Friday, March 5, 2010

The Pharisees Are Always With Us . . .

So, a day or two ago I was looking for something else online and came across this:

It's taken me a few days to read through all fifty-six pages of Teri Jeter's piece (only a tiny fraction of which she actually wrote -- see below), which I found an interesting if distasteful exercise. The gist of all this verbiage is to say that Tolkien can't be Xian (i.e., her kind of Xian) because his works don't correspond to the mindset of what she's willing to consider Xian (buttressed by highly selective Bible quotations). In essence, this essay is a Jack Chick booklet without the pictures.

The odd thing about it is that it's mostly just a string of quotes. LONG quotes, sometimes going on page after page -- at one point the citation of third-party material goes on for six and a half pages (all from the same source) with only two brief interruptions* by the "author" of this essay. And for an anti-Tolkien screed, the author seems to have spent a huge amount of time searching out and reading what other people had to say about an author she seems to despise, which is a little weird in itself.

While Jeter's charges against him include the usual litany (magic! fantasy! imagination!), there is a touch of the bizarre here too, as in her counter against claims that THE LORD OF THE RINGS grew out of Tolkien's strong Xian faith: "Can anything be more blasphemous than that?" (p. 15) She's similarly indignant that anyone follow Christ's example and write fables (p. 19), or portray an angel in any nontraditional guise (e.g., Gandalf as a wizard). And she waxes downright poetic on the subject of Tolkien keeping bad company -- by which she means C. S. Lewis:

Jeter: "Mr. Tolkien’s companions and the places he frequented also reflect his lost condition:"

Quoted by Jeter: “It was nurtured by weekly meetings with his friends and colleagues including the philosopher and novelist C.S. Lewis and his brother, W.H. Lewis, and the mystical novelist Charles Williams. The Inklings, as they called themselves, gathered at Magdalen College or a pub to drink beer and share one another’s manuscripts."

Another quote: “In addition, he and Gordon founded a ‘Viking Club’ for undergraduates devoted mainly to reading Old Norse sagas and drinking beer.”

And another: “Tolkien’s friend, drinking partner, and fellow ‘Inkling’ C.S. Lewis is well known…”
Jeter's Biblical citation: “Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners.” 1 Corinthians 15:33 “He that walketh with wise men shall be wise: but a companion of fools shall be destroyed.” Proverbs 13:20

Jeter again: "J. R. R. Tolkien influenced the writings of the so-called Christian writer, C. S. Lewis:"

--I can see someone like Jeter being suspicious of Charles Williams (who after all really was a practicing occultist, who mingled Xianity with ritual magic), but I can't help but feel sorry for poor old Warnie coming in for his share of her sanctimoniousness. And no, she never does explain why she's so suspicious of CSL, other than that he drank, which is apparently a mark against JRRT and EVG as well.

Not surprisingly, there are a lot of mistakes in her piece (it's hard to be accurate about topics you despise, as the example of Edmund Wilson teaches us), such as the claim that G. K. Chesterton was "a colleague" of Tolkiens (p. 21) or that Tolkien's interview with Denis Gueroult as his "last interview" and took place in 1971 (p. 37) [it was in 1964/65 and by no means the last, though certainly the best].** But what are we to make of statements such as that Tolkien was born a Catholic, not a convert (p. 27),*** or (Jeter herself this time) that "while J. R. R. Tolkien was a Roman Catholic at one point in his life, there is absolutely no proof that he was up to his death" (p. 19) -- and, conveniently enough, this is one of the few statements she fails to provide any source for (other than saying this idea has been "put forward by some Xians").

Finally, there's guilt by association: Tolkien includes a version of Atlantis in his works --as did Madame Blavatski, and she was an occultist. Decades after Tolkien's death, someone made a Tarot deck based on his work --wh. wd have horrified Tolkien far more than it does Jeter. Gary Gygax admitted, rather reluctantly, that D&D is massively indebted to Tolkien's works (well, duh) -- and Jeter even reproduces Appendix N: Recommended Reading from the 1st edition DUNGEON MASTER'S GUIDE to prove it. And, of course, there's always rock music to demonize, by way of pointing out that Led Zeppelin once did a Tolkien-inspired song.****

Jeter's conclusion is typical Pharisaical: " I know for a fact that TLOTR will never lead anyone to Christ since 'Faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the Word of God' (not Tolkien). Neither do I believe any Christian will be benefited or grow in his walk with the Lord by reading TLOTR." (page 49).

So, what are we to make of this? My answer wd be: Not much. Jeter simply flails around and fails to build any kind of coherent case. Really, most of us learn in English 101 that you have to do more than string together a bunch of quotes to make a point, and an author really shd write more than 10% or 20% of her own essay.

Sometimes I like to read things to get insight into a different mindset, however much I might disagree with it (as when I read Dr. Calloway's little book SPIRITS, DEMONS, & THE BIBLE). But if there's a good case to be made for Xians not reading Tolkien, this isn't it.

--John R.

*a total of fifteen words, consisting of one anti-Catholic slur and one framing passage

**nor was Tolkien born in "Bloomsdale in South Africa" (!)

***to be fair, this comes in one of the quoted passages, apparently by Thomas Howard -- I don't know if the gaff is as egregious in the original context

****she even quotes Mike Foster!


Extollager said...

Oh dear.

I'll give her this much: she recognizes that the written word, just black marks on white paper, can be the vehicle of profound experiences for readers' souls. Put that way, there is at least one idea that I can appreciate in her book.

David Bratman said...

The argument that Lewis was not a Christian writer is more complex and appalling than "ooh, he drank." Various quotes, mostly from essays addressed to fellow Christians dealing frankly with difficulties in Scripture and theology, are quoted out of context to declare that he disrespected the religion.

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