses to go aboard the ark Noah threatens to “smite” her while yelling “hold thy tong, ram-skit.” Students enjoyed learning how the medieval “ram-skit” follows the same pattern of linguistic sh/sk transpositions, as when the driver of a ship is called a skipper rather than shipper, or the shape of the land is called a landscape, not land-shape.

Even The Crucifixion of Christ, from the York Cycle, contains heart-breaking humor. As incompetent Roman soldiers struggle to nail Jesus to the cross, dislocating Christ’s limbs to fit the nail holes, their complaints about the job radically contrast with Christ’s silent suffering. Hence, when Jesus finally pronounces (in my transliteration) “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing,” the words had comic double meaning for the medieval audiences. And since my students had studied the biblical account, we were able to discuss that double meaning, if even as a literary trope.

At the end of the semester, I set aside the last day of class to review for the final. To start the discussion, I asked students to share the favorite thing they learned in class. I was floored when one said, “Before I took this course I thought Christianity was ram-skit [titters from students]; but now I recognize it’s far more profound than I ever realized,” multiple others endorsing his perception. Later in the day, a student visited during office hours to tell me that, as the daughter of a pastor, she had become a pariah when she had a baby out of wedlock at age 15. And then she said, “But after studying Medieval Drama, I know that Jesus still loves me.”

Similar comments about the profundity of Christianity were written on my course evaluations, which were the highest of my career. . . . Yet, I was never allowed to teach the class again, my load switched to the far less enticing “Seventeenth Century Drama Excluding Shakespeare.”

Soon thereafter I accepted my first tenure track position at a Christian Liberal Arts college. Later, when friends at secular institutions commented about limitations to “academic freedom” at a “religious” institution, I told them my Medieval Drama story, arguing that, as a Christian, I had as much academic freedom at my CCCU institution, perhaps more, than I did at a famous research university. One friend admitted I had a point and told me of an interaction with a Christian student at the secular college where he taught. This was a place where one professor bragged about proclaiming to students, “Christianity is ‘bull-dung’ and that’s not opinion; it’s fact.” When my friend asked the student why she didn’t attend the equally priced CCCU college near by, she answered, “I heard that professors at that Christian college make students grapple with the history of the Bible and theology, but I don’t want my faith to be challenged. I can ignore the prejudices of non-Christians.” I wish I could have assured her with words from The Flight into Egypt, a Medieval York play based on Mt 2:12-23. Joseph, holding the baby Jesus in his arms, comforts Mary as they prepare to escape Herod’s slaughter of the innocents:

I love my maker most of might
That such grace has grant me tille’s.
Now shall no hatyll [nobleman] do us harm:
I have oure helpe here in min[e] arme!

The Betrayal of Certitude — by Crystal Downing

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Enjoy this post by Wade Center Co-Director, Crystal Downing, that first appeared on the Christian Scholar’s Review blog on April 12, 2021.

A Christian liberal arts education should undermine certitude: something I learned from Dorothy L. Sayers, whose twelve radio plays about Jesus were so cherished by C. S. Lewis that he read them every year until he died. In my new book, Subversive: Christ, Culture, and the Shocking Dorothy L. Sayers (Broadleaf 2020)I recount how those plays challenge certitude. The publisher gave me permission to quote the following extract, which details the shocking way Sayers presents the character of Judas in her scripts, published as The Man Born to Be King in 1943.

Though she follows the biblical account of Judas committing suicide after betraying Jesus with a kiss in the Garden of Gethsemane, in her early plays she establishes that Judas is the most intelligent and committed of all the disciples. The first to recognize that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, Judas also realizes that he is a Messiah born to suffer. Judas will do anything to protect Christ’s mission, fully believing that humanity can be saved only through sacrifice. As he tells High Priest Caiaphas, Jesus “is the Messiah not of an earthly but of a spiritual Kingdom.” Sayers even has Jesus compliment Judas for his impressive “understanding, and courage,” calling them “great gifts.” Listeners were shocked, some to the point of outrage. Sayers had betrayed tradition about the famous betrayer!

But Sayers was quite intentional in her betrayal. She believed that to make Judas an obvious villain from the start would be an insult to the Son of God. It would imply either that Jesus was not smart enough to recognize Judas’s evil intentions, or that he was slyly manipulative, using a despicable man to achieve his own purposes—like something Herod might do. Very early in her writing process she wrote the BBC Director of Religious Programming to explain that Judas “can’t have been awful from the start, or Christ would never have called him.” And she proceeds to argue that Jesus was too psychologically astute “to have been taken in by an obviously bad hat.”

Sayers challenged conventional images of Judas, I believe, for another significant reason. Wanting both skeptics and Christians to see biblical characters as real and hence relatable human beings, she gave Judas a characteristic that tempts and corrupts the most earnest followers of Jesus to this day: certitude.

In contrast to the Jewish Zealots, Sayers’s Judas fully understood that Jesus did not come to lead a revolution against Roman oppressors. Convinced the Kingdom of God was to be spiritual, not political, Judas defended Jesus when others questioned his motives. But as Jesus became more and more popular, Judas began to worry that Jesus would abandon the role of suffering servant in order to satisfy his adoring fans. Then something happened that confirmed his suspicions: the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem (Mt 21, Mk 11, Lk 19, Jn 12). Much as politicians today enter rallies with fans cheering and waving signs, Jesus entered the city with admirers yelling “Hosanna” and waving palm branches. As a result, Judas thinks Jesus has fallen for the temptation of celebrity status.

What Judas didn’t realize is that a Zealot named Baruch, one of Sayers’s most important fictional additions to The Man Born to Be King, had contacted Jesus in advance, telling him that if he wanted to fulfill his political role as a revolutionary Messiah, he should ride a horse into Jerusalem. This would signal to the Zealots that Jesus was ready to have warriors follow him into battle in order to overthrow Roman control. But, Baruch adds, if Jesus is too timid to make war against political oppression, he should ride into Jerusalem on a lowly donkey. Judas, of course, saw only the triumphal entry, not realizing the symbolism of Christ choosing the donkey over the horse. Convinced that Jesus has sold out to political celebrity, Judas sells out Jesus to traditionalists.

Sayers’s Judas thus acts like many Christians today, certain that his interpretation of the truth was absolute—much as those who denounced Jesus for healing on the Sabbath were certain that their understanding of the truth was absolute. The Jesus-following Judas, echoing the anti-Jesus Scribes and Pharisees, trusted his own certitude more than he trusted Christ. Sayers thus implies that betraying Jesus for thirty pieces of silver is merely an intensification of the exchange that many Christians fall into. When culture cheers on disturbing new practices, we have a tendency to exchange our trust that Christ is in control for certitude that we know proper biblical behavior, picking and choosing Bible verses that reinforce our certitude. Seeing only the surfaces, we make absolute judgments, believing our certitude is a sign of faith.

I speak of certitude from personal experience. In my youth I was certain that Christians who did not baptize through immersion were heretical; Christians who spoke in tongues were demonic; Christians who endorsed the Sacraments were superstitious; Christians who drove horse-and-buggies were legalistic; Christians who smoked cigarettes and drank alcohol destroyed the temple of the Holy Spirit; Christians who had icons in their churches were idolatrous. In other words, only the interpretive tradition of my Christian denomination was authentically true.

Clearly, I had totally missed the profundity of Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians: “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” Paul famously ends his sermon about love with, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (I Cor 13: 2, 13). Rather than love, I had made “faith” the “greatest,” but only my particular interpretation of “faith”—like Sayers’s Judas. Feeling contemptuous of Christians who did not interpret the Word of God the way I did, love did not abide with me. Even worse, I had exchanged faith for its exact opposite: certitude. I had made human interpretations more absolute than my Savior, failing to offer the gift of love to those who interpreted Scripture differently. Like Judas, I had betrayed Jesus.

This, of course, was Sayers’s point. Christians throughout history have similarly betrayed Jesus. Religious certitude led Christians to denounce and later burn the body of theologian John Wycliffe (1320-1384), not only because he translated parts of the Bible into English, but also because he questioned purgatory, transubstantiation, and other traditional beliefs of his day. Religious certitude led Christians to torture 16th century Anabaptists because the latter believed that baptism should be held off until participants could understand what it meant: a belief that subverted infant baptism, the tradition of their day. Religious certitude caused hundreds of Christians in 1940s England to denounce [Sayers’s] BBC radio plays about Jesus that failed to use King James English.

Ironically, according to Strong’s Concordance to the King James Bible, forms of the word faith and faithful appear around 350 times in Scripture, whereas the word certitude appears . . . wait for it . . . not one single time. Even the word certainty occurs a mere seven times, and, of its three instances in the New Testament, only one reference has to do with certainty about the Gospel message (Lk 1:4). The discrepancy, of course, is easy to explain: God calls us to faith, which is the opposite of certitude.*

*From Crystal Downing, Subversive: Christ, Culture, and the Shocking Dorothy L. Sayers (Broadleaf Books, 2020). Reproduced by permission.

Amputating the Liberal Arts — by Crystal Downing

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Enjoy this post by Wade Center Co-Director, Crystal Downing, that first appeared on the Christian Scholar’s Review blog on March 22, 2021.

As theaters, museums, and concert halls struggle during these covidious times, I worry about the respiratory system of the arts. Only a year and half after I took my current job co-directing the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College, which archives the work of seven culture-animating British Christians, the center’s museum and research-room were shut down. On the plus side, a podcast we developed has over 50,000 listens from nearly 70 countries, including several predominantly Muslim nations. People around the world seem to crave insight about historical contexts, psychological and sociological tensions, theological issues, and artistic techniques that inform the fiction of authors like C.S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, and George MacDonald. What they crave, in other words, is Christian liberal arts. (See wheaton.edu/listen/wade-center-podcast).

How might cinema satisfy this craving as well? One of the authors we archive at the Wade, J.R.R. Tolkien, has been called the father of modern fantasy fiction, and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films help celebrate his “sub-creation,” as Tolkien once called his work. Unfortunately, Jackson’s cinema success has led to a slew (perhaps a slough) of unreflective fantasy films and television series that merely feed appetites for other-world sex and violence, offering not a single original thought to digest. But there are exceptions, and I would like to focus on a film, available on Netflix, that grapples with the state of the liberal arts.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an unusual film, as is to be expected of a Coen Brothers production. Made up of six unrelated short “Westerns,” the anthology movie was nominated for numerous awards, the National Board of Review naming it one of the top ten films for 2018. Interestingly, the movie presents its stories as adaptations of tales from an old book, allowing viewers to see not only epigraphs to color plates that accompany each story in the book, but also the closing paragraph of each story—as though in acknowledgment of narrative cinema’s origins. The first story, the eponymous “Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” spectacularizes what has made the Coen Brothers famous: outrageously silly parody, with brief moments of stylized gore that subvert any sense of realism. Serious cinephiles may feel like turning away to better fare. But if they continue watching, they will see that each succeeding story gets more serious, until the film ends eliciting reflections about the purpose of existence. It is as though the first film story draws attention to the state of contemporary cinema, wherein the biggest financial successes today—based on comic-book clichés—have little to do with topics that drive the liberal arts.

The second story is a bit more sober: more like television comedy than satire, with James Franco playing a humorously hapless bank robber. It is the third story, “Meal Ticket,” that delivers a powerful commentary on the liberal arts. Liam Neeson plays a laconic impresario who drives his wagon from town to town in order to display a man without arms and legs: a deformity that reflects historical realities from America’s Civil War. The amputee earns his “meal ticket” by powerfully reciting great literary works. Witnessing the articulate passion with which the amputee performs Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” passages from Shakespeare, and lines from Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, educators cannot help being struck with the way great writing has fueled the liberal arts for centuries: not a topic often explored in cinema. Our hearts therefore break as we see fewer and fewer people turn out for the amputee’s breath-taking recitations, audiences preferring to watch a performing chicken.

There seems to be a similar turning away from the liberal arts today. The last several years before I accepted the job as Wade co-director, I taught English at a Christian college, where I heard more and more students say, “I would love to be an English major, but my parents won’t let me because there’s no money in it.” I, of course, gave the standard answer about the need in any profession for interpretive acuity and informed critical thinking, but to no avail. As in the aptly named “Meal Ticket,” many liberal arts institutions are turning into amputees, cutting off their theater, philosophy and language majors while investing in programs aligned with making money.

While the deleterious desire for money is merely suggested by “Meal Ticket,” the next film in the Coen anthology makes the problem blatant. In “All Gold Canyon,” a prospector played by a grizzled Tom Waits searches for gold in a gorgeous Colorado valley. Digging holes all over the countryside, he not only ruins the landscape but also drives away beautiful butterflies and a majestic horned stag. The search ends in death as another gold-digger seeks to benefit from the prospector’s work, as though endorsing John D. Rockefeller’s Darwinist praise of capitalism: “the growth of a large business is merely the survival of the fittest.”

The search for prosperity is more subtle in the next story, which focuses on a wagon train on its way to Oregon. Suggesting that it is more important to start a family with a God-honoring and gracious spouse than to discover an “all gold canyon,” the film nevertheless shows that “the best laid schemes o’ mice and men / Gang aft a-gley,” as Robert Burns famously put it.

The final story, “The Mortal Remains,” reminds me of another famous poem, this one by Emily Dickinson, who describes riding in a carriage: “Because I could not stop for Death / He kindly stopped for me.” The carriage in this last Coen story is transporting a corpse on its roof while five people underneath discuss the meaning of life. Unfortunately, the one Christian on board reduces faith to “moral and spiritual hygiene”: a clichéd reduction that Hollywood enjoys perpetuating. I left the film praying that Christ might better animate our culture through the liberal arts, if even in amputated form. Perhaps, rather than generating more Darwinian capitalists, Christian colleges can nurture fiction makers able to make foundational truths come alive through acts of sub-creation.

Cinema: In the Beginning — by Crystal Downing

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Enjoy this post by Wade Center Co-Director, Crystal Downing, that first appeared on the Christian Scholar’s Review blog on February 22, 2021.


The following extract from my book Salvation from Cinema (Routledge 2016) alludes to what J.R.R. Tolkien called “sub-creation,” a construct that echoes Sayers’s definition of “the imago Dei”: we express being made in “God’s image” (Genesis 1:27) when we exercise our God-given creativity.


Related to kinesis, Greek for movement, the word cinema resonates with the beginnings described at the start of the Bible. In the first chapter of Genesis we read, “And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” According to Hebrew scholar Brian Smith, the verb translated as “moved” occurs only three times in the Hebrew Bible: Genesis 1:2, Deuteronomy 32:11, and Jeremiah 23:9. The word denotes “hovering”: not a “big sweeping movement,” but more like a “subtle, fluttering movement of a bird pulling up just as she is about to land on her nest.”1 The idea of “fluttering” has special resonance with the “flickering” of celluloid through a projector at cinema’s beginnings. Adding to that resonance is the next verse from Genesis: “And God said, ‘Let there be light: and there was light.’” The moment of creation combines movement, light, image, and the spoken word: basic components of narrative cinema. But that is not all: “God saw the light, that it was good” (v. 4a). God’s act of seeing, repeated seven times in the first chapter of Genesis, is essential to the work of creation. Similarly, the act of seeing is essential to the creative work of cinema, to the recognition of what is good.

The Psalms, as well, present evidence of creation in terms of what we see:

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
And the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
And night to night declares knowledge.
– Psalm 19: 1-2

The Psalmist, here, may have been thinking of the constellations mentioned in the book of Job (9:9; 38:31-32). Then as now, humans look to the heavens and see constellations of stars that make pictures: images that move across the screen of the night sky.

Significantly, when the Psalmist exults in the patterns of the skies, he notes they need “no speech” because beauty is its own “voice,” one that “goes out through all the earth”:

There is no speech, nor are there words;
Their voice is not heard;
Yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
And their words to the end of the world.
– Psalm 19:3-4

Something similar could be said about a well-crafted film: it goes out through all the earth, and its speech is much more than the mere “words” to which actors give “voice.” Some theorists have suggested, in fact, that the beauty of cinema was undermined by the development of sound. Thirty years after the first feature-length “talkie” premiered in 1927 (The Jazz Singer), Rudolf Arnheim argued that film reached its apex as “an artistic medium” in the late silent period. And Marshall McLuhan, who coined “the medium is the message,” similarly asserted the superiority of silent movies, believing that they elicit more mental activity from viewers.2 Like the beauty of heavenly constellations, the “voice” of silent film can go out through all the earth, enjoyed by people of all nations and tongues. Just as ancient viewers of the skies named constellations after religious stories from their own culture, so viewers of silent film were able to insert intertitles in their own language.

Artistic filmmakers, then, recognize the power of voiceless beauty, the visual medium presenting its own message. As Johannes Ehrat puts it, “film does not need to assert by means of a linguistic intermediary, because as a Sign it has its own power of argumentation.”3 In the beginning was seeing. This principle will be my guide as I write about the visual power of specific movies during the following months for the CSR blog.4

Footnotes
  1. Brian Smith, Chair of the Bible and Religious Studies Department at Messiah College, via email Feb. 14, 2014.
  2. Rudolf Arnheim in Film as Art (1957), qtd. in James Monaco, How to Read a Film: The Art, Technology, Language, History, and Theory of Film and Media, rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 318; Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965), 287.
  3. Johannes Ehrat, Cinema and Semiotic: Peirce and Film Aesthetics, Narration, and Representation (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), 436.
  4. This blog was adapted from my book Salvation from Cinema: The Medium Is the Message (Routledge, 2016), 17, 38-39.

Aiming for Abnormality — by Crystal Downing

Economy chart

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Enjoy this post by Wade Center Co-Director, Crystal Downing, that first appeared on the Christian Scholar’s Review blog on November 18, 2020.

During the 1992 election, James Carville coined an infamous aphorism: “It’s the economy, stupid!” I thought of it as I read Tim Meuhlhoff’s CSR blog for October 19, which beautifully argues against an economic model of discourse, by which one pays or exchanges “evil for evil or insult for insult.” Communication for Christians, especially in the realm of politics, should instead be “abnormal.” I would like to build upon Meuhlhoff’s provocative word abnormal to suggest that abnormality should not only inform Christian political vocabularies (as well as scholarship about film), but also guide all followers of Christ as they communicate their faith.

Emphasis on economic exchange is, without a doubt, normal. From ancient bartering practices to the current stock market, humans depend upon exchange. In fact, language itself seems to function according to economies of exchange. Similar to presenting a quarter at the market in order to get chewing gum in return, we present a word like star or stupid in order to elicit an image or concept in return. Exchange is so basic to being human, in fact, that it shapes the way we understand religion. As I explain in Salvation from Cinema, “Many religions inculcate, if even unwittingly, some form of exchangism: do these works, you receive salvation; perform this rite, you become redeemed; behave this way, you attain Paradise; believe this doctrine, you escape damnation; follow these principles, you achieve Nirvana; kill these infidels, you enjoy the pleasures of heaven; say these words, you become born again. It is no wonder, then, that theologians and religion scholars often assess salvation from cinema in terms of exchange: transcendence or valuable insight received in exchange for attentive viewing” (125).

Having earlier noted that the word exchangism was coined by philosopher Jacques Derrida, I proceed to explain that the famous founder of deconstruction contrasts “an economy of exchange” with the words of Jesus: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. . . . For if you love those who love you what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Mt 5:38-39, 46).1 Reading Christ’s words in a book by Derrida, I saw them in a new light. Jesus did not say, “Do not even pagans,”or “do not the heathen,” or “do not Pharisees do the same?” Instead, Jesus alludes to people literally engaged in an economy of exchange: tax collectors. Derrida argues that pure love, in contrast, operates according to what he calls “the Gift”: an abnormal event entirely undeserved and unexpected, with no taint of exchange.

Intrigued that a philosopher who once said “I rightly pass for an atheist” was aligning Jesus with the abnormal, I was forced to face exchangism in my own Christian rhetoric. Helping me in the process was Dorothy L. Sayers, who repeatedly proclaimed that the distinguishing feature of Christianity was salvation as a gift, not because of exchange, lest anyone should boast. As she puts it in a 1941 essay, “forgiveness has no necessary concern with payment or non-payment of reparations; its aim is the establishment of a free relationship.” And, as usual, she employs an abnormal metaphor to reinforce her point: “Nobody has to sit about being humiliated in the outer office while God dispatches important business before condescending to issue a stamped official discharge accompanied by an improving lecture.”2

Because she celebrated the abnormal Gift of God’s forgiveness, Sayers was distressed by exchangism in evangelical vocabularies, made most obvious through the quid pro quo of “if-then” arguments: if you accept Jesus into your heart and worship him with zeal, then you will receive comforting blessings in exchange. As she put it in 1941 when the London Blitz had driven many people to church, “one has a haunting feeling that God’s acquaintance is being cultivated because He might come in useful. But God is quite shrewd enough to see through that particular kind of commercial fraud.”3 Since it is normal to think of religion according to commercial exchange, the truth of salvation through Christ can be downright shocking.

Unfortunately, rather than proclaiming the abnormal Gift of God’s forgiveness, all too many Christians reduce belief itself to the quid pro quo of exchange, telling people if you believe in Jesus, then you are saved. The implication, of course, is that salvation depends upon what YOU do. As I grappled with this Derrida-driven conundrum, I came to realize, with the help of Sayers, that belief is nevertheless imperative. After all, the only way you can accept a gift is if you believe it has been offered to you. Otherwise, you don’t notice it, or else you think you’re being manipulated by the giver, who apparently wants something in exchange, which means it is no longer a true gift. Sayers therefore repeatedly emphasizes that it is Jesus Christ who saves us, not our belief. All we have to do is accept the gift. In fact, Sayers reputedly responded to the question “When were you saved?” with this abnormal answer: “When Christ rose from the dead!” It is no coincidence that C. S. Lewis read Sayers’s abnormal (and hence controversial) radio plays about Jesus every year until he died, proclaiming them to be one of the four most powerful influences on his spiritual life.

It is also no coincidence that my recently-released book on Sayers is called Subversive: Christ, Culture and the Shocking Dorothy L. Sayers. It’s about Sayers’s subversion of the normal through a determined fight against religious economies of exchange. It’s also about responding with love to the Giver of salvation, and how abnormal love should affect every aspect of our lives, including scholarship and politics: it’s NOT about economy, friend.

Footnotes

  1. Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, trans. David Wills (University of Chicago Press, 1995), 102, 106. The translator uses the KJV, which I have changed to the NRSV.
  2. Dorothy L. Sayers, “Forgiveness and the Enemy,” in The Gospel in Dorothy L. Sayers: Selections from Her Novels, Plays, Letters, and Essays, ed. Carole Vanderhoof (Plough, 2018), 39.
  3. Dorothy L. Sayers, “The Other Six Deadly Sins,” in Creed or Chaos? (Sophia Institute, 1974), 103.

Wounds that Never Fully Heal: An Easter Reflection on Frodo Baggins — by Laura Schmidt

Stories hold a special ability to deeply impact their readers. Those who enjoy reading imaginative fiction like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings by the Wade Center’s authors already know the truth of that statement. From the page to the screen, from the parables Jesus used for the spiritual benefit of his audiences to the trials of two small hobbits struggling up the slopes of Mount Doom, stories engage the heart in ways that other forms of expression cannot accomplish. We yearn for that kind of engagement and feel nourished once we find it, like taking a breath of fresh spring air or a drink of water after a long thirst.

J.R.R. Tolkien calls this nourishment “recovery” in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” explaining that stories can help us see life afresh and reawaken or illuminate spiritual truths:

“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[.]”

Spring landscape through a window

Image: Valeria Strogoteanu, https://unsplash.com/photos/LjfIslWWql8

“Recovery” is like a wake-up call to our souls after they have been lulled to sleep by the daily, familiar patterns that soon become mundane. G.K. Chesterton spoke against this pull towards apathy that can develop in our lives in the “Ethics of Elfland” chapter of Orthodoxy, where he uses the example of the sun rising each morning. That routine phenomenon, Chesterton says, should be seen not as a mere repetition in nature, but as God’s “theatrical encore.” Each sunrise is miraculous. Likewise the character Innocent Smith in Chesterton’s Manalive leaps out of his garden one morning to travel around the world so that he may appreciate his garden properly again when he returns home. Only after his long journey can he see the garden’s awe-inspiring beauty when his eyes behold it afresh.

Dorothy L. Sayers relates the theme of recovery to the truths of Christian doctrine in her essay “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged,” reminding us that it is we who have made religious dogma boring:

“So that is the outline of the official story—the tale of the time when God was the under-dog and got beaten, when He submitted to the conditions He had laid down and became a man like the men He had made, and the men He had made broke Him and killed Him. This is the dogma we find so dull—this terrifying drama of which God is the victim and hero.

If this is dull, then what, in Heaven’s name, is worthy to be called exciting? The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused Him of being a bore—on the contrary; they thought Him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround Him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified Him ‘meek and mild,’ and recommended Him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.”

The Truths professed within Christian doctrine, Sayers claims, deserve not only our attention but our excitement as well. If the welfare of our souls depends upon this “Greatest Drama” being True, then we cannot afford to let it remain dull but must find means of recovering it and letting it work on our sensibilities anew. But how is this to be done?

There are many methods of recovery available to us, but the one that the seven Wade authors specialize in is the written word. Masterful writing allows the truths that stories contain to steal “past those watchful dragons,” as Lewis calls our internal sentinels of doubt and cynicism, so they can give our heart and soul the chance to embrace recovery. We simply need to be on the lookout for recovery when it crosses our path, and notice which methods strike a chord with our spirit.

Cover to The Lion, the Witch, and the WardrobeSome may have apprehension about the idea of intermingling imaginative literature with faith. Such a concern was brought to C.S. Lewis by the mother of a little boy who was worried that he loved Aslan the lion from The Chronicles of Narnia more than Jesus. In Laurence Krieg’s own words as an adult, he remembers: “what worried me was that I found Lewis’s portrayal of Aslan much more appealing and worthy of worship than any church or Sunday School’s portrayal of God or Jesus.” His mother wrote to Lewis about this problem to ask his advice. Here was Lewis’s response in a letter dated May 6, 1955:

“Laurence can’t really love Aslan more than Jesus, even if he feels that’s what he is doing. For the things he loves Aslan for doing or saying are simply the things Jesus really did and said. So that when Laurence thinks he is loving Aslan, he is really loving Jesus: and perhaps loving Him more than he ever did before. Of course there is one thing Aslan has which Jesus has not – I mean, the body of a lion. … Now if Laurence is bothered because he finds the lion-body seems nicer to him than the man-body, I don’t think he need be bothered at all. God knows all about the way a little boy’s imagination works (He made it, after all) and knows that at a certain age the idea of talking and friendly animals is very attractive. So I don’t think He minds if Laurence likes the Lion-body. And anyway, Laurence will find that in a few years, as he grows older, that feeling (liking the lion-body better) will die away of itself, without his taking any trouble about it.”

The lines “loving Him more than he ever did before” and “God knows all about the way a little boy’s imagination works” serve as a wonderful summary for how God can use our imaginations, which He made, to reveal Truths to us and recapture our hearts through the vessel of story. We must remember that story does not work this way for everyone, and stories will impact people differently, but for many readers the re-awakening and recovery of spiritual truths actively occurs through God’s call to their imaginations.

For me, the story that captured my heart and imagination was Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I’ve met many readers over the years who can say the same for themselves. There are innumerable ways that the story has aided me in the work of recovery, but I wanted to share one example in this reflection as the celebration of Easter draws near.

Fellowship of the Ring coverThe suffering of Frodo Baggins has always touched me deeply, aided by Tolkien’s vivid descriptions of his long journey to destroy the Ring and the injuries he received along the way. That suffering carries timely resonance as we remember the wounds of the past year in so many lives worldwide. Frodo chose selflessly to take an object that few others would (or could) touch in an effort to rid Middle-earth of the evils of Sauron. He suffered hunger, thirst, the endless temptation and weight of the Ring, and exhausting travels. The first time I read The Lord of the Rings in high school, I was so imaginatively and emotionally invested in the story that I found it difficult to eat meals while reading about Frodo and Sam starving on the plains of Gorgoroth.

Frodo receives four serious wounds during his quest, in addition to his travel weariness and the temptation of the Ring:

  1. The stab wound in his left shoulder by the Nazgûl at Weathertop
  2. The spear wound in his right side from the orc in Moria
  3. The poisoned wound from Shelob on the back left side of his neck
  4. Gollum biting off the third finger on his right hand at Mount Doom

The Nazgûl knife wound and Shelob’s sting impact Frodo even after the Ring is destroyed as Tolkien tells us the effects are lingering and the wounds are not fully healed.

“At last the hobbits had their faces turned towards home. They were eager now to see the Shire again; but at first they rode only slowly, for Frodo had been ill at ease. When they came to the Ford of Bruinen, he had halted, and seemed loth to ride into the stream; and they noted that for a while his eyes appeared not to see them or things about him. All that day he was silent. It was the sixth of October.

‘Are you in pain, Frodo?’ said Gandalf quietly as he rode by Frodo’s side.

‘Well, yes I am,’ said Frodo. ‘It is my shoulder. The wound aches, and the memory of darkness is heavy on me. It was a year ago today.’

‘Alas! There are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured,’ said Gandalf.

‘I fear it may be so with mine,’ said Frodo. ‘There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?’

Gandalf did not answer.”

– “Homeward Bound,” The Return of the King

Door to Bag End, shadowy

Image: Matamata, New Zealand, Conner Bowe, https://unsplash.com/photos/riw_BZvlMcI

It becomes evident that Frodo’s wounds will not heal if he remains in Middle-earth, and sadly his sacrifices from the quest are largely unknown by the inhabitants of the Shire, with the exceptions of Sam, Merry, and Pippin. Frodo is given the opportunity to sail west, the “spiritual epicenter” of Tolkien’s legendarium, where his wounds can be healed. The end of the story brings the poignant bittersweetness of Frodo’s departure, despite all he did to preserve the Shire and Middle-earth.

“I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me.”

– “The Grey Havens,” The Return of the King

Despite the sadness, it is comforting to know that Frodo will have his cares removed, dark memories forgotten, and his physical wounds healed. He will be refreshed and renewed, and as a result, can ultimately one day die in peace.

Frodo’s story aids me as a spiritual stepping-stone when I contemplate Christ’s wounds and suffering. We see human vulnerability in Jesus’s prayer in Gethsemane: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) He was not looking forward to the tortures ahead, but Jesus still accepted that burden. Not only did He endure the physical pain of the cross, but He also bore the sins and evils of the whole world (and of past, present, and future generations) all at once. The weight of that burden is greater than the One Ring by far. He confronted all the forces of evil, and overthrew them. And unlike Frodo’s inability to destroy the Ring without Gollum’s intervention, Christ brought about the ultimate defeat of evil that no one else could achieve, and He did this for all of us. In fact, that is one reason why Tolkien chose not to have Frodo destroy the Ring with his own strength; it serves as a reminder that only the person of Christ, as both fully God and fully human, can accomplish such a task.*

After the resurrection, Jesus appears to the disciples and they are able to touch the wounds on His hands, feet, and side. This is a good indication that Jesus will bear those same wounds for eternity. We may likewise guess that the moments of suffering on the cross will also be remembered by Jesus perfectly for eternity. While those hurts and memories do not have power over Him, they are real, and will remain engraved on His body and memory. He does not get to “sail West” and have those hurts healed as Frodo did. But those eternal wounds are what give us the hope and assurance that our own wounds will be fully healed one day. They are also a beautiful testament to the extent of God’s love for us.

“But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.”
– Isaiah 53:5

“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
– Revelation 21:4

This practice is not an exercise in allegory or a one-to-one comparison between Frodo and Christ. It acknowledges the emotive and revelatory qualities inspired by Tolkien’s story and their resonance with the truths of my Christian faith, making the True Story more vibrant in my own life. I cannot fully fathom the amount of love that Christ has lavished on each of us through His sacrifice, but my care for Frodo gets me several steps closer, causing me to worship with a more fervent appreciation and gratitude. Like Laurence, I find myself loving Jesus more than I ever did before. That renewed spirit of worship and understanding is what “recovery” is all about.

This note by C.S. Lewis from the chapter “Time and Beyond Time” in Mere Christianity seems an appropriate word to end on: “This idea has helped me a good deal. If it does not help you, leave it alone.” Recovery takes many forms, and God’s ideas on how to reach us in ways we will understand are unlimited. The vital reminder is simply to be on the lookout for where the opportunities of recovery turn up in your own life, and embrace them. They are beacons of hope on your horizon, sent by God for your benefit. Are you watching?

lighthouse on a rocky coast

Image: Portland Head Lighthouse, Captain Strout Circle, Cape Elizabeth, Maine
by photographer Dan Mall, https://unsplash.com/photos/1OVw9oKHH4A

*It is interesting to note that the date of the Ring’s destruction, March 25, is the traditional date of Christ’s Crucifixion, as well as date of the Annunciation. It is celebrated as “Tolkien Reading Day” by Tolkien enthusiasts around the world.


Laura Schmidt has served as Archivist at the Wade Center since 2005. She is also the Staff Adviser for the Wheaton College Tolkien Society and Facilitator of WhInklings, a Wheaton College group for writers.

Naughty Gnosticism and Film Scholarship — by Crystal Downing

Image Source: Boudewijn Huysmans, https://unsplash.com/photos/HYRVOsFvHaM

Enjoy this post by Wade Center Co-Director, Crystal Downing, that first appeared on the Christian Scholar’s Review blog on October 26, 2020.

I ended my last post suggesting “the relevance of cinema to Christian orthodoxy.” What exactly does this mean? On one level the answer is easy: award-winning films have portrayed dedication to Christ with respect, such as The Mission (1986, Roland Joffé) and the recently streamed A Hidden Life (2019, Terrence Malick), about a martyred Austrian, beatified in 2007, whose prayer-filled faith enabled him to endure intense torture while defying Nazi hegemony. (Interestingly, both films show love of Christ conflicting with the political interests of church leaders.)

In addition to celebrating faith infused films such as these, Christian scholars have extracted spiritual insights from popular Hollywood movies in which Christianity has no apparent role. I have been enlightened and nourished by their profound theological perspectives. However, of the fifty-plus essays and books I have read on faith and film, nineteen on Jesus-films alone, almost every single one has ignored changing theories about film aesthetics and language about the cinematic devices shaping film form. This strikes me as comparable to someone writing a book on the atonement without ever acknowledging the difference between Ransom, Satisfaction, or Penal Substitution theories, and hence failing to grapple with the varying approaches taken by Origen, Anselm, and Calvin. It can be done, of course, but much is lost about historical understandings of Christ as the medium of salvation. I therefore felt led to write Salvation from Cinema in order to fill a gap in Christian film scholarship.

Not coincidentally, I subtitled the book with Marshall McLuhan’s famous aphorism The Medium Is the Message. Indeed, that phrase applies to the history of Christianity as much as to the history of film. As I argue in the book, when it comes to writing about cinema, many endorsers of the Incarnation seem more Gnostic than Christian. Emphasizing hidden knowledge that can be extracted from a movie, they imply that the medium itself is merely an entertaining illusion that conveys truth, much as Christian Docetists in the third century regarded Jesus as an illusionary conveyor of God’s presence rather than as a flesh and blood medium. As I did research for the book, however, I discovered that authors from other religious traditions were Gnostic in their analyses of cinema as well. At least they had better excuses, for they were embedded in belief systems that either celebrated escape from the body or else dismissed doctrine about the Incarnation, assuming that no Transcendent God would deign to take on flesh.

Because I explored these multiple religious approaches, my publisher encouraged me to pivot from writing about “Christianity and film” to the more general topic of “religion and film,” which took a lot more work but ended up being a blessing in disguise. For now, Salvation from Cinema is read in courses on religion and cinema at secular universities. Here, then, is a passage celebrating Christian orthodoxy that non-Christians are required to read:

Failure to engage with and assess the visual medium is especially ironic for Christian scholars. Doctrine hammered out in the first five centuries of the church—often in defiance of Gnosticism—emphasizes that salvation is mediated not through stories and insights spoken by Jesus, but through his material body hung upon the cross, a medium seen after the resurrection. During the third ecumenical council, held at Ephesus in 431 CE, church leaders therefore borrowed a Greek philosophical term, hypostasis, meaning underlying substance, to argue that Christ’s human nature cannot be separated from his divine nature: it is a hypostatic union. Inspired by this ancient doctrine of Christianity, confirmed at Chalcedon in 451 CE, Salvation from Cinema argues for a hypostatic union of medium and message in film scholarship: an emphasis relevant not simply to Christian scholarship but also for the broader discourse of religion and film.” (Salvation from Cinema, 26)

In order to accommodate discussions about movies with Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu perspectives, the publisher asked me to remove material about specific Christian doctrines, one anonymous referee saying, “I don’t have time to teach my students about the Trinity.” Once again, this was a disguised blessing, providing significant material for another book: one that can explore in depth the important relationship between orthodoxy and cinema studies. As suggested in my last CSR post, Dorothy L. Sayers guides this project, not only due to her interest in cinema but also because her book about creativity and the Trinity, The Mind of the Maker (1941), anticipates secular theories about film aesthetics. An emphatic endorser of dogma established at the first four Ecumenical Councils, Sayers despaired over Christians who reduce the Incarnation to naught. Critiquing the naught-y who “practice a kind of artistic Gnosticism” by focusing on “Knowledge with a capital K,” she suggested such practices imply “that it is beneath the dignity of the son to dwell in a limited material body, and postulate for him a body which is a pure psychical manifestation, retaining all the supernatural qualities of the divinity.”

Sayers’s critique, of course, applies to more than the visual arts. The Incarnation should make a difference to the way Christians teach and practice scholarship in all the liberal and applied arts. As Jenell Paris beautifully put it in a recent CSR post, Christian scholarship in the classroom “is about neither the urgency nor the beauty of delivering content. It’s about the glory and honor of our students’ lives, and the lives of those they will one day serve, each one created just a little lower than the angels” (Psalm 8). Quality teaching, like quality cinema, is considerably more than a content delivery system.

SEVEN SURPRISES IN HOLLY ORDWAY’S NEW BOOK, Tolkien’s Modern Reading: Middle-earth Beyond the Middle Ages — by David Downing

Dr. Holly Ordway is a dragon-slayer. Among scholars, one of the fabled beasts most dangerous to challenge is the one called Conventional Wisdom. And the conventional wisdom about Tolkien is that he didn’t read much literature beyond the Middle Ages, the generation of Chaucer and the Gawain poet. With her thorough research and careful analysis, Ordway explodes this myth and creates a much more expansive and accurate picture of Tolkien’s reading habits and how they may have influenced his creative works.

  1. The first surprise in this book is the title itself. The phrase “Tolkien’s modern reading” will sound like an oxymoron to many readers of Tolkien, as it is generally thought that he took little interest in fiction or poetry composed after the 15th century. But Ordway lists dozens of authors after 1850 who Tolkien read and sometimes admired greatly. In Tolkien studies, one expects to hear about the influence of Beowulf, the Eddas, or the Kalevala. But who expects to learn that Tolkien also knew Mark Twain, T. S. Eliot, and Ray Bradbury?
  2. The conventional wisdom is that Lewis was a prodigious letter-writer, while Tolkien seemed to have other things to do. Lewis’s published letters fill three thick volumes with 3,500 total pages, while Tolkien has exactly 354 published letters in one volume. But actually Tolkien’s editor, Humphrey Carpenter, culled through “thousands and thousands of letters,” and even then he often abridged the letters that he selected, sometimes making Tolkien sound abrupt or brusque in his letters to correspondents.
  3. Tolkien got tired about being asked if his Lord of the Rings epic was beholden to the Wagnerian cycle of operas about the Ring of the Nibelungs. Tolkien stated that the only similarity between the two rings was that they were both round. But Tolkien also knew the stories of Andrew Lang, including one in The Green Fairy Book called “The Enchanted Ring,” about a ring that could make one invisible, but which seemed to bring ill fortune more than good fortune to its bearers.
  4. It is commonly assumed that Tolkien ignored most English literature after Chaucer and that he absolutely abhorred twentieth-century fiction or poetry, especially the Modernists. Yet Tolkien read and took notes on sections of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, often considered the pinnacle of High Modernism, and he even transliterated some of the character names into Elvish. Equally surprising is the fact that Tolkien nominated the English realistic novelist E. M. Forster for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Tolkien also studied T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, and Tolkien’s letters express his genuine grief when he learned of T. S. Eliot’s death.
  5. Tolkien’s Treebeard and the other Ents seem to have been influenced by two other Wade authors, George MacDonald and C. S. Lewis. Tolkien said that though he didn’t care much for MacDonald’s Phantastes, he did recall the living trees, good and evil, such as the gentle Beech and the lovely but dangerous Alder-Maid. In his notes for Lord of the Rings, Tolkien asked himself if the Ents were hnau, rational souls, a term that Tolkien found in Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet. Dr. Ordway points out a number of surprising but specific similarities between Augray the Sorn in Lewis’s first interplanetary story and Treebeard in Lord of the Rings.
  6. Tolkien was well versed in popular adventure stories, including Rider Haggard’s She, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan books, and Frank Herbert’s Dune. Tolkien revealed that his scenes involving wargs were influenced by S. R. Crockett’s The Black Douglas (1899), the chapter in which the heroes are surrounded by fiendish wolves. Rather than simply pointing to possible sources and influences, Ordway persuasively shows how Tolkien was able to improve on his sources, creating even more vivid scenes portrayed in more evocative prose. (The book also contains marvelous illustrations, letting readers see for themselves the kinds of visual images that Tolkien had stored in his imagination.)
  7. Sometimes a survey of Tolkien’s reading may also uncover some possible creative sources for his good friend C. S. Lewis. Just as Lewis was beginning to write the Narnia Chronicles, he wrote to his friend Chad Walsh that he wanted to write a series of children’s stories “in the tradition of Edith Nesbit.” In one of Nesbit’s stories that Lewis knew, The Story of the Amulet, some English children accidentally transport the Queen of Babylon back to London, a plot device that can’t help but make one think of The Magician’s Nephew.

I will stop this list at Seven, partly to allow readers to discover more surprises for themselves and partly to preserve the alliteration in my title. Suffice to say, Dr. Ordway’s new book is a major contribution to Tolkien studies–meticulously researched, carefully organized, and written in clear, pleasing prose. Sometimes readers of Tolkien scholarship may begin to feel “there is nothing new under the sun.” But Holly’s book is indeed new, as well as refreshing, and insightful. She may justly raise her shimmering sword over that scaly serpent known as Scholarly Consensus.


The Marion E. Wade Center will be hosting a virtual book launch with author Holly Ordway on Thursday, February 25, at 7:00 pm CST to discuss her new book, Tolkien’s Modern Reading. We welcome you to register in advance for this event on Zoom.

January 6, 2021 and the Fixation of Belief — by Crystal Downing

Image Source: Kyle Mills, https://unsplash.com/photos/2pxjS57_axE

Enjoy this post by Wade Center Co-Director, Crystal Downing, that first appeared on the Christian Scholar’s Review blog on January 26, 2021.

I imagine that most of us are looking through the binocular lenses of scholarly specialization and Christian faith as we seek to understand the January 6 attack on the Capitol: a day of infamy that will be a defining moment in our students’ lives, much as 9-11, the Challenger explosion, and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. still serve for earlier generations.

One of my specialties, the semiotic theory that informs film studies, seems especially appropriate in these distressing times. Often called “the science of signs,” semiotics explores how context affects the very way we see signs, as when a society actually sees a tan as ugly in one century and beautiful several centuries later. One of the fathers of semiotics, scientist and philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839 – 1914), therefore discusses how the communities with which we identify shape our habits of perception, as when a Protestant might actually see a statue of the Virgin Mary as idolatrous whereas a Roman Catholic would see it as a pointer to God’s saving grace. It’s not about interpretive subjectivity; it’s about the way we see.

Peirce therefore suggests that we see signs in one of three ways: as an index (pointing to what caused it); an icon (representing what the object is or does); or as a culturally-constructed symbol. Consider, for example, current facemasks: most people see them as indexes of a virulent disease, many also viewing them as icons of concern for others’ health. Some, however, see them merely as symbols of government oppression. Though Peirce is much more complex than this example, actually coming up with nearly 60,000 classes of sign, his basic triad of Index, Icon, and Symbol inspired film theorists to discuss the plural ways that signs function on the movie screen.

More relevant to our present moment is Peirce’s suggestion that habits of perception change when “collateral experience” forces people to look with different eyes.1 Indeed, many of us view the U.S. Capitol with different eyes after the collateral experience of January 6. A building once seen as an icon of governmental stability now symbolizes, for many, a polarized America. This does not mean that Peirce is a relativist, denying the existence of universals. Instead, he asserts that human reason is fallible in its understanding of “the real,” which does indeed exist apart from our thoughts about it.2 To better understand “the real,” then, humanity needs what medieval scholastics called “science”: a commitment to expanding our understanding of truth. What we need, in other words, is Christian scholarship.

In his essay “Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs,” Peirce established a “scientific” mind as having “an intelligence capable of learning by experience.”3 As Robert Corrington explains, “Both the scientist and the theologian rely on a common body of inferential strategies in coming to conclusions about the ultimate explanations of things.”4 In other words, both the scientist and the theologian hold onto the fundamental beliefs of their community while also opening themselves to new ways of understanding reality, creatively suggesting new signs for old truths: signs that might change the very way the community perceives reality. A good example of Peirce’s “scientific” mind appears in my December CSR blog, where I recount how Sayers employed new signs for the Gospel message in BBC radio plays about Jesus, which C. S. Lewis considered one of the most important influences on his spiritual life. Nevertheless, Christians in 1940s England excoriated Dorothy L. Sayers for not using the traditional signs of King James English in her scripts. Christians were fixated on traditional signs more than on the truths to which they pointed.

In an 1877 essay called “The Fixation of Belief,” Peirce explores the way people fixate on political and religious signs, as when antebellum Christians denounced abolition as the false teaching of intellectual “elites” who ignored the Bible’s endorsement of slavery.5 Of course, intellectual “elites” in our own day echo similar “fixation of belief” anytime they refuse to allow political conservatives to take the podium on a university campus. Umberto Eco, influenced by Peirce, calls such fixation the “Fundamentalist fallacy,” which he sees “instantiated when one assumes that his/her own philosophy is the only valid philosophy . . . (and demands a universal agreement on such a statement).”6

Though concerned about fixation of belief, whether coming from the right or the left, Peirce did not repudiate belief itself. Instead, he argues that

“Faith is not peculiar to or more needed in one province of thought than in another. For every premiss [sic] we require faith  . . .  This is overlooked by Kant and others who draw a distinction between knowledge and faith. Wherever there is knowledge there is Faith. Wherever there is Faith (properly speaking) there is knowledge.”7

Not coincidentally, Dorothy L. Sayers made the same point to a non-Christian who protested her BBC radio plays about Jesus. Not much different from the fixated Christians who sent her hate mail, the skeptic wrote a nasty letter impugning Sayers’s intelligence because her plays legitimized the miracles of Jesus. Christians and skeptics were merely opposite sides of the same fundamentalist coin. In response, Sayers wrote,

“One act of faith must, indeed, be made before one can accept Christianity: one must be prepared to believe that the universe is rational, and that (consequently) human reason is valid so far as it goes. But that is an act of faith which we have to make in order to think about anything at all. . . . Admittedly, we cannot prove that the universe is rational; for the only instrument by which we can prove anything is reason, and we have to assume the rationality of things before we can trust or use our reason. . .; without that act of faith we could not live or act.”8

Sayers’s use of new signs in her radio plays, then, exposed “fixation of belief” in both Christians and anti-Christians, a fixation that Sayers identifies with Judas in her radio plays. Fixated on proper signs of behavior for a Messiah, her Judas obsesses over the Triumphal Entry, considering it evidence of improper political leadership. Judas, in other words, trusts his own certitude more than he trusts Jesus. Not coincidentally, the sign certitude appears nowhere in English translations of the Bible, whereas forms of the word faith and faithful appear over 350 times. We are called to faith, not certitude.

This leads us to an overwhelming question: if “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17), how can we assess the proper works of faith, both religiously and politically? Peirce answered such a question with the words of Jesus: “By their fruits ye shall know them.”9 The context for Christ’s statement bears repeating: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. . . . every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit” (Mt 7:15-17, NIV). These days, however, it seems that people cannot even agree on good versus bad fruit, which leads us back to the need for Christian scholarship. By studying works of the past, not only works of literature and philosophy but also the workings of science and technology, Christian scholars can assess strengths and weaknesses in habits of perception, modeling “intelligence capable of learning by experience.”

Capable of learning by experience, we might contrast the “fruits” of January 6 with another march in Washington D.C.: the one led by Martin Luther King, Jr., in August of 1963. King avoided the “fixation of belief” in his famous “I have a dream” speech by praising the strengths of America even as he exposed its weaknesses. Rather than encouraging acts of violence he manifested fruits of the spirit. Resisting Judas-like certitude, he modeled hope for change, as though in acknowledgement of that important verse to the Hebrews: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Heb 11:1).

In contrast to the fixation of belief, Peirce suggests we consider “fixing belief,” in both senses of the phrase.10 For me, this means affixing my faith on orthodox doctrine, which was fixed into place at the first four Ecumenical Councils (325 – 451 CE), while at the same time “fixing” my beliefs—seeking to fix them—by assessing how contemporary signs of Christian truth have been warped by traditional cultural practices, as when Christians denounced abolition as “un-Biblical” and women’s rights as “un-Christian.”11 January 6, then, might serve as a reminder to Christian scholars that we are called to the fixing of belief.

Footnotes

  1. For a more substantive explanation of Peirce’s paradigms and their relevance to Christianity, see Crystal Downing, Changing Signs of Truth: A Christian Introduction to the Semiotics of Communication (IVP Academic, 2006), chapters 7 – 8. For “collateral experience,” see pp. 202 – 203.
  2. The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, vol. 6, ed. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss (Harvard University Press, 1931-58), 495.
  3. Peirce, “Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs,” in Philosophical Writings, ed. Justus Buchler (Dover, 1955), 98.
  4. Robert Corrington, An Introduction to C. S. Peirce: Philosopher, Semiotician, and Ecstatic Naturalist (Rowman and Littlefield, 1993), 47.
  5. Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 49.
  6. Umberto Eco, “Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language,” in Reading Eco: An Anthology, ed. Rocco Capozzi (Indiana University Press, 1997), 7.
  7. C. S. Peirce, “A Treatise on Metaphysics,” in Peirce on Signs: Writings on Semiotic by Charles Sanders Peirce, ed. James. Hoopes (University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 19.
  8. Sayers to L. T. Duff, May 10, 1943, The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers, Vol 2, ed. Barbara Reynolds (Dorothy L. Sayers Society, 1997), 401.
  9. Matthew 7:20, KJV, in Peirce, “Pragmatism in Retrospect: A Last Formulation,” Philosophical Writings, 271.
  10. Peirce, “The Fixation of Belief,” in Philosophical Writings, 12, 13.
  11. “Unchristian” is the word Queen Victoria used to describe “women’s rights” in 1870.