American society is a global society. In addition to being a nation of immigrants, the technological advances of the last three decades have increased economic and cultural exchange between the west and the developing world. The influx of philosophies and world-views into pop culture has had a relativizing effect on traditional morality in general and in education as well. Public schools teach all world religions as valid options, and even the sciences have come under scrutiny for being too objectivist. To hold to the theory of non-contradiction is a form of western intellectual imperialism. While the Eastern mind has room for nuance, it is said the Judeo-Christian worldview is rigidly black and white with no room for self-critique.
We will soon be celebrating one of the most controversial holidays in America. Thanksgiving has come under critique recently for celebrating the unjust takeover of Native American territory. America, it is argued, is tainted with the original sin of racism and imperialism.
As I talk to those who are interested in what we do in classical Christian schools, these are the sort of concerns I hear from my colleagues in public education, friends and family, and even some pastors. And this I do concede: there are streams in western civilization that have been detrimental to human flourishing. Yet in classical Christianity, since we measure all things by the bible, we have a built in critique-mechanism: Western Civilization is worth preserving in so far as it accords to the Bible’s teaching. How does this critique mechanism work in real-time? One of my favorite examples comes from J.R.R. Tolkien’s magisterial trilogy Lord of the Rings. In work, Tolkien offers us a snap shot of the variety and often-competing traditions in Western Civilization.
In his fictional universe, the people groups Tolkien invented bare striking similarities to some people groups in our own past. The Rohirrim bear the cultural markings of Tolkien’s beloved Anglo-Saxons. The people of Gondor with their marvelous city of Minas Tirith have parallels to the Roman and Byzantium epochs of Christendom: intellectual, proud of their heritage, and at times, sterile. There is enormous educational value in learning and
understanding these societal struggles and
giving students the opportunity to exercise self-critique. It is in this context that Tolkien’s work transcends to a masterpiece of fiction. His storytelling offers a critique of both of these historical western societies (reflected fictionally as Gondor & Rohirrim) and offers a biblical alternative through Éowyn. Tolkien in one single event, the battle for Minas Tirith, shows three responses to despair—one from Gondor and two from the Rohirrim.
After an initial successful cavalry charge, Éomer of the Rohirrm comes across his worst nightmare: his sister Éowyn, whom he had assumed was safe in Rohan had unbeknownst to him entered the battle and was thought to be dead on the field.
Then without taking counsel or eating for the approach of the men of the City, he spurred headlong back to the front of the great host, and blew a horn, and cried aloud for the onset. Over the field rang his clear voice calling: ‘Death! Ride, ride to ruin and the world’s ending!’”
Éomer responds to despair in a characteristically Anglo-Saxon way: blood lust. He abandons all hope of surviving, all rationality, only death is the ultimate reality. Denathor, the steward of Gondor responds quite differently. One of the heirlooms of his family line is a magic device that he thinks shows the future of his kingdom. Unbeknownst to Denathor, his visions in his magic crystal ball have been corrupted by the dark lord, leading Denathor to have a warped view of the current situation. When his injured son is brought back from battle, Denathor responds in despair but in a very different way than what we saw before–he instructs his servants to build a pyre to burn him and his son alive. If Middle Earth is to fall, Denathor wants to go on his own terms. He reveals an internalizing of the despair in his last argument with Gandalf over the morality of burning his injured son alive as well as abandoning of his men on the battlefield.
‘Pride and despair!’ he cried. ‘Didst thou think that the eyes of the White Tower were blind? Nay, I have seen more than thou knowest, Grey Fool. For thy hope is but ignorance. Go then and labour in healing! Go forth and fight! Vanity. For a little space you may triumph over the field, for a day. But against the Power that now arises there is no victory…The West has failed.
Denathor’s response is an intellectual nihilism. His despair is inward, prideful, and selfish like hedonist of Ecclesiastes’ or King Saul’s brooding over God’s election of David to his throne. Éomer’s response is outward, frenzied, and animalistic. Like Achilles after the death of Patrocolus, Pharaoh’s pursuit of the Israelites, or Anakin Skywalker’s slaughter of the innocents, this response is characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon/Germanic worldview. Both are heirs of the Western tradition, and yet both are morally unsatisfactory.
This is where our Christian theology provides a balance point for our western heritage. Classical education is not a mindless acceptance of every thing that is old. Tolkien himself provides a critique to both in the character of Éowyn. Éowyn is likewise from the Rohirrim yet responds very differently to the death of her uncle, the king of Rohan. The king met his match against the lord of the Nazgûl, the dark lord Sauron’s top general, and the looses badly. As the king’s broken body (thought to be dead by Éowyn) lay on the field Éowyn challenges the Nazgul:
“Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion! Leave the dead in peace’!
A cold voice answered: ‘Come not between the Nazgûl and his prey! Or he will not slay thee in thy turn. He will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shriveled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye.’
A sword rang as it was drawn. ‘Do what you will; but I will hinder it, if I may.’
‘Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!’…
‘But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.’
This is a remarkable passage. Notice that she gives her enemy a way out three times. ‘Leave the dead in peace!’ she commands. When the Nazgûl meets her challenge she speaks of hindering, not of annihilation. Her goal is to defend, not needless slaughter. Even when she meets in the impossibility of meeting someone in battle that was much more powerful than she was, Éowyn does not concede to despair after promised everlasting conscious torment.
How Christian! Our Lord tells us in the gospels that the weak shall inherit the land, and those who are persecuted are blessed. Jesus did not incarnate himself into an Achilles figure, but a little babe. Israel is promised a suffering servant who “had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men…Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted.” (Isaiah 53:2-4)
At Aquidneck Island Christian Academy we desire our students to be fluent in the great traditions and conversations that have made up American, British, European, Roman, and Hebrew history. We view western civilization as a glorious heritage worth preserving. In fact, we need western civilization because only in the west do we have a mechanism of self-critique. Yet we also understand that this heritage is just as full of vice and wickedness. Western civilization is the history of human societies wrestling with human sins in the face of Biblical teachings and classical Christianity. While we must be not deaf to challenges and faults within our history, we also need to remember those warriors like the princess Éowyn who would fight for the true, the good, and the beautiful even when things look hopeless.