Thursday, September 22

Oxford and Tolkien

Few provincial cities anywhere are more crowded with incident and achievement than the English University city of Oxford. In a short stroll visitors may pass the house where Edmund Halley discovered his comet; the site of Britain's oldest public museum, the Ashmolean; the hall where architect Christopher Wren drew his first plans; the pub where Thomas Hardy scribbled his notes for Jude the Obscure; the track where Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four-minute mile; the meadow where a promising young mathematician named Charles Lutwidge Dodgson refined The Formulae of Plane Trigonometry, An Elementary Treatise on Determinants and, of course his famous children's trifle called Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Walk down the broad and curving High Street, thought by many to be the most beautiful in England, or through the maze of back lanes that wander among the golden, age-worn college buildings, and visitors may follow in the footsteps of Samuel Johnson, Adam Smith, Edward Gibbon, Jonathan Swift, John Donne, Roger Bacon, Cardinal Wolsey, Oscar Wilde, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Indira Gandhi, and Margaret Thatcher, to name just a few who have worked and studied here.

The heart of the city is Carfax—from the Latin quadrifurcua,”four-forked”—from which the main streets run to the four points of the compass.  This was the center of the walled medieval city—built on the foundations of an early Saxon trading settlement which was located near the ford in the river there.

It was in this remarkable environment on this day in 1921 that the esteemed professor of etymology, J.R.R. Tolkien, began to recount the stories of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, Hobbits of Middle Earth—one of the most remarkable achievements in English literature.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, was born in South Africa in 1892.  After a brilliant undergraduate career, he became a medieval scholar, philologist, and professor at the university.  His scholarly work at concerned Anglo-Saxon and medieval literature.

His depth and breadth of scholarship is most evident in the epic works he created about the fantasy world he called Middle Earth. He wrote The Hobbit in 1937 as a children's book. Its sequel, the trilogy entitled The Lord of the Rings—finally published after much anticipation in 1954 and 1955—included The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King.  The work is an imaginative masterpiece that has captured the imagination of generations ever since.  It is a profound tale of the conflict between good and evil told against a backdrop of rich cultures, vibrant characters, and stunning prose and poetry.

Tolkien’s close friend and fellow professor, C.S. Lewis, commented that “such a tale, told by such an imaginative mind, could only have been spawned in such a place as Oxford.”

Tuesday, September 13

Anacreon in Heaven

The War of 1812 had been fiercely raging for two years when Francis Scott Key, a Washington attorney was sent to the British naval command to secure the release of a prisoner when the fleet began to bombard the placements of American fortifications in Baltimore at Fort McHenry.  Key had to watch in agony, wondering if his nation could possibly withstand such a barrage.

Though the battle raged through the night of September 13, 1814, the American defenses stood firm.  The sight of the flag still flying over the fort the next morning inspired the young lawyer to pen the immortal words of the Star Spangled Banner.

Later it was set to a popular English hymn tune, Anacreon in Heaven, and it became a standard in the patriotic repertoire.  Congress officially confirmed it as the national anthem more than a hundred years later, just before the First World War.

Though the first verse of the anthem is well known—sung at the opening of most political and sporting events—the other verses are almost entirely unknown:

O! say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming:
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming,
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there:
O! say, does the star-spangled banner still wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore, dimly seen through the mist of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam—
In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream
‘Tis the star-spangled banner, O! long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

And where is the band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a country would leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave!
And the star-spangled banner in triumph cloth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

O! thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the foe’s desolation;
Bless’d with victory and peace, may our heaven‑rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, for our cause it is just—
And this be our motto—“In God is our trust!”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Friday, September 9

Little Questions

By all accounts, the very first catechism—a manual of Christian doctrine drawn up in the form of questions and answers for the purpose of  instruction in the faith—was compiled by the English scholar Alcuin sometime in the 8th century.  It was followed in the next 100 years by many others, among them those of Notker Labeo, monk of the Abbey of Saint Gall, in Switzerland, and of the German monk Otfried of Weissenburg in Alsace.  Nevertheless, catechisms remained relatively rare until the time of the Reformation.

Because of Martin Luther's insistence on the religious instruction of children, the venerable tradition of the catechism was revived—indeed catechisms became one of the distinctives of Reformation renewal. After Luther published his first little primer of religion, A Brief Explanation of the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord's Prayer in 1520, several other catechisms were prepared by leading Protestant theologians. Luther's visitation of the Saxon churches in 1528 led him to prepare his Larger and Smaller Catechisms the following year.

The Swiss, English, Dutch, and Scottish Reformed also made wide use of catechisms—and a number were published in the 16th century. The most noteworthy were the Geneva and Heidelberg catechisms, and those of the German theologian Johannes Oecolampadius of Basel.  The Swiss reformer Heinrich Bullinger produced a catechism in Z├╝rich in 1555. Likewise, John Calvin produced catechisms for the church in Geneva.  The Smaller Catechism was published in French in 1536 while the Larger Catechism appeared in 1541—both of which were translated into various languages, and became an acknowledged standard of the Reformed churches.

The Heidelberg, or Palatinate, catechism was compiled in Heidelberg by the German theologians Caspar Olevianus and Zacharias Ursinus, at the request of the Elector Frederick III of the Palatinate. It was published in 1563 and was translated into all the languages of Europe. It became the standard of the Dutch and German Reformed churches of America. Soon, even the Roman Catholic church, began producing catechisms—the first was prepared by the Council of Trent and published in 1566. 

The Larger and Shorter Catechisms, which, with the Westminster Confession of Faith, became the standard catechisms of the Presbyterian churches throughout the countries of the former British Empire were compiled by the Assembly of Divines at Westminster between 1645 and 1652.  The very familiar Shorter Catechism opens with the words, “What is the chief end of man?  Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

Amazingly, this little didactic device became the means by which the very foundations of Western culture were reshaped.  As Samuel Johnson asserted, “The little questions and answers of the catechisms afford us a glimpse at the inner framework of the Western view of the world.”

Quo Vadis?

Henryk Sienkiewicz was an international phenomenon a century ago--at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries.  He was trained in both law and medicine.  He was a respected historian.  He was a successful journalist.  He was a widely sought-after critic and editor.  He was an erudite lecturer.  And in addition to all that, he was an amazingly prolific and wildly popular novelist—selling millions of copies of his almost fifty books in nearly three hundred editions in the United States alone.

 He wowed the world with his grace, his learning, his courage, his depth of character, and his evocative story-telling.  His writing includes some of the most memorable works of historical fiction ever penned—raking with the likes of Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Samuel Johnson. 

It was an unlikely destiny for a passionately ethnic novelist from the isolated, feudal, and agrarian Podlasie region of Poland to fulfill. Born in 1846, he lived during one of the most tumultuous periods of Central European history.  Ideological revolutions, utopian uprisings, base conspiracies, nationalistic movements, and imperialistic expansions wracked the continent in the decades between the fall of Napoleon and the rise of Hitler.  Wars and rumors of wars shook the foundations of social order to an extraordinary degree.  His own nation was cruelly and bitterly divided between the ambitions of the Prussian Kaiser and the Russian Czar.  The proud cultural and national legacy of Poland was practically snuffed out altogether—all the distinctive aspects of the culture were outlawed and even the language was fiercely suppressed.

Sienkiewicz became a part of the underground movement to recover the Polish arts—music, poetry, journalism, history, and fiction.  He used the backdrop of the social, cultural, and political chaos to reflect both the tragedy of his people and the ultimate hope that lay in their glorious tenacity.  He was thus, a true traditionalist at a time when traditionalism had been thoroughly and systematically discredited the world over—the only notable exceptions being in the American South and the Dutch Netherlands.  As a result, his distinctive voice rang out in stark contrast to the din of vogue conformity.  Thus, his novels not only introduced the world to Poland, they offered a stern anti-revolutionary rebuke in the face of Modernity’s smothering political correctness.

His massive Trilogy, published between 1884 and 1887, tells the story of an ill-fated attempt to save his homeland from foreign domination during the previous century.  When they were first released in the United States, the books became instant best-sellers.  They made Sienkiewicz a household name—so much so that Mark Twain could assert that he was the first serious, international writer to become an American literary celebrity.  Even so, the Trilogy did not achieve for him even a fraction of the acclaim that came his way with the publication of Quo Vadis? in 1898.  It was nothing short of a phenomenon.  It was the first book the New York Times dubbed a “blockbuster,” and became the standard against which all future mega-best-sellers was judged.

On this day in 1905, Sienkiewicz saw his brilliant career capped when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.

Monday, September 5


The Great Awakening touched every section of the colonial domains of England in the New World—from northern-most New England to southern-most Georgia.  And its impact was enormous.  Interestingly, this cultural and spiritual phenomenon was entirely driven by grassroots evangelism and community cooperation, as Lawrence Tribble’s little ditty, "Awaken," illustrates. 

I found this bit of verse at a Boston library about 20 years ago.  It had been tucked away in the back of a Revolutionary War era Bible, lost for over 200 years.

The contemporary Christian music group, Leeland, has now set these lyrics to music for their upcoming CD, “The Great Awakening.”  I couldn’t be more pleased for a new generation to hear—and heed:

One man awake,
            Awakens another.
The second awakens
            His next-door brother.
The three awake can rouse a town
            By turning
            The whole place
            Upside down.

The many awake
            Can make such a fuss
It finally awakens
            The rest of us.
One man up,
            With dawn in his eyes,
            Surely then
            It multiplies.

Friday, September 2

Boring Is Good

In his masterful novel The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane traced the effects of war on a single Union soldier, Henry Fleming, from his dreams of soldiering, to his actual enlistment, and through several battles of the all too uncivil War between the States. Unhappy with his dull, quiet, and boring life at home on the farm, Fleming yearns to somehow earn glory and renown for his heroic achievements in battle.

After he enlists however, he discovers that a soldier’s life consists of two parts futility, one part confusion, and one part terror. Set at the battle of Chancellorsville--though it actually remains unnamed in the story--the young idealistic soldier is forced by the dumb certainties of experience to become a hardened realistic veteran. And in the process, he comes to the difficult realization that boring is actually a virtue not a vice.

The reality is that boring is what most people are actually yearning for--they just don’t know it. Boring is having time for the things that matter the most; no tyranny of the urgent, no unbidden tasks, and no unexpected tasks to accomplish--it is the ideal adventure. People go halfway around the world to find a secluded beach or a remote cabin or a mountain chalet, just so they can do nothing but be with their family or read a book or create their art in peace. It is dull people who have to be stimulated constantly. For them, something has always got to be going on.

Most modern men and women are addicted to the razzle-dazzle. We want wow. And we want it now. Our whole culture, from popular entertainment to corporate management, is predicated on the idea that our lives ought to be defined by a frenetic go-go-go sense of busyness. There is no time to reflect. No time to think. No time to do anything at all except be busy. So, moms are harried taxi drivers. Dads work 60 hour weeks--and then bring more work home with them.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Somehow, Stephen Crane realized a little over century ago what we are still struggling to come to terms with. He realized it too late to wrench his life away from the precipitous decline of debauchery--though his novel remains a morality tale, a steadfast warning for us. He sold an abridged version of The Red Badge of Courage to the Bachellor-Johnson Syndicate for ninety-dollars on this day in 1894, and it first appeared in the Philadelphia Press about a month later.

Within five years of his greatest achievement, Crane was dead. Suffering from several tuberculosis attacks and a general physical collapse due to his heavy drinking and dissolute lifestyle, Crane was just twenty-eight years old. In his journal he had scratched out a few final words just a day before. Though it was destroyed along with all the rest of his effects, an orderly at the sanitarium reported his last desperate cry, “Oh, to find rest, sweet repose. Why must we grind out our lives in search of vain glories when all that is wanted is home?”