A Long Defeat: Reading J.R.R. Tolkien

“Actually I am a Christian,” Tolkien wrote of himself, “and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’— though it contains (and in legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory” (Letters 255).

History as a long defeat – I can think of nothing that is more anti-modern than this sentiment expressed by J.R.R. Tolkien. It is a thought perfectly in line with the fathers and the whole of Classical Christian teaching. And it’s anti-modernism reveals much about the dominant heresy of our time.

We believe in progress – it is written into the DNA of the modern world. If things are bad, they’ll get better. The “long defeat” would only be a description of the road traveled by racism, bigotry, and all that ignorance breeds.

And our philosophy of progress colors everything we consider. The scientific concept of evolution (please do not jump on me for mentioning the subject) only suggests that there is a change in living things and that the change is driven by adaptation and the survival of those adaptations that are generally advantageous. If such a theory is granted, it says nothing about the direction of the process nor about the process as improvement or progress. That “evolve” has come to mean “change for the better” is a purely ideological assumption with no warrant in science.

But the metaphor of improvement remains a dominant theme within our culture. A few years ago a survey of young Americans revealed the utterly shocking conclusion that for the first time in recorded history, the young did not expect to be as well off as their parents. It was a paradigm shift in American progressive thought.

But Tolkien’s sentiment bears deeper examination. For not only does it reject the notion of progress, it embraces a narrative of the “long defeat.” Of course this is not a reference to steady declining standards of living, or the movement from IPhone 5 back to IPhone 4 (perish the thought!). It is rather the narrative of Scripture, first taught by the Apostles themselves, clearly reflecting a Dominical teaching:

But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. …Now as Jannes and Jambres resisted Moses, so do these also resist the truth: men of corrupt minds, disapproved concerning the faith; but they will progress no further, for their folly will be manifest to all, as theirs also was. But you have carefully followed my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, persecutions, afflictions, which happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra– what persecutions I endured. And out of them all the Lord delivered me. Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. But evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived. (2 Timothy 3:1-13)

 This is Tolkien’s warrant for the “long defeat.”

 And the thought is not that we wake up one day and people are suddenly boasters, proud, blasphemers, etc. Rather, “evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived.”

It was a common belief among the Desert Fathers that successive generations of monks would become weaker and weaker, unable to bear the great trials of their predecessors. Indeed it was said that in the end, the simple act of believing would take greater grace than all of the ascetic feats of the earliest monks.

 This is not a pessimistic streak within Orthodox Christianity. If history tells us anything, it is that this is a very honest, even prescient reading. The evils of the 20th century, particularly those unleashed during and after World War I, are clearly among the worst ever known on the planet, and continue to be the major culprits behind all of our current struggles. That war was not “the war to end all wars.” It has rather been the foundation of all subsequent wars. May God forgive our arrogance (“boasters, proud”…). But the Classical Christian read on human life contains the deepest hope – set precisely in the heart of the long defeat.

It is that hope that sets the Christian gospel apart from earlier pagan historical notions. For the “long defeat” was a common assumption among the ancient peoples. The Greeks and Romans did not consider themselves to have exceeded the heroes who went before. They could model themselves on Achilles or Aeneas, but they did not expect to match their like. The Jews had no hope other than a “restoration of the Kingdom,” which was generally considered apocalyptic in nature. All of classical culture presumed a long decline.

The narrative was rewritten in the modern era – particularly during the 19th century. The Kingdom of God was transferred from apocalyptic hope (the end of the long defeat) to a material goal to be achieved in this world. This was a heresy, a radical revision of Christian thought. It became secularized and moderated into mere progress. It is worth doing a word study on the history of the word “progressive.” 

But Tolkien notes that within the long defeat, there are “glimpses of final victory.” I would go further and say that the final victory already “tabernacles” among us. It hovers within and over our world, shaping it and forming it, even within its defeat. For the nature of our salvation is a Defeat. Therefore the defeat within the world itself is not a tragic deviation from the end, but an End that was always foreseen and present within the Cross itself. And the Cross itself was present “from before the foundation of the world.”

Tolkien’s long defeat, is, as he noted, of a piece with his Catholic, Christian faith. It is thoroughly Orthodox as well. For the victory that shall be ours, is not a work in progress – it is a work in wonder.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The photo shows, “The Gift of Galadriel,” by the Hildebrandt brothers, painted in 1977.

Love And Obedience

Both love and obedience can be clearly understood, when John wrote this letter; but it is another matter entirely whether our society today genuinely wants to hear such absolute commands today.

Any absolutes which formed the bedrock of western society for generations are now going in the same direction as the Dodo. We have built a world based on free choices, not obedience. We have viewed love as attraction, which, when the feeling passes, may be directed elsewhere on a whim.

Anyone who watches the programme Love Island will soon realise that the word love does not actually mean what it is meant to mean. In fact, it means just about the opposite of what it is meant to mean. We rarely hear calls for obedience and love as work. In each case such calls may cost me my freedom. They may limit my spontaneity. They may put boundaries and restrictions around what I can and cannot do.

The groom of a couple in America who recently got married, said to the chaplain after he took the vows; sure, I’ll love my wife; but I don’t want love taking away my freedom’. I wonder if they are still married.

This attitude that flees from obedience and sees love as a passing affection is widespread today and sadly it is corrupting the minds of many young people.

It’s very difficult to get John’s message across that true freedom comes from disciplined obedience. Its like a pilot in training. A pilot is told that there are certain things they cannot do, certain things they cannot drink or smoke, what they must wear. Where they are allowed to walk. How long they are allowed to fly.

 You have to obey these rules because if you don’t you can get killed and you can kill others. It’s obedience to the rules that makes flying possible, that makes you complete your mission. But the word obey generally has negative connotations for many. Some people who have grown up in very conservative churches where obedience and righteousness were pounded home so often feel suffocated by them.

Obey we say; but God loves me; so let me simply enjoy him and live. Quite often to make the church look more grace filled, the church uses the idea of obedience in a negative way; the synagogue versus the church; Jesus versus Moses.

 Paul versus the Jerusalem legalists; grace versus law. When Jesus said; that he had fulfilled scripture, he did not mean that the ten commandments are to be now discarded and ignored. It means that all of the law has now been fulfilled and brought together in Jesus. In other words, Jesus becomes a walking and talking version of what is in the bible. What you read about in the bible; you see lived out in Jesus.

Jesus went on to say; ‘do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfil them.’

But who or what should we Obey. Naturally we will say that we obey the Lord. Which is correct; but how. We obey the teachings of Jesus found today in the bible which should be the basis of our obedience. It is the perfect place to begin. Why do we obey God? We obey God’s law to help us live happier, contented, healthier lives. We also receive God’s blessings as we do so. Obedience to God is linked with blessing.

Is the world a place today where we might be aware of God’s blessing?

 We can read in the OT how this combination of Obedience and Blessing affected the children of Israel. We can read time and time again that when the people obeyed God they were blessed, and when they refused things went against them. It came as no shock to them because God told them through Moses what exactly would happen.

 A point of warning. We need to be careful of those in authority like the Pharisees and certain Christian leaders even today, who claim that their interpretation of scripture or their application of it in the church becomes God’s rule, and absolute conformity is demanded and expected.

There is a delicate balance here with obedience that each of us must find ourselves. On the one hand we dare not compromise the doctrine of God’s grace freely given; and yet there must be a call to what it means to be a follower of Jesus that show’s his grace, has transformed a person’s life. One Absolute command that Jesus calls us to do; is to Love. This is a Christian absolute; a Christian must. It is not negotiable.

However, sometimes we speak of it so often that we have become dulled from hearing afresh its demands on us. Of course, we’re loving we say, we’re Christians aren’t we. We can use the word Love to mean the same as when we say, I love stewed prunes, or, I love burnt toast.

 But we will only understand what love means when we understand that love, light, and life all work together. You cannot take love in isolation from everything else and expect it to flourish.

Christian love is affected by light and darkness. A Christian who is walking in the light which simply means they are obeying God, is going to love his brother or sister Christian. Further on in John chapter 3 we are told that Christian love is a matter of life and death. To live in hatred is to live in spiritual death. If we know God’s love towards us, we in turn should show God’s love towards others. God has commanded us to love. He first revealed his love to us.

The commandment to love one another is not an appendix to our Christian experience or some insignificant after thought. No. It is placed in our hearts from the very beginning of our faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus said; ‘by this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’.

Christian love has been described in the following way;

Silence; when your words would hurt.

Patience; when your neighbour is sharp.

Deafness; when the scandal flows.

Thoughtfulness; for another’s woes.

Promptness; when duty calls.

Courage; when misfortune falls.

To love one another is a command from Jesus and something we are to do rather than think about to do. Christian love is not a shallow sentimental emotion that Christian’s try to work.; so that they can get along with one another. It is a matter of the will to choose to love someone, rather than an emotion. It is a matter of determining, of making up your mind that you will allow God’s love to reach others through you; and then of acting toward them in loving ways.

A man was complaining to a missionary about missions in Africa. ‘How can you go to Africa and preach to those people about love when there is so much injustice in your own country’, he demanded. The mission leader replied; ‘we don’t go in and preach to them about love. We go in and love them’.

But a word of warning and some clarification. Do not confuse Christian love with becoming a door mat for others to walk over and use. Christians are to have humility yes; but we should never be naive about those who would hurt us or seek to dominate us.

John distinguishes carefully later on between those who are deceivers who belong to the world and Christians who belong to the family of God. In Second John v 10 he explicitly states that such people are not to be welcomed into our lives.

This teaching requires reflection and discernment since, in the interests of mission, we are called to go into the world. But at the same time, we must be warned that the world holds dangers.

What are these dangers? There are Intellectual dangers, which lure us into patterns of thinking that rob us of the simplicity and reality of Jesus.

 There are Moral dangers, lifestyles and attitudes that deal with everything from corrupt obsessions, to destructive views of sexuality. There are Religious dangers, charlatans, charismatic leaders who can out gun and out fox many a Christian minister. There are Theological dangers, ideas and ways that do not promote Jesus Christ, but rather promote doctrines and practices designed to deceive and manipulate. There are dangers everywhere and even though we should be generously open and loving, we must also be shrewdly discerning and wise.

When Jesus was sending the disciples out to proclaim the Kingdom of God he said this to them aware of those dangers; ‘I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore, be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard against men.’ On this point by way of clarification I would say this. We are commanded to love our neighbour as ourselves.  As we do so many think that we should somehow leave our Christian teaching our Christian values, our Christian standards on the doorstep as we enter the house of our neighbour, or when we rub shoulders with them.

  Jesus never forgot for one second who he was and why he came into the world. He did not water down his message or make it easier for people to accept. He maintained his true calling to a fallen world of many people, of many races, and many faiths. He mingled and mixed with all faiths and none yet remained true to who he was.

One of the ways today in which the church especially in the west in North America and Europe has been greatly weakened has been when the church and Christians have allowed other faiths, other trends, other minority groups, and other ideologies to take centre ground as it were. A bit like the cuckoo chick that pushes the other chicks out of the nest.

Loving others does Not mean that Christian values and the Christian faith somehow takes second place or becomes irrelevant. And that because of our love and acceptance of other races and other faiths they, then become dominant. Christians are not meant to be so subservient they abandon their faith thereby giving the impression they are then unloving. You can still love and hold firmly to the faith. Jesus told his disciples and he tells us to, ‘stand firm’.

This requires discernment. Sadly, many Christian churches have keeled over in their pursuit to love the stranger in a wreckless manner, and in doing so have abandoned their love for Christ and his teachings. This attitude does not bode well for what it means to be a Christian.

 Love for Christ, loving him with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, must always come first in the life of a Christian. All other things come after. Jesus himself is the greatest example of this commandment. He says to us follow my example. Jesus illustrated love by the very life that he lived. He never showed hatred or malice. He hated all sin, deceit, malice, and disobedience. But he never hated the people who committed such sins.

He hated the sin, but not the person. I have heard Godly people say that there have been times where God has called them to love the unlovable. A person who really is despicable. They in themselves have been unable to do it until they realise that that person despite their terrible sin is made in the image of God. And that God so loved the world that he went to the cross for them. It’s a sobering thought.

Christ’s love was broad enough to include every person on this planet, because every person is a sinner. In Christ we have a new illustration of the old truth that God is love, and that the life of love is the life of joy and victory.

Rev. Alan Wilson is a Presbyterian Minister in Northern Ireland, where he serves a large congregation, supported by his wife. Before he took up the call to serve Christ, he was in the Royal Ulster Constabulary for 30-years. He has two children and two grandchildren and enjoys soccer, gardening, zoology, politics and reading. He voted for Brexit in the hope that the stranglehold of Brussels might finally be broken. He welcomes any that might wish to correspond with him through the Contact Page of The Postil.

The photo shows, “The Raising of Jairus’ Daughter,” by George Percy Jacomb-Hood, painted in 1895.

Identity In Jesus

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete. (I John 1: 1-4)

We live in a culture that is eager for religious experience without being too Christian.

In the United States of America over 80 per cent of the population believes in a God or gods that have power over the universe. When asked further; if all the worlds religions essentially prayed to the same God, 65 per cent of the adult public agreed.

In the Christian church among those who called themselves evangelicals, 46 per cent agreed and among those who labelled themselves as being ‘born again’ 48 per cent agreed that all of the worlds religions essentially prayed to the same God. This is quite astonishing.

Within the pews of American churches, two thirds of the people do not believe in the exclusive character of the Christian message, and almost half of all evangelicals say the same.

In light of these findings both inside and outside the church, who or what is our faith based on?

At the centre and core of our faith is the entrance of Jesus Christ into world history as the complete revelation of God. This is an event which happened in the town of Bethlehem over 2000 years ago.

It is an event that cannot be thrown away. It cannot be redefined as a myth or compared with the religious revelations offered by others such as Mohammed or Joseph Smith.

Throughout the world Christians are often tempted to forge new alliances in order to achieve noble ends. This is particularly true in countries where multiple faiths coexist side by side.

In the hills of the West Bank in Israel moderate Palestinian Muslims and Palestinian Christians have services in close proximity to one another and wonder what sort of unity they might build in order to construct a unified front for justice.

The same questions arise here in the West. There is difficulty when we find ourselves in interfaith dialogues that try to build unity particularly for commendable social and welfare programmes for; the homeless, or the fight against drugs and crime.

Chaplains in the services have to protect the distinctives of each faith tradition so that each worshipping community need not compromise what is essential to its beliefs.

Yet is it possible to conduct ourselves as Christians and exclude the place of Jesus Christ. Should we abstain from any such involvements?

If Christ is offensive to some, do we continue on in our ministry and deny the central event of our faith. Or do we hold fast to the scandal of what we affirm.
John who wrote this letter would say that there is no Christianity if Jesus Christ is not at the centre.

But perhaps there is another issue here for us; the more pressing question of whether it is appropriate for Christians to be silent about Jesus when meeting people of other faiths and persuasions. Roman Catholics, JW’s, humanists, Muslims.

When the time is right, when trust is secure, then the central theme of our faith, Jesus will be heard.

A college professor in a theological seminary in America chose this option recently when the University’s centre for Islamic Studies hosted a dialogue with a circle of invited Islamic leaders. Things went pear shaped when half way through; the Muslims politely dismissed themselves so that they could go out into the hall and pray towards Mecca.

The difficulty of course arises when that silence becomes no strategy at all; but a quiet concession to secularism, pc correctness, and tolerance. This is something we all need to carefully ponder.

The next question we need to consider is; should theological distinctives that is the really important parts; be set aside for the unity of the church?

Evangelical Christians often find themselves in main stream denominations or local congregations where adherence to particular orthodox doctrines brings tension. At what point does right and correct belief become more important than church unity? It’s a good question.

In June of this year The Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) at their General Assembly in Belfast received criticism from people outside the church and from within, over their stance taken for those who are in same sex relationships.
The resolution passed by a clear majority; ‘those in a same sex relationship cannot be full members of the church. The children from same sex couples cannot be communicant members.’

These verses in John 1 tell us that any Christian who does not embrace the true reality Of Jesus Christ in world history, his teaching, and why he entered into the world; has departed hugely from the faith of the early church.

But someone might say what about the other issues that can cause difficulty among Christians and at the same time help to define Christian identity; like charismatic gifts, infant baptism, ordination of women, style of worship. Should the church sanction diversity within its ranks on these issues and others for the sake of a larger unity?

Whatever we make of these important points John would have our starting point with; Jesus. All these concerns and others are legitimate and important. But they are NOT central. They are not Biblical imperatives. John reminds us that the person of Jesus Christ the Word of Life is at the centre of our theological identity.

Sadly, many theologians and Christians enter into dialogue with those who uphold the trends of modern secular society. And what happens is that the church often loses sight of the larger question of Jesus Christ who straddles both the church and the world that he made. He is largely cast aside for a so called more tolerant approach. Although tolerance is usually one way.

This of course is nothing new. The identity of Jesus Christ is still the same scandal of Christianity that sets us apart from the world. Jesus is the one theme we cannot jettison, no matter what the benefit may seem, or what the temptation.

Which takes us to the third and final question. What does it mean to see, hear, touch, Jesus today? Can it happen?

John in his writing suggests that there will be a continuity of Jesus for all generations not just the first one.

In the fourth gospel John 14; Jesus promises that he will never leave his followers as ‘orphans’ and that those who love him and are obedient will become Christ’s new dwelling place.

In other words, John does not see Christ’s Ascension where he ascended into heaven as the termination of his presence among us. His spirit given to his followers is his own spirit. First John 3 says; ‘and this is how we know that he lives in us. We know it by the spirit he gave us.’

Is this a mystical experience or figment of the imagination running around inside our heads? No, John says that Jesus is real. We have heard, we have seen with our eyes, and our hands have touched him.

He goes to great lengths to let us know that Jesus is not a myth. John and his fellow disciples can say as witnesses that they lived with Jesus and studied him closely even touching him. They knew that Jesus was real not a phantom, not a vision, but God in human form.

John is at pains to try and convince us that Jesus is the Word of life and through him eternal life may be gained. If it wasn’t for people like John, Paul, Peter and others who committed their findings to paper for us to read in early manuscripts and later in the bible; possibly none of us would be here this morning.

John wants us his readers to hear this news because then we may have fellowship, both with him and with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
In effect John is a witness who testifies to these things. As we all know witnesses have a powerful effect on people. In a court of law for example the witnesses are key to a hearing.

If witnesses cannot be produced the case is often dropped. Hearing a story told by a person who was there holds much more weight than reading or hearing something second hand. It is why John is so keen for us to know that he was there, that he saw, and heard for himself.

We may not be first hand witnesses to Jesus life, death, and resurrection; but we can read from the first-hand accounts, and we are witnesses to what he continues to do in the world and in our lives today. He is still real and still alive.
Many I have no doubt can reflect on things that have happened in their own lives as a result of Jesus’s intervention.

Like the young lady who once prayed; ‘Lord, I am not going to pray for myself today. I am going to pray for others. But at the end of her prayers she added; and give my mother a handsome son in law’.

What about words from scripture that have spoken directly into my situation; a word that has helped reassure me about something; a word that has corrected my attitude. A word that has helped clear the clutter in my life.

A word that has guided me in a particular direction.

Jesus is the written word of the Bible and he is the one who lives out what is written here. He shows John and ourselves what this word looks like in reality. He is showing us what God is like in human flesh.

I have to say it’s a very good idea God came up with. I would never have dreamed up something like that.

What about reflecting on people getting Healed from sickness. The malady they had is no longer; and doctors can only conclude, I don’t understand this.

Or reflecting on lives of people that have been completely transformed. I was reading recently in the Gideon’s magazine of a former, 3 A’s person; she was angry, alcoholic, and an atheist. Now she is living for Christ with her demons behind her. How is this possible?

Or Angola; Angola is the name of the State penitentiary in Louisiana America. Its staggering to hear about what happened in that jail a number of years ago with the inmates and how hundreds of lives have been changed through the word of God.

One of the founders of Communism Karl Marx wrote; ‘the first requisite for the people’s happiness is the abolition of religion’………… John writes; ‘faith in Jesus Christ gives you a joy that can never be duplicated by the world.’ Two very different ideas of how we understand joy.

John simply but powerfully writes this letter to share Jesus with us and to testify that he has appeared as the word of life; to offer us fellowship, eternal life, and true joy.

Rev. Alan Wilson is a Presbyterian Minister in Northern Ireland, where he serves a large congregation, supported by his wife. Before he took up the call to serve Christ, he was in the Royal Ulster Constabulary for 30-years. He has two children and two grandchildren and enjoys soccer, gardening, zoology, politics and reading. He voted for Brexit in the hope that the stranglehold of Brussels might finally be broken. He welcomes any that might wish to correspond with him through the Contact Page of The Postil.
The photo shows, “Flevit super illam” (He wept over it), by Enrique Simonet, painted in 1892.