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Friday, October 9, A.D. 2020
Magic in Fictional Fantasy

Recently, John C. Wright considered the problem of magic for Christian fantasy writers in “The Poet and the Magician,” to which he posted a follow-up where he links to two essays that address the issue while comparing Rowling’s Harry Potter series to the fiction of Lewis and Tolkien. I recommend these essays.

“Harry Potter vs. Gandalf” by Steven D. Greydanus (2001)
“The Taste for Magic” by Tom Simon (April 2008)

Simon’s article comments on Greydanus’ treatment, and Wright compares his own ideas to theirs. The lot of them makes for a fascinating read.

What the articles fail to explain, however, is what underlies the traditional Christian proscription of magic. They mention the dangers of power seeking and of not resting content with prayer, but this same argument sounds a lot like certain Protestant sects’ rationale for refusing modern medicine. Christianity does not require a passive stance toward the shifting circumstances of the world. We are called to act, and action requires the means of acting—power. Yet, certain types of power are off limits. Why? In Lewis, we get to see explicit parallels between ancient magic and the our own age’s magic of modern technology. Both appear to manipulate the world in order to accomplish desired ends. Where are the proper limits, though, of such manipulation? If witchcraft and necromansy are against true religion, why . . . and how do such rules apply to the Cartesian project of mastering nature? Wise minds in the Roman Church have carefully considered ethical issues when it comes to bio-technology, but they do not reject modern medicine completely or interdict advanced research in genetics. What makes the old magic so harmful?

I cannot remember exactly now, but I think that I read something by Lewis wherein he touched on this issue, having noted that the prohibition against magic was a safeguard for human beings whose spiritual faculties and maturity had become significantly enfeebled by the fall. There was something about the danger of allowing men to see the spiritual realm in their current state. I recall similar ideas concerning monastics, especially the great saints who entered aware into that arena. Normal men and women are still in the milk stage; they are not ready to digest unshielded encounters with spirits. Saint Anthony of the Desert, however, had upped levels and battled some big bosses.

Does magic, though, require intercourse with spirits? Couldn’t the mage simply know the nature of things and how to affect them according to that knowledge? If we consider Kristor’s theory about forms (metaphysically speaking) as angelic beings, then perhaps all magic, as all thought and action, involves spirits—but our normal methods, at least while we look through the glass darkly, keep us insulated from being overwhelmed. The magical way may remove some protective coating on that window. Even if Kristor’s idea is mistaken, perhaps using magic places one in a dangerous proximity to ghastly intersections.

Greydanus’ essay contains this delightful paragraph:

Moreover, if the reader is at all attuned to the real magic of Tolkien’s work, his imagination will be less preoccupied with such things as the wizardry of Gandalf than with, for example, the elusive grace and poetry of the Elves; the earthy austerity and hardiness of the Dwarves; the ineffable stateliness, the sheer antiquity of the Ents; the battle-hardened majesty of Aragorn; the playful, fathomless mystery of Tom Bombadil; and, perhaps most of all, the Hobbits themselves, with their quiet and humble ways, their unassuming, humorous, gregarious, homebody, pipe-smoking, meal-loving, comfort-seeking, Shire-dwelling hearts, and, hidden just beneath the surface, their unguessed depths and disreputable capacity for heroism. Here is the true center of gravity in Tolkien’s Middle-earth: not the world of magic, but the magic of the world.

Wonder is the proper initial response to seeing God reflected in his creation, followed by gratitude and praise. The magical—in fiction or in reality (meaning the spooky, the weird, the “supernatural” [a term which I loathe using] . . . not necessarily according to a strict, refined definition of magic)—elicits wonder, as do miracles and other wonder-working acts. However, an honest, perceptive consideration of the world as we experience it everyday should move us in the same way. How manifold are thy works; in wisdom hast thou made them all; the earth is full of thy riches! Our excitement in response to novelty in tandem with our nonchalant boredom with the marvels of daily life is a sign of our fallenness—of our decay and stupidity.

So, perhaps, such underlies Tolkien’s insistence that only certain races in Middle Earth wield magic. Men—and hobbits—are not among them. In this, they are not inferior but simply different. They have their own proper glories, their own marks of wonder in how they reflect Ilúvatar. This rings true; it is how the world operates—among species and individuals. We all have our special natures, our special ends, and it is a mark of sickness and depravity to desire another nature and another end than those bestowed by God Almighty. Maybe, magic simply isn’t proper to men. Instead, we have our own proper means to knowledge and power (in the neutral sense of being able to get that which is willed accomplished). Take, for instance, mathematics. That’s quite a gift . . . though we apparently must assume that any intelligent creature would also have access to mathematics. Maybe that is not true. Perhaps, following scholastic musings, numerical nature and relations are like demonstrative reasoning—proper to human beings but not to angels. I find that hard to believe, but maybe that is simply homo sapientive bias about the nature of sapiens.

This route would explain the difference in prohibitions with respect to magic and modern technology (or any human technology). God has given man the ability to become an engineer; (human) wizards, by contrast, are (in the current year’s woeful jargon) dynamically-appropriating another type of being’s way of life. Their enchantment is not your shortcut.

Posted by Joseph on Friday, October 9, Anno Domini 2020
Friday, June 24, A.D. 2016
Rule, Britannia!

Please forgive me for my blog absenteeism, but I have been quite pressed for time (and far too sleepless) for the last month. However, I had to post today . . .

Albion, how I love you!

When Britain first, at Heaven’s command
Arose from out the azure main;
This was the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sang this strain:

“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
“Britons never will be slaves.”

The nations, not so blest as thee,
Must, in their turns, to tyrants fall;
While thou shalt flourish great and free,
The dread and envy of them all.

“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
“Britons never will be slaves.”

Still more majestic shalt thou rise,
More dreadful, from each foreign stroke;
As the loud blast that tears the skies,
Serves but to root thy native oak.

“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
“Britons never will be slaves.”

Thee haughty tyrants ne’er shall tame:
All their attempts to bend thee down,
Will but arouse thy generous flame;
But work their woe, and thy renown.

“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
“Britons never will be slaves.”

To thee belongs the rural reign;
Thy cities shall with commerce shine:
All thine shall be the subject main,
And every shore it circles thine.

“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
“Britons never will be slaves.”

The Muses, still with freedom found,
Shall to thy happy coast repair;
Blest Isle! With matchless beauty crown’d,
And manly hearts to guard the fair.

“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
“Britons never will be slaves.”

A day that I did not expect has dawned. May it lead inexorably to the destruction of our perverse new world disorder (it can happen), and may the Lord richly bless the peoples of Great Britain and Ireland! One day soon, perhaps even the micks will return to their senses and faith—and reject the godless, soulless bureaucrats who have eagerly helped to transform their beautiful island into a degenerate consumerist wasteland of the spirit.

To show that my support of healthy patriotism and my hatred of the E.U. are not based on any antipathy toward Europe as such—or even toward the Germans—I present a Kraut’s homage to the British—Beethoven’s Wellingtons Sieg oder die Schlacht bei Vittoria:

And, of course, one must showcase “Rule, Britannia,” here cheerily (if cheekily) performed on the last day of the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall by Sarah Patricia Connolly and the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra:

Glad all over!

Posted by Joseph on Friday, June 24, Anno Domini 2016
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Thursday, January 28, A.D. 2016
Vodolazkin’s Laurus

Last year, I started to hear recommendations to read the newly translated into English novel by Eugene Vodolazkin, Laurus («Лавр»). Then, I read Rod Dreher’s discussion of it in The American Conservative: “People Need Other Things To Live By.” I recommend the article, which includes an interview with the author. I am currently in the middle of the book, but I won’t spoil it for you. Наслаждайтесь.

Posted by Joseph on Thursday, January 28, Anno Domini 2016
Tuesday, January 26, A.D. 2016
Scharl on the Gospels according to Kinkade and Rousseau

As a follow-up to “Christian Kitsch,” I would like to share Jane Scharl’s “The Gospels according to Thomas Kinkade and Jean-Jacques Rousseau” from the Intercollegiate Review. Scharl argues that there is a spiritual background behind shallow Christmas art, which she describes as the most that a secular world can provide:

Rousseau’s sublimation is the best we can hope for from secular traditions. Secular Christmas music, even the best, exemplifies this attempt to sublimate experienced feelings—of loneliness (“I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”), nostalgia (“White Christmas”), or love (“Let It Snow”)—beyond their context in ordinary life and elevate them to the level of the sublime. A sublime experience is a universal experience, one that has meaning outside of itself that both clarifies and validates it. This is the purest impulse of secular Christmas: to elevate our experiences to the level of the universal, and in so doing, to create a myth of Christmas to validate the feelings that punctuate our lives, even if just for one day.

We all hold an ideal of secular Christmas in our imaginations, even though for most of us it has never happened: cottages covered in snow, lanes fretted with sleigh tracks, children laughing, clear voices singing in a village square lit by lamps. Countless sugar cookies made by a smiling family while a perfect tree gleams in the corner and orphans smile at the feet of Santa Claus. It’s the Gospel according to Thomas Kinkade. But in this picture, the light illumines only itself, reflecting endlessly. It doesn’t illumine—or transform—the things of the world.

Scharl contrasts Kinkade’s work with that of Rembrandt to make her point. Pitting Kinkade against the Dutch master strikes me as a bit unfair, but I found her essay insightful.

Posted by Joseph on Tuesday, January 26, Anno Domini 2016
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Monday, January 25, A.D. 2016
Christian Kitsch

I found a cheeky but thoughtful musing by Paul Griffiths on Christian kitsch in Duke’s Divinity Magazine, “A Defense of Christian Kitsch.” Griffiths argues that kitsch is the bread and butter of pious art for Christianity, “a religion of peasants and proles.” Therefore, he states, Christians should hesitate to look down on the gospel according to Thomas Kinkade.

I am not sure what to think. Griffiths is correct that most Christians have been from the unwashed masses; the good news is for all people, plumbers and MOMA curators alike, and there are always more of the former than the latter. However, I hesitate to agree with him—not (principally) because I am an insufferable snob whose stomach twists when I see sappy religious pictures and Jesus nightlights—but rather because art for the masses appears to have different characteristics in different regimes. In our contemporary democratic culture, mass tastes and consumption largely dictate what the entire society appreciates. Yes, we have art critics in the New York Times, and elite opinion trickles down (yes, yes, that cerulean speech in The Devil Wears Prada). Yet, our society’s master class appears generally content to fill the trough according to the swine’s appetite. In more hierarchical societies, the elite largely determines the aesthetics of the lower classes. Maybe, I just do not know enough about peasant art in ages past, but pre-modern religious art does not strike me as kitsch. Some of it crude, perhaps, but not kitsch (compare the paintings in the catacombs to the papal commissions of the Italian Renaissance—a striking difference in quality, but neither is kitsch). Consider traditional Christian iconography, the stained glass windows of Western Christendom, or the mosaics of antiquity. I do not even know whether we should call the governing force of such art “elite” taste—rather, artisans tended to work with canonical styles (hence, being determined by tradition, not any group’s fancy). The architectural progress of sacred buildings clearly involved the engineering elite, commissioned by the secular and ecclesiastical elite, but entire towns were involved in cathedrals’ construction and adornment. Would you call the windows of Chartres kitschy? Would the Most Reverend Maurice de Sully have found the aesthetic tastes in sacred art of his poor parents so different from that of the royal court? Griffiths even mentions the icons of Andrei Rublev, but surely this example provides a stumbling block for his position. Russian peasants and proles have always adored the transcendent beauty of Rublev’s iconography.

Christian kitsch may simply be yet another symptom of our decadent age.

That said, who doesn’t like angels and kittens, together, lightly hovering over little girls in Easter dresses having afternoon tea with their teddy bears in a peaceful meadow (with birds, chipmunks, and lots of unidentifiable flora in the background)?

Posted by Joseph on Monday, January 25, Anno Domini 2016
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Thursday, January 21, A.D. 2016
The Zaleskis Have a Drink at the Eagle and Child

Last spring, I read an interesting article about the Inklings in The Chronicle of Higher Education that may interest you: “Oxford’s Influential Inklings.” Philip and Carol Zaleski explore this famous bunch of dons and contrasts them to the Bloomsbury Group. It is a fascinating read.

The Inklings feature significantly in my intellectual and spiritual formation. I have made two Inkling-focused pilgrimages to Oxford (those stones on Beren and Lúthien’s grave—yeah, those are from me; they surely outlasted the flowers that I bought at the petrol station for the Lewis brothers’ tomb), and I delight to learn more about these veritable gifts to us English-speaking people living in the twilight of our civilization.

Posted by Joseph on Thursday, January 21, Anno Domini 2016
Thursday, June 4, A.D. 2015
Esolen on the Subhumanities

Anthony Esolen continues to show why he has become one of my favorite contemporary writers: “The Subhumanities: The Reductive Violence of Race, Class, and Gender Theory,” in the current Intercollegiate Review. It is easy to ridicule the Left’s stupid obsessions, but Esolen excels in showing the real horror—and loss—in leftist reductionism. He is brilliant.

Posted by Joseph on Thursday, June 4, Anno Domini 2015
Tuesday, January 13, A.D. 2015
Common Core Critique

Merry Christmas to my fellow Orthodox who continue to celebrate the Nativity season! Also, I wish my nephew a happy birthday, and I wish him well in his studies.

Appropriate for such wishes, I offer an essay in Salvo Magazine by Robin Phillips, “School Deform: How Common Core Promotes Cultural Engineering by Killing the Imagination.” I am rather ignorant about the Common Core State Standards Initiative, but I mistrust pretty much any trend that gains traction in contemporary education. That field is full of confusion. It is therefore not surprising to read Phillips’ assessment of common core. In short, it is an educational program designed to mold minds to be useful pegs in the machine. What else could education be?

One example of the core’s folly is that it prescribes texts based on textual complexity—not complexity as profundity, but simply grammatical and terminological complexity. Hence, bureaucratic regulations and technical manuals are just as appropriate for students as the prose of Melville or Wilde. Phillips writes:

Moore also notes that Common Core elevates “informational texts” and articles by journalists above literary works through a computerized process for determining “text complexity.” Readings that are found to use technical jargon are rated higher in the complexity scale than works that use more simple language. Complexity thus becomes purely quantitative, without attention being paid to the quality of texts.

How could this happen? Imagine how many people had to have been involved in the crafting of common core—how many “educators,” school administrators, and civil servants. The rot is pervasive. And certainly well paid for.

Posted by Joseph on Tuesday, January 13, Anno Domini 2015
Friday, January 24, A.D. 2014
Christian Fiction

You may have read this week that Amazon has started a Christian book imprint that will publish “faith-based non-fiction and fiction.” I first saw the story on Yahoo News. The article only has a few comments, but I wish to address them because they unfortunately indicate common opinions that I find objectionable. The first comment, by a “Chad Vader,” finds “faith based fiction” problematic:

“will publish “faith-based non-fiction and fiction,”

Faith based non-fiction? Really?

Religion has one intent. To save souls. I could never understand “faith based fiction.”
Isn’t that the definition of a snake oil salesman?

It’s hard enough, and takes “faith”, to follow what you wish to believe is true. Now let’s generate fiction (truly, make believe) to really get the holy spirit rolling?
Religion should NEVER use fantasy to help convince.

Amazon sees how easy it is to make money selling snake oil.

My advice. It’s an area of business that’s only purpose is to take advantage of others. Stay out of it.

It may be easy to dismiss “Chad Vader” and like-minded folks as philistines, but Chad Vader likely appreciates “non-faith based fiction” (though we might ask if there is such a thing), given his pen name and avatar. Though apparently a Christian, Chad may be a victim of creeping secularism that has built a “wall of separation” in Chad’s mind between religion and art. What justification can there be for such a separation? Man is a worshiping animal, and man is a creative animal. Only a bizarre psychic schism would prevent a man’s religion from informing his art. For a man creates from his inner resources—training, talent, experience, knowledge, inner state—and his religion has probably affected a large portion of those resources. Why would one want to enfeeble the life giving springs of art?

Chad’s worry seems to be that Christian fiction would sully the truth value of the gospel, and such reminds him of a snake oil salesman. One obvious difference is that the artist is transparent about his fiction; he does not pass it off as a historical record. He “sells” a story that the muses (or divine light, though I repeat myself) inspired him to create, and the truth value of such rests in its honesty about its subject matter (usually the human condition), though its particularities are made up. The snake oil peddler, by contrast, deceives his customers by claiming that his product is something that it is not.

Moreover, one would think that a Christian would readily see the usefulness of fiction to religion—especially since the author and finisher of our faith was so adept in making up ingenious parables that have taught billions of largely uneducated people many rather profound lessons. “Religion should NEVER use fantasy to help convince.” But what about using fantasy to elucidate? Or what about using fiction as a form of doxology? There are many literary genres that convey truth, and it is meet and right to employ all the treasures of the arts to glorify God. I am reminded of McGuckin’s essay on the Beautiful. Religion informs art, and art informs religion. They are both gifts from God to be rendered back to him in gratitude.

Another commentator—“J”—makes the following cynical point:

“and authors and promoters alike are still trying to understand the perfect formula for turning those books into dollars.”

Religion and money. That’s what it’s all about. Get the rubes to buy your books, What a racket.

I addressed J’s point in “Disney the Corrupter of Youth?”:

I watched a fascinating but revolting documentary a year or so ago about marketing to children, but I cannot remember the name. The program argued that companies manipulate children to determine their parents’ spending behavior. I believe that the documentary even stated that some cartoons were produced with the intention of selling merchandise. Obviously, the coin counters at Disney have mastered that game. Nonetheless, we cannot reduce the artistic product to the merchandising, even if, in one sense, the chief reason for the product’s existence is the merchandise. For there were writers and animators who crafted a piece of art. Their efforts may have been commissioned, facilitated, and perhaps even directed by the coin counters, but their actions as producers of art are not identical to their actions as money-makers for the company.

The abbot’s criticism could be applied to any human undertaking that coexists with paid work. We who find the coin counters merely pallid shades of real manhood hope that artists create art for the love of such creation and that teachers disseminate their learning for the love of knowledge. Yet, for most artists and teachers, their work has some component of wage-earning, as well. Unless one is rich, one has to pay for shelter and victuals. A person has to feed his children. Consider the history of art, and you will quickly see how most of the revered masters worked for commission. I think that it is clear that their work far transcends simply the desire to pay the bills, but practical matters matter in our human life of scarcity.

Perhaps, the abbot has a point about Disney the company—the commodification of culture in the age of mass production is disgusting. However, fine works can come from sordid circumstances. The nineteenth century amply supplies examples. Moreover, we should ponder the difficulties that underlie this issue. What is the end of production? Is it simply money-making, or are there other proper ends for human endeavors that may earn a living?

The head honchos at Amazon likely just want to increase profits and to grow the company. So? Many aristocrats over the centuries just wanted to show off their status when they commissioned sculptures, musical compositions, and paintings. Is there any doubt that their petty desire to invoke jealousy amongst their peers resulted in a marvelous enrichment of Western civilization? May Amazon’s venture bring forth good fruit.

Speaking of Amazon and of Christian fiction, fellow Orthodox Ohioan (and Beltway transplant) Deacon Brian Patrick Mitchell has published a new book set at the beginning of the fourth century—A Crown of Life: A Novel of the Great Persecution. I wish the good deacon much success and many more visits by the muses.

Posted by Joseph on Friday, January 24, Anno Domini 2014
Monday, January 13, A.D. 2014

Christ is born! May my fellow Orthodox Christians continue to enjoy the festive season. Happy birthday, as well, to my young nephew—many years!

The Orthodox commemorate the visit of the Magi with the Nativity and not on the feast of the Theophany. As it is still Christmastide for us, I would like to offer you two short pieces shared by Fr. Z. for Epiphany in the Roman Church. The first is “The Gift of the Magi”—a predictable but sweet short story by William Sydney Porter (O. Henry).

Fr. Z. also showcases an interesting passage in Helena by Evelyn Waugh: “An Epiphany Prayer to the Magi for Self-Absorbed Promethean Neopelagians.” Liber locorum communium provides a longer passage that put the Empress’ thoughts in more context:

But by Twelfth Night she rallied and on the eve set out by litter along the five rough miles to the shrine of the Nativity.  There was no throng of pilgrims.  Macarius and his people kept Epiphany in their own church.  Only the little community of Bethlehem greeted her and led her to the room they had prepared.  She rested there dozing until an hour before dawn when they called her and led her out under the stars, then down into the stable-cave, where they made a place for her on the women’s side of the small, packed congregation.

The low vault was full of lamps and the air close and still.  Silver bells announced the coming of three vested, bearded monks, who like the kings of old now prostrated themselves before the altar.  So the long liturgy began.

Helena knew little Greek and her thoughts were not in the words nor anywhere in the immediate scene.  She forgot even her quest and was dead to everything except the swaddled child long ago and those three royal sages who had come from so far to adore him.

‘This is my day,’ she thought, ‘and these are my kind.’

Perhaps she apprehended that her fame, like theirs, would live in one historic act of devotion; that she too had emerged from a kind of οὐτοπία or nameless realm and would vanish like them in the sinking nursery fire-light among the picture-books and the day’s toys.

‘Like me,’ she said to them, ‘you were late in coming.  The shepherds were here long before; even the cattle.  They had joined the chorus of angels before you were on your way.  For you the primordial discipline of the heavens was relaxed and a new defiant light blazed amid the disconcerted stars.

‘How laboriously you came, taking sights and calculating, where the shepherds had run barefoot!  How odd you looked on the road, attended by what outlandish liveries, laden with such preposterous gifts!

‘You came at length to the final stage of your pilgrimage and the great star stood still above you.  What did you do?  You stopped to call on King Herod.  Deadly exchange of compliments in which began that unended war of mobs and magistrates against the innocent!

‘Yet you came and were not turned away.  You too found room before the manger.  Your gifts were not needed, but they were accepted and put carefully by, for they were brought with love.  In that new order of charity that had just come to life, there was room for you, too.  You were not lower in the eyes of the holy family than the ox or the ass.

‘You are my especial patrons,’ said Helena, ‘and patrons of all late-comers, of all who have a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation, of all who through politeness make themselves partners in guilt, of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents.

‘Dear cousins, pray for me,’ said Helena, ‘and for my poor overloaded son.  May he, too, before the end find kneeling-space in the straw.  Pray for the great, lest they perish utterly.  And pray for Lactantius and Marcias and the young poets of Trèves and for the souls of my wild, blind ancestors; for their sly foe Odysseus and for the great Longinus.

‘For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate.  Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.’

Evelyn Waugh, Helena: a novel, chap.11, Epiphany ((London:  Chapman & Hall, 1950), pp. 237-240).

Superb! And a very much needed prayer.

Posted by Joseph on Monday, January 13, Anno Domini 2014
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