Culture At Large

Inspiration, Sub-creation and the Authority of Texts

Paul Vander Klay

I listen to different podcasts differently. I settle down a noisy ADHD brain to do menial chores by listening to tech podcasts, but when I have time to really listen I chose other more meaty topics. The Tolkien Professor is one that I enjoy.

After visiting a sad, angry, dying man in a crummy nursing home I wanted something a bit less surfacy for the way home so I settled in for a discussion on social class in Tolkien. Both the topic and the discussion were good but what caught my attention was the passion of the conversation about this work of fiction. I've written about my love of Tolkien before. It was clear from the discussion of these two Tolkien lovers that for them the LOTRs and other Tolkien works had a sense of inspiration and authority. You could hear through their discussion that clearly the art was revelatory for them and that it was shaping their perspectives on themselves, American culture, our value of egalitarianism all with an openness to freely submitting themselves in a way to JRR Tolkien. They wished to learn from him. They trust him. They love him.

Tolkien spoke about his projects as a sort of sub-creation. Part of God's image in us that one of the things we were given by him was the capacity to create but all of our creations are derivative and dependent upon the primary creation. Good sub-creations are also revelatory of it. Art is revelatory in within the bounds of general revelation which is likely far more revelatory that many Christians find comfortable. (Shout out to John Van Sloten.)

One of the real stumbling blocks for many outside the church, in rebellion from the church or resisting the church is the notion of an inspired and authoritative text. Christian attitudes towards this text are seen as offensive, simplistic, and abusive. For some groups there is such a strong cultural narrative that sees the Bible used as legitimizing for the oppression of gays and women, slavery and historical acts of genocide. It is asserted that the act of submitting to any holy book is irresponsible and problematic. Somehow we imagine we perform better as autonomous free agents making all books our servants rather than our masters. I'm not so sure.

Deep within us there is a need to serve, to worship, to submit. We create art but what we value in really good art is its power over us.

I'm doing the book of Ecclesiastes for my men's group and last week we wrestled with 3:11 where it says that God has put eternity into our hearts. Even though this verse gets ripped out of context and plastered about in innumerable ways in the context of Ecclesiastes I think it speaks to the fact that our hearts are never satisfied with what they find under the sun. Though we share the stuff-of-earth-flesh with the beasts of the field we are drawn to something beyond the age of decay and when we can't find that satisfaction in our surroundings we try to create it ourselves in order to submit to it. This dynamic reveals the deceit which can become idolatry and Augustine's core insight of our desire.

If we imagine we are masters and not servants we deceive ourselves. We will find books to love, to serve, to venerate, to guide even if we have to write them ourselves.

Topics: Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Books