Category Archives: Witnesses

A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and A Great War: a Reflection

Machine gunners in the Battle of the Somme. A young British soldier, J.R.R. Tolkien, served in this most grueling battle of the “Great War.”

Veterans Day, in 2018, marks a special day in world history, the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One. This war is often overshadowed, for Americans, by WWII, despite the fact that the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, in the closing weeks of the “Great War,” killed more Americans than either the Battle of the Bulge or the D-Day Normandy Invasion.

In July, 1914, European powers acted upon long-held treaty agreements, to create military alignments, following an assassin’s bullet that killed the Archduke Ferdinand. The nations of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russian, Britain, and France, among others, were fully mobilized for war. Yet as Barbara Tuchman tells it, in her gripping The Guns of August, this was an age of optimistic progressivism. Despite the growing conflict in 1914, people thought that the war would be decided quickly. Everyone would be home by Christmas.

Recent technological advancements, like the inventions of the electric light bulb, radio, and the airplane, gave people the impression that humans have unlimited potential to solve real world problems. The benefits of science could be employed to make life better.  But the war demonstrated that the same technological power to improve things also gave us the horrors of the machine gun, trench warfare, and mustard gas. By the time the war ended in November, 1918, millions lay dead. Most soldiers survived the war, but even afterwards, many succumbed to the Spanish Flu epidemic.

As I have listened  to episodes of the Imperial War Museums, First World War Centenary podcasts, (a great website, if you like history), chronicling the progress of the war over those four years, it is apparent that life for millions during the Great War proved the progressive optimism of a swift, positive solution to the war to be misguidedly wrong. This is where Joseph Loconte’s book, A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918, comes in.

C.S Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were young soldiers in the British army, serving on the Western front in France. Both men endured the stench and horror of this most terrible slaughter. Lewis was injured by an artillery blast, that eventually took him out of the war. Tolkien suffered from trench fever, spread by lice, which finally rendered him unfit to continue in frontline duty. Tolkien himself recollected that by the end of the war, nearly all of his army friends were dead.

Armistice Day arrived November 11, 1918, what Americans remember now as Veterans Day. Many celebrated the end of the war, but for weary soldiers like Tolkien and Lewis, it was probably more a sense of relief, and an opportunity to mourn the loss of good friends.

Tolkien and Lewis finally met several years later, as professors at Oxford. They had both taken up the scholarly calling to study English literature and the great stories of the medieval period. Both men were extremely gifted with their imaginations, and used their talents to provide the world some of the best fantasy literature of the 20th century.

These men formed a remarkable friendship. Tolkien was instrumental in persuading Lewis to give up his atheism and embrace the Christian faith. Lewis, in turn, encouraged Tolkien to continue in completing his magnificent The Lord of the Rings trilogy, when the author became weary of the endeavor over the years.

For both men, the experience of the Great War proved to be the crucible that fired up their imagination to produce their separate works, which uniquely gave complementary visions of the world, grounded in a Christian theological framework. The aftermath of the Great War inspired others to embrace, either a reactionary, nihilistic response to humanity’s plight, rejecting Christianity in the process, or a liberal  wishful dream, that the “War to End All Wars” would usher in a new age of peace, making the truth claims of orthodox Christianity unnecessary.

Joseph Loconte makes the case that Lewis and Tolkien took a different path, striving to revive a vision of classic Christian thought, as an alternative to the more popular outlooks, that sought to embrace together both the valor and dignity of humanity, with a sober appreciation of the depths of human depravity and evil. This thoroughly Christian perspective, combining the biblical themes of creation and fall, that so saturated the medieval Christian mindset, were given a fresh, new imaginative expression through the worlds of Narnia and Middle Earth. Many have appreciated the literary contributions of Lewis and Tolkien, while missing the profound theological and spiritual realities, which both writers point towards.

The Great War technically ended on that Armistice Day, in 1918. But one hundred years later, the same intellectual and imaginative challenges that Lewis and Tolkien experienced in their era, continue to plague the postmodern world of the 21st century. Loconte makes a compelling case that Lewis’ and Tolkien’s work remain just as relevant and necessary as ever.

The Great War finally did come to an end. Life continued on.

But for what purpose?

Lewis and Tolkien did much of the hard work in their generation, to rethink such a profound question. Today, we need a new generation of Lewis’ and Tolkien’s to carry on the task of reimagining the world, within the context of a robust Christian perspective.

Loconte is currently working on a documentary film project, that explores the themes of his book, that fans of Lewis and Tolkien should consider supporting. A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War has encouraged me to revisit the great work of both Lewis and Tolkien, as companions to rethink the cultural challenges of our day and age. The trailer for the film in progress is below:

BONUS: Peter Jackson, the film director behind the movie adaptation of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, has restored and colorized hours of Imperial War Museums archive film to produce a new documentary on the Great War:

 


Single, Gay, and Christian: A Review of the Book and Its Criticism

Let me tell you why this is such a great book. Author Gregory Coles has a lot of guts.

In his memoir, Single, Gay, Christian, Coles tells his story, growing up in the evangelical church, loving Jesus, who nevertheless made the slow and disturbing discovery that he was attracted to other men, and not to women. But unlike many of those who “come out” with this self-realization, Coles understands that his sexual orientation does not biblically give him permission to enter into a practicing, same-sex relationship. Yet it does give him a unique perspective to live out a life of committed celibacy, and live that life out to the fullest. This is a story that needs to be heard.

Coles grew up, in what appears to have been a missionary(?) family, serving in Indonesia. Aside from living in a different country, Coles spent his growing up years in an evangelical church sub-culture. But he knew something was different about himself, when compared to other boys in his church youth group. His discovery about his sexual attraction to males was not something that hit him overnight, and he tried his best to change his orientation, to conform to social expectations. He did not fit the stereotype of someone who was “gay.” He did not have a distant, emotionally detached father. Rather, he enjoyed life, loved God, and had a great relationship with loving parents.

Even through college, and into his early years as a church worship leader, back in the United States, Coles’ efforts to become “ex-gay” simply did not work. The hoped for change in his sexual attractions never materialized. Coles had hit a roadblock: Prayer and therapy did not produce the expected results, that many of his Christian friends had promised, and that he himself desired. This is where Coles’ story today gets controversial, at least to a certain segment of the church.

He makes a concerted effort to study the Scriptures, to best understand God’s perspective and purpose for human sexuality. Contrary to revisionist views of homosexuality, that are gaining popularity within liberal-minded congregations, Coles concludes that sexual relations, as through “gay marriage,” is not an option, for someone like himself, who seeks to be a faithful follower of Jesus.

But neither does Coles embrace the “ex-gay” narrative championed by many evangelical Christians, that suggests that “gayness” necessarily implies a certain “lifestyle.” The typical “ex-gay” narrative believes sexual attraction to be merely a choice: a choice that can be reversed through the appropriate therapy, or intense prayer. Rather, Coles seeks to embrace his identity as a celibate gay Christian man, which explains the title for his book. As a single, gay Christian, Coles seeks to explore how his sexual orientation might inform his understanding of who God created him to be.

Coles self-identification as a single, gay Christian will strike many other Christians as being repugnant, or at the very least, confusing.1 After all, our identity as believers should be, first and foremost, grounded in Christ, and not somehow paired with our sin, right? We should never celebrate temptation. Rather we are to flee from temptation. You can be a single Christian, sure. But it would be best to leave the “gay” out of it, or perhaps, embrace something like “ex-gay.” To be “gay” and “Christian,” are mutually exclusive categories. Another book reviewer, “Pastor Gabe,” a Baptist pastor in Kansas, drills down on this as the fatal flaw in Gregory Coles’ book.2

The criticism is fairly common among more than a few Christians. But it is too fixated on semantics and labels, and it makes some questionable assumptions, that need to be challenged. What Greg Coles is talking about is completely different. In this book review, I will try to interact with some of Coles’ critics. Listening to Coles’ story, the “ex-gay” thinking comes across as wrong-headed. We can address some of those questionable assumptions below, but let us first examine the central idea behind its wrong-headed-ness. Continue reading


C.S. Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms

C.S. Lewis.

The Psalms remain a difficult book for many Christians today. C. S. Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms might help many of us to find our way through this great book of poetry, in the Hebrew Scriptures.

I have come to the conclusion that C. S. Lewis is probably one of greatest Christian writers that actually few Christians hardly ever read. As I have written about before, back when I was in college, C. S. Lewis was all the rage. But aside from his children’s books (the Narnia series) and a handful of other titles, I think that many evangelical Christians, like myself, probably have bought C. S. Lewis books before, thinking that we really should read more of Lewis, but that if we are honest, we often leave those Lewis volumes gathering dust upon our shelves.

I bought Mere Christianity a good 35 years ago. There it still sits on my shelf, beckoning me.  Even my co-blogging colleague, John Paine, has confessed here on Veracity that he found C. S. Lewis very hard to read.

Many evangelicals know that C. S. Lewis has been probably one of the greatest apologists for the Christian faith, of all time. Therefore, we feel we ought to know at least something about him, aside from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. As my church begins to preach on the Psalms this summer, I thought it might be good to step up to the challenge myself and listen to Reflections on the Psalms, as an audio book, and hear what I can learn from the Oxford don, whose voice once resonated across the BBC airwaves, during the horrors of Hitler’s bombings of London, during World War 2 (That is how we got the essays that make up Mere Christianity, by the way).

Evangelical unease over Lewis can be put no better than in Douglas Wilson’s brief review, when he read Reflections on the Psalms: “Glorious, but awful in parts….Lewis has an uncanny ability to edify me and appall me simultaneously.” Continue reading


Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman, Christian Rock, and Evangelical Identity

Gregory Alan Thornbury’s Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock. It is a great biography, but it is also a brilliant look at the state of Christianity in America.

Larry Norman: the undisputed father of contemporary Christian music. Decades before Chris Tomlin, Michael W. Smith, Downhere, and Hillsong, a guitar player with long, blonde hair was singing about Jesus on a major secular music label. The Beatles’ Paul McCartney told Larry Norman, “You could be famous if you’d just drop the God stuff.”

I was a teenager in the late 1970s, when I went over to a friend’s house, to listen to a 1972 vinyl record, Only Visiting This Planet. It blew me away. I had only recently made a decision to follow Jesus, but I had invested a lot of lawn-mowing dollars previously to buy albums recorded by Led Zeppelin, Rush, and The Who. Larry Norman, though, was different. He sang about Jesus. But he simply did not fit into the “churchy” box.

I can still remember that first time I heard the song, “Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus?,” as the needle passed along the record grooves, about the life of Janis Joplin. Larry Norman and Janis Joplin both performed their separate acts, at a number of the same concert events during the “Summer of Love,” in the late 1960s. Joplin died an early death, due to a heroin overdose:

Sipping whiskey from a paper cup,
You drown your sorrows till you can’t stand up,
Take a look at what you’ve done to yourself,
Why don’t you put the bottle back on the shelf,
Yellow fingers from your cigarettes,
Your hands are shaking while your body sweats,
Why don’t you look into Jesus, He’s got the answer.

You will have to listen to the rest of the song, as displaying the lyrics for the next verse may or may not pass your Internet content filter.

 

This is was a Christian singer? I was shocked, but believe me, I was hooked. Larry Norman seemed like a real person, with whom I could relate. Though I did not use drugs, a number of my high school friends did. But when I started my journey with Christ, I got the distinct impression that Christians should avoid people like that. I was fearful, and I had no clue how to relate the Gospel to my “druggie” friends.

Hearing Larry Norman, on the other hand, singing about loving drug addicts, with the love of Jesus, gave me the courage to witness to my friends. Along with the two other albums in the Norman famous trilogy, So Long Ago The Garden and In Another Land, I ended up listening to Only Visiting This Planet dozens and dozens of times. Pure classic rock.

Larry Norman was a “Jesus Freak,” but that designation never seemed to bother him.

Sure, there were rumors, some harder to substantiate than others, but much of it all true: Larry Norman knew just about everyone in the 1960s/1970s music industry. He got his start opening for acts like The Doors and Jimi Hendrix. Larry Norman had hired one of Led Zeppelin’s sound engineers to record his albums. Bob Dylan made a commitment to Christ after attending a Bible study, first led by Larry Norman.

What I did know for sure is that Larry Norman was despised by the conservative Christian mainstream. The folk music of Nancy Honeytree was tolerable, Amy Grant was cute and sweet, but Larry Norman’s “rock and roll” was a bridge too far. Tele-evangelist Jimmy Swaggart considered his music to be “spiritual fornication.” But I could not trust Swaggart with a ten-foot pole, so that only added to Larry Norman’s reputation. Some rural preachers made headlines, dismissing all rock and roll music because of claims of “backwards-masking.” Yet Larry Norman, in his concerts, would mock that mentality, by noting, who cares what they were saying backwards, when what they were saying forwards was bad enough?…. And that old claim that the beat used by rock drummers came from Satanic cults in Africa? Larry Norman exposed that canard for what it really was: RACISM.

Norman’s songs were quite radical at the time. His lyrics addressed topics that you rarely hear talked about in many Christian circles, even today. He spoke out against racism and war mongering among Christians, and he criticized America’s efforts to land a man on the moon, at the expense of allowing hungry children to starve to death. I could not agree with all of his views, but that was not the point. The fact was this: Larry Norman, was different from your stereotypical evangelical Christian, and he got my attention.

I really was inspired by Larry Norman. I considered him a hero.

And that became a problem.

But it is more than just my personal problem. It is also about the very identity of the evangelical church, particularly in America. Larry Norman’s story gives us a bird’s eye view into why the contemporary church now finds itself so much at odds with the dominant, secularizing culture.

As Russell Moore, a leading Baptist thinker and theologian puts it, in his review of Gregory Alan Thornbury’s masterful, Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock, there is a “dark side of Larry Norman.” This dark side tells us a lot about contemporary, evangelical Christianity’s obsession with celebrity personalities, exposing the blindspots of Christians, including myself.
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