Karl Barth–The Epistle to the Ephesians

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Karl Barth–What a topic to tackle.  He is more than a man, for he is a subject, a whole realm of discussion.  Ranked by some as one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, he is despised by others for being a heretic.  His influence was great, but his legacy is and always will be under fire.

Here is the story of my slight connections with the esteemed Herr Doktor Barth:

I became a follower of Reformed theology around 1976.  I was not familiar with any theologians.  I had heard of Wesley, since I was a Methodist.  I knew of Martin Luther, but was unclear as to who he was.  Then I was suddenly pushed into the deep end of the pool and was surrounded by a such names as Hodge, Edwards, Calvin, Knox, Zwingli, Kuyper, Berkof, Lloyd-Jones, Rushdoony, Boettner, Van Til, Clark, Machen, Spurgeon, and more.  These were all the good guys; they were our team.

My main focus in reading quickly became fortifying my grasp of God’s sovereignty and the doctrines of grace.  I was buying and reading books like crazy.  One of these best sources was a place called Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company.  Each month, they sent out a one page (front and back) sheet advertising books.  At the bottom of the second page were the sale books.

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One such sale book was Karl Barth’s Theological Method by Gordon Clark.  I think I paid a dollar for the hardback copy of the book.  It went to my ever expanding shelf of books on theological matters and has relocated many times, but is still part of my meager library.

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Many years later, I bought Christianity and Barthianism by Cornelius Van Til.  I am sure I must have bought it because i) it was a book, ii) it was by Van Til, and iii) it was a big influence on R. J. Rushdoony.  It has lived its life among my other Van Til books.

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Then in some now-forgotten book purchase, I picked up a short biographical work on Barth by T. H. L. Parker.  I loved Parker’s biography of John Calvin, so I figured there was some worth to this book.

Thus, I was fully armed for any future confrontations with Barth’s theology and Barthians.  But I was living in southern Arkansas, teaching school in a rural public school and being active in two different Reformed churches in the area.  I encountered all manner of theological arguments and argued with many people holding a wide range of religious ideas.  BUT NOT ONCE DID I ENCOUNTER A BARTHIAN or even a person who had read or liked Barth.

One year, I was in search of quotes regarding the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  (I think it was in conjunction with a series of Sunday school lessons on the person and work of Jesus Christ.)  Having found great quotes by theological heroes, I thought I should snuff out a few enemy quotes.  To my surprise, I discovered that Barth believed in the resurrection of Christ.  As time went on, I found great statements by Barth on other topics.  I also began realizing his role in signing the Barmen Declaration and his opposition to theological liberalism.

While I still encountered writers who had serious disagreements with KB, I slowly realized that he was no simple “black and white” theological figure.  I probably have a half dozen or more books by Barth now.  But here is where I am in the process:

On the one hand, I know there are some serious flaws in his theology.  I am wary, suspicious, and untrusting of his writings in general.  What those flaws are, I cannot personally articulate.  I would be an easy knock-out in a debate with someone who had seriously read Barth.

On the other hand, I know that Barth is highly regarded, respected, and loved for his theological insights.  What those great insights are, I don’t know.  Barth is like a grand piano to me.  I know it is a fine instrument, but I don’t have the means of demonstrating it.

In terms of my position–not knowing much–I am a lot closer to many theology readers than one might think.

This past year, I received two review books that are new English publications of Barth’s writings.  The first was A Unique Time of God: Karl Barth’s WWI Sermons.  This book is published by Westminster John Knox Press.

This is a really useful study of the period when World War I began, meaning the late summer and fall of 1914.  Many German pastors and theologians jumped on the war bandwagon and heralded the Kaiser’s troops as they marched off to glory.  More experienced slaughtered and horrors than glory as that war turned into a four year long trench-based battle of attrition.  Neither the causes nor conduct of that war were Christian, God-glorifying, or even in the best interest of the nations involved.

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Barth’s work is a remarkable look at a man who went against the times, against many of his teachers from the past, and against his culture.  Pastor to pastor, I would tell him that he preached too many sermons in his opposition to the war.  This series basically lasted from August through December.  His church was in neutral Switzerland, but the congregation must have had a basic sympathy to the Germans.

While Barthian skilled theology students might enjoy seeing hints of Barth’s later theology in this work, I read it as a history student.  I thought it was a great example of a pastor confronting current events from the pulpit while primarily seeking to minister to his congregation’s spiritual needs.

Soon after reading the World War I sermons, I received a copy of The Epistle to the Ephesians by Barth.  This book is published by Baker Academic.

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The back cover and blurbs. The front cover is at the beginning of this review.

The first fifty pages of this book consists of essays by the editor, the translator, and two scholars who discuss the lectures, Barth himself, and where his Ephesian lectures fit into his larger corpus of writings.  Barth was largely an academic theologian.  He was part of the long respected German theological tradition.  Remember that men such as J. Gresham Machen and Benjamin Warfield went to Germany to study theology, and while they rejected the theological deviations, they wanted to gain the academic training offered there.

Translation, a distance of a century, and changing theological currents all add to the challenge of reading Barth.  I am not a theologian by training, experience, or profession.  My academic training is more centered on history, so I am out of my league on these matters.  Still, I read some theological heavies for the same reasons that I listen to classical music, try to understand great art, and dabble in reading the great philosophers.

From my years of doing pastoral work and teaching in a Christian school, I have tended to go to the more accessible, readable, easy-to-find help sort of writers.  Stranded on a desert island, I would prefer the books of Sproul, Piper, or Grant to those of Barth.  But there is the need for me to tackle Barth on occasion.

The heart of this book is a series of lectures Barth gave during a winter semester at the University of Göttingen in 1921-22.  Most of the lectures were focused on Ephesians 1.  In fact, Barth scribbled notes in the margins of his lecture notes indicating that the class was complaining that he was too slow in getting through the book.  They were right.  After devoting many lectures to the first chapter of Ephesians, he then gives a brief survey of the remaining five chapters.

While reading this book, I was continually having to go back to the beginnings of the lectures where the Greek and English texts were located.  I can recognize very few words in Greek, and the lectures were detailed expositions of the Greek texts.  (Thankfully, the Latin phrases were all translated in the end notes.)

This was a plodding read, but IT WAS WORTH THE EFFORT.  In my previous experiences, this book would have not helped me find the quick exegesis, pithy quote, or keen insight into a verse to be lifted and used in a sermon.  But it is a good source for slowly, carefully thinking through this most rich chapter of God’s word.

Look for the scholarly reviews if you need to know the more academic theological assessments of this book.  I will close, however, with a quote or two that I found inspiring and helpful.

“And how astonishing that when the gospel of Israel’s Christ was directed to the whole world, it displaced so many rival claims at the time and met with such success!”  page 60

“The praise of God to which Paul refers is not a matter of course; it tolerates no rivals.  Such praise is directed to God, the Father of Jesus Christ, who reveals himself in his hiddenness and is the creator of all things.  It is an act of knowledge, of repentance, of transformed thinking.”  page 84

“How could the praise of God consist of words alone?  Words are inadequate, but so is action.  We can only cover our faces (‘crever les yeux,’ Calvin) and give God the glory.”  page 84

“It is utterly impossible that what the hidden God accomplishes in the person will not also have the greatest visible consequences in that person’s life.  It is utterly impossible for faith not to be accompanied by good works, as Luther says.”  pages 98-99

“Forgiveness is not a matter of merely excusing a person; the one who is forgiven is also made obedient.  The rule of God does not refer only to the dynamics of God’s action; God’s acquittal effects a corresponding dynamic in the creature, whose action is completely dissolved, reconstituted, and established on a new foundation.”  page 106

“How can we understand the meaning of the blood of Jesus, of his suffering and action in the passion, apart from the resurrection, which reveals their meaning?”  page 107

These are just a few of the many fine statements (often a paragraph or more in length) found in this study.

Post Script:  Recent articles dealing with Karl Barth’s life have contained the inexcusable story of his long-term affair with his secretary.  In short, he had a bad marriage, and he and his secretary lived in a sinful relationship (with his wife’s knowledge and, to some degree, acceptance).  This story is not hearsay, innuendo, or unprovable assertions.  No doubt this clouds the case for reading Barth.  I don’t blame anyone who refuses to read him or these books I have reviewed simply for that reason.

At the time I got these books, the affair was only a rumor.  It pains me when I read beautiful statements by Barth and realize his own failing.  Lord have mercy on all His people.

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Word on Fire Classics

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Just exactly what is a classic?

There are as many answers to this question as there are books that are called classics.  Here are the best or most popular two answers:

“A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.”  Mark Twain

“A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”  Italo Calvino, The Uses of Literature

Definitions ranging from pithy to profound, from wise to witty, can be found easily enough.  The book Shelf Life by George and Karen Grant shares scores of great quotes on books and classics.  The book Invitation to the Classics, edited by Louise Cowan and Os Guinness, is a collection of essay/summaries on recommended classics, but it also contains an essay or two by Dr. Cowan on what constitutes a classic and why they matter.

I teach in a Classical Christian school.  People have been asking me and others for some years, “What is classical Christian education?”  Words like “classics” or “classical” add depth and luster to any advertisement for almost any item, whether it is a book, a school, a song, or a Coca-Cola. (Anyone remember the New Coke and Coca-Cola Classic fiasco?)

Concerning books (the heart of The Heavy Laden Bookshelf), discussions of classics always leads to lists and terms like “the literary canon.”  It is a fun literary joust when we all examine lists and argue about what was included or left out.  Take a jab at a classic and someone is sure to go on the attack.

When talking about classics, we have to recognize that there are many sub-listings that should fit under the broad term.  “Are you well read in the classics?”  That depends.  Do you mean the ancient works from Greek and Roman antiquity?  Or Medieval literature?  Or American novels?  Or do you mean something more specialized?  There are historical classics, military classics, science classics, or philosophy classics?

Here Twain’s saying help us.  As Twain wittily points out, the reward of a classic often comes in having completed the experience rather than the experience itself.  He was not above jabbing, mocking, and demeaning classics, but he has a good point.  The better and more lasting works are daunting.  Sometimes, they are impenetrable.  Often dull in comparison to the page turner on your nightstand.  They are frequently not easily mined, plowed, climbed, achieved, or appreciated.

Personal testimony:  The first time I read the Iliad, my thought was “That is the Iliad?”  I was not impressed.  Later I taught through it for the first time and still had a low opinion.  I thought it was overly repetitious, too long, and missing the important details, such as the Trojan Horse story.  A student in class remarked, “Mr. House sure likes this book.”  I smiled and nodded because it was “a classic,” but my inner thought was, “Not really.” It was during the third reading of the book, which was accompanied by a lecture from Dr. Louise Cowan and a session or two with Dr. Glenn Arbery that my eyes opened.

It was then that Calvino’s statement became an experience.  The Iliad began talking and revealing things to me and has never stopped.

In his book, To Light a Fire on the EarthBishop Robert Barron calls upon high school teachers (in a Catholic school) to read the serious classics in the Christian tradition.  He says,

“High school kids can handle a lot of serious stuff; so why aren’t they reading C. S. Lewis? Why aren’t they reading Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton?  Why aren’t they reading Aquinas, for that matter?  My nephew, he’s a smart kid, he’s a junior in high school, and he’s a math guy….Man alive, the complexity of the math books he’s dealing with….Why couldn’t we give him Augustine or Thomas Aquinas?….We dumbed it down out of this attempt to be relevant.”

As a teacher in a Protestant Classical Christian school, I am constantly wearied by the labor needed to teach the more serious stuff.  Why is it that kids know instinctively that physics and calculus are mental marathons, but they are quick to skip reading a book because it is not entertaining?  Weighty books are intricate math problems.  Math problems, by the way, are love stories with predictable solutions.

Bishop Barron has now taken a major step toward getting the classics he values into the hands of readers.  Word on Fire has launched a new series of Christian classics.  These Word on Fire Classics are handsomely cloth bound with a ribbon bookmark and charcoal sketches of the authors.  In other words, these books will adorn your living room, study, or office, and they add a touch of class to your bookshelves.

I am thankful for all the cheap reprints, reading copies, classroom editions, and dull covered books that contain great content.  But there is a place in the long slog toward Christian culture for having the right setting, nice chairs, stately bookshelves, elegant volumes, and an atmosphere that enhances the reading experience.  If you are living in a college dorm or a crowded house or other places, such a vision is for the future.  (Still, try to create a little space somewhere that highlights beauty along with truth and goodness.

These classics will send most readers out on some uncharted waters.  Classics are not necessarily designed to be mental comfort food, to be a confirmation of previously held thoughts, to be a mild sedative to the brain.  Reading a classic must call forth the words, “Yes, but…” from the reader continually.  When you need to be bolstered in your own convictions, read the dogmatic creeds and confessions of your faith.  And read books built upon those foundations.  Read the apologists who defend the basics.  Maybe that is what you need for a large part or all of your reading.

But the pursuit of a classical understanding of matters will involve mental risktaking.  When a confirmed Conservative, Reagan-Republican, Christian like me reads Marx’s Communist Manifesto, the initial thought is that this is simplistic rubbish.  But a deeper reading will unveil some of the context and complexity of what there was in Marx that appealed to readers in its time (and ours).  Now we still may resolve that it is rubbish (and I certainly do think so regarding Marx and Marxism), but there is a wider grasp that is needed to appreciate a different way of thinking.  (And as a Christian, I have to ask myself, “What was the Church saying or doing at this time to deal with the laboring masses?”)

So, the Word on Fire Classics are going to put us out on some waters that are uncomfortable for some Christian readers.  Let me briefly comment on two of the books in the series.

Confessions by Augustine.

Catholics and Protestants alike share a love, an adoration, for Augustine.  He is one of the chief theologians of all time.  The best introduction to the man is this volume–Confessions.  It has been called the first spiritual autobiography.  You will read the quote “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee” cited in many times and places.

It is a lengthy meditation, prayer, dialog between the author and God, and discussion of Augustine the pagan, the philosopher, the libertine, the rebel against Christ as he slowly and painfully searches for God.  Of course, he will, as is always the case, be the one who is actually being searched and found.

If one is to read only one work by Augustine this is it.  If one is to begin reading Augustine, this is it.  If one is examine the skimpiness and fluff of his or her own prayer life, this is the book to read.

Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton

G. K. Chesterton was one of the largest figures in all of Christian literature in every sense of the word.  He was physically huge.  Even larger and wider and more excpansive is the number and range of his books.  He wrote novels, short stories, poems, and epic poems.  He wrote biographies and histories.  He wrote commentaries on social trends and ideas.  He wrote defending the Christian faith.  Orthodoxy is his best known work.  Exceedingly quotable, deeply nourishing, mentally soaring, GKC is a feast all by himself.

I read this book some years ago and delight in the prospect of reading it again soon.  Before I read the book as a whole, I read selections from it and some of GKC’s discussions on his coming to faith during a time of trial and crisis in my life.  When no one else could seem to reach me in my depths (realizing that God was there, of course, all along), it was Chesterton who stopped by and ministered to me.

             

An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine by John Henry Newman and The Seven Storey Mountain are both unknown to me in their particular content.  I am familiar with both authors, but have not read much (maybe a few short selections) from either.  On to the uncharted waters for me.

This set of books is currently on sale.  Yes, it may be a bit late for it to arrive before Christmas day.  But why not celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas and buy it for someone or for yourself or for your family?

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Beautiful under the tree or on the shelf–Word on Fire Classics

Reading Habits and Helps

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If this were my room or study, it would not be nearly so open and empty.

Abandon hope all who read this!  Nothing works for everyone.  Nothing works all the time.  There are always more books than time.  We only remember 3 percent of what we read–at best.  Some books are too hard to read.  We are all too busy.  Reading is hard.  Life is short.  For some reason, we have to waste lots of time holding jobs, running errands, and doing stuff other than reading.  Speed reading is a myth for most.  Some authors we adore wrote upwards to a hundred or more books.  Reading translations restricts your experience of reading foreign authors.  And Faulkner’s middle section in “The Bear” which appears in Go Down, Moses is almost impossible to make sense of.  And Faulkner is easy compared to Herman Dooyeweerd.

Still with me?  Okay, I will share some of what I have picked up and learned about reading, reading habits, reading for knowledge, reading for pleasure, reading with a focus on study and mastery, and reading as a way of life.  My habits and patterns are not for everyone.  They don’t even really work for me!  But what I do has helped me get a few steps along the way.

First, I will take note of three books about reading.  I could expand this to ten or twenty, but three are enough.

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Today, I finished reading Shelf Life: How Books Have Changed the Destinies and Desires of Men and Nations by George and Karen Grant.  This was my third time to read the book all the way through.  It is light, entertaining, and easy to read, but filled with loads of wisdom (via dozens of quotes by dozens of authors) on books and reading.  It inspires and directs, but has some practical guidelines as to how to read, what to read, what to collect, and the like.

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Several times, I have read and taught from the book How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren.  I have been told that the original edition which was written solely by Adler is better.  The first several chapters of this book are indispensible.  It is funny (but I am not laughing) that we teach kids how to read in the early years, but then neglect teaching them how to read in the latter years.  Meaning, we teach them how to sound the words so they can read a book, but then don’t teach them enough about how to analyze, think about, and use books.

The reading lists at the back of this book are overwhelming and helpful.  The chapters on specific areas can be scanned or skipped, but the first several chapters need to be pre-read, read, and reread repeatedly.

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How to Read Slowly by James W. Sire probably strikes many as a book to avoid.  We all want to know how to zip through a book.  We want to be able to knock out War and Peace during a lunch break.  “I already read slowly.  Why do I want to read that book?”  Shut up! and read the book.  Yes, we all read slowly–we think–but this book has some helpful tools for what the subtitle says, Reading for Comprehension.

2.  Have a balanced diet.  Many years ago, William Hackett, an octagenarian at the time and the main book seller in Arkansas, told me, “You can’t just eat meat.  You need to have some dessert and other things.”  Four or five heavies are too many.  Meaning, if you are reading Calvin’s Institutes, Plato’s Republic, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, and Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason at the same time, you are either too smart to be reading this blog or you are wondering why you are failing as a reader.  Get thee to a salad bar and dessert table.

Read some fun stuff.  I have my dessert readings.  Sometimes, I don’t get to the desserts until after I have read the more serious or required readings.  For dessert I like narrative histories, biographies, and fun types of fiction.  Some of the fiction I enjoy (like the spy novels of Daniel Silva or the crime mysteries of C. J. Box) includes lots of murder and mayhem.  I enjoy it.  If Silva or Box were to write a book about grading test papers, I would be truly horrified.  Killing bad guys in a story is relaxing.

I love political histories.  I read lots of military history.  I love reading about the lives of political and military people.

Find some truly enjoyable writers.  Whether Lewis and Tolkien, Mark Twain and P. G. Woodhouse, P. J. O’Rourke and Rick Bragg, find those authors and types of books that are well written (hopefully) and enjoyable.

But balanced diet means you have to include the other more meaty, protein filled readings as well.

3.  Discover and carve out your prime reading times.  Some people will say things to me or about me like this:  “You must read all the time.”  Nope.  I devote an hour or so solely to reading in the mornings and an hour or so at night when I go to bed.  I get a few snatches–and I mean snatches–sometimes during the day.

As much as is humanly possible, nothing, meaning NO THING, intrudes upon, interferes with, or distracts me from the morning and evening reading times.

Callie the dog tries.

My wife always has at least one thing she has to tell me.

My kids no longer come in the room crying, but they do come in the room (at night more than morning) to tell me something.

But mainly, I have my hand to the plow and my eyes fixed upon the furrow.

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4.  Teach yourself to get through a book–from beginning to end.  One of the main and hardest lessons I teach in school is this:  Finish the book.  Even parents will object and tell their kids to make sure they are comprehending and remembering what they read.  I am all for comprehension and remembering.  But step one is perseverance and completion.  There are times when books have to be jettisoned, started over, or slowed down.  But generally, my approach is a FORCED MARCH  through to the end.

The point is to embrace the discipline of reading in spite of all obstacles.  Obstacles include distractions, weariness, lack of comprehension, and time.  FINISH THE BOOK.

One of the best helps for this discipline is reading fiction that is engaging.  Meaning, you teach yourself that you have to find out how the story ends. (But don’t cheat and skip to the ending.)

5.  When necessary, make use of every little help you can get.  When I am struggling with a book, I will sometimes go and read a short review of it.  I read what Amazon readers have said.  I go to Goodreads and glean from the reviews.  I look for Sparknotes, Cliffnotes, etc.  I ask others what they think of the book.  This means little helps.  Don’t buy the 500 page book on Plato’s Republic to help you get through his much shorter work.  But if you find Plato’s Republic for Dummies in an abridged edition, read it.

When I was reading Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot  some years ago.  I was struggling to follow the story.  Each night I would read a chapter or so.  The next day at work, I would look up that chapter on the Sparknotes website.  This was like talking to a friend who had read the book.  Sometimes I realized that I had missed something vital in the chapter.  Occasionally, I was right on target.

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5.  Be reading several books at a time.  I really already covered this in point 2 above.  Unless you are completing a book every day or so, you will likely need to have anywhere from two to twenty books you are reading from.  Yep, some will get abandoned and left behind.

6.  I usually read in chunks of 10 pages a day from each book I am currently working through.  Or I read a chapter a day.  The ten page goal is my go-to setting for the more challenging reads.  If the book takes off and I am galloping through it, great.  If not, ten pages gets you through 300 pages in a month.  It works for me.

Again, sometimes books with chapters around 12 to 20 pages get read by chapters.

7.  This morning I read from four different books.  Since I am out of school today, I was able to read a bit more from each one than usual.  There was a fifth book I tried to read from, but my mind was too zapped at that time.  The book Long Before Luther was too much like the book I had just finished reading from (Reformation Thought by Alistair McGrath).

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Before the day is over, I will read from at least three more books, God willing.

8.  Concerning note taking, underlining, and highlighting:  I never highlight any more because highliters tened to bleed through the pages or fade.  They also ruin the look of the book when the highlighters’ colors are too strong.  I never underline in a really nice edition of a book.  I occasionally mark in the margins of  cheaper books or school related books with an “n.” for “note” or “n.b.” for “note well” or a check mark for something funny or witty or a “c.” for “consider and think about this” or a “q.” for a good quote (meaning a quote from another source).

Books I teach from–like my copies of The Iliad or The Unvanquished–may have lots of underlining, cross-references, and notes.

I love Moleskine notebooks for writing in.  But I don’t take time usually to write any or many good quotes in them.  My reading time is limited, so writing notes and quotes stalls the end result.

Please share any ideas you have that work for you.  This is not the final say-so on reading.

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Orcs and Hurons

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Long before Middle Earth was born in the mind of J. R. R. Tolkien, long before the fellowship of a band of unlikely travelers to Mordor, long before battles between Orcs and Hobbits, another imaginary world was created.  Both this imaginary world and the Tolkien world were rooted in history and in a sense of home and place.  Both envisioned shires that were or could have been unspoiled by the forces of conflict all around.  Both worlds were caught up in deadly battles.

In our day, we have grown fond of the author who creates a literary universe inhabited by characters we can love or hate, aspire to be like or loath for their likeness to our worst natures.  We long to know that the small niche we occupy in the universe could possibly open a door to a victory that will tip the scales of a cosmic war in favor of good.  We desire for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, with our efforts and prayers being a contributing factor.  And we long to love, to be loved, to have companions whose ties are more than common interests, but rather feelings stemming from the heart.

Tolkien witnessed a broken, ugly, ripped and torn world located in the trenches of World War I.  Pastures and fields of northern France were caught in the jaws of the war gods of modern metalic and explosive technology combined with a desire to destroy the order and unity of the older European culture.  Recovering from his war wounds (illnesses which took him away from the front and likely saved him from a battlefield death). Tolkien began imagining a world that came to life years later with the words, “In a hole in the ground lived a Hobbit….”

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But Middle Earth had its prequels in the world of literature.  One could go back as far and The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid, or to the worlds of King Arthur or Spenser’s Fairie Queene to find the precursers to Middle Earth.  However, a world that captured the imagination of Tolkien and whole legions of writers was found in the upper reaches of the British colony of New York.  The names are actual historical places and some of the events are historical.  The world itself was a created fiction that sprang from the mind and prolific pen of James Fenimore Cooper.

Cooper’s novels and writing style have not fared well in the modern world.  In that respect, he is in good company, alongside Sir Walter Scott, Herman Melville, John Fox, Charles Dickens, William Gilmore Simms, and others.  To make matters worse, Cooper has also had to sustain the most devastating literary attack of all time:  the sarcastic, cynical, cruelly witty, satorizing bombardment by Mark Twain.  Many who read a bit of Cooper’s books have then discovered Twain’s essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” and grant Twain the role of jury, judge, and executioner.  That is an overly hasty judgment, to say the least.

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Cooper was the father of many trends in literature.  He wrote the first sea novel–The Pilot.  Thus, he spawned genre that would lead to books like Moby Dick and to series like the Horatio Hornblower novels and the Aubrey-Maturin by Patrick O’Brian.  He wrote the first spy novel–The Spy.  This became the first of a genre that still excites readers and has engaged the writing focus of authors such as John Buchan, John LeCarre, Daniel Silva, Brad Thor, and Olen Steinhauer.  He wrote the first literary series–the five volumes called The Leatherstocking Tales.  Series novels, that is, novels that return again and again to the same character, now account for such favorite series as The Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter books, and the works of Rick Riordan.  He wrote the first “westerns,” which would include several of his books, but particularly The Prairie.  From Zane Gray to Louis L’Amour to a whole range of authors, the western continues to be a favorite type of novel.

More important, Cooper was the first to make use of the American continent as a setting, American history as a context, and the relations between the white European settlers and the Native American/Indian tribes as a theme.  The richness of this land, this cultural experience, and the conflicts–social and political–here in the United States became Cooper’s best remembered literary legacy.  Upstate New York during the late colonial and early national period became the forerunner of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or Wendell Berry’s Port William, Kentucky.

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But it was Cooper’s Indians who made the biggest impact on the American way of thinking.  It is easy to assume that Cooper, living in the early 1800’s, was living right in the mix of white man and Indian conflicts.  But for him, where he was and where he lived, the issues had long since been settled.  Indian wars, conflicts, abuses, and interactions were still happening in the mid-west and west, but the Indian populations of Cooper’s area, including his home base in Cooperstown, had suffered the fate of his fictional Mohicans and Delawares.

Sure, Cooper sometimes romanticized Indians.  He was writing Romantic novels in the age of literary Romanticism.  No doubt he depended on stereo-types, distortions, misunderstood legends, and cultural fictions.  What else can we expect?  If I were to write fiction set in the American south of the early 1900s, it would contain just as many inaccuracies.  All fiction depends on a host of character-types.  But the significant thing is that Cooper wrote about Indians.

In The Last of the Mohicans, the Delaware tribe, of which the Mohicans are a part, are a noble, but defeated people.  The hostile Hurons regularly refer to them as being “women” and “dogs.”  They have been culturally demolished, demoted, and depressed as a people.  Compare them to the Polish people during the first half of the twentieth century (conquered and divided by Nazis and Soviets, then completely dominated by Nazis, and then “liberated” by the Red Army and oppressed until the 1980s).  Cooper’s main character, Natty Bumppo, loved and learned from the Delawares.  Although Natty reminds us about a thousand times that he is “a man without a cross” (racially white, not mixed) and that he has white man gifts and not Indian gifts, he has high regard for the tribe that to some extent adopted him.

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Closest to him is his companion, the quiet, unflinching, steady Mohican chief Chingachgook, son of one Uncas and father of another Uncas and the descendant of the great Unamis–the Turtle.  A man of few words, a good friend to have in the woods, a sure source of rescue when captured, Chingachgook was the model of the good, noble savage.  Killing and scalping an opponent was all in a day’s work for him, but he was a ture friend and brother to Natty Bumpo.  Nicknamed “Le Gros Serpent” or the Big Serpent, Chingachgook has the legendary stealth and threat of the creature he is compared to.

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By the way, unlike several of the film portrayals of this pair of frontiersmen, Hawkeye/the Pathfinder/Scout/Deerslayer/La Longue Carabine and Chingachgook are roughly the same age.  The Mohican is likely a few years older, but they are contemporaries, not father and son figures.

 

The stock bad guys in several of Cooper’s books are the Hurons.  Cooper or Natty Bumppo will often refer to them as Mingos, Maquas, Iroquois, or even imps, they are usually up to no good, in the pay of the French, and on the war path.  When a Huron shows up in one of the Leatherstocking Tales, be assured that within four or five pages, some deviltry will be going on, unless Hawkeye and the Serpent arrive to clear the decks.

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The more sensitive literary critics of our time are quick to remind of how Cooper’s good/bad dichotomy is simplistic.  But then what literary series or movie or television drama does not have bad guys?  When it is the government, big business, the Russians in the past, conservatives in some twists, or foreign terrorists, bad guys have to…be bad.

Even with his black and white portrayals, Cooper none the less gives some credence to why the perfidious Hurons seem to have woken up on the wrong side of the buffalo robe every day.  Magua, the most malacious of Hurons, had endured some pretty severe treatment from the British and the his own tribe.  The recurring theme is that the Indian tribes (whether Huron, Delaware, or other groups) found themselves in the midst of several European conflicts (particularly between French and British empires) in which they–the Indian people–were losers, no matter what.

Many years after Cooper’s novels were written, an English author found Cooper’s Redskins fascinating.  They were distant, historical, mythical, and useful.  In his own mind and works, they were a shadow, pattern, archetype for his own race of evil creatures–the Orcs.  Tolkien’s various people groups–Hobbits, Elves, Orcs, and others–each had their complex history and interactions.  They were what they were due to both nature and nurture.  Orcs were pretty nasty and foul in both actions and moods, but there was something human and in need of redemption in them.  Not that the Rings Trilogy dealt with the redemption of Orcs, but rather it was that killing Orcs was still a sad, though necessary, business.  “There but for the grace of God, go I,” one might say when thinking of Orcs.

By the “accident of geography,” or rather the “decrees of God,” we are living in the freedom-centered American world.  But had I been born in Germany, Russia, China, Yemen, or the jungles of who knows where in the not-so-distant past, what is the likelyhood that I would have been a middle class, church going, Reformed Protestant, conservative Republican school teacher?

There is always a battle for Middle Earth, for sanity, decency, Western Civilization, Christendom.  The warriors are a combination of forces made up of a number of factors.  Some fight for the right to live lifestyles I find abhorent.  Some envision a return to Medieval Christendom as a worthy model; others look to the Old South, Geneva during the Reformation, Britain during the Golden Age of Empire, the short-lived Kennedy/Camelot vision, a one world order, a society of agrarian values and villages, or a benevolent Big Brother state.  We have no concensus over what “Let’s Make America Great Again” would mean or look like.

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The way to our visions or hopes or Utopias is hindered by Hurons and Orcs.  Rename them what you will.  As long as there is a tale told by some storyteller of a frontiersman named Hawkeye and his faithful Mohican friend or a fellowship of Hobbits with an Elf, a Dwarf, and a future King, there is hope.

This Post is dedicated to two of my favorite citizens from Middle Earth who are seen below discussing strategies for the next phases of the battle for the Shire:

George, an Elf in the Tolkien sense:  A towering warrior and freedom fighter for what is best in Middle Earth.

Julian (“Shep”): A Hobbit, albet a tall one.

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