Monday, February 25, 2008


Lessons In Old Books

Ralph Wood, writing at First Things reviews a book on Chesterton and Tolkien that sounds remarkable. The central thesis of the book is that though both men appeared stuck in antiquity, both addressed modernity with great relevance and insight.

That is a theme I have hammered on this blog several time. I fail to understand our culture, and especially our church culture's, demand for the "new." So many problems have been solved and yet we insist on trying to solve them again, and usually making a botch of it, since we disregard the millennia of work that has gone into the problem before us.

But this strikes at the heart of matters:
Our problem, Milbank [ed note: author of the book under review] makes clear, is not that we perceive too much but too little. Our perceptions (and thus our creations) are limited because our fallen and finite imaginations cannot grasp the surplus of light that pervades all created being—hence Tolkien’s and Chesterton’s literally fantastic attempts to hint and gesture at agencies so unknowable that they reveal God’s own inaccessibility. “Similitudes drawn from things farthest away from God,” Milbank quotes Dionysus the Pseudo-Areopagite as saying, “form within us a truer estimate that God is above whatsoever we may say or think of Him.” Thus do we encounter Treebeard, the huge dendroidal Ent who has a face that belongs (in Tolkien’s words) “to a large Man-like, almost Troll-like figure, at least fourteen [feet] high, very sturdy, with a tall head, and hardly any neck.” He also has seven toes on his gargantuan feet, and his “sweeping grey beard [is] bushy, almost twiggy at the roots, thin and mossy at the ends.” He seems alien in the extreme. Yet Treebeard not only rescues Merry and Pippin from the orcs, but also engages them with his penetrating eyes. Like trees in many folktales, he also speaks to them as well, albeit with the arboreal sluggishness of a slow-growing, slow-moving creature.

As readers we are able to experience Treebeard at two levels: On the one hand, he is patently an aesthetic invention, a fictional creature. Both Chesterton and Tolkien constantly draw attention to the created character of their work, reminding us that it belongs to secondary and not primarily reality: it is a constructed thing to be enjoyed as such. Yet having encountered this fantastic tree with human features, readers can no longer look upon real trees as mere objects meant only for our manipulation. On the contrary, we can now envision all trees as analogical actualities, as transcendent symbols that participate in the reality that they signify, as having likenesses to us despite their differences from us, and thus as linking natural things with both human and divine things—and perhaps also with things demonic. It is not a long leap, for instance, from Treebeard to the trees in the Garden of Eden
I fear that pull quote to an extent because threatens over-zealous environmentalism - too many people would read that and try to ban wood from their lives. Forgetting, or course that Treebeard tended the forest for proper use, but I don't really want to get into that just now.

But fear of over-reaction reflects the problem with modernity in general and that is the over-embrace. Modern mechanics and science and technology are not a problem in and of themselves, but they do tend to squeeze the imagination out of us, if we let them. We do tend to begin to view our God in the most mechanistic of ways. God is a being not a machine. He is a someone, not a set of principles or a force.

God's someone-ness is reflected in His cretivity, and our image of God is reflected in our cretivity.

I would like to encourage me readers to do three thingss:

1) Read some old books.
Chesterton would be a good place to start, I am amazed how many people have not read him, but what about Augustine (Where did Calvin get it from?)

2) Read some fiction.
Good fiction, creative fiction, not the tripe that is written rapidly to fill the market, but the good stuff, classics.

3) Make something. If you are like me you have no artistic talent, and anybody that tried to read my failed attempt at fiction knows that I lack non-fiction writing ability as well. But that does not mean I cannot make something. I have made machines, I just need to learn the same attitude in creation of a machine that the artist holds in creation of art. Maybe it is as simple as redecorate a room.

The idea here is to discover a bit of God by imitation, and to discover your proper place before God by discovering the place of your creation before you.

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