MARS HILL AUDIO Journal
Guests on Volume 117: Matthew Dickerson, on the likenesses between Beowulf and three of Tolkien’s heroes, and on how (despite Peter Jackson’s rendition) The Lord of the Rings is more interested in virtue than in military exploits; Jennifer Woodruff Tait, on how assumptions about the nature of moral knowledge—derived from the school of common-sense realism—compelled Victorian Methodists and others to substitute grape juice for wine in celebrating the Lord’s Supper; Jeffry Davis and Philip Ryken, on why the liberal arts ought to be recognized as a calling that enriches Christian living; and Robert George, on the consequences of redefining marriage.
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Matthew Dickerson, on the likenesses between Beowulf and three of Tolkien’s heroes, and on how (despite Peter Jackson’s rendition) The Lord of the Rings is more interested in virtue than in military exploits
“It’s not other-worldly literature — we always think of fantasy literature as being other-worldly, and Tolkien’s works are often considered the greatest example of fantasy literature — but this one great example of fantasy literature was, in Tolkien’s mind, not other-worldly at all, but really about an imagined history in our world.”
This segment features Matthew Dickerson on how The Lord of the Rings is rooted in J.R.R. Tolkien’s religious understanding of reality. Dickerson examines some of Tolkien’s characters in light of Tolkien’s essays on Beowulf. Moral virtue is the thing that, for Tolkien, defines heroism. Although Tolkien’s works are fantasy literature, they share moral truths with our universe; we are part of the same story. Dickerson points out that Tolkien’s books are much less concerned with martial matters than we often think. Even though war is the backdrop to the books, very little of the progression of the story is taking place in battle. The physical battles in the book become, in some way, metaphorical for the spiritual battle against evil.
Jennifer Woodruff Tait, on how assumptions about the nature of moral knowledge—derived from the school of common-sense realism—compelled Victorian Methodists and others to substitute grape juice for wine in celebrating the Lord’s Supper
“Sometimes the Bible speaks of wine negatively. That’s not a problem for these people. Sometimes the Bible speaks of wine positively, yet science tells us that wine is never positive. So we have to find a way to make this work exigetically. And that’s where you get the two-wine theory, the idea that there are two kinds of wine spoken of in the Bible. . . . This didn’t always work when the wrong word showed up in the wrong passage.”
Jennifer Woodruff Tait begins by defining a philosophical movement known as “common sense realism.” Common sense realism led people to the idea that alcohol destroyed the sense organs, prohibiting one from making proper moral judgments. These Victorian Methodists understood that science teaches alcohol is always negative; this conclusion then had to be reconciled with Scripture. There was a strong emphasis in nineteenth-century intellectual culture on the necessity of order and regularity, both of which alcohol was thought to undermine. Tait discusses the link between common sense realism and the eugenic ideas of the nineteenth century, and how drinking was thought to cause the birth of imbeciles.
“We live in a culture, as I suppose everyone that has ever lived has, that wants to squeeze us into its own mold. But the mold of our culture is not thoughtful, reflective, taking time to read deeply and seek to answer questions deeply — but it’s much more superficial and ephemeral. And if we can cultivate in a younger generation a love for the life of the mind, we are providing something that is deeply counter-cultural and also deeply Christian.”
In this segment, Jeffry Davis and Philip Ryken expound the virtues of a liberal arts education. They begin by discussing their intent for the book: to get students to think about the liberal arts as a way of life. We live in a superficial culture that wants to mold us after its own fashion, so we must cultivate in the younger generation a love for the life of the mind. It is misleading to talk about the integration of faith and learning, because the life of the mind and the life of Christian faith are connected. Truth is not apparent; it must be pursued, and the best way to pursue it is through community. Ryken describes the type of upbringing that would best foster an appreciation for the liberal arts in a child – a family dinner table, a strong church community, and a home context in which the child is opened up to the world of beauty through sound are all important aspects.
Robert George, on the 2013 Supreme Court cases addressing same-sex marriage
“In both cases, those challenging the laws are making the claim that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment . . . essentially requires states to recognize same-sex partnerships as marriages.”
Legal scholar Robert George begins by detailing two cases about marriage currently being considered in the U.S. Supreme Court. Hollingsworth v. Perry challenges the constitutionality of Proposition 8 in California, and United States v. Windsor challenges the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife.
Robert George, on the differences between the historic view of marriage as a conjugal and comprehensive relationship and the "revisionist" view
“[Justice Sotomayor], who is a liberal jurist appointed by President Obama . . . asked a very tough question: ‘well if that’s true, then on what ground of principle could we say that states are permitted to refuse to recognize polygamous marriages as valid?’ It was a penetrating and tough question . . . and to her very great credit, she asked the question. And the answer was not a very good answer.”
Robert George mentions a difficult question posed by Justice Sotomayor: if we recognize same-sex marriages as valid, on what grounds of principle can we refuse to recognize the validity of polygamous marriages? George also points out that there is technically no ban on homosexual marriage – same-sex couples can go through a marriage ceremony at churches that will perform them, and then view themselves as married. What we mean by “ban” is actually the absence of state recognition of these marriages. What might follow from state recognition of such marriages is the enforcement that all third parties such as churches or educational institutions recognize such marriages as valid. While same-sex marriage advocates claim to be pushing the state towards a “neutral” understanding of marriage, their claim of “neutrality” is actual a drastic redefinition of marriage, from the traditional understanding of marriage as a conjugal union to the revisionist definition: that marriage is a completely emotional and romantic attachment to a significant other. Marriage, unlike friendship, is a comprehensive relationship; not just limited to an intellectual or spiritual or emotional bond, as in a friendship, but a bodily union as well. This is why cultures have never made infertility grounds for barring people from marriage or annulment of a marriage, but not consummating the marriage was grounds for annulment. If we do not accept this comprehensive, bodily grounding of marriage, we cannot explain why marriage is seen as a sexual union at all – we might as well base marriages on things like playing tennis together.
Robert George, on the consequences of redefining marriage
“There is no basis for supposing that marriage is inherently a sexual relationship at all, if we redefine marriage as simply emotional union.”
Absent a comprehensive, conjugal view of marriage, there is no ground for barring a “marriage” between two sisters who care for each other. Why should they be barred from marriage simply because they are not in a sexual relationship? George argues that we have grown too accustomed in our culture to think of human goods in purely instrumental terms, and not in terms of human flourishing. Many people have also lost the distinction between true freedom and license (or licentiousness). As a result, human good and freedom has come to mean nothing more than the satisfaction of my personal desires, however untrammeled they might be. George suggests that we must recover a sense of the intrinsic value of virtue; of virtue for its own sake.