The Demands of Love in Harry Potter

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (#6)

image credit: http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/albus-dumbledore/images/7749338/title/albus-dumbledore-photo

In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Fleur Delacouer, a student from a French school of magic visiting Hogwarts, says that her school would never tolerate the silliness that is commonplace at Hogwarts: “eef a poltergeist ever entaired into Beauxbatons, ‘e would be expelled like that!”

JK Rowling’s series is filled with characters unusual not only for their characteristics, but for the way they are welcomed at Hogwarts.

Some of these are marginal characters–the schools many ghosts come quickly to mind. Others are much more important to the story. One teacher is a former Death Eater–a supporter of Voldermort, the main villain of the series. And yet he is welcomed at Dumbledore’s Hogwarts. Another teacher was expelled from the school when he was a student but allowed to stay  at Hogwarts and work as their gamekeeper. Still another is a werewolf, something of an untouchable in wizarding society yet he too is warmly received at Hogwarts.

Similarly, a certain amount of unusual behavior is also tolerated. Fred and George Weasley, the older brothers of one of the series’ protagonists, are the frequent culprits here as they are consummate jokers. Over the course of the series they play a variety of pranks on students and teachers, ranging from giving their friends candies that temporarily turn them into canaries to more serious “violations” like turning a section of the school into a swamp.

Yet for all the imprecision, chaos, and oddity that marks Hogwarts, there is an order to it, else the school wouldn’t function. But it’s the nature of that order that merits close attention. It’s not loose per se. Minerva McGonnagall, one of Rowling’s most enjoyable characters who is played by the delightful Maggie Smith in the movies, is a strict disciplinarian. And when students are given detention or some other form of punishment, it is enforced. But standing behind this order at Hogwarts is the thing Dumbledore speaks of in nearly every extended monologue Rowling gives him: love. And this love causes the school to adopt a radically different order than that of the world outside Hogwarts where the technocratic, bureaucratic Ministry of Magic rules. (Spoilers below the jump)

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Curiosity and Love in Harry Potter

harry-potter-virtue-curiosity

I’m currently enjoying my biennial tradition of reading through the Harry Potter books. This is my fifth time through the books and I find that each time through I seem enjoy them at least as much as I did the last time I read them. I’m taking notes as I go through and am attempting to turn those notes into blogs.

If there is a signature sin of our day, you could easily argue that it is curiosity. Thanks to the internet we are inundated with cheap media, making it easier than ever to plunge ourselves into a well of information for no reason other than the lack of anything better to do.

In a post at Reformation 21 about lust, Brad Littlejohn wrote:

The “curiosity” that sends the bored or weary mind browsing for pornography is often little different from the impulse that has already sent the same mind back to Facebook ten times a day to look for new notifications, or rushing to your inbox every time you hear a chime.  In its digital form, pornography has united the age-old human desire for sex with our age-old propensity to seek diversion in the new and different, and offered almost unlimited and effortless “satisfaction” of both impulses.

This curiosity that Littlejohn is describing should be familiar to anyone who has ever begun mindlessly clicking on various links from social media only to discover that they’ve spent an hour online and have no lasting memory of any of it. And like all sin, this curiosity has a touch of madness about it. In Orthodoxy GK Chesterton notes that the mad man isn’t the man who has lost his reason, but the man who has lost everything except his reason. His mind moves in a perfect circle–an impossibly small one that offers no help to the man as far as accurately perceiving reality is concerned, but a perfect circle nonetheless. So it is with this digital-age version of curiosity. There is a sort of completeness to it–the archives of Wikipedia alone could occupy a person for a lifetime, let alone the many blogs, journals, and other forms of–forgive my use of this wretched word–“content” available on the web.

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The Expansion of the Good: On the Moral Universe of Prudence

“There may be many ways to do wrong in this world, but there are also many paths to the right; those governed by prudence are willing to at least admit the possibility.”

That’s from my recent article at Comment Magazine, a subscription to which would make an excellent Christmas gift to the thoughtful Christian reader in your life.  I sent them a piece that was wreckage, and they graciously helped me work through my intuitions.  I write to learn, sometimes, and this was one of those cases.

Still, I want to say one or two more words about this above line, as the thought beneath it has been rattling around upstairs for a while.  It is tempting to think of ‘prudence’ as virtue which is perpetually guarding against a nearly limitless number of wrongs, which make any action perilous at all. Aristotle famously sums up the intuition by suggesting that “there are many ways to be in error…but there is only one way to be correct.”  Beneath this lies the Pythagorean notion that the bad is boundless and undetermined, but the good has a kind of limited and determined nature: whereas the wrongs are infinite, the good is finite and bounded.*

Now, I am half disposed to grant that this is not merely true, but obviously so:  in evaluating a particular situation, it’s easy to think that the wrongs can multiply, as every husband frantically attempting to find a Christmas gift for his wife will unhappily attest to. From the standpoint of the person who is just or courageous, there may only be one path through certain difficulties, where the goods involved are obscured or limited by the magnitude of the moral dangers and wrongs that such a situation involves. There may be no apparent good to a pregnant woman with cancer who is deliberating about her course: or if there are, it certainly seems like the number and gravity of potential wrongs vastly exceeds them.

But if we remove ourselves from deliberating about the tragic situation, things seem different: it is, in the course of our normal life, the goods that are boundless and infinite and under-specified and the wrongs limit and constrain us. Consider all the goods which might be undertaken in the time it takes to read these musings:  you might enjoy a cup of tea, or donate some money to a charity, or buy a Christmas gift on Amazon, or write a note to your loved ones.  Or perhaps you might undertake a few moments of prayer, or reflect on your own path, or comfort a friend who is in sorrow. There are so many goods in this world that we can fulfill: to consider the opportunities to do good even within a single life is almost immobilizing.  Determining which goods to pursue is at least as difficult as discerning which wrongs to avoid.

I have vague, inarticulate suspicions that the moral atmosphere generated by each of these two outlooks will be very different, and that they matter for what form we imagine the virtue of prudence to take. Asking about the goods I might participate in is a generative question: it is a question which expands our imaginations and turns our attention away from the wrongs which might beset us toward the opportunities to partake in the growing goodness of the world that we have been given. “Let us not become weary in doing good” is a bit of psychological counsel that has deep metaphysical roots: it is tempting to allow lassitude about the goods before us to take over, and to allow our entire spiritual and moral horizons to be overwhelmed by avoiding the sheer volume of potential wrongs before us.

George MacDonald’s little novel sums up the danger in a way that has haunted me since I first read it:

‘I didn’t mean to do any harm, ma’am. I didn’t think of its being yours.’

‘Ah, Curdie! If it weren’t mine, what would become of it now?’ she returned. ‘You say you didn’t mean any harm: did you mean any good, Curdie?’

‘No,’ answered Curdie.

‘Remember, then, that whoever does not mean good is always in danger of harm. But I try to give everybody fair play; and those that are in the wrong are in far more need of it always than those who are in the right: they can afford to do without it. Therefore I say for you that when you shot that arrow you did not know what a pigeon is. Now that you do know, you are sorry. It is very dangerous to do things you don’t know about.’

“Did you mean any good, Curdie?”  It is the good which is boundless, which is infinite, and which if we participate in is a source of endless youth and renewal and joy.  Prudence must, first and foremost, be an activity of mind which turns toward the goods within a particular situation and determines which of them should be undertaken.  And if we will so direct our minds, I suspect we will discover a more varied and colorful universe, full of possibilities for action and imagination, than we had previously known.

*Aristotle is considering the nature of virtue, which is an agent-centered concern and may explain why he is interested in a more limited form of the good.

A Tale of Two Deaths

The stories of two impending deaths has recently come before our society’s attention, and justly so. Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old who recently transplanted herself from San Francisco to Oregon, explained why she is planning to commit physician’s-assisted suicide.  Her account was elegantly and movingly countered by that of Kara Tippetts, who has documented her own ongoing struggle with cancer in a forthcoming book.From the publisher

It is nearly impossible to speak well of such matters: there are few aspects of our lives that are as intimate or personal as the manner of our death. Whatever theological claim we might make about it, even if none at all, many of us are gripped by an inescapable instinct that death poses a challenge to us, that it raises a question about the meaning of our lives to which we must provide an answer. We cringe, rightly, at the banality of a ‘funeral selfie’; but we lack a category altogether, thank God, for a ‘dying selfie.’ Television stations still shield us from showing videos where people die, and rightly so. There is perhaps no greater proof of our fundamental and universal commitment to the sacredness of human life than that we endeavor, whenever possible, to protect ourselves from voyeuristic viewings of the moment of its passing. We may wish them to be known, but only by those who already know us well. To have it otherwise is a kind of profanation of the mystery of human life and mortality.

So there is a serious danger about reflecting on the manner of these two coming deaths: to write about them risks trespassing upon the holy and terrible moments that they will respectively face. What is more, my own death is not imminent, at least that I know: while I have reflected more on it as a possibility than most people my age I know, I have been assured (and readily believe it) that there are few matters where the gap between theory and the encounter is wider.

Still, the way they have spoken of what is before them invites such reflection: they have, for better or worse, made available to us the stories they are telling themselves in order to prepare for that final day. Those stories are different, and those differences matter: but there is a kind of boldness beneath each that I wonder whether I would have.  To invite a kind of publicity into one’s own death requires a unique kind of confidence: I would be tempted to falsify my own existence under such scrutiny. That is a temptation for all of us even now, no doubt, but beneath the shadow of death such temptations take on a new force.

But their stories contain two separate worlds. Continue reading

Medical Missionaries and the Role of Evidence

Matthew Loftus is a family doctor who lives with his wife Maggie and his daughter Naomi in Baltimore , where they are blessed to be a part of New Song Community Church. He aspires to finish his novel and to teach medicine overseas. You may follow him on Twitter @matthew_loftus if you’d like.

Slate’s Brian Palmer is right: missionary medicine in Africa is largely unregulated, unstudied, and understaffed. I have seen with my own eyes—and performed with my own hands—clinical decisions that would rightly be considered malpractice in a developed setting because they required that procedures or medications used reserved for specialists be attempted in order to save a life (ask me sometime about the time I did hand surgery.)

What’s more, I did so in Jesus’ name, praying with and for patients whilst frequently consulting a chaplain to do some heavy-duty proselytization. Doing good for the sake of others doesn’t require that one believe in Jesus; there are plenty of organizations and individuals who are providing medical care without any spiritual strings attached. But neither does believing in Jesus necessarily inhibit people from doing good, as Palmer seems to suspect.

This, however, is not the end of the story, though it’s about all that Palmer bothers to talk about. The story of missionary medicine is more complicated— and expansive—than he realizes. One might think that a writer ostensibly dedicated to reason and scientific study might want to investigate the evidence that does exist—sparse as it may be—on the role of faith-based organizations and Christian missionaries within the medical systems of developing countries. Unfortunately, Palmer is content to fire off a few statistics about this bizarre tribe of missionaries and their backwards religious customs, then revel in horror at their unquantified habits of practice.

I have personally sat in meetings and seminars dedicated solely to exploring the ethical issues raised by practicing medicine in limited resources, using Biblical principles to sort out how to best care for patients in a way that is sustainable and merciful. I have listened to countless Christian medical professionals discuss the lengths that they go to in order to invest particularly in professional development for indigenous health practitioners. I have even been party to forums in secular professional meetings where the benefits and risks of an explicitly religious approach to medicine were openly debated. What’s more, these aren’t just my personal vignettes—they are an essential part of the numerous institutions that Christian missionaries train and serve in.

I certainly appreciate the historical nods that Palmer gives in his piece, acknowledging that criticism of missionary doctors goes back a long way. What he doesn’t mention, however, is the fact that the modern enterprises of community health and international development were not only founded on the precepts of missionary medicine, they continue to be shaped by the work of missionaries. Much of the evidence regarding community-based primary health care strategies comes from Christian projects. The Alma Ata Declaration—a WHO document that lays out the foundational principles for evidence-based primary care health systems—was based strongly on the work of Christian missionaries who helped to convene multiple conferences in the 1960’s and 70’s on international health. As Carl Taylor, who helped write the Declaration, stated:

“Coming out of the conference, the entire global health community, developed and developing, was energized to ramp up health care around the world. The tenets of serving the poor, service to the community as a whole, disease prevention, and the pivotal role of women in health, developed following [Christian medical conferences] and refined by Christian Medical Commission, were firmly built into the evolving framework of Primary Health Care.” from The Christian Community’s Contribution to the Evolution of Community-Based Primary Health Care (PDF)

Beyond the crucial role that Christian missionaries played in helping shift the WHO’s conception of health from the previously dominant compartmentalized, top-down model of care delivery to a more generous understanding of health as a function of human flourishing that must be secured as part of a social justice agenda, there are numerous initiatives within missionary organizations today to carry on this legacy. For example, both the ongoing Global Missions Health Conference and the recently launched Christian Journal of Global Health are dedicated to the exact sort of research, analysis, and quality improvement that Palmer thinks are missing from modern missionary medicine– which makes one wonder how hard he (or his editors) actually bothered to look into this subject. Most of the residencies dedicated to training indigenous physicians in Sub-Saharan Africa–whether surgeons or family doctors–are linked to one missionary organization or another. The “current emphasis of international health delivery” of education and training that he mentions? The Christian Medical and Dental Association even has a whole enterprise dedicated to it. A study to quantify who is working where and what they are doing that he hasn’t seen? It’s been out for 4 years! All of this is still bare-bones, but it’s disingenuous to suggest that medical missions is “a mystery,” as Palmer does.

Research and quality improvement are indeed lacking in Sub-Saharan Africa (although Palmer’s mention of PubMed is laughable because you can use PubMed to find all sorts of papers written by missionaries, they just don’t write “Christian Missions” in every title.) This is largely due to funding; most African countries have yet to devote the state funds necessary for ensuring basic healthcare provisions for their people, much less an ample funding source for research akin to the vast resources that NIH, charitable foundations, and pharmaceutical companies pour into investigation in the First World (and let’s not forget that in America we have to have big public campaigns to get our highly educated professionals to actually follow the evidence that has been amassed because said professionals are so bad at following it). Many missionaries—already working long hours with limited resources—still find the time and money to collect clinical data, report it to whatever entity is willing to crunch the numbers, and use the results to shape their practice.

Beyond these concerns—which Palmer freely admits he might relinquish if secular physicians were carrying out the work—lies the question of faith. His willingness to admit that his discomfort about this issue won’t motivate him into an ideological crusade against health professionals who proselytize is certainly commendable. For a non-religious person steeped in a non-religious environment, it certainly seems apropos to be skeptical of missionaries who are open about their faith and wag a finger at those who would dare to use their position as a medical provider to share their beliefs with others. However, such an outlook is downright ignorant of non-Western conceptions of health and disease, which are far more open to spiritual causes of disease and more frank discussions of faith as it relates to health. In a world where cell phones and reverence for one’s ancestors are equally valuable and many people inquire of a witch doctor before seeking medical attention at a hospital, it is not at all unusual or inappropriate to practitioners to discuss their own religion and how it might offer a better perspective on the suffering and fear that their patients are facing. I don’t know if Palmer’s piece was vetted by any Africans, but it doesn’t seem to reflect any understanding of the holistic worldview that I have encountered among non-Western health professionals.

We do need to address the disquieting motivations that medical missionaries sometimes have for their work. Again, the white and wealthy cultural milieu finds animating spiritual convictions frightening for legitimate reasons and has ample historical basis for such fear (although the legacy of colonial missionaries is far more positive than most give credit for.) However, the dedication with which missionaries apply themselves to their work and the places that they choose to invest their labors are inseparable from the theological distinctives of evangelical Christianity. Just as the American Civil Rights Movement or the British anti-slavery movement cannot be understood without a deep appreciation for the religious teachings that shaped them, so missionary medicine is inseparable from the doctrines discerned from the Bible. Jesus’ ministry of preaching and healing are inseparable—the Gospels are full of incidents where He challenges, exhorts, encourages, or rebukes one who has been healed or a crowd around Him as a part of the healing. At the very heart of Christian doctrine is the understanding that as Christ’s suffering delivered us unto life, so our suffering as believers can produce similar fruit in others. Kent Brantly, Olivet Buck, and Jerry Umanos stand as excellent examples of such Passion-motivated compassion. Dr. Brantly survived his suffering for others, but Drs. Buck and Umanos did not—these theological convictions are what make Christian missionary medicine uniquely effective and continue to drive the disproportionate (but still insufficient) number of religiously based medical providers.

The deficiencies that Palmer notes in his piece are real, and mission work is desperately in need of the sort of resources we apply to Western medicine. However, both the spiritual aspects of Christian mission work and the rigor already applied to such medical endeavors are indispensable to the story of healthcare in Africa—even if if Palmer can’t be bothered to discuss them when he bemoans the lack of data plaguing health care abroad. Rather than casting aspersions and “standing aside,” those who love evidence-based practice ought to celebrate what has been done through missionaries, apply what they have to teach us, and follow them to places where just and equitable health systems are still being built.

The Evangelical Roots of the Benedict Option

In 1948 the Bible Presbyterian Church, a quasi-fundamentalist evangelical denomination, sent a 36-year-old pastor and his family to Europe to check on the state of the church after World War II. The family settled in Switzerland and worked mostly in child evangelism before coming back to the United States in the early 1950s on furlough. They returned in 1955 and settled down in a village called Huemoz, a small Swiss village about one mile up into the Swiss Alps near Lausanne. At that time their oldest daughter began attending university and would bring her friends back home with her to visit on weekends.

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This Demon Only Comes Out By Prayer and Prozac

Matthew Loftus is a family doctor who lives with his wife Maggie and his daughter Naomi in Baltimore , where they are blessed to be a part of New Song Community Church. He aspires to finish his novel and to teach medicine overseas. You may follow him on Twitter @matthew_loftus if you’d like.

“It’s a chemical imbalance.”

You may have heard or said those words before in reference to mental illness. I have done both myself a number of times in my practice as a primary care doctor. One good example of opening the conversation about them can be found here from Ed Stetzer; one of Stetzer’s explicit goals is to decrease shame and stigma against mental illness by locating the pathology of mental illness in neurobiology and then asserting the need for medication to rectify the dysfunctional biology. As Christians across the world grapple with the modern understanding of mental illness, it is helpful to not only understand what these imbalances are and how medication might address them, but also to challenge a point of view that reduces mental illness to a mere malfunction of biology.

The impetus behind the use of the words “chemical imbalance” is good. After all, confining mental illness solely to the untouchable realm of feelings and thoughts is not only ignorant of biology, but also of orthodox anthropology. Furthermore, such a harsh dichotomy happens to be extraordinarily ineffective in the lives of most sufferers of mental illness. You may or may not have heard of an excellent book that sought to make clear the theological importance of our physical bodies; affirming that deficiencies or excesses of certain chemicals in our brains play a role in mental illness is an important step in the process of rightly treating our bodies as part of the created order. In turn, the judicious use of other chemicals to rein in the torment and harm caused by mental illness is as much a part of using our God-given power to exercise dominion over the earth as is carefully using pesticides on our crops so that more people can eat.

However, saying “you’ve got a chemical imbalance” does not go far enough and, paradoxically, can often take us too far in the wrong direction.

Assigning mental illness solely to such imbalances is inadequate firstly because it underappreciates the complexity of neurobiology. For example, we know very well that people with depression have lower serotonin levels (most potently demonstrated in studying the brains of those who have committed suicide.) Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac or Zoloft raise serotonin levels in the brain. However, while many of the measurable effects of SSRIs on neurons can be seen within hours of first taking the drug, the effects of these medications are rarely appreciated until at least 4 to 6 weeks, making it far from clear that raising one’s low serotonin levels is their sole useful effect. Furthermore, the fact that any of these medicines has roughly a 30-40% chance of working in isolation on the first try is evidence that any “imbalances” we discuss are less like our car’s windshield wiper fluid and more like our food’s soil. When dealing with even more complex illnesses like bipolar disorder (which responds to a wide range of medications that are also effective for epilepsy) or schizophrenia (which involves a greater variety of neurochemical pathways), it is clear that the language of “chemical imbalance” is simply a starting point.

Secondly, while it is obvious that there are many aspects of brain biochemistry that we cannot consciously control, there are many others that we can. The choices we make shape our physical bodies– including our brain structure and genes. This is most apparent in the cycle of addiction, wherein an addict’s brain is often demonstrably altered to have a minimal response to normal pleasurable stimuli and to require greater and greater doses of the drug of choice to not feel agonizing withdrawal. However, as we learn more about the bodies that God has given us, we see that chronic stress and traumatic events (often caused by the sin of others) can shape the brains of children with immature decision-making ability in ways that last for a lifetime. Thus, there is a reciprocal relationship between our environment, our bodies, and our feelings. Both our moods and our decision-making abilities are shaped by constant internal decisions and external stimuli.

The most potent example of this principle is the case of a sexually abused child who overeats not only to soothe the excess quantities of stress hormones that may or may not be predisposing them to depression later in life, but also to appear less attractive to their abuser. Even without immediately jumping to the conclusion insisting that the government must do something (as part 3 of the article linked above does), it is clear that we must jettison any simplistic understanding of the complex interaction between brain and body as a matter of individuals choosing to either sinfully wallow in mental illness or righteously embrace freedom in Christ. Similarly, we must also not succumb to a materialistic view that defines people stuck in mental illness solely as victims of circumstance.

We go too far in the wrong direction in this manner when our appreciation for the power of pharmacology to help guide our brain chemistry into a more ordered pattern becomes a helpless veneration of medicine. I have seen this, too, in my practice– patients who have been trained to believe that their own efforts to calm their nerves or pay attention are useless when compared to the power of Xanax or Adderall. The danger of these medications is that they are powerful enough to abrogate our efforts; as prescriptions for these (and similar) medications continue to dominate the market in a way that disquiets many clinicians, a sense of restraint and discipline is necessary for all parties involved.

Health is a discipline. The bodies that God has given us require care and attention to maintain in a way that fits the pattern he established for our being; while our appetites can sometimes be helpful guides to our needs, they are often magnified or minimized by sin in such a way to lead us astray. Whether we are choosing certain foods, actively exercising, or avoiding other substances, our health requires active management and control.

These individual choices are also clearly shaped by our environment, from the simple unavailability of fresh vegetables in certain neighborhoods to the more complex changes caused by chronic stress described above. Disciplines, while individually practiced, are shaped by the communities that we live in and the values we collectively affirm. Wendell Berry points out that “autonomy” is a false cure for our modern ills, saying, “Healing is impossible in loneliness; it is the opposite of loneliness.” When we do not pay heed to the disciplines– either individual or environmental– that shape our health, the breakdown of our bodies is attended by the breakdown of our minds and spirits.

In regards to mental health, it is often said that “food is the most overused antidepressant and exercise is the most underused antianxiety medication.” A variety of well-designed studies have borne out the efficacy of behavioral interventions for a variety of mental illnesses, demonstrating that our power over mental illness is not limited to pharmacology. That said, anyone who has ever seen a loved one struggle to take medication for mental illness can see that even the act of using pharmacology’s power (and bearing its side effects) is itself a discipline. Even more telling are the studies that show that some of the sickest people who burden emergency rooms with repeated visits see great improvements in their physical and mental health when they are brought into closer personal contact with caring people and housed.

Talk of health as a discipline or health choices as being shaped by culture brings to mind the issue of personal responsibility, which is a useful rallying cry for helping oneself feel less perturbed about the suffering of others, but by definition cannot be embraced as a corporate policy. Personal responsibility is clearly a component of discipline, but it is not the only one. For those who are struggling with mental illness, it is imperative they are approached first as persons with dignity whose ability to make rational decisions and take responsibility has been impaired– whether by themselves, by another, or by the happenstance of neurobiolog. Once this relationship of trust and respect is established, we can walk with them through both the personal and professional interventions necessary to learn or rediscover the skills that attend to personal responsibility.

Similarly, shame can be useful; the things that people with mental illness say and do when swayed by the winds of their depression or mania are often a powerful motivator to change their behavior when they feel ashamed of them. While we want to rightly eradicate the effects of shame that keep people from seeking help and being honest, it is possible to strain out a gnat and swallow a camel if we take the language of “chemical imbalances” too far and put personal responsibility out of reach for those who suffer from mental illness.

In the end, both the people who wish to eradicate shame from mental illness and those who wish to use it as a hammer for every health-related nail they see will find themselves in conflict with a holistic worldview that embraces the continuity between physical existence, knowledge, indiscernably complex emotions, and meaningful spirituality. The bodies that God created us with are prone to the corruption of sin in ways that science can both illuminate, abet, or help to heal– but only if we can appreciate the full complement of healing means that He has given us.

Tolkien and Violence

There’s a further Tolkien-related question that needs to be discussed after last week’s comments by George RR Martin, concerning the role of violence in Tolkien’s legendarium. Martin asked in the interview if Aragorn hunted down and killed all the orcs after his ascent to the throne, “even the little baby orcs in their orc cradles?”

As it happens, this is a terrible way of raising an interesting point. We need to talk about violence in Tolkien if we are to talk intelligently about his politics, but talking about the orcs is the wrong way of doing that. Tolkien is fairly dodgy about the origins of the orc, but the best hints we have are that orcs were originally elves who joined with Morgoth, the original Dark Lord for whom Sauron was a mere lieutenant. Due to their allegiance to Morgoth, the orcs were, by definition, evil to their core and were incapable of redemption. So the only thing left was to fight them and attempt to eradicate them. You can find ambiguity in Tolkien’s work regarding violence, but if you go looking for it in his treatment of the orcs you’re looking in the wrong place.

Martin’s comment about “little orc babies” is especially telling as it betrays a surprising ignorance of Tolkien’s world—it’s far from clear that there ever were such things as baby orcs. Tolkien never describes how exactly an individual orc comes to be, but there’s some reason to suspect that Peter Jackson’s view that orcs were made rather than born is correct. Indeed, if one reflects on the fact of Tolkien’s Catholicism it’s not hard to imagine him thinking that orcs, by virtue of their essential selfishness and lack of even the most basic form of affection or love, would be incapable of having sex and giving birth in the same way as the free peoples of Middle Earth. The simple act of sex, as Tolkien understood it, would have been the least orc-ish thing one could possibly do. (It is perhaps unsurprising that a man who writes sex in the way that Martin does would fail to pick up on this point.) So while it may seem an obvious place to go in thinking about violence in Tolkien’s work, the orcs are not the best place to begin.

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Noah: A Theological-Aesthetic Rorschach Test

Last week saw the premiere of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, and with it a (predictable) storm of controversy from the evangelical community. Reviews have ranged from predictably critical to outright disdain to hostile readings, and from strongly (though not unreservedly) positive to more restrained affirmation of the film on aesthetic and spiritual grounds to especially measured theological and artistic engagement. In short, the responses spanned exactly the range one would expect from the evangelical community, which is itself deeply divided on the purpose, value, and meaning of the arts—decades of conversation on the topic notwithstanding. Noah[1] works as a sort of theological-artistic Rorschach test. We seem to find it in what we expect given its origins and our disposition.Noah_film

Rather than offer another review (which would add nothing to the conversation at this point), or decry once again the predictable evangelical response to the arts, or even critique reviews with which I disagreed, I thought it might be useful instead to ask where we stand today and point to a few places we might grow from this. Continue reading

An Interview with Dan Siedell on Faith and Art

Last fall I had the chance to meet Dan Siedell, a fellow Lincoln native, when he made a trip back to Nebraska. (Dan teaches classes at both Knox Theological Seminary in Fort Lauderdale and at The King’s College in Manhattan.) We were able to have lunch as well as organize a brief discussion night at my church on issues related to Christianity and art. After our time together, I had several questions I wanted to ask Dan based on his comments at the event. So Dan and I stayed in touch and over the next few months did a long interview about the relationship between art, worldviews, and the life of local communities.

JM: In an interview in Curator, you said that if your first introduction to modern art had been with Hans Rookmaker, the Dutch critic who influenced Francis Schaeffer so deeply, you would have been forced to either give up your art or your faith. Why is that?

DS: I came to Rookmaaker, like I came to Schaeffer, after I’d already completed my course work for a Ph.D. in the history of modern art, after I’d moved to New York to study with a critic, moved again to pursue doctoral studies. When I was writing my dissertation, I’d already been married for three years, had our first child, and so I already had considerable skin—and bone—in the game. I’d sacrificed so much and knew that I would be called on to sacrifice a lot more to pursue my passion for modern art. [Rookmaker’s work] just rang hollow to me.

And I think it rang hollow for me because Rookmaaker’s and Schaeffer’s worldview focus was intellectual—it was about ideas and thoughts—and art was always just an expression of such things. For both [of them] there was a certain distance—art was kept at arm’s length, as it were. And that was not my experience. Now, I’ve had many people who studied with those two men tell me that they were passionate about it and encouraged their students to engage it. But their writing didn’t communicate that to me. I was converted to modern art through writing, through words, and so I’m very sensitive to my own voice and communicating a passion for my subject, a passion that encourages participation, not dismissal. Their work was also about a particular moment in which the “Christian artist” was a viable way to be faithfully present in culture. I don’t think that’s the case now.

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