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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Why Christians Should Read Tolkien

This article is an excerpt from the book Why Should I Learn This. To order click here:

Why Should Christians Learn Tolkien? 
Henry Russell, Ph.D. 

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to Father Robert Murray, SJ, “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.”1  
In response to the poet W.B. Auden’s review of The Return of the King, Tolkien noted, “In the LOTR the conflict is not basically about ‘freedom’, though that is naturally involved. It is about God, and his sole right to divine honour.”2  
Since these two quotations, from among many similar ones, reveal Tolkien’s deepest intentions, then why should it be at all necessary to write of why Christians should learn Tolkien in the third millennium? One reason is silly: The author wrote some provocative words about detesting allegory, which have been taken far too seriously. When examined clearly, all Tolkien meant was that he hated bad allegory—or at least obvious allegory, like John Bunyan’s great Pilgrim’s Progress. But the Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraphs 115-130)3 makes it clear that allegory is fundamental to all of being. Tolkien might as usefully have hated the law of gravity. A somewhat better reason is that Tolkien wanted to write a tale that had a complete and fully realized vividness on its own terms, without reference to even the greatest of books, the Bible. He also knew this kind of tale might fascinate even those who claimed to hate the greatest of books, as more and more moderns who have never read the Bible pretend to do. 
There is a third, less compelling, reason. In the first fifty years of the twentieth century, the enemies of Christ used to appeal to reason in foolish attacks on Him. In practice, the word reason was anemically narrowed to mean that an “educated” person should feel obliged to state as fact only what could be proven by scientific experimentation. This obligation rather narrows serious intellectual debate, since science has nothing meaningful it can prove about justice, love, beauty, God, or most of the things that make life worth living. One was not supposed to start with God, since He did not allow Himself to be seen, touched, or tasted in a petri dish. Miracle was viewed as gauche precisely because it is about the impossible. Science, remember, demands permission to deal only with the naturally possible. Yet, some people then expect men to talk about nothing else but what science can prove! It is as if humans and dogs should all agree to say nothing that cannot be expressed by barking.  
Christians, for complex reasons that may never have made any sense, in large measure acceded to these demands to speak of the supernatural in mostly natural terms. To paraphrase what Flannery O’Connor wrote in her short story Greenleaf, gentlemen of this time believed that the name of Jesus, like sex, was fit to be discussed only in the privacy of the bedroom. Great scholar-writers like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien seem to have followed these rules rather scrupulously in their teaching and scholarship. Lewis did rebel with gusto, however, in his fictional works, ranging from The Pilgrim’s Regress and The Screwtape Letters to The Chronicles of Narnia to The Redemption Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandraand That Hideous Strength). Tolkien, on the other hand, tried to keep to the old gentleman’s agreement to a large extent, even in his fiction. To fill his world with spirit and the miraculous, he decided to resort to the vehicles of fairy tales and cultures full of warriors and wizards, tales that he knew flourished in medieval Catholic soil, but most of his readers did not. Perhaps this was a fault. If so, it was a happy one. 
Since the 1960s, the enemies of Christ have more and more overtly abandoned any belief in reason; it always was the province of those who believe in stable cosmic ordering (that is, a universe with a God). Reason only makes sense when God ensures there are indeed laws and rules to the game. Once a person swallows the camel of atheism, the gnat of reason will soon follow downward into humanity’s vast well of self-regard. It is ironic then that the best answer to those who believe in no reason is precisely the supernatural and the miraculous. It is thus time for criticism to show just how (even to his own surprise) Tolkien’s Catholicism insisted on welling up and creating the internal combustion of his immortal works.  
If we begin with Tolkien’s simplest workThe Hobbit (originally written to amuse his own children), we find an astonishingly original work with profound moral themes lurking beneath its “children’s book” surface. Just five out of ten and more of these themes include the following:  1) The desire in the completely comfortable and materially satisfied person for a better self and a greater world. This desire, which shocks Bilbo Baggins when he discovers it in himself, is the intimation of heaven that exists in the most spiritually dull modernist.  2) The fact that what seems the far, far past continues powerfully to shape the present.  This is true, whether what emerges from the past are great contributions of the Elves or the continued traces of their greater and forgotten wars with Sauron, behind the struggles of Bilbo’s own day. For us, of course, such powerful ideas range from the great revelations of God to the contributions of Plato and the Founding Fathers of the United States. The war is the same war as in Tolkien: the constant battle between those who worship God and those who follow Satan.   
3) The way evil beings habitually make a strong pretense of concern for justice and fairness, and how the long-continuance in evil habits brings inevitable degradation. Here, we think of the sly words of the dragon and his own complacent stupidity about his invincibility.   
4) Perhaps most important to Tolkien was the discovery of his own belief in Providence and man’s need for fortitude to cooperate with it. The Hobbit constantly returns to the theme of how events, big or little, fair or foul appearing, all seem to help direct Bilbo’s paths to good, if he only keeps up his courage. After all is done, Gandalf chides the great Halfling, “You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck?” And in the end, as a wiser Hobbit, Bilbo thanks goodness, not himself.   
5) It was while writing this book, I believe, that Tolkien discovered how deeply he believed in the necessity for an earthly king, someone who can be the standard bearer for a whole society or for the world of moral values. In The Hobbit, he gradually made Thorin Oakenshield, with all his defects, the first kind of king. Gandalf the Grey became the second kind. While we may look in vain for Thorin’s courage and goodness of heart in the political rule of our own time, the great pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI certainly have been true portraits of the moral sovereign.  
If one can find such treasures in what Tolkien started as a children’s book, what might we find in his magnum opusThe Lord of the Rings? How majestic is the author’s intent when he tells us, “It is about God, and his sole right to divine honour.”4 Who could write a book with a better purpose? What literary men have had such a vision beside Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and Lewis? Again, we will begin to see just why Christians should indeed read Tolkien, if we take five out of some fourteen clear patterns which I have traced elsewhere in LOTR 
First and most obvious is the ever-present theme of the importance of self-sacrifice for good—and not merely the good of one’s own beloved self, family, or country, either. Each of the hobbits, the elves, Aragorn, the men of Rohan and oGondor, the Ents, and Gandalf all exhibit a kind of unselfish giving of all they have, just as Christ taught all humans to do, even unto sacrificial death for the good of others one has never seen. This sacrifice may take the form of Crusade, as with Gondor and Rohan, or it may be the quiet self-immolation of Frodo and Sam.  
Second, an intimately related theme is that of resurrection: Gandalf, Aragorn, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Eowyn all tread the paths of death and darkness only to be returned to life again. Each in his or her own way reminds the reader that the immortality of the Elves is the base line of Middle Earth.  
 Third, the Ring of Sauron, itself, made as a vile imitation of rings that sustain and nourish life, is one of Tolkien’s greatest creations, a perfect symbol for the fallen creature’s desire to be as God. Yet, always, that God-play turns from sustaining life to creating foul parodies of true creation—parodies which the wielder of the Ring desires to master in every detail, and which can only hate and fear their demonic master. It is a desire that infects every creature that comes near the Ring (except Tom Bombadil of course), just as each sinful human both desires to rebel against true authority and set himself up as his own lawless God over others. 
Fourth, a great counter-symbol of Tolkien’s is the mysterious quality of lembas, the way-bread of the Elves. It tastes like dust and choking ashes in the mouths of the wicked, burning Gollum to his soul, but when taken as the only food by Frodo and Sam, it seems enough to sustain their whole journey against the dark Lord, as the Holy Eucharist has sustained numerous saints for many years. In the end, this Eucharistic gift is all that is powerful enough to sustain the hobbits in the epicenter of the kingdom of evil.  
And, finally, it is well to consider the whole existence of the Elves in Tolkien. The author says that the journey from Hobbiton to Gondor is really the journey from the insularity of England to Rome. Yet Gondor is not only the habitation of men; the Elves were the ancient co-founders with men of the Numenorian and Gondorian kingdoms. Most of what is best in them comes from the Elves. The wisdom, the merriment, the sheer indefectibility of the Elves, combined with their role as innovators and conservers of all that is beautiful, good, kind, and useful makes them, to the meditative mind, a type of the Christian Church itself. They made the culture of Middle-earth just as the Catholic Church made the culture of the West. And if, at times, the Elves seem more like angels than men, we must remember that men are both spirit and flesh, so they are like us and unlike. 
Many homeschools will never ask their children to read The Silmarillion or The History of Middle-Earth (assembled by Tolkien’s son Christopher)volumes which elaborate the vast history Tolkien conceived of as being behind The Lord of the Rings. Yet, it is good to know that here, Tolkien created an analogue to the Biblical creation story—one that, like Milton’s Paradise Lost, went freely beyond the sources. Tolkien’s story is the same saga of the glory of God (Iluvatar), the love of the Angels, the Fall of Satan, and the spreading of evil through Middle-earth. It is, therefore, also a story of God’s work to recall and redeem His creation, a story that, like Jaweh’s pursuit of the House of Israel, is deeply beautiful and tragic, involving not just one fall, but also the falling of created beings over and over. It is in these works, where Tolkien creates his own mythology, that he is seen to be truly closest to the great sources of Greek tragedy and Biblical comedy in which we see all the depths of life reflected.  
Tolkien wrote tales that were designed not to sound specifically Christian, but were structured to the very bone on the principles and wisdom of Christian teachings. It remains good and helpful that they can thus call homeward those who are ready only for the four cardinal virtues, for honor, and for the sheer intuition of Goodness behind the universe. But it is more important than ever that Christians see the power and the glory of the kinds of literature that their faith has inspired. As the forces of evil are incessantly heard in the media of the disappearing word, it is high time for Christians to claim their own in the pantheon of words that will last as long as the English language can still be read. 

Dr. Russell offers several online courses for middle and high school students that are based on books by J. R. R. Tolkien. These courses can be found at 

Monday, September 26, 2016

How to Homeschool Children of Multiple Ages

Photo Credit: Allison@TotusTuusFamily

By Maureen Wittmann

One the struggles homeschoolers often face is teaching children in multiple grades. The hardest part for me in homeschooling multiple children was when they were all little. When I had a 7, 5, 3, and 1 year old. Everyone needed my constant attention and no one was quite ready to work independently.

First, I had to learn to relax a bit. The best advice I ever got was from my friend Becky, which was “Skip kindergarten.” Instead of using a heavy curriculum at that tender age, the children and I played together and read together. We got outside and explored, we got on the floor and built blocks, we cooked together, and read endlessly. These are all things that can be done with babies in tow and littles attached to your leg.

I learned to work around nap times, I read while nursing the baby, and I figured out how to make play educational.

There were times when I had to let go of an orderly house. Like the day when the 3-year old pulled all the books off the book shelves while I helped the 7-year old with a science experiment at the kitchen table.

Another idea that worked at my house was to combine talents with a homeschooling friend. One of you can work with the littles, while the other works with older children.

As your children get older, you’ll find homeschooling multiples gets much easier. First, teach them to work independently. Encourage them to learn and discover on their own. Make sure they see your joy in learning yourself to encourage them.

Figure out what subject works well in your family across the ages. For my family, that was history. We studied history together as a family, while adjusting independent reading and assignments to their grade level.

Finally, have older siblings help younger siblings. For example, I have a daughter who was a big help to me by working with the younger kids in math. Not only did it free up my time, but helped reinforce her own lessons. We learn best by teaching, right? In fact, that daughter recently graduated from college with a degree in mathematics.

Leave a comment if you have other ideas for helping parents working with many children of multiple ages.

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Joy of Reading Aloud

This article originally appeared at Catholic Mom on October 12, 2015.

This is the first of a three-part series by Maureen Wittmann. To come: The Art of Reading Aloud and The Educational Benefits of Reading Aloud.

“My papa is dead!” she kept whispering to herself. “My papa is dead!”
As I read these lines from A Little Princess, my six-year-old daughter Mary and I cried. Our hearts poured out for the Little Princess. In sharing the deep emotions of the story’s heroine, Sara Crewe, my daughter and I grew closer.
That 6-year old child is now a 23-year-old wife and mother. I believe our read-aloud time throughout her childhood helped to shape Mary into the woman she is today. A woman any mother would be proud to call daughter.
Reading books aloud to children for enjoyment creates bonds that will never be broken. By sharing common adventures through stories we come together as a family. I believe children will share their thoughts, their feelings, more naturally if they are accustomed to reading aloud with their parents.
Think about little 6-year-old Mary and me crying together, cuddled on the couch, sharing emotions. As a child grows into adolescence and later into adulthood, it’s important for that child to share her emotions with her parents. It’s important that children are comfortable going to their mom or dad when they are in trouble or when they are feeling strong emotions – fear, sadness, and, yes, joy as well.
When my daughter went through the bumps and hurdles of growing up, I wanted her to be comfortable coming to me to talk about them. This would give me the opportunity to help her and guide her. Just as we cried together when little Sarah Crewe’s papa died, we cried together when real life tragedies entered into our real life. We also laughed together and shared many special, happy moments together.
For more than a decade now, I’ve led middle school and high school book clubs. I’ve also taught high school literature for our local homeschool co-op. Last spring the son of a dear friend sat in on my literature class to see if it’s something he wanted to join the following year.
When I asked what kind of fiction he enjoyed, he let me and the class know that he doesn’t like fiction because “fiction isn’t real.” Aghast, I asked my students if they agreed fiction is not real. The room lit up and everyone was talking at once.
One boy explained, “Fiction is real because it shares real emotion. Sure, when I read Ender’s Game I was aware it’s unlikely the Earth will be attacked by giant alien bugs anytime soon. But there were real problems, and real emotions, and real heroes.”
Another student pointed out that “Maybe bad fiction is fake, but good fiction is real. It’s real because it possesses natural law. It’s real because it reflects the One, True story.”
Yet another student stated, “Good fiction reflects society. Look at Fahrenheit 451 and other dystopias. The first thing fascist governments do is ban fiction and only allow nonfiction. Why is that? I think it’s because fiction is more real than nonfiction. Nonfiction doesn’t stir real emotions.”
That prompted another student to bring up Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which stirred a nation to rise up against slavery. It was a fictional book that brought the horrors of slavery to the forefront of a nation’s brain.
Those students were making real bonds through reading literature. One of the things I love about leading homeschooled students in literature clubs and classes is that most of them come with a deep love for the written word. I believe this is because most of them have been raised on a healthy diet of read-aloud time.
The bonds created through read aloud time are not only for children. My mom, who passed away last year, loved to be read to. In her later years, suffering from failing health, she would ask me to read to her. It was a very special time together. And you know what she wanted me to read to her? Nancy Drew!
I know more than one married couple, including my oldest son and his wife, and another couple with 4 children, who read aloud to one another. I can’t imagine many things that are more romantic. You’re never to old to read to one another.
One of the wonderful things about reading aloud to your child is that you are also, in essence, reading aloud to your future grandchildren, great grandchildren, and so on. Remember my daughter Mary? She is a mother of a beautiful 2-year-old son. She has read to him from Day One. When Richie comes to visit, he goes to the picture books, on his own, and picks out a selection. He’ll then climb onto the easy chair waiting to be read to. Since his sister was born 5 months ago he can be found with a book in hand, reading to her.
Not only does reading aloud improve your children’s lives but also future generations. They know intuitively that they should read to their children. You’re passing the torch.
You can also help your child grow spiritually through reading aloud. It gives you the opportunity to discuss moral dilemmas presented in the story and to ask your children open-ended questions about the characters and their actions. This opens up the lines of communication between parent and child.
Jesus taught us through story, through parables, 46 parables in fact. Jesus used images and characters taken from everyday life to illustrate his message to us. His stories appeal to young and old, poor and rich, educated and uneducated alike. They move our hearts.
Just as my literature students shared, good stories stir our hearts. They create emotions that move us to action. They reflect the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. Jesus didn’t just tell us, “Be kind to others”, he told us the parable of the Good Samaritan. He didn’t just tell us, “Share the Good News”, he told us the parable of the Lamp Under the Basket. He didn’t just tell us, “If you lose faith, I’ll still watch over you and I’ll rejoice when you find it again”, he told us the parable of the Lost Sheep.
I encourage you, if you don’t already, make read-aloud time a regular event in your home.