The Christmas Spirit

In may last post I (jokingly?) referred to malign spirits of technology glitches, but over the last few years I've come to accept that there's more spiritual activity in this world than we acknowledge.

While I have to give the obligatory nod to the Lord of Spirits podcast, this view predated my wife's discovery of them, and it also made me very receptive of their message.

Timing is important in these sorts of things.  What might have seemed stupid then may make perfect sense now.  Given my upbringing, which was very skeptical of miracles and hostile to organized religion, I could only accept these truths gradually.

As the podcast points out, there are singular spirits, but also collective ones - the "spirit of the age" as it were (literally Zeitgeist in German).  There are also crowd spirits, and we see this in things like football games or various rallies.  How many times has "the mood turned sour" and a reasonably calm crowd suddenly become overcome by madness - a change that even the participants found hard to explain?

I'm sure some of you are immediately thinking of psychological conclusions (certainly I am), but what if psychology itself is an attempt to find a material expression for a spiritual event?  The grand experiment in secular psychology is about a century old and the results are pretty awful.  We pump people full of drugs, tell them to play with crayons and they still kill themselves.

Indeed, now our "medical professionals" are urging assisted suicide as a solution to chronic depression!

To me, it is increasingly obvious that the problem is a separation from God and any sense of meaning in life.  If you're just a bony juice bag waiting to get the whole thing over with, fast-forwarding to the ending makes sense.  Obviously, folks like G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis pointed all this out decades ago.  If you aren't reading them, you should be.

In addition to the spirits of crowds, I think there are also spirits of events, and that's where Christmas comes in.  One of the Enemy's greatest victories was turning the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord into a celebration of materialism.  I hate "holiday displays" that center on wrapped gifts - as if that's the reason for the season. 

Growing up as I did, the culmination of Christmas was Christmas Day, but traditionally that is the beginning, not the end.  As the song says, there's 12 days of Christmas, and the decorations should stay up and the music should still play because the event isn't just about tearing away wrapping paper on the morning of the 25th.

I am pleased to say that (at least in the circles I move in), this view is becoming more common. 

Partly because our kids are grown, the gift-giving element has become merely symbolic in our household.  I'm hoping to do what I can to ensure our grandkids also look at the season as a time for some presents, but that it should in now way be a lavish attempt to either show off prosperity, or a belated attempt to buy affection.  I know kids who grew up with that, and it hasn't worked out well for them.

Despite what was in many ways an unhappy childhood, I've always had a warm spot for Christmas because I associate it with joy and happiness.  Christmas Day to me has been marked with family gatherings, old friends dropping in and a sense of overall well-being.  I hope your Christmas is possess by the same benevolent spirit that has touched mine.


Savoring Joseph Conrad's Almayer's Folly

I may have to add a "Conrad" tag, because along with J.R.R. Tolkien and Evelyn Waugh, I really enjoy the writings of Joseph Conrad.

It started in high school, blossomed in college and then mostly slept through adulthood.

Recently, I obtained a copy of Almayer's Folly, his first novel.  It is superb.  In fact, I would argue that it has been unjustly overlooked.  As a story, it keeps you guessing, and the description and prose is outstanding.

Yet for some strange reason, his later work has eclipsed it.  Everyone wants to fixate on Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim.  Both books are good, but so is Almayer's Folly.

One of the areas where it stands out is in its representation of female characters.  Conrad typically does not have a lot of women in his stories - which is understandable, because so many of them take place at sea.  This particular work, however, delves into the female psyche, and a friend tells me that the book is seeing a revival in feminist circles because it not only has strong women, but strong non-white women, which is for some reason important right now.

The last time I checked, most women in the world weren't white, but most of the ones that speak English are, which would seem (to me, at least) to explain the discrepancy.

In any event, it's a good read, full of vivid description and exactly the kind of book I needed to take a break from the craziness of the world.



When the original can't be improved: Tolkien's The Fall of Gondolin

I'm trying to limit my exposure to politics (with mixed success), and one way I'm keeping my spirits up is revisiting the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien.

I recently re-read his posthumously published The Fall of Gondolin, edited by his son, the later Christopher Tolkien.

All of the professor's work improves on repeat reading, and this was no exception.  I was able to appreciate its form, language and genius behind the earliest of his tales of Middle Earth.

What is perhaps most striking about the tale is that it never got a full revision.  After its initial composition during WW I and final edit in the 1920s, Tolkien never returned to the story, despite major revisions to the peoples and events surrounding it.

Late in life, after Lord of the Rings was completed, he started a new version but halted when the main character, Tuor, reached the fabled city.

The story of the sack is uncharacteristically grim and bloody.  Perhaps this is due to its proximity to the Great War, which was surely fresh in his mind.  Of particular interest was the tank-like steel serpents, whose armored hides protected the troops within and whose many limbs allowed them to slither forward until they reached the walls and bent slowly upwards to disgorge their cargo.

The elves themselves are different, some bent, others blacked by heat, and the tone of the tale is one of foreboding and hopeless valor in a losing cause.

Obviously, I cannot speak for him, but I can say that when I write fiction, I mentally enter into a particular place, and I can very much see him wanting to complete the revision for artistic reasons but being unwilling to place him in the same mental space necessary to do it.

We can look at his strong Catholic faith and assume that for the most part, he escaped the horror of the First World War relatively intact.  Yet English reserve has its limits, and Tolkien himself referenced how impossible it was to be unchanged after having almost all his close friends killed.

It may have only been when he reached the city of Gondolin itself, that the reality of what he had to do caused him to set the project aside one more time.

I may be wrong, and certainly there were other areas of work that demanded his attention, but I think that is at least a plausible reason why that particular part of his writing was left in its original state when so many other areas received constant and thorough revision.

The failed experiment: Ralph Bakshi's Lord of the Rings

Just for kicks, I picked up a DVD copy of the "original" 1978 film version of Lord of the Rings.   I watched it quite a bit as a kid because that's what was out there.  I thought it would be interesting to take another look at it in light of Peter Jackson's far more lavish productions.

On the surface, there's no contest.  Bakshi was operating on a shoestring budget and used three different animation styles to try to tell the story - which was creative but also jarring as they shifted from one perspective to another.

A bigger problem is that it's the fragment of the whole - it cuts out after the battle at Helm's Deep and the original release hinted that there would be a sequel, which of course never materialized.  An animated version of Return of the King was released by Rankin and Bass (the same folks who did The Hobbit) and I've yet to be able to sit through it.  The contrast of style and approach is just too jarring.

Does the earlier Lord of the Rings have any positives?  Absolutely.  For one thing, it is actually closer to the books in many ways.  Because he had more time and money, Peter Jackson decided to add things that undermined the story and wasted screen time that could have been better used.  I'm not a fan of his version.

Bakshi did a better job with less resources.  I think the soundtrack is evocative, and the voice acting is terrific.

Still, it's only half of the story, which is something of a metaphor of Tolkien's vision of Arda Marred.

The twin perils of "woke" and "nice" Christianity

Last month I stumbled upon this article about the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which was subsequently been put behind a paywall.  The writer uses some clever turns of phrase to make it quite funny, but the core story is a great tragedy.

"Auntie ELCA has gone a bit mad," as my more orthodox Lutheran friends like to put it.  Yes, she has.

The article documents a clash between a white non-binary bishop and a Hispanic male pastor, and the resulting intervention by a white female archbishop.  The nature of the dispute is irrelevant because - as the story makes clear - identity politics rather than theology are all that count in the modern ELCA.

There's a bit of a digression later on about a sex-positive ELCA female pastor (should I put scare quotes around that?) who divorces her husband and then has hot sex with an ex-boyfriend which she claims brings her closer to God.

At this point we've gone well beyond participation trophy Christianity into straight-up evil.  One would think that the whole point of having ordained ministers is that they can be held to account for not just their theology but their personal behavior.  The Catholic Church sounds dreadfully archaic when they use expressions like "causing scandal" but that exactly describes that woman's behavior: scandalous.

What moral example is being offered?  Obviously for ELCA, sodomy is now something celebrated rather than condemned, but now that dispensation has been extended to adultery as well.

Again, this is buried behind the paywall, but the description of this wicked priestess came via Rod Dreher, who I believe is one of the most useless Christian writers in the world today.  Dreher is Eastern Orthodox, which means he's opted out of the culture wars and prefers to claim moral superiority over the Catholics without actually standing in the trenches beside them.

Anyhow, amidst spreading this lamentable tale, Dreher has this wonderful piece of equivocation:

I read her book Pastrix five years ago, and liked her voice, even though I disagree strongly with her theology. [emphasis added]

What does "liking her voice" even mean?  Why can't the man take a stand?

Seriously, this woman gets off on melting down discarded 'purity rings' to create a fertility idol.

I find the purity ring thing silly - an unnecessary performative act of virtue - but this is the very definition of demonic activity.  This woman (who looks like you think she would) is all about celebrating the collapse of virtue.  It's a trophy whose sole purpose is to do celebrate the failure of virtue and the triumph of sin.

Her "voice" is one of evil, calling people to reject Christ and His Church.  She's infiltrated a fallen Protestant denomination and wears a Roman collar to blaspheme its symbolism.

As I've gotten older, I think I've steadily improved my ability to forgive.  Yet at the same time, I've lost patience with people who make a great show of standing up for virtue only to prevaricate by proclaiming an interest in hearing out what the devil has to say about it.

As Tolkien pointed out, the danger of studying the Enemy too closely is that one risks being seduced.  In this case, it's clear what is going on and no further examination is necessary.

Meanwhile, the circus at ELCA has proven that progressive tolerance is far more oppressive than the traditional Christianity it rails against.  Identity is all that matters, and there can be no forgiveness, only revenge.

Mad Max and Warhammer 40,000: A transition from Orks to Chaos Marines

Over the course of watching the various Mad Max films, I've noticed a peculiar shift.

The aesthetic in the 1980s was one of biker junkyard tribal punks - spiked mohawks, salvaged hotrods and a callous, barfight-level ethos.  The villains in both The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome are brutal, but not particularly sinister.  They laugh when the other side is hurt, but they laugh when their own lads get smashed.  All in good fun, mate.

They consciously copy J.R.R. Tolkien's visions of orcs as callous, bullying Cockney louts.  There is a scene in Lord of the Rings where one orc leader tells his counterpart about a time they thought one of their soldiers had been killed by Shelob, only to find him quite alive, but hanging in a web.  Oh how they laughed, and of course they left him there because they are callous, cruel and also cowardly. 

This vision clearly informed Games Workshop's background for Warhammer 40,000.  The space orks (note the spelling) are entirely based on the biker types from the Mad Max films.  In fact, GW goes even farther, with wildly improbable machines, all described in Cockney terms.

With Mad Max Fury Road, the aesthetic changed sharply.  The vehicles are still modified, but they are built with a far more sinister purpose, and instead of tribal warriors with strong individual identities, one sees homogenous shaven-headed dark-eyed fanatics serving a skull-mask wearing leader. 

Or, as anyone familiar with 40k would say: a Chaos Lord.

Indeed, there is a vehicle in Fury Road that could have been cribbled from one of the Chaos rulebooks - I'm speaking of the vehicle with a helmeted guitar player surrounded by a wall of speakers wielding a flame-throwing instrument.  If this guy isn't a Champion of Slaanesh, I don't know what is.

Is George Miller a 40k fan, or is it mere coincidence?  I have no idea, but I find the similarities to be striking.

Will Amazon's Lord of the Rings show stink?

When Amazon announced the purchase of the television rights to J.R.R. Tolkien's literary estate, I was no optimistic.

To be sure, the family had demanded certain assurances that the work would not be corrupted in the way the film versions of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but that only goes so far.

As I've noted before modern writers seem to have very high opinions of themselves and this leads them to "fix" classic literary works to make them more in accordance with the views of the moment.

The result is inevitably hot garbage, and instead of turning a known property into a "sure thing" financially, it ends up damaging the property itself.

Examples of this are legion, and I've written about them so many times that instead of giving a pile of links, I will direct the curious to simply look up the posts tagged for Star Wars.

What sets Amazon's gambit apart is the sheer scope of the project, which was undertaken when Game of Thrones-mania was at its height.  The failure of that enterprise should have provided an object lesson in the dangers of poor storytelling and the recent disastrous live-action reboot of Cowboy Bebop provides further warnings.

Suffice to say, I'm not optimistic.

Paganism in the 21st Century

Since for Catholics like me, the Christmas liturgical season is just getting started, I have no need to modify my Christmas wishes to all of you by adding "belated."  I can simply wish you a "Merry Christmas" like normal, since there are almost two weeks of Christmas left to go.

This may seem like a strange time to bring up paganism, but I can't think of a more appropriate circumstance given the state of the world today.

Christmas itself has been warped into a retail holiday, something even irreligious people observe by taking time away from work, gathering with friends and family, and of course exchanging gifts.

There was a time within my memory that people who were not Christian (or were part of one of the more obscure heretical sects) pointedly did not celebrate Christmas, and that was why "Christmas Concerts" became "Winter Concerts" or "Holiday Concerts."  But I digress.

Driving home from the early Mass yesterday, a new thought occurred to me.  For many years I believed that pagans were just superstitious and that when they offered sacrifices, cut upon animals to gaze upon the entrails and approached oracles, it was one giant con by the elites against the rubes.  Thanks to The Lord of Spirits Podcast, I now understand that those 'gods' were real insofar as they could influence events and offer advice.

This is why ancient Israel was constantly tempted to break their covenant with God and participate in pagan rituals - they actually worked!

Of course another reason was that the pagan code of ethics was generally more permissive of sin - in fact it regarded some sins as virtues.  Some of the pagan philosophers advocated humility, but in practice the bigger the ego, the bigger your following.  Yes, they saw a relationship between hubris and nemesis, but so long as you kept sacrificing to the gods, nemesis could be kept at bay.

At least that was the thinking.

In any event, my revelation was this: growing up, I wondered why people would truly become Wiccan in light of the fact that it was mostly made-up and the practitioners I knew didn't seen happy or well off - the two traditional signs of divine favor across almost all cultures.

And then it hit me: their prayers were in fact being answered, and in exactly the way they wanted.

The Wiccans I knew seemed to want three things from their faith.  First, they wanted to get back at their traditional (often Dutch Reformed) parents.  Wicca was about as bad as they could be.

Second, they wanted absolute sexual license, and this they got.  The Goddess (or whoever) absolutely blessed them with frequent and (in theory) very intense erotic encounters. 

Finally, they wanted a moral framework that absolved them of guilt while placing their will and desires at the center of what is great and good.  This may seem like a repetition of the second point, but every Wiccan I've known (even the "incel losers" for you modern cool kids) was into the 'pansexual' component of their faith.

What these people did not get were stable, wholesome relationships, or inner peace, or a sense of true salvation or prosperity, or any of the markers that I would seek.  They got drama, and lots of it and they seemed to feed off of it.  I'm not sure how they turned out, though I know a few who 'grew out of it' and returned to Christ.

My point is that while they didn't explicitly articulate those goals, those were their goals and their prayers for those goals were in fact answered.  Whether you choose to believe it was through behavioral choices or the offices of a Fallen Angel masquerading as "The Goddess" (or a combination of both, which is my belief), that's fine, but the outcome is unmistakable.

This was yesterday morning.  Yesterday evening I got word that one of my relatives had renounced Christianity and become pagan.  Right over the holidays!  How splendid.

The reason was she placed a premium on approving sexual license.  The homosexual and transsexual agendas are very important to her (she is neither, btw), and she felt that Christianity was wrong to condemn these behaviors.  Instead, she came up with a theory of reincarnation where people are reborn into the wrong bodies and struggle to reconcile the difference.

I give her points for not doing the Anglican thing and just ignoring the Biblical texts that contradict her views.  She's at least being honest in that respect.

But I think one can see what else is going on - that when faced with a conflict between current societal views (which are less than 25 years old) and ancient laws of faith, she throws the faith away.

This is how the Israelites consistently strayed - they wanted to fit in.  There was no logic to their actions, just as there is no logic in play here.  It's a religion made up on the fly and molded to justify whatever social pressures arise.

This malleability of faith features prominently in the writings of G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh and (in a more veiled form) those of J.R.R. Tolkien.  (It's interesting that the great villains of Middle Earth are Fallen Angels - Sauron, Saruman, and the Balrogs.)

Needless to say, we will pray for her and hope to bring her back to Christ.  I think many people have to stray and take a hard look at the alternatives to the Church before they appreciate what she has to offer.  Certainly I did.

What if the pagan gods are real?

I've had to do a bunch of driving over the last couple of weeks and I returned to my faithful companion on the road, the Lord of Spirits podcast.  I like to download these to an MP3 player and listen to them all at once.  I had several episodes to work through, which was great.

Even if one isn't Eastern Orthodox, it makes a lot of great points and (for the most part) aligns with Catholic theology, so I find it very educational.

One item the presenters stress is that there is actually zero conflict between the Christian conception of God and its pagan rivals.  They are in complete agreement on the fundamental structure, they merely differ in the details.

Thank about it.  All of the other pantheons - Babylonian, Assyrian, Canaanite, Greek, Egyptian, Roman, etc. - may conceive of a singular Creator, but actual day-to-day operations are pretty rigidly divided between various deities.

In fact, they often work at cross-purposes to one another, using humans as pawns for their endless intrigues. 

This dovetails perfectly with the Old Testament's statements regarding God dividing the world into various "dominions" under the protection of angels.  As the name suggests, these "dominions" had set limits, either physical boundaries or a specific element (storms, crafts, love) that they could call their own.

These angels rebelled against God when they accepted worship, something that they knew was wrong.  The degree of their fall varied, and that's why some of the pagan gods seems reasonably decent while others are downright depraved.  They warred on each other because - having set themselves against God, they also destroyed any bonds of trust between themselves.

Also of note is the fact that none of the 'reigning' (that is current) pagan gods made the world or people.  That came from some older, far more powerful Creator who was subsequently deposed.

At least that's their story.  The guys on Lord of Spirits seem to take a particular joy in smashing Baal's pretensions to ruling the skies.

To put it another way, the myths of their followers assert their greatness and dominance, but the fact remains that all of them - even the mighty Zeus - have serious constraints on their power.  They are (as they themselves acknowledged) sometimes thwarted by trickery or a coalition of their rivals.

And of course they are fickle.  You screw up a tiny bit of the sacrificial procedure and they might just strike you dead.  Not nice people, not at all.

Now I'm sure some Christians (particularly Protestants) will claim that either none of these "gods" exist or that they are creatures of the Devil.   All I can say is that the former argument can also be used against their faith and the latter one isn't much different from the one I'm making.

J.R.R. Tolkien essentially took this concept and ran with it.  Morgoth and Sauron were angelic creatures who abandoned the Divine Council and set themselves up as gods.   The Balrogs were likewise spirits of fire who turned against Eru, The One.

Saruman was sent to stop them, and he too, fell.  Fans of Unfinished Tales know that Gandalf was actually one of five "wizards" sent as messengers and ended up being the only one to remain true to his mission.  Radagast the Brown was distracted by animals and the two "Blue Wizards" were rumored to have set up cults of their own.

It's interesting to note that in some of the few direct references to worship in Lord of the Rings, it is in fact Eru, not Manwe, who is so honored.  The Elves' songs about Elbereth are please for her intercession, a prefigurement of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Tolkien wasn't a theologian but he certainly knew his theology.  What he is describing is exactly the same arrangement - the angels entrusted to watch over the world instead covet it.

I'm still wrapping my head around the concept, but its a fascinating thing to think about.

Dated history books

One of my little pleasures is going to estate sales.  I used to go to garage sales, but I generally find them disappointing.  Estate sales, on the other hand, are fascinating.  You get the run of someone's house and even if you don't buy anything, you learn a lot about how other people live.

Of course, you can get phenomenal deals on housewares - things people typically buy new at premium prices.  As my kids start looking at setting up on their own, estate sales are where I will go to get their cookware and minor appliances.

Books are also a great value, and last week I picked up a pair of history books with great illustrations and laughably dated information.  It's not just that the terminology changed, its that archeology has advanced by leaps and bounds over the last 40 years.  The ability to scan empty areas from space to identify otherwise impossible-to-find ruins is a game-changer.

Still they're enjoyable reads with pretty pictures.  I also enjoy the use of A.D. and B.C. in dating.  The stupid CE/BCE terminology is deeply dishonest.  It's an attempt to secularize the Christian reckoning, but all it does is declare all other systems "unscientific."  Just admit that you're using the Christian dating system.

Another advantage is the writing is better, less cluttered with jargon and important-sounding phrases.  The glut of credentialed-but-ignorant scholars was only just beginning, and the humanities still had rigorous standards.  It's worth noting that despite his incredible knowledge, J.R.R. Tolkien never actually completed a doctoral degree.  He didn't need to; his work spoke for itself.

Now any midwit can get one and fancy that they're his intellectual superior. 

Yet another sign of our culture's ongoing collapse, I suppose.