The Return of the King’s Message to the Men of the West

The Return of the King’s Message to the Men of the West

In the previous post I mentioned an article that was posted on a now-defunct online magazine. Here is that essay. It originally came out in July 2004.

In the climactic scene of the Academy Award sweeping film The Return of the King, the final installment of The Lord of Rings trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy novel, the returning king Aragorn exhorts his troops as they are about to face the much larger force of Mordor. My high school students call this rousing speech “the Braveheart speech” from its similarity to a speech given before the Battle of Stirling Bridge in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart film.

The men of Middle Earth are in a life and death struggle with the forces of Sauron, Lord of Mordor. Sauron is an unseen, satanic leader of Mordor, the land “where the shadows lie.” It is a smoky, hellish wasteland whose principal occupants are the ghoulish, semi- human Orcs. Sauron’s goal is to take over Middle Earth, destroy or enslave mankind (and related creatures like Hobbits, Dwarves, and Elves), and bring the lawless autocracy of evil to the known world.

The battle is on two fronts. There is the spiritual or mental front, represented by the so-called Ring of Power, which the Hobbits Frodo and Sam are trying to bring to the volcano Mt. Doom in Mordor so it can be destroyed. If Sauron gets the Ring of Power, he will have power to bend anyone to his will. The challenge faced by the two Hobbits is to take the Ring to Mt. Doom undetected by Mordor security forces.

Then there is the more typical battle. Orcs have invaded and taken over various parts of Middle Earth. The men, mostly of the western lands of Rohan and Gondor, are making a last-ditch effort to fight off the waves of Orcs sent to them. A detachment led by Aragorn, the unrecognized but rightful heir to the throne of Gondor, has reached the gates of Mordor. They are vastly outnumbered. They can sense the evil presence of Sauron and his allies. But they also realize that they must fight. If they lose, not only are they killed, but their whole way of life will be obliterated and the civilization of Western Middle Earth will be for naught.

The film portrays the showdown in front of the gates of Mordor differently from the novel. The difference is due to the theatrical medium. Like Shakespeare’s Henry V before Agincourt or Gibson’s William Wallace before Stirling Bridge, the troops are rallied by a speech:

Hold your ground—hold your ground! Sons of Gondor—of Rohan, my brothers! I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me. The day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bands of fellowship—but it is not this day! An hour of wolves and shattered shields, when the Age of Man comes crashing down—but it is not this day! This day we fight! By all that you hold dear in this good earth—I bid you stand! Men of the West! (Walsh et al.)

Even as late as October 2003, the month before the film’s release, the director and screenwriter Peter Jackson was tinkering with the film. This speech almost certainly was written for us men of the West—in Europe, the Americas, even postcolonial Africa and Australasia—with September 11 in mind.

Although the actual modern Islamist attacks may have started with the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968 or Meir Kahane in 1990, or the 1993 World Trade Center attempts, or any of a number of other incidents; we were made clearly aware of the Islamists’ intentions on September 11, 2001. We began to understand that they hated us and wanted to destroy us.

We learned that the name Osama had become the second most popular name for Arab boys (Muhammad is still number one). (Simon) We saw celebrations in Palestine, Egypt, Afghanistan, and even among some Muslims in the United States.

We were made aware that the battle we have become engaged in is not like any war the West has been actively engaged in since World War II. Like the war between West Middle Earth and Mordor, it is a battle for the future of civilization. If we had lost World War II, the world would have been plunged into barbarism and lawlessness. So will it be if the Men of the West do not stand up to the Medieval Islamists raging against us today.

While the focus of the Islamists is on the United States and Israel, we know that they are attacking the West everywhere they can. The last real Crusade ended in 1291. Western culture has moved on. The culture of the Islamists has not.

A good illustration is what happened in France. Until the recent headscarf controversy, France had been very tolerant, even fearful, of its Muslim minority. It had supported Libya and Iraq. Still, in 1994 Al Qaeda attempted to hijack an airliner and fly it into the Eiffel Tower. Why France? France was an imperial power in the Near East and North Africa in the nineteenth and twentieth century. But even more than that, France under Charlemagne put a stop to the Moorish expansion into Europe in A.D. 778.

The Spanish may think they are safe since they voted for a party less supportive of the War on Terror. They are deceiving themselves. Spain has been a bone in the craw of Muslims for six centuries. It is a major civilized nation that was once Muslim and now is not. The “moderate,” Westernized Muslim writer Akbar S. Ahmed tells us a South Asian Muslim character in a 1973 Pakistani novel says, “All I can remember is that I was leaving Grenada…I’ve been uprooted.” (Islam Today, 229) Here is a character half a world away with no ethnic or even historical connection to Spain or Moors—but he mourns the loss of Grenada, ruled by a tiny Muslim minority until 1492.

Osama’s “message to the world” was on September 11. Why that date? September 11 was an important date in the Habsburg-Ottoman War of 1683-1697. In 1683 the Ottoman army with Arab, Tartar, African, and Asian Muslim allies would penetrate into Europe, into the West, to the farthest extent in history. The army laid siege to Vienna, outnumbering its defenders about four to one. September 11, 1683, marked the “high water mark” of the Muslim penetration into Eastern Europe. On September 12, the Turks and their allies were attacked by the Poles and driven back.

The war continued with the Ottomans gradually losing ground. The last battle of the war, the Battle of Zenta, was won by Austrian allies on September 11, 1697. After that, the Turks sued for peace, and a treaty was signed two years later. September 11 is a significant date. (We should likewise declare that September 11, 2001, will be the farthest penetration of Islam into the Americas…)

We know that virtually all Muslim states are authoritarian. Osama’s goal is to restore the Caliphate of Baghdad—the medieval monarchy ruled by ruthless Muslim law and made famous by The Arabian Nights. Mordor in The Lord of the Rings is a caricature of the totalitarian state. The armies of Orcs as they assemble and march in the film are meant to echo Fascists. Indeed, Tolkien began work on the trilogy during World War II. Jackson’s depiction of Mordor with echoes of fascism also takes some images from Islam—especially Modor’s towers with two points at the top which resemble minarets with crescents.

The concepts of justice and human rights which form the basis of many Western governments are alien to most Muslim cultures. At best, non-Muslims are Dhimmi, second-class citizens with few rights. The same “moderate,” Westernized author of Islam Today complains for pages when Muslims are disrespected but then justifies Islamic governments and customs that imprison and execute Muslims who convert to other religions.

Columnist Dennis Prager calls the current extremist movements—whether Ba’athist, Shi’ite, or Waha’abi—“Islamic fascism.” Indeed, that is what it appears to be. Perhaps they hate the West because it refused to be conquered, because it has prospered materially, or because since the Middle Ages it has overshadowed the lands of their religion. Perhaps they are offended because of weakening Western morality. This I grant them, though such things as honor killings, abductions and forced marriages of Dhimmi women, kidnappings, killing all prisoners, polygamy, and special treatment of Muslims under the law all appear immoral to most Westerners.

Prager writes:

From our founding we [Americans] have believed that we have a mission to better the world. And for this we are hated. We are not hated for our power; we are hated for our values and our sense of chosenness—just as the never-powerful Jews have long been hated for their values and their chosenness. (Prager)

It is interesting that anti-Western Arab propaganda from whatever sources uses the terms Zionist and Crusader. Bin Laden has even used the term Zionist Crusader—a ridiculous oxymoron in the light of history. There is no Crusade; there is a jihad. And the West is the target.

A spokesman for Al Qaeda says they have the right to kill four million Americans. (Graham) What kind of system derives those kinds of “rights”? There is nothing those “rights” have in common with the rights mentioned in the American Declaration of Independence. If they think their God grants them this right, then they indeed are invoking a very different God from the God that the signers of the Declaration invoked. Theirs is a very different way of life. What are we going to do, Men of the West?

Our way of life is at stake. We may not win every battle. Terrorists may try to do more. There is a lawless horde eager to destroy us and our way of life. The week of the terrorist attacks, Yossef Bodansky, author of Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America, was one of the few people in America who had written anything about Bin Laden. He was interviewed by National Public Radio. His interviewer asked him, “Is there anything the West can do to satisfy Bin Laden?”

He replied, “Pack up and move to another planet.” (Simon)

Osama himself said that his goal is to cause the “disappearance” of “the infidel West.” (Zuckerman) We have already seen that “infidel” means not only American or Israeli, but Filipino, Greek, Korean, Buddhist, Hindu, whoever they think is in their way. As Zuckerman writes:

This is not simply a war against America. These killings are not about the Abu Ghraib prison scandal or American actions in Iraq and Afghanistan—they’re not even about Israel. They are a tactic in a war to claim the world for a perverted version of Islam. It is not what we do, but who we are—and we are in the way as these misguided men seek to restore a new unified Muslim umma (community), ruled by a new caliphate, governed by Islamic law, and organized to wage jihad against the rest of the world.

This is a lot like what Sauron was trying to do with the Orcs of Mordor. The men of Middle Earth were in their way. What would the men of Middle Earth do? What will we do? Are we going to give up this day? Are we going to dissolve our relationships, our laws, our lands? Let us declare with Aragorn that this will not be the day!

Osama is not that different from Sauron. The question is simply like the one Aragorn posed to his troops at the gates of Mordor—do we have the resolve? Will we hold our ground? Will we appreciate the things we hold dear? Aragorn and Peter Jackson were not just speaking to Gondor and Rohan; they were speaking to us—the Men of the West.


Sources

Ahmed, Akbar S. Islam Today: A Short Introduction to the Muslim World. New York: I. B. Tauris, 1999. Print. [Note: The quotation is from the revised edition. I believe I originally read the first edition. It is possible there are differences.]

Graham, Alison. “Nuclear Terrorism Poses the Greatest Threat Today.” Wall Street Journal 14 July 2003: A10. Print.

Prager, Dennis. “Dear American Soldier in Iraq.” American Legion Magazine March 2004. Print. Reprinted at https://archive.org/details/americanlegionvo1563amer1.

Simon, Scott. “Bin Laden Bio.” Weekend Edition Saturday 15 September 2001. Web. http://www.npr.org/features/feature.php?wfId=1129483.

Walsh, Fran et al. Return of the King. Screenplay. Los Angeles: New Line Productions, 2003. Print. Posted at http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Lord-of-the-Rings-Return-of-the-King.html.

Zuckerman, Mortimer J. “Looking Evil Right in the Eye.” U.S. News and World Report 26 July 2004: 84. Print. Reprinted at http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1171826/posts.

Messiah Comes to Middle Earth – Review

Philip Ryken. Messiah Comes to Middle Earth. Downers Grove IL: Inter-Varsity P, 2017. Print.

Ursula LeGuin, may she rest in peace, complained that critics usually treated science fiction and fantasy works far less seriously than other types of fiction. Indeed, this reviewer recognized the literary quality of a novel by Philip K. Dick, and some of Heinlein’s and Jules Verne’s works are classics of literature. The earliest sci-fi like that of Swift and Cyrano were political satires. Some of the greatest works in world literature are truly fantasy; think of Homer or Vergil or many of the King Arthur tales.

This reviewer confesses, however, that even though I once taught The Hobbit in an English literature class, I fell into that view LeGuin disdained regarding The Lord of the Rings trilogy (LOTR). I have enjoyed the series immensely; they are the only novels apart from ones that I have taught that I have read three times in my lifetime. Still, I never considered looking at them as a literary critic or even as an English teacher. The closest I probably came was when I helped a team from my school win a trivia contest which included a number of questions from LOTR.

Messiah Comes to Middle Earth stunned me. This is an excellent book, full of examples and quotation from LOTR and familiar with Tolkien’s other writings and letters as well as what others have said about his work. This is truly literary criticism as much as anything by Harold Bloom. Of course, Tolkien was a college professor and author of various scholarly works in addition to his Middle Earth stories.

The book is pretty straightforward. Tolkien admitted that he did not intend to write a specifically Christian story, unlike, say, Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia where Aslan clearly symbolizes Christ. Ryken does point out that Tolkien admitted that, as a Christian, he wrote from a Christian worldview, even if it was not consciously so.

LOTR entertains, but it can also inspire and motivate. I once had an article published in a now-defunct webzine on Aragorn’s “Men of the West” speech before Mordor after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Ryken shows one way it can both inspire and motivate.

No, there is no Aslan figure in LOTR. Gandalf does seem to come back from the dead—his apparent death saving the rest of the Fellowship from the Balrog—but Ryken makes a case that Gandalf is more of a prophet than a savior.

That is where the title comes in. The words Messiah and Christ both mean “anointed.” In ancient Israel three offices were often formally anointed: prophets, priests, and kings. So Jesus as Messiah is traditionally seen as having all three offices, as did Moses and, possibly, Samuel in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Jesus prophesied during his earthly ministry, both in the sense of speaking God’s words and predicting future events. He is also credited in Ephesians 4:11 with giving prophets to the church.

Similarly, as Jesus died on the cross, the veil of the Temple was torn (an event confirmed in the Talmud) symbolizing access to God for all. So today Jesus is said to continually intercede for His people as a priest was supposed to do (Hebrews 7:25) and He is compared to the ancient priest Melchizidek. (Hebrews 6:20; Psalm 110:4)

Jesus is also described as a king. He was welcomed as a king in fulfillment of prophecy (See, for example, John 12:12-15). He is described as a king, sitting on God’s right hand (Mark 16:19), and coming in the future to literally rule the earth. (See many verses such as Matthew 25:34 or Revelation 19:16)

So Ryken shows though many quotations from LOTR that Gandalf is the prophet of the stories. Not only does he look like the traditional images of the prophet (long beard and a robe), but he shares wisdom and guidance to others and performs an occasional miracle like Moses, Elijah, or Elisha. This becomes a powerful description in Ryken’s hands, so much so that this reader was put under some conviction. I believe the Lord was using this to encourage me to be more direct about my beliefs.

Frodo, Sam, and the other Hobbits in particular are compared to priests: Not priests in the formal or Hebrew sense, but in the post-Resurrection New Testament sense. Peter and John both say that all Christian believers are now priests. (See I Peter 2:9 and Revelation 1:6) The Reformers along with Ryken call this the priesthood of all believers.

So Frodo and Sam in particular find courage they did not know they had in order to save Middle Earth. It is really based on loyalty—both to each other and to their homeland of the Shire. They were acting on behalf of the rest of Middle Earth. The character sketches in this section of Messiah Comes to Middle Earth are especially moving. Sam and Frodo believe that they will die in Mordor, but that is OK because their people will be OK if they complete their quest.

Of course, Aragorn is the king. Like Jesus, he is not always recognized as such. The experiences he has as Strider the Ranger, as Isildur’s heir in the Paths of the Dead, and as a military leader prepare him. (As I write this I note a parallel with Jesus as the itinerant rabbi, dying and descending to the place of the dead, and coming back someday as a conquering king). Aragorn’s return has been prophesied by many, but many others are skeptical. Ultimately, he does prove himself. Like a righteous king, he also recognizes the contributions of many others. He is able to form alliances even at great risk. Yes, he is political, but in the most noble manner.

There is a lot to this little book. It has made me think that perhaps it will soon be time to read LOTR once again. My thanks to the colleague who gave me a copy of this book.

In the Father’s Hands – Review

J. E. Solinski. In the Father’s Hands. AMOC Publications, 2017. Print.

In the Father’s Hands is a sequel to A Matter of Control. It is a standalone story, however. It is not necessary to have read the first book to understand this one. Still, if readers related to any of the characters in the first one, they would learn about some of them fifteen years later.

Last time we read about a high school in a tough Detroit neighborhood. This is set in the same high school only fifteen years later. The biggest change in those years seems to be that many of the people have cell phones. Also some students can earn money after school tutoring other students.

Two returning characters are Martha Richards and Travis Johnson. English teacher Mrs. Richards is planning on retiring at the end of the school year. Mr. Johnson is now the principal of Montgomery High School, his alma mater. The first day of school he takes four freshmen wearing the same jacket into his office to warn them about gang activity. He wants to nip any such threat in the bud. One boy who appears to be their leader has knife in his sock which Mr. Johnson confiscates.

What the principal does not know is that this boy, Gabriel, is homeless. His drug addict mother has disappeared, and Gabriel took his eight year old sister into an abandoned apartment building where they are living with little to keep them warm or fed. Contemporary Detroit, alas, has many such abandoned buildings.

No one knows about Gabriel’s problems except for one bitter Montgomery junior named Claire, and she does not know Gabriel personally at all. Claire has her own problems. She was attending an exclusive school for the arts in Los Angeles. Her father left her mother who had to move back to her mother in Detroit. She went from sophisticated film classes with Hollywood connections to a ghetto high school that the school board is considering closing.

Mrs. Richards soon gets a sense of what Claire’s English class is like and encourages Claire to keep up her filming. Soon Claire decides to make a documentary about her new high school and happens to come across Gabriel picking food out of trash cans in an alley.

Destiny is one of a small group of Christians on campus. She and three friends make it point to befriend students who seem to be on the outs such as those sitting by themselves at lunch. Destiny becomes friends with Claire after some tentativeness on Claire’s part. Soon their roles would be nearly reversed.

Destiny is a state-champion cross-country runner. She is even closing in on a high school record for the state. Also a junior, colleges are beginning to notice her. Then, as she is finishing a race, she ruptures an Achilles tendon. That might very well be the end of her track career and hopes for an athletic scholarship. Having seen her possible future vanish, Claire can identify with Destiny’s moroseness, but can she help?

As judging from the title, a big question throughout this book is the simple “Where is God?” Broken homes, broken families, broken dreams—doesn’t He care? A hard question, a tough city, but God does not mind either hard questions or tough cities. Still, Solinski effectively gets across the idea that there are not necessarily easy answers, either. Still, Solinski reminds us that God’s people are his hands and feet on earth these days.

Anyone reading this would at the very least care about Gabriel. He is misunderstood. He really needed that knife for survival, not for gang fights. He is doing his best to stay away from gangs and keep his sister safe. But what can he do? School gives him some hope, earns a little money as a tutor there, but when some adults from the school discover his abode, he retreats. For the sake of keeping him and his sister together does not return to school. What can he do?

This reviewer could not help but make one small observation. The principal has a picture with a Bible verse on his desk at school. Perhaps the Detroit School District is more tolerant than those in my state. Even smaller indications of religion have gotten teachers fired here. Let us hope that is a sign that our educational system will become more inclusive and less intolerant. Make that one a prayer.

Famous Authors I Have Known – Review

James Magnuson. Famous Authors I Have Known. New York: Norton, 2015. E-book.

Frankie and Barry are career confidence men in New York City. As the story opens, Barry has found a victim who is willing to pay thousands for a forged winning lottery ticket worth millions. It all seems to be going smoothly enough for these hustlers. Barry sells the ticket to a guy named Joey who takes a stack of hundred dollar bills out of the book for the ticket.

Afterwards, the bank withdrawal ticket found among the Benjamins tells them their mark was Joseph Cannetti, Jr., of New Jersey. Joseph Cannetti, Sr., is a Mafia capo. Sure enough, Frankie finds Barry in his apartment bleeding to death and a giant hit man cleaning up in the next room.

Frankie immediately takes a taxi to LaGuardia Airport and finds the next plane he can leave on. He does not care where it is going. He has enough forged plastic and identifications to last for a while. It turns out his destination is Austin, Texas. While waiting in line, he notices a little scuffle involving a man who looks a lot like Frankie himself. Some people in line seemed to recognize this man as he suddenly tears up his boarding pass and heads for the exit.

When Frankie arrives at the Austin airport, three attractive female graduate students come to him and tell him they are there to pick him up. They think he is the famous recluse author V. S. Mohle whom they are taking to the Fiction Institute of Texas where he is supposed to be teaching as semester-long writing workshop. Being out of ideas, this looks relatively safe, so Frankie goes along with it. No hitman is going to attack a famous writer.

Mohle is a J. D. Salinger-type character, author of one perennially popular teen novel called Eat Your Wheaties. He has lived on an island off the coast of Maine for twenty-five years and has made no public appearance—nor written anything else—since he had a run-in with the prolific Rex Schoeninger, author of thick historical-geographical novels that have sold millions. Schoeninger is like an aging and slightly infirm James Michener.

We get a few details about Eat Your Wheaties. It is about two teenage boys from New York City who try to find some adventure in the city, not unlike Holden Caulfield. They then go on cross-country trip looking for the father of one of the boys. On the Road anyone? The book title itself suggest Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. Yeah, we see.

That is the setup. If you, the reader, are still with me, then you have to check this out. Frankie does a very clever job at pretending to be Mohle. He has these MFA students in awe. Since Eat Your Wheaties, like Catcher in the Rye, is set in New York, he tells stories of his own experiences in the city which his students see as inspiring the novel. He is a confidence man, so conning is what he does well. Any literary reader will get a kick out of how he pulls the wool over the eyes of the self-important.

It turns out that Rex Schoeninger is footing the bill for “V. S. Mohle’s” class in order to make things right before he shuffles off his mortal coil. Of course, it gets complicated, especially when Schoeninger is nominated for a European writing award which our con artist Frankie suspects is a con itself. This is where Frankie does interact with a few other famous writers, notably Günter Grass.

Famous Writers I Have Known is not unlike a one-man caper story, but it cleverly satirizes writers’ institutes, MFA programs, and some literary prizes. I once roomed with the author of a novel that won a regional literary prize who complained that the prize did not help him sell one more book. It should appeal to English majors, MFA students, and other “literary” readers—as well as those who enjoy a good con.

How Dante Can Save Your Life – Review

Rod Dreher. How Dante Can Save Your Life. New York: Regan Arts, 2015. E-book.

This book begins with a comment that should get the reader’s attention: “I don’t much like poetry. Never have.” But the author then proceeds to tell how reading through Dante’s Divine Comedy helped him cope with difficulties in life.

Believe it or not, this book in some ways was not unlike Lost Among the Birds. That book told of the author’s struggle with depression and how recovery from that paralleled his pursuit of a big year. So How Dante Can Save Your Life is really an autobiography in which Dante’s epic plays a significant part.

I was familiar with Dreher, having read some articles he had written, and I knew he had written The Benedict Option, which is written for a Christian audience. I have enjoyed The Divine Comedy, though I have never read it analytically or studied it academically. Dreher’s book was (and still is as of this posting) a bargain on Amazon. Why not?

Unlike the author of the Lost Among the Birds, Dreher was not struggling with depression specifically. His problem was more elemental: family conflict. Dreher grew up in rural Louisiana and pursued a fairly successful career as a journalist, actually ending up at the New York Post.

But his family never accepted his career choice. Both his father and his only sister felt that he had abandoned the family and everything that they stood for. Both of them were highly esteemed in the home parish (Louisiana has parishes instead of counties), so there was a tendency to see him as a rebel or a black sheep. From his perspective, he really was not those things, he just had other interests. He writes: “There has never been a time in my life when I have not acutely felt that I was disappointing my father.” (7)

(I could identify with this to a degree; I always felt my father was disappointed that I majored in English rather than pursuing a career in finance.)

Dreher with his wife and kids moved back to his hometown. He made friends and established himself there but never was able to connect to most of his close relatives other than one niece. There were other issues, but this long-simmering conflict would continue to beset him, and he was at a loss what to do.

Sadly, his sister died in her early forties. Dreher wrote a book in her honor, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. It really is a hagiography, and he received many compliments and a few honors for it. In spite of the very positive presentation of Ruthie in the book, most of his family considered it self-serving and were still convinced that he did not like them or even his sister whom he praises so much in the book.

He did become involved in some counseling both from a licensed counselor and his priest (he tells how he joined the Orthodox Church). At the same time he picked up a copy of Dante. Much of this tells how it spoke to him. It also is not a bad introduction to the Divine Comedy itself.

Dreher tells how as a reporter he had reported on the priest sexual abuse and cover-up scandal in the Catholic Church. He continued to remain Catholic because of his beliefs. He and his wife found a parish that they really liked and appreciated the priests, until it was revealed that even one of those priests had been involved in the abuse and the diocese had covered it up. Shortly after that, they joined an Orthodox congregation.

Dreher notes that Dante really spoke to him because in Dante’s day the Roman Church was corrupt. Dante places one of the recent popes and a number of other clerics in hell. But Dante remained faithful to the church because it still represented what is true and holy even if some of its practitioners did not.

Perhaps the most helpful thing for the reader is that he explains how the Divine Comedy really represents the Christian life on earth as much as it does the afterlife. The Inferno shows us the consequences of sin, and not simply the final punishment of sin. Each of the punishments reflects the hearts of the people who would commit that sin. For Dreher, as for others, this becomes a kind of mirror. He does not describe every circle, but only those that convicted him in his life, but he does an admirable job.

Throughout the book as Dreher looks at his own life and Dante’s epic, he focuses on love. So he notes, as does Dante, “sin is not at heart, a violation of a legalistic code, but rather a distortion of love. In Dante, sinners—and we are all sinners—are those who love the wrong things, or who love the right things in the wrong way.” (76)

How then, can he love his family? In a right way? Can they love him? In a right way?

Dreher admits that he does not believe in Purgatory. It is a dogma only of the Catholic Church. Neither Protestant nor Orthodox teach it. Dante’s Purgatorio describes people who believe in God but who are not yet pure enough to enter heaven. Each person there has to climb a mountain to gradually slough off their sin nature so they can enter heaven.

Dreher says that this is like the Christian walk in this earth. As we go through life, if the Lord is working in our lives, He gradually works on our emotions, mind, and will to make us more the kinds of people He wants us to be. So Dreher compares his own struggles to the struggles of some of those mountain climbers in Purgatory.

Dreher spends little time reacting to or describing the Paradisio. Perhaps that is because he does not believe he has arrived yet. Still, he understands it as an ideal and perfect place with Christ Himself at the center.

Hell is a dark and loveless place of absolute egotism. Heaven is filled with love, light, and the complete absence of ego. Purgatory is life as we experience it: a never-ending contest between love and hate, altruism and selfishness, good and evil—and the way we respond to these challenges matters. (44)

The author did not become a Catholic until he was nearly thirty. He understands current mores in the wider society. He sometimes interprets for a modern audience:

To be a heretic in Dante’s era was to disbelieve Catholic orthodoxy. Today, a broader, more secular definition is to believe that partial truths are whole truths. It takes steady, unflinching examination of our own consciences to uncover idol-making heresies—that is, beliefs that hold relative goods to be absolute.(127)

So Dreher examines his own life and looks for the half-truths. Was he expecting too much of his father and sister? Why did he need the approval of others? How do these things affect his relationship with his own wife and children? With God?

There is much more. This book takes a look at contemporary culture. Dante’s story begins “in a dark wood.” That is how Dreher felt. Alas, so many people today end up that way because they feel they have to achieve. Dreher had done very well in his chosen field, but still felt rejected by his family.

Dante’s own life was one of achievement until he found himself on the wrong side of a political controversy and was exiled from his thriving Florence home for the rest of his life. Only then could he write The Divine Comedy. So we learn about the poet as well his poem.

In the Inferno Dante and Dreher learn the truth about themselves. In Purgatorio they live out the truth in their daily lives. (186) One thing that Dreher said that both he and Dante had to learn to give up “on the possibility of getting justice in this life.” (229)

In Paradisio we see God’s design and plan for His people.

God does not expect you to be the same as everyone else. He only wants you to be perfected in the nature that he gave you and find your place in the harmony of the cosmos. (281)

We also have to understand that God’s salvation is not earned. To Dreher, Dante, and the Bible, it is to an act of mercy. (275) Blessed be the name of the Lord. In heaven:

Everything within Dante has been mystically and flawlessly joined to the will of God. He has reached the end of all his strivings. He has been perfected in Love. [author’s capital letter] No longer subject to the highs and the lows of Fortune’s wheel, the pilgrim now abides at the hub, the fixed point around which the universe turns. (279)

Dreher’s discovery of Dante results in recovery. He says he came back to Louisiana to find Utopia but instead found God. Eternity matters. Dreher notes near the end:

Boris Pasternak wrote that his suffering under communism made him see the Bible “not so much as a book with hard and fast text as the notebook of humanity and a key to everything eternal.” (292)

Life is short. Eternity is everlasting.

How Dante Can Save Your Life is actually an excellent book for counselors. Dreher shares a lot about what both his Baptist counselor and his Orthodox priest shared in counseling and confessional sessions. It is a moving tale that reminds us of the power of the word and the challenges of forgiveness.

The author has a bibliography for anyone who wants to get into Dante more. He also quotes from a few different translations to give us English speakers a taste of which one we might prefer. It might get a reader looking into it once again.

Revelation of the Magi – Review

Revelation of the Magi. Trans. & ed. Brent Landau. New York: Harper, 2010. E-book.

Revelation of the Magi is from an eighth-century Syriac (Aramaic) manuscript that had never been translated into English until Dr. Landau did it. The book is therefore subtitled The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem.

Even though this is being posted around Three Kings’ Day or Epiphany, these are not your typical three kings. Of course, the Bible does not actually tell us how many wise men there were. Generally people portray three of them because the Bible mentions three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

While the Bible only says that they came from the East to Judea, usually it is assumed that they were Persian because the Septuagint and other Jewish writings in Greek use the term magi to describe the Mandarin class royal advisors to the Persian kings.

The twelve wise men in this tale come from the far East. Their land of Shir is said to border the Ocean. (Yes, educated people in the Middle Ages understood the world was round, even if they did not know about the continent between East Asia and Western Europe. The writer tells us that they believed in a supreme God even though they did not have knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures, perhaps like the Chinese who traditionally acknowledged the King of Heaven.

In this tale the star was not a planet, nova, comet, or anything like that. It was a supernatural star that only the wise men could see. Sometimes the star would contain or turn into the Christ Child who would speak to them. Not only does the child tell them how to get to Bethlehem, but he shares lots of orthodox teaching about the Messiah. Parts echo the first chapter of the Gospel of John or the Athanasian Creed.

Painting by Rogier van Weyden c. 1450 showing child in star with Three Magi. Altarpiece, Middleburg, Belgium. Photo by Sailko, Wikimedia Commons.

The wise men do stop in Jerusalem and consult with Herod and the city elders. Nowhere does it mention what the gifts they gave were other than to say that they came from a secret cave in their homeland.

The story itself is straight from the Middle Ages. The various apparitions, magic caves, hidden treasures, magical foods and fountains that show up reminded this reader of various King Arthur stories, especially ones about the search for the Holy Grail, with some Arabian Nights thrown in. The theology is consciously quite orthodox. Even though it varies significantly from the Gospel account and comes across as a work of fiction, it does not have the doctrines of any of the Gnostic writings.

The translator has an extensive introduction and detailed footnotes. He tells of the provenance of the story and how it compares to similar Medieval tales from Ireland to Arabia (there used to be Christians there). He is a scholar of Biblical languages, but he does tell the reader up front that he does not believe Matthew’s account of the magi, either.

He also notes a number of Medieval and Renaissance works of art portraying the wise men that include such things as a cave, a fountain, or a child in a star which would indicate that the Revelation of the Magi tale had traction in some form through Christendom. We will not get particular insight on the magi from reading this , but it is an interesting historical artifact.

Smithsonian Baseball – Review

Stephen Wong. Smithsonian Baseball. New York: Harper, 2005. Print.

Smithsonian Baseball‘s title misleads a little. It is not about baseball related items in the Smithsonian Institution, America’s national museum. As the subtitle tells us, it is a look Inside the World’s Finest Private Collections. The author himself is a collector of baseball memorabilia, and each of the 21 chapters features a different baseball related collection with plenty of great photographs. Indeed, the layout and photography by Susan Einstein makes the presentation exceptional.

There are three chapters devoted to collectors of nineteenth and/or early twentieth century memorabilia and equipment. Here we see evidence for some of the actual history of the game, for example, a printed rule book from the 1850s which has rules for both the Massachusetts and New York games. One collection specializes in World Series scorecards and programs from 1903 to the present. There are collections of baseball cards (the famous Honus Wagner tobacco card gets some attention) and advertising ephemera.

We learn about early photographers who specialized in sports, along with collections of pins, folk art, trophies from baseball. One collector specializes in trophies and championship rings. Another focuses on material from overseas tours, which American players took periodically between 1874 and 1934.

There are, of course, interesting autographs and game-used gloves, bats, and uniforms. We get discussions of provenance. How can we prove that an old bat was actually used by, say, Home Run Baker in games? What advice does the author have for collectors of today?

Some collectors are quite specialized. Dan Knoll collects material connected with the 1969 Chicago Cubs. Among other things we learn about the goat jinx. Actress and director Penny Marshall specializes in older baseball folk art. That she is a baseball collector should come as no surprise; after all, she directed A League of Their Own, about a women’s professional baseball league.

The author specializes in what he calls “immortal brethren,” memorabilia from players who are linked together in some way. He has material from Tinker, Evans, and Chance, even some uniforms; the 1951-55 Brooklyn Dodger Boys of Summer (Snider, Hodges, Robinson, Reese, and Campanella); the Dean brothers; the 1946 Red Sox “Team Mates” who remained lifelong friends (Doerr, Dom DiMaggio, Pesky, and Williams); and the Joe DiMaggio-Ted Williams “rivalry.” This is probably the best written chapter because we see the author’s heart behind it and get more in touch with the humanity of professional athletes.

There are many fascinating pictures and great collections. My own memorabilia? Just a few things that somehow survived my childhood. But maybe if I ever did want to sell, I might have an idea about who to contact.

The Case for a Creator – Review

Lee Strobel. The Case for a Creator. Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan, 2004. E-book.

The Case for a Creator follows a pattern that journalist Lee Strobel has successfully used in other works. He interviews various experts to present his “cases”: for Christ, for Faith, for Easter, and so on. Here he interviews a series of scientists and philosophers on the problems and significance of evolutionary theory. In addition, he quotes many other authors and speakers on the subject.

In the beginning of the book, Strobel notes:

Science has become identified with a philosophy known as materialism or scientific naturalism. This philosophy insists that nature is all there is, or at least the only thing about which we can have any knowledge. (17)

He also notes that according to pro-evolution debater William Provine there are “five inescapable conclusions” if Darwinism is true:
(1) There is no evidence for God
(2) No life after death
(3) No foundation for right and wrong
(4) No meaning for life, and
(5) There is no free will

As an aside, I would be interested in seeing this proponent of evolution debate Jason Lisle or Greg Bahnsen. If there is no meaning, no right and wrong, and no free will, how is it possible to know that anything is true, even evolution? It appears to be a self-defeating argument. But that is a different discussion.

In other words, for Strobel and most people the issue of nature creating itself is not just about science. It is philosophical and moral. Strobel then shares his own experience of how, like so many Westerners, he became a religious skeptic when he studied evolution in high school. As I would note from my own experience, I believed in evolution because it was the only show in town.

Strobel gets it. As an adult, he has been on both sides of the issue. He knows the arguments for both. Now he is an evolutionary skeptic. He presents a fairly detailed case for why he is.

First, he explains or tries to show that belief in a different origin story does not mean one is unscientific. Indeed, there is very little religion in this book until close to the end because that is its purpose. At one point he notes that creationists often quibble over the age of the earth. Strobel explicitly tells the reader that that discussion is beyond the scope of this book. He does seem to accept the uniformitarian idea that the earth is very old, but for his case that is beside the point. He presents challenges to Darwinism.

There are many challenges to Darwinism. Most have been discussed in other works, but Strobel puts many of them together.

One idea we read about is the anthropic principle—that if there were even very slight differences in the measurable forces in the universe, life and even matter could not exist. Strobel cites the work of many on gravity, atomic forces, the presence of elements heavier than helium, among other things to show how it appears that the universe must have been ordered by a very skillful mathematician. This is similar to Ivey’s argument, though Strobel’s language is plain and more direct. Even the Solar System’s location in the Milky Way is significant for the existence of our “privileged planet.”

Strobel discusses the Cambrian Explosion with scientists. The sedimentary layer known as the Cambrian layer has virtually all new species appear at the same time. Even Darwin recognized this and said that if people could not find earlier examples of transitional and intermediate forms, his theory was doomed. 170 years later, people are still looking. Strobel shows that the “punctuated equilibrium” theory to explain this was simply an attempt to avoid bringing creation into the discussion.

There are a couple of chapters on biochemistry. Back in Darwin’s day people knew next to nothing about microbes and biochemistry. I recall reading a book from the 1950s saying that all cells were basically made of the same organic jelly called protoplasm and that the only difference between plants and animals was that plant cells had a stiff “cell wall” surrounding the protoplasm and animals had flexible membranes around their cells.

Now we know that cells are very complex. They have numerous organelles and their biochemistry is often irreducible. In other words, if one piece of an organelle or one step in a biochemical process is left out, the cell dies. For one creature to change into another would require multiple changes at the same time that were successful and recurring at relatively high rates. We have never observed either. Indeed, most such changes or mutations are deadly. And the probability of even one such change is infinitesimal.

At one point one of Strobel’s interviewees briefly discusses and effectively dismissed the multiverse theory, which this reviewer mentioned was espoused by Josh Gribbin. To sum it up, there is no evidence.

Strobel also does readers a favor because one of his interviewees debunks a popular myth about evolutionary thought. When I critiqued The Beak of the Finch, I pointed this out, but I thought it was just an error on the part of the author of that book. Apparently it is a widely held belief: Received Academic Tradition tells students that the scientific revolution, which began around the time of Copernicus when Westerners began using the scientific method, put an end to a religious perspective. That was just not so. Copernicus was a monk. Galileo was a lay brother. Newton was a devout Bible believer who wrote books on Bible prophecy. Later, Priestly was a Unitarian minister.

The Case for Creation correctly points out that the early scientific astronomers tended to see the scope of the universe as a sign of God’s greatness and man’s relative insignificance. Newton saw the mathematical precision of the motions of the heavenly bodies as a sign of intelligent design. (If you have any doubts, read the conclusion of his Principia.)

It was the skeptics of the so-called Enlightenment like Rousseau, Hobbes, and Voltaire (later Kant) who emphasized that “man is the measure of all things.” The evolutionary interpretation of cosmic history that both the universe and mankind are some kind of random accident was (and still is) more of a challenge to that man-centered enlightenment thinking than to any traditional or Medieval religious thought. Man is no longer the measure of all things, but even his thought processes are suspect.

To this reader, the most original argument is one that Strobel saves for last. How do we explain consciousness?

Although many people (including Darwin) see consciousness as simply neural activity in the brain, it is pretty clear that there is more to it. We do make choices. We do have wills. Even people with severe brain damage still have awareness. And there are too many out of body and near death experiences which testify that people are more than just “computers made of meat.” (We reviewed a great book written by a brain surgeon on this subject a few years ago.)

Strobel quotes a Darwinist who asks rhetorically, “Why should a bunch of atoms have thinking ability?…The point is there is no scientific answer.” (247) One interviewee said:

A scientist could know more about what is happening in my brain than I do, but he couldn’t know more about what was happening in my mind than I do. He has to ask me. (259)

As he makes his case for a creator here, Strobel notes that just as man’s mind is rational, intelligent, creative, sentient, and invisible, so is the Creator. Superficial thinkers dismiss the idea of God because He cannot be seen. Neither can our thoughts, creativity, and sensations. We see their evidence. So it is with God.

Strobel also notes that all living creatures contain and pass on genetic information. This is what DNA, RNA, genes, and chromosomes are all about. “Information is the hallmark of mind,” said one scientist being interviewed, and “no hypothesis has come close to explaining how information got into biological matter by naturalistic means.” (282)

There is a lot more to this. The Case for a Creator presents a solid challenge to the believer in evolution. Ultimately, the experience of most scientists who believe in design note that “some people don’t just disagree; many of them jump up and down and get red in the face.” (215) For what is supposedly an intellectual scientific theory (and it is still only a theory), the issue of evolution seems to create a lot of emotional responses. Readers with an open mind can learn as Strobel himself did. Read it and see.

The Missing Heir – Review

Recently we reviewed a book about the Sherlock Holmes stories and a Sherlock Holmes spinoff. This is another spinoff, geared towards later elementary or middle school readers. The Missing Heirs is Book 4 in The Sherlock Files series.

Xena and Xander Holmes are descendants of Sherlock (Don’t you know he married?). Their friend Andrew Watson is a descendant of you-know-who (He did marry). With some adults, these kids are members of SPFD, the Society for the Preservation of Famous Detectives. They solve mysteries.

Xander and Xena are Americans living in London where they attend an international boarding school. One of their schoolmates is Alice Banders, the heir apparent to the throne of Borogovia. Her nanny is Miss Mimsy, so, yes, we are to think of Alice in Wonderland. (“All mimsy were the borogoves”; “the frumious bandersnatch”). Well, Doyle himself did something similar when he wrote of the ocean liner Ruritania in homage to The Prisoner of Zenda.

Alice knows that the Holmes siblings have a reputation as detectives and asks them for help. They do not have an occasion to go over Alice’s problem in detail when she is kidnapped from her mansion in London. The mansion has been owned by Borogovia for over a hundred years. It is technically a private residence but is known for very curious trompe l’oeil (optical illusion) paintings on some of its walls.

To solve the kidnapping, Xena and Xander refer to some old files of Sherlock Holmes. These files contain not only successful Holmes cases (such as “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder”—hint, hint—not The Sign of the Four) but also unsolved cases including a strange kidnapping of a Borogovian princess in 1894. The child was returned in a few months without a ransom payment or any explanation. Still ancestor Sherlock did not think that the case was closed.

These kid detectives do some homage to Sherlock, though at this level, readers may be ready to read the originals. Still, for young mystery lovers, this may be just the thing.

Seeds – Review

Greg Belliveau. Seeds. Colorado Springs: Crosslink, 2017. Print.

Seeds is subtitled Meditations on Grace in World with Teeth. Sooner or later we all discover that the world has teeth. Usually this begins in junior high, at least on a small scale. College teacher Belliveau gives an example that he uses in one of his classes. Here is an arc of life: college, work, marriage, children, promotions, comfortable retirement, grandchildren, and eventually death after a long, happy life.

He admits that most of the students recognize that such goals do not usually work out in such a simple manner. Life is hard. The oldest book in the Bible is Job which points this out and deals with the reality of God’s grace in an evil world.

Belliveau tells stories. One is about a childhood friend who had a poor memory. As a kid, he tied strings around his fingers to help him remember things, but then he forgot what he was supposed to remember. As an adult, he used stones for the same purpose with a similar result. Eventually, he had four reminders tattooed so that he would not forget.

Another story is about another friend who was a successful and prosperous surgeon until he nicked a blood vessel while operating on a twelve-year-old boy who died as a result. He lost nearly everything in the subsequent lawsuit. Life has teeth.

A recurring theme derives from the literary term in medias res—in the middle of the thing. Stories are often told this way: begin in the middle of the action. So in life we are always in the middle of the action. We cannot know for sure what will happen tomorrow. Belliveau vividly tells us we can look ahead with fear or with grace.

Along with those things, he meditates on truth. What if we had the ability to know what people were thinking, or if they knew what we were thinking. Would we be willing to acknowledge the truth? Belliveau considers Nicodemus and the woman at the well (see John 3 and 4). Jesus started out speaking in symbols (“born again,” “ living water”), but then becomes direct. Would they be willing to acknowledge the truth?

Seeds is direct with the reader: short (only 75 pages) but worth taking a look. Each separate meditation stands on its own, but like those potato chips, I bet you cannot eat just one.

Disclosure of Material: We received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through the BookCrash.com book review program, which requires an honest, though not necessarily positive, review.

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