Teaching Tolkien’s “Leaf By Niggle”

Yesterday I tweeted:

Several of you have asked me about how I teach Leaf by Niggle. Here is a piece I published here last year:

Yesterday in Created and Called for Community (CCC) we read and discussed J.R.R. Tolkien’s short story “Leaf by Niggle.” Here is a summary of the plot from Wikipedia:

In this story, an artist, named Niggle, lives in a society that does not value art. Working only to please himself, he paints a canvas of a great Tree with a forest in the distance. He invests each and every leaf of his tree with obsessive attention to detail, making every leaf uniquely beautiful. Niggle ends up discarding all his other artworks, or tacks them onto the main canvas, which becomes a single vast embodiment of his vision.

However, there are many mundane chores and duties that prevent Niggle from giving his work the attention it deserves, so it remains incomplete and is not fully realised.

At the back of his head, Niggle knows that he has a great trip looming, and he must pack and prepare his bags.

Also, Niggle’s next door neighbour, a gardener named Parish, frequently drops by asking for various forms of help. Parish is lame and has a sick wife and genuinely needs help. Niggle, having a good heart, takes time out to help—but he is also reluctant because he would rather work on his painting. Niggle has other pressing work duties as well that require his attention. Then Niggle himself catches a chill doing errands for Parish in the rain.

Eventually, Niggle is forced to take his trip, and cannot get out of it. He has not prepared, and as a result ends up in a kind of institution, in which he must perform menial labour each day. Back at the home to which he cannot return, Niggle’s painting is abandoned, used to patch a damaged roof, and all but destroyed (except for the one perfect leaf of the story’s title, which is placed in the local museum).

In time, Niggle is paroled from the institution, and he is sent to a place “for a little gentle treatment”. He discovers that this new place is the country of the Tree and Forest of his great painting. This place is the true realisation of his vision, not the flawed and incomplete version in his painting.

Niggle is reunited with his old neighbour, Parish, who now proves his worth as a gardener, and together they make the Tree and Forest even more beautiful. Finally, Niggle journeys farther and deeper into the Forest, and beyond into the great Mountains that he only faintly glimpsed in his painting.

Long after both Niggle and Parish have taken their journeys, the lovely place that they created together becomes a destination for many travelers to visit before their final voyage into the Mountains, and it earns the name “Niggle’s Parish”.

We read “Leaf by Niggle” as part of our ongoing discussion of creation and its implications for the way we live as Christians.  Tolkien’s short story is about the ongoing work of creation.  As women and men created in the image of God we are called to participate in God’s creative work. In John Paul II’s encyclical Laborem Exercens he called Christians to the work of “co-creation.” (Tolkien used the term “sub-creation” to describe something similar).  We can view Niggle’s painting as his imperfect attempt at co-creation.  As inhabitants of a broken world scarred by sin, our efforts to create will always be imperfect.  Our finest art cannot express all the beauty of God’s holiness.  Throughout our discussion of “Leaf by Niggle” I tried to get students to put the story into conversation with Bruce Birch’s essay, “In the Image of God.”

There are several ways to approach “Leaf by Niggle” in a course like CCC. This became abundantly clear when I surveyed the room.  Several students wanted to talk about the tension between competing goods.  Niggle has a gift for painting, but he is constantly distracted by his needy neighbor Parish.  Though Niggle often complains privately about assisting Parish, and sometimes he finds him to be an annoyance, he never ceases to help his neighbor.  How do we balance our call to create–through art, writing, entrepreneurial innovation, scientific discovery, the cultivation of ideas, feats of engineering, sports or dance–with the everyday demands of service to others that might get in the way of our creative efforts?  This question made for some good discussion.

Some students brought up Niggle’s lack of preparation for his “journey.” They pointed out that Niggle was a procrastinator and easily distracted. When death arrived he could have been better prepared. A few students were disappointed in him.  They wished he had finished the painting.  Others were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for his lack of preparation for the journey because he was so busy helping Parish and his wife. Whatever the case, Niggle’s story prior to his journey seemed to elicit much anxiety among my students. This, I suggested, is the anxiety we all feel as inhabitants of a broken world.

But as anyone who has read “Leaf by Niggle” knows, the story does not end there. After his purgatory-type experience, Niggle is brought to a place of great beauty (Niggle’s Parish). Here he encounters his incomplete painting in all its fullness. Here his relationship with Parish is transformed.  The anxiety gives way to peace and happiness.  All of the brokenness is made whole (Shalom).

I cannot teach “Leaf by Niggle” apart from my understanding of Christian eschatology. Lately I have been studying the writings of the Anglican New Testament theologian N.T. Wright.  Wright’s books Surprised by Hope and History and Eschatology enabled me to teach Tolkien’s short story in a way I was unable to do when I last taught “Leaf by Niggle” eleven years ago.

A major theme of Wright’s work is what Revelation 21 calls the “new heaven and the new earth.” Wright challenges longstanding Christian beliefs about heaven. The ancient Jews and the early Christian church never understood heaven as place distinct from earth.  God will not destroy this earth and “rapture” believers to a heavenly realm.  Instead, he will transform this earth.  He will one day make the post-Genesis 3 world whole.  Shalom will be restored.  We will rise from the dead because Jesus Christ rose from the dead on Easter morning (I Cor. 15). The New Testament teaches that we will enjoy this new heavens and new earth with new resurrected bodies.  Read Romans 8: 18-25:

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

Wright argues that this new heaven and new earth, or the Kingdom of God, was initiated when Jesus rose from the dead. We still live in a broken world, but we get occasional glimpses of the new creative order when we see acts of compassion, justice, reconciliation, mercy, and love.  Moreover, when we do creative work that is good, beautiful, or based in truth we are, in some small way, building this new kingdom.  What might look unfinished or incomplete in this world will one day be made whole.  This, it seems to me, is what Tolkien is trying to teach us in “Leaf by Niggle.”

I closed my class on Monday with a quote from Wright’s book Surprised by Hope:

But what we can and must do in the present, if we are obedient to the gospel, if we are following Jesus, and if we are indwelt, energized, and directed by the Spirit, is to build for the kingdom. This brings us back to 1 Corinthians 15:58 once more: what you do in the Lord is not in vain.  You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire.  You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site.  You are–strange though is may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself–accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world.  Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness, every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world–all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make.

Niggle’s leaf, which ended up for a short time in a museum, became part of an entire landscape in the so-called “Niggle’s Parish.” Our creative work will one day contribute to the new creation as well. We don’t know how God will use it–1 Corinthians 13:12 says we see through a glass dimly–but it will be a part of the wholeness God will one day bring.

Here is Wright again:

What you do in the present–by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself–will last into God’s future.  These activities are not simply ways of making the present life less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we will leave it behind altogether (as the hymn  so mistakenly puts it, “Until that day when all the blest to endless rest are called away”). They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.”

Out of the Zoo: Joan of Arc

Annie Thorn is a junior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie reports on her class on the trial of Joan of Arc—JF

I loved The Lord of the Rings movies growing up. I watched them for the first time with my mom in elementary school–she skipped all the parts that were too scary or gross. I didn’t really know what was going on, but when I watched them again a few years later I understood more. After that, the Lord of the Rings saga became a staple in our family–for sick days, movie nights and especially long car trips in our Dodge minivan with built-in television screens. My cousin Abby, who is now a children’s librarian in the Grand Rapids area, even took my siblings and I to see a midnight showing of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug when we were in eighth grade.

One of my favorite parts in The Lord of the Rings movies is a scene from The Return of the King. As Frodo and Sam draw ever nearer to Mount Doom, Legolas, Gimli, and several other familiar faces are left to defend Minas Tirith from a giant army of orcs. In the middle of the heated battle, the evil Witch-King shows up and picks a fight with Eowyn, a noblewoman from Rohan who disguises herself as a man to defend Middle Earth. “You fool, no man can kill me,” the Witch-King rasps, with Eowyn in a choke-hold. “Die now.” A few seconds later, Eowyn escapes from the his grasp and rips off her helmet to reveal long golden hair. “I am no man!” she exclaims, thrusting her sword forward and striking the Ringwraith with a fatal blow.

As a self-proclaimed tomboy in elementary and middle school, I wanted to be like Eowyn when I grew up. I probably could have quoted her battle scene in my sleep. She was bold and strong and brave–the ultimate example of girl power. I think I liked watching Eowyn because I saw some of myself in her–but I also saw the kind of person I wanted to be.

At Messiah University this semester, I’m taking a class about a young woman who reminds me a lot of Eowyn–Joan of Arc. She wasn’t a noblewoman from Rohan, but a peasant girl from Domrémy, France. To be frankly honest, I didn’t know much about Joan before my class started, and I still  have a lot to learn. But in the month that I’ve studied her thus far, I’ve encountered a devout, loyal, fearless young woman who cast aside gender norms, listened to God’s voice, and tirelessly sought the greater good of France. Like Eowyn, Joan was brave, and she wore men’s clothes into battle too! There’s no magic ring or Witch-King in Joan’s story, but she did live in a world that looks a lot different from our own. To someone who loves history–and even to someone who doesn’t–Joan’s life is just as intriguing as a fantasy novel. Like Eowyn, I see some of myself in Joan of Arc–in her stubbornness and her passion for justice. Yet in Joan I also see the kind of person I want to become–someone who is bold, courageous and full of faith.

I am grateful to my professor, Dr. Joseph Huffman, for introducing me to Joan of Arc this semester. As we progress through the transcript of her trial in the coming weeks, I hope I will better comprehend with greater fullness the woman she was–a task which may never be completely achieved. Because unlike movie characters, historical figures are complex and ever-changing. They can’t be easily captured in a few words on a page or a few minutes on a movie screen. Nonetheless, we still have lots to learn from them.

Teaching Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens”

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On Monday we wrapped-up the “Creation” unit in Created and Called for Community.  I began the class with a review.  Over the last two weeks we read:

  • Genesis 1 and 2
  • Bruce Birch’s theological commentary on Genesis 1-3: “The Image of God.”
  • James Weldon Johnson’s poem on Genesis 1 and 2: “The Creation
  • J.R.R. Tolkien’s short story “Leaf by Niggle.”

We spent the last day of the Creation unit discussing Alice Walker‘s 1983 essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.” As is our custom, we began by “sourcing” the text.  Here is a taste of my colleague Kerry Hasler Brooks‘s introduction to Walker:

Alice Walker is a celebrated American writer, intellectual, and activist who has becoming a guiding voice of black feminism.  Drawing on her childhood in a small Georgia town gripped by the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow oppression, [Walker is the] author of more than 40 works of poetry, fiction, scholarship, memoir, and children’s literature.  Walker is best known for her 1982 novel The Color Purple.  This Pulitzer Prize-winning story celebrates the brave survival of black women assaulted by sexual abuse, racism, and poverty in the American South in the early twentieth century….

Walker’s essay added yet another layer of complexity to our understanding of creation and its implications for how we live. As we have seen, the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches that all human beings are created in the image of God and thus have dignity and worth. I was pleased to see how many students made a strong connection between this Christian view of human identity and their critiques of racism, poverty, and patriarchy.

But I wanted my students to take a deeper dive into the text. I encouraged them to consider Walker’s story in the context of what we have learned about the Christian’s call to creativity.  I reminded them of Tolkien’s idea of “sub-creation.” God created the world. We are created in the image of God.  We should thus be engaging in the advancement of God’s creation through our earthly labors.  As Tolkien taught us in “Leaf by Niggle” (with the help of the eschatological reflections of N.T. Wright that I introduced), our creative work, even if incomplete or unfinished, will one day be part of what the New Testament describes as the “new heavens and new earth.”

Walker’s African-American women–including her own mother–showed creativity amid the worst kinds of systemic oppression.  I asked the students to provide examples from the essay of how the creative work of these women revealed their dignity as God’s image bearers.  Racism, poverty, and patriarchy has tried to strip these women of their dignity. But their creative impulses, born of the divine spark within them, could not be squelched so easily.  The creative impulse is resilient within us because it comes from God. I wondered aloud if this impulse might even be a way to prove the existence of God.

Several students wanted to talk more about Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry.  Walker writes about the “contrary instincts” that Wheatley felt as both a writer  and “a slave, who owned not even herself”:

Yet because she did try to use her gift for poetry in a world that made her a slave, she was “so thwarted and hindered by….contrary instincts, that she…lost her health…”  In the last years of her brief life, burdened not only with the need to express her gift but also with a penniless, friendless “freedom” and several small children for whom she was forced to do strenuous work to feed, she lost her health, certainly. Suffering from malnutrition and neglect and who knows what mental agonies, Phillis Wheatley died.  

Wheatley wrote, she created, amidst her frailty and weakness. I asked students to bring Wheatley’s story into conversation with the final pages of Tolkien’s “Leaf by Niggle.” All of my students agreed that the obstacles to Niggle’s creative energies were trivial when compared to Wheatley’s, but there were also some similarities. If Tolkien and Wright are correct, one day her poetry, which brought some light to the darkness of eighteenth-century slavery in America, will contribute to the new heavens and the new earth that creation “groans” for in Romans 8.  And that light will be much, much, brighter.

Other students referenced Walker’s story about the “anonymous Black woman in Alabama, a hundred years ago” who stitched a quilt that now hangs (or at least it did in 1983) in the Smithsonian Institution. Walker writes, “Though it follows no known pattern of quilt-making, and though it is made of bits and pieces of worthless rags, it is obviously the work of a person of powerful imagination and deep spiritual feeling.” I have a few history majors in my courses so I asked them to tell us something about what life might have been like for Black woman in Alabama in 1883. They were gave their fellow students a quick lesson about segregation and Jim Crow America. This quilt teaches us, again, that race-based systems of oppression cannot kill the creative impulse. Why? Because such an impulse is part of our DNA as human beings created in the image of God. (Repetition is important in a class like this! 🙂 ).

Another student commented on Walker’s mother as a story-teller.  Here is Walker:

But the telling of these stories, which came from my mother’s lips as naturally as breathing, was not the only way my mother showed herself as an artist.  For these stories, too, were subject to being distracted, to dying without conclusion.  Dinners must be started, and cotton must be gathered before the big rains.  The artist that was and is my mother showed itself to me only after many years.

By this point in the class, several students were making connections between Walker’s essay and previous readings. The stories that Walker’s mother told have not only enriched Walker’s life, but will also enrich all of us in the coming Kingdom.

Walker ends the essay by describing how her mother brightened their “shabby house” with flowers and gardens:

I notice that it is only when my mother is working in her flowers that she is radiant, almost to the point of being invisible–except as Creator: hand and eye.  She is involved in her work  her soul must have.  Ordering the universe in the image of her personal conception of Beauty. Her face, as she prepares the Art that is her gift is a legacy of respect she leaves to me, for all that illuminates and cherishes life.  She has handed down respect for the possibilities–and the will to grasp them.  For her, so hindered and intruded upon in so many ways, being an artist has still been a daily part of her life.  This ability to hold on, even in very simple ways, is work black women have done for a very long time.

For Walker, her mother’s gardens left her with a “heritage of a love of beauty and a respect for strength.” In “search of my mother’s garden,” she writes, “I found my own.” This is a wonderful reflection on how we connect with our personal histories. It should also inspire the work of the historian as she mines the past in search of forgotten stories of human beings–African-American women in Walker’s case–who engaged in acts of creation amid suffering. (And by telling these stories in compelling ways the historian also participates in the work of sub-creation). Walker’s essay should also inspire Christian historians to seek out these untold stories and interpret them as small glimpses of a coming kingdom where shalom will replace the brokenness of the world in which we create.

One day, hopefully soon, we will all get to enjoy the beautiful gardens of Alice Walker’s mother.

Today we move to the “Community” unit. We will begin with Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.  Follow along here.

CREATE!: Teaching Tolkien’s “Leaf By Niggle”

LeafYesterday in Created and Called for Community (CCC) we read and discussed J.R.R. Tolkien’s short story “Leaf by Niggle.” Here is a summary of the plot from Wikipedia:

In this story, an artist, named Niggle, lives in a society that does not value art. Working only to please himself, he paints a canvas of a great Tree with a forest in the distance. He invests each and every leaf of his tree with obsessive attention to detail, making every leaf uniquely beautiful. Niggle ends up discarding all his other artworks, or tacks them onto the main canvas, which becomes a single vast embodiment of his vision.

However, there are many mundane chores and duties that prevent Niggle from giving his work the attention it deserves, so it remains incomplete and is not fully realised.

At the back of his head, Niggle knows that he has a great trip looming, and he must pack and prepare his bags.

Also, Niggle’s next door neighbour, a gardener named Parish, frequently drops by asking for various forms of help. Parish is lame and has a sick wife and genuinely needs help. Niggle, having a good heart, takes time out to help—but he is also reluctant because he would rather work on his painting. Niggle has other pressing work duties as well that require his attention. Then Niggle himself catches a chill doing errands for Parish in the rain.

Eventually, Niggle is forced to take his trip, and cannot get out of it. He has not prepared, and as a result ends up in a kind of institution, in which he must perform menial labour each day. Back at the home to which he cannot return, Niggle’s painting is abandoned, used to patch a damaged roof, and all but destroyed (except for the one perfect leaf of the story’s title, which is placed in the local museum).

In time, Niggle is paroled from the institution, and he is sent to a place “for a little gentle treatment”. He discovers that this new place is the country of the Tree and Forest of his great painting. This place is the true realisation of his vision, not the flawed and incomplete version in his painting.

Niggle is reunited with his old neighbour, Parish, who now proves his worth as a gardener, and together they make the Tree and Forest even more beautiful. Finally, Niggle journeys farther and deeper into the Forest, and beyond into the great Mountains that he only faintly glimpsed in his painting.

Long after both Niggle and Parish have taken their journeys, the lovely place that they created together becomes a destination for many travelers to visit before their final voyage into the Mountains, and it earns the name “Niggle’s Parish”.

We read “Leaf by Niggle” as part of our ongoing discussion of creation and its implications for the way we live as Christians.  Tolkien’s short story is about the ongoing work of creation.  As women and men created in the image of God we are called to participate in God’s creative work. In John Paul II’s encyclical Laborem Exercens he called Christians to the work of “co-creation.” (Tolkien used the term “sub-creation” to describe something similar).  We can view Niggle’s painting as his imperfect attempt at co-creation.  As inhabitants of a broken world scarred by sin, our efforts to create will always be imperfect.  Our finest art cannot express all the beauty of God’s holiness.  Throughout our discussion of “Leaf by Niggle” I tried to get students to put the story into conversation with Bruce Birch’s essay, “In the Image of God.”

There are several ways to approach “Leaf by Niggle” in a course like CCC. This became abundantly clear when I surveyed the room.  Several students wanted to talk about the tension between competing goods.  Niggle has a gift for painting, but he is constantly distracted by his needy neighbor Parish.  Though Niggle often complains privately about assisting Parish, and sometimes he finds him to be an annoyance, he never ceases to help his neighbor.  How do we balance our call to create–through art, writing, entrepreneurial innovation, scientific discovery, the cultivation of ideas, feats of engineering, sports or dance–with the everyday demands of service to others that might get in the way of our creative efforts?  This question made for some good discussion.

Some students brought up Niggle’s lack of preparation for his “journey.” They pointed out that Niggle was a procrastinator and easily distracted. When death arrived he could have been better prepared. A few students were disappointed in him.  They wished he had finished the painting.  Others were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for his lack of preparation for the journey because he was so busy helping Parish and his wife. Whatever the case, Niggle’s story prior to his journey seemed to elicit much anxiety among my students. This, I suggested, is the anxiety we all feel as inhabitants of a broken world.

But as anyone who has read “Leaf by Niggle” knows, the story does not end there. After his purgatory-type experience, Niggle is brought to a place of great beauty (Niggle’s Parish). Here he encounters his incomplete painting in all its fullness. Here his relationship with Parish is transformed.  The anxiety gives way to peace and happiness.  All of the brokenness is made whole (Shalom).

I cannot teach “Leaf by Niggle” apart from my understanding of Christian eschatology. Lately I have been studying the writings of the Anglican New Testament theologian N.T. Wright.  Wright’s books Surprised by Hope and History and Eschatology enabled me to teach Tolkien’s short story in a way I was unable to do when I last taught “Leaf by Niggle” eleven years ago.

A major theme of Wright’s work is what Revelation 21 calls the “new heaven and the new earth.” Wright challenges longstanding Christian beliefs about heaven. The ancient Jews and the early Christian church never understood heaven as place distinct from earth.  God will not destroy this earth and “rapture” believers to a heavenly realm.  Instead, he will transform this earth.  He will one day make the post-Genesis 3 world whole.  Shalom will be restored.  We will rise from the dead because Jesus Christ rose from the dead on Easter morning (I Cor. 15). The New Testament teaches that we will enjoy this new heavens and new earth with new resurrected bodies.  Read Romans 8: 18-25:

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

Wright argues that this new heaven and new earth, or the Kingdom of God, was initiated when Jesus rose from the dead. We still live in a broken world, but we get occasional glimpses of the new creative order when we see acts of compassion, justice, reconciliation, mercy, and love.  Moreover, when we do creative work that is good, beautiful, or based in truth we are, in some small way, building this new kingdom.  What might look unfinished or incomplete in this world will one day be made whole.  This, it seems to me, is what Tolkien is trying to teach us in “Leaf by Niggle.”

I closed my class on Monday with a quote from Wright’s book Surprised by Hope:

But what we can and must do in the present, if we are obedient to the gospel, if we are following Jesus, and if we are indwelt, energized, and directed by the Spirit, is to build for the kingdom. This brings us back to 1 Corinthians 15:58 once more: what you do in the Lord is not in vain.  You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire.  You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site.  You are–strange though is may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself–accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world.  Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness, every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world–all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make.

Niggle’s leaf, which ended up for a short time in a museum, became part of an entire landscape in the so-called “Niggle’s Parish.” Our creative work will one day contribute to the new creation as well. We don’t know how God will use it–1 Corinthians 13:12 says we see through a glass dimly–but it will be a part of the wholeness God will one day bring.

Here is Wright again:

What you do in the present–by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself–will last into God’s future.  These activities are not simply ways of making the present life less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we will leave it behind altogether (as the hymn  so mistakenly puts it, “Until that day when all the blest to endless rest are called away”). They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.”

Teaching this Semester

Created and Called

This semester, for the first time in my eighteen-year career at Messiah College, I will not be teaching any history courses.  Instead, I will be teaching three sections of a required first-year seminar titled “Created and Called for Community.”  This course, which uses a common syllabus, is designed to introduce a Messiah College liberal arts education to first-year students.  It focuses on the writing, close reading of texts, biblical and theological reflection on human dignity and community, and the meaning of Christian vocation.

I will be teaching these texts:

Stanley Hauerwas, “Go With God

John Henry Newman, “What is a University?

Ernest L. Boyer, “Retaining the Legacy of Messiah College

Genesis 1-2

James Weldon Johnson, “The Creation

Bruce Birch, “The Image of God

J.R.R. Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle

Alice Walker, “In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens

Exodus 19-20

Matthew 5-7

 Acts 1-4

Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed

Harold Bender, The Anabaptist Vision (excerpt)

Alabama Clergyman, “A Call for Unity” and Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Robert Putnam, “Bowling Alone

Augustine, Confessions (excerpts)

Robert Frost, “Mending Wall

Luke 10:25-37

2 Corinthians 5:17-21

Desmond Tutu, “God Believes in Us

Plato, “The Allegory of the Cave” (excerpt)

Albert Schweitzer, “I Resolve to Become a Jungle Doctor

Henri Nouwen, “Adam’s Peace

Jerry Sittser, “Distinguishing Between Calling and Career

Jerry Sittser, “What We’re Supposed to Do”

Dorothy Sayers, “Why Work?

I will probably blog about these texts as the semester moves forward.  Feel free to read or follow along.

Big Patriotism vs. Small Patriotism

Neighborhood

I resonated with Bonnie Kristian‘s attempt to understand American patriotism in the context of this whole NFL-American flag mess.  She uses Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to describe a “small patriotism”–something akin to hobbit Frodo’s love of the Shire.

Here is a taste:

Small patriotism is the love of home because it is home. It is the comfort of familiarity, the sigh of relief we give on completing a long journey, however pleasant. Big patriotism is all abstract ideals and national mythology, easily bent to fit any political agenda. It is centered on the state, not the people, and certainly not any concrete community in which we are thoroughly engaged.

Small patriotism loves one’s neighborhood for one’s home, and one’s city because it holds the neighborhood, and one’s state, region, and country as the city’s host. Big patriotism is a top-down phenomenon, anchored in the self-declared glory of government and the idolatrous liturgies of civil religion. When small patriotism thinks of America, it conjures an image of some local vista and the people who populate it. Big patriotism pictures the hulking forms of federal monuments and the grim grandeur of war.

Small patriotism is particular, but never competitive. Its love of what is good about our place never needs to falsely exalt that good into best. “Once you have realized that the Frenchmen like café complet just as we like bacon and eggs — why, good luck to them and let them have it,” C.S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves. This sort of patriotism “produces a good attitude towards foreigners,” he noted, for “[h]ow can I love my home without coming to realize that other men, no less rightly, love theirs?” Their love in no way detracts from mine, for we are not in competition. Neither wants to conform the other to its image, for it is the difference that makes each home beloved. Conquest is unnecessary and unwelcome.

Read the entire piece here.

I think Kristian’s “small patriotism” is what we have witnessed recently in places like Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the rest of the Caribbean in the wake of hurricane season.  It is the kind of home-love that we see in Wendell Berry’s Port William Membership.  It is the kind of “faithful presence” that James Davison Hunter writes about in To Change the World.  It is the kind of patriotism that I wrote about in The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.  Here is a small taste:

The writer Wallace Stegner once said that ‘no place, not even a wild place, is a place until it has had a poet.’ Philip Vickers Fithian was Cohansey’s poet.  He was a patriot in the classical Greek sense of the word–a lover of his terra patria, his native land (p.10).

Berry, Lewis, and Tolkien on the Technological Mindset

I just finished a thoughtful article by Matthew Dickerson published in Flourish magazine.  From what I can tell from its website, Flourish is a relatively new venture dedicated to creation care and “equipping churches to better love God by reviving human lives and the landscapes on which they depend.”

Dickerson teaches at Middlebury College and has written on the “environmental vision” of both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

In this piece he argues that Wendell Berry, Tolkien, and Lewis present Christian arguments against an over-reliance on technology.

Here is his interpretation of the anti-technology message of Tolkien’s The Hobbit:

Tolkien’s attitude toward technology surfaces early on in The Hobbit. Consider how he introduces goblins—which in his later works came to be known as orcs:

Now goblins are cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted. They make no beautiful things, but they make many clever ones. They can tunnel and mine as well as any but the most skilled dwarves, when they take the trouble, though they are usually untidy and dirty. Hammers, axes, swords, daggers, pickaxes, tongs, and also instruments of torture, they make very well, or get other people to make to their design, prisoners and slaves that have to work till they die for want of air and light. It is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them.

Some of the adjectives and phrases used to described goblins could, in another context, be accolades. Goblins are clever and skilled. They are inventive and ingenious. They are capable of design. All of this creativity, however, is of a very particular kind. Goblins make machines. They are associated with wheels and engines. They are not interested in beauty, but in efficiency.

Tolkien’s goblins are technological creatures. This characteristic is particularly striking when contrasted with Tolkien’s hobbits, who, we are told in the foreword to The Lord of the Rings, “do not and did not understand or like machines more complicated than a forge-bellows, a water-mill, or a hand-loom, though they were skillful with tools.”

And this, perhaps, is the first important observation about Tolkien’s attitude toward technology. While hobbits and the culture of the Shire are by no means perfect, theirs is nonetheless portrayed as a healthy society that is worth great effort to protect. By contrast, Tolkien refers to the goblins in terms that are far from morally neutral. They are “cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted.” At least the last two of these are explicit terms of moral evil. Tolkien, then, appears to be associating an attraction to technology with moral evil.

The moral condemnation does not necessarily apply to any use of technology, nor to any creature that uses technology. At least here, the judgment applies to a particular type of technology—or, perhaps more accurately, to a particular use of technology. Tolkien associates the evil of goblin technology with two things: technology as a means of avoiding work, and technology as a means of dominating other wills. The latter is especially important. Goblin technology is used to enslave and to conquer.