The Sacramental Imagination of The Hobbit

David Russell Mosley


Ordinary Time
Richard Hooker
03 11 2014
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Today I want to continue our conversation about forming a sacramental imagination in children. As I said before, I want to focus on the works the helped form my imagination as a child. The first book on the list, therefore, is J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I am limiting myself to The Hobbit because attempting a brief overview of the sacramental imagination in this book will be hard enough without also delving into The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, or what’s more, the History of Middle Earth series. Therefore, if you read this post and see that I’ve left out Ents, Galadriel’s Mirror and phial, silmarils, etc., you will understand why.

As I’ve said on multiple occasions, there has never been a particularly long period of my life where The Hobbit has not featured in it. It is one of the earliest books that was read to me in the cradle and his been my closest companion these many years. The book, for those who haven’t read it or seen the first two films of the trilogy based on it, is about a hobbit, a creature of about three and half to four feet tall called Bilbo Baggins. Bilbo lives a rather bourgeois life. He’s a bachelor, has a well stocked larder (pantry), doesn’t seem to need to work any longer at the middle age of fifty (hobbits living to 100 as like as not). He doesn’t have much use for anything he can’t see with his own two eyes and anything fantastic he believes in, say dragons or goblins or even wolves, merely frightens him at the possibility of their existence. He is, for all intents and purposes, a rather standard, post-enlightenment, upper middle class gentleman. Then all of a sudden he encounters a wizard and not long after thirteen dwarves who convince him to go on an adventure.

Bilbo is meant to represent us in the story in many ways. Even in height he rather matches many of the children who would about his stories. Of course most of them, and us, would not be quite so stolid as Bilbo, bemoaning missing handkerchiefs, desiring pipe tobacco (from experience anyway), etc. But still, like Bilbo, most of us have never seen dwarves or wizards or elves or goblins or dragons or great kingdoms carved out of mountains. If we knew the dangers, I dare say most of us would rather stay home and eat bacon than go attempt to steal treasure from a sleeping dragon. And yet, like Bilbo, we don’t know the danger and so, as he goes on his adventure, we join him, and we, like him, gain something in the end.

It is obvious, when you reach the end of the book, that Bilbo has changed. He has encountered goblins, Gollum, a dragon, dangerous elves, rock giants, and more. And yet, he does not leave behind his old self completely. He still loves good food and drink more than treasure; he still dreams of bacon and enjoys throughout his adventures smoking his pipe (the very scene with which the book ends). Yet as he sings his song, ‘Roads Go Ever, Ever On’, as Gandalf notices, he is not the same hobbit he was at the beginning. He has been transformed. The narrator casts this transformation in two different sets of terms. The first is prose versus poetry; the second, Took versus Baggins. In the Took and Baggins dichotomy, nothing is lost. Bilbo is as much a Baggins at the end as at the beginning, but he is a Tookish Baggins or a Bagginsish Took. He still, as I’ve said, loves good food and pipes by the fire, but now his guests are not simply other hobbits, but dwarves, wizards, and even elves. From prose to poetry, however, there is truer transformation. Bilbo takes no part in the songs sung throughout the book, though he is at times moved by them. I think it striking that Bilbo does not, so far as we know, sing until the very end of the book where he not only sings, but sings a song of his own creation and what’s more, his own creation on the spot! Bilbo, the narrator tells us, was never so prosy as he imagined, but at the end he no longer even imagines himself prosy, he is now a poet.

I think it is this that helps us form a sacramental imagination, the dual recognition that we need not leave this life behind in commitment to a sacramental cosmos, just as Bilbo must not leave behind Baggins to become a Took. We can still love food and comfort, but now because we know the depth of these things, because now we know with whom we dine for Christ is present at every meal, though much more so and in a different way at one in particular. Nevertheless, the more we give in to the sacramental cosmos, the more we become poets, leaving behind pure prose. Thus, not only how we see the world has been changed, but how we talk about it has been changed as well. This is, in part, what we, like Bilbo, gain at the end of the story, a wider context in which to live our lives and new language in which to describe it.

Sincerely yours,
David

Books to Read over Advent and Christmas

David Russell Mosley

Third Sunday of Advent
15 December 2013
On the Edge of Elfland
Beeston, Nottinghamshire

Dear Friends and Family,

With only 10 days left in Advent, this may seem like an odd time to write a letter on books to read over Advent and Christmas, but since Christmas is 12 days long, that gives us a bit more time. This list is a combination of fiction, poetry, and theology. I hope you enjoy.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

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Perhaps the most obvious choice, I find many people have seen film versions of this story, but have rarely read the book. It is a story of transformation, of hearts of stone exchanged for hearts of flesh. Don’t let the familiarity you may have with the story allow you to pass by the beauty of this Christmas Ghost Story.

Letters from Father Christmas by J. R. R. Tolkien

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From the creator of Middle Earth (or sub-creator I should perhaps say), many people don’t know, but shouldn’t be surprised to learn, that this creator of language and myth used to write letters to his children from Father Christmas. Filled with stories about the antics that cause Christmas to almost fail, this book is a collection of twenty years of epistles from that jolly old elf.

‘Farmer Giles of Ham’ in The Tolkien Reader by J. R. R. Tolkien

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What started as an introduction to George MacDonald’s ‘The Golden Key’ turned into a delightful fairy story. Giles is a farmer in the little kingdom who finds himself battling a giant and a dragon. The story takes place between Michaelmas and St Matthias’ Day, paying special attention to Christmas Day, St Stephen’s Day and more. Be prepared to laugh at a parody of the standard fairy tale.

‘Gawain and the Green Knight’ by The Pearl Poet

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Faerie castles, green giants who can survive without their heads, King Arthur, his cousin Gawain, and more. This poem which centres around Christmas and New Year’s is an excellent example of the Medieval faerie tradition and makes an excellent addition to any Christmas reading.

On the Incarnation by Athanasius

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This text defends the doctrine of the Incarnation against the Arian heresy. This is the text you want to read if you want to understand how the Church first began to articulate in greater detail how and why it is that Jesus Christ, the person who’s birth we celebrate in Christmas, is both God and Man. This can be a bit technical and use language that non-theologians might not be familiar with, but I highly recommend working through it, nevertheless.

On God and Christ by Gregory of Nazianzus

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This collection of sermons given by Gregory, bishop of Nazianzus, continue the fight against forms of Arianism, defending both the divinity and humanity of Jesus, as well as the divinity of the Spirit. Gregory takes what Athanasius had done before him and works out more aspects of the importance of the Incarnation. What both this book and the above have in common is an understanding that the coming of Christ means much more than our salvation from sin, but also our deification.

What are some of your favourite books to read during Christmas? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Sincerely yours,
David Russell Mosley

Vacation Reading: What does a Student in Theology Read on Vacation?

usbythelake

Dear Friends and Family,

As you’ve either seen from my wife’s blog or my reposting here and here, Lauren and I were on vacation last week. This was a kind of early anniversary gift to ourselves. We haven’t been on a vacation since we moved here in 2011, so we decided to go the Lake District. I have to be honest, Lauren planned the whole thing and did an amazing job. I didn’t want to leave. I could have stared into those fells and walked round those lakes all day every day for the rest of my life.

Those of you who know me, know that I love to read, and not just theology. So that begs the question, what did I take to read on this vacation? I decided early on that I wouldn’t take any research reading with me. I wanted my time spent reading to be a time of intellectual and spiritual renewal, not a time spent worrying about my work. I brought five books in total with me.

books

As I wrote here, my usual routine is to get up every morning at five and begin the day with prayer and Scripture reading. Now, to be completely honest, I was not up and moving at five once on our vacation. My usual wake up time was between six and seven. I still, however, tried to start with Scripture reading and prayer and thus, my Bible was the first of the five books.

The second book was Augustine’s Sermons on the Liturgical SeasonsI’ve been, quite rightly, reading his sermons from Eastertide. I have to admit, I still find the topics covered by ancient preachers refreshing. I wish we had more sermons that dealt with the importance of the incarnation, the Trinity, and so on and how those things affect our daily lives. I definitely recommend giving these sermons a peruse.

The third book, discounting both my devotional and personal journals, was William Morris’s The Wood beyond the World (click the link to see my review). Ever since I began reading biographies on C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien I have wanted to read this book. Well, now I have and can highly recommend it.

Over the past few months I have been slowly working my way through William Wordsworth poetry, at least everything that’s included in the Selected Poems of William WordsworthI brought Wordsworth along not only because I like poetry, but because I have a profound appreciation for poetry but because Wordsworth grew up in the Lake District, but he died in Ambleside. Now, sadly, we did not get a chance to go to Dove Cottage, but still, there was something wonderful in reading Wordsworth’s poetry in the Lake District, that area that inspire many of his poems.

The final book that came on this journey with me was A Book of Strife in the Form of The Diary of an Old soul by George MacDonald. This book is a collection of prayers in the form of poetry, one for every day of the year (in a leap year). These prayers were moving and earnest. They reminded me of my sinfulness, the greatness attached to humanity because of the Image in which we were made, and God’s mercy and justice.

See my wife’s blog for all the beautiful things we saw and did. I would have to write a story or poetry of my own (and I may do both) to express how renewing and sublime this trip was for me beyond the reading. Suffice it to say that in the end a combination of the books I brought, the landscapes I breathed in, and the companion with whom I shared all these experiences I have come back refreshed and ready to begin again at my work. Nevertheless, there will now always be a longing in my heart for the Lake District and the little village of Ambleside.

pipebythelake

Yours,
David

 

A Day in the Life of PhD in Theology

Dear Friends and Family,

It had been on my mind for a while to do a post on what a day usually looks like for me and then just yesterday a gentleman named Nic told me he would be interested in hearing about my daily schedule. Well, here it is:

05:00

My alarm goes off, I role out of bed, wash my face and hair, shave, wax my moustache, and get dressed.

I always lay out my clothes the night before.

I always lay out my clothes the night before.

Beard and Moustache Station

Beard and Moustache Station

Getting Dressed Part 1

Getting Dressed Part 1

05:30

I then head into the Study to do my morning reading. I begin by reading Scripture and Praying (using the Church of England’s Website to help guide my prayers). After I’ve read and prayed, I move from my desk to my armchair and do the rest of my morning reading and journaling. Sometimes, I start with a selection from a spiritual master. Right now, I’m reading through Augustine’s Sermons for Liturgical Seasons. Then I write in my journal, usually a prayer or just some thoughts I have. After journaling, I pull out one of my research books and my research journal and read a chapter or so out of it. Then, if there’s time, I read a little something for fun. Lately that has been a Father Brown Story from G. K. Chesterton and a chapter or two from the Lord of the Rings.

Books and Journals from Last Friday

Books and Journals from Last Friday

07:00

Once I’ve finished my reading, Lauren usually gets up and starts making breakfast while I finish getting dressed. Then we sit down, eat, and usually watch part of a show together.

Getting Dressed Part 2

Getting Dressed Part 2

Breakfast

Breakfast

07:30-07:45

After breakfast, I finish packing up my things and head out to the office.

Heading to the Office

Heading to the Office

08:00

Once I get to the office I set up my desk and begin working. Usually, I read and take notes for a few hours until lunchtime. My reading during this time is more of what I was reading in the morning and then, sometimes, chapters out of books I’m not going to read in full or journal articles.

Work Station

Work Station

Reading
Reading

Writing

Writing

12:00

Then I eat lunch and usually watch a video from the department’s Why Study Series: (which usually ends up leading to a post on here).

12:30 or 13:00

After lunch I do a bit more reading. Right now, I’ve been reading some poetry from Pope John Paul II before getting back into my research. I try to read as broadly as I can, I find that it really helps when I write that I’ve read such a diversity of genre. Also, sometimes, after lunch I go for a walk around the lake.

Contemplation and Pipe Smoking Go Well Together

Contemplation and Pipe Smoking Go Well Together

After my walk, I come back, do more reading, and sometimes some heavy writing. I try to write something most days. Sometimes, like today, it’s a blog post, other times it’s a couple hundred words on the chapter I’m writing.

15:00

By the late afternoon, if I don’t have a seminar to attend or a class I’m sitting in on, I pack up my things and head home. Once I get home, I usually change into some workout clothes and do my afternoon exercises. (Sorry, I’ve not got any pictures of me in workout clothes, you’ll just have to imagine it.) After I work out, I grab and shower and then go back into the study to read some more fiction before dinner.

18:00

Once dinner’s ready Lauren and I either sit down at the dinner table and eat and chat or we sit down at the coffee table and eat, chat, and watch a show/movie. Lately, we’ve been watching the Vampire Diaries, an interesting, albeit girl-oriented, show about vampires (we were both suckers for Buffy and Angel back in the day).

20:30-21:00

As we wind down our day, Lauren and I get ready for bed. Since Lauren’s never read the Chronicles of Narnia before, we’re currently reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe together. After we’ve read a chapter or two of it, Lauren roles over and goes to sleep. If I have any energy left, I usually grab whatever fiction book I’m reading (The Two Towers at the moment) and read until I’m too tired to carry on.

22:00

By no later to ten, it’s lights out for me and to sleep before another day of reading and writing.

Well, that’s a pretty general day in my life. Perhaps not overly exciting, but it suits me well enough. Hopefully, in the near future, things like gardening and more walks will make their way into my routine. For now, we’re still stuck with snow and ice.

I hope you’re all well.

Yours,
David

On Reading Fiction: A Response to The Art of Manliness: Old Post 4

The Art of Manliness and Reading Fiction

The Art of Manliness recently put out an article on why men ought to read more fiction. The article centred around the idea that reading fiction improves one’s theory of mind. As I understand it, theory of mind is what allows to understand and contemplate other minds (i.e. Using theory of mind, I can discern what another individual is thinking in a given situation). I suppose we might call this a person’s ability to ‘read people’, to a gain an understanding of what they’re thinking and how they’re feeling without them telling us. According to the research Brett McKay did for this article, men are apparently more deficient at this than women.
One way for men to increase their theory of mind is to read more fiction. It appears that reading the narratives and dialogues contained within fiction works as kind of theory of mind exercise. Thus, allowing oneself to be enmeshed in a good novel is practice for ‘reading’ people in the real world. McKay notes that according to the research, it does not matter what kind of fiction a man reads, all fiction reading will increase his theory of mind ability. McKay cites a telephone interview he had with a Dr. Oatley, a proponent of the idea that reading fiction increases men’s theory of mind. According to Dr. Oatley the kind of fiction men ought to read is a null question, ‘[Dr. Oatley’s] response [to the question of what kind of fiction men should read] was to read whatever interests you, whether it’s highbrow Russian novels or lowbrow dime paperbacks.’ If the end is simply increased theory of mind ability, then the means is whatever kind of fiction you choose to read.
Men Certainly Ought to Read Fiction
I’ll be honest, I really enjoy reading The Art of Manliness. I think McKay tackles real issues and needs in men’s lives today, as well as provides articles that are simply fun. McKay’s encouragement for men to read more fiction is laudatory. Having been an avid reader of fiction for my entire literary life, I must say that I do not fit the paradigm of men who do not read fiction, but I will certainly take any exhortation to read more. I also think that the result of reading fiction McKay introduces, increased theory of mind, is one of many reasons for men to be reading more fiction. I do wonder, however, if the conclusion of the article is useful. The idea that because reading anything increases theory of mind leads to the conclusion that one then ought to read anything. For many this will lead to read only what is simple or perhaps literarily bad. The exhortation for men to read fiction is not enough, we need men (and women) to be reading good fiction, even if it has no more of an effect on the increase of one’s theory of mind.
Why Read ‘Good’ Fiction
Reading, and especially reading fiction, must be more than about one goal. If our goal was only to increase our theory of mind, then why not read what is simplest? Why challenge ourselves to read anything of substance if a comic book or trashy romance novel will do the same without over taxing our minds on other issues like morality, philosophy, or religion. Reading any fiction may increase our theory of mind, but only reading ‘good’ fiction will increase our vocabulary, our knowledge of the world and people, and our understanding of life.
Why Even ‘Good’ Fiction Is Not Enough
Even then, reading Evelyn Waugh, or Kurt Vonnegut, or Oscar Wilde (all typically recognised as ‘good’ authors by the literatti) is deficient. As a Christian, I committed to an understanding of the world that centres around who God is and how he has, does, and will interact with this world. A Christian worldview must recognise that there is no secular autonomy. This means that when authors attempt to deal with issues they see as universals they are still approaching them through their individual (and corporate) presuppositions. Some do this consciously. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series is intended as a kind of anti-Chronicles of Narnia. He intends to introduce his audience (children) to atheism. Others, however, inject their presuppositions somewhat (if not totally unconsciously). Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle does just this. Paolini betrays his secular understanding of reality when he shows the dwarves, the only religious people, as simple, particularly when compared to the almost purely rational elves. Thus we cannot take for granted any autonomous universality. I’m not saying we should not read such authors, simply that we must (as Christians) take into account the implicit and explicit presuppositions and implications of any fiction we read and hold it to the divine standard, which is the only standard. All participate in this standard to some extent and it is our job to increase our participation in it and recognise where others do participate and where they deviate.
What Are We to Read?
In the end, I recommend that we read what good fiction. By good fiction, I do not necessarily mean what is considered good by English professors or professional critics. Instead I mean we ought mainly to read fiction that participates in the divine standard. I don’t mean we should read only cheesy Christian fiction, or even that we should read only fiction written C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, G. K. Chesterton, and others of that ilk. My suggestion is that we read fiction that is both good in terms of the level of writing (in style, grammar, and vocabulary) and that is good in terms of how well it participates in God. When we read fiction, we ought to be changed (in fact we are changed or, if the fiction is poor, we are maintained or even decreased). We ought to read books that make us think about real issues, but we must read with discernment and try to root out the presuppositions behind a text.
So, by all means read simple fiction. I love reading comic books and certain children’s fiction (though I submit that good children’s fiction is often only simple in style and vocabulary, but that the ideas presented are still good and useful for personal growth). Do not, however, stop with simple fiction. Challenge yourself in both the level of writing and the ideas presented. Above all, remember that there is no universal autonomy. If God is the creator of this world then all of creation participates in God. Thus, while all truth is God’s truth we must still be careful about the presuppositions underlying any work of fiction (really anything, not simply fiction). All creation may participate in God, but all rational creatures can still work against that participation (hence the fall of Satan and the Fall of humanity). What kind of fiction we read may not make a difference in the increase of our theory of mind, but it does make a difference on how actively we participate in God.
Some Recommendations
Finally, here are some books I’ve read that I think will help both increase your theory of mind as well as your participation in God (this list is by no means comprehensive, nor will each book be as good, in either sense, as one another or others you may have read):
Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis
Perelandra by C. S. Lewis
That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis
The Simarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien
The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
Phantastes by George MacDonald
The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald
The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald
The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (really any Jane Austen)
See my Goodreads page for books I’ve read and check out some of my friends and what they’ve read as well (in fact, just sign up for Goodreads and ask to be my friend, but mention this post or else I might not add you back).
What do you think? What kind of fiction should we be reading?

Beginning a New Journey

Last Morning at the Andrew Louth Conference in Durham (12/7/12)

Dear Friends,

This is, as you may well notice, my first post on my new blog. For this, I simply want to introduce you to myself, ever so briefly, and what you can look forward to on this blog.

I am a twenty-five year old, Christian, husband (and someday father), student who likes to pretend to be a poet, writer, and theologian. I’ve been married to my wife for four years, and have been a disciple of Jesus for twelve. I’ve now been a student at the University of Nottingham for one academic year and am doing a PhD in theology. I like to smoke pipes, read, and write stories, as well as the occasional (typically awful) poem. I’m most interested in what it means to live a life of faithful obedience, a life of virtue, for Jesus. I’m also a bit of a self-abnegating ne0-Luddite. I love to use pens and journals, write real letters, etc., but I blog, have a Mac and an iPhone. In short, I am a contradiction, even unto myself.

On this blog you can expect to find me writing about how my doctoral thesis and other papers are going, as well as my thoughts on books and theology. Occasionally, I may even post about my anti-digital tendencies and how I think they’re useful. I don’t claim to be an expert in anything, so I welcome comments, remonstrance, and questions about anything I post.

I hope you and I can benefit from this journey together.

I leave you with a few lines on reading from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden:

‘To read well––that is, to read true books in a true spirit––is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.