On Mother’s Day, Five Things You Taught Me

13361740464_89e2e95c8d_bIt would be hard to overestimate the significance of my mother in life. For those who may not know her well, her quiet and patient manner of life, far from being a liability to her parenting, has deeply stamped itself into her children. So, in tribute to my mother, who’ll be embarrassed to read this, the five things my mother has taught me.

  1. Happiness is a choice, not circumstantial – Our lives did not always contain all the ingredients that many assume are necessary for happiness. My mother could not be blamed for expressing a bit of bitterness. But the deep impression I have of her example is simple and quiet peace with the lot that God had granted her. She would tell me to “get to work,” which in her words was synonymous with “have fun.” I’d have to learn to love work, and to make joy my choice.
  2. Being good is better than looking good – My mom was never overly concerned with how I made her look (though I suppose I was, in her words, “a compliant rebel”). But she relentlessly prayed for my heart and soul. She would point to failures and rejoice that God was teaching me humility, or perseverance, or empathy, or some such thing. She would never be content with my appearing good and being evil, and so I correspondingly developed a hatred for falseness and a passion for reality.
  3. There is nothing more important than integrity – I remember that it got out once that I had helped myself to some cookies at a house where I was caring for fish. Implied consent, I thought. She didn’t. Young teenage I was forced to confess and to ask forgiveness for stealing cookies. This was not a pleasant moment for a teenager, but I learned that even small sins are a serious breach of integrity.
  4. Marriage/Parenthood is not an act of self-fulfillment but a happy giving of oneself entirely to others’ good – My mom’s “self-sacrifice” was not like what so many authors despise (e.g. Rand, Tolstoy, etc.), a self-righteous way of taking pleasure in one’s own “lowliness”, put on for show. My mom showed me how one can take delight in helping another to grow, to flourish. She can often be seen at holidays, having slaved over the food and accommodations, sitting quietly in the corner enjoying others enjoyment.
  5. Being quiet and slow can be really good – in a world dominated by extroverts, my mom showed me by example that quiet contemplation and steady careful action is really valuable.

Church Matters: Traditional and Contemporary Types

The contemporary/traditional divide among evangelical churches is not new; yet, it is disconcerting to note that little progress has been made in the advancement of real dialogue about the nature of church practices among evangelicals. A central issue is, as Rosaria Butterfield has quipped, the Bible is used to end the conversation, not to enrich it. Setting aside the nature of biblical authority for the moment, this practice–of ending conversations by appealing to Scripture–may manifest both a lack of seriousness regarding church practices and a lack of intellectual integrity. My fear is that neither side of this divide is seriously listening, but is rather repeating clichéd rhetoric aimed at fortifying their positions. The aim of this post is simply to serve the conversation by noting the merits and shortcomings of the arguments.

Typology

Granted, not every church fits neatly into one or the other side of this debate. Some are very balanced in general orientation toward text or context. However, some general observations can be made of the types of churches in the American context that I am referring to as “contemporary” or “traditional.”

Contemporary Traditional
Generally moves from cultural context to textGeneral sensitivity to popular context, that is, the people among whom the church exists, especially to cultural distinctives Generally moves from text to cultural contextGeneral sensitivity to theological context, that is, the ideas among which the church exists, and their threats to the church or the gospel
Strong practical principles Strong theological principles
Preaching that methodologically begins with application (i.e. The question, “What should I preach on?” is answered topically from a sensitivity to context) Preaching that methodologically begins with scripture (i.e. The question, “What should I preach on?” is answered with a scripture reference)
Highly polished programatic or aesthetic elements (setting, traffic flow, conveniences, sound, signage, food, etc.–if this were a restaurant, one would want to come back) Purposeful lack of concern for aesthetic elements
Elements of pop musical concert in public singing (typical “band” instruments, lighting, stage set up, video feed, etc.) More traditional musical elements in public singing (can range quite a bit, but even with typical “band” instruments, other elements are intentionally passed over)
Strong presence of a screen or screens Intentional minimization of screens (e.g. only used for the words to songs)
Strong focus on “the leader” Luddite aesthetic for the purpose of drawing awareness to the gathered
Strong organizational health–special focus on leadership training and awareness of gifting Lack in good practical reasoning about a variety of issues from organizational health, community integration, leadership development, to building management
Loose or no denominational tie Strong denominational tie, or at least strong creedal or historical ties
Tend to see the “worship service” as a human event Tend to see the “worship service” as a divine event

A Sampling of Arguments

Contemporary

The single biggest argument against the traditional model is that it lacks evangelistic concern, that it makes very little difference in contemporary society. This argument is extremely difficult for a traditional church to deal with because it largely hits its mark. The five largest evangelical churches (not considering Lakewood Church, Houston, TX) are all “contemporary” (1. North Point, Alpharetta, GA, 2. Willow Creek, South Barrington, IL, 3.NewSpring, Anderson, SC, 4. Church of the Highlands, Birmingham, AL, 5. Saddleback, Lake Forest, CA). The most common response to this criticism is a deflecting mechanism of the following sort: “we’re unwilling to compromise our [theological] principles to attract people.” Vague condemnations of this sort merely distract from the fact that traditional churches have been ineffective by any measure (not just comparatively) in spreading the gospel in the American context.

An argument that is less common, is that contemporary churches share the theological commitments of traditional ones, but merely do things better practically. In other words, they are in other respects the same as traditional churches, but practically superior (hence, more conversions and attendance). Traditionalists can respond to this by arguing that so called “practical superiority” always involves “theological inferiority” (and in serious ways). Another way of putting this is that attention is zero-sum in the sense that to attend to practical concerns is to leave necessary theological considerations unconsidered.

Traditional

The single most common traditionalist charge against contemporary churches is that that they are willing to sacrifice theological faithfulness for numerical success. But this sort of charge tends to be pretty severely uncharitable, especially insofar as it gives the impression that there is intent to sacrifice theological faithfulness for success–a devil’s bargain (never mind if the traditionalists are right about what they charge). This charge seems to be the most serious area where the conversation is a non-starter, just where it would be most helpful to continue dialogue. The fault is on both sides. It would be helpful for the sake of discussion to assume that everyone is trying to be faithful to God’s commission and charge to the church, and talk about the particular risks of particular approaches. For instance, might it not be helpful to discuss constructively with both sides the hidden implications of preaching without the actual presence of the pastor.

Another common charge against the contemporary type is that these churches do not recognize that the “worship service” is not a mere human event, but also a divine event, that God meets us in worship and is also an actor. The difficulty with this charge is twofold. First, it has been difficult to find consensus about the definition and significance of the church’s gathering for “worship.” The liturgical tradition has a very well formed idea of this, but many evangelicals remain unconvinced (or are unaware of that tradition). This is an area where the discussion needs to be continued rather than cut off. Second, the implications of worship being “a divine event” are not clear. For traditionalists, the argument is generally left unstated between the premises “worship is a divine event” and “worship should be like ours is.” Granted, the regulative principle complicates this discussion. But among traditional churches that do not hold the the RP, the implications of God meeting the church in worship often are largely unspecified. For example, in a recent podcast titled “Bully Pulpit: Gobbledygook” Carl Trueman and Todd Pruitt discuss some quotes on preaching from Mark Driscoll and Andy Stanley. Todd Pruitt makes the point that to suggest that the preacher eliminate theological language from a sermon is an implicit denial of the sufficiency of Scripture because God promises to produce faith in the hearts of the hearers (God event), therefore, “my methodology becomes less important than God’s program of the word being preached and made plain.” (Todd Pruitt, Mortification of Spin podcast, September 24, 2013). Again, it is not clear what God’s activity might mean for the preacher’s activity, but in this case it is supposed to mean he should use “theological language.”

Another common charge is that the church is not for unbelievers. I’ve never heard a response for this charge from the contemporary folks. I suppose it is worth noting that there is New Testament precedence for acknowledging that unbelievers may be present. Paul seems sensitive to outsiders in 1 Corinthians 14:23 where he says, “If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?” And yet, the traditionalist complaint seems to be deeper in the sense that they assert that the purpose of the weekly gathering is believer oriented, while they charge contemporary churches with being primarily unbeliever oriented. I think at least theoretically the complaint misses its mark because both would say the primary purpose of the weekly gathering is believer oriented, but the disagreement normally lies in what level of accessibility to unbelievers is appropriate and the degree to which this accessibility sacrifices the promotion of maturity in believers.

Some Concerns that are Not Commonly Raised

A related, but relatively undeveloped concern to the last one mentioned is the fact that accessibility is not merely a function of theological language. Some traditional churches (surely not all) are inaccessible intellectually as well as well as theologically. This raises the question, to what extent is the church responsible for the intellectual care of church members? Perhaps there will be a temptation to say, none. But this misses a crucial connection between intellectual virtue and general Christian virtue. This connection can be illustrated with two examples. First, Christian revelation is word revelation. It requires interpretation. Interpretation is only possible with intellectual virtue, otherwise heresy is common. Second, the moral field of the church is constantly changing, leaving new moral issues to be ironed out almost constantly. For this reason, intellectual virtue is necessary for acting wisely in the world. Boiling all Christian teaching down to “a third grade level” has obvious doctrinal and moral consequences.

Second, within the American milieu particularly, capitalism and consumerism are major factors. Traditional churches, since they move from text to cultural context, tend not to place a high priority on the cluster of activities involved with advertising the church. Furthermore, intentional disregard for aesthetic elements also reflects this philosophical commitment. Traditional churches will argue that evangelism is not advertising, and advertising should not be viewed as the paradigmatic approach toward evangelism. This is an area where the contemporary church needs to be especially wary, since to “advertise” reinforces consumerist assumptions that run contrary to the Christian faith in a significant way. God is not the ultimate product, the solution to all our needs. God is the sovereign Lord of the universe against whom we have sinned. To present God in the former way runs the risk of talking about a different God entirely, a sort of fawning obsequious figurehead who just wants everyone on his side.

Third, again, since traditional churches tend to move from text to context, they have the tendency not to utilize technology. The war over technology is heated, some arguing that every technology carries with it unintended consequences, others arguing that there is no point in pretending that technology can be avoided. Probably both positions are true. Technology certainly brings with it unintended consequences, and therefore, leaders must ask what these are and how to mitigate them. But certainly cars and cell phones are here to say. Some may argue that this is not a moral argument for cars or cell phones, and this is true, but the church must deal effectively with the real ever changing moral field, of which technology is a part.

Conclusion

In the end, it may seem that the divide relies on a basic tendency to adopt theological or practical ways of both interpreting situations and addressing them. And yet, the church is both a human and a divine construct. God works through human means. So perhaps the two most important questions are: 1) Does (and to what extent) the fact that God acts in the church affect my methodological commitments? 2) What is the theological freight of my particular practical decision?

The Redemptive Voice: Vocal Characterization in Tolkien

“But at that moment there came a sound like mingled song and laughter. Clear voices rose and fell in the starlit air.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

There is an old story that the origins of the now popular ‘football’ chorus “Ole! Ole! Ole!” is a remnant of the Moors invasion of Spain. It is said that the original chant was in fact “Allah, Allah, Allah” and that it was used for a particular set of circumstances. The Moors would chant “Allah, Allah, Allah” out of respect for a performance of some sort which was obviously possessed divine inspiration. For instance, a particular musical performance might so transport the hearers so as to move them to recognize the presence of God in it. So the Spaniards would say, “Ole, Ole, Ole.”

J.R.R. Tolkien was a master at his craft, which is to say his artistry was sublime. Tolkien had a particular view of writing which he describes as follows: “One writes such a story not out of the leaves of trees still to be observed, not by means of botany and soil-science; but it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mould of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long ago been forgotten, descending into the deeps.”[1]  For him, writing was an organic process which ‘grew’ out of the leaf mould of experience. Tolkien’s experience, like that of his friend and fellow Inkling C.S. Lewis, was profoundly Christian. In other words, when one reads Tolkien, he expects to find forms and expressions with a particular Christian hue. This expectation is validated in his most well-known work, The Lord of the Rings trilogy. While Tolkien’s ‘leaf mould’ is Roman Catholic in its essential tone, it has elements in common with Lewis’s more Protestant vision. For instance, both writers were masters at portraying the radical devastation of sin. One thinks of the power of illicit curiosity which nearly wrecks the incipient realms of Perelandra or Narnia. What might have happened in these places is apparent in the glimpses that the reader gets of Charn, in The Magician’s Nephew or even of Earth, in That Hideous Strength. Sin was and was not a mere trifling matter for Lewis. On the one hand, it could manifest itself in a seemingly innocent concern for one’s mother, but on the other, it could affect the destruction of every form of life. On the topic of trifles, Tolkien’s embodiment of illicit desire in the ring leads Boromir to ask, “Is it not a strange fate that we should suffer so much fear and doubt for so small a thing? So small a thing!”[2] But as the reader knows well, the ring is not a trifle (not a mathom), but holds in itself the power to destroy everything that has worth, hope and life including.

Yet, for their similarities, Tolkien excels beyond Lewis in many respects. Among them is the development of his characters. In a recent read of The Fellowship of the Ring, my students noticed one feature in particular.* Tolkien very intentionally focuses the reader’s attention on the vocal quality of his characters as an orienting factor for understanding them. The first example of this appears with the arrival of the high elves that Frodo and his companions meet along the road out of the Shire. Tolkien describes their encounter as follows: “But at that moment there came a sound like mingled song and laughter. Clear voices rose and fell in the starlit air.”[3] The clear voices of the elves come just at the opportune moment, when the “sniffing” black rider was approaching. And the reader knows the voices mean salvation; the black rider vanishes at the sound. But it is not just the elves’ voices that are clear, but also the song itself which rises and falls in autumn air.

Snow-white! Snow-white! O Lady clear!
O Queen beyond the Western Seas!
O Light to us that wander here
Amid the world of woven trees!

Gilthoniel! O Elbereth!
Clear are they eyes and bright thy breath!
Snow-white! Snow-white! We sing to thee
In a far land beyond the Sea.
 
O stars that in the Sunless Year
With shining hand by her were sown,
In windy fields now bright and clear
We see your silver blossom blown!
 
O Elbereth Gilthoniel!
We still remember, we who dwell
In this far land beneath the trees,
They starlight on the Western Seas[4]

For Tolkien, the elves represent what is high and grand, everything that is most like Illuvatar himself. After all, it is these very elves who had gazed on the Two Trees of Valinor, Telperion with its silver dew and Laurelin with its golden boughs. It is remarked in The Silmarillion that the high elves who had seen the trees of Valinor were forever sundered from the lingerers who refused to obey the call of the Valar to cross out of Middle-Earth to western lands. It was precisely this vision of pure, clear light which sundered them. So the elves, being most like Illuvatar, embody most purely divine qualities—pure divine light, wisdom, truth, and joy. And when it comes to voice, it is clarity which is divine.

And it is not only the elves that share this remarkable vocal quality. Tom Bombadil is said to enchant the hobbits with his “deep glad voice” which rises up “loud and clear”:

Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo!
Ring a dong! hop along! fall all the willow!
Tom Bom, jolly Tom, Tom Bombadillo![5]

So it is, for the second time in Tolkien’s narrative, the hobbits are saved at exactly the moment of tribulation, by a clear voice. Yet, Tom Bombadil is a very different sort of character than the elves. He is older but more carelessly happy. Tolkien describes him, “He had a blue coat and a long brown beard; his eyes were blue and bright, and his face was red as a ripe apple, but creased into a hundred wrinkles of laughter.”[6] But the reader already has guessed all of this. His “deep glad voice” lets slip the merry old man that he is. He is different than the elves, though in some respects the same. Joy, song, truth, wisdom, and age might be said to characterize them both. But Tom, as the reader would naturally call him, is obliviously gay as though wrinkles of anxiety would never touch his brow. It is only the voice of naked mirth that can make the weeping willow shiver and the cold barrow-wight flee. And it is his voice in song that first we meet.

Contrariwise, the hobbits are immediately alarmed by the voices of the black riders. Frodo has an encounter with the voice of a rider in the Shire, “He turned to go back, and then stopped for he heard voices, just round the corner by the end of Bagshot Row. One voice was certainly the old Gaffer’s; the other was strange, and somehow unpleasant. He could not make out what it said, but he heard the Gaffer’s answers, which were rather shrill.”[7] The “strange and somehow unpleasant” voice of the rider is reinforced by the sniffing encounter along the road, but especially by the hobbits’ experience in the wood:

They stopped short suddenly. Frodo sprang to his feet. A long-drawn wail came down the wind, like the cry of some evil and lonely creature. It rose and fell, and ended on a high piercing note. Even as they sat and stood, as if suddenly frozen, it was answered by another cry, fainter and further off, but no less chilling to the blood. There was then a silence, broken only by the sound of the wind in the leaves.

‘And what do you think that was?’ Pippin asked at last, trying to speak lightly, but quavering a little. ‘If it was a bird, it was one that I never heard in the Shire before.’

‘It was not a bird or beast,’ said Frodo. ‘It was a call, or a signal—there were words in that cry, though I could not catch them. But no hobbit has such a voice.’

No more was said about it. They were all thinking of the Riders, but no one spoke of them.[8]

The hobbits do not understand the particulars of the peril, but it is the vocal quality which reveals something of its urgency. The nature of the black riders is vividly disclosed by the chilling wail.

We know a bit about the voices of hobbits as well—though hobbits’ voices perhaps vary somewhat. The old Gaffer’s voice becomes shrill with fear. And so does Frodo’s at the moment he calls to Tom Bombadil for rescue. Yet, hobbits can also exhibit the voice of celebration and simple joy. Their voices rise into the night sky at Bilbo’s party. Or we might remark of Pippin’s high and merry voice as he sings the praises of hot water!

Sing hey! for the bath at the close of day
that washes the weary mud away!
A loon is he that will not sing:
O! Water Hot is a noble thing![9]

But the voice of Frodo exhibits a power which is unique to himself, the power to change. There is, of course, the shrill voice of terror. But more significantly, the river daughter notices that Frodo is an elf-friend both by the light in his eyes and the “ring in [his] voice.”[10] Hobbits are not high and grand like elves, but it is their capacity for joy as well as their vulnerability which most characterizes them. On one hand, their spirits are not easily broken, but on the other what could be more improbable than a hobbit facing the power of Mordor? And masterfully, Tolkien captures these qualities, in their voices.

Still, there is one voice which the reader will find mysterious. The voice of Strider is introduced simply, with little editorial comment as a “low voice.” There is ambiguity even in the description. Does he mean tone or volume? If the elves are high and grand, the hobbits are jolly, practical, but frail, Strider is sad and mysterious. Strider is a man. To be more specific Strider is a ranger, a lonely wanderer whose appearance belies his identity. Gandalf admonishes the hobbits, “not all those who wander are lost.”[11] Yet, within the soul of Strider there is perhaps a profound sadness that is uniquely human. When the hobbits desire a tale of Middle earth, Strider says, “It is a fair tale, though it is sad, as are all the tales of Middle-earth, and yet it may lift up your hearts.”[12] The tale which follows is of Beren and Luthien Tinuviel, a deeply affecting tale of love and loss. Fleming Rutledge, in The Battle for Middle-Earth, says, “This tale is of the greatest importance, not only because it forms the backdrop for much that will happen, but also because it embodies a central motif, that of self-sacrifice.”[13] Yet, what is most striking in light of what has been said already about voice is the way Strider is described in the telling of this story of self-sacrifice. Tolkien writes, “As Strider was speaking they watched his strange eager face, dimly lit in the red glow of the wood-fire. His eyes shone, and his voice was rich and deep. Above him was a black starry sky.” Even at this point in the story, Strider, the ranger, has disappeared to be swallowed up by Aragorn the king. Yet, this king is a dramatically human king. Whereas elves represent everything high and grand, humans represent redemption. All stories of Middle-earth are sad tales because all human tales are sad. Yet, it is in this sadness and self-sacrifice that Aragorn the king has developed not just a low voice, but a deep and rich one. We know from experience that depth and richness are won with great difficulty. They are only won through tears. The Strider we meet is uniquely equipped to do the very human thing he will do precisely because he had gazed on the faces of the elves and he had stared down the face of great evil.

All of this leads me to aver, Christians ought to live as Strider does. To live as the elves is high and grand; and Strider too feels the pull of western lands. He has long been a friend of the elves. Yet, he knows that this is not his path. His life is inextricably tied to the fate of his people. His life, he knows, will likely be a sad tale full of hardship and perhaps even failure.

Christians likewise, ought to feel the pull of western lands, of feasting, of drink, of song, of dance and of pure goodness. Yet, we ourselves are linked through blood to a people in peril. As Strider’s path led him to Gondor, to the stoop of pure evil, so ours leads us to people who are broken with deceit, destruction, anger, and envy. His manner of life (de modo conversationis) is a redemptive one.

Our path, like Aragorn’s, is a redemptive path, one which involves much sadness, but is rich and deep. It offers the hope of reforging what once was broken. Let the voice of Aragorn act as a guide to our own ethical vision. May we love the elves, but remember our people. Only a writer like Tolkien, a master in his craft, could develop such rich textures of meaning, through so subtle a point as voice.

So as the Spaniards would say, Mr. Tolkien, Ole, Ole, Ole.

de modo conversationis

Transcendent

Redemptive

Earthly

Clear

Rich and Deep

Raspy or Shrill

Clear

True

Light

Wisdom

Creative

Trusting

Joy

Song

Clear Voices

Feasting

Practical

Married

Food

Fire

Sadness

Self-sacrifice

Building

Cunning

Chant

Distorted

Hardened

Shrewd

Angry

Destruction

Darkness

Deceit

Traitorous

Envy


[1] Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien (New York, Ballantine Books, 1977), p. 140-41.

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Rings (Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1965), p. 414.

[3] Ibid, 88.

[4] Ibid, 88-89.

[5] Ibid, 130.

[6] Ibid, 131.

[7] Ibid, 78.

[8] Ibid, 99-100.

[9] Ibid, 111.

[10] Ibid, 135

[11] Ibid, 154.

[12] Ibid, 203.

[13] Fleming Rutledge, The Battle for Middle-Earth, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), p. 82.

*Thanks to Felicia Van Dress for noticing this.