Mad Men: The Zero Ending

 Raymond Carver was a master of the zero ending. In his short story “Cathedral,” for instance, the malcontent, pot-smoking, deadbeat narrator is introduced to his wife’s blind, unnamed pen-pal.  The husband expects little from this bizarre collision of worlds, but after several drinks, the narrator begins to feel the unexpected vitality and freedom that this blind prophet possesses.  Oddly enough, they begin to trace the contours of a cathedral together.  The narrator’s eyes are shut.  While the moment is quite poignant, the story abruptly ends before any real epiphany occurs:

 But I had my eyes closed. I thought I’d keep them that way for a little longer. I thought it was something I ought to do.

 “Well?” he said. “Are you looking?”

 My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.

 “It’s really something,” I said.

The end. We are left in the dark, guessing at what is going through our narrator’s mind.  When I taught this story last year, I decided to deal with the ending first. Most of the students were unhappy or unsettled and preferred something more crisp and put together.  They wanted the epiphany.  What was that something? To most of them it was infuriating, but to some, it opened up possibilities and allowed room for the ‘fun’ business of interpretation to begin.

In many ways, this season’s Mad Men finale gave us just such a zero ending. The curtain closes upon an unfinished story. All we are left with is that maddeningly ambiguous final image: a smirking Don Draper clouded in that all-pervasive smoke, glassy-eyed with drink and mulling over the loaded question, “Are you alone?” asked, of course, by a beautiful seductress.

I think most fans of the show were anticipating that something was going to happen with Don, even if we couldn’t quite put our fingers onit.  The pressure was palpable.  Would he return to his womanizing? Would he leave Megan? Would he leave Sterling Cooper Draper Price Campbell…. etc. etc.?  Would he get back together with Betty? Well, none of the above.  We are simply left watching Don: dissatisfied, smug, and precariously on the fence. The season did not end with the bang we expected, but it ended with an arguably more powerful whimper.

There are some interesting symbolic connections to be made with the finale and the previous episodes.  In one of his more rousing speeches this season, Don goes on an Ayn-Randian rant about the impossibility of attaining complete happiness as the consumerist world in which he is enmeshed has defined it.  Happiness is not about having a portion; it’s about having it all.  But “it” – cars, women, money, drinks, smokes – never seems to last long enough before the hunger for more is back.

Yet how does this explain Don’s confusingly clean track record this season?

If, as one critic has argued, Mad Men is “a character study of the breakdown of character,” Don has not simply become impervious to temptation, but his appetites have broadened their scope.  They are now more lofty.  How is this possible? According to C.S. Lewis, the range of vices (and virtues) of which we are capable are limited to what our characters can handle; the eunuch, Lewis humorously argued, can’t really go about bragging about his chastity.  Neither can the rising ubermensch that is Don Draper, be tied down solely by material desires.  Don’s ability to deny himself other women has hardly made him less misogynistic. Don wants ownership, power and control and, as his relationship with Megan continues to highlight, all seem to continually elude his grasp.

In Don’s world, happiness remains illusory because one only “gets it all” when they have severed all ties with those below them (the Nietszchean herd if you will) and with those on equal ground.  The breakdown of his brother Adam and more recently Lane, reveal the consequences of Don’s individualistic ideal and Don’s trampling underfoot of the marginal and weak.   Don is alone.

The recurrence of the hospital (or its equivalent: the dentist office and psychiatric ward) in Mad Men subtly indicates that almost all the characters are sick and broken and in need of healing. Don’s toothache – usually the result of an inability to say no to life’s most enjoyable and unhealthy desires – reveals something of the nature of corruption and, perhaps, opens up various possibilities for Don’s character next season.  As an ad-man (and ladies’ man), Don’s ability to smooth talk is essential to his life in and out of the office; however, the dentist makes a point to tell Don that this tooth, left alone, almost cost him his jaw.  To save the jaw, the tooth had to be uprooted. Don’s corrupt desires, then, are not essential to his character, but if left alone, they have the ability to destroy his essence. Will he uproot them? We’ll have to wait to find out.

In the closing moments, we are not only given a snapshot of Don, but a series of vignettes which, among other things, seems to reflect the varying stages of sickness and decay taking place in the world of Mad Men.  Pete comes home to his wife, physically and mentally broken. Like a young Draper, Pete is just beginning his descent into lies, adultery, greed; and while the consequences are as obvious as a punch to the face, I’m pretty sure Pete’s going continue down this road.

If Pete shows the beginning of Don’s journey, then Roger Sterling shows the end of it.  By the end, we see a naked Roger looking down over New York City with a derisive smirk. But he is alone.  Even Megan’s mother is not included in the shot. Like the naked emperor, Roger stands in his modern castle looking down over the kingdom that, largely, finds him ridiculous.

It seems that the only character immune from the brokenness and decay of the Ad-men is Peggy.  The final image of Peggy is one of contentment. She is safely in her apartment and free from the dog-eat-dog (er…dog-hump-dog?) world of which she had been a part.

It will be interesting to see which characters move towards healing and which continue down their self-destructive paths.

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind us of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

                -T.S. Eliot, from: The Four Quartets.


Mind the Gap: from Literacy to Literature

A few months ago at the OCSTA teacher conference, a secondary English teacher wanted to know the reason behind the increasing complaints about the academic ‘unreadiness’ of students entering their first year of University. What, he wondered, can secondary teachers do to help bridge this growing gap?

As someone who has taught for the past three years in both settings, I have a few ideas.  But before these questions might be answered, I wonder if this growing disconnect between secondary and postsecondary education needs some thought as it relates more specifically to the English department.  I wonder if the source of this disconnect lies in the fact that the English department of most secondary schools (Private and Public) is increasingly concerned with literacy, not literature.

In 2008/09 I studied for my B.Ed. at the University of Toronto with the goal of becoming a secondary English teacher; however, after one year of courses meant to accomplish this purpose, I never once heard anything about the content of the English curriculum. We were to teach communication, interpretation, critical thinking, and persuasive writing alongside a whole host of other “transferrable skills”, and whether we used Robert Browning or Dan Brown was of no particular concern. 

In fact, at another English conference I heard one teacher sharing a story of using a Car Manual in his class because the students enjoyed it.

My response: what the deuce?

Today, most English students and teachers in the secondary system operate on the assumption that secondary curriculum content is only of secondary importance and the true end of English education is to develop effective oral and written communicators, which may, indeed, be the end of English education.  In many ways, English is regarded as a handmaiden to the more important disciplines of Math, Science, and the ever-growing IT departments. This is a problem, and one, I think, that is systemic and needs to be dealt with across departments.

To clarify, I mean that every department must shoulder the burden of student literacy and direct that literacy to the unique concerns of their specific curriculum. Since most departments, sometimes English included, don’t believe that the English department has any real curriculum content of worth, the task of literacy is often unjustly shoveled onto them.  Unless secondary English departments return to a concern with English literature and not simply English literacy, the disconnect between secondary and postsecondary English studies will only get worse.

I would like to suggest a few things secondary English teachers might consider as they develop their English curriculum in a way that will prepare students for University English programs

Note: The following is in NO particular order

First, students need an understanding of why Story is important. Students need to begin thinking seriously about the integral role stories have in their lives. Stories (and imagination, and metaphorical language) have to be firmly placed as central to our lives, rather than something peripheral that only needs marginal attention.

Second, students should have a cursory grasp on the history of the English language and the development of various genres. I always wonder why most disciplines tend to develop over the course of four years and build on prior knowledge whereas English jumps from Beowulf to Blake without any explanation. Would a general understanding of the paradigm shifts from Medieval to Postmodern be too much to ask after four years of secondary school?

Third, students should begin to reflect on “how” stories are read and what they are doing when they interpret a text. Students should be able to interact with a range of different interpretive strategies and start to familiarize themselves with some discipline-specific vocabulary.

Fourth, teachers can begin to help students develop an ability to locate reliable secondary source material, an ability to critically read this material, and an ability to integrate secondary material and opinions/interpretations into coherent papers using proper referencing. 

There is no reason students entering into the University setting should claim they have never done this before.

Fifth, students NEED a revitalized understanding of the essay. Rather than teaching students to impose a rigid five-paragraph structure onto any and every topic they find interesting, we must begin to teach students the ART of the essay. Explain and teach the harmonious relationship between form (Poiema) and content (Logos) in order that students may realize that prose is not an enemy of poetry – both require careful crafting.

Wendell Berry: Where’s the Church?

There’s been a bit of discussion around the absence of an ecclesiology in Berry’s writing.  It seems that the Church is often depicted as something negative. Pastors, especially those “professionals” who move from church to church, get the same treatment.  What are we to make of this?

First, I don’t think Berry’s biggest issue is with Christianity or the Church in general terms, but with a gnostic theology that has crept into the church – a theology that has disembodied and displaced its adherents.  The problem, first and foremost, is any church which has an ‘otherworldly’ focus and causes men and women to abscond from their responsibilities to this good earth.

In his essay “God and Country” (and elsewhere) Berry argues vehemently against certain brands of the church; for example, the organized and institutional church that has wed itself to the modern economy is merely a bastardization of what the church ought to be.  Also, the church that has nothing to say about stewardship of the environment and the importance of our places holds very little esteem in Berry’s thought.

Berry’s own history with church “membership” is quite telling. He actually spent most of his life not attending any local church, but hiking through the woods and writing poetry (hence his Sabbath Poem collections).  He now attends church quite regularly and the church plays a more important role in his later writing, but he’s still quite suspicious of most forms of “organized” church, and particularly suspicious of pastors who are not local and who live transient lifestyles, moving from parish to parish. In fact, I think it is largely due to the mobility of the rural pastor that Berry feels unsettled by the church. Of course, this pastoral transience is somewhat of a norm in many churches, but it is a norm which implies that “place” is something the church does not have to think seriously about.

I think this quote from his novel Jayber Crow is really helpful in establishing a sense of Berry’s own thoughts on the overlap between Church and Community. Here we can see how Berry, through Jayber, shows how Community trumps Church in many ways:

“My vision of the gathered church that had come to me… had been replaced by a vision of the gathered community. What I saw now was the community imperfect and irresolute but held together by the frayed and always fraying, incomplete and yet ever-holding bonds of the various sorts of affection. There had maybe never been anybody who had not been loved by somebody, who had been loved by somebody else, and so on and on… It was a community always disappointed in itself,disappointing its members, always trying to contain its divisions and gentle its meanness, always failing and yet always preserving a sort of will toward goodwill. I knew that, in the midst of all the ignorance and error, this was a membership; it was the membership of Port William and of no other place on earth. My vision gathered the community as it never has been and never will be gathered in this world of time, for the community must always be marred by members who are indifferent to it or against it, who are nonetheless its members and maybe nonetheless essential to it. And yet I saw them all as somehow perfected, beyond time, by one another’s love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said we may be perfected by grace.”

I know there has been a lot of criticism towards this; in fact, the Christianity and Literature article by Sean Michael Lucas (Lucas, Sean Michael. “God and Country: Wendell Berry’s Theological Vision.” Christian Scholars Review 32:1. Fall 2002. 73 – 93.) deals with these critiques leveled against such a “secular” vision of the church.

I would, in light of this quote, perhaps disagree with those who claim that Berry’s more “Dantean” novels show a movement from secular to sacred institutions since it seems here that the movement is actually in quite the opposite direction.

Is this problematic?  I think so.  I have not yet read anything from Berry which deals with the unique and important role of the church in a community. But I still have lots to read in this regard.

One other thing I might add as I’m thinking about this. It seems that there is a connection, or parallel, to be made between how humanity is connected to the earth and how the church is connected to the community.  The relationship of humankind to earth is supposed to be ‘ecological’ in the sense that we need to see our connectedness to the earth (that we are made from the dust of the earth); conversely, the church needs to see its connectedness to the larger community. This Great Community, as Jayber notices, must be inclusive even to the reprobate.

This is not to deny the special and unique role people have as bearing God’s image. Here we have one of those paradoxes Christians need to wrestle with: too much focus on our ecological connectedness and we can move towards a form of nature worship or Eastern thought (another charge/criticism often brought by Christians to Berry’s thinking), but too much focus on our transcendence will allow us to destroy the earth as if we were not intimately connected to it and thereby destroying ourselves.  IN much the same way this paradox exists for the church.  If it focuses too much on being embedded in the community it can lose the special character it must have as a witness to the truth of Christ in a non-Christian world, but too much focus on its separation from the world and it becomes a walled garrison that has lost its relevance and usefulness in a place.

Is it Berry’s task to create a well-rounded ecclesiology? Definitely not.  His work, however, has been taken up by theologians (Ellen Davis, Norm Wirzba, Craig Bartholomew, to name a few) and is informing ecclesiology in many places. Tim Keller, in fact, often speaks of his indebtedness to Berry for how he thinks of church.  This is definitely a good start, and one in the right direction.

Easter Reflection

I remember this hard, dry field;

’twas being broken by a man.

He tilled the earth in straight furrows;

His farmer’s tools, a cat ‘o nine.

This rustic clown, worked, bent double,

As if he, too, were being broke.

I watched as dust gave way to wind,

And revealed the rich earth below.

From my perch, the man’s broken brow

Smoothed when he saw me; I got down.

I know I have been here before;

Weren’t there two trees on this cliff?

In time, this land gave birth to gold,

Which waved freely in summer’s wind.

What mystery transformed grey dust

In short time to such golden sway.

Was it this field? That day of rest,

When he snapped those gold-heads

And gave a few to each of us

To satisfy our day’s hunger.

I came to watch them collect their

Golden harvest. What violence

There was in their blades. It shook me

To see it; as if ’twere His stories.

They felled each golden stock and shook

Till the chaff took flight ‘pon the wind.

Oh, here is that other tree, but

It is newly cut; a stump here

With rings that span a man’s short life.

Oh, what manner of sign is this?

And that gold, transformed then to loaves,

Sat on market stalls He overturned –

And on tables for usurers

And collectors, and ev’ry form

Of villain one might imagine –

Down their gullets, to satisfy.

Oh, I have seen it all. I have

Been in homes full of bread and death.

And they ate while the poor man starved:

Was this not love, then, that I felt?

But He gave bread; what treachery

‘twas so freely given: “Take. Eat.”

And I ate my judgment that night;

Didn’t we all though? Taking flight

At the first sign of real power.

The sword exposing man’s true heart

More than those infernal stories –

More than that pitiable act.

And now that the golden bread is

Digested, becoming one with

my body, I do not feel light.

I am weighed down by silver weight.

Ah, here is my tree, made ready

Since time’s dawn, no doubt. 

This tree like yours, my lord. It seems

we shall share a similar fate.

They will remember me as one

Who betrayed you; but what of you, me?

I am wretched. I am wretched.

Was I not there with Lazarus?


And Judas jumped from the tree with a rope round his neck,

And the branch snapped with the snapping of his neck.

And his tortured memories blew out upon the wind,

And his broken body was turned back into the earth,

And the silver pieces scattered about the cliff’s foot

And they too, were swallowed into the earth.


But in time, they too will be digested.

[Sometimes Easter is a good time for reflection and allowing your mind to wander in church.  I decided to use unrhymed tetrameter couplets (until the end), and I hope you enjoy it.  I rarely write poetry, but since I’m teaching my students to write it, I might as well try my hand at what they are going through] Enjoy. DJS.

The Problem of Pain: What Story is This?

Spring came early this year and I’ve really enjoyed the long days,the warm weather; there is work to be done in my gardens and new books to read and films to watch.  There are times, like these, when it’s easy to see the world as a good place – at least the small bit of time and space that are mine for the moment. But then I read the news: riots in London (Ontario?!), graphic details of the brutal rape and murder of Tori Stafford, a school shooting in France by a murderer who jumps to his death several days later, and so it goes. And suddenly the facts that much of this world is not the way it ought to be reveal a world that is sick and in need of healing.

Perhaps I’m being a bit naïve, but I would argue that the common reaction to such atrocities is similar, no matter one’s religious orientation.  There is a deep-seated longing for things to be made right. We long for justice, for peace, for harmony, for shalom – even if we disagree on how to attain any of these good things.  There is, even if it’s not articulated, an appeal to some shared standard of the Good, a standard that we are constantly failing to meet collectively and individually.

But for the person of faith, this raises some obvious problems: what is one to do in the face of such injustice when he or she foolishly subscribes to the notion that there is an all-powerful Deity who is also, apparently, benevolent?

Theodicy, the name for this dilemma, is nothing new and I realize I am wading into theological and philosophical waters that are of a depth I’m unqualified to plumb; however, this question has come up time and again in a first year English course I am teaching and I thought I’d blog on a few of the insights that have arisen from our discussions.

So, consider this to be a layman’s response, and nothing more.

For people of faith, perhaps the answers can come (too) easy and (too) ready-made when it comes to talking about suffering in an abstract sense; but when suffering finds its way into one’s own life, an understanding of the truth is much more difficult to hold on to.  Faced with the reality of our own suffering, can we, like Milton, “justify the ways of God to men”?

It is hard to judge the nature of God, or man, or good, or evil, if we are only doing so with the fragmentary moments that make up our lives because “man is a giddy thing.”  We are fickle, prone to change and inconstancy.  We act like confused teenagers, plucking petals in order to determine whether or not we are loved.  As I’ve mentioned already, my mood can change with something as arbitrary as the weather, and sometimes my notion of God changes based on the circumstances of the moment. I often feel like Harold Crick in Stranger than Fiction, ticking off the events in my life that suggest it is a comedy and those suggesting otherwise.

Stranger than Fiction is actually a helpful way to think about theodicy because it poses the right question: what kind of a story are we in?  Once we can get a picture of the play as a whole, perhaps we can begin to make sense of our particular act and scene.

As the observable evidence suggests, the play is going to end the same for all of us.  And – spoiler alert – it’s a tragedy. As the writer of Ecclesiastes observed, the same end is meeting the wealthy and the poor man alike. Dust to dust.  To be absorbed back into the primordial elements, to lose our material goods, our friends and loved ones, our bodies and our sense of self are the facts as we can know them. Our stories, as we can see them, conclude with a stage that is littered with dead bodies.

If this is the case, there is tremendous pressure to write our own stories and work quite hard to give them as much “comedic relief” as possible before the closing of the curtain.  And if, despite such efforts, the story seems to move from bad to worse, from darkness to darkness, why keep going?  (Wasn’t this the central question Camus believed faced the 20th century individual?)

But what if there is more to the story?  What if our vision is limited and contingent upon time and change?  What if the observable data is not enough for a complete story?

In Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat,” four men are stranded just off the coast of Florida.  For several days they exist in the precarious position between life and death and the correspondent wonders: “If I am going to be drowned — if I am going to be drowned — if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods, who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees?”  It’s a good question, and perhaps a question we should ask each day things are going well.  If death is coming, what is the point of any fleeting joy?

Crane’s conclusion: When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples. Any visible expression of nature would surely be pelleted with his jeers. Then, if there be no tangible thing to hoot he feels, perhaps, the desire to confront a personification and indulge in pleas, bowed to one knee, and with hands supplicant, saying: “Yes, but I love myself.” A high cold star on a winter’s night is the word he feels that she says to him. Thereafter he knows the pathos of his situation.

What a chilling story, and I wonder if it is the story that many people tell themselves. It definitely gives you very little to live for and absolutely nothing to die for.

 Now literature is filled with people who wrestle with such questions, but perhaps none so poignantly as Job. In the course of several days, Job loses his wealth, his home, his children, and even his health.  But the most interesting thing about Job’s story is how God talks with Job at the end.  I always expect God to sheepishly admit to Job that the cause for all his suffering was a bet being made between He and the Devil: “Satan thought you would crack, but I showed him.”  But this is not what happens.

God simply questions Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”  And as the questions proceed and the litany of things God has done and controls beyond Job’s scope of vision are presented, Job’s ignorance and lack of control are exposed. God shows Job that a much bigger story is taking place, one that has been going on long before him.  While the story ends as a comedy (Job gets everything back, although not his former family which still troubles me somewhat), we should know that there will be a second time where all these things are taken from Job: his death.

But what if the bigger story has something beyond death? What if, instead of lying cold in the ground, we awake to the final act of the play and see that Comedy has finally trumped Tragedy?  Wouldn’t that make this “vale of tears” endurable.  Even if the observable facts reveal we are all inching our ways towards darkness, it will take a leap of faith to suggest otherwise. And this is not so much a leap in the dark as it is a leap towards the light.

The world can be an amazing place and the fleeting glimpses of Shalom, small though they be, are important gifts to be enjoyed.   Pain is also real and it’s a burden to be endured.  But pain is something that can be more fleeting than joy if we believe the right story.

Of course, such a belief would have to maintain, against the facts, that there is such an author who is benevolent enough to write an alternative, comedic ending and powerful enough to enable his characters to die into such a denouement.

Hearing the Music of Middle-earth

Most people who love the writing of Tolkien can most likely recall the moment when they first fell under his spell.  This happened to me on the bus in the first grade when a group of older boys sitting a few rows back spent their morning ride with an awkwardly large and square-shaped, illustrated edition of The Hobbit.  Of course, at six I had no idea that it was The Hobbit because the cover had no writing and, more to the point, I couldn’t yet read.

I think, looking back, that the book jacket must have been removed by some appropriately anal-retentive parents because the faded orange hardcover – splotched with the various stains of school lunches – was all that remained to safeguard the vast treasures within.  While it was much later that I would learn “all that is gold does not glitter,” I do remember desiring to look inside this book more than anything else; however, it wasn’t until a few weeks later, when most of the boys’ infatuations had waned, that I mustered the courage to ask the owner if I might borrow the book for just a while and there must have been some hobbit blood in this boy for he freely loaned his precious book to me (although he never asked any riddles).  I pored over the pictures of the goblin king and the three trolls, the large spiders in Mirkwood Forest and the great eagles coming to the rescue, dwarves with funny names I would learn one day and Smaug, the large red dragon; without even knowing the story, I had become enchanted with Middle-earth.

When it comes to my love for Middle-earth, I don’t think much has changed since those days of flipping through the illustrations with my greasy six-year-old fingers.  Just over twenty years later I have read and reread The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion and despite my ever-growing reading lists and real-world responsibilities, I am still inevitably drawn to their place on my bookshelves again and again. But why?

Many people I know could not be bothered with Tolkien’s lifelong project. They begin the stories with the best of intentions, but after reading several pages dedicated to descriptions of the flora and fauna of an imaginary world, they realize (or I should say, imagine) that their time might be better spent reading something “more real,” by which they presumably mean a historical novel or an autobiography or, perhaps, The Washington Post.  This reaction is nothing new; in fact, I once heard a story that when Tolkien stood up to read his latest installment of the ring saga to his close friends, someone from another corner of the pub (with several pints in him) shouted: “Oh, come on! Not another story with #$!ing Elves!”  There is more than an unwillingness here to believe in the fantasy world, there is an unwillingness to even suspend disbelief. It is a failure of imagination (or, to be more gracious, perhaps a personal preference I will never understand).

Yet despite such naysayers, I would maintain that those who love to wander in Middle-earth are not necessarily lost.

Middle-earth, or midgard, is a term Tolkien borrowed from Norse mythology. In a letter, Tolkien admits that Middle-earth is a “modernization or alteration of an old word for the inhabited world of Men, the oikoumene: middle because thought of vaguely as set amidst the encircling Seas and (in the northern imagination) between ice of the North and the fire of the South. Old English midan-geard, mediaeval English midden-erd, middle-erd.”

Middle-earth, then, is not like Lewis’ Narnia (to be found in another dimension) or even his Perelandra (to be found on another planet), nor is it a Spenserian Fairyland (although I think that might be closer to the mark); it is the Earth as we know it, or as we might have known it in a previous age.   While the place is quite real,the history and inhabitants are not; and this fusion of the real and the imaginary is what makes Tolkien’s work so enticing.


As these maps indicate, there are visible traces of Western European geography underlying much of Middle-earth. Tolkien does this in such a beautifully subtle way in order to make the wary reader feel both at home in Middle-earth, while also being oddly unsettled by its other-worldliness.  Of course, traces of European geography in no way means that Middle-earth is a tracing; the two worlds are still quite different (see maps).

This disconnect can be understood if you follow the history of the ages of Middle-earth to see the constant restructuring of geography as time continues its downward-spiral through the ages in an ever-narrowing gyre.  At the close of Lord of the Rings, another age is setting and, Tolkien seems to invite the interpretation, perhaps another restructuring will take place which will leave the world in its present form.  But this is just speculation.

What is, perhaps, even more interesting about Middle-earth’s history is the music of its creation. The various ages of Middle-earth actually follow a cyclical pattern already established in the great music of the Ainur (this story is found in the Ainulindale).  As Eru, father of light, weaves his infinitely complex and beautiful harmonies together, the plans for Middle-earth are made known to the Ainur, but already in the song a note of discord can be heard arising from the mightiest of these, Melkor (whose name means, “one who rises up in might”).  Eru allows Melkor to break the harmony for a time, but eventually undoes his music and manages to create a song even more beautiful than before.  Once the music stops, the Valar begin the long work of taking up their small parts in this big harmony, and thus begins all the tragedies and comedies of Middle-earth’s history.

I continue to go to Tolkien’s work because it leaves me in the middle of things. Wanderering in Middle-earth, I find myself suspended between visions of a world long gone and visions of a world that could still yet be. I can see the long wisdom behind places like the Shire, Rivendell and Lothlorien, and the quick folly of Mordor and Orthanc.  Tolkien’s work awakens the desire I have (and many others share) to see Other-worlds and escape into them.  To clarify, lovers of fantasy do not escape like deserters from the army, rather, they escape like prisoners who long to return home.  Anyone who has read and loved Tolkien knows the ‘freeing’ effect it can have on you.

As I read, I can journey out only to return and clearly see again how the real earth is the visible stage between the invisible realms of heaven and hell. Fantasy, contrary to popular belief, does not cloud vision; when it is properly done, it restores vision.  And it also restores our hearing. As I journey back into the various ages, I can hear the echoes of the Ainulindale as Melkor and Manwe, Feanor and Morgoth, or Aragorn and Sauron bring the music nearer and nearer to its denouement.

And I can put the book down for a few months or a few years and attend to my work in this earth, my small labour which is part of something much larger.  I can look at the world around me and stand in the middle of forces that ever seek to recall the harmony of a new creation and forces that ever seek its destruction; I can look around and still hear the faintest (and perhaps the last) echoes of that great Song.

Of Gods and Men: Stumbling into Stories

My wife and I recently watched Xavier Beauvois’ film Of Gods and Men, partly because a friend of mine left his Netflix account logged in on my computer, and partly because Jeff Overstreet, in his recent blog, recommended it as one film which helpfully counters the deluge of recent films that the evangelical community has been swooning over as of late.

Over the past few years I have watched Facing the Giants, Fireproof, and most recently (and most reluctantly), Courageous. Yet while the central messages are something I could agree with, there is something about these films that still does not sit well.

That shoddy writing, unrealistic dialogue, cardboard characterization and poor acting are seen to be pardonable sins when a film’s message is good and true, reveals an unconcern for beauty that should be far more disconcerting to far more people.  These films are championed for being unashamedly countercultural; yet surely to abandon the basic elements of good film to deliver a poignant message is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It is not good art, and some might even argue it is hardly good Christianity.

Don’t get me wrong, marital fidelity and the importance of stable father figures are noble ideas and we need films that show this, but films are not sermons and should not be treated or appreciated as such.

And this is what I love about Of Gods and Men: although it is a film that revolves around a small fellowship of French monks who face the persecution of Islamist extremists and the story line is constantly interjected with short clips of liturgical prayers and singing, Beauvois somehow avoids preaching.  The film is evidence of an artist who is in service to the truth and to his craft.

One of the truths that Beauvois beautifully communicates is the “unlooked-for” nature of true heroism.

In Book IV of The Two Towers, Sam and Frodo are (unbeknownst to them) about to walk into Shelob’s lair, a trap laid for them by Gollum, when Sam says:

The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually their paths were laid that way, as you put it.  But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t.

There is more than just a little of this in Of Gods and Men. The monks do not go out seeking to die for their faith or to make some heroic last stand for the world to see; in fact, they have no idea that their story will ever be told. Like most of us, the monks reflect very little upon the reality that they are taking part in a story because, as for most of us, they have little conception of the nature of the story and of what part they play.  They see in the “mirror darkly.”

They make decisions moment by moment, but as death approaches, they seem to be overwhelmed by the story in which they must now choose to partake.  The question of whether or not they should stay hangs over the men as each confronts his own weakness and fear at facing death, the final enemy.

Of course, the film begs self-reflection: What type of man would I be at zero hour?  What would I do should my place where I have found my calling become hostile, perhaps to the point of death? Would I stay, or flee to safety? Should I?

Captain Fellows, the brash American businessman in Greene’s The Power and the Glory, thinks that “he’d always been a man who was good at zero hour”; but when his life is violently interrupted by the Gringo, we find him at the novel’s close packing his bags for America.  The whiskey priest, however, has no pretentions to goodness and no delusions of grandeur.  In fact, the only reason he is still in a secular state that is killing off the priests is due to his inability to make a decision quickly enough, and now Death is at his heels. Yet his duty keeps him going. And each day the whiskey priest confronts his weakness and moves towards death.

Greene, like Beauvois, leaves us to see that there is more duty than daring in the hero.  Bonhoeffer once wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”  Easier said than done, yet Bonhoeffer chose to stay in the hostile Germany that would take his life.

Of Gods and Men is an excellent countercultural reminder that Story is something much bigger than character; and it is an unfortunate reality that we seldom stumble into any type of a self-conscious awareness of the Stories in which we play a part.  But when we do stumble into such stories, whether it is in our lives or in the lives of others, we have a responsibility to tell them and to tell them in way that gives the truth its beautiful due.