The Hobbit and the Problem of Disordered Affections: Thematic Analysis of The Battle of the Five Armies

thorin

The final installment of the Hobbit films (and of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien-based movies) opened this weekend.  While I concur with the critical voices of the Hobbit trilogy that the story was strung out artificially out of corporate greed and that the violence of these films was excessive, betraying the essence of the Hobbit as a children’s story, I commend Peter Jackson for continuing to portray faithfully Tolkien’s vision of the nature of evil and understanding of the corruptibility of human nature.

The newest Hobbit film tells the story of the aftermath of the dwarfs’ recapture of the Lonely Mountain. Having driven the dragon Smaug from their ancestral home, the dwarfs can now reclaim the hordes of gold and other treasure that were guarded by the dragon.  Thorin, the heir to the dwarf throne and leader of the company, soon succumbs to “dragon-sickness” – an psycho-spiritual condition, akin to greed, induced by the gold.  The “dragon-sickness” manifests itself in stubborn pride (Thorin refuses to listen to the council of friends) and in self-centered obsession with his treasure (he also refuses to give over any of it to those making legitimate claims on it).  Though Thorin is the rightful king, he is not sovereign:  the gold is sovereign over him to the point where he will sacrifice both his integrity and his friends to it.  He sacrifices his integrity by not honoring his promises to the men of Lake Town, promises he made publicly to reward them for their help after his people were originally invaded and exiled by Smaug.  He is willing to sacrifice his friends by plunging them into an unnecessary war against the men and elves making claim on the treasure.

The story makes Thorin’s folly clear:  he is taking something that ought to be valued more (integrity and friends) and subordinating it to something that ought to be valued less (treasure).  The consequences are unmistakably disastrous.  Renowned 4th century theologian Saint Augustine understood that all humans participate in Thorin’s folly.  He understood that human’s hearts are profoundly sick with disordered loves:  that is things we ought to love less, we love more, and vice versa. Augustine writes that we need to re-order our loves:

But living a just and holy life requires one to be capable of an objective and impartial evaluation of things: to love things, that is to say, in the right order, so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less, or an equal love for things that should be loved less or more, or a lesser or greater love for things that should be loved equally. (On Christian Doctrine, I.27-28)

In other words, an objective economy of things exists (integrity and friends are really more important than material riches) and our personal valuing of things (our loves) ought to be in harmony with this moral order.  When our loves are not aligned with this objective order, they are disordered.  This disordering is the essence of sin and it inevitably unleashes destructive forces into our world:  our hidden disordering in our hearts results inevitably in the disordering of our lives. As C.S. Lewis observed, when our loves our disordered it destroys our enjoyment of everything:

The woman who makes a dog the centre of her life loses, in the end, not only her human usefulness and dignity but even the proper pleasure of dog-keeping.

The man who makes alcohol his chief good loses not only his job but his palate and all power of enjoying the earlier (and only pleasurable) levels of intoxication.

It is a glorious thing to feel for a moment or two that the whole meaning of the universe is summed up in one woman—glorious so long as other duties and pleasures keep tearing you away from her. But clear the decks and so arrange your life (it is sometimes feasible) that you will have nothing to do but contemplate her, and what happens?

Of course this law has been discovered before, but it will stand re-discovery. It may be stated as follows: every preference of a small good to a great, or partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice is made.

. . . You can’t get second things by putting them first. You get second things only by putting first things first.

Of course, God occupies the highest place of this order; people follow.  This is why integrity (who we are before God’s all knowing eye) and friendship is more important than material things. Only we order our loves rightly can we relate to God, people, and things as we ought.  C.S. Lewis again echoes Augustine’s theme:

To love you as I should, I must worship God as Creator. When I have learnt to love God better than my earthly dearest, I shall love my earthly dearest better than I do now. In so far as I learn to love my earthly dearest at the expense of God and instead of God, I shall be moving towards the state in which I shall not love my earthly dearest at all. When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased.

Ordering our loves rightly is an ongoing struggle won by repentance.  This is what Thorin has to do: turn from regarding his gold as most important and put his integrity and friends in their proper place.  Only then is his will enabled to do what is right. May God help us do likewise!

When Rights Conflict, part 2: How to Determine which Rights are Natural

The question of how to determine which rights are natural seems difficult to answer conclusively.  My attempt to establishing some guiding principles here are not informed by a proper education in law or moral philosophy, so I expect and invite critique.  I will begin with what I think is intuitively obvious: a right is natural if it is derived from what is ‘natural’ in man or an innate characteristic of human nature.

An innate characteristic of human nature would be, by definition, universal:  applying to humans across time and space. It would not be contingent, therefore, on when or where one lives and thus not vary with factors that change with space and time. An example would be the possession of a moral conscience.  Humans by nature are moral agents, having a moral sense by which we judge ourselves and others’ actions.  While some moral standards may vary among cultures present and past, the presence and execution of moral standards does not: to be human is to possess a sense of oughtness. Hence, a right to freedom of conscience, being derived from this innate quality, is a natural right.

Conversely, a socially-constructed right would be derived from some quality that is ‘unnatural’ – a characteristic that is not innate but contingent on circumstances (and can therefore be ‘alienated,’ i.e. separated from us).  Abilities (what we are capable of doing) are such a characteristic.  Abilities vary from culture to culture, across space and time, because of technology.  For instance, we now have the ability to control birth artificially – an ability that has increased dramatically in the last 100 years.  This ability has given rise to the idea that we have a right to contraception, and not just the freedom to practice it but the expectation that the state enable it by forcing the public to pay for it.  This cannot be a natural right, though, for the simple reason that cannot be had by nature of being human:  it can only be had by humans who live at a time and place where they have a certain ability.

The conflict between these two rights was the issue in the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case.  The Court had to decide whether to uphold freedom of conscience against claims to a right to contraception.  I’ll look at this case more in depth in my next post.

The Gospel According to the Avett Brothers – Our Need for Redemption, part 4

The folk rock group the Avett Brothers are securely established among my most favorite musical acts. I wrote a series a couple of years ago about the echoes of the gospel of Jesus Christ in their music.  After seeing them in concert for a second time this past Friday, I felt inspired to add to that series a couple more lyrics analyses of some of their older songs, the meaning of which really hit me for the first time.

The Avett’s 2007 album Emotionalism explores the gamut of human emotions.  I want to look at the track “Shame.” The simple (and very singable!) chorus speaks to a deep longing present in every human heart:

Shame, boatloads of shame
Day after day, more of the same
Blame, please lift it off
Please take it off, please make it stop

Have we all not felt, even desperately so, the need for such emotional relief, after wronging or greatly disappointing someone?

The audience of this plea is ambiguous.  It’s likely a disappointed, perhaps jilted lover, who he has wronged.  The first two versus suggest this:

Okay so I was wrong about
My reasons for us fallin’ out
Of love I want to fall back in

My life is different now I swear
I know now what it means to care
About somebody other than myself

I know the things I said to you
They were untender and untrue
I’d like to see those things undo

So if you could find it in your heart
To give a man a second start
I promise things won’t end the same

He is clearly seeking a renewal of the relationship from his wronged lover. How can this happen?  Shame is an emotional response to being blamed for or accused of a wrong – to moral disapproval. For the shame to disappear, the blame must be removed.  While we might attempt to remove blame ourselves, through self-justification and rationalization, this fails because we achieve removal not by lifting it off, but by stuffing it deep down inside – suppressing it. The burden of blame is too heavy for us; it must be lifted off by the offended party.

This process is initiated by humble contrition.  The speaker admits, without condition or excuse, that he was wrong and needs a second chance (no argument here that he deserves a second chance).  In other words, he is taking the blame.  This is indeed ironic:  to remove the blame, one must first take the blame. The renewal must be given and received then as a gift.

Are his pleas answered?  There is a hopeful sign at the end that they were and that blame was lifted (this was the verse that hit me hard at the concert):

And everyone they have a heart
And when they break and fall apart
And need somebody’s helping hand

I used to say just let ’em fall
It wouldn’t bother me at all
I couldn’t help them now I can

The sign of “lifted blame” is compassion for others living under its weight and an ability to be a blame lifter. Under the burden of blame himself, when others were ashamed (“and when they break and fall apart), he couldn’t help them.  Instead, he would blame them (“I used to say just let ’em fall) for their own demise.  But stark change has taken place in his heart (“I couldn’t help them now I can”).  It is clearly implied that this newfound ability to help results from his own blame being lifted.  This is the language of a man who can forgive because he has been forgiven.

Now the question returns to “Who lifted it?”  It might be obvious that it was the jilted lover.  This is certainly possible.  But it seems that she is not the only one causing shame:

Okay so I have read the mail
The stories people often tell
About us that we never knew

The potential sources of shame from people who would blame and accuse seems endless.  How then can we hope for blame to be lifted completely, permanently?  Only when the One who knows all the wrongs that make us blameworthy and who all our transgression ultimately offend becomes the blame-lifter.

God promises to lift blame from our shoulders by taking our blame upon Himself.  This is what the cross of Jesus Christ is all about.  Without this accomplished in our lives, we would not only carry our own blame forever, but would only be able to cast blame on others, never being blame lifters ourselves.  But having been forgiven, we are then freed (in the sense of being empowered) to forgive others.  Thus, Jesus taught, “Whoever has been forgiven little, loves little” and ties our practice of forgiveness with others sins to his forgiveness of our sins.

Assorted Reflections on the Nature and Mystery of Time

A few experiences this week got me thinking about time.  Someone wiser than me once compared thinking about time to a fish thinking about water:  as an inescapable part of our surroundings, it seems impossible to study it because we cannot step outside of it.  Yet, mysteriously, we can and have pondered time’s nature, though doing so feels strange (If you’ve never given much thought to the nature of time, start by trying to define what it is.  Hard to do, isn’t it?).

Managing Time –

Watching the World Cup the past two weeks got me thinking about how we manage time and about differences in cultural expectations of our ability to control it.  I would not describe myself as a soccer fan.  I only watch it intentionally during the World Cup, and only this year have I really begun to appreciated it.  One observation that has struck me this year is how imprecise the clock management is.  The game (or match?) clock runs continuously from the beginning, not stopping for injuries, timeouts, commercials, changes of possession, etc., and then additional time is added at the end to compensate for any delays (due just to injury?) at the end (clearly I do not have a clear grasp of the rules).  This extra time is added by whole numbers to the minute.  Contrast that with major sports of an American origin that are governed by a clock:  basketball and football.  In these sports, time is managed to a fraction of a second.  You have probably seen referees add or take away tenths of seconds to a play clock, such as when a ball goes out of bounds, by watching a replay to determine exactly when the ball crossed the in-bounds line.  At the end of games, coaches often must manage the time they use on offense down to the second to give their teams a chance to win.

Of course, this variability in degree of precision of time management is consistent with the nature of the contests.  Whereas the outcome of basketball or football games can be determined in just a fraction of a second, meaningful soccer plays take much longer to develop.  But I wonder what the fundamental differences in the structure of these sports that give rise to these varying effects of time say about the cultures in which they originated and evolved?  One of the most striking differences between cultures I have experienced while being overseas (Eastern Europe and East Asia) is the way time flows and is allocated.  I noticed that as an American I managed my personal time much more precisely (scheduling appointments and tasks in much shorter increments, for example) than people I met in these cultures.  I believe this same difference is reflected in these sports.  To offer a simple generalization, it seems that in Western culture we have a much greater sense of control over time – a greater confidence that we can manipulate it to accomplish our goals.

Valuing Time

A second experience of time this week was viewing the new Tom Cruise film The Edge of Tomorrow.  I was drawn to it by its intriguing official synopsis:

The epic action of “Edge of Tomorrow” unfolds in a near future in which an alien race has hit the Earth in an unrelenting assault, unbeatable by any military unit in the world. Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is an officer who has never seen a day of combat when he is unceremoniously dropped into what amounts to a suicide mission. Killed within minutes, Cage now finds himself inexplicably thrown into a time loop-forcing him to live out the same brutal combat over and over, fighting and dying again…and again. But with each battle, Cage becomes able to engage the adversaries with increasing skill…

This film profoundly disorients the audience by toying with our fundamental notions of time. Every time the main character dies, he wakes up in the exact same spot in the story, which then repeats exactly as it was before except for the actions he takes.  Sometimes he makes it further into to the narrative, other times he dies sooner, but each time he dies, he starts again from the same place.  This re-boot happens so many times that one eventually loses count.  Eventually, for any given new scene the audience does not know whether Major Cage has been here already, or whether he is having is first experience of it.  The closest analogy to this experience is an action video game where upon dying, the character you control starts again from the same place.  If you are paying attention to the patterns of the game, you will know it well enough to avoid the same mistakes, and with each ‘death’ progress closer to winning the game.

One reason why this experience is so disorienting is that time does not work in such a manner for us.  There is a permanent quality to our experience of the elapsing of time (lost time cannot be regained; it is gone forever) that this narrative contradicts.  We cannot go back and undo the past.  There are no repeats, no go-backs, no extra lives.  This quality is what makes time precious.

I am concerned about the ways our society tries to deny this quality of time.  As an educator, I have observed the effects on students of shielding them from the harsh reality of time.  Schools in America today commonly have policies that allow students to artificially erase their pasts.  These include allowing students to re-take tests until they pass them, do extra work to make up zeroes on assignments they did not complete, drop their lowest test grades.  Such policies create an environment in which students believe that how they spend their time matters very little because they will be allowed to undo its consequences.  Maybe this feels right to students because it mirrors a video game! Overall, I believe these policies and practices contribute to a devaluing of time in education, and thus in our society as a whole.

Integrating Time

My last experience this week that catalyzed reflection on time was with family.  While my sister was visiting from out of town, we decided to visit some of the neighborhoods we lived in as children.  In one of these neighborhoods, there was a convenient store run by Asian immigrants that we used to walk to for snacks and other treats.  I convinced my dad to stop there to buy some drinks.  We wondered whether the same people ran it almost 30 years later.  I approached an elderly Asian gentleman working at the register saying that I often came there as a kid.  He said that he was there back then, having owned the business for 33 years.  When my dad approached, the owner said that he remembered my dad being a regular customer.  This not only surprised my dad, it made his day!  He couldn’t stop expressing his amazement and pleasure in this stranger remembering him from 30 years ago.  It was the highlight of his trip down memory lane.

Don’t we all love to be remembered?  I supposed it is a way of being honored when we are remembered, even in simple ways by seemingly insignificant people.  Perhaps this is why in the Old Testament the command to remember God and His past works is so frequent.

Also, when we are remembered, and when we remember others, this connects our past to the present in a way that adds meaning to our experiences.  In our live-in-the-moment culture, we increasingly experience life as a succession of disconnected moments, our present moment being dis-integrated from the past and the future.  Such disjointedness increases a sense of randomness in our experience that diminishes meaning.  We fine meaning when our past, present, and future are connected, integrated in patterned ways, the way a story would be patterned.

What insights would you add about the strange nature of time?

Reasons I Love the San Antonio Spurs (and You Should Too) in 3 Words

My love for San Antonio Spurs basketball has bordered on obsession. While I watched and admired their 1999, 2003, 2005, and 2007 championships passively, it is only in the past 3 years, going back to their 2012 playoff run, that I have come to appreciate what makes them special in today’s sports landscape. Inspired by their dominant championship series victory over the Miami Heat, I have distilled the Spurs appeal down to three defining characteristics: selflessness, perseverance, and faithfulness.

Selflessness

Many have observed and discussed this past week how well the Spurs play together as a team. Their beautiful teamwork was vividly on display on their surprising evisceration of the Heat in Games 3 and 4. But these games merely epitomized the team-centered approach displayed throughout the entire season. Consider some statistics

  • Their leading scorer, Tony Parker (16.7 points per game), was not even among the top 25 scorers in the NBA during the regular season. 6 players averaged more than 10 PPG.

  • No player averaged more than 30 minutes per game; 9 players averaged 19 or more minutes per game.

  • They averaged 25.1 assists per game (3rd in the NBA)

These signs of team work – balanced minutes, balanced scoring, ball distribution – were magnified in the Finals

  • 6 players averaged double digits in scoring, with the highest, Kawhi Learned, scoring less than 19 per game.

    • All 13 players scored in Game 4

  • Assists per game – 25.5 vs. the Heat’s 15.5

  • These assists were the product of a pass first, pass often mentality that flummoxed the Heat, especially in the pivotal Games 3 and 4.

    • The Spurs passes per possession averaged 4.2 and 4.5 in Games 3 and 4, respectively.

    • In contrast, the Heat passed the ball a total of 267 times compared to 380 for the Spurs.

This selflessness, which I am defining simply as a team-first attitude, is also displayed off the court. Their stars notoriously say very little in interviews, and when they do speak, they are loathe to speak of their individual accomplishments, but quick to deflect attention to either the team, or their ”system” or the coaches. This aversion to not running their mouth indicates a cautious attitude toward boasting or to putting down an opponent, which are signs of true humility.

Perseverance

This quality is shown by how they respond to setbacks, the longevity of their success, and in how no-name, unwanted players often find success that eluded them elsewhere.

Last year’s Game 6 finals loss was as stunning as it was devastating. Up by 5 points with the less than one minute to go, and with a 3-2 series, the championship was virtually guaranteed (the NBA was already preparing the trophy presentation on the sidelines). But in an uncanny, almost impossible, sequence of events (described vividly here by Zack Lowe of Grantland.com), including two missed free throws and two offensive rebounds by the Heat resulting in two 3 pointers), the Heat tied the game, and went on to win Game 6 in overtime, en route to a final Game 7 victory . I almost cried. I had already typed “SPURS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” on my Facebook status update, a finger raised to press send. Such a loss would have decimated the confidence of most teams, making it psychologically impossible to recover and come back the next year. Coach Popovich confessed to being haunted by it every day since. But the Spurs embrace this awful letdown as an opportunity to improved and used it as motivation to become a more dominant team the following year. And dominate they did. There 14 + points per game margin of victory was the highest ever in for the NBA Finals.

I would not characterize them as persevering, though, if it were just a one year story. Consider the longevity of their success as a team. They have been in the playoffs every year for 15 years, winning 50 plus games a season over this stretch), winning 5 championships since 1999 (Duncan was in his 2nd year), but their last was 7 years ago in 2007. Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker were not on that first championship team, but were on the other four since. Together, the Duncan-Ginobli-Parker trio have one more playoff games than any three player combination in NBA history (and Duncan himself set a record for the most total playoff minutes played). The constant variable through it all, of course, is their coach Greg Popovich, who at 18 years with the Spurs, has the longest consecutive coaching tenure currently in all 4 major American sports.

The perseverance of the team transfers to the perseverance of individual players through personal adversity. As an organization, the Spurs are masterful in picking unwanted, below-average players off the junk pile of other teams and transforming them into productive role players in their team-centered system. Boris Diaw, whose insertion into the starting lineup in Game 3 was arguably the catalyst for their 3 consecutive game domination, was released by the Charlotte Bobcats (who suffered the worse season in NBA history that year) in 2012. He was viewed as overweight, out of shape, and washed up. Shooting guard Danny Green, who set a record for 3 pointers made in last years Finals and was 7-8 from the field in their record-setting Game 3, was released by his first team, the Cleveland Cavs, in just his second year in the league, and was picked up by the Spurs, only to be cut that same year. But they brought him back and transformed him into a major contributor.

As a professional sports organization, this commitment to develop players and maximize their talent by putting them in niche roles that channel their gifts toward the success of the team is what I admire most about the Spurs. Their philosophy seems to be “If you are good enough to make it into professional sports, you are good enough to make meaningful contributions and are expected to do so.” This approach though requires trust between players and between players and coaches, which leads to my last quality.

Faithfulness

The norm in professional sports these days is that when teams’ seasons end in disappointment, heads must role: trading older stars in the name of ‘re-building,’ sacking coaches, paying hot free agents exorbitant sums. Whatever promises to bring the quickest results. Of course, the Spurs try to improve their team by adding better players, but the secret to their success is sticking with and developing the players they have, trusting in their system to bring the most out of individuals. Many franchises would have fired their coach, or launched a dramatic roster overhaul, after A) not making it to the Finals in 2012 after squandering a 2-0 series lead to the OKC Thunder and B) epically blowing a Finals victory last year. Management could have decided that their old stars just weren’t going to win again and traded them all away for the future. But the Spurs stuck with their core guys, modified their roles (the offense no longer centers around Duncan’s inside scoring), and developed their supplementary pieces (hiring a world famous shooting coach to work with Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and others).

Don’t get me wrong, the Spurs care about winning as much as any franchise, but they are distinct in the way of going about it. Instead of going for pragmatic, short-term fixes to problems, they stay faithful to players whose abilities they believe in and to the principles of basketball that define their ‘system.’

NBA comissioner Adam Silver, when handing the Spurs president the Finals trophy, summarized the global praise that has been heaped on the Spurs this week, “You showed the world how beautiful our sport can be.” Beauty is a word that has oft been used to describe the Spurs pass until you find the best shot available approach. But the beauty of this team is greater than that. The basketball only reveals the beauty of virtue that all of us should emulate. Indeed, these traits of selflessness, perseverance, and faithfulness, are characteristics of life lived beautifully.

Lessons about Evil from The Hobbit

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After seeing tonight for the first time The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, I was reminded at how insightfully and realistically J.R.R. Tolkien portrays the nature of evil throughout his tales of Middle Earth.  Peter Jackson remains faithful to this vision still, I believe, in the Hobbit film trilogy. What does this most recent installment of the film series remind us about the nature of evil?  A few basic thoughts:

1. Evil prefers largely to remain hidden – concealed from plain sight.

Gandalf leaves the company to investigate reports of a gathering darkness at the abandoned fortress of Dol Guldur, the effects of which have become plainly and disturbingly evident in the sickened forest of Mirkwood.  His suspicions are confirmed when he discovers that the hidden tombs of the nine Ringwraiths (the Black Riders in LOTR) have been emptied.  When he arrives at Dol Guldur, he realizes that its emptiness is an illusion resulting from a concealment spell.  When he uses his own magic power to reverse its effects, he decries that these forces have been mustering discreetly, escaping his and other guardians of Middle Earth’s notice.

Jesus’ teaching on the nature of darkness resonates: “Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19)  Evil flourishes only when it is concealed; light exposes and weakens it.  Thus, in describing the coming of Jesus (the eternal Word) into the world, the apostle John writes, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

To drive this point home, consider the ways you have covered up, or continue to cover up, things that are contrary to your conscience.  This might take the form of surrounding yourself with people who will only affirm you in your behavior and never confront you to hold you accountable.  We learn such behaviors at the earliest age.  My 2 year old just this week was caught multiple times hiding on the table (not well concealed at all!) gorging herself on candy she knew she was not supposed to have.

2. While it remain hidden, it gains strength until it is too powerful to overcome.

As Gandalf uncovers the evil that has been hidden, the Orc-chief (the white one that is not in the book and whom I wish they had not added to the movie) tells him that he is too late.  The forces of evil have gathered enough strength that they are powerful enough to unleash themselves on the world (in the form of a massive army of Orcs). Gandalf encounters the Necromancer, who pre-figures the dark lord Sauron, who is described as “growing stronger day by day.”

Once evil is strong enough to reveal itself for what it is, its power is to great to fight without great cost and destruction. It is much easier to combat when it is timidly hiding in the darkness, slowly gaining strength.

Think about times when little sins in your own life grew and grew until you became slave to this sin, unable to stop even though you knew how destructive it could be. This also happens at the societal level.  The forces working to undermine marriage in this country have just recently begun to show their true, gruesome nature, but they have been working subtly under far more tolerable guises for decades.  Now that the forces have been revealed, they are unleashing a torrent of destruction that is extremely difficult to stop.

I think about my 20-yr old brother who died last year as a direct result of his enslavement to addiction.  The evil in his life became evident to plain sight three or more years earlier.  But the origins of it are much earlier in his life.  I remember feeling disturbed and angry whenever I would see his childish acts of evil (mostly disrespectful, profane kind of behavior) go undisciplined, but instead laughed at and reveled in.  I knew that if evil was not driven out of him as a child, when its presence was largely concealed by a “cute” boyhood guise, it would cause much pain and grief in the future when its true nature came to fruition.

3. Evil works from the inside out; not from the outside in.

This point emerges from comments in this film, and the last one, about how the greed of the dwarf king (Thror, grandfather of Thorin Oakenshield) attracted or enticed the dragon Smaug to invade the kingdom of Erebor.  As the king’s lust for gold became insatiable, the dwarfs unearthed far more gold than they could ever need or have use for.  But it wasn’t just the increase in wealth that attracted the dragon.  It is not as if the dwarfs were innocently going about their mining business when they suddenly became the victims of a wicked monster.  The kingdom had become weakened from within from moral corruption, which made them more vulnerable to external attack.

One gets the impression that the dragon is an external manifestation of the king’s deep internal greed.  This idea is more directly conveyed in the book.  After watching the movie, while combing the book for comparisons, I came across this passage describing Smaug’s reaction to Bilbo’s taking of just one gold cup from his treasure hoard: “His rage passes description – the sort of rage that is only seen when rich folk that have more than they can enjoy suddenly lose something that they have long had but have never before used or wanted.”  Sounds like the essence of greed!

This theme also resonates with Jesus’ teaching that the human heart is the wellspring of evil: For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person” (Mark 7:21-23).  Evil on the outside of us, when it is visible, originates on the inside of us, when it is invisible but easier to defeat by bringing light to bear upon it.

On the Glory of Self-Sacrifice: Catching Fire and the Incarnation

katniss

Catching Fire, the second installment of The Hunger Games movie franchise, follows the lives of the heroes of the first film – Katniss and Peeta – as they experience the aftermath of their newfound fame as “victors” of the 74th Games.  As victors, they secured for themselves a lifetime of wealth, comfort, and ease, in contrast to the impoverished communities – exploited by the oligarchy that reigns in the opulent capital city – from which they came.  Yet as they travel throughout the 12 Districts that comprise the nation of Panem on their obligatory “victory tour,” they immediately discover that the defiant manner in which they achieved victory and their willingness to sacrifice themselves for each other has fomented a rebellion.  And their tour, contrary to the government’s design, is fanning the flames of revolutionary fervor.

Their tour culminates in an enormous celebration at the mansion of the president at which they are the honored guests.  There they are offered an endless array of the choicest foods.  When Peeta declines an offer of some sumptuous pastry because he is too full, another of the guests offers him a lavender colored elixir that will “make you sick so that you can keep tasting things.”  This offer is clearly intended to make the audience sick in their conscience over the injustice of severe wealth inequality in their society:   while the masses toil to find just enough food to survive, the privileged eat not for nourishment but solely for pleasure, vomiting up their food so as to continuously satiate their palettes.

The glow of Katniss’s and Peeta’s victory diminished abruptly when they learn that the next games will feature previous victors from all the Districts.  After surviving the games again, as a result of figuring out a way to destroy the invisible virtual arena in which they take place, Katniss and Peeta are separated, with Katniss being kidnapped by a band of rebels led by other former victors, including her mentor Haynich. She learns that many of the victors in this newest round of the games had secretly pledged to protect her with a view toward using her as a catalyst to spark a nationwide revolt against the capital.

These victors, along with Katniss, made an uncommon choice:  the choice to forego the pleasures and privileges provided them by the state to risk their lives in order to liberate the powerless and restore justice for the poor. While most would commend this choice as moral, few would probably make it.  What would motivate anyone to do this?

This moral theme in The Hunger Games plainly echoes aspects of the Bible’s teaching on the Incarnation, which we celebrate each Christmas.  I thought about this connection while reflecting on the words of the Advent carol “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus”

Come to earth to taste our sadness, he whose glories knew no end;
By his life he brings us gladness, our Redeemer, Shepherd, Friend.
Leaving riches without number, born within a cattle stall;
This the everlasting wonder, Christ was born the Lord of all.

The divine Son of God forswear fame (‘he whose glories knew no end’) and ease (‘leaving riches without number’) to condescend into an impoverished state (‘born within a cattle stall’) for the sake of an oppressed and enslaved people (‘by his life he brings us gladness, our Redeemer’).  Thus, the Apostle Paul proclaims Jesus as one who, “Did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”  Liberating captives often requires becoming one of them.  Enormous moral force is exerted when someone who could stay comfortable and free chooses to give it up so that others can gain the same.  I am not saying that Katniss is meant to be a Christ-figure, and she by no means is a complete one, but all good stories whisper the penultimate story of history, which we celebrate this Christmas.