What helps me to NOT believe the world is flat

I wrote this for a friend at Calvin-in-Common who was sharing how he listens to Handel’s Messiah with longing. He loves the music but has come to doubt the texts it is built upon.

Tolkien is one of my Christmas traditions. For most of the year Sacramento is ablaze with unobstructed sun, but come late November through January (yes, winter here only lasts a couple of months, poor us! 🙂 ) the place can start to feel like Western Michigan with overcast skies. Then there’s the thick fog.

“Experts” tell us that January is the most depressing month of the year, I’m sure the lack of sunlight has a lot to do with it. Depression, or even just regular old melancholy can do funny things to one’s perception. It adjusts what you believe. It attempts to recalibrate (with less than helpful input from fear) what is responsible, practical and needful. For these reason I turn in the winter to Tolkien.

Tolkien is a funny case, because he gets very little respect from the literary establishment, but the popularity of his hobbit franchise is staggering. I recently discovered a college English prof from the east that has a website and a podcast devoted to the study of Tolkien. http://www.tolkienprofessor.com/index.html

Tolkien can be dark. The world is a mess, evil and darkness are always a threat and one’s grasp on hope always seems tenuous. Hope, however, is the central thread through his stories. Hope that looks like a thin thread, but somehow seems to endure, and eventual prevail.

I’ve been doing the book of Revelation for my Sunday School class, and now dipping into it a bit (Rev 12-14) for Advent. If there is a book of the Bible most hated and doubted in the Bible by well read lefties (that seems to be us on Cic) it has to be the book of Revelation. If there’s a book in the Bible whose prophesies look just plain offensive and wrong Revelation has to take the prize. Rome, I mean Babylon, wink wink, time times and half a time, heads and horns as kings, etc. The fundies of course get more mileage out of Revelation than anything else.

Why did Tolkien and Lewis try to revive fantasy as literature? Tolkien surely did it far better than Lewis. Tolkien didn’t like Lewis’ work, too obvious, allegorical, over-bearing. Tolkien I think seemed to trust the power of story more than Lewis. There’s no Aslan in Middle Earth. There’s no religion either, which is an incredibly telling omission given the type of literature they were attempting to revive.

In the Tolkien Professor’s introduction http://www.tolkienprofessor.com/lectures/intro.html he gets into how Tolkien understands story and his notions of “subcreation”. That there is something embedded in existence out of which the artist (story teller in this case) draws out, reveals, illuminates, discovers and tries to share with others. Tolkien believed that our problem is that we are unable to see what is closest to us, what we have laid our hands on, taken possession of, taken captive and locked away only to be forgotten. What we need are unreal stories  that by virtue of their distance begin to make other levels of this reality believable again, things we imagined we have mastered. By virtue of the distance of the story from our reality our perspective begins to broaden and our minds are able to believe more than we thought we were permitted.

When I read Tolkien’s work, or even see the Peter Jackson movies, I find it moves me. That was exactly what Tolkien said he wanted his stories to do. Handel’s Messiah does the same thing to me. I also listen to it this time of year.

Tim Keller a few years ago had cancer and had to have surgery. When he was awaiting surgery his mind was racing around looking for someplace to find some comfort from his fear and anxiety. He says he didn’t recite Scripture as a Christian pastor should or might advise, he thought of the scene in the LOTR when everything is darkened by the clouds of Mordor, but there is a crack in the clouds and just for a moment he spies a star, and that was enough to give Sam the hope he needed to continue his quest. I see this Tim Keller story as an example of what Tolkien is saying.

Conventional wisdom says that people who claim a high view of the Bible (whatever that REALLY means, maybe more on that later) are narrow and limited by their devotion to this book. It’s assumed that they believe things that they aren’t justified to believe. If they had a better education, would stop reading the narrow authors and start reading the learned ones then they would be set free from the shackles of that old book. It is promised that they would be freer than they are now. They wouldn’t be bound by old traditional beliefs and rules, and maybe too they’d stop judging (either loudly or silently) the behavior of others. They’d be free to divorce, spend 100% of their cash instead of 90%, attend the gay weddings of their kids, drink, smoke, shop on Sunday, have better vacations, enjoy movies, or R rated movies, etc. Life would just be better for them.

Whatever you want to do with that behavior list, I am starting to suspect that in fact the reverse is true. I’m beginning to wonder if the new light the Ehrmans, Spongs  Pagels and Borgs aren’t offering is in fact less than rather than greater than. The irony of their message doesn’t really seem to be freedom. “You can’t believe that, it’s not justified. You can’t think that way, only troglodytes believe in angels and devils. Come into the light of our new learning and you will be free.”

One leaving the chapel for the clarity of the academy might however be surprised by what they find. There is no consensus on what exactly is justified in believing. The canons of those halls are continually in flux. Consensus lasts for a while only to be replaced by a new consensus, sometimes dependent upon whom is sitting in what chair.

If you read Calvin or Augustine or other theologians before we knew so much they seem to be able to live and believe without being sure about a lot of things. You can’t really read the Bible too carefully without recognizing that they certainly weren’t trying to write history the way we do today, and unless you presume that ancients were just plain dim and couldn’t read they must have had a level of comfort about facts that don’t add up or details that don’t mesh far beyond our own. How many times do you read a NT book citing a “prophesy” from the old only to say “now where to they see that from THAT?!” yet they believed, and in many cases with sufficient joy, certainty and surely some doubt that they led others in their beliefs and sometimes even joyfully offered their own lives for it.

You can believe in a flat earth. The flat earth we learn about today says that all there is is physics and history. The world is flat, sorry. We’re one gamma burst or meteor strike from annihilation and then all that we love, all that we find meaning in, all that we imagine is important will be no more which means that it really doesn’t mean anything right now either. Our experience of meaning is an illusion produced by evolution for some practical advantage that we hope to figure out.

Tolkien helps me believe the earth is round and full. Tolkien helps me read Revelation to hear the lion and see the lamb. Tolkien encourages me to look up and know that above the clouds, outside of the age of decay there is brilliance, joy, love, and world without end. Handel does that for me too.

I’m a lefty enough to read books by doubters and revisionists. I need to do some of that because denial really isn’t a productive strategy to deal with doubt. At the same time I have to also read other guys who speak to me from different worlds, and draw my eyes to imaginary places because they keep me from thinking the world is flat. That’s what works for me. pvk

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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