Books behind bars

In the two years Hart spent at the facility, the library’s inventory grew from 600 books to more than 15,000. When prisoners weren’t after books on deboning animals, they sought out titles on crocheting, affordable living in tiny homes, and what Hart calls “street lit,” a genre of memoirs from reformed criminals. The Japanese graphic novel Naruto was popular; so was the Christian-driven Left Behind series, about the people who remain following the Rapture.

The prison library is a set commonly seen in movies. It offers a lot of opportunities for secret conversations, the transfer of contraband items, and sending messages in code. If you’re curious what it’s like to serve the information needs of real-world incarcerated offenders, here’s an article on the subject from Atlas Obscura.

It’s interesting that they bring up the subject of “banned books.” I expect the American Library Association is working hard to get prisoners access to bomb-making manuals. You can’t deny people their constitutional rights, just because they’ve forfeited their constitutional rights, after all. Stop discriminating against the morally creative!

Blogging through LOTR: War stories

The Two Towers

‘I wonder,’ said Frodo. ‘But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.’

Much has been written in Tolkien scholarship about the influence World War I had on the composition of The Lord of the Rings. That influence is certainly discernable in The Two Towers, which I recently completed re-reading. It’s been a few days since I finished it, so I’ve probably forgotten some of what I thought while reading, but I’ll try to offer a few crumbs from the feast for your perusal.

When I first read of the World War I connection, I had some trouble understanding it. The corpses in the Dead Marshes, people said, were reminiscent of the corpses in No Man’s Land, between the trenches. The journey was like trench warfare… somehow.

I understood it a little better, I think, in this reading. Frodo’s and Sam’s journey is in some psychological ways like the experience of a long war. Sam is a perfect epitome of the “common” soldier whom so many men of Tolkien’s class learned to appreciate, as never before, in the shared experience of combat. C. S. Lewis writes affectingly of his experience with his own sergeant, technically his subordinate, who taught him enough war-craft to stay alive in the early stages, and finally gave his own life (inadvertently) for Lewis through standing between him and the exploding shell that would have killed him. Continue reading Blogging through LOTR: War stories

The Draw of Historical Re-enacting

We have many historical re-enactors or living historians where I live. Our neighboring battlefields and monuments need context to understand what happened on this land 150 years ago and more. Just to the north of where I live is a park dedicated to the Cherokee nation and the beginning of the Trail of Tears. A few miles down the road is a national battlefield where the Confederate army won a major battle just before losing a bigger one.

What is the draw and the danger of re-enacting portions of history?

It isn’t only recreational. Craftspeople specialize in creating historical replicas, like the armour that was used in the Marathon re-enactment. Experimental archaeologists test specific hypotheses about aspects of history as a form of academic inquiry. Inevitably, some guesswork is involved; recreating the past means you have to fill in a lot of little gaps in the historical record. . . .

Even within specific groups of re-enactors, people hold a range of views about how closely clothing, items, and activities should mimic the originals. “Some people are button and stitch counters, and they’re not much fun,” says one re-enactor, dressed in wool clothes and standing in a field outside Hamilton, Ontario. (He was taking part in an annual living-history recreation of late medieval Italy, in the spring of 2016.) “They’re so historically correct it becomes ridiculous.”

(via Prufrock News)

Pearls, swine, etc.

Here’s what I told my co-workers when I led office devotions today.

Recognize this Bible verse? It’s Matthew 7:6:

“Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.”

I’ve always taken that verse to mean “Don’t waste too much time trying to preach or witness to stubborn and obstinate people. Go on and plant the seed in more fertile soil.”

But when I read it recently in my own devotions, in The Lutheran Study Bible (ESV), I was surprised to find there an entirely different interpretation.

The ESV Bible appends it to the first five verses of the chapter, in a single section. Verses 1 through 5 go like this. You’re probably familiar with them, especially Verse 1. It’s probably the most quoted verse in the Bible nowadays.

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

Contrary to popular opinion, the purpose of this passage is not to forbid us from judging anyone – indeed, further on in the same chapter Jesus tells us to judge teachers by their fruits. His point, as you no doubt see, is that we need to ruthlessly examine ourselves before judging, to make sure we’re not practicing the very sins we’re condemning in others. Judging, Jesus tells us, is a dangerous thing. It’s like a knife – if you don’t grasp it the right way, you’ll cut your own hand.

What I’d never heard of before I read the notes in The Lutheran Study Bible (and none of the pastors present had ever heard it before either, which made me feel a little better), is the interpretation that says that the “pearls” in Verse 6 are not the words of the gospel. The pearls are our fellow Christians. If we practice hypocritical judgment, our injustice drives those pearls out of the safety of the congregation, into the world, where “dogs” and “pigs” will devour them.

Ever heard of this interpretation before? The editors of The Lutheran Study Bible aren’t known for eccentric thinking.

Blogging through LOTR: Anglo-Saxon echoes

Anglo-Saxons

‘Halflings! But they are only a little people in old songs and children’s tales out of the North. Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?’

‘A man may do both,’ said Aragorn. ‘For not we but those who come after will make the legends of our time. The green earth, say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!’

I’ve been looking for Norse elements in The Two Towers. Of all the LOTR books, I think this one is richest in Scandinavian echoes – or at least Anglo-Saxon, which is as close as makes almost no difference, when you’re thinking of the Age of Beowulf (who lived in what is now Sweden, after all). Because the Rohirrim are plainly modeled on the Anglo-Saxons (though I suspect a tribe of horsemen would have developed the kite-shaped shield by this point, as the Normans did when they took to fighting on horseback).

There’s the boat-burial of Boromir, similar to the classic (mythical) Viking burial. Although most people think of ship burials at sea as a Viking custom, it’s actually undocumented in history or archaeology. Where it comes from is a passage in Beowulf (fully legendary), and the funeral of Baldur in Norse mythology (fully mythical). But it works well for the kind of high fantasy we’re involved with here. Continue reading Blogging through LOTR: Anglo-Saxon echoes

‘Ricochet Joe,’ by Dean Koontz

I took another brief break from The Two Towers to read this new release from Dean Koontz. It wasn’t a long break. This is a Kindle Single, little more than a short story, and correspondingly inexpensive.

Fans of the Odd Thomas books will find Ricochet Joe evocative. The hero is Joe Mandel, an ordinary young man living in a small town. He goes to college, dreams of writing a novel, and volunteers for community clean-up projects. One day he picks up an empty rum bottle and feels a sudden, irresistible compulsion to run to a particular Corvette automobile. Touching the Corvette leads him to a further goal, until at last he’s in a position to stop a mugging. He also meets Portia Montclair, the beautiful young daughter of the local chief of police. She understands what’s happening to him, and soon Joe finds himself conscripted into a cosmic battle between good and evil – a battle that will cause him to make a heart-wrenching sacrifice.

The book is enhanced, if you read it on a Kindle device or app, by illustrations featuring built-in animation. The enhanced pictures are cool, but I don’t know that they added a whole lot to the reading experience. But hey, they came at no extra charge.

Ricochet Joe is not the greatest of Dean Koontz’s stories. It’s over too soon to really engage the reader. But it’s Koontz and it’s entertaining, and there’s another supernatural dog, and I recommend it. It won’t cost you much.

The death of a fruitful man

I went to another funeral today (they come more and more frequently these days), down in Kenyon, Minnesota, my home town. The departed was Jim, one of my dad’s cousins. In point of fact, his farm was right across the road from ours – probably a half mile from house to house, due to the distance between our driveways and the length of his driveway.

In spite of our kinship and proximity, I never knew Jim terribly well. Turns out there was more to him than we ever guessed – farmer (we knew that), helicopter mechanic in Korea, electrician, small businessman, lifelong learner, short-term missionary, skier, and parasailer.

But the achievement that impressed me most, and must have impressed everyone there, was that he left behind a large number of descendants. He and his wife had had five children, and with their grandchildren and their spouses they filled up several pews in our little church.

The virtue of leaving a large family (with a godly heritage) behind is something any Bible character would have understood. Not for them the anxious handwringing of the modern man or woman, wondering if he/she might be “wasting their lives” if they expend their energies and financial resources on “mere” child-rearing. The idea that leaving a large progeny behind is a noble goal went without saying in Bible times.

As I thought about Jim’s life, it occurred to me (and I said it to the widow), that he had lived a really good life. In basic human terms, stripped of fripperies and cheats like ambition and acquisition, he had lived a truly blessed life in a charmed place in a charmed time in history. There are only a few things that matter when you’re on your deathbed, and Jim was rich in them.

Which made it all the more poignant to read this article over at Threedonia (it contains links to a Smithsonian article; I’ll let them have credit) about the great evil and suffering inspired by a book we all trusted back when I was in college: Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb. (No Amazon link; the heck with it.)

The International Planned Parenthood Federation, the Population Council, the World Bank, the United Nations Population Fund, the Hugh Moore-backed Association for Voluntary Sterilization and other organizations promoted and funded programs to reduce fertility in poor places. “The results were horrific,” says Betsy Hartmann, author of Reproductive Rights and Wrongs, a classic 1987 exposé of the anti-population crusade. Some population-control programs pressured women to use only certain officially mandated contraceptives. In Egypt, Tunisia, Pakistan, South Korea and Taiwan, health workers’ salaries were, in a system that invited abuse, dictated by the number of IUDs they inserted into women. In the Philippines, birth-control pills were literally pitched out of helicopters hovering over remote villages. Millions of people were sterilized, often coercively, sometimes illegally, frequently in unsafe conditions, in Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Indonesia and Bangladesh.

But better that than being a Science Denier, I guess.

‘Right Tool for the Job,’ by Mark Goldblatt

Right Tool for the Job

The headphones jerked out of my ears, and I made a grab for them, which caused me to trip over my feet, fall onto my side, and shoot off the back of the treadmill, knocking over two young women in spandex outfits who’d been chatting behind me. As one witness said, it looked like I was picking up a six-ten spare.

Yes, I’m blogging through The Lord of the Rings, and I’ll be back with that momentarily. But my Facebook friend Mark Goldblatt announced a deal on his book Right Tool for the Job: A Memoir of Manly Concerns, and I figured it wouldn’t do me any serious harm to take a break between hobbits with a short, light book. I did, and it didn’t.

Right Tool for the Job is a collection of humorous essays, sort of an autobiography under strobe light. We begin with an awkward memory of Mark’s father taking him to a Turkish bath, and end with a meditation on giving up softball because your body’s just getting too old for the punishment. A recurring theme seems to be the unlimited indignities men’s bodies impose on them, with particular emphasis on sexual awkwardness, though all the stories aren’t about sex, and honestly, what else is a guy going to write about?

Author Goldblatt is Jewish, secular, and conservative. He’s also extremely funny. I laughed out loud more than once. I recommend The Right Tool for the Job, with cautions for mature themes. I especially recommend it to women, as an introduction to what’s laughingly known as male psychology.

Blogging through LOTR: “Write what you know”

The Fellowship of the Ring

Frodo felt that he was in a timeless land that did not fade or change or fall into forgetfulness. When he had gone and passed again into the outer world, still Frodo the wanderer from the Shire would walk there, upon the grass among the Elanor and niphredil in fair Lothlórien.

I have finished my latest re-reading of The Fellowship of the Ring (don’t ask me how many times I’ve read it; I haven’t kept count. I know many a geek has surpassed me in that department).

The last time I read the Trilogy was in the wake of the releases of the Peter Jackson movies. I remember that I had to struggle a bit to override the film images in my imagination (as I’ve mentioned before). This time through, although the “struggle” remained, it bothered me less. I found that I relished the depth and scope of the book, compared to film with its many limitations (even in wide-screen with special effects).

Continuing my theme from last night’s post, I was most struck by the sense of time in the book – an impression of a comprehensive history, often only hinted at but lurking behind every corner. You can learn much of that greater history in the works that Christopher Tolkien has given us, but frankly I’ve never had the patience for all that. I don’t need to know the details. I just need to know it’s there, adding a deeper perspective to the epic narrative.

This is a lesson to writers.

Writers are often told, “Write what you know.” And that’s good advice, but it doesn’t necessarily mean “Write only about your own life and experiences.” You can know many things outside your experience. Tolkien writes with such authority about the Third Age of Middle Earth (which, if you didn’t know, corresponds to the Norse term for our planet in mythological terms – Midgard) because he had put in a lot of hard work creating a coherent world with a coherent history, including languages. All those things were imaginary, but he “knew” them because he’d spent so much time with it all. That’s what we really mean when we say, “Write what you know.” We mean know your basic material, even if you’re making it up. Do your spade work before you plant. We live in the golden age of research – the internet gives you access to resources the greatest scholars of the past could only dream of. Take advantage of them.

Blogging through LOTR: A matter of time

Beside the standing stone Gimli halted and looked up. It was cracked and weather-worn, and the faint runes upon its side could not be read. ‘This pillar marks the spot where Durin first looked in the Mirrormere,’ said the dwarf. ‘Let us look ourselves once, ere we go!’

Happy New Year to you. In this season we think about time, which “like an ever-rolling stream bears all its sons away.” That makes this a good day, I aver, to discuss the question of time in The Lord of the Rings. At least some aspects I’ve noticed.

I’ve been looking for hints of Norse influences in The Fellowship of the Ring, which I’m still reading (almost done now). One such element seems to be the runestone that Gimli visits, shortly after the escape from Moria (excerpt above).

But the stone is illegible, thanks to time and weather. And that got me thinking about time and the concept of ancient things in the Trilogy. Continue reading Blogging through LOTR: A matter of time

How Do Christians Handle Pain?

“Any attitude that emphasizes hope while ignoring lament comes from a naïve and unrealistic optimism that contradicts our actual experiences. Lamenting without hope, on the other hand, is equally unrealistic, a kind of unfaithful cynicism that ignores God’s activity and crushes us in its unrelenting despair.”

Professor Kelly Kapic talks with ByFaith about his 2017 book which presents itself as “a theological meditation on pain and suffering.

As we close out our celebration of the Almighty becoming a man, Kapic’s book may be just the theological conversation we need to see ourselves as people with originally good, now broken by sin, physical bodies. It’s understandable that we often pray for God to take away our pain and sickness, but as Kapic notes in this video, all of us are either growing older or dead. What we feel and can do now in our bodies is part of the real world in which God calls us to bring him glory.

I regularly get emails from people who have read the book and speak of discovering the role of lament as if for the first time. That tells me, if I am hearing correctly, that we might not be doing a very good job of displaying this biblical expression in our corporate worship and Christian experience.

(See also this listing from WTS Books)

Blogging through LOTR: The pictures in our heads

The Fellowship of the Ring

In recording my Lord of the Rings reading impressions, I keep reminding myself that I’ve got to let the movies go. The web is full of criticism of the films. I can add nothing useful.

But let me say this. I read visually. I stage the scenes in my head, and watch them (more or less) like movies.

The real world movies are hard to get free of. Humans are visual creatures. Things we see inevitably supersede things we imagine, however vividly. As I read (I’m on The Fellowship of the Ring now), I consciously attempt to recall to myself the actual book descriptions, but the actors and sets of the films keep washing over them. (For instance, Frodo is described in the books as “fair,” meaning blond. Doesn’t look much like Elijah Wood at all). For that reason I appreciate the undramatized sections of the novels even more. They are unadulterated, so to speak.

Not that I’m complaining. The movies have many excellencies which I enjoyed. But when I’m reading I want to engage with Professor Tolkien himself. Since the movies came out, they are my main deceivers. But I had deceivers before then – mainly my own misunderstandings.

For instance, on my first reading I got the elves completely wrong. I was in high school at the time, and I still thought of elves as “little” people. I don’t know how I missed the description at the banquet in Rivendell, where both Glorfindel and Elrond are described as being taller than Gandalf. But I did. I imagined elves as basically like dwarves (even to having beards), but better looking. When at last I was disabused of that fallacy (I think my college roommate might have done it), I abandoned it with pleasure.

That was around the time I met a girl who was very like Goldberry. I see her still, in my imagination, every time I read the books. I’m glad no movie actress has superseded that image.

Blogging through LOTR: Concerning dwarves

Seven dwarfs

Continuing blogging my reading of The Lord of the Rings. Still on The Hobbit.

I have an idea that, if J. R. R. Tolkien had gotten the chance to see the Peter Jackson movies, he would have found the Lord of the Rings movies acceptable in parts. But he would have disliked the Hobbit movies intensely.

One of several things he would have hated in the Hobbit movies is the appearance of the dwarves. Both Tolkien and Lewis were keenly interested in dwarves (or dwarfs), and had definite opinions about them. Lewis writes (in Surprised by Joy, I think) about how he loved dwarfs as a boy, “before Disney vulgarized them.” He describes dwarfs as having long beards and wearing hoods. The dwarfs in the Narnia books are always dressed that way. Likewise, Tolkien’s dwarves always wear hoods except when they wear armor.

Peter Jackson, or his costume designers, apparently disliked hoods. Gimli never wears a hood in the movies. I think a hood or two shows up in the Hobbit films, but they’re gotten rid of fairly quickly. Maybe actors won’t wear them because they put their faces in shadow. Aragorn was supposed to wear a hood when traveling as Strider, too. But it’s almost never up.

Tolkien (and by Tolkien, I mean me, because I’m assuming he’d agree with me) would have hated the Dwarf-Elf romance, and the necessity of making one of the dwarfs “sexy” in order to achieve the unlikely goal of attracting a goddess-like Elf. I don’t think he wanted Thorin to look as heroic as the movies make him, either. Tolkien’s assessment of dwarves’ characters is interesting.

There it is: dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don’t expect too much.

That passage is interesting in light of the fact (I don’t know its source, but it’s commonly cited as authentic by Tolkien scholars) that Tolkien modeled his dwarves, at least in part, on the Jews. The passage above parallels pretty well the opinion of a broad-minded Englishman of Tolkien’s time, when pressed on the subject. It sounds condescending to us, but in that day it was commendably tolerant. It’s consistent with the Professor’s famous retort to German publishers when they queried him about his pure Aryan ancestry.

The Hobbit movies went wrong in so many ways. I’ve heard that somebody’s done a cut that reduces them to one movie, excising all Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit Helper” extensions. I’d love to see that. Tolkien and Lewis might even have tolerated it.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture