When Time Stands Still?

A Prayer for the First (and only) Sunday of Christmas, 2012
Composed for St. Paul’s and St. George’s Church

Lord Jesus Christ, Incarnate Word, baby of Bethlehem, we come to you today with hearts full of joy and thankfulness for the riches you have showered upon us this Christmas season: for family, friends, food, and fellowship, for the exchange of gifts which knits us closer to our loved ones, for the more glorious exchange we have experienced in worship in recent days and weeks, as we bring our praises and our hearts before you and you give us your own presence in return.  We thank you for this opportunity to rest our bodies and refresh our hearts as we prepare to take on the challenges of a new year.  

And yet, Lord, we come to you also with hearts aching inwardly, sometimes weary of the world and burdened by its multitude of griefs, and weighed down by a hundred private cares of our own.  We like to imagine Christmas as a day when ordinary business stops,  when time stands still, when all the world holds its breath in memory of that day two thousand years ago when history turned the corner; we yearn to experience Christmas as a foretaste of eternity, transcending time in the midst of time.  And yet how insistently time presses itself upon us, how impossible it proves to shut out the world, in all its mundanity and its madness!  Stores open their doors early on Boxing Day for shoppers craving ever more stuff; investors rush to resume their trading; politicians return to Washington to continue their interminable squabbling and posturing while America’s fiscal cliff looms before them.  Duty keeps forecasters and emergency workers at their posts on Christmas Day as storms, fueled by a changing climate, batter Britain with floods and sweep through the American South with blizzards and tornadoes.  For hundreds of thousands of families in the Philippines, Christmas just means another can of cold food, shivering in a makeshift shelter, wondering how to pick up the pieces of lives shattered by a typhoon. For grieving mothers in Newtown, Connecticut, sitting bewildered by the graves of their children, Christmas brings only a redoubling of the pain, while elsewhere in the US, new shootings are reported on Christmas Eve.  Meanwhile, for grieving mothers in Syria or Afghanistan, Christmas is just one more day of bombings and bloodshed, and for a billion worldwide struggling in the deepest poverty, neither rest nor a feast is a luxury that can be contemplated.  Truly, Lord, we walk by faith and not by sight, confessing that the world has been reborn in the birth of Christ, when all around us it seems still to be groaning.  


And yet it is no different than the first Christmas, when the peaceful dawn in Bethlehem was so soon shattered by the tramp of boots, the ring of iron, the screams of children, when throughout Palestine, the days, weeks, and years after Christ’s birth brought more business as usual—soldiers abusing, tax collectors extorting, leaders plotting, peasants starving, criminals dying on crosses outside the city gate.  

Jesus, Glory of Israel, make yourself known to your church this Christmas and in the new year before us.  You have promised to call for yourself a new people, heirs of the promises of Israel, a holy nation, a royal priesthood, and yet when we look around us at the church all we see is a bunch of squabbling siblings, unable even to understand one another, much less agree, on issues such as women’s ordination or homosexuality.  You are the light of the world—shed the light of truth upon us in the midst of our confusion.  Feed the sheep who hunger for your word, in this church and throughout the churches of this land.  Strengthen the shepherds who are to lead and guide, especially Justin Welby, as he assumes the see of Canterbury; may your word be a light unto his path in a time of darkness and uncertainty.  

Christ, Desire of the Nations, make your rule felt among the rulers of the earth this Christmas and in the new year before us.  We repent of the foolish leaders we often elect, that their hearts are far from you and their lips do not honor your name.  We thank you for the witness of Queen Elizabeth, who reminded the nation and the commonwealth on Christmas Day of your blessed birth, and called upon us to give our hearts to you.  May many of those in power heed that call, especially now in the UK, as leaders forge ahead with plans for gay marriage, ignoring the voices of your churches, and as, throughout the developed world, politicians try to balance budgets by shielding the wealthy and powerful and abandoning the poor and weak.  In these days of violence, Prince of Peace, teach us to beat our guns into ploughshares, and our missiles into pruning hooks.  We are not naive; we know that peace is not easy in a world of sin, but, emboldened by faith in your promises, give us the imaginations needed to make peace a reality. 

Emmanuel, God-with-us, rule in all our hearts today.  Fill the doubting with faith, the fearful with hope, the lonely with love.  Lord, for each member of this congregation today, we pray that you would so fill us with the awareness of your presence, the comfort of your grace, the fire of your love, that we would be filled to overflowing, no longer obsessed with receiving the attention and affection we need, but eager to give it to others who need it.  On Christmas, we seek in vain in the world around us for that foretaste of eternity, that sign that the fullness of time has come, but by your grace, we can find it within our hearts, in moments of worship and fellowship with one another, when fears are stilled, when strivings cease.  Help us, as we face this new year, to draw strength from that peace in our hearts, and to carry it out into the world, that all eyes might see your salvation.


Almighty God, who hast poured upon us the new light of thine incarnate Word: Grant that the same light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in  the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Are You Alone Wise? Reading Notes on Susan Schreiner

There are two kinds of historians in the world—or let us rather say, two ideal types, since most historians blend some of each.  There is the historian as avid collector, enthusiastically rummaging around in the attic of the history of ideas, carting down boxes full of interesting primary source material (as well as a few boxes of secondary source material), dumping them out on the living room floor, sorting them into little piles, and then setting out some of the choicest items on display tables for other historians to come ooh and ahh at.  Then there is the historian as story-teller or debater, mining through the data, finding nuggets that will prove a point or fill a blank in a narrative, carefully organizing them, and then telling you his story, or making his argument, pulling them out and holding them up for demonstration at the appropriate point in his story or argument.  Susan Schreiner’s acclaimed new book Are You Alone Wise? The Search for Certainty in the Early Modern Era is clearly an example of the first type.  

In it she offers five hundred pages worth of heavily-laden display tables full of primary source material, with relatively little attempt at synthesis or commentary.  The sheer number of footnotes (averaging over 200 per chapter) and volume of quotation (easily over half the total word count) are testament to this, and it can get a bit tiresome.  Since her strategy in each chapter is usually to pick three or four figures that illustrate the particular phenomenon under discussion, and then to camp out in a couple of their primary texts, she sometimes seems to fall into the trap of simply patiently regurgitating the argument of those texts, including bits that really don’t seem particularly relevant to the question at hand.  Or, if they are relevant, the relevance is not always shown.  

But the lack of a firm interpretive hand is most keenly felt not within the argument of each chapter, as in the interstices between them.  What we clearly have before us in the six main chapters of this book (the first being largely introductory) are six distinct display tables, addressing, respectively: (1) existential/experiential certainty in the Protestant Reformers, (2) Epistemological/interpretative certainty in the Protestant Reformers, (3) Epistemological/interpretative certainty among Counter-Reformation Catholics, (4) existential/experiential certainty in the Protestant Reformers, (5) The struggle to discern divine from demonic certainty, (6) Late 16th-century comings-to-terms with the problem of uncertainty.   Quite clearly, these could all be strung together into a very fascinating narrative.  But they remain each rather separate; six separate inquiries fused together into one book.  In particular, there is no attempt to put into conversation with one another the Protestant and Catholic treatments of epistemological/interpretive certainty; we meet the arguments of counter-Reformation writers, but never hear how various Protestant writers might have attempted to meet these objections.  Nor is there much attempt to analyze or evaluate the differences between Protestant and Catholic searches for existential/experiential certainty.  We wait eagerly for a conclusion in which the preceding threads will be synthesized or evaluated, but when it comes, it is only 3 pages long.  Alas.  


Rather than attempting to summarize her elaborate investigations, then, I’ll just offer, in a musing rather than conclusive way, a couple of the sort of reflections I’d have loved to see her offer.   

First, long-time readers may recall my post here, a year and a half or so back, “Why I Won’t Convert,” summarizing why I remained, and intended to remain, quite Protestant, and found the seductions of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy decidedly un-seductive.  A big part of my argument there was to oppose as an idolatrous illusion the quest for complete epistemological certainty.  For many today, the appeal of Catholicism or Orthodoxy is that they offer, it seems, an objective, verifiable, unchanging, and clear testimony as to what the truth is; they provide, in short, a sure defensive bulwark and a sharp offensive weapon against the tide of liberalism and postmodernism which seeks to throw everything into doubt.  Protestantism, on the other hand, looks hopelessly stuck in the subjectivism of individual interpretation, incapable of providing a clear or unified answer to the skeptical attacks of postmodernity.  To all this, I said, 

There is, in short, an objective truth to the Christian faith. but it is an object so great, so large, so multi-faceted that each of us can only see certain parts of it at any given time, so we must always be ready to compare what we have grasped of it with what others have grasped, seeking to gradually put together a mosaic that will capture more and more of the whole picture. This is not postmodernism, because it presupposes that we all are actually looking at the same object, and seeing something real there outside ourselves. But it is not naive objectivism, which assumes that the object simply is what we have perceived–no more, no less.

You may be right in being concerned that this seems to give no simple, straightforward basis of combating “liberalism.” I believe that the search for some kind of magic weapon that will level all forms of liberalism with one well-placed blow, leaving only orthodox forms of the faith standing, is a fool’s errand. I believe that the kind of patient and humble submission to Scripture that I have described does give us the ability to identify and defeat inauthentic forms of the faith, false testimonies to Christ, but it will always have to be a patient and careful struggle. The magic weapons of the Magisterium or the Seven Ecumenical Councils are illusory–they are themselves embedded in the ambiguities and vicissitudes of history from which they claim to rescue us. The latter may provide a reliable guide to the issues that confronted the Church in that time, but new issues are always confronting the Church. The former may promise an authoritative answer to all of these new issues, but at the cost of its own consistency over the centuries, and without escaping the problem of interpretation–think of how many contradictory forms of Catholicism right now claim to be in submission to Vatican II.

The alternative is a commitment to semper reformanda.  This need not mean, as critics will say, opting for a self-indulgent “continual smorgasbord” and “convenient selectivity.” Rather, it’s about a constant wrestling with the voice of Scripture, and the voice of its interpreters through all the ages of the Church, a willingness to never rest satisfied that we have all the answers, and instead to always allow ourselves to be interrogated by the Word. In this, we must always be open to the possibility that our understanding will grow and lead us to new theological insights, but in confidence that God does not change, and he has been faithful in leading his Church into truth in the past. Therefore, we may rest confidently upon the historic creeds of the Church, determined that even as our growing comprehension of the truth of the Gospel may shed new light on these foundations, it must never lead us to contradict them.”

In short, then, I argued that the quest for certainty is a misguided one, and one that Protestants should not attempt.  Ironically, according to Schreiner, the very opposite seems to have been the perception in the Reformation.  It was the Catholics who denied that the troubled soul could ever find certainty in this life, could know that it would inherit the kingdom, whereas Luther proclaimed, as the glory of the Gospel, that faith meant knowing, with absolute certainty, that one had God’s favor and would attain eternal salvation.  Assurance of salvation, then, was not merely ancillary to faith, but was for the early Reformers part and parcel of justifying faith, since faith that doubted, that wondered whether it was worthy, was a faith still preoccupied with itself and its own works, rather than anchored on Christ.  Of course, later on, Protestants realized that this route led to something of a dead-end; the insistence that true faith have absolute assurance proved to be an extra burden, rather than a salve, to Christian consciences, who, as soon as they found themselves doubting, could conclude that this was proof they were not saved at all.  Unfortunately, Schreiner does not tell this tale of how Protestants came to reconsider the doctrine of assurance, and to find ways of describing justifying faith without laying such a burden on subjective certainty.

In any case, though, this is clearly a somewhat different matter from what I was referring to above.  This “existential” certainty, a certainty of salvation, seems in principle distinct from the “epistemological” certainty, a certain knowledge of true doctrine.  Indeed, it would seem, perhaps, that the former certainty ought to discourage us from seeking too much the latter.  After all, if “faith” is understood not primarily in cognitive terms, but as a clinging to Christ, who alone is sure, then why should we seek or expect to be able to anchor our certainty anywhere else—on precise doctrinal formulations, particularly on secondary matters?  However, as a matter of fact, as Schreiner shows, for the early Reformers, certainty of one’s own salvation went hand-in-hand with certainty that one possessed absolute doctrinal truth, gained directly from Scripture.  It was on this score that Catholic apologists sought to beat Protestants at their own game.  Although they were uninterested in attempting to provide the conscience with certainty of salvation, the Catholic writers did claim to be able to provide certainty of doctrinal truth, of which the collective testimony and authority of the Church was a much surer guide than the individual conscience.  It is this section of Schreiner’s book that sounds most familiar to our ears, for the arguments of Catholic apologists today on this score have changed little from those five hundred years ago.  In the meantime, however, the counter-apologetic strategy of Protestants has changed considerably, from insisting that Scripture alone could supply the desired certainty, to admitting that no human interpreter, whether the individual reader of Scripture or the magisterium, could provide the certainty we crave; accordingly, we must beware either claiming it for ourselves, or seeking it idolatrously in human authorities.

The question I have, then, is how Protestants have been able to so considerably revise their stance, and attenuate their quest for certainty, while remaining true to their original teachings, teachings which according to Schreiner rested so much weight on the need for, and possibility of, certainty.  Have they been able to?  As a good Protestant, I certainly hope (and think) the answer is yes, but it does need further thought and attention.


As a good starting point, I suggest (surprise surprise) that we might look at the thought of Richard Hooker.  In fact, it is remarkable to me that Schreiner does not do so.  He is clearly thoroughly absorbed in the issues surrounding the quest for certainty, addressing a number of the themes that Schreiner describes in her book.  In particular, he would have fit very nicely in the final chapter (alongside his contemporary Shakespeare) since, more than any of the figures identified in that chapter, he not only diagnoses the failures of the quest for certainty, but seeks to provide a way forward, one based not on a complete capitulation to uncertainty, but by a turn to probability.  

This, in fact, is a central pillar of his response to the Puritans, or the “precisianists,” as I have called them in a recent post.  These, unable to deal with the uncertainty that the vague and variable category of “adiaphora” left them with, insisted that Scripture must provide strict and precise legal guidance for the moral and political questions with which the Christian was daily faced.  Because certainty was so highly prized, Cartwright could declare, “it is the virtue of a good law to leave as little as possible within the discretion of the judge.”  

I hope to explore in depth in future (perhaps in a formal article) how Hooker constructs his argument in the Lawes as a response to this false idea of certainty, and indeed as a response to the whole problem of the sixteenth-century quest for certainty that Schreiner traces, but for now, as a teaser, I shall just offer an extended quotation from Hooker where he squarely addresses the issue:

“The truth is, that the mind of man desireth evermore to know the truth according to the most infallible certainty which the nature of things can yield. The greatest assurance generally with all men is that which we have by plain aspect and intuitive beholding. Where we cannot attain unto this, there what appeareth to be true by strong and invincible demonstration, such as wherein it is not by any way possible to be deceived, thereunto the mind doth necessarily assent, neither is it in the choice thereof to do otherwise. And in case these both do fail, then which way greatest probability leadeth, thither the mind doth evermore incline. Scripture with Christian men being received as the Word of God; that for which we have probable, yea, that which we have necessary reason for, yea, that which we see with our eyes, is not thought so sure as that which the Scripture of God teacheth; because we hold that his speech revealeth there what himself seeth, and therefore the strongest proof of all, and the most necessarily assented unto by us (which do thus receive the Scripture) is the Scripture. Now it is not required or can be exacted at our hands, that we should yield unto any thing other assent, than such as doth answer the evidence which is to be had of that we assent unto. For which cause even in matters divine, concerning some things we may lawfully doubt and suspend our judgment, inclining neither to one side nor other; as namely touching the time of the fall both of man and angels: of some things we may very well retain an opinion that they are probable and not unlikely to be true, as when we hold that men have their souls rather by creation than propagation, or that the Mother of our Lord lived always in the state of virginity as well after his birth as before (for of these two the one, her virginity before, is a thing which of necessity we must believe; the other, her continuance in the same state always, hath more likelihood of truth than the contrary); finally in all things then are our consciences best resolved, and in most agreeable sort unto God and nature settled, when they are so far persuaded as those grounds of persuasion which are to be had will bear.

Which thing I do so much the rather set down, for that I see how a number of souls are for want of right information in this point oftentimes grievously vexed. When bare and unbuilded conclusions are put into their minds, they finding not themselves to have thereof any great certainty, imagine that this proceedeth only from lack of faith, and that the Spirit of God doth not work in them as it doth in true believers; by this means their hearts are much troubled, they fall into anguish and perplexity: whereas the truth is, that how bold and confident soever we may be in words, when it cometh to the point of trial, such as the evidence is which the truth hath either in itself or through proof, such is the heart’s assent thereunto; neither can it be stronger, being grounded as it should be.

I grant that proof derived from the authority of man’s judgment is not able to work that assurance which doth grow by a stronger proof; and therefore although ten thousand general councils would set down one and the same definitive sentence concerning any point of religion whatsoever, yet one demonstrative reason alleged, or one manifest testimony cited from the mouth of God himself to the contrary, could not choose but overweigh them all; inasmuch as for them to have been deceived it is not impossible; it is, that demonstrative reason or testimony divine should deceive. Howbeit in defect of proof infallible, because the mind doth rather follow probable persuasions than approve the things that have in them no likelihood of truth at all; surely if a question concerning matter of doctrine were proposed, and on the one side no kind of proof appearing, there should on the other be alleged and shewed that so a number of the learnedest divines in the world have ever thought; although it did not appear what reason or what Scripture led them to be of that judgment, yet to their very bare judgment somewhat a reasonable man would attribute, notwithstanding the common imbecilities which are incident into our nature.” (LEP Bk. II, ch. 7)

The Art of Disagreement

The recent debates on the appropriate response to the women’s ordination controversy threw into sharper relief a set of issues that have regularly cropped up on this blog and others with which I find myself in conversation, and particularly so during the hullaballoo about the US election: how are we to disagree?  How can we resolutely oppose error where we are convinced it is error, while making charitable allowances for others who hold these errors in good faith?  How are we to resort to the forceful polemic that defense of the truth often requires without indulging in mere verbal brawling and power-plays?  In my historical research, I have become convinced that our inability to satisfactorily reconcile the needs of polemics and irenics in contemporary discourse undermines our ability to intelligently read and interpret the controversies of earlier ages, in which interlocutors rarely shared our commitments to “fair play” and objective detachment.  

Accordingly, although the recent discussions highlighted the importance of a more systematic inquiry into the women’s ordination question, from the standpoint of historic Protestantism, I have postponed my promised provision of such for a spell (though in the meantime, one can find some helpful hints, along with, obviously, some points I would disagree with, here), to first address more carefully the question of how to disagree—how to be simultaneously polemical irenicists and irenical polemicists.  As this is a question that has cropped up quite frequently in posts and comments here, this might be the obvious place to post it.  But Matthew Anderson has suggested that, as a natural follow-up to my earlier post at Mere Orthodoxy, and an elaboration of his notion of “intellectual empathy,” its proper home is there.  So, with little attempt at modesty, I invite you to go check it out.  Or, for those of you indisposed to wade through the great sea of words there disgorged, here’s a quick precís:

We must not conceive our task as one of determining when polemics (understood as resort to rhetorical violence) are necessary, versus when irenics (understood as commitment to peaceful dialogue) is necessary, but must recognize that our task, as one of justice oriented toward both truth and effectiveness, is one in which the end is always irenic, and the means will usually involve some degree of polemic.

As a potential child of God, we must perceive every opponent as someone not to be triumphed over, but to be won over; to be persuaded, not subjugated.  The end of all our discourse should be reconciliation and peace.  The Christian, accordingly, must reject any idea of polemics that is self-justifying, that has been unmoored from the objective of seeking peace.  Equally, however, the Christian must reject any irenicism that has been unmoored from the objective of truth, for any reconciliation that terminates in anything but truth will be illusory and destructive.”

In discerning what will be effective in winning over the opponent, the principles of charity, as described in 1 Cor. 13, are always relevant, and none more so than patience, which is where “intellectual empathy” comes in.  This empathy does not necessarily mean sympathy, but rather an imaginative act of seeing the world through the opponent’s eyes.  The result may be sympathy, or may be greater awareness of the nature of his error, and better insight into how to detach him from it.  

If committed to irenically-oriented polemics, and a disciplined practice of intellectual empathy, what rules may guide us in the appropriate way to respond to particular errors.  Rather than providing rules, I suggest a list of questions we might ask ourselves, questions that will include: How serious is the error in question?  What is at stake?  How much harm will this error do to my opponent, and to others whom she is persuading or influencing?  Does this argument deserve respectful consideration?  Does the person I am critiquing deserve respect?  Where is this person coming from?  Why is this argument being advanced? and How will my critique be perceived/received?

Of course, the answers to any of these questions may be far from clear; this does not mean we should be afraid to even attempt the task of irenical polemics, but that we must recognize that our attempts to do so must always be subject to judgment at the bar of truth as well as love.

The Hobbit—Reactions from a Unapologetic but Open-Minded Tolkien Geek

Not this blog’s usual fare, but hey, ’tis the season to be jolly.  Especially when we can again look forward to three Christmases with new Tolkien films! (Warning: Like the film(s) in question, this review has become rather bloated, from a quick two cents to a rambling, occasionally theological, two thousand words….)

—The critics, as usual, have it wrong.  Yes, they’re right the the film is too long, the exposition too ponderous, but they’re wrong that the problem lies in the slow opening, in Bilbo’s hobbit-hole in the Shire.  On the contrary, Jackson, Freeman, McKellen, and Co. are in top form in these opening scenes, and would probably have made Tolkien himself proud with their faithful recreation of Tolkien’s endearing account of a peaceful hobbit existence rudely interrupted by an outlandish and frightfully un-respectable band of dwarves.  And as for the critics who declared that the problem was that Jackson had insisted on being scrupulously faithful to the book, I feel quite confident they must have never read it.  

—Why, oh why, were almost all the reviews of The Hobbit so preoccupied with the new 48 fps format and how awful it supposedly looked?  As it turns out, only a small fraction of the showings are being done in 48 fps, so most fans can, and will, see the film without this distraction.  That many critics decided to spend half of their reviews dissecting the look of this technology, and in many cases, panned the movie based primarily on this one consideration, just shows that they’re too lazy to actually do their job and analyze a film. 

—Peter Jackson isn’t out for more cash.  Or at any rate, that’s not his primary motivation at least; that much seemed clear to me pretty quickly.  A loud chorus of critics have maligned his choice to expand one short book into three long films as a cynical cash grab.  And while the choice does need maligning, the motive is clearly megalomania, not greed.  I mean, if money maximization were the goal, he would’ve made three two-hour films, not three-hour films, right?  The reason Jackson turned a moderate-length children’s book into a sprawling epic is because he sees himself as the authoritative expositor of Tolkien’s world, and hence sees The Hobbit as an opportunity to lift the curtain again on Middle Earth and present that world to us on its full scale, which is clearly an epic scale, tricked out with many layers of detail and backstory.  Peter Jackson determined that if he was going to take us back to Middle-Earth, it was going to be the fully-formed Middle Earth, not the rambly, goofy, occasionally half-baked version of 1937, which afforded mere fleeting glimpses of the tapestry that lay behind.  

While it’s easy to mock, though, this was in fact a respectable decision to make. Indeed it seemed to me, when the film was first announced, that it would be very hard indeed to go backwards—to start with the fully-formed, internally-consistent world of the Lord of the Rings, and then go back to the haphazard children’s tale that was The Hobbit, complete with stone giants, trolls that turn to stone, and a man who can change into a bear.  Audiences would just be puzzled.  Jackson would have to grow The Hobbit up, bring it onto a similar plane as The Lord of the Rings.  The result is certainly awkward in many places, but we should be grateful that Jackson at least relied largely on Tolkien’s own hints (in places like the Appendices to Lord of the Rings and in The Unfinished Tales) to accomplish the filling-out and growing-up.  

—That said, Jackson has not given up on the more playful air of The Hobbit.  This comes out particularly in the action sequences, which are almost all of the Legolas-surfing-down-an-oliphaunt level of ridiculousness, generously punctuated by dubious punch-lines.  The troll scene, thankfully, is fantastically handled.  And we do get the stone-giants!  

—Elijah Wood wasn’t bad at all for what Jackson was trying to do with Frodo in LotR.  But he was a terrible Frodo, not remotely hobbitish.  Martin Freeman, on the other hand, was born to be Bilbo.  Kudos to Jackson on the casting.  Andy Serkis again blows the lid off in his Gollum performance

—No Orlando Bloom?  No problem.  We now have sexy heartthrob super-archer Aidan Turner  as Kili.

—In this film, what should already have been clear from LotR became glaringly obvious: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens can’t write dialogue to save their lives.  In the LotR trilogy, one usually had little trouble telling which lines came straight out of Tolkien’s text and which ones Jackson and Co. had cooked up, with the latter at times proving grotesquely corny.  Fortunately, the ratio of source material to film time was great enough with LotR that Jackson and Co. very often could simply cut-and-paste, leaving their own inventions to splice narrow and inconsequential gaps.  Here, however, there are whole scenes, some of them fairly important, where the dialogue has been fabricated out of whole Jackson/Walsh/Boyens cloth, and the product ain’t pretty.

—I enjoyed watching the makeup crew’s attempts to prevent characters from Lord of the Rings from looking like they’d aged in the ten years since that film.  In most cases, they were reasonably successful, although Cate Blanchett must’ve needed a few Botox injections.  Christopher Lee, however, looked like he had been exhumed from his coffin and propped up in a chair to play out one last scene or two as Saruman.  And no wonder—the man’s 90.  Yikes.

—There were bushels full of treats for the true Tolkien nerd, moments that made your inner geek wriggle with pleasure.  Jackson has taken at least as much care as he did with Lord of the Rings to populate this world with the backstory people and places that bring it to life:  The Necromancer, the Five Wizards, Dain in the Iron Hills, The Blue Mountains, the battle in which the Witch-King was destroyed, Mount Gundabad, Azog.  We get the “That’s What Bilbo Baggins Hates” song.  We get the little story about how Bandobras “Bullroarer” Took knocked off the head of Golfimbul at the Battle of Greenfields and sent it sailing into a rabbit-hole, thus inventing the game of golf.  We meet Orcrist and Glamdring, and even hear about how they were forged for the king of Gondolin by the High Elves in the First Age, warming the hearts of those of us for whom the name of Gondolin sent a strange thrill up our spines when first we encountered it on reading The Hobbit in early youth.  And we even get to see the Great Goblin shriek, upon seeing them, “AAGGH!  Biter and Beater are here!”  My personal favorite geek moment, only mildly marred by the alteration of key details of the narrative, was the inclusion, in a narrative of Balin, of the Battle of Azanulbizar, “or Nanduhirion, in the Elvish tongue, at the memory of which Orcs still shudder and Dwarves still weep.”  Alas that it was neither named, nor that matchless line included—although we did get treated to “for our dead were beyond the count of grief.”

—On the other hand, there were moments aplenty to rankle my inner geek, chief among them the reductio of the White Council to absurdum.  This has to go down as the worst scene in the film.  Although there are no shortage of reasons for its failure, chief among them is the idiotic flatness of Saruman’s character.  He comes across as exactly the same complacent, deceptive, arrogant jerk that he was in Lord of the Rings.  Now, in Lord of the Rings, that was just about right.  But the point is that he wasn’t always that way, as Gandalf is keen to emphasize.  He was, we are told, originally worthy of his title, and truly great, even if always a bit proud and overly inquisitive about evil.  Jackson’s inability to trace the lineaments of his character, to convincingly render his corruption from nobility to depravity, display the same lack of moral imagination that was so egregiously apparent in Jackson’s rendering of Denethor in Return of the King.

—Azog was pretty darn freaky, although his menacing declarations in Gobbledigook, in which the camera would zoom dramatically in on his face while the subtitles revealed some vapid variant on “I want that dwarf scum dead,” made him seem more ridiculous than intimidating at times.

—Radagast was a bit ridiculous, and most of the more fanciful liberties that Jackson took with the plot involved him.  But Sylvester McCoy’s performance was so delightfully eccentric that I can’t complain.

—Azog deserves a moment or two more of reflection.  Betraying Peter Jackson’s relative lack of imagination, Azog played a role that was a virtual carbon-copy of “Lurtz” in The Fellowship of the Ring—ghastly giant orc of absurd strength and invulnerability, hell-bent on the pursuit and destruction of the traveling company, who makes a far greater number of screen appearances than necessary, just to add an element of menace to the tale.  Unlike Lurtz, Azog is not a pure Jacksonian invention, but a mere simplification of Tolkien’s original, in which it was Bolg son of Azog who was the sworn enemy of the Dwarves; but Bolg played a much smaller role in the book than does Azog here.  So what gives?  Why Lurtz?  Why Azog?  

Both represent, it seems to me, attempts to personify evil, to give us a traditional Hollywood villain (albeit a rather flat, grotesque, and bestial one).  This is something that Tolkien notably fails to do in his stories.  Saruman incarnates not so much evil per se as the banality of evil.  Sauron, and in the Silmarillion, Morgoth are the only real personifications of evil—they are evil itself, and are almost forces, rather than agents in the full sense of the term.  Their minions, for Tolkien, warrant very little attempt at character development.  Why?  Because they have no character.  Tolkien is Augustinian.  Evil is nothingness, evil is that which effaces, which depersonalizes.  It preys upon that which is good and leaves behind it only an absence.  Jackson, however, is much more Manichaean.  Evil is an active presence and takes form in evil agents who are strict counterparts to the good agents.  The murkiness of evil in Tolkien’s universe cries out, in Jackson’s universe, for clearer definition and positive reality.  The result, however, seems bizarre and incongruous, for Jackson makes no effort to alter Tolkien’s portrayal of evil as fundamentally irrational and absurd.  Thus we end up with villains like Lurtz and Azog, who seem to combine a surfeit of personal malevolent purpose with a lack of any rational motive behind that purpose.  

—Perhaps this Manicheanism provides an explanation for the pathetic portrayal of Saruman mentioned above.  Jackson cannot grasp the idea that evil was not always evil, but is a corruption of native goodness.  He has no room in his world for a flawed nobility that descended, by corruption of the will, into folly and wickedness.  The evil characters just are evil, and always have been.  

—Prospects going forward?  I expect that Pt. 2 will take us up to when Bilbo meets Smaug, and Pt. 3 will be devoted to Smaug’s rampage and death and an extremely elaborate buildup to and then recreation of the Battle of Five Armies.  Expect a generous dollop of tedium and tackiness, but with enough nuggets of true Tolkien or Martin Freeman brilliance and enough visual splendor to make it worthwhile.

Some Excellent Reflections on Church Discipline

In the absence of finding time to write the posts I keep promising to write (more systematic reflections both on women’s ordination and on the “rules of engagement” for thoughtful, charitable, but principled theologial debate), I’ll keep stalling by pointing you to good things other people have written.  Thankfully, I don’t have to look far to find some.

My friend Joseph Minich, with whom I’ve had a number of very fruitful conversations on these questions in recent months, has just posted (on his brand-new blog), a set of excellent reflections on church discipline and church authority.  In essence, he tries to demystify the whole concept (which a lot of recent writing on “recovering high ecclesiology” among Reformed Presbyterian types has worked hard to re-mystify) with good old-fashioned Reformation Protestantism.  If the authority of the minister (and the elders) is only the Word, then a sentence of discipline has no spiritual ramifications unless it is a true application of the Word to the individual’s spiritual state.  And, as a corollary, the application of the Word by any old fellow congregant, who sees the need to all his brother to account, is of equal weight.  Ministers do have a particular authority, but it is a non-conscience-binding prudential authority over prudential matters of polity, as well as the informal moral authority of wisdom and vocation.  

Joe addresses ecclesiology, contending, “the visible church is just the totality of the baptized in the world. The church is just the people of God called out of the world. They exist prior to their institutional expression,” and then also gets into questions of what the term “the Church” really means when we get down to brass tacks and talk about concrete ecclesial communities:

Am I “more obligated” to members of my local church than to members of another local church? Am I “more” of a spiritual family with my local church than with other believers throughout the world? Should I submit my resources and my calling “more” to the local church than to other churches, believers, or unbelievers? If the institutional church is just the natural political expression of the baptized community, then the answer to all these questions is very simple: It depends – and it depends on precisely the same sorts of “neighbor loving” or “group” considerations that obtain in any other institution.”

Read the whole post here.