Tag: j.r.r. tolkien

Top Ten Posts in 2014

This will likely be my last post of the year (with the holidays and all), so I want to wish you all a Merry Christmas.

In the meantime, I give you the mandatory ‘top posts’ post. If there’s anything on the list you haven’t read before, why not give it a look? Here are the most read posts from the blog for the year:

1. Myths About the Bible: Noah Was Mocked? The Fight Against Apathy
This marks the second year in a row that this post is number one. It had about 1,800 views for the year.

2. A List of Benedictions
In the top 3 for the third straight year. Everybody needs a good list of benedictions.

3. C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton: Reading, Fairy Tales, and Mental Health
The same top 3 as last year. I still think that reading fairy tales is a balm for the soul.

4. God Is Love, But Love Is Not God
This one’s the first newcomer to the list. Here I take on not only modern culture, but no less a giant than St. Augustine.

5. Recent Reading: The Mind of the Maker, by Dorothy Sayers: Part 1 – Summary of the Argument for a Trinity in Creative Art
This marks the second year in the top 5. I go back to this post fairly regularly to brush up on Sayers’ points.

6. The Misused Passages: 1 Corinthians 2:9, Eye Hath Not Seen, Nor Ear Heard
This is my take on how people misuse the famous words, ‘Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor hath it entered into the mind of man, what God hath prepared for them that love Him.’

7. Charlotte’s Web: Dr. Dorian, Miraculous Webs, Animals Talking
I share a favorite quote from Charlotte’s Web.

8. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ Method of Pastoral Counseling and Diagnosis
I am glad this one cracked the top 10. I worked very hard on this post in an attempt to distill the basics of the pastoral counseling method of Martyn Lloyd-Jones. I work harder to actually try to put his wisdom into practice. I still highly recommend the book on which this post is based: Healing and the Scriptures.

9. Recent Reading: Leaf by Niggle, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Here’s a taste: “Christian lawyers work for justice, and the world remains unjust. Christian doctors, nurses, and pharmacists (and others of course) work for the health and well-being of people – all of whom eventually die…”

10. Him that is Unjust, Let Him be Unjust Still: What does it mean? (Revelation 22:11)
It’s a line from the Book of Revelation that has entered into the modern consciousness via Johnny Cash’s The Man Comes Around. I remember early in the season there was an SEC football commercial that used this song. I thought there was an ironically fitting display of southern culture as I saw images of Les Miles and Nick Saban as this song played in the background.

On Funny Bits

‘Tell me one [book] that you like.’

‘I liked The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Matilda said. ‘I think Mr C.S. Lewis is a very good writer. But he has one failing. There are no funny bits in his books.’

‘You are right there,’ Miss Honey said.

‘There aren’t many funny bits in Mr Tolkien either,’ Matilda said.

‘Do you think all children’s books ought to have funny bits in them?’ Miss Honey asked.

‘I do,’ Matilda said. ‘Children are not so serious as grown-ups and they love to laugh.’

Miss Honey was astounded by the wisdom of this tiny girl…

– Roald Dahl, Matilda (Puffin), pp. 80-81

This is one of the parts I’m glad they left out of the movie. Here comes some rambling.

I read Matilda with my daughters some time ago. They had already seen the movie, and loved it. My soon-to-be kindergartener informed me today that she is wearing a red ribbon in her hair on the first day of school in honor of Matilda. She also informed me that she would be brave, like Matilda, if she found herself wanting to cry. This conversation led my mind back to that one dreaded passage in Matilda that ruined the whole book for me (really, it ruined all of Dahl’s work for me, as if the work itself wasn’t enough).

I did not read much as a child. I can only remember reading, or being read, a few books (a small enough number that you could count them on one hand). The two that stood out the most were Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry, and James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl. I had very fond memories of those books, and I always planned to read those books to my children one day. I read Number the Stars twice with my oldest daughter, and both she and I loved it. James and the Giant Peach, not so much. But, since my kids loved the movie, I thought we’d give Matilda a try.

I found, in that book, as well as the James book, what every other critic of Dahl found before me. His books tend to be based on children who are mistreated by adults and ultimately find vengeance, justification, and liberation. Of course, there are ‘funny bits’ along the way: most of those ‘funny bits’ involve the kids pulling pranks as a means of revenge against adults (this is much more the case in Matilda than in James). Perhaps it is the ‘serious’ adult in me, but I didn’t really find great humor in the so-called funny bits. In Matilda, I saw a miraculously gifted child using those gifts to do the same things to mean adults that they did to her. There is no meekness in Matilda, though she garners much sympathy as a character in other ways.

But now let me get to my point. I would have given Matilda a meh regardless, but the little dig that Dahl takes at Lewis and Tolkien just makes it worse in my mind. I am amazed that a Welshman took the time to call anyone too serious. I don’t know a lot of Welshman, but the ones I know are fairly serious. That is actually a strength in my mind. Lewis and Tolkien were no Welshman, but seriousness was a strength of theirs as well.

As for Tolkien, his seriousness is a joyful seriousness. He never plays with magic flippantly (in contrast to Matilda or Harry Potter). Wizardry and witchcraft are serious business for him (as well as for Lewis). He painted dark pictures so that the sun could shine brighter. So did Lewis. Lewis may not have had funny bits (though if you do not find Puddleglum or the Monopods funny…), but his work is filled with joviality, which is better than the flippant sort of ‘funny’: joviality, not jocularity.

I experiment with comedy. I watch the effects it has on people, including myself. I grew up watching stand up comedy. I didn’t read books, but my parents let me watch HBO and Showtime (don’t even ask). I saw Eddie Murphy’s stand up routine by the time I was 10, and Andrew Dice Clay (yep), and Gallagher, and Howie Mandel, and Sam Kinison, and Rodney Dangerfield, and Bill Cosby, and others. I always loved sketch comedy, like Saturday Night Live. Seinfeld is my favorite TV show…ever. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t quote something from Seinfeld…not that there’s anything wrong with that. But I digress.

I used to be a big practical joker. I repented of it when Jesus Christ called me out of darkness and into light. I have come to take Proverbs 26:18-19 seriously: “Like a madman shooting firebrands or deadly arrows is a man who deceives his neighbor and says, “I was only joking!'” I am still an amateur comedian. I love puns; I love jokes; I love to laugh and make people laugh. But I don’t want to spread the creeping death of mockery and revenge humor (even though it is in my nature to do so, and to want to do so). I don’t want to speak ‘corrupting speech’ (Eph. 4:29), including corrupting humor, that causes rot and decay, that ruins souls by making them flippant and bitter (read a bit about that HERE). I’m a work in progress, because I’m sarcastic by nature (my dad’s a New Yorker, what can I say?). So I share these thoughts to encourage myself (and others). Even for comedy, there is a more excellent way.

I have found that there is quite a difference between the frivolous laughter that comes from a smart alek remark (and I make too many of those) and the deep laughter that comes from something that provokes true joy or insight. Dahl provides the first kind. Lewis and Tolkien provide the second kind. Lewis and Tolkien provide darkness so that the light may shine brighter; Dahl is just light (like a feather). I vote for Lewis and Tokien, and pray that this is the kind of laughter I will give to my children: not the stand up comedy kind, not the practical joke kind, not the potty humor kind, but the rejoicing in the midst of sorrow kind – serious joy. God help me.

May you be funnier than the flippant without being flippant; more merry than the one who’s had one too many without having one too many yourself; more perceptive and insightful than the stand up comedian; more humorous than the funny pages without turning into a  walking funny page yourself; more laugh-out-loud hysterical than those who resort to body-part-humor without feeling the need to demean the things that God has created. May you be light-hearted and still have a weight and substance and fullness in your soul. That is all.

Fireworks

The fireworks were by Gandalf: they were not only brought by him, but designed and made by him; and the special effects, set pieces, and flights of rockets were let off by him. But there was also a generous distribution of squibs, crackers, backarappers, sparklers, torches, dwarf-candles, elf-fountains, goblin-barkers and thunder-claps. They were all superb. The art of Gandalf improved with age.

There were rockets like a flight of scintillating birds singing with sweet voices. There were green trees with trunks of dark smoke: their leaves opened like a whole spring unfolding in a moment, and their shining branches dropped glowing flowers down upon the astonished hobbits, disappearing with a sweet scent just before they touched their upturned faces. There were fountains of butterflies that flew glittering into the trees; there were pillars of coloured fires that rose and turned into eagles, or sailing ships, or a phalanx of flying swans; there was a red thunderstorm and a shower of yellow rain; there was a forest of silver spears that sprang suddenly into the air with a yell like an embattled army, and came down again into the Water with a hiss like a hundred hot snakes. And there was also one last surprise, in honour of Bilbo, and it startled the hobbits exceedingly, as Gandalf intended. The lights went out. A great smoke went up. It shaped itself like a mountain seen in the distance, and began to glow at the summit. It spouted green and scarlet flames. Out flew a red-golden dragon – not life-size, but terribly life-like: fire came from its jaws, his eyes glared down; there was a roar, and he whizzed three times over the heads of the crowd. They all ducked, and many fell flat on their faces. The dragon passed like an express train, turned a somersault, and burst over Bywater with a deafening explosion.

– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

I can already hear the amateur wizards out doing their work.

Recent Reading: Leaf by Niggle, by J.R.R. Tolkien

I give you my disclaimer up front – this is not even close to a review or analysis. It is purely devotional. If you can handle that, then, by all means, proceed.
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I read this story a couple of years ago and enjoyed it. I didn’t take the time to reflect on it at that point. Recently, my 7-year-old daughter has been boldly stating that she wants to be an artist, and so, I thought this might be a good story to read together. And so we did.

I understood after my first reading that this story was somewhat autobiographical. Tolkien admitted as much. In some sense it is a fictional, imaginative account of his own insecurities and hopes. But, as it happened, the very night I began reading the little book with my daughter, I listened to a talk given by Tim Keller at a recent Gospel Coalition event. The talk (HERE) is entitled Redefining Work.

During the talk, Keller uses Leaf by Niggle as an illustration of a point he is making about work. He essentially says (I’m paraphrasing), that Leaf by Niggle captures a very important principle that Christians need to understand about vocation and work: What are Christians working for? We are working for God’s glory, for the good of God’s creation, for human flourishing, and for distinct elements of existence that lead to those ends. And, here’s the kicker, we will not see any of those things fully realized in our lifetimes.

Christian lawyers work for justice, and the world remains unjust. Christian doctors, nurses, and pharmacists (and others of course) work for the health and well-being of people – all of whom eventually die. Christian business people work to provide products and services that will promote human flourishing, and ultimately those products and services become a byword along with the humans they serve. Ditch-diggers dig ditches that don’t last. Mail Carriers deliver letters that wind up in the trash. Supermarket cashiers serve in order allow hungry people to walk out of the store with food. But, nevertheless, the fact remains that said food will end up in the toilet.

If you’re just there to collect a paycheck, then who cares anyway? It doesn’t matter. ‘Vanity of vanities, everything is vanity,’ says the pundit.

Tolkien cared about his work. He had passion to run the race that was his life’s writing. But, before it was completed, he saw this: he spent most of his life writing a series of books that he wasn’t sure would ever be completed. He spent so much time working on the leaves, he feared he would never see the tree to maturity. Hence Leaf by Niggle. It is the story of an artist who never sees his great landscape to completion because of endless distractions and obsession over details.

And then, something happens, and in a new life, he finds his portrait to be a living reality. And he finds himself to be no longer a painter, but a gardener. Along with the aid of his gardening neighbor, whom he failed to appreciate in his first life, he sees his life work to completion, not on canvas, but in the real stuff of nature.

I am restating Keller here, but from all this we glean an insight into reality. You spend your life working on the painting, only to find it complete in the next. Yes, from this story we can glean the lesson that even small, seemingly insignificant contributions we make to this world can have a lasting impact. But Tolkien goes beyond this. Niggle’s tree is forgotten in the end. His tree is forgotten, but trees are not forgotten. His tree is forgotten, but his tree exists nonetheless.

Tolkien spent his life envisioning a world of beauty and magic. He imagined a world in which good prevailed despite great loss. All of those things will prove true in the end – in this world – because Christ is returning, and he is bringing heaven with him.

So, let’s say you are a lawyer and/or a judge. You spend your life working for justice while injustice remains all around you. The Scriptures declare to you that there will be justice in the end. Or you are a lover of mercy-ministry and you desire to see the end of world hunger. You spend your life feeding the underfed, knowing full well that hunger will continue. But food is coming, the true Bread, which comes down from heaven, who gives his flesh as food for the world, is coming – and he comes to feast us. Or, let’s say, you are a preacher, like me, and you desire with all your heart to see the earth covered with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters fill the sea. You desire to see every knee bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of the Father. You desire to present every saint under your care to the Father in the full maturity of the image and likeness of Christ. It’s going to happen, despite your failures.

In the midst of the fight that we call work, it always appears to be a losing battle for those who seriously desire justice, mercy, peace, love, and human prosperity. Remember that in the end Jesus wins. And his victory is our victory. You are not fighting a losing battle. There are no lost causes, so long as the cause of Christ stands first and foremost.

Go paint your tree, even if you only finish a leaf. Fight the insecurity and cling to the hope.