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REVIEW: LAST JEDI

REVIEW LAST JEDI (generic spoilers only):
Best Star Wars film since the original trilogy, but marred by PoMo cynicism. In the original trilogy, you could celebrate the defeat of the Dark Side unironically, shout “Harelukiah!” with the Ewoks with unmixed joy after the destruction of the Death Star. Now we have to question whether there is any real difference between Jedi and Sith, whether it really matters who wins. In one way, this is an improvement, because the original’s unironic battle between Good and Evil (as if they were ultimately really different) was inconsistent with the metaphysics of the Star Wars Universe, where Light and Dark are merely two sides of the same “Force.” The latest installment is more consistent with its own premises than the original–but less consistent with the moral order of the real universe. There are positive aspects to the new perspective: It is good for a Jedi to question his own hubris–but not to the point where he questions whether there is a real difference between Good and Evil.
 
Contrast Tolkien, who is no Pollyanna. He has good people being corrupted (Theoden almost, Saruman and Denethor finally). But he does not have Gandalf ever wonder if the battle against Sauron is worth fighting or leave the readers wondering if there is really any difference between Gandalf and Sauron. That kind of moral clarity is only possible in a universe with the biblical foundations of Middle Earth. Star Wars can only get there by cheating with its own metaphysical foundations. In the 21st Century, it remains to be seen in episode 9 whether it can get there at all.

Donald T. Williams, PhD, is R. A. Forrest Scholar and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls College.  His most recent books include Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Broadman, 2006), Stars through the Clouds (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), his collected poetry, Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed., revised and expanded, and Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012).

Order Stars through the Clouds ($15.00), Inklings of Reality, or Reflections from Plato’s Cave ($15.00) at https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.

 Also, check out Dr. Williams’s latest book:  Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis (Square Halo Books, 2016)!

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CLXXXI

Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.”  I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

 

Habakkuk is supremely the prophet who wrestles with the mystery of how God works even through evil to accomplish His purposes of good for His people (cf. Rom. 8:18-30, esp. 8:28).  This means that we often cannot see the good in the short run.  Yet still we must trust in God’s wisdom and sovereignty.  “Though the fig tree should not blossom and there be no fruit on the vines, thought the yield of the olive should fail and the field produce no food, though the flock should be cut off from the fold and there be no cattle in the stalls, yet I will exult in the Lord, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.”  We each have to find our own way to that place.

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Paraphrase: Habakkuk 3:17-19

 

Though all my friends should fade like the stars from the sky

Before the dawn,

Like the leaves in June that greet the breeze with a sigh

But soon are gone

When the Autumn winds blow sharp and cold, and nigh

The hearth you’re drawn

And the winter snows, so deathly still, seem to lie

A lifetime long.

Though this and worse should be my lot of woe

Or grief or care,

Though all of joy should be forgot and go

I know not where,

Though all the streams of time should seem to flow

Toward despair,

Still this would be my strength and song, to know

That You are there—

Unchanged since You laid down your life just so

I could be spared;

Yes this would be my strength and song, just to know

That You are there.

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Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  And look for Williams’ very latest book, Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis, from Square Halo Books!

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Donald T. Williams, PhD

CLXXXII

 

Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.”  I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

 

The sufferings of Christ on the Cross at that singular moment of space-time history were sufficient to pay for all our sins forever.  But they strangely do not end, not yet.  For He suffers continually along with His persecuted people, asking Saul why he was persecuting Him—and He feels acutely also the wounds they inflict upon themselves.  What the ultimate purpose of these additional sufferings is we do not know.  But they certainly serve to highlight the depths of Christ’s identification with His people.

 

COMMENTARY, HEB. 6:6

 

Behold it, battered beyond recognition:

It gazes, hardly human, through the thorns.

Weeping tears of shame, yet still it scorns

To call down angels and abort the mission.

Wonder, then, how long in this condition

It can endure to be so bruised and torn,

To bear fresh wounds on those already born

And still remain strung up on exhibition.

 

The world looks on and thinks it comprehends:

“Another Promise failed, a Name besmirched;

So must all false Messiahs make amends.”

You recognize, impaled upon its perch,

The Body of our Savior?  Oh, my friends—

This is the other Body of Christ:  the Church.

 

 

Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  And look for Williams’ very latest book, Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis, from Square Halo Books!

IS GOD GOOD?

Is God good?  What does it mean to claim that He is good?  Can a case for a good God be made in a world so permeated by evil and suffering as ours seems to be?  For many people who doubt God’s existence, the issue is not really His existence as such, but really His goodness.  There is after all no successful argument against God’s existence, for that would be proving a negative. But many people think they have a compelling argument against His goodness from the suffering He permits in His world—and if He is not good, why bother with faith in Him anyway?  So one step toward restoring our ability to have faith in Him must be to examine more carefully the idea of His goodness.  Is it even a coherent claim for Christian theists to make?

Let’s begin by assuming for the sake of argument that God exists and created the world as Genesis teaches.  When God created the universe He obviously gave it being and form; He also gave it value by calling it “good” (Gen. 1:4, etc.).  Goodness then flows from God as much as being or design does.  It is therefore also one of His essential attributes.  As C. S. Lewis summarizes it, “God’s will is determined by His wisdom which always perceives, and his goodness which always embraces, the intrinsically good” (Problem of Pain 88).

But what does this mean?  Is it simply circular to say that the good comes from God because God is good?  It is hard to talk about goodness and God without Plato’s “Euthyphro Dilemma” coming up:  Is something good because God says it is, or does God say something is good because it is good?

Plato

Plato

Lewis understood that the dilemma is of course a false dilemma.  The correct answer to it is “neither.”  God’s attribution of goodness to His creation is not an arbitrary decision, nor is it based on some standard external to Himself.  Rather, his own character is the standard for goodness, and we see that this standard is not arbitrary but necessary once we ponder His identity as the Creator alongside Augustine’s analysis of the nature of evil as a privation or perversion of the good.  For creation is inherently a constructive, not a destructive, act.  Creation is creative, not destructive; giving, not taking; orderly and purposeful, not chaotic.  How else could it produce a world that could hold together?  And what else do we mean by “good’?  Evil, on the other hand, is always a perversion of some prior good; otherwise it could not exist at all.  So Lewis asks,   “Is it rational to believe in a bad God?”  No, he concludes: such a God “couldn’t invent or create or govern anything” (A Grief Observed 27).

Lewis was certainly right about this.  We often ask why a good God would create such an imperfect and often painful world.  The answer is that He didn’t.  He permitted the Fall of His world.  But if He had been destructive rather than creative, harmful rather than beneficent, chaotic rather than intelligent and purposeful, there would and could have been no world to fall in the first place.  Creation is of necessity an act of superabounding goodness.  A world that continues to exist and to be redeemable simply cannot have Satan as its source.

"And God saw that it was good."

“And God saw that it was good.”

Lewis confirms the biblical teaching that God is good—or, perhaps more accurately, perceives its necessary truth—by performing two different thought experiments.  The first was trying to imagine an evil god and finding that the idea just won’t work, as we saw above.  The second involves the difficulty of knowing God as evil.  If God were evil, how would we ever know it?  Lewis reasons,  “If a Brute and Blackguard made the world, then he also made our minds.  If he made our minds, he also made that very standard in them whereby we judge him to be a Brute and Blackguard.  And how can we trust a standard which comes from such a brutal and blackguardly source?” (“De Futilitate” 66)

An evil god by definition then is not a knowable god; but we do know something about God.  At least, we have some idea of God.  And so once again we see that to affirm His goodness is not to spin a logical circle but to bow to the necessity of who He is and must be.  Logically, then, God’s goodness is just as necessary a concept as His existence.  And this is consistent with the way Scripture presents Him: as Creator, Judge, Shepherd, and ultimately as the One whom Jesus called Father.  What could be better than that?

Donald T. Williams, PhD, is R. A. Forrest Scholar at Toccoa Falls College and President of the International Society of Christian Apologetics.  For more of his apologetic work see his book Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012) or his other Lantern Hollow books.  Order them ($15.00 + shipping) at https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.

A book that fights back against the encroaching darkness.

A book that fights back against the encroaching darkness.

9/11, Fantasy, and How We Deal With Evil

My theme this month is Instant Plot ideas, but I thought I’d deviate this week.  My post this week falls on September 11th, and I was thinking about how we struggle to cope with evil in this world.    What I believe shocks people most about the event that happened back in 2001 is the sheer villainy required for anyone to voluntarily cause the deaths of so many people.  We have our Hitlers and our Stalins of history, but it’s easy to put those in the past.  They are part of history.  This is still part of our present.

graveyardWhile not everyone ascribes to a set of beliefs in which there is a dichotomy of good and evil, instinctively, most of us still see it in the world.  We can’t help it.  It’s not enough to explain something away by pointing to psychological damage or confusion or perspective differences.  We continually confront evil in the world, even if some of us don’t want to call it that.

This connects, in my mind, to why so many of us write stories, particularly fantasy stories,  and why we are drawn to read them. Within many of those fantasy novels is the great struggle between evil, in some form, and heroism, flawed but irrepressible, and we do not tire of seeing our heroes win.  We read those stories and in some ways, they help us come to terms with what we see happening around us.

A mistake many people make, however, is to view these forays into fantasy as mere “escapism”, as if reading about a world that isn’t “real” makes it somehow irrelevant to real life. The flaw in this reasoning comes when we set up false contrasts between truth vs fiction or fantasy vs reality.  Fiction isn’t the opposite of truth because fiction can reveal truth through its story telling.  And good fantasy certainly isn’t the opposite of reality because it has the ability to use the fantastic elements of its worlds to reveal profound and powerful meaning in our world.  Now, to be fair, many of us do read in order to escape into another world, but we always return to our own and, if the book was good enough, we bring something back with us.

wall of stars washington dc

Here We Mark the Price of Freedom

Tolkien set the standard, but the stories came before him – stories with monsters and dragons and evil knights and wicked kings.  These forces of evil were not “real”, but they represented for their tellers and listeners a reality that was undeniable – Evil exists and we are fighting against it every day.

The most important truth and reality that we can draw from these fantasy villains, however, is that they are temporary forces and they are inevitably the losing side.  A good fantasy novel also  has heroes, and the heroes – at no small cost – are the ones who win in the end.

“Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten” ~ G.K. Chesterton

Now, I am generalizing fantasy novels in this post, since many have deviated from the traditional good vs evil to show less dramatically opposed characters or different scenarios, but I think that the idea is still there – rooted in the genre – and we still read it and write it quite often.  We want to create a believable, shiver-inducing evil because we  want to give our heroes something to defeat.  And through the telling of a “mere story”, we also want to show our readers that evil is a real force in our world, but not the force that wins out in the end, even when it seems like it must. Tolkien called it the “eucatastrophe” of the fairy tale, and there is nothing quite so profound as that sudden turning point from darkness to hope.  It is difficult to cope with the existence of tragedies on any grand scale, and yet our stories include them regularly, because in a story we get to see the ending, and the ending is good.

That glimmer of a picture of how this world’s story will end is nothing if not encouraging.

Just a thought.

Tough Guide to Fantasy Clichés: Dark Lords and Evil

This month, I’m exploring some cliché fantasy concepts through the perspective of Diana Wynne Jones.  We’ve looked at fantasy names and fantasy colour-coding, and now it feels like the right time to bring up the most important issues that our characters might face in their epic fantasy quests, namely the ever present Dark Lord and the encroaching Evil upon our unfortunate heroes’ lands.

DSC_0332.JPGWhen we are pondering what horrors and difficulties we want our characters to face, we have to choose the overarching Problem of the story.  In a fantasy world, it is very tempting to have our heroes facing some sort of great Darkness, a single evil character who is running everything and must be defeated, or some other evil problem.  This is reminiscent, of course, of Tolkien’s Sauron, but other books have followed suit.  Let’s see what Jones has to say about Dark Lords.  Oh, and Dark Ladies.

Dark Lady.  There never is one of these – so see Dark Lord in stead.  The Management considers that male Dark Ones have more potential to be sinister, and seldom if ever employs a female in this role.  This is purely because the Management was born too late to meet my Great Aunt Clara.

Dark Lord.  There is always one of these in the background of every Tour, attempting to ruin everything and take over the world.  He will be so sinister that he will be seen by you only once or twice, probably near the end of the Tour.  Generally he will attack you through Minions, of which he will have large numbers.  When you do get to see him at last, you will not be surprised to find he is black (see Colour Coding) and shadowy and probably not wholly human.  He will make you feel very cold and small.  Actually, when it comes down to it, that is probably all he will do, having almost certainly exhausted his other resources earlier on.  You should be able to defeat him, with a little help from your Companions, without too much effort.  However, the Rules state that at this stage you will be exhausted yourself and possibly wounded by Magic.  So be careful.

I do think it is interesting to note that the leader of any given Dark Force tends to be male.  Not to suggest deliberate misogyny, but why is that?  I’m trying to think of a novel in which the arch-nemesis was a great and all powerful female.  Any thoughts?

Having a Dark Lord is extremely tricky.  What Tolkien accomplished is difficult to emulate without overdoing it.  Dark Lords have a dangerous tendency to be very cliché and often far too dramatic as villains.  I think that fantasy stories have also moved into a less polarizing portrayal of good and evil.  A lot more gray exists now, so having a Dark Lord who is evil for the sake of Evil makes a lot less sense to most readers.  We want a villain with depth and a purpose beyond simply Destroying All Good Things Because It Is Fun.

So what is this insubstantial element called Evil, according to Fantasyland’s Tough Guide?

Evil is generally around somewhere in Fantasyland and seems to cast quite a blight.  It has two states, active and passive.  In the active state, it is rampant, embodied in puppet Kings, Armies of Undead, Monsters, and creeping pollution of the countryside, and it is out to get all Tourists (who are by definition Good).  In its passive state it ponds in deserted spots, where it lies around waiting to be aroused by the unwary.  The active state is usually connected with the Dark Lord, and must be overcome in the course of the Tour.  The passive, when not connected with a predecessor or avatar of the Dark Lord, is either fallout from the Wizards’ War or the work of some God way back at the Beginning of things.  When it is in this form there is not much to be done about it but stay clear.

A soulless bunny would make an excellent villain.

A soulless bunny would make an excellent villain.

The problem of evil extends far beyond the pages of a fantasy novel, of course.  How do we portray something like Evil?  The portrayals of undead armies or monsters or other beings under the Dark Lord’s sway, along with the corruption of the actual landscape, are difficult to manage without being cliché.  The fact is, we want our characters to face and overcome something meaningful, and a fantasy novel is an excellent place to take incorporeal Evil and give it a form.  By representing Evil and sending our hapless heroes off to defeat it, we can represent the greater problem of Evil that we face in both spiritual and physical forms.

However, once again, the dichotomy of Good vs Evil can be too dramatic to allow for the necessary middle ground – the failures of “good” people and the empathy of “evil” ones.  Furthermore, the sheer exhaustion of reading (or writing!) a novel about the scrappy band of heroes facing the seemingly insurmountable problem of All That Is Evil can make that sort of book simply too much.  Living in a Fantasyland shouldn’t be a constant struggle between Good and Evil.  Political intrigues, character-driven stories, and much less drama-ridden adventures can be equally meaningful and enjoyable.

So, I guess the moral here is to choose your Evil with care.

What do you think of the epic Good vs Evil stories as opposed to smaller scale adventures?  And which kind do you prefer to write?