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Tag Archives: J. R. R. Tolkien

Well, Look What We Have Here!

My wife’s been gone this past week, visiting family back in Wisconsin. So, what’s an old book junkie going to do to pass the time but go book hunting at his favorite thrift stores and library book sales? Not too predictable, am I?

I won’t go into all the books I came up with, but I will brag about my favorite find of the week. Resting inconspicuously on the bottom shelf of the religion section at the Prescott Public Library was the complete two-volume set titled “The Gifts of the Child Christ: Fairy Tales and Stories for The Childlike,” by George Mac Donald, edited by Glenn Edward Sadler. It’s a collection of the shorter fairy tales and stories by this famous author who influenced such writers as C.S.Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. It was originally published in 1973 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., and the two-volume set cost $7.95 at the time. Can you imagine that? I’d hate to see what it would cost today!

I’d post a photo, but my wife has the camera. I’ll try to get a pic up here soon.

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Posted by on September 7, 2014 in Authors, Book Hunting, Libraries, Old Books

 

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The Dark is Rising

The Dark is Rising is the second novel in Susan Cooper’s five book The Dark is Rising sequence. After the almost leisurely adventure in Over

This is the second book of a five book sequence.

This is the second book of a five book sequence.

Sea, Under Stone, Ms Cooper kicks the conflict between the Light and the Dark into high gear in this book.

Instead of a seaside village in Cornwall, this tale begins in the English countryside at the home of a large family, the Stantons. A real large family. Mom, Dad, seven boys and three girls. The story centers on the youngest, Will, who is about to turn eleven, three days before Christmas. But he won’t just be turning eleven. He will be coming of age, so to speak, as an Old One. Actually, Will is the last of the Old Ones.

Helping him in this endeavor is the one character from the first book to appear here; Merriman Lyon, AKA Great-Uncle Merry to Barney, Jane and Simon. If you’ve read the first book, you know Merriman is far from ordinary, and he makes no pretense of being some distant relative or family friend here. Will gets to know him as he really is, an Old One of exceptional power. Indeed, Merriman is a wizard of Gandalf-like stature, sharing many of the Tolkien character’s mannerisms, habits and speaking patterns. It’s hard not to think that Ms Cooper patterned Merriman on Gandalf. But, of course, he is not. He is the appearance of perhaps the most famous wizard of western lore: Merlin. Cooper never comes right out and tells us this, though she came close at the end of Over Sea, Under Stone.

Will’s becoming an Old One involves a large amount of learning and, naturally, a quest. The quest here is for a set of six signs of power that must be brought together, or “joined.” The signs are circles quartered by a cross and are made of wood, bronze, iron, water, fire and stone, respectively. Oh, and not all of them are present in Will’s own time. The Dark must prevent Will from gathering these signs, for they have the power to stop the Dark from ascending to dominate the world.

The plot in The Dark is Rising moves forward briskly, with nicely placed twists and turns. Along the way, Cooper exposes young minds to some important ideas, including the notion that humans are free to choose between good and evil, the nature of time and history, and the cleverness of the Dark in using people’s good emotions to accomplish evil. Even better, in this book the author sets loose the forces of magic to wonderful effect. Unlike some modern fantasy authors, Ms Cooper has respect for the magic and doesn’t use it as a sideshow. It is integral to the story she is telling. And it’s a good thing that Merriman and Will have some powerful magic available to them because in The Dark is Rising, the forces of the Dark are immensely more ominous and threatening than in the first book. In fact, as book races to its finish the sense of evil’s relentlessness is conveyed very effectively.

While this book is a good read on its own, it’s clear that Ms Cooper is still putting things in place for the rest of the series. I’m looking forward to seeing where she goes with it. Next up, Greenwitch.

__________

Here are some reasons I consider this one of the “good stories:”

          – Positive depiction of a large family and its interactions.

          – Accurate portrayal of Anglican church service. Church shown as positive aspect of family life.

          – Examines serious and important ideas about life, including free will, and the nature of good and evil.

          – Imparts a sense of wonder about the world.

          – Shows the virtues of hope and faith in the face of dire circumstances.

 
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Posted by on September 1, 2014 in Book Review, Children's Books, What I'm Reading

 

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Another Wardrobe, A New Adventure

If you’ve read my previous post, you know that I’ve begun reading a new fantasy series called The Dark is Rising Sequence, written by Susan Over Sea, Under StoneCooper. The sequence consists of five books: “Over Sea, Under Stone,” “The Dark is Rising,” “Greenwitch,” “The Grey King,” and “Silver on the Tree.” The first book was published in 1965 and the last in 1977. So many fantasy book publishers these days try to claim their novels are in the tradition of Tolkien, but this lady is the real deal, having gone to Oxford and attended lectures by both Tolkien and Lewis.

“Over Sea, Under Stone,” starts out with a well-paid homage to C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” Barney, Jane and Simon Drew arrive in the quaint seaside village of Trewissick, in Cornwall, for a vacation with their parents. The highlight for them isn’t so much the location but the person who’ll be staying with them: their Great-Uncle Merry. “Gumerry,” as they affectionately call him, has arranged for them to stay in a sea captain’s residence called the Grey House, a tall, dark-grey structure high on a steep hill overlooking the harbor. The day after they arrive it begins to rain and the children are, of course, bored. They decide to play at explorers and explore the house. Beginning to sound a tad familiar? In the boys’ bedroom there’s an alcove with a wardrobe in it. No, they don’t open it and crawl in. They pull it away from the wall and find a hidden door covered in dust. Behind the door there’s a stairway that leads up into the attic and to their adventure.

Nicely done, Ms. Cooper.

While the children don’t wind up in a parallel world such as Narnia, they do find that the world they live in has changed unalterably. In the attic, they find some kind of ancient map or chart with strange writing, Latin perhaps, on it. Simon, the oldest, claims it is a treasure map, but Barney, the youngest (and perhaps the smartest!) points out it’s not so much a map as a puzzle with lots of clues to be deciphered. And the challenge begins! Not just to find the treasure – and what a treasure! – but to keep this ancient document out of the hands of others who want it also.

It turns out that Great-Uncle Merry has been looking for it too. But that’s alright. He is, after all, one of the good guys. The rest of the players the kids encounter? Well, that’s part of the fun of this novel. Trying to figure out who the bad ones are. Some are obvious, some are not. But the kids have to weave their way around these characters on their quest to figure out what and where their treasure is. They are helped along by Great-Uncle Merry, who isn’t their uncle at all but a family friend of long-standing. The most intriguing character in this novel, Merry’s full name is Merriman Lyon and he’s described as being “old as the hills.” He’s also quite striking: “He was tall, and straight, with a lot of very thick, wild, white hair. In his grim brown face the nose curved fiercely, like a bent bow, and the eyes were deep-set and dark.” He helps the children by talking with them and pointing them in the right direction, but doesn’t always accompany them in their exploits. In fact, he tends to wander off periodically to see to other matters. Kind of like another tall, white-haired character we know from Middle-Earth. No, it’s not really him. A distant cousin, maybe.

Cooper has a real talent for letting us see things through the children’s eyes. As they put the clues together and grow bolder in their searching, their confidence grows. There are encounters with the dark forces, but Cooper shows us that evil doesn’t always display itself in overtly threatening ways. We also never know exactly what the ultimate goal of the dark is, which actually adds to the sense of mystery. There are touches of the supernatural in the story, but the author is wise enough to keep it brief and not overwhelming. The centerpiece of the story is the children’s quest, not someone’s magical powers. Indeed, Barney, Jane and Simon use their own wits and moxy to attain their goal. And courage. In the final chapter, Barney and Simon have theirs seriously tested in a harrowing sequence in a cave beneath some cliffs facing the sea. With the tide coming in. And matches running out. And . . . well, you’re just going to have to read this yourself.

It won’t be a spoiler to tell you that the Drew kids are successful in their quest. They find the treasure before the bad guys, but the bad guys aren’t defeated either. They disappear with the implied promise of return. But hasn’t that been the pattern for millenia? There’s also a nice surprise at the end, though perhaps not a big one for astute readers. The big surprise for me is that a story showing young people using their minds and courage to face up to evil and coming out on top isn’t more widely read.

______

As a guide, here are a few reasons I consider this one of the “good stories” for young people:

          – It shows young people using their brains and taking the initiative to solve problems.

          – It displays the virtue of courage.

          – It acknowledges the existence of evil and the need to oppose it.

          – Clever plot and likable characters.

          – Introduces young ones to aspects of the Arthurian legend and some of its themes.

 
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Posted by on August 12, 2014 in Book Review

 

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Was Lost, But Now . . .

OK. I haven’t been writing much lately. Actually, I haven’t been writing anything lately. At least not here. I’ve written a couple of articles for my

This is the second book of a five book sequence.

This is the second book of a five book sequence.

church’s monthly bulletin, but that’s about it. Why? To be honest, I don’t really know. I guess you could call it a dry spell. I’ve been told writers get those periodically. Of course, I’m being generous considering myself a writer.

At any rate, I’ve felt a need for some new direction or purpose in this blog. That last quote I posted back in May has been rolling around in my mind. We definitely need to be more aware of what we put in our heads, especially the stories we consume. Naturally, I’m referring to the books we read, but I could just as well mean the stories we watch on TV or at the movies. The key word is “stories.” We need, all of us, to be telling ourselves better stories. And if this is true for us adults, it is even more critical that we make sure our children are hearing and seeing good stories.

Part of what has brought this into sharper focus for me is a new fantasy series I’ve started reading. It’s called “The Dark is Rising” sequence, by Susan Cooper. There are five books in the sequence; “Over Sea, Under Stone,” “The Dark is Rising,” “Greenwitch,” “The Grey King,” and “Silver on the Tree.” What makes this series of particular interest is the author and her background. You can read a nice article and interview with Ms. Cooper here, but let me just give you an appetizer. She went to Oxford where she attended lectures by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Then she worked at The Sunday Times of London where her editor was another author you may have heard of: Ian Fleming. Yes, she has the qualifications.

She also has the right story. But I’ll let Great-Uncle Merry explain that to you:

“You remember the fairy stories you were told when you were very small – ‘once upon a time . . . ‘ Why do you think they always began like that?”

Jane said, . . . “Because perhaps they were true once, but nobody could remember when.”

Great-Uncle Merry turned his head and smiled at her.

“That’s right. Once upon a time . . . a long time ago . . . things that happened once, perhaps, but have been talked about for so long that nobody really knows. And underneath all the bits that people have added, the magic swords and lamps, they’re all about one thing – the good hero fighting the giant, or the witch, or the wicked uncle. Good against bad. Good against evil.”

And these stories about good against evil are still the great ones, the ones that resonate inside our hearts and minds. The reason for this is pretty simple. To quote Great-Uncle Merry once again, “That struggle goes on all round us all the time, like two armies fighting.” Though today it can be more subtle than a knight battling a dragon, it is there none the less. We are stirred because these stories remind us there are still great things to fight for. This is something all of us need to remember in today’s secular world where the line between good and evil is constantly blurred by the pernicious idea of relativism. Yes, ideas can be evil too. And there are a lot of them out there these days.

Dean Koontz wrote in one of his books that one can spend a lifetime fighting bad ideas. This is so true, and it’s a battle all of us can and should take part in. As for me, I think I will wage my campaign by promoting the good stories, both the great classics and the newer ones that hit the mark. Let’s all of us start reading and hearing and seeing the good stories again. It will take a conscious effort, because it is so easy just to settle for what is put out by today’s culture and media. But it will be worth it.

I plan to start by reviewing the first book of The Dark is Rising sequence, “Over Sea, Under Stone,” by Susan Cooper. And, yes, I promise it won’t take me another three months!

 

 
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Posted by on August 2, 2014 in Children's Books, What I'm Reading, Worries

 

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The Theology of Friendship

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...

Stained glass at St John the Baptist’s Anglican Church http://www.stjohnsashfield.org.au, Ashfield, New South Wales. Illustrates Jesus’ description of himself “I am the Good Shepherd” (from the Gospel of John, chapter 10, verse 11). This version of the image shows the detail of his face. The memorial window is also captioned: “To the Glory of God and in Loving Memory of William Wright. Died 6th November, 1932. Aged 70 Yrs.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My last post was on the theological virtues as expounded in Louis Markos’ book, “On the Shoulders of Hobbits.” Of course he covered the familiar trio of faith, hope and love, but then he threw in a fourth one: friendship. That one had me scratching my head a bit. I can agree that friendship is a virtue, but a theological virtue? Then I started thinking about it.

Darn, I hate when that happens!

A little research, a little scripture reading and it started to make sense. In fact, friendship fits in perfectly with faith, hope and love. Before I go into how this all works together, let’s take a look at friendship in general, and in the eyes of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien in particular.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of Lewis or Tolkien not only knows the two were close friends, but they were also members of a group of friends who called themselves the Inklings. This group, which also included Charles Williams and Lewis’ brother Warren, would regularly gather to discuss various topics and to read some of their works in progress. Lewis thought so highly of friendship that he once wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves that “friendship is the greatest of worldly goods. Certainly to me it is the chief happiness of life. If I had a piece of advice to a young man about a place to live, I think I shd. say, ‘sacrifice almost everything to live where you can be near your friends.’ ” ( I got that quote from a marvelous book titled “The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life,” by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr., a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. If you are a Lewis fan you have to read this book.)

As for Tolkien, I don’t know if he ever wrote directly about friendship but its place in his heart is obvious by its place in his masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings. Truly the central, driving force of this epic is a series of friendships, anchored by Frodo and Sam. Of course Merry and Pippin’s bond is practically as strong and their adventures when separated from the Fellowship provide wonderful examples of why friendship can rightly be called a virtue. Then there’s the relationship between Gimli and Legolas, proving that even seeming enemies can develop strong friendships.

So what is this thing called friendship? Markos quotes Lewis describing it as “that luminous, tranquil, rational world of relationships freely chosen.” Further, many ancient people looked upon friendship as the most human of all relationships, in some cases more important than family. I’ve heard it said that friends are the family you choose. A friend is not just someone you hang out with at the mall or go to the movies with. A friend is a person you willingly cast your lot with, extend loyalty to, and stand behind with a steadfast spirit. There is a type of affection that goes with it, but it isn’t of the overtly emotional variety. Friendship is as common as an ordinary day, and as wondrous as the night sky.

Friendship is also a key theme in the Bible, though often overlooked. Many times God related to His chosen ones as friends. God refers to Abraham as “my friend” (Isaiah 41: 8). Exodus 33:11 tells us that ” the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” And Psalm 25:14 states that “The friendship of the LORD is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant.” When you stop to think about it, it’s rather amazing that God, the creator of heaven and earth, would willingly relate to humans as friends. But how can this work?

First off, we have to define what friendship means, especially in relation to God and Jesus. I hear a lot about having a “personal relationship” with Jesus these days, but exactly what do people mean by this? I have a hunch that it means different things to different people since “personal relationship” is such a vague expression. People these days like “vague” because it gives them the wiggle room to define things any way they want at their convenience. But I think Jesus had something a bit more specific in mind. As a matter of fact, he tells us exactly what kind of relationship he expects in John’s gospel: “You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15: 14,15, ESV).

Friendship is the model Jesus would have us follow. This makes perfect sense since friendship is an excellent channel for the practice of the agape type of love that is referenced so often in the New Testament. This is the love of willing sacrifice and self-giving. It involves steadfast loyalty and support even during the hard times. Especially during the hard times. And while there may be an emotional component that goes along with it, it isn’t of the butterflies-in-the-stomach variety that can vanish so quickly. Together friendship and agape love form bonds that are meant to last a long time. Maybe into eternity.

Put all this together and it seems almost obvious that friendship is truly a theological virtue. Further, it is one that is familiar to all of us. Can we use our existing friendships as models of relating to God? In many cases, yes. We can also learn by reading about great friendships, like the ones in The Lord of the Rings and other great works of literature. Examples abound all around us. We just need to look, pay attention, and practice being God’s friends.

 
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Posted by on August 25, 2013 in Book Review, Favorite Books, Ideas

 

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The Wisdom of Hobbits, Wizards and Lions: Part 5: The Theological Virtues

English: Cross, anchor, and heart for Faith, H...

English: Cross, anchor, and heart for Faith, Hope and Charity(=Love). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Faith, Hope and Love.

Saint Paul wrote about these over and over, perhaps most famously in 1 Corinthians 13: “So faith, hope, love abide, these three:” (1 Cor. 13:13 RSV.) Do Christians really understand what it means to treat these things as virtues, as things to practice and live by? I’m afraid many would consider “faith” to be merely the Christian faith, and “hope” in the sense that, “I sure hope this is all true!” As for “love,” well, just exactly how are we supposed to love those people we don’t even like?

In his great book, “On the Shoulders of Hobbits: the Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis,” Professor Louis Markos goes over these and more in the section titled “The Theological Virtues.” He also gives us a bonus by  adding “friendship” to the mix. At first I wasn’t sure about this being a theological virtue, but now I think I may understand and I’ll try to explain further along.

Louis Markos is an English professor, so he views faith and hope, like the other virtues, through the lens of literature. More generally he analyzes them via the form of story. Given that the biblical message of salvation is told in a series of stories, this makes perfect sense. Faith and hope are well suited to this format and what better stories to frame them in than the tales of Tolkien and Lewis?

First off, we must understand that faith and hope go together. As Markos quotes from Hebrews, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for. . . ” (11:1.) One needs the other to be fully understood and to work the way they were meant to. Together.

In The Lord of the Rings, the characters and events are driven forward toward some unknown but grand conclusion, as is the case in most of the great stories of literature. Here, the quest is to deliver the One Ring to Mordor and destroy it in Mount Doom. This quest has been foretold in ancient prophecy which most of the main players are aware of. Yet they are not certain of the exact outcome nor the circumstances that will lead to it, only that the prophecy promises a resolution. So the Fellowship moves ahead, trusting in the promise and believing the resolution will be just. Except for poor Boromir, who never had full faith in the promise. He tries to take matters into his own hands, with disastrous consequences.

Markos rightly points out that faith is more than just a virtue; it is a way of looking at the world that allows us to live with assurance and confidence. When faith is lived, we can see that the world is actually a place full of meaning and that there is an active providence that guides events according to a transcendent plan we can only glimpse. To live in faith is to trust that the universe has meaning and purpose. That today’s world has lost this view of life is undoubtedly behind many of the problems we face.

If faith is the way to look at this universe, hope is what we are looking toward. It is the Happy Ending that we look forward to even though we may not see the way to it clearly. Markos likens it to a term Tolkien coined in his famous essay “On Fairy-Stories.” The eucatastrophe is “the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’.” To live in hope is to live in expectation of this joyous turn even if the circumstances are less than promising.

Next comes love and love is the greatest of the three theological virtues. Just ask St. Paul. I was so happy to see professor Markos use the word charity, from the Latin “caritas,” to describe how love is used by Paul in the famous love chapter of 1 Corinthians 13. Charity is the word used in the King James Bible, and is a fitting translation of the Greek agape. Unfortunately, many Christians, including some theologians, think of love as that warm fuzzy feeling accompanied by Disney animated birds flying around one’s head. Nope. The love Paul speaks of is more an act of will than an emotion. It involves self-sacrifice and a “movement out of narcissism,” as Markos puts it. He rightly describes it as the most active of the three virtues. Faith and hope can change a person, but love can change a person and the world around them.

It is this agape love that plays the central role in true friendship and lifts it to the level of a virtue. Indeed, real friendship acts as a model of this love and helps us learn to apply it. There are so many things to say about this that I am going to do a separate post on the theological “virtue” of friendship. Markos has hit on something important here and I want to do it justice. Until then, think about your important friendships and how they reflect what love should be.

 
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Posted by on August 5, 2013 in Book Review

 

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The Wisdom of Hobbits, Wizards and Lions: Part 4: The Classical Virtues

My copy of “On the Shoulders of Hobbits: the Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis,” by Louis Markos (Moody

Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sa...

Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio, 1509, showing Plato (left) and Aristotle (right) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Publishers, 2012) is dog-eared and underlined front to back. I’m finding that as I go through it again while writing this review I’m adding even more markings. This is especially true in the section on The Classical Virtues which follows Markos’ examination of The Road.

The four classic, or cardinal, virtues are not unique to Christianity. Courage, Temperance, Wisdom and Justice were also recognized by Plato and other pre-Christian thinkers as necessary to civilization and a just state. This is worrisome since these basic virtues seem to be absent from our national consciousness. Markos laments that our public schools only seem to teach the “virtues” of multiculturalism, tolerance and environmentalism. While I agree with him about what our schools are teaching, I would label multiculturalism etc. as values rather than virtues. I have to admit I was surprised that Markos offers no specific definition of “virtue” in his book, as if people still understand what it means. Given that we live in “an age that has in many ways sunk beneath the pagans in its understanding of virtue,” a clear, fresh definition for today’s world would have been nice.

Before I go further, let me refresh your memory about virtue. The word comes from the Latin virtus, meaning strength or manliness, and virtus comes from the Latin root, vir, which means man. Virtue itself means conforming to a moral standard of right, or it can refer to a specific moral excellence, such as temperance. The ancients obviously considered it a quality of strength and cultivated it, especially in their leaders. Would that we did the same.

With this brief definition in mind, let me give you a quick survey of the classic virtues as laid out by Markos:

Courage – While many think of this as a type of bravery in the face of danger to oneself or loved ones,           Markos likens it more to fortitude, the ability to endure life’s pains and adversities. He makes the point that the true courage of the fellowship in Lord of the Rings was their ability to endure the trials and dangers of the long journey to Mordor and keep going.

Temperance – This word always brings to mind the temperance movement in America when people were trying to ban the use of alcohol. Trust me, temperance isn’t that. Markos defines it in terms of Aristotle’s “golden mean” as in “the mean between the extremes.” It can be described as the middle path between total self-indulgence and total abstinence. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were both Christians, yet “they rejected the notion that a Christian must refrain from all fleshly pleasures as a sign of purity and devotion.” God gave us the fruits of the earth for our pleasure, but we must use them with wisdom.

Wisdom – Sadly, wisdom is a virtue that is largely misunderstood or even ignored these days. Many people consider it simply an accumulation of knowledge, but it is much more than that. For Markos, the key element of wisdom is discernment as personified in the Bible by Solomon. This discernment is basically common sense combined with healthy amounts of insight, discretion and righteousness. Conversely, a foolish person isn’t necessarily stupid but mainly lacking in discernment and common sense.

Justice – This virtue is not as easily defined as the previous three, perhaps because it is the most transcendent of them all. Many of us moderns mistake the concept of egalitarianism, making everything perfectly equal for everybody, for justice. Markos suggests that to understand justice we must at least have a notion of hierarchy, which is basically the arranging of people, rulers or things into some form of rank or order. In this order there is a sense of rightness that is a key to understanding what justice really is. In addition to order, the sense of consummation and fulfillment must be present, as exemplified in The Lord of the Rings when the rough Strider finally becomes the magnificent King Aragorn. There is much to learn in this chapter of Markos’ book.

OK, kids, the lecture is over for now. But the course is far from finished. Next time we’ll look into the Theological Virtues as presented in this book.

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on April 28, 2013 in Book Review

 

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