There is so much inherent virtue built into Middle Earth that even an outline-based narrative, such as Rings of Power, should allow some beauty to bleed through. While it will never repeat the moral depths of the original narrative, I will watch and hope for more.
Rings of Power is unquestionably a beautiful TV show. You can see where the enormous budget went – production quality. After watching the first two episodes, I was in awe of the visuals. The elven kingdoms and dwarf mines are captivating. They are as good as, if not better, than Peter Jackson’s masterpiece from the turn of the century (my favorite film of all time). Yet, for all of the visual splendor that Rings of Power yields, the story thus far feels a bit hollow and manufactured for this Tolkien fan. I think it’s because the writers are products of a generation that doesn’t understand the substance and significance of transcendent virtue.
My theory is bolstered by the initial reviews for The Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power are mixed. While critics seem generally pleased, Tolkien fans remain cynical. As of writing this article, Rotten Tomatoes presented 84% approval from critics but only 39% approval from fans; this is a notable disparity. Why? Because whether they know it or not, the devoted Tolkien fan craves the depth, soul, and virtue that only the narrative based on the original novels can produce; the bar is set very high.
Recently, I was challenged to compare and contrast the terms “values” and “virtues”. While the task seemed trite at first, after some consideration, I was struck by how opposing the two words are and how interchangeably they are used in our current day. Admittingly, I have been guilty of treating the two as synonyms in many cases. Yet, in Western Philosophical Classical thought (which Tolkien would have been very skilled in) virtue is understood to be an alignment of the person’s will and actions with that of the divine. In contrast, values are things a person believes. The former is vertically aligned, and the latter is horizontally focused, a byproduct of our post-modern age.
Why does this matter? Because what makes Tolkien’s epic, The Lord of the Rings, work so well is that the primary thrust of the narrative is guided by virtue and not personal pragmatism. Subsequently, Jackson’s films did a wonderful job of capturing this. Consider for a moment the virtues that drove the actions of the primary characters in Tolkien’s narrative. Aragorn sought justice, peace, and honor. Samwise displays unwavering fortitude. Frodo exhibits self-sacrifice, temperance, courage, and wisdom. The characters often do the right thing, because it is the right thing as defined by God’s law and objective moral code. In the face of pure evil, they maintain a deep conviction that goodness and providence will prevail over darkness. It is these virtues (and many others I didn’t name) that make the novel so influential, timeless, and epic.
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By R. R. Reno — 6 months ago
Written by R. R. Reno |
Friday, June 10, 2022
What we are witnessing in today’s transgender mania is the next step of “progress”: securing our freedom, not from inherited inhibitions and social censure, but from nature, and, indeed, from reality, which is why so much energy goes into controlling what people can and cannot say. This ambition to transcend the constraints imposed by nature sends transgenderism down the same spiritual grooves as transhumanism and doctor-assisted suicide. Both are body-freedom projects. If we see this connection, I believe we can better understand why transgenderism has gained so much influence so quickly.
The progressive imagination envisions a limitless future. Karl Marx thought that modern industrial production marked a new epoch in human history. Amid explosive growth during the industrial revolution, he thought we were on the cusp of material abundance. Marx argued that if we rejected the artificial scarcity of competitive capitalism (revolution!), then the curse of Adam, the necessity of hard labor to ensure survival, could be overcome. In a world of limitless plenty, each would be free to develop every aspect of his personality without limits. In the communist utopia we could “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening,” while adopting the critical pose of the philosopher after dinner.
In 2022, our societies produce more wealth than Marx ever imagined. But few still believe the promise of communism and its dream of freedom from material limits. Aside, perhaps, from proponents of Modern Monetary Theory, most of us accept the enduring role of scarcity in economic life. Yet the dream of a limitless future has not gone away. By my reading of the last half century or more, it has migrated out of economics and class politics into dreams of a cultural revolution. Put simply, having given up on class war as a way to achieve a classless society, progressives now devote themselves to a bio-cultural war on the limits imposed by our bodies.
The 1960s were a key moment in this pivot from what was then called “the Social Question” to concerns about our bodies. For millennia, sex was bound up with marriage and children. This cultural link is rooted in biological reality: the intrinsic fertility of sexual intercourse. But the Pill and new moral norms in the Sixties severed the connection between sex and reproduction. Why, our cultural revolutionaries asked, should sex be limited by fertility? Second-wave feminism reinforced this trend, as did gay liberation. The first insisted that a woman’s body must not limit her professional and personal choices. The latter insisted that the biological reality of our sexual organs should not limit our choice of sexual partners.
In traditional cultures, society justifies itself by appealing to memory. Leaders claim to remain true to ancestors, origins, and divine laws. Modern culture is different. “Progress” is central to the story we tell about ourselves. And in this story progress means overcoming limits. For this reason, the power of the Pill to free women from fertility was widely embraced, and it served as the technological foundation for women’s liberation. The expansion of options for women, along with changes that freed homosexuals from censure, was welcomed as an extension of our long tradition of promoting political freedom from arbitrary power.
But overcoming our bodies is not the same as rebelling against kings or protesting against racial discrimination. In its essence, the American Revolution was a political act, as was the Civil Rights Movement. Neither one redefined marriage, altered what it means to be a parent, or rethought the natural family. By contrast, the sexual revolution, which is still unfolding, is metaphysical in character. As a rebellion against nature’s constraints, it touches on every aspect of what it means to be human.
Some people wonder why transgender issues got added to the agenda of gay liberation. Not a few feminists, and some outspoken lesbians, raised their voices in protest. I think they are naive. “Progress” is a wheel that must keep turning. John Dewey was perhaps the most influential progressive American intellectual of the twentieth century. At every step, he championed “boundless possibility.” Dewey recognized that progress must be open-ended. It seeks ever to overcome “fixed limits.”
In view of this conception of progress as the never-ending quest for “boundless possibility,” we should not be surprised that we are being stampeded into affirmations of transgender ideology. It is the next step that overcomes the constraints imposed by our bodies. If our sexual organs should not limit our freedom to have sex with whomever we wish—and please note this assumption underwrites a permissive sexual ethic for heterosexuals, not just homosexuals—why should biological facts limit our understanding of ourselves as men or women?
Unlike earlier stages of the sexual revolution, which can be framed as liberations from traditional cultural constraints rather than as metaphysical rebellions, transgenderism concerns our bodies in an open and direct way. The hormones at work in the Pill operate invisibly. The hormones used to block puberty effect changes that all can see, and gender-reassignment surgeries even more so. For this reason, transgenderism has tremendous metaphysical significance as a symbol of successful rebellion. Its open warfare on the body promises final victory.
This fact explains why progressives are so fiercely loyal to transgender ideology. By forthrightly and blatantly denying that our bodies can and should limit our sentiments, feelings, and choices, transgenderism puts an exclamation mark on the sexual revolution. It also brings into the open the theological ambition of progressive cultural politics. At Woodstock and Stonewall, the push to revise moral norms aimed to achieve sexual freedom. But hormonal therapies applied to children have nothing to do with sexual desire, and subsequent surgical interventions mutilate the organs that are capable of sexual stimulation. Except in the case of middle-aged men who “transition,” the transgender phenomenon is not about sex (and I argue below that even for the middle-aged men it’s not, finally, about sex). Instead, what we are witnessing in today’s transgender mania is the next step of “progress”: securing our freedom, not from inherited inhibitions and social censure, but from nature, and, indeed, from reality, which is why so much energy goes into controlling what people can and cannot say.
This ambition to transcend the constraints imposed by nature sends transgenderism down the same spiritual grooves as transhumanism and doctor-assisted suicide. Both are body-freedom projects. If we see this connection, I believe we can better understand why transgenderism has gained so much influence so quickly.
Death is the greatest limit. And by this I do not mean simply our final moment. Rather, I take “death” to mean the downward spiral of life toward lifelessness. As someone on the far side of sixty, I’m aware that my body’s vitality is waning. Given my own experience, I’m rather confident that Bruce Jenner and other aging men embrace transgenderism as a therapy. Like Viagra, getting breasts is a technological way of revitalizing the body. Like Botox and cosmetic surgeries, it seeks to hit the pause button on aging. Very few progressive men or women want to mutilate themselves. But they are enchanted by the symbolism of transgenderism. This is especially true of Baby Boomers, for whom agelessness has become a singular preoccupation.
Boys can become girls and girls can become boys! This claim is now obligatory, and contradicting it brings opprobrium. As an assertion, it promises to liberate us from our bodies, allowing us to wiggle free of nature’s limits, of which death is the most dire. Transgender ideology says that gender is not our bodily sex—it is merely “assigned at birth.” This conceit encourages us to imagine that our bodily demise, too, is “assigned” rather than a given, and thus death can be “reassigned” rather than suffered. Doctor-assisted suicide should be understood as mortality reassignment. Our bodies do not determine when we die—we choose, just as a man can determine that he is a woman. Although transhumanism remains a techno-utopian dream, it promises more than “reassignment.” The ambition is to secure the indefinite deferral of death.
The promise of immortality is alluring, especially to educated, rich, and progressive Americans who imagine that they deserve every advantage in life, including the freedom to manage their mortality, if not escape it altogether. To my mind, this allure explains why activists, doctors, mental health protfessionals, politicians, and other adults countenance the mutilation of young people. Like Aztec elites, they sacrifice others to keep alive their theological ambition of overcoming all limits, even and especially those imposed by their own bodies, which are doomed to wear out.
I have emphasized the modern belief in “progress,” which underwrites never-ending efforts to overcome limits. Yet, the collective imagination of the West is shifting. Today’s watchword is “sustainability,” not progress. This preoccupation concerns more than the climate. Lots of responsible people anguish over populist and authoritarian threats. They establish websites and write endlessly, urging us to commit ourselves to the singular task of sustaining liberal democracy and the “rules-based international order.” This decidedly non-progressive call to conserve seems merited, given shifting public opinion. Polling suggests that young people believe their lives will be worse than their parents’ have been. Some are convinced that environmental catastrophe is around the corner.
The upshot is paradoxical. On the one hand, our collective mood is sour. The most we seem able to hope for is that tomorrow won’t be worse than today. That’s the spiritual meaning of “sustainability.” On the other hand, progressivism cultivates explicitly metaphysical and theological ambitions. Yes, liberals press for increases in the minimum wage and other traditional goals. But the lawn signs in university towns announce, “Hate has no home here.” This sentiment amounts to reversing the fall of man and proclaiming the kingdom of God. And as I have argued, today’s progressive cultural politics seeks to overturn the authority of nature. Thus we have at once widespread resignation—and God-like ambition.
It’s really very strange. One hundred thousand people die of opioid overdoses in a single year, and elites throw up their hands and do nothing. Meanwhile, they put untold millions into transgender activism and insist that the fullest resources of the medical-industrial complex must be employed to attain its goals.
I could go on with other strange paradoxes. But to my mind, the weird way in which American progressivism has been swallowed by a cultural politics that now revolves around transgender ideology is revealing. It makes evident that powerful elements of our society are engaged in an open war on reality. Ze and Zir are easy to mock and ridicule. But the now-ubiquitous use of “them” as a singular pronoun shows how deeply all of us are now implicated in the rebellion against bodily reality.
By Seth Yi — 1 year ago
In Luke 13, Jesus responds to two recent tragedies with a sobering and eternal warning that we all need to heed carefully lest we stumble upon the Rock of offense (1 Pet 2:8). In the first instance, Pilate, no friend of the Jews, mingled the blood of some Galileans with their sacrifices (v. 1). Even though Luke does not explicitly identify who these Galileans were, based on Pilate’s disdain for Judaism and the involvement of “sacrifices,” it is reasonable to think that they were Jews worshipping at the temple. Moreover, it is likely that it happened around Passover since that was the only festival when the laity could slaughter their own animals. To the disappointment of the crowd, likely composed of Jews, Jesus’ reaction to the tragic event is unsympathetic at best and at worst callous. Surprisingly, He does not applaud them as martyrs or unsuspecting heroes. Furthermore, Jesus does not address the political, social, or national issue, but turns the sensation of the event to a call for repentance. To Jesus, what is supremely significant about this sudden loss of lives, regardless of the cause, is that it serves as a wakeup call to the living of the coming judgment and eternal death to all unrepentant sinners.
Then in v. 4, Jesus recounts another recent event where 18 were suddenly killed in an accident. Based on the Jewish historian Josephus (Jewish War 5.145), the 18 victims were likely Jews in Jerusalem. In like manner, Jesus expresses little compassion about this tragedy but reiterates the warning pronounced earlier, “repent or perish!” His response (v. 5) is identical to the first except the word “likewise” (Greek hōsautōs rather than homoios) which is slightly stronger in force and suggests by the repetition a more emphatic call to respond (BAGD 899). Jesus deliberately uses the passions that surround these tragic deaths to warn them about the need for repentance. In so doing, Jesus highlights how tragedy exposes the fragility and unpredictability of life and thus the eternal significance of being right with God. Therefore, no matter how protected or sheltered one’s life may appear to be (clearly not as much as we assumed before COVID-19), death shows no favoritism. Whether we are prepared for it or not, there is an appointed time for everyone to die and face judgment (Heb 9:27).
In both of these instances, what Jesus focuses on is not the occasion, circumstances, or timing of a person’s death, but the inevitability of eternal death for all those who do not repent. In other words, there is a far greater calamity that awaits those who do not repent and trust in Christ than any untimely, sudden death that one could suffer in this life. The Greek word for “perish” (vv. 3 and 5), apollymai, generally means to destroy, to ruin, to die, but here Jesus uses it with the force of eternal destruction (as in the case of Matt 10:28, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Compare also 1 Cor 1:18, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” “Perishing” is antithetically parallel to “being saved” which clearly has an eternal significance.). The death that Jesus warns about is the wages of sin which the soul must pay for eternity. Jesus believes that repentance is so essential in this life that He accentuates these two tragic events to warn His hearers about it. For those who did not have an eternal perspective on life, Jesus’ word would have appeared cold and uncaring.
An important note to make at this point is that repentance is not merely a one-time act that happens at conversion but a way of life. Even though believers are justified by faith in Christ, they continually war against indwelling sin in this life (Rom 7:13-25). Therefore, as disciples of Christ, the call for persistent repentance is a must (Luke 9:23). In writing to a group of churches, John declares in 1 Jn 1:8, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Moreover in Rev 2:1-7, Jesus confronts the church in Ephesus for abandoning their “first love”—their fundamental love for Christ and for one another. Consequently, Jesus declares to them, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” In the same way, we must continue to repent of our sins lest our hearts become dull and hardened (Mt 13:15) and fall short of finishing the race (2 Tim 4:7-8).
By Vanessa Le — 4 months ago
By giving expression to our most bleak feelings, Psalm 88 comforts us in a curious way. It shows us that we are not alone in our doubts, confusions, and complaints. Not only have other believers felt the same things, but God has inscripturated those sentiments to assure us that it is legitimate to feel such things and to pour them out in prayer.” Psalm 88 may well have comforted our Savior during His sufferings.
Psalm 88 is the darkest Psalm in the Book of Psalms. The LORD is only mentioned in three different places; once in a prayer of belief: “LORD, God of my salvation … incline Your ear to my cry” (vs. 1-2), and twice in an urgent plea for rescue which has gone unheard: “LORD, I have called daily upon You … LORD, why do You cast off my soul?” (vs. 9, 14). Perhaps you are experiencing a dark time of grief right now. As the darkness and sorrow threaten to overwhelm you, look to Psalm 88 as a guide for your thoughts and prayers and a beacon of hope in the midst of a confusing, threatening, or unchanging providence.
Although we do not know the circumstances that inspired Psalm 88, verses 1-9 contain many words that paint a picture of real, deep, raw, and personal grief. The Psalmist complains that his life draws near to the grave; he is adrift; he is cast into the lowest pit. Darkness is his constant companion. Four verses of Psalm 88 use the imagery of water to create a picture of complete and hopeless despair. The Psalmist has been laid in the depths; God has afflicted him with all His waves; he is shut up and cannot get out; terrors cut him off like water, and have engulfed him. The water experience in this Psalm is not a family-friendly outing to the beach. Rather, it is the terror of drowning with no one nearby to deliver. There is no escape.
Images of Raw Grief
Psalm 88 brings to mind one of the greatest sorrows that can befall us: a parent experiencing the death of their child. Almost two years later, the images remain engraved in my memory. Grown men weeping shamelessly. A mother, weak and wounded in every way – physically, emotionally, and spiritually – being helped to the graveside of her child. The finality of the dirt being thrown onto the casket. The awful feeling that everything about this scene is wrong.
Sometimes the enemy of death seems to come as a relief – after a full life well-lived, an ailing grandparent is taken home to glory. At other times, the enemy of death comes as an unexpected shock, a nighttime horror, a sorrow that will be carried with us to our own graves.
Grief Remembered: Naomi
The Bible doesn’t sugar-coat grief and despair. In fact, many of our favorite characters are surrounded with sorrow, which doesn’t go away just because there’s a happy ending. A good example of this sorrow is Naomi, whose story is told in the book of Ruth.
We are told of Naomi’s loss in cryptic, non-descriptive terms. After departing her hometown to live in a foreign – and pagan – country, we are told, “Then Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died; and she was left, and her two sons” (Ruth 1:4). We aren’t told the nature of the calamity that took Naomi’s husband away; we don’t know how old he was; we don’t know what kind of marriage they had. We only know that his sons were not yet married, and that, after Elimelech’s death, both of the sons married women from their new country and lived there for about ten years. We are told, again in terse, unemotional language: “Then both Mahlon and Chilion also died; so the woman survived her two sons and her husband” (Ruth 1:5).
How did the death of her husband and two sons impact Naomi? We know that she grieved deeply. In fact, her grief was so great that she asked for her name to be changed. In Hebrew culture, names were of great importance: your name told a story and had important significance. “To the Hebrew way of thinking, to know a person’s name is to know his character, to know him. The name is the person.”When Naomi finally returned to her home country with her daughter-in-law in tow, the women of the town came out to greet her, calling, “Is this Naomi?” We are told the full distress of Naomi’s sorrow when she responds: “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the LORD has brought me home again empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the LORD has testified against me, and the Almighty has afflicted me?” (Ruth 1:20-21).