Sin in The Lord of the Rings (Book 1)

As genres, science fiction and fantasy have often gained the reputation of being a bit morally black and white. In short, fantasy would offer us the choice between the realm of good and the realm of evil. Like oil and water, never the twain shall meet. In perhaps the most famous example of science fiction, George Lucas’s Star Wars, the starkness of this divide is rendered in visually unmistakeable terms—on the side of evil, Sith menacingly wield their red lightsabres, and on the good, Jedis heroically bear bright swords radiating the more positive hues of green and blue.  

Recent fantasy has sought to blur the ethical lines and render stories that are more morally complex. In his immensely popular epic, Game of Thrones (or Tales of Ice, Wind and Fire), George R. R. Martin famously kills of good and noble protagonists while allowing evil tyrants to live on. Martin is somehow able to make the most hideous protagonists worthy of our sympathy. 

Martin was not the first to try his hand at building a more sophisticated moral universe. If we look a bit further back, we can locate an even more realistic, and even more hopeful, depiction of good and evil. It is in the trilogy that effectively gave birth to modern fantasy, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, that the power of evil and the human capacity for wrong—what the Christian tradition calls sin—arguably finds its most convincing depiction within the genre. 

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How, Why and When Do I Read The News?

About this time last year I was part of a group that read Justin Whitmel Earley’s The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose in an Age of Distraction. The following passage came back to me as I was thinking about the reasons why I read the news and how I consume it.

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Resting Well: Re-creation, Reorientation and Retreat

Over at the Undeceptions podcast, John Dickson has been hard at work looking at the value of resting well. Special guest Alex Pang (author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less) covers the science of rest and work. The discussion touches on Darwin and Lubbock, two nineteenth century polymaths with prolific literary outputs who both developed systems of rest that helped them produce more fruitfully. I came away more convinced than ever that rest is the fruitful partner of work.

But the real highlight for me was the discussion of rest in the Hebrew and Christian traditions, including Dickson’s 5 Minute Jesus on rest in the Gospels and the Letter to the Hebrews, and his interview with Rabbi Elton. We appear to owe the concept of the weekend, in large part, to the Jewish Sabbath, which seems to represent the first attempt in human civilisation to offer a day of rest to everyone—including servants and animals—living within a given locale. Dickson and Elton also cover the relationship between rest and redemption, with the great prelude to the Sabbath command outlining the rationale for rest: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery”.

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Why do we have the Creeds?

Over on GodPod, Jane Williams, Graham Tomlin and Michael Lloyd have begun a new series on the Nicene Creed. In the first episode in the series, they discuss the question, Why do we have the Creeds? It’s well worth a listen. Particular highlights, for me, included the following insights:

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Remembrance Sunday: Nigel Biggar on Just War

With Remembrance Sunday just around the corner, I’ve been revisiting some of Nigel Biggar’s work on war and peace. The purpose of this short piece is to highlight some of Biggar’s chief insights, or at least those insights that most strike me as worth highlighting in the contemporary climate. I have derived these points from my reading of In Defence of War, as well as listening to Biggar’s talks on the justifiability of WWI, on just war in debate with Michael Ruse and on the role of religion in war and peace.

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The Reformed Traditions: A Bibliography

Below is a bibliography I have been compiling on the Reformed traditions. I’ve divided it into introductory works, classic texts from across the ages, creeds and confessions, books and essays on key issues and encyclopaedia and handbooks. I’ll be looking to update it over time. If you’ve any comments or suggestions for things I’ve missed out, please leave a comment below.

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Sojourner Patriotism: What Rich Mullins Teaches Us About National Belonging

24 years following Rich Mullins’ death, what can we learn from him about national belonging?

The Appalachian Mountains, “waking with the innocence of children”

“And I’ll call you my country, and be lonely for my home”

***

On this day in 1997, Rich Mullins was killed following a car accident in rural Illinois. He was 41. The news sent shockwaves across the Christian music scene, the English-speaking church, and beyond. 

I grew up listening to Rich Mullins through my Dad, right around the time of Rich’s death. I’m not sure what album he bought first, but I remember The Jesus Record, Songs and Brother’s Keeper being played on our living room CD / Vinyl turntable, and via the CD player on caravan trips through France. Before university, I remember branching out and listening to A Liturgy, A Legacy & A Ragamuffin Band. And only in recent weeks, at the instigation of a fellow pilgrim, have I picked up the two volumes of The World as I Remember It

It was Rich’s heartfelt passion and honesty that made the first and lasting impression. These hallmark qualities of Rich’s faith have brought me back to his music time and again. As Hannah Rich has recently argued, such genuine faith has often put Rich at odds with the mainstream Christian music industry of his day, and ours. For Mullins, faith had to be “active” to be truly alive (as Rich commented upon moving to the Navajo reservation on the Arizona border: “I can make records for the rest of my life and talk about love, but it won’t mean anything until I love somebody”. Faith spoke truth to power. It was not personal and private but political. It was honest to God about its doubts (the demo version of Hard to Get was a dear friend to me through many a long, dark night of the soul at university). It was also honest to God about its joys. This faith challenges our many false dichotomies, all of our “vain imaginations / and misguided pieties”. 

On the 24th anniversary of Rich Mullins’ passing, I want to focus on a slightly different paradox within his music. This is the curiously neglected theme that I consider to be a leitmotif running throughout his works—the experience of home. For Rich, the theme of home relates deeply, though not straightforwardly, to experiences of national belonging, since both have to do with one’s roots, the stuff of which we are made. In what follows, I want to briefly consider the following question: what might Rich Mullins have to teach us about national belonging and patriotism, about belonging to home and, conversely, the experience of homesickness? I will suggest that there are two animating experiences which exist in tension within Rich’s account of home: the first is the passionate desire of the lover who celebrates the particular place to which she belongs; and the second is the homesick longing of the sojourner who is lonely for his true home with God. 

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Reforming Things: Where I’m Coming From

Just a heads-up that I’ve updated (ahem, reformed) the About Me section of the website. You’ll notice some changes to the My Perspective section.

There, you’ll find a renewed emphasis on my Christian faith, and in particular the influence of the Reformed traditions.

This will no doubt change again, over time, and if it doesn’t, you reader, can hold me to account for not changing my heart or mind.

In the meantime, I hope to put up a couple more posts on what in the Reformed traditions is forming me. So keep an eye out for those in the coming month or so.

Christian Life is Lived Between Christ the King Sunday and Advent

James KA Smith’s address to Christians in Parliament from 2018 is a must listen for the week between Christ the King Sunday (a relative newcomer to the Liturgical Calendar) and Advent. Check it out below:

Two New ResPublica Seminars on Post-Liberalism

With a Summer and Autumn of cultural upheaval in the Anglosphere (as a result of Covid, fiery protests of various sorts, Brexit debates and, now, an ongoing US election that will perpetuate the liberal order, whether economically with Trump or socially and economically with Biden), there’s certainly appetite for considering fresh ideas that might take us forward with the crucial task of re-constructing community and society.

It’s just as well, then, that the UK think-tank ResPublica have recently produced two instructive seminars on post-liberalism, that political philosophy which, in broad terms, advocates moving to the left on the economy, to the right on culture and identity and to the local and particular in governance. Identifying the overarching assumption of liberalism as unmitigated autonomy—the human person unmoored form ties to person or place—post-liberals seek to offer a positive vision that prioritises relationships, community and belonging in our cultural, economic and social life.

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