Thursday, January 22, 2004

O Israel, if only you would heed! 

Upon reading the St. Olaf magazine yesterday, the glossy best-foot-forward P.R. arm of my alma mater, I couldn't speak for half an hour. I don't know why this grief hit me so hard. Ever since graduation, the magazine has utterly disgusted me with its shiny photographs of smiling students, carefully selected for a multiracial mix of good-looking faces; the alumni profiles always of either successful businessmen and -women or of volunteers from only those causes pleasing to the academic left; the confident statements that Progress and the Future are being embraced vigorously "on the Hill." Still, while I was there the college maintained some the trappings of its Norwegian Lutheran heritage, and with my eyes shut I refused to realize that it would place itself squarely and defiantly on the wrong side of the culture wars.

My first clue was in a timeline of the college's Embracing of Diversity, when the 2002 entry proudly proclaimed that benefits were extended to same-sex domestic partners of faculty and staff. Grievous, but all too common. But when the alumni almanac titled its first page "Marriages and Partnerships," I began to get mad. And the final page, the "last word" of the face the college chooses to put to the world, was an article by an Episcopalian religion professor wholeheartedly endorsing her church's choice of of Gene Robinson as a bishop, replete with the tired half-baked arguments that we are moving to a new Phase in Christianity and that no one takes Scripture as normative anymore. Livid barely suffices to describe me.

What has happened to my school? None of these weakminded and cowardly professors and bureaucratic clerks could have looked St. Olav in the eye for a solid minute. Martin Luther would have vivisected them verbally. And Berndt Julius Muus...if he had known that the college he founded for Norwegian farmchildren would one day be endorsing sodomy as the Future of the Church, I daresay he might have reconsidered things.

Perhaps this was only to be expected. The college can't very well be more courageous than the ELCA itself, which is the negotiated compromise of American churches whose European sires had been toadies of their governments for centuries. When a church actually funds abortions, why should I expect it to hold to anything Christian?

No, my college is dead. Or at least, the faith is dead there officially. Only a live thing can swim upstream, as Chesterton wrote; and I have seen no signs from the college administration in recent years that it is going anywhere except where the flood of academic elitism washes it. The young undirected fire of the student Christian groups will blaze on, fueled as it is by the Spirit, but for the administration and (as nearly as I can tell) the campus chapel, the Gospel is dead. Vague references to "a college of the church" will always remain in the campus brochures as a selling point for enrollment and donations, but a gospel that makes demands on you, that requires you to do things against the culture--that gospel is not being heard by ears deadened by money.

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Sunday, January 18, 2004

The Black Gates of Hell 

I saw the Return of the King for the third time yesterday, and I noticed something new. When the Ring is destroyed and Sauron's realm crumbles, the scene before the Black Gate is remarkably like the classic Orthodox icon of the Resurrection. In that icon, Christ stands victorious above a gaping chasm in the ground, the gates of hell beneath His feet falling into the abyss. In Jackson's rendition of the fall of Sauron, the earth caves open before the armies of the West as the Towers of the Teeth and the Black Gate topple into the abyss.

I don't mean that Jackson et al. intended this resemblance consciously, or even necessarily have seen the icon. But God's inspiration, working through the writings of Tolkien and through the truth of art, can make Truth visible in ways the artists themselves do not understand.

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Thursday, January 15, 2004

The Valaquenta 

I've been reading the Silmarillion again these days. In the Ainulindale and the Valaquenta I think Tolkien's genius has done something utterly new and yet deeply human. Looking through Western history, at least, we human beings have a natural desire for a pantheon. We want to have Aphrodite to go to in matters of love, Ares to call upon for war, Hephaistos when making things. We desire to call, not just upon "a god," but one with personality and a history: Thor who is strong but not too clever, one-eyed Odin who gives the gift of poetry, Frey who traded his sword for love.

The knowledge of the one true God is immeasurably better than these myths and (at best) half-truths. Yet in worshipping Him who is all in all, Him who is perfect, we have lost a particular sort of beauty. The trade is of course well worth it; His beauty eclipses all these tales. And yet, we might ask, are not all good things to be preserved somehow? Is not every authentic human desire, once purified, to be satisfied in Him? How then this aesthetic desire for a pantheon?

We can approach the old mythologies as literature, as tales of a bygone age; but even in literary suspension of disbelief, the Christian man cannot admire the old gods. For all his majesty, Zeus is an adulterer. For all his power and wisdom, Odin is an oathbreaker. The gods toy with men, use them as pawns in their own struggles, and discard them in the end. The old mythologies make good stories, but the Christian cannot
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn
with the awe and reverence of his pagan fathers; he is simply too good a man for that.

Of course, we have the saints. Anthony who helps the lost, Charles Borromeo for seminarians, Lucy for eye diseases, Crispin for shoemakers. They have stories and tales; they can be invoked in need; they are bound to particular places and professions. They form a sort of pantheon, one might say, and they can be admired without reservation as those who have run the race to completion. But these are men and women only, though made partakers in the divine nature, and are still not gods. No one calls on St. Louis the way men once called on Mars.

But men do call on St. Michael in much the same way. He was mighty and powerful from the beginning, of a race we could not begin to comprehend; and he has a story, a tale of the battles he went through and the people to whom he was assigned. His power from the Lord is not only intercession, nor was he ever one of us. We call upon him, not to "pray for us" as a human saint would, but to "protect us" by his own angelic power and the power of God.

And in Michael, perhaps, is the solution Tolkien found to man's longing for a pantheon. In the Valar, the angelic guardians who bound themselves to the world out of love for serve Elves and Men, he creates for us a new pantheon, unsullied by the sordid tales of the Greeks and Norse, as clear and pure as the stars of the night sky. Manwë the high king; Varda the star-kindler; Aulë the smith; Yavanna the gardener; Oromë the hunter; Tulkas the laughing warrior; Ulmo the lord of the sea. These have committed no crimes; these have never left the service of Iluvátar. Though they are fictional, the Christian man can rejoice in them because they serve the one true God. In the Lords of the West can his heart's longing for the beauty of a pantheon find rest and joy.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2004

For Vocations Awareness Week 

In honor of Vocations Awareness Week, here's a passage from Chesterton's play The Surprise (Act I, scene ii):
"I never see [nuns] pass, silent and hooded, through their quiet cloisters but I have a vision: a vast vision of Amazons, wilder than any heathen Valkyrs, riders rushing into battle; a charge of chivalry going all one way, and every rider as free as Joan of Arc; galloping, galloping to God. That is the real vision of Obedience.

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