Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Meaning of the Menaion

          St. John Chrysostom had a much slimmer Menaion than we do. The Menaion, of course, is that collection of hymns celebrating the lives of the Church’s saints, offering the proper liturgical hymns for the services of Vespers, Matins, and the Divine Liturgy.  God’s grace has been so abundant throughout the centuries that there is now pretty much a saint or three for every day of the Church’s calendar year.  Take, for example and at random, November 17:  on this day, the Church commemorates St. Gregory of Neocaesarea, the venerable Nikon of Radonezh, the venerable Lazarus the Iconographer of Constantinople, the martyr Gobron of Georgia, and the venerable Genadius of Vatopedi.  Not all of these saints are honoured with hymns in the Church’s services, but all find a place in the Church’s liturgical memory (and possibly, in the Dismissal of the day when the saints for the day are mentioned).
            It was otherwise in the time of John Chrysostom when he served in the church at Antioch as one of its presbyters and when he presided as bishop and pastor over the church in Constantinople.  In his time, saints’ days were local affairs.  One of course celebrated such days as Pascha and Pentecost.  Even new-fangled days such as Christmas (concentrating specifically upon Christ’s birth at Bethlehem) were coming into vogue in the west (soon to be borrowed everywhere by the east).  But the saints and martyrs that were celebrated were mostly local martyrs—men and women of the local church who had suffered for Christ, men and women known by face and name by one’s fathers or grandfathers or great grandfathers, and whose relics were retained and treasured by the local church.  The martyrs at that time were hometown boys.  As an act of catholic generosity, some of these relics might be shared and given to other churches, thereby extending the liturgical veneration of the martyr to other places.  But by and large, in Chrysostom’s day, the saints honoured with special feasts were those who were locally known. 
            As you can see by the citation from the current church calendar for November 17 mentioned above, this is no longer the case.  The Church has broadened its liturgical horizons to include saints and martyrs from all over, so that the church (say) in Antioch now no longer simply honours those martyred in Antioch, but those martyred in any city of the Roman Empire, and even beyond it.  It is but one fruit of the Constantinian revolution, and of Byzantium:  we now think globally, and not just locally.  When we think of “our martyrs”, we include martyrs from all over.  The term “our” now means not just “our locality and city”, but “our Christian people”, even if they are people far away. 
           There is a loss in this shift and change.  When the choir on November 17 sings about St. Gregory of Neocaesarea, we may admire this saint from afar, but we do not feel the same intimate emotional connection with him that we might feel were he a former member of our congregation, as was the case in the days of St. John Chrysostom.  And when we sing about our experience of the wonderworking relics of a saint in the Vesperal verses of “Lord I call”, it is a bit experientially artificial, since we do not in fact have the relics of said saint, and have no experience of their healing power such as is extolled in the hymns.  The hymns, in fact, presuppose an experience; they presuppose that those singing the hymns have experienced the healing power of the saint’s relics or of the saint, and so there is a direct connection between what we sing and what we experience.  This connection has now been largely severed.  We sing that we have experienced healing from the saint or from his relics, but this is not often the case.  In many cases, we really have little idea who the saint is or what his life was like.  Our experience of saints’ days is therefore rather different from the experience of those in the days of St. John Chrysostom.
            But there are gains as well as losses in this change, and we would be foolish to remove these saints from our Menaion and liturgical memory just because our situation is no longer the same as it was in the fourth century.  What are the gains?  I mention two.
            First of all, the Menaion forces us to move beyond our present generation and think of the Church’s historical experience in terms of centuries.  This is essential, especially in our day when our culture pushes us toward a kind of historical amnesia.  In our culture, relevance and importance presuppose newness, and anything old is thereby discredited.  We assume without discussion that anything accepted centuries ago is thereby worthless and can have nothing to say to us.  The phrase “the wisdom of the ages” is oxymoronic, a contradiction in terms.  I think of the “Peanuts” comic in which Lucy is doing an essay in school on church history.  She writes, “For this essay I will have to go back to the very beginning:  our pastor was born in 1925.”  Lucy is here the Modern Person:  anything that goes back more than a hundred years is not even on the cultural radar.  The Menaion pushes us back beyond 1925, beyond the birth date of our pastor, beyond our own times.  It reminds us that the Church in fact has a history and experience and wisdom that stretch back two millennia.  She might therefore have some accumulated wisdom to share with our culture after all.
            Secondly, the Menaion compels us to look beyond our limited local horizons to see the experience of Christians of other lands, Christians perhaps different from us, at least in language and culture, Christians who are nonetheless our people.   We so easily define as “our people” those who share our language, our culture, people who think and dress and vote like us.  The Menaion invites us to broaden our perspective, to open our hearts.  People very unlike us are still “our people” if they love and confess Christ our God.  What do St. Gregory of Neocaesarea, and St. Alban the Martyr, and St. Xenia of St. Petersburg, and St. Nektarios of Pentapolis, and St. Raphael Brooklyn share?  Precious little, except a burning love for Jesus.  And that is enough to make them all “our people”, saints of God, men and women whose names adorn our Menaion. 
            The Menaion as presently constituted is thus a challenge to our limited memory and our cultural insularity.  It calls us to see and recognize and celebrate sanctity wherever and whenever we may find it.  And, more importantly, it calls us to strive for such sanctity ourselves.  For if God’s grace and power may be found in Neocaesarea and Roman Britain and St. Petersburg and Greece and Brooklyn, perhaps it might be found in our town too, and in our own life.  The universality of the Menaion calls us all to strive to join its sacred number, or at least to transform our lives so that its saints may recognize us also as part of their divine family.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

I Don't Know Much

             How much do you need to know to become a catechumen in the Orthodox Church?  That was the question put to me by an inquirer at St. Herman's one Sunday several months ago.  The young lady in question was drawn to Orthodoxy and her heart yearned to serve Jesus in the fulness of the Faith she had recently discovered, but she felt unsure if she should take this step.  There was so much to learn, so much she felt she didn't know.  Perhaps she wasn't ready?  Maybe she should wait until she knew more--all that depth of theology, and history, and tradition, and liturgy!  Should she perhaps wait until she knew more before she took the step of entering the Church as a catechumen?
That, of course, is the question:  how much do we need to know to serve God, how much mastery of the theological material available does God require of us?  Will there be a quiz on the Last Day?  Will we need to have read the Philokalia to become acceptable to the Lord, and become adept in the Jesus Prayer?  Will He ask us to list the Seven Ecumenical Councils?  The Twelve Great Feasts of the Church?  God help us:  will we need to master the Typikon?
It was when I was pondering this basic question of Christian discipleship that I heard the beautifully haunting duet sung by Aaron Neville and Linda Ronstadt, "Don't Know Much".  One of the lines of the ballad says, "So many questions still left unanswered, so much I've never broken through.   I don't know much, but I know I love you.  And that may be all I need to know."  That it seems to me is the Orthodox answer to the inquirer's question.  You don't have to know much.  All you have to know is that you love Jesus, and that He is your truth.  Orthodoxy is about loving Him, and wrapping your life around Him until your dying breath.  Everything else follows from this.  And without this, everything else in your religious life will ultimately prove futile and failing.
Head knowledge, of course, is not to be disdained.  Especially for clergy and for teachers in the Church, a knowledge and familiarity with history, theology, and liturgy is essential.  If this were not so, God in His providence would not have given us the Scriptures.  The sixty-six plus volumes in that sacred library all unite in telling us that there is much to be learned, many lessons in sanctity to be absorbed.  The road through the world into the Kingdom is a long, winding, and dangerous one, and we need all the help we can get.  As Chrysostom famously taught, ignorance of the Scriptures is a great abyss, and refusing to learn from the Scriptures places us in great danger of falling into it.  We are called to love the Lord our God not only with all our heart and all our soul and all our strength, but with all our mind as well (Mk. 12:30), and thus we have no excuse for deliberately spurning the spiritual resources given to us out of laziness.  But a merely cerebral approach to the Faith, one devoid of love for Jesus, is not sufficient.  Love for Christ is foundational, and our intellectual and theological pursuits are meant to serve and further this love.  
If you know a lot, that is wonderful.  But it still remains true that the Lord of heaven and earth revealed His salvation to babes, to those who approach Him in trust and simplicity of heart (Lk. 10:21).  Pure hearts are what is needed in order to be saved and to see God, not big brains.  You may not know much.  You only need to know that you love Jesus.  And on the Last Day, that may be all you need to know.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

E Pluribus Unum?

            The Latin phrase e pluribus unum is found on the seal of the United States, adopted by an Act of their Congress in 1782.  It was considered de facto as their national motto until 1956, when the motto “In God we trust” was officially adopted.  E pluribus unum means “out of many, one”, referring to the many individuals and states becoming one single nation.  It was, and is, a good motto. 
            The phrase could be taken also as God’s call to the many Orthodox jurisdictions in North America.  There are many such jurisdictions, such as the Greek Orthodox, the Antiochian Orthodox, the Serbian Orthodox, the Romanian Orthodox, and my own Orthodox Church in America (aka “the OCA”).  The list is, sadly, an impressively long one, containing both numerically large jurisdictional bodies and small ones.  Each has its own gathering of bishops, its own infrastructure, its own methods of fund-raising, its own ecclesiastical department of external affairs, whereby it relates to other Orthodox and Christian bodies.  And each of them acknowledges, at least formally, that the current status quo of many jurisdictions co-existing on the same geographical territory is uncanonical and needs to the changed.  The ancient norms, enshrined in the canons, assumes and calls for one bishop per city, so that all Orthodox Christians in a given geographical locale are not simply sacramentally united (i.e. in communion one with another), but organically united as well, looking to one and the same bishop, and sharing the same ruling presbyterate.  Having differing groups of Orthodox in the same area divided into ethnic groups is clearly contrary to the canons.  From this verdict there is no dissenting voice.  The bishops of all the Orthodox jurisdictions can read, and all agree that the canons require this sort of unity.  We didn’t get into this jurisdictional mess overnight, but we do need to get out of it.  In the terms of the old American motto, the “pluribus” needs to become “unum”.
            Some Orthodox have suggested that the time for such jurisdictional unity is not yet, because Orthodoxy on North American soil is too young and immature.  In this view, we need to wait until we mature more and meanwhile stay under the protection of the various mother churches in the Old World.  I regard such a view as utter gas, and scarcely worth a sensible reply.  We have, in fact, been on North American soil for over two hundred years, and if after that time we are still too immature to run our own organizational show, we should simply pack it in and let the adults in the non-Orthodox churches be the ones to serve Christ here.  We Orthodox are, as a matter of fact, quite capable of discerning the will of Christ for the New World (as others call our home), and of striving to fulfill it.    
            But if all the bishops and theologians and seminary professors agree that such canonical unity is desirable and is God’s will, then why don’t we have it?  In a word, because as a whole, American Orthodox don’t really want it.  If we truly desired jurisdictional unity, we could have it by next week.  It would require courage in dealing with the mother churches of the Old World, and humility in dealing with one another.  The fallenness of the human heart and our long-entrenched stubbornness would provide lots of opportunities for patience in working with each other.   But it could be done more or less immediately, if we as a total group possessed the political will for it.   Why don’t we have such a political will?  That is the real question, and the answer to it reveals what is really wrong with Orthodoxy in the New World.
            I am a Canadian, and can speak of the Canadian situation with greater ease and certainty than the American (or Mexican) ones.  But I believe that an analysis of the Canadian situation will have some applicability further south as well.  Up here in Canada, Orthodoxy is tribal.  That is, it defines itself and therefore survives (i.e. funds itself) in ethnic terms.  No one is simply Orthodox.  The Greeks are Greek Orthodox; the Serbs are Serbian Orthodox; the Romanians are Romanian Orthodox.  (The O.C.A. are an embarrassment, because they have since 1970 famously and self-consciously chosen to buck this tribal trend.)  This analysis and theory can be tested in a thousand ways.  For example, in my neighbouring Vancouver, the church hall of the large Greek church has the names of famous Greek philosophers ingrained in wood on the four walls.  Not St. Athanasios (I give him a Greek spelling for his name, although in fact he was African); not St. Gregory Palamas.  Not St. Kosmos the Aetolian.  Aristotle, and Plato and Sophocles.  What matters fundamentally in the church wood is not faith, but famous Greek ancestry.  Or take the church sign outside the local Serbian church—the lettering (in Cyrillic script) is painted overtop the Serbian flag.   
This Canadian experience finds cultural confirmation in American films.  When in the film “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” a nice American boy converts to Orthodoxy and is baptized (in a pink wading pool, no less), he exults afterward to his fiancĂ©e, “Now I’m Greek!”  Orthodoxy is being defined in exclusively ethnic terms.  The church finds its core membership and its financial support on this basis.  Who needs evangelism when one has abundant immigration?
            I believe that this is the real reason for our corporate lack of urgency in pursuing Orthodox jurisdictional unity.  Such a unity would inevitably involve some dilution of our various ethnic self-presentations to society, and a change in our various jurisdictional self-understandings.  A change from the status quo is considered by some as too risky, as possibly imperilling financial survival.  It is easier to give lip service to our “spiritual” and sacramental unity and live with what we have.
            The problem, however, is that what we have does not give adequate expression to the Gospel.  It consists too much (I won’t say entirely; that depends upon individual bishops, pastors and congregations), of presenting ourselves to the world rather than Christ.  We are famous for our Food Festivals (with a church tour tacked on for those who might be mildly interested in such exotica), not for proclaiming Christ as the Saviour and hope of the world.  St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that he preached not himself, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and as himself as their servant for Jesus’ sake (2 Cor.4:5).  In making our main message not Christ, but Orthodoxy (i.e. ourselves in our various ethnic dresses), we are doing exactly the opposite of what the apostle did, and preaching not Jesus Christ as Lord, but ourselves.  The reluctance to trumpet the Gospel and to call our neighbours to repentance is deeply ingrained in North American Orthodoxy (the exceptions to this will please forgive me), and the reluctance goes far up the hierarchical ladder.  In reading the Ecumenical Patriarch’s well-written primer and presentation of Orthodoxy to the common man, entitled Encountering the Mystery, I could not find a single instance of our primus inter pares calling his neighbours to repent, forsake their former religions, and become disciples of the risen Son of God.  I did, however, find a long section explaining the history and significance of the office of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.  It is easy to preach ourselves.  Preaching Jesus Christ as Lord to a hostile world is a lot trickier.
            But tricky or not, it remains our task.  The current jurisdictional disunity witnesses to and reveals our underlying weakness.  We need to become truly Orthodox Christians first, and Greeks, Romanians, Americans and Canadians second.  Pride in ethnic heritage is good, but it is not a fruit of the Spirit, and in this case the good has become the enemy of the best.  We need to recover a burning desire to preach Jesus Christ to the mass of North Americans who do not know Him, and those who do not worship Him in the fullness of the Orthodox Faith.  If this is our deepest desire, we will not fear to sacrifice the current jurisdictional status quo for something else.  Our hearts will be anchored in Christ, not in our national pedigree.  E pluribus unum.  Out of many, we can become more truly one, and out of that unity, we can more effectively help our North American neighbours encounter the saving mystery of Christ.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

"A Presence that was Not Theirs"

The year is 1868; the place, Damascus. A self-taught mystic calling himself Abd el Matar left his wife, family, and home to found a group of disciples in Damascus, the Shazlis, basing it on a Sufi brotherhood established in the middle ages.  About forty or so people gathered about him to pray and seek God.  In the words of Isabel Burton, wife of the Sir Richard Francis Burton, the consul of Damascus at the time, these Syrian peasants were praying “for enlightenment before the throne of God”.  Finally, (to quote Isabel again), “they became conscious of a presence amongst them that was not theirs.  At length they became assured by a vision that it was the religion of Christ which they were seeking.”  In particular, “after prolonged devotional acts, all of them fell asleep, and our Lord was pleased to appear to all of them separately. They awoke simultaneously, and one, taking courage, recounted his vision to the others, when each responded, ‘I also saw Him.’  Christ had consoled and exhorted them to follow His faith, and they were so filled with a joy that they had never known that they were with difficulty dissuaded from running about the streets to proclaim that Christ is God.”   Others joined their number, so that at length about 25,000 Shazlis declared themselves ready for baptism.  
This was a problem, for in that Islamic country, conversion from Islam to the Christian Faith brought certain death.  In vain the consul Burton offered to buy land for them outside Damascus and resettle them there.  In vain he petitioned his British government to intercede on their behalf with the Turkish power then ascendant in the region.  Burton was recalled to Britain, sacked without notice, honour, or severance.  The Shazlis, some of whom had already been imprisoned for their new Faith, were left to their fate.
All the principal players in this lost drama are now dead, including the nameless and impoverished Syrian peasants under Abd el Matar who sought the face of God and found the Presence of Christ.  The very name “Shazlis” is lost, and a Google search, after asking if you didn’t mean “shallis”, “shazly”, or “shezelles”, offers as its first Google submission, “WHEEEE, take a journey through the computer tubes of legend to hear the SourceFed team sing their hearts out!”  Further Googling will turn up the reference in Burton’s memoirs cited above.  That is all.  The Shazlis have vanished, forgotten by all but the Christ whose Presence they unknowingly sought and unexpectedly found.
I mention the Shazlis now not only because all martyrs deserve some recognition from the Church, but also because their experience reveals that Christ loves everyone.  We give lip service to the parable of the lost sheep, and happily read about the good shepherd leaving the ninety-nine in the wilderness and searching for the one straying sheep until He has found it (Lk. 15:3-6).  We are more surprised to find the good shepherd actually searching.  We too often imagine that the initiative in these things is all on our side; that Christ sits in heaven waiting for us to find Him.  For us, religion is presented as a personal choice, as something that we choose, like items from a menu.  Will we choose this item, or that; this religion, or that one; Christianity or Islam?  We are the ones who do the choosing.  We are not prepared when we sometimes find that Christ is the one doing the choosing, and that He does His choosing in what strikes us as odd places.
That is, we often think of the world in terms of “Us” and “Them”:  “Us Christians” and “Them Muslims”; “Us North Americans” and “Them People Everywhere Else”.  We are the ones who are loved by God, and they are the ones who are, if not unloved by God, are at least ignored by God.  For God to really love them, they have to become Christians and become one of “us”.  Admittedly our Orthodox theology doesn’t tell us this, but CNN and Fox Network often do. 
It is just here that the experience of the Shazlis is so instructive.  Here were a group of people unlike us in almost every conceivable way.  We are affluent; they were poor.  We are North Americans; they were Syrians.  We are educated; they were not.  We are Christians; they were Muslims.  Yet, because they genuinely and earnestly sought the face of God (they would’ve called Him “Allah”), and because they really, really wanted to know the truth, Christ appeared to them, and appeared to them in supernatural power.  They received a revelation, a dream, a vision.  I have never received a revelation, or a dream, or a vision, and suspect that you haven’t either.  But they did.  That was not, I think, because they were more worthy than we are, but simply because that was what they needed at the time.  They needed a vision; we don’t, and because they needed it, they got one.  Their revelation, of course, confirmed our own Faith, for they no sooner awoke from the visionary dream than they concluded that Christ was God, and sought for baptism. 
But what I would like to focus upon is not the thought, “See?  We Christians were right”, but rather “See?  Christ loves everyone and will manifest Himself to anyone who truly seeks Him”.  Christ does not simply sit in heaven and wait for people to choose His religion.  He is not sitting idly at the right hand of the Father, patiently drumming His fingers and hoping that we take the initiative to find Him.  He searches even now for the lost sheep, whether that sheep be a secularist, or a Jew, or a Muslim, and often the sign that He is closing in on the lost sheep is that the sheep itself begins to seek Him.  It is as the prophet Jeremiah said long ago:  “You will seek Me and find Me, when you seek Me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13).  That promise did not just hold good for the children of Israel in Jeremiah’s day.  It also held good for everyone ever after.  And as history shows, it held good for the Muslim Shazlis of Damascus.  They sought for God with all their heart, and found Him.  It no doubt surprised them quite a bit to find that the God they sought was called Jesus, and that bore in His hands the print of the nails that He suffered when He died for them.  But find Him they did, and they found Him not only because they sought Him with all their heart, but also because He was seeking for them.  This is what St. Paul meant when he said that God was not the God of the Jews only, but also the God of the Gentiles (Rom. 3:29).   
This, I suggest, is the most important fact about our non-Christian neighbour, whether that neighbour be secular, Jewish or Muslim, whether that neighbour be across the street, or in far-away Damascus:  God is searching for them.  The true God is their God, and Christ even now is actively seeking them.  They are not so much enemies as potential brethren and fellow-communicants.  Who in Damascus in the early 1860’s would’ve thought that the Muslim Sufi Abd el Matar would soon be confessing Christ as God, and heading towards the crown of a Christian martyr?  With other Muslims, he sought God with all his heart, and this crowd soon found among themselves “a presence that was not theirs”.  That presence was the Presence of the good shepherd, searching for His lost Sufi sheep.  The Shepherd continues that search for all His lost sheep to this present hour.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Peter Jackson: Film-maker and Theologian

           Peter Jackson is a very talented film-maker, and justly famous for his now classic film trilogy The Lord of the Rings.  This film series is something of a turning point in the history of the author Tolkien’s work, for from now on, generations reading the book will only be able to see the faces of Elijah Wood as Frodo, and Ian McKellen as Gandalf.  For future generations, Frodo will be Elijah Wood, in the same way as Rick in Casablanca is Humphrey Bogart and Maria in The Sound of Music is Julie Andrews (sorry, Carrie Underwood).   The film series’ popularity may be gauged by the fact that another prequel series has begun, also by Peter Jackson, namely The Hobbit.   I enjoyed the original trilogy when Jackson’s films first appeared, and enjoyed the first instalment of The Hobbit also.  As I said, Jackson is a very talented film-maker.  But as a theologian, he leaves something to be desired.
            In fairness to Jackson, he never claimed to be a theologian.  But theology or at least theological and moral lessons are latent in all sorts ostensibly non-theological works, and Jackson’s pieces are no exception.  I would like to reflect on two theological/ moral lessons drawn from his trilogy and its prequel, because I think that these films reflect presuppositions in our culture that are erroneous, and can work cultural harm.  (Warning: here there be “spoilers”.)
           First of all, let’s look at the conclusion to the initial film trilogy The Lord of the Rings.  As you may remember, Frodo has all but fulfilled his mission, and stands over the volcanic crack of Mount Doom, about to throw the Ring into it as long planned, which would destroy the villain Sauron’s power and threat.  But in his exhaustion and weakness, he cannot bring himself to throw the Ring into the consuming fire.  Instead, he claims it for his own and puts it on, thereby revealing his presence and plot to Sauron.  Sauron instantly dispatches his minions to take Frodo and retrieve his Ring, thereby guaranteeing his evil triumph and bringing final disaster on Middle Earth.   At this point, the character Gollum, who once owned the Ring and is consumed with the desire to retrieve it, leaps forward and attacks Frodo.  They struggle on the edge of the volcanic precipice.  Gollum recovers the Ring by biting off Frodo’s finger.  In a kind of dark joy, he holds the recovered Ring aloft.  And here is where Jackson the theologian takes his own fatal mis-step.
            In Tolkien’s original text, however, evil destroys itself:  Gollum holds up the Ring to look and gloat over his hard-won prize, steps back too far, and falls all by himself into the volcanic fire below, destroying himself and the Ring, and thereby (unintentionally) saving Middle Earth.  Frodo played no part in this, to reveal and stress the self-destructiveness of evil.  But Jackson alters this ending.  The film-maker in him seems to get the better of the theologian (or at least of the reader, since Jackson had read the text, even if he missed Tolkien’s theological point), and in his film, Gollum topples over the edge of the precipice because Frodo, enraged at the loss of the Ring, seizes Gollum so that they both fall over the edge.  Frodo is saved by his friend and companion Sam, who grabs him by the hand and lifts him to safety, while Gollum continues his fall downward to doom.  It seems as if Jackson the film-maker could not resist another dramatic cliff-hanger (literally).  But—and this is the point—the cliff-hanging drama came at the expense of the theological truth.  For Tolkien, evil destroys itself—that is why Gollum’s lust took him over the edge and into destruction.  In Jackson’s version, Gollum was forced over the edge by Frodo’s violence.  In this version, evil does not destroy itself, but is destroyed by an angry and violent good guy (even if the good guy does not intend to destroy evil but simply to reclaim the ring for his own).
            We see the same film-maker’s love of a good fight in the end of his prequel, The Hobbit.  In Tolkien’s original text, Gandalf, Bilbo, and their dwarf friends are being pursued by wolves and goblins (i.e. the bad guys).  The pursuit leads to them taking refuge up a tree, and they are saved from their doom at the hands and jaws of wolves and goblins by the eagles swooping in and saving them.   But here again, Jackson the film-maker cannot resist a good cinematic fight.  His main dwarf hero, Thorin, comes down from the tree to confront the head goblin/ bad guy, and slug it out with him.  He is bested by the bad guy, and is about to have his head chopped off.  Bilbo then heroically throws himself into the violent fray, slashing with his sword and by this “heroic” mayhem saving the day.  Then the eagles come down to take all of them away to safety, but not before Bilbo has his moment of violent derring-do.  Again I suppose that Jackson is motivated by the desire to show Bilbo’s heroism.  But—and this is the point—the heroism is defined in terms of violence.  Whatever lip service might be paid to his other gifts, the fact is that he is accepted as one of the dwarves as someone having something valuable to contribute to the group, only when he wields his sword.  This is, I believe, a problem.
            This is not to suggest that violence has no place in society.  Even St. Paul acknowledged that use of the sword was in some sense ordained by God, and was essential for restraining evil and social chaos in the world (Rom. 13:1f).  A strict pacifism which would make it sinful for any Christian to be a soldier or a policeman has never won lasting substantive assent in the Church.  When the North African Christian writer Tertullian opined that when Christ told Peter to put the sword back into its sheathe “He unbelted every soldier” (i.e. forbade His followers to be soldiers), he expressed an opinion which would not ultimately carry the day.  The whole topic of how Christians are to regard war, peace, and nationalism is a complex one, and cannot be examined in depth here.  But we may note that a strict Anabaptist pacifism and social retreat is not currently an Orthodox option for laymen in the world.
            But I do suggest that Jackson’s portrayal of Bilbo as heroic only by wielding a sword is unfortunate, for it seems to devalue Bilbo’s other gifts.  In the original text (and in the 1977 animated version of it by Rankin/ Bass), Bilbo had other contributions to make to the group, contributions which overshadowed his use of the sword—contributions such as burgling from the dragon, which was the original reason the dwarves hired him in the first place.  Indeed in the book, and especially in the 1977 film, the lust for violence and war and insistence upon one’s perceived “rights” is juxtaposed to Bilbo’s more irenic approach to life.  Thus in the final scene towards the end of the whole story, Thorin lies dying, and he seems to repent of his bloody insistence on war as the way to recover lost wealth and power.  He says to Bilbo (in both the book and the animated film), “There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West.  Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure.  If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”  It would indeed—both in Middle Earth and elsewhere too.
            Our current North American society seems not to quite believe Thorin’s dying words.  We still value violence as the answer to many questions, and we too often identify violence as the only manifestation of strength and manliness.  That is why it dominates so many video games.  That is why so many movie heroes have a “licence to kill”, whether or not their name is James Bond.  Even women in the movies and television are increasingly defining strength in terms of violence, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer has many sisters.  And that is why Jackson the film-maker feels compelled to make Bilbo more macho, in contradiction to the original portrayals in the book and a previous film. 
            As said above, violence does (sadly) have a necessary place in our fallen society, in that we want our police to carry arms (judiciously used), and we want to have an army to protect national sovereignty.  But a Christian will still see that not all strength involves violence, and in fact the greatest strength lies not in violence, but in love.  The greatest strength leads a man (or woman) not to say “Make my day”, but to say “Father, not my will but thine be done”.   Goblin cleavers and vampire slayers and terminators are strong, but martyrs are stronger.  We may or may not be called to physical heroism and deeds of derring-do.  That’s as may be.  But all of us are called to the greatest strength—strength of character, and self-sacrifice, and love and humility. 
            Perhaps not surprisingly (for he was a Christian), Tolkien knew about the power of love and humility.  That is why the central and most beloved protagonists in his long sagas of Middle Earth are Hobbits—not dwarves with axes, nor elves with bows, nor men with swords, nor even wizards with staffs—but Hobbits, humble children of the earth, puttering in their gardens, loving comfort and food, fretting over forgetting their pocket-handkerchiefs, worrying that adventures may make them late for supper.  Hobbits are ordinary folk, not obviously heroes; the common man, seen walking the streets and lanes every day.  Yet put them into extraordinary situations, and the ordinary may show themselves to be extraordinary, as humility proves its power.  It was as Elrond said, at his council:  “This is the hour of the Shire-folk, when they arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the great.”
            How mightily humility can shake the towers of the great we may see from the Gospel:  a humble Jewish peasant girl bowed her head before the angel and gave birth to her Creator.  A Nazarene field-preacher dying in disgrace on a Roman cross dethroned the Satanic god of this world and cleansed the cosmos with His blood, buying it back for the Father:  all acts of divine humility.  The Kingdom was not of this violent world; it was rooted in this humility, and so was stronger than the world.  Film-makers and pundits may not know this, but Tolkien and his Hobbits did.   And we who share Tolkien’s love of Middle Earth and his Christian Faith may know it too, and strive to find our roots in the humility of the Gospel.