Posts Tagged 'modernism'

Oh, for simpler times

From Juliet du Boulay’s marvelous ethnography-through-the-eyes-of-liturgy, Cosmos, Life and Liturgy in a Greek Orthodox Village:

…if the tribulation of the man in the fields, fulfilled in the wheat harvest, is parallel to the self-offering of Christ, fulfilled in the liturgical bread, this gets to the heart of why it is the man’s labour which, in spite of its being universally portrayed as the punishment for the fall, has at its heart ‘a blessing’. These mediating ideas are not openly expressed, but they surface in intuitive conclusions such as the final words in a discussion about whether or not to buy bread ready-made for the eucharist: ‘I don’t know. I’m just a stupid toothless old woman, but I say that the farmer himself should produce the corn from his own land to make the liturgical bread. That is what is good.’

The liturgical order thus brings in a series of transformations which overturn the fallen world, not only moving from women’s work being ‘cursed’ to the housewife being an icon of the Panaghia [the Mother of God], but also from man’s work being the punishment for sin to its ‘having a blessing’ in bringing forth the bread which is the body of Christ (pp. 333-4).

For some reason I’m reminded of a recent post of the Ochlophobist’s — but in any event, these are the kinds of things that make me think to myself, at least for a few seconds, “Yeah, we moderns are pretty much screwed.”


Salon: Why no Lord of the Rings in “Top 10 of the Decade” lists?

With a tip of my sunbeaten Panama hat to

Salon is running a four-part column on the question of why, after so much critical, box-office, and Academy love on their release, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films appear to be all but forgotten on the vast majority of “Best Movies of the Decade” list. I would submit that the resulting discussion in the comboxes is interesting, even as much as certain individual opinions make me want to rip my hair out in clumps. My chest hair. I’ll come back to this. (The combox discussions, not me ripping out my chest hair.)

Having re-read the book and re-watched the Extended Editions in the last year, as well as worked my way through much of the supplementary material on the DVDs, what I might say is this — the story has its seeds in World War I, is in its final form a product of World War II, and was conceived and produced as a film in the last days before 9/11. In a post-9/11, post-George W. Bush world where the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are not yet over, Lord of the Rings perhaps reflects a view of the world that some are going to find hard to stomach — not because it’s wrong, necessarily, but because its central themes and ideas are exactly the things most disputed in our own day, and both the book and the movie dare to treat them with a level of sincerity and earnestness that, by virtue of being irony-free, can be rather off-putting for the modern postmodern. The limits of power (but also its necessary exercise), the honor in fighting for what is necessary (but also the dishonor in picking fights), the importance of having roots in the home of your forebears (but also knowing when you have to give it up for others), respect for (but also fear of) one’s surroundings, the importance of tolerance (but also its limits), the necessity of forgiveness (but also its consequences), and the importance of the common man, but also the reality that he will always pay the heaviest price. There’s also the issue of what tends to be painted as a racial metaphor, but which is really a religious issue the way I read it: follow a false god and it will twist you spiritually and physically. That’s the kind of thing We’d Rather Not Talk About These Days. In general, these themes are all just enough off from contemporary sensibilities to probably be at least distasteful if you start applying them to present-day matters. If there were some self-aware irony (like, say, in the recent Gaiman/Avary/Zemeckis film of Beowulf), well, okay, we’d at least know the storytellers knew better than to take these things seriously, but we know enough about Tolkien to know that he actually took these things quite seriously. They were convictions for him, not storytelling devices.

Specifically as regards the movie, however, I’ll say this: Elijah Wood’s performance, while it didn’t call any negative attention to itself in the theatres, neither does it hold up well after a decade of seeing Daniel Radcliffe improve with every Harry Potter installment, and when he’s the central figure of the plot, that’s a bit of a problem. In the case of both Wood and Sean Astin — who is otherwise note-perfect as Sam Gamgee as far as I’m concerned — there’s the simple reality that American actors have gotten better at accents in the last ten years.

Beyond that — I personally think the movies are marvelous. Outside of Wood, I think the casting is uniformly terrific, the cinematography is outstanding, and I think they tell a complete cinematic story that is true to the spirit of the book without a) becoming something that ultimately only uses the book as a jumping-off point for something totally different, like Blade Runner, or b) becoming a “greatest hits” of the book, which sometimes the Harry Potter movies can feel like.

I’ll say that none of Jackson et al.’s changes to the mechanics of the plot particularly bother me. The bottom line is that film and the novel are two different media, and different things work in one that won’t work in the other. Any person adapting a book into a movie has to make decisions about what they think the book is about, and then how to tell that story in a way that suits the cinematic medium while adhering to what they think the spirit of the book is. Because, then, an adaptation is ultimately an interpretation, there’s not really a way to please everybody, particularly purists. The relevant question winds up being, “Did this filmmaker make an effective film based on their own subjective interpretation of the source material?” and not “Did this filmmaker make an effective film based on my subjective interpretation of the source material?” I will note that for every book purist I’ve heard complain about this, that, or the other deviation from Tolkien’s text, I’ve also heard somebody unfamiliar with the books criticize the films for things that ultimately have the book as their source. “The first movie doesn’t have a real ending, it just sort of stops, and you have to see the next movie to find out what happens,” one person told me as to why they didn’t like Fellowship of the Ring. “This movie was long enough. Why do I have to see two more long movies over two years to get my money’s worth out of the first one?”

I’ll wrap up by touching on one of the comments over at Salon. I think what this person says demonstrates how the trouble is the clash between the worldview of the story and where contemporary sensibilities often fall at a time, after nine years of Afghanistan and Iraq, when there still seems to a cultural catching of one’s breath after George Dubya — or, to put it another way, why Avatar‘s shelf life as compared to LotR‘s will be interesting to compare:

[The books create] an aesthetic world that is reactionary by default rather than by choice, but reactionary all the same. They long for a world where no one asks pesky questions about race, where the pettiness and complexity of deliberative democracy don’t hamper great leaders, where brutal capitalism doesn’t exist, just happy markets, where the “land” isn’t a resource that people choose to value in a rational, moral way, but a force that gobbles you up if you violate it. Crunchy cons and easy-living libertarians, wall-to-wall.

On his own terms, he’s not wrong. It just demonstrates that everybody has a teleological view of history — the question is only whether the telos is an endpoint down the road, or modernity.

More from Alden Swan

Swan has some interesting things to say on the relationship between post-Reformation church and Modernism, as well as the question of by which authority we not only interpret Scripture, but by which authority we determine the canon of Scripture.

For example:

One of the most irritating qualities of Modernism is the almost essential arrogance that comes from the belief in progress; that is, that “new” is better than “old.” Evangelicalism seems to exhibit the same tendency to believe in theological “progress,” as well as the resulting sense of arrogance in how they deal with past theological positions. While many would argue, especially in the case of fundamentalists, that this is absurd, I think in the “big picture” it makes sense.

With Evangelicalism, there are some basic presumptions that may not be true. One such presumption is that it is an advancement to think of theology almost as a science, being able to break large concepts down into minute detail and argue over the fine points. This scientific approach has, as Webber points out, reduced theology to a set of facts or propositions which can – and must – be believed. This systematic approach appears to have a goal of eradicating any sort of mystery from theology, believing that we can reason our way through our faith. Our faith (as Webber also points out) can then conceivably be conveyed to others in a logical, reasoned way, what we think of a “apologetics.” Evangelicals reason their way to truth, whereas the reformers simply proclaimed it.

To restate one of his points, Christianity is reduced by this approach to an ideology and a philosophy, rather than a means by which the faithful live their lives. By believing we can simply reason our way through our faith, the opposite has been greatly enabled–one can also very easily reason one’s way right out of their faith, too. I recall no examples from Acts or the Epistles of anybody coming to Christianity through a well-reasoned argument. Truth is a Person whom we meet in Christianity, not a set of precepts. To put it another way, it is not the case that the more one knows about God, the closer one is to God.

I would also tweak his last sentence–the reformers proclaimed the truth which they believed they had found while rejecting the truth which they had received. To understand what I mean by this, it is necessary to jettison the baggage most of us have with the word “tradition”, that it means “we do it this way because we’ve always done it this way and we don’t have a better answer than that”, as typified popularly everywhere from Fiddler on the Roof (a humorous example) to the Shirley Jackson short story “The Lottery” (a horrifying example). It is a given that “tradition” is used in both a positive and negative light in Scripture; there is of course the admonition about “traditions of men” but then also there is 2 Thess 2:15, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you have been taught, whether by word or by our epistle” (compare to 2 Tim 1:13–“Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus”) and 2 Thess 3:6, a reference to “the tradition which you received from us”. The Greek word here is παράδοσις paradosis, derived from the verb παραδίδωμι paradidomi, “to hand over, to transmit”. So, literally, παράδοσις is “that which is handed down” or “that which is handed over”. “Tradition” is simply the Latinate form of the same word; it is from “traditus”, the perfect passive participle of “tradere”, “to hand over”.

So what was passed down? “The faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). “Delivered” in Greek here is again a form of παραδίδωμι, so this is the faith once “traditioned” to the saints. That faith is “the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, the breaking of the bread, and the prayers” (Acts 2:42), and the apostles had been told that the Holy Spirit, “the Spirit of truth”, “will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13), that truth of the which the Church is “the pillar and ground” (1 Tim 3:15).

Tradition, therefore, is the truth, it is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church, the Church which is both Body and Bride of Christ, Christ who is Himself the Truth. Tradition is not what we do because we’ve always done it and don’t have a better reason, but rather it is the the faith once “traditioned.”

So, from this perspective, the Reformers rejected that which had been “traditioned” to them while proclaiming what they believed to have been the truth they found, rather than received, by narrowing the list of acceptable sources.

By contrast, what we might generally refer to as “the catholic tradition” proclaims the truth which it receives. I don’t mean for that to sound arrogant (although it inevitably will); rather, that’s what the Greek Orthodox priest to whom Swan was speaking meant when he said that, on the inerrancy of Scripture, “we don’t think that way…we’ve just never questioned it.”

Still, there’s more of a context to his statement than just that, which brings me to Swan’s other piece:

As I think I’ve mentioned before, it is interesting to note that based on what we read in the New Testament, the “Word of God” does not seem limited to anything which was written down, and in fact, seems to speak of oral testimony.

Exactly, per 2 Thess 2:15, as quoted above. This again gets to the heart of the what the priest was saying–the New Testament is a witness to the tradition, to the authority, to the life of the Church already ongoing, not the instruction manual and not the source itself. More specifically, the Gospels and the Epistles are the Truth proclaimed and witnessed to in community–that is, liturgically, since they were written to be read to the assembly when they had gathered. To remove Scripture from this context and try to make it its own discrete source of authority is to obscure its meaning and reduce its authority, not to clarify it.

To relate this to an earlier point, Christianity is not a philosophy derived from a text, it is new life through an encounter with a Person who is the Truth. By being reduced to adherence to a set of precepts found in a text without the continuity of the life of the Church which has been ongoing since Pentecost, Christianity has been severely weakened.

What St. Ignatius wrote to the Philadelphians comes to mind: “When I heard some say, ‘Unless I find it in the official records–in the Gospel I do not believe’; and when I answered them, ‘It is in the Scriptures,’ they retorted: ‘That is just the point at issue.’ But to me the official record is Jesus Christ; the inviolable record is His Cross and His death and His Resurrection and the faith of which He is the Author.” The Scriptures witness to the Faith, not the other way around.

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