An essay taking evangelicals to task for dabbling in Lent, called Much Ado about Something?, was recommended to me this week. Author Kenneth Stewart’s historical facts were accurate enough, but he espouses a form of primitivism that I simply don’t comprehend. Primitivism is the belief that the apostolic church was a pure church and everything has been going downhill since. The goal of the modern church, therefore, should be to return to the primitive practices of the earliest church. (This sort of pure radicalism I get, although I don’t agree with it.) Stewart’s essay espouses a modified form of primitivism, common in conservative Protestantism, that claims the first century of church history and then church history from 16th century (ie, the Reformation) forward are perfectly good history, but the intervening fourteen centuries need to be, not only ignored, but protected against. The utter arbitrariness of modified primitivism is simply weird beyond my comprehension. (I had this problem back when I was in Bible College, by the way, and it’s probably why I had such problems there and never managed to fit into the evangelical environment.) Needless to say (given the fact that I am now part of the historic church that took it’s form in the intervening centuries) I don’t agree with this view of the world. But the church doesn’t need my defense; the Church is what it is, not what Kenneth Stewart or I try to redefine it as.
At the time I read the anti-Lenten essay, I was also listening to an audio version of Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s fantasy masterpiece.
It’s the intersection of essay and novel that this essay explores.
Both LOTR and The Hobbit contain peculiar outlying characters that do not fit into the storyline. The Hobbit introduces us to Beorn, a skin changer with deep and wonderful powers that allow him to keep evil at bay. Similarly, early in The Lord of the Rings, Tom Bombadil provides succor and protection to the band of four Hobbits who ran into trouble in the Old Forest. The power and wisdom of both Beorn and Old Tom seem to be fundamentally magical in the best Middle Earth sense of that word. Bombadil’s singing communicates to nature in a deep way and it has power over all creatures and things that it runs into. This “magic” (because I don’t know what else to call it) is so powerful that his homestead is a sort of Garden of Eden in the midst of the terrifying Old Forest.
The two characters seem like incidental asides. I’ve heard critics say that a good editor would have removed them from the stories completely because they are inconsequential to the plot. (Although Beorn continues to play a role in The Hobbit.) I am not of this opinion. First, it’s quite notable that two “throw away” characters who are so similar show up in both stories. Second, it’s significant where they show up. In both cases the grand scheme of the world with all the great powers at war with each other, has already been laid out in broad strokes. But before the grand tale of dragons and dwarves (The Hobbit) or the great war between good and evil (LOTR) actually begins to play out, we discover these two odd characters.
I suspect Tolkien is tapping into a profound understanding of the world and how it works. There are the great powers, the military, political, and economic movers who have the ability to shake the world to their advantage. But there is always another contrapuntal secret movement which often has effects that are every bit as profound as the great powers. In the church historically (and here I’m referring to Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic) this mysterious other is embodied in the monastic tradition. The monks reject the world and all it stands for; they cloister themselves and do little or nothing practical. They pray. They are a net drain on society. The whole endeavor seems contrary to Jesus’ teaching to go out into the world … and yet the true power of the church is embodied in the monks.
Although Protestantism rejected monasticism, the same spirit imbues the various communions. For instance, a group of Moravians felt called by God to minister to the slaves on Hispaniola. But the only way to get to the island was to be a slave, so they sold themselves into slavery. Although they have become something different than their original form, the Hutterites rejected the world utterly and live in farming colonies, only having enough interaction with the world that they can survive in their lifestyle. To this day there is a large group of German Mennonite farmers who abandoned the world, moving to Belize (then, about as far from anywhere as one could possibly go). They continue to thrive in central Belize.
Monasticism and the monastic spirit represented by the monks and in these various Protestant groups makes little logical sense. To borrow an idea from Tolkien’s friend, C.S. Lewis, in his Narnia Chronicles, these people follow a deeper logic that seems madcap to those of us who have engaged the spiritual battle and seek to be involved with the mighty powers and grand spiritual conflicts. And this deeper logic leads to remarkable but little known or understood power. It may be localized; it may be specialized, but it witnesses to things too deep to see and too mysterious to comprehend.
The above cited article complains that Lent, when it finally got started at all, was originally some small fast during Holy Week. Over the years through accretion the practices of Lent grew both geographically and in length and complexity. This is true. In fact, the recommended Orthodox Lenten disciplines are actually designed for monastics, not for lay people. Some Orthodox argue strenuously that ordinary folk should quit trying to be so spiritually athletic. We should ease the fasting guidelines. But the fast persists, because people have tasted, in some small way, that there is a deep and great power at work here, and they too want to participate in some small way that extends far beyond tasting of the Eucharist, singing in the choir, and getting scolded in the sermon.
The great war between the great powers proceeds. Some people are extremely militant about it, marching on abortion clinics, chaining themselves to the fences around nuclear sites (although the same Christians probably don’t participate in both these activities), writing to congress, and marching on Washington. But sometimes, as the great spiritual battle of the ages unfolds, people stumble upon, or are touched by, the amazing spiritual power embodied by those who have withdrawn and dive deeply into the quiet spiritual power of ascetic prayer.
For those that love the grand story of history and the possibility of the victory of Christianity, this stuff is an aside, a rabbit track, and should be edited out of the story. Others recognize that even though it’s strange and doesn’t seem to fit into the larger story at all, it’s integral. Ultimately, there could be no victory over Smaug the Dragon, or even Mordor, if it weren’t for a variety of unsung recluses who understand the “ancient deep magic” (again, a C.S. Lewis term) and know how to participate in it to defeat evil.
To this extent Kenneth Stewart is on to something. Evangelicals ought not be dabbling in spiritual disciplines they don’t really understand. Actually I suspect Stewart sells people short. Just because he doesn’t understand the deep logic of the Lenten fast doesn’t mean people who are exploring a more physical faith don’t understand it. But to the extent that his accusation is accurate, he is right. Old Tom Bombadil gave the Hobbits specific directions about how to get out of the Old Forest and back to the road. In spite of the careful directions, the Hobbits managed to get themselves caught and nearly killed by a barrow-wight. After rescuing them, Tom accompanied them all the way out of the forest because they could not fully follow his directions.
Stewart appears to think people shouldn’t the participate in corporate fasts merely because they’re something that was discovered by someone other than the apostles and John Calvin. But while his reasoning is both arrogant and shallow, his instincts are correct. Messing with Tom Bombadil’s power in the Old Forest is a dangerous thing if you don’t know the whole story and can’t follow directions. Similarly, the true fast, incorporating prayer, corporate worship, alms, physical disciplines, and humility, to name a few, is dangerous for those who don’t know the whole story and can’t follow directions. A discipline such as the Lenten Fast strips one of pretense and outer protection. If one fasts (the taking off) without the associated spiritual exercise (the putting on) it leaves one vulnerable to serious satanic attack. It’s not something to merely fiddle with; it’s the preparation for an act of spiritual war.
Stewart is dismissive of “the current chase after Lent.” Ah, if only more Evangelicals would chase after true spiritual power and not be satisfied with their Tradition (sans 14 centuries).