Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Distinguishing Fantasy from Science Fiction

Fantasy and Science Fiction are distinct-but-related genres of fictitious literature, both belonging to the larger category of speculative fiction.  Fantasy is a modern term for fictional literature set in worlds wherein magic works and where there are often supernatural beings (e.g., djinn or genii, ghosts, demons, vampires, nymphs, dryads, goddesses and/or gods, etc.) or creatures from mythology (e.g., elves, dwarves, giants, dragons, etc.).  Major characters often have supernatural abilities or magical devices (e.g., rings, swords, harps, lamps, flying carpets, etc.).  Fantasy draws from many ancient mythologies, texts from extinct religions (and sometimes from living religions), fairy tales, medieval  romances and legends, but, unlike these earlier works (which often serve as source material or taproot texts), modern fantasy is deliberately composed by one or more authors not as history, but as entertainment–-the fantastic elements are not expected to be believed by either the author(s) or readers.  Although people often refer to “sexual fantasies,” fantasy literature is not usually a written form of pornography; the term for that “literature” is erotic fiction.  (This is not to say that fantasy literature aimed at adult readers may not entail elements of romance or even of the erotic–-but this is not the focus and because of the wide age range of readers, love scenes in fantasy works  seldom become overly graphic.)

What distinguishes fantasy from science fiction is that the latter attempts to base all fantastic elements on principles from known science or to give a plausible scientific explanation for the fantastic elements.  Usually, the laws of the universe in science fiction either function in ways known to contemporary science or the changes are cautious and a scientific or pseudo-scientific explanation is attempted.  (For this reason, despite the genetically altered indigenous lizards of Pern, that the colonists from earth named “dragons,” Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragonriders of Pern” books are science fiction and not fantasy, as McCaffrey herself would argue.) 

The two literary genres do sometimes overlap and, when this happens, the result is often called science fantasy.  The currently most famous example of science fantasy are the films and books in George Lucas’ “Star Wars” saga which include science fiction elements (starships, laser weapons, advanced technology, robots/droids, holograms, alien races, etc.) but also elements of fantasy (e.g., the powers of the Jedi Knights and the Sith Lords; a “quest” structure and a cosmic battle between good and evil, etc.).  Other major examples  of science fantasy include Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Barsoom” novels in which the “Mars” to which Captain John Carter of Virginia is transported bears little resemblance to the Mars known by astronomers; C.S. Lewis’ “Space Trilogy,” Lin Carter’s “Callisto” books, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover stories and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.  The great pioneer of modern science fiction was 19th C. French author, Jules Verne (e. g., 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; The Mysterious Island; From Earth to the  Moon; Around the World in 20 Days, etc.)

Since I believe imagination is crucial to both religious faith and moral discernment, I encourage wide reading in this literature, regardless of the particular religious commitments (or lack thereof) of the author(s).  I am also convinced that both fantasy and science fiction are excellent vehicles for exploring moral, philosophical, and spiritual questions, although this should never be so heavy-handed as to dominate the narrative structure.  The story must first work AS literature.  Far too many Christian apologists with no real literary ability and boringly dogmatic outlooks have wasted trees in attempts as “Christian fantasy,” believing falsely that they are the next C.S. Lewis. (Left Behind and all its sequels should be LEFT OUT. Ugh!)

January 24, 2011 Posted by | blog series, book reviews, books, fantasy literature, science fiction | 6 Comments

Taproot Texts: The Sources of Modern Fantasy Fiction in World Religions and Mythologies

Those who read this blog primarily for religious social commentary, theology, philosophy, or politics, should try back later.  I need a break.  Writing about other interests than the main themes of this blog help me to keep from cynicism, depression, despair, or misdirected anger.

Although dominated since Tolkien(1892-1973) by Western Medievalist forms, modern fantasy literature draws from a plethora of ancient sources (“taproot texts”) in numerous mythologies and religions.  No source of fantastic elements is off-limits and would-be fantasy authors who don’t want simply to repeat tried and true formulae, might want to explore Native American, African, Australian Aboriginal, New Zealand Maori or other indigenous mythologies and tales.  These sources are all under-utilized in modern fantasy literature.  Below, however, I list the most common sources for fantasy, in roughly chronological order.

I. The Epic of Gilgamesh.  An epic poem from ancient Sumeria, this is one of the earliest works of fiction.  We don’t know when the first version was written in Sumerian, but the standard Akkadian version was compiled from older legends sometime around 1,300 B.C.E.  It tells of the exploits of a legendary King Gilgamesh, blessed by the gods with supernatural strength but who is bored with ruling his kingdom, and his friend, Enkidu the Wild Man (who is even stronger than Gilgamesh) and their quests and battles with incredible monsters.  The story influenced Homer’s The Odyssey, was outlined in brief in a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode (“Darmok”), and has even influenced some role-playing video games.  For non-scholars only interested in reading the work for entertainment, the most accessible English translation is N. K.  Sanders, The Epic of Gilgamesh (Penguin Epics, 2006) which reprints the prose edition of the Penguin Classics, 1960.  The “Sword and Sorcery” subgenre of fantasy is particularly indebted to the Gilgamesh stories.

II. Ancient India.  Modern Hinduism grew out of a complex of different Indian traditions–and many of those traditions have proved good source material for modern fantasy writing.  India has a long tradition of fantastical stories and characters.  The Japanese “manga” or graphic novel series, RG Veda, for instance, draws directly from the Rig-Veda, a collection of Sanskrit hymns and stories that represents India’s oldest (Vedic) Scriptures.  The Mahabharata and the Ramayana are also deep sources for fantasy.

III. Classic Greco-Roman Mythology.  The Greek and Roman myths and hero stories may be the  most “plundered” as source material for later fantasy literature.  Some of the most important stories are:  “Theseus  and the Minotaur” (minotaurs and mazes that contain monsters are common in fantasy literature), “Perseus and the Slaying of the Gorgon Medusa” (which also includes what may be the first “sea serpent” story in Western literature), “The Labors of Herakles/Hercules,” “Jason and the Argonauts.”  And, of course, Homer’s great epic poems (c. 800 B.C.E.), The Iliad and The Odyssey.  You can find both in one boxed set edited by Bernard Knox and translated from the Greek by Robert Fagles in a 1999 Penguin Classics edition.

IV. East Asian Legends:  Especially from China and Japan.  The rich mythologies and cultures of Ancient China and Ancient Japan  contain many elements that lend themselves to fantasy writing.  One prominent example is the Chinese dragon:  Western dragons are usually depicted as sly, evil, cruel, and greedy.  Chinese dragons, on the other hand, are considered wise and signs of luck.  In modern fantasy literature, we often see dragons drawn more like the Western image (e.g., flying), but many writers have started to give them more noble characters that are more in line with Asian traditions.  Taoist traditions have, by her own admission, influenced Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea novels.

Likewise the Taoist belief in Nei Jin (“internal power”) has influenced both real life martial arts and the kind of  Chinese fantasies known as wuxia, where the martial artist can perform superhuman warrior feats:  nearly flying, dodging hundreds of thousands of arrows, etc.  Wuxia is a word made of two Chinese characters, wu (having to do with things military or martial) and xia which refers to both the Chinese version of chivalry and the person (usually a swordsman) who lives by such a code.  Wuxia fantasy is found in Chinese novels, comics, and films, but is known in the West mostly through a series of films beginning with Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) based on the novel of the same name by Wang Dulu.  See also Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004).  Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle (2004) is a hilarious spoof of wuxia films–but fantasy spoofs are still fantasy.  The Chinese sage, as well as the swordsman, has now become recognizable in many modern fantasy works.  See also Albert A. Dalia’s wuxia novel, Dream of the Dragon Pool: A Daoist Quest (2007).

From Japanese culture and legends, fantasy has drawn upon the code of Bushido (“Way of the Warrior”) practiced by the Samurai warrior caste, the contrast between Samurai (knights serving masters) and Ronin (“masterless” warriors), the legendary ninja assassins, and strong interest in traditional Japanese weaponry.  Fantasy novels often use Japanese legends for suitable monsters or demons, too.  The popularity of Japanese anime (cartooning) has further popularized these legends and their modern variations.  A good example of contemporary Japanese fantasy using traditional materials (translated into English) is Noriko Ogiwara’s, Dragon Sword and Wind Child (1993, 2007).

V. Islamic Middle East.  The most famous source for modern fantasy from the Middle East is, of course, the book known both as 1,001 Nights and as The Arabian Nights, a book that compiled many traditional Arabic legends and folk tales collected and translated by the English explorer, Richard Burton.  (In fact there are layers of stories: Persian tales inspired by Indian mythology and adapted into Arabic by the 10th C. C.E.; Stories recorded in Baghdad in the 10th C., C.E.; and Medieval Egyptian folklore.) This anonymous work first took form in the 10th Century C.E. and reached its final form in the 14th Century, C.E.  Western writers have tended to call all Arabic legends “Arabian Nights” stories whether or not they appeared in the 1,001 Nights. There are even a number of tales known in Europe and set in the Middle East called “Arabian Nights” tales, even though there is no known Arabic manuscript.  The collection first began to be a major influence on Western fantasy with the translation into French in the 1704-1717 by Antoine Galland.  Galland’s version includes the stories, “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” and “Aladdin’s Lamp,” that are not found in any Arabic or Persian manuscript–stories that he claimed he heard from a Syrian Christian storyteller from Aleppo.  In 1885, Sir Richard Francis Burton gave the earliest popular English version.  

 The influence of these stories on later fantasy is incalculable:  flying carpets, djinn, genii, the characters of Ali Baba, Aladdin, Sinbad the Sailor, Scheherazade (and other women using their wiles to survive in very oppressive, and dangerous patriarchal contexts), are all standard features.  So is the use of such literary devices as “the unreliable narrator” and stories within stories. 

Other Middle Eastern/Islamic literature that has influenced later fantasy writing includes the national Persian epic, The Shahnameh, and the Persian tale, Amir Arsalan which has directly influenced Japanese writer Yoshiki Tanaka’s Arslan Senki, translated into English as The Heroic Legend of Arslan.

VI. Norse and Icelandic Sagas (and related mythology)  Norse mythology, as reflected in the Elder Edda  (sometimes called The Poetic Edda)  and the Younger Edda  (sometimes called the Prose Edda ) include the Norse/Germanic gods (the Aesir) such as Odin (German Woden), Thor, Loki, etc. and their battle against the forces of chaos embodied in elves, dwarves, frost giants, trolls, and giants.  They have directly, and indirectly, influenced everyone from Shakespeare to William Morris, to J. R. R. Tolkien,  Robert E. Howard, and Poul Anderson.  The Norse fornaldarsagas (lit., “Stories of Times Past”) told more “historical” legends, but drew upon the Eddas for fantastic elements.  These Norse and Icelandic sagas depict heroes on dangerous quests fighting dragons, barrow-wights, witch-kings, and other forces of evil, from which they must often rescue “fair maidens.”  The quests are also often journeys of self-discovery. 

The Volsungasaga and The Nibelugenlied, in addition to being source material for Wagner’s operas, depict more historical legends, battles over thrones and dynasties, but still include many elements that have influenced modern fantasy.

Related to these source texts is the Anglo-Saxon epic poem, Beowulf (c. 8oo C.E.) which tells the story of the defeat of two hideous monsters, Grendel and Grendel’s mother,  by the hero Beowulf.  J. R. R. Tolkien, while a Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, gave a 1936 lecture, “Beowulf:  The Monsters and the Critics” which was the first serious look at the saga for literary purposes.  John Gardner’s Grendel (1971) retold the myth from the monster’s point of view.

Celtic mythology and folklore is another related source for modern fantasy.  Particularly rich is the Welsh tradition since it was collected into one source,  the Mabinogion (c. 1350-1410) , iron age tales which contain, among other things, the roots of the Arthurian legends.  One modern fantasy writer, Evangeline Walton, attempted to retell the Mabinogion in a series of four novels(for the four “branches” of the Mabinogion), The Island of the Mighty (1970); The Children of Llyr (1971); The Song of Rhiannon (1972), and Prince of Anwynn (1974).  In 2002, Overlook Press republished this series under one cover as The Mabinogion Tetralogy.  The Irish Ulster Cycle and Fenian Cycle have also been mined repeatedly for modern fantasy. 

But the greatest influence of Celtic mythology has been indirectly through the “Matter of Britain,” the medieval romances we know as the Arthurian legends.  These legendary histories of Britain took on lives of their own, apart from the Welsh mythology of their source–an important step in the history of fantasy.  Chaucer, Geoffrey of Monmouth ( The History of the Kings of Britain ), and others told versions of these tales, but they were  most influentially collected and reworked by Sir Thomas Mallory in Le Morte D’Arthur (c. 1470),  making Mallory probably the first fantasy anthologist.  This work is directly the source for many modern retellings of the Arthur stories, especially T. H. White’s The Once and Future King (1958) and the 1981 film, ExcaliburThe Victorian retelling by Alfred Lord Tennyson, Idylls of the King, which is heavily Christianized, is also influential–including on the third volume of C.S. Lewis’ science fantasy “Space Trilogy.”  The best resource for all things related to “The Matter of Britain” is Alan Lupak’s The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legends.

In addition to T. H. White, the following modern reworkings of Arthurian legend stand head and shoulders above the rest:  Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) while poking fun at some aspects of contemporary society is mostly using satire to take issue with the romantic view of the Middle Ages; Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series; Mary Stewart’s “historicised” version told through Merlin and heavily influenced by Geoffrey of Monmouth (The Crystal Cave, 1970; The Hollow Hills, 1973; The Last Enchantment, 1979; The Wicked Day, 1983); and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s feminist re-telling through the eyes of the women (which sees the tales as a struggle between Augustinian Christianity and the older pagan religions of the Great Mother), The Mists of Avalon (which also attempts to recreate pre-Augustinian Celtic Christianity as a form of Christianity which lived more in harmony with the pagans).  I would NOT recommend the “Pendragon Cycle” of Stephen Lawhead in which the Arthurian legends suffer because of Lawhead’s heavy-handed Christian apologetics. (His novels have won evangelical awards, but they just aren’t good as literature.  I don’t object to Lawhead’s Christianity since I am also a Christian, but a novel has to work first as good fiction.)

Finally, there is the Finnish epic, The Kalevala, which, though not published until the 19th C., collects stories that date back centuries.  J.R.R. Tolkien has said directly that both The Kalevala itself, and the Finnish language he learned in order to read it, were direct influences on his The Silmarillion.  I would think this epic could prove to be a rich source for others as well.

These appear to be the major “taproot texts” or sources of modern fantasy literature.  Some are more heavily used than others.  I noted at the beginning that traditional stories from Native American, African, Australian Aboriginal peoples, and New Zealand Maoris are all very under-utilized.  So, I think, is pre-Islamic Egyptian mythology.

January 23, 2011 Posted by | blog series, book reviews, books, fantasy literature | Leave a comment

A Brief History of Modern Fantasy II

III. Late Victorian Era.: The Flowering of Fantasy

At the end of the 19th C. and beginning of the 20th C., it was more acceptable for fantasy writers to write for children than for adults, so writers often deliberately wrote for children or adolescents in order to be marketable as fantasy writers.  One result was that some top-notch children’s fantasy was written by brilliant writers–producing works that that have remained popular long after their authors’ deaths.

J. M. Barrie (1860-1937), Scottish baron, author, and playwright, created the enduring children’s fantasy character, Peter Pan as part of a serialized novel (The Little White Bird) in 1901.  He then staged the play, Peter Pan or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up in 1904.  This play also popularized the female name “Wendy,” which was rare in English prior to this. The numerous follow-up appearances of Peter Pan by Barrie and others continues to this day.

L. Frank Baum (1856-1919), an American writer was simultaneously creating the great “Oz” series of books.  The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was first published in 1900 and in 1901 became the first “global” mass-market children’s fantasy, the “Harry Potter” series of its day.  It also drew controversy similar to Rowling’s later “Harry Potter” books, with fundamentalist preachers denouncing the “witchcraft” and supposedly “terrible morals” of the story. Baum wrote 13 sequels, none of which became as popular as the original. He acknowledged the influence of The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson, and even Lewis Caroll‘s “Alice in Wonderland” books, but was deliberately setting out to create “American fairy tales.” The books had numerous semi-allegorical allusions to political turmoil in the U.S. of Baum’s day.  (Baum was a Populist and Progressive whose wife, Maude Gage Baum, was a leader in the suffragist movement of early, first wave, feminism.) The 1939 film version, starring Judy Garland, continued the influence for successive generations.  Baum continues to be a major influence to this day.

Other children’s fantasies of this era include Lewis Caroll (Charles Dodgson, 1832-1898)’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland(1865) and Through the Looking Glass–And What Alice Found There(1872) (which mathematicians, philosophers, and logicians love because of the “inside jokes” that children and most adults miss) and Beatrix Potter (1866-1943)’s many “Peter Rabbit” and related stories.  Nor should one miss Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932)’s The Wind in the Willows (1908).

In this  Victorian period, adult fantasies were being written, too, especially in an adaptation of the old “traveler’s tale” format known as “Lost World” stories.  Often set in Africa (which was still mostly unknown to Western writers) or on unexplored islands, these were adventure stories outside the increasingly tamed industrial world.  Some were straight “realistic” adventure stories with no fantastic elements. Others, an early form of science fiction, depicted advanced civilizations or the hidden bases of rogue scientifice genuises (forming one of the roots of contemporary “steampunk” fiction).  But some included magic or other fantastic elements.  Among the most influential of the latter was H. Rider Haggard’s She (1887) and its sequel Ayesha (1905).  Haggard’s numerous adventure stories of English explorer, Allan Quartermain also sometimes contained fantasy elements–and that influence continues even to Steven Spielberg’s films about archeologist “Indiana Jones.”

The American author, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) is most famous for his novels and short stories concerning “Tarzan,” a son of an English lord who is raised by apes, teaches himself languages, and grows up to be “king of the jungle.” Though wildly improbable, the main Tarzan novels contain little or no explicit fantasy elements.  But Burroughs also pioneered several science fantasy works of a “sword and sorcery on other planets” type as well as lost world novels.  The most famous of these were a series of novels concerning Captain John Carter of Virginia (a Civil War veteran) who is mysteriously transported to a “Mars” that was nothing like the Mars that even the astronomy of Burroughs’ day knew–a “Mars” the natives call “Barsoom,” containing beautiful Red Martian princesses who need rescuing from giant, 4-armed, green Martians in a desert world of canals with a strange combination of high technology and swords.  The first John Carter tale was serialized in 1912 as Under the Moons of Mars and published as a novel in 1917 under the title, A Princess of Mars.  10 sequels were published over the next 30 years, adding characters and complicating the picture of Mars as a dying, post-industrial, planet.   Burroughs also wrote of Carson of Venus (Amtor),  and Pellucidar (a lost world at the earth’s core).  This kind of Sword and Planet science fantasy would influence later writers like Lin Carter, the highly sexist John Norman, and others. Writers as diverse as Ray Bradbury, Robert A. Heinlein, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Michael Moorcock have paid tribute to Burroughs’ Mars’s stories.

At the tail end of this era comes an author who is pivotal to the later development of fantasy due to his large influence on J.R.R. Tolkien, E.R. Eddison (1882-1945).  I, personally, find Eddison’s style dry and contrived, but he attempted to recreate the old Norse sagas in a world of total fiction–a self-contained, wholly invented mythology. It was that project which Tolkien eventually undertook in far more detail and with far more talent.  Eddison’s novel is The Worm Ouroboros (1922), in meticulously recreated Jacobean English (which I find tiring), creates a world of aristocratic heroes who war for honor and to escape boredom.  Michael Moorcock finds Eddison’s villains to be more authentic than Tolkien’s and even Ursula LeGuin pays tribute to Eddison.  But I find the casual disregard for human life and suffering of Eddison’s “heroes” to be off-putting.  It is worth noting that the Demons, Witches, Imps, Pixies, etc. are not separate species, as in Tolkien and many others, but various nationalities of human beings.  The novel also deals with the classic theme of time as an eternal wheel (the “worm” or dragon Ouroboros is the serpant which eats its own tale, a classic symbol of rebirth and cyclical history).  Even though Eddison is not my cup of tea, his importance to this history cannot be denied.

IV.  The Post-Victorian/Pre-Tolkien Era:, 1920s-World War II.

 In 1923, an American publisher launched Weird Tales, the first English-language (and maybe first in any language) magazine dedicated solely to fantasy and horror.  This was the era when pulp magazines were huge and many a novel began as a serialized story in pulp pages.  Weird Tales (and other sister publications soon to follow, like Fantastic Adventures and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction) launched numerous publishing careers in fantasy fiction.  Among those careers, pride of place must go to four very different American writers, H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) and Robert E. Howard (1906-1936),  Fritz Lieber (1910-1992),  and C. L. [Catherine Lucille] Moore (1911-1987), all of whom continue to have numerous fans and imitators.

Lovecraft, a fan of Edgar Allan Poe and the Gothic novels of the Victorian era, wrote in the boundary between the fast-separating horror and fantasy genres–-a boundary crossing tradition that today would  be called “dark fantasy.”  Lovecraft created the Cthulhu Mythos, a shared universe (other authors were allowed to use it and friends like August Derleth and Robert E. Howard did and others have continued) a series of stories and novels concerning demons and dark gods from ancient civilizations which, disguised, continue to threaten modern existence.  The stories usually take place in fictional New England towns and center on struggles against the Great Old Ones, a fearsome assortment of ancient and powerful gods who came to earth from outer space and once ruled the planet–and seek to do so again. The essence of these many stories is that the human world is an illusion–and the heroes of these stories, at risk of their sanity, catch glimpses of the true world behind that illusion and the cosmic struggle therein.  Lovecraft has been a major influence on later fantasy (Michael Moorcock and much dark fantasy) and on horror writers like Stephen King and Robert Bloch.  For an accessible secondary study, see Lin Carter, Lovecraft:  A Look Behind the Cthulu Mythos (Ballentine Books, 1972.) (It is worth noting that though Carter is a fan, he is far from uncritical, both of Lovecraft’s writing style and of some of his less savory beliefs, including his racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism.)

Even more influential than Lovecraft was Robert E. Howard whose troubled life ended in an early suicide, but not before writing numerous  stories of horror and fantasy.  Howard created the sub-genre of fantasy called “Sword and Sorcery,” usually featuring barbarian heroes, damsels in distress (often scantily clad), and a series of obstacles reminiscent of those from ancient mythologies (sorcerors, monsters, etc.).  This kind of fantasy differs from “epic” or “high heroic” fantasy (exemplified by Tolkien and all his imitators) because the protagonists (heroes or antiheroes) are not often great moral characters and the adventures usually do not serve as epic battles between the forces of good and evil–they are played out on a smaller scale.  (Some writers and fans of each of these sub-genres have held the other form in contempt, but Tolkien is said to have enjoyed Howard’s Conan tales.) Howard’s fantasy heroes included Kull the barbarian king of Atlantis, Bran Mak Morn, King of the Picts, and Solomon Kane a Puritan-Adventurer, but his most famous creation was Conan the Barbarian from lost Cimmeria in a pre-Ice Age “Hyborian Age.”  The Conan stories would eventually become a staple of Marvel Comics and a series of movies that launched the career of Arnold  Schwarzenegger–although I doubt the people of California can blame Robert E. Howard for the incompetent rule of “The Governator.”  L. Sprague deCamp and Lin Carter collected unpublished Howard stories into anthologies,  finished some fragments, and wrote their own Conan stories,  too.  See the official Robert E. Howard page here.

Fritz Leiber added realism (carefully controlling the fantasy elements and researching ancient weapons, technologies and cultures in a way Howard never bothered to do) and humor with his stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser a fantasy partnership between a Northern barbarian (somewhat more realistically depicted than Conan) and a suave, sophisticated, city-dwelling thief.  The stories were written over 50 years and most originally published in pulp magazines before later anthologization.

C. L. Moore was one of the earliest female writers of sword and sorcery.  Challenging the sexism of the “he-man barbarian” approach, Moore wrote stories in the 1930s (usually published in Weird Tales) about “Jirel of Joiry,” female ruler of an alternate Medieval realm somewhere in our France who was as tough as Conan, smarter,  just as scantily clad, and always fighting sorcery. 

The era closes with the publication in 1938 of T. H. White’s (1906-1964) humorous re-telling of the Arthurian cycle, The Once and Future King.  (Actually, only the first section, The Sword in the Stone, was published in ’38.  The “finished” novel was not published until 1958 and a “conclusion,” The Book of Merlin, was published posthumously in 1977).  Comedy has long been a feature of fantasy which has an amazing ability to  spoof itself when it starts to become pretentious.

IV. Tolkien and the Post-Tolkien Explosion

It is simply impossible to overestimate the impact of one, rather ordinary, Oxford Professor of Anglo-Saxon Language, named John Ronald Ruel Tolkien (1892-1973).  A pre-Vatican II Catholic of conservative views from his childhood in South Africa onward, Tolkien was uncomfortable with educated women and much else of the rapidly changing world.  He was an early environmentalist and critic of overindustrialization who preferred books and created his entire “Middle Earth” imaginary world in order to have characters to speak the invented languages he developed. (You can actually learn to speak Elvish and the actors in Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of Tolkien’s work do so.) He wanted to create a mythology for Britain which, he believed, had lost its mythology.

In 1937, Tolkien published The Hobbit, a children’s fantasy based  on stories he used to tell his own children.  It enjoyed modest success and, if Tolkien had stopped there,  he might have been only mildly influential on later fantasy.  But he noticed that his characters had, at the edges of his tale, wandered into the high history of Middle Earth that he had been creating over decades.  He decided to connect the stories and worked on them by longhand, sending chapters out as letters to his son Christopher, serving in France during WWII.  The resulting saga, The Lord of the Rings (first published 1954-1955) was so large it had to be published in three volumes. It is NOT a trilogy, despite all those who claim otherwise.

There have been critics ever since, but Tolkien’s work was such a huge success that it created fantasy as a mass-marketing reality. (That is, someone could actually make a living just writing fantasy novels–something virtually  impossible pre-Tolkien.) He was never really comfortable with his fame and its attendant wealth.  After his death, his son, Christopher, began editing and publishing the many pieces of the longer mythology behind the Lord of the Rings, but these have been of interest usually only to diehard Tolkien fans. (Interested fans can find the complete Tolkien works here.

Tolkien’s success had 3 immediate impacts on fantasy:  1. It spawned a host of imitators of The Lord of the Rings–most of them very bad.  (One, Terry Brooks’, The Sword of Shannara and its sequels, I really dislike–but they became the first post-Tolkien “epic fantasies” to make the New York Times‘ bestseller lists.) 2. It spawned, or at least sped-up,  the republication of many of Lovecraft and Howard’s works (and other Weird Tales’ contributors) in fantasy anthologies.  3. It gave renewed attention to some of Tolkien’s friends and associates–a group of English writers known as “The Inklings.” (All of the Inklings were male, but Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957), a popular Christian apologist, creator of both the mystery hero, Sir Peter Whimsey, and a translation of Dante, is often considered an honorary “female Inkling” because of her friendship with several of the members.)

Among the most important Inklings for this history are C. S. Lewis  and Charles Williams.  Clive Staples (“Jack”) Lewis (1898-1963)  was Fellow and Tutor in English Literature, Magdalen College, Oxford (1925-1954) and Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge University (1954-1963).  Irish by birth, Lewis was an adult convert from atheism to Christianity and became a popular apologist for a rather traditional (though by no means fundamentalist) Anglicanism.  In addition to works on popular Christianity, two spiritual autobiographies, and various scholarly works, Lewis published several works  of fantasy, the most famous of which is the series  of children’s books known collectively as The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956).  The Narnia books may be the most famous children’s fantasy works between Baum’s Oz books and J.K. Rowling’s recent Harry Potter works, though its explicit Christian themes leads the series to have FEWER (but still some) critics among conservative evangelicals.  Lewis also wrote a trilogy of science fantasy novels where the Christian apologetics is somewhat more heavy-handed than in the Narnia books.  See Out of the Silent Planet (1938); Perelandra (also published as Voyage to Venus, 1943); That Hideous Strength (1945–which also brings back in the Arthurian cycle).  Lewis also wrote explicitly theological fiction in fantasy form, The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933, a fictionalized autobiography); The Screwtape Letters (1942; hilarious series of letters from a senior devil to a novice tempter), and The Great Divorce (1945; A bus tour of the fringes of heaven from hell in the tradition of Dante’s Divine Comedy.  In Lewis’ work, his guide is not the Roman poet Virgil, but the Scottish minister and fantasy writer, George Macdonald [see previous post].)

A third Inkling with an influence on fantasy is Charles Williams (1886-1945), a staff editor at Oxford University Press who wrote a series of fantasy novels that have been characterized as “Christian Lovecraft.”  They aren’t my cup of tea, but many find them wonderful.  In chronological order, Williams’ novels (all later republished by the American evangelical publisher, William B. Eerdmans) are War in Heaven (1930; involves the Holy Grail); Many Dimensions (1931); The Place of the Lion (1931; very Platonic); The Greater Trumps (1932; involving Tarot Cards and the Great Dance); Shadows of Ecstasy (1934); Descent into Hell (1937), and All Hallows’ Eve (1943).

V. Pioneering Female Fantasy Writers:

The rediscovery of  Tolkien, Lovecraft, and Howard by the countercultural youth movements of the 1960s (ironic considering the deeply conservative trends of each in his own way) led to an explosion of fantasy in the 1960s and 1970s–most of it mediocre at best.  The genre had been dominated by men, but a generation of women began to push at these boundaries–and today the genre is full of strong female voices.

Alice Mary Norton, writing as Andre Norton (1912-2005), was an American writer of historical fiction, science fiction, and fantasy.  In the fantasy genre, she became famous for her “Witch World” novels–a long series of books depicting a parallel earth in which magic works, but is, at least at the beginning, the exclusive possession of women.  The females who dominate the witch world believe that magic only works for virgin females and that loss of virginity will translate to loss of magic.  They are slowly forced to revise their beliefs because of the adventures of Simon Tregarth from our Earth who is able to handle some magic, marries the witch, Jaelithe  (who does not lose her magic), and whose children, both male and female, are stronger magic users than the traditional witches.

By contrast, Ursula LeGuin (1929-), influenced by Taoist and feminist themes, wrote a series of novels set in the world of Earthsea where magic is mostly male–controlled and female magic users have to unbend the conservative heirarchy of wizards. Other than the Earthsea books, LeGuin is mostly known for her works of science fiction rather than fantasy.  For all things LeGuin, see this site.

Marion Zimmer Bradley (1930-1999) built on the legacies of Le Guin and Norton (and earlier, C. L. Moore) and on the post-Tolkien explosion.  She has written both science fiction and fantasy.  She is most famous for her science fantasy “Darkover” novels, but also for the way she worked to get more women in the field by editing a series of short-story anthologies known as Sword and Sorceress, vols. 1-23 which helped to launch the careers of C. J. Cherryh, Mercedes Lackey, Diana Paxson, Elizabeth Waters, Elizabeth Moon, and others.  From 1979 onward (continuing with Diana Paxson), Bradley reworked the Arthurian cycle from a feminist (and neo-pagan) perspective beginning in The Mists of Avalon (1979) which spent 3 months on the New York Times bestseller lists. (Bradley herself experimented with Wicca and other forms of neo-pagan worship, but eventually became a confirmed Episcopalian.)  Eventually there were sequels to The Mists of Avalon, some of them completed by Diana Paxson.

Madeleine L’Engle(1918-2007) was an American writer of novels aimed at adolescent audiences.  She wrote at the blurry boundaries between fantasy and science fiction (“science fantasy”).  I like her books, especially her best known (and award winning), A Wrinkle in Time (1962), but my wife, Kate, is an even bigger fan and has several of L’Engle’s works autographed by the author–which is so cool.  Influenced both in writing style and in religious views by the Victorian-era Scottish minister and fantasy writer, George MacDonald (see part I of these history postings), L’Engle, a lifelong and very active Episcopalian (American Anglican) was also a thoroughgoing believer in universal salvation.  For that reason, many conservative Christian bookstores would not stock her books, despite their prominent themes of faith.

Katherine Kurtz (1944-)  renewed the “alternative history” form of fantasy by creating an alternate Medieval Wales (Gwynnedd) that is the setting for her many Deryni novels–stories of a race of magic users persecuted by a Medieval Church–but more tolerated in lands where the Moors (Muslims) or the Eastern Church are dominant.  Kurtz was one of the first writers to go into detail about the mechanics of magic (often it seems like a form of Extra-sensory Perception or psionics) and her characters wrestle with the morality of their actions more than is common in the genre.  Although born in America, she has spent most of her adult life in a castle in Ireland, but recently moved back to the U.S. (Virginia) to be with her children and grandchildren in her senior years.  (She is known to be close friends with the science fiction writer, Anne McAffrey.) The Deryni novels first began being published in 1970.

Patricia A. McKillip (1948-) is an American writer who has lived abroad and writes both science fiction and fantasy. Her fantasy works usually take place in a Medieval- like setting in which music plays a large part.  Though sometimes her writing reflects divisions of labor among the sexes, she portrays strong female characters who are the equals of their male counterparts.  The books usually involve elements of mystery as the main characters possess and/or are confronted by powers they don’t understand.  Her “Quest of the Riddlemaster” Trilogy from the early 1970s is particularly inventive.

Today, the numerous women who write in this field–with as many male fans as female–all stand on the shoulders of these determined pioneers.

VI. The Post-Tolkien Era.

As the counterculture kept the Lovecraft, Howard, and Tolkien books continually in print, fantasy began to splinter into numerous sub-genres: Sword and sorcery, epic/high fantasy, sword and planet and other science fantasy, historical fantasy, alternate histories, etc.  Most were only of mediocre quality.  But some stood out.  Michael Moorcock (1939-) is a British writer of science fiction and fantasy who did not like the way Tolkien dominated the field–and did not like the way barbarians like Conan dominated the field of Sword and Sorcery.  So, he created an anti-hero, “Elric of Melnibone,” who was a degenerate, a city-dweller, a hedonist and prince who disdained barbarians and from a long line of evil magic users.  Far from Conan’s rippling muscles or the clean living of Tolkien’s heroes, Elric was an albino (white hair and skin, pink eyes), weak and with disgusting habits.  Then Moorcock cursed Elric with a magical sword, “Stormbringer,” which sucked out the souls of people to give Elric both physical and magical strength.  He cannot throw the sword away–and he is chosen to be the champion of Order vs. Chaos, a battle that is presented as more cosmic than the one between good and evil.  Eventually, Moorcock linked up his Elric stories with other heroes as incarnations of an “Eternal Warrior” in the battle between Order and Chaos.  Moorcock did for fantasy what Sergio Leone did for Western films–-gave a grittier, grimmer feel that fit well with the cynicism of the 1970s and early ’80s when they enjoyed their highest popularity.

I am not a fan of Terry Brooks (1944-) whose first successful novel, The Sword of Shanarra (1971), I considered to be a cheap retelling of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  Though he modified this and became more creative in sequels, I never got over my initial disappointment. But Brooks showed that others could write Epic fantasy after Tolkien. He has now written 22 New York Times bestsellers during his career.

After Brooks (and, in my view, a much better writer) came Stephen R. Donaldson (1947-) who began working on his fantasy writing while growing up in India where his parents were medical missionaries. Donaldson’s 1977 book, Lord Foul’s Bane introduced “Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever” an anti-hero as powerful as Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone and placed him in an Epic tale and in a Land as beautiful as Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. 

Where will fantasy go from here?  Who knows?  The possibilities are literally endless.   I hope to write future posts on science fiction, on the sub-genres of fantasy, and some major themes.

One note of criticism for this genre, I love.  Though the initial male-female imbalance is much less, today, the Anglo-American scene is still dominated by writers from the so-called “dominant” Caucasian culture.  (This IS changing. The late Octavia Butler [1947-2006] wrote science fiction and fantasy that was both popular and critically acclaimed.  Carol McDonnell, author of Wind Follower and Alaya Dawn Johnson, author of Racing the Dark are two contemporary African-American authors.  And more Asian writers of fantasy are being translated, thanks to the popularity of manga comics and Japanese anime.  But the field is still WAY too moncultural.)   We need far more fantasy writers of more diverse cultural backgrounds.  That would help keep from having the overly-Caucasian casts.  Look, folks, even our “real” Europe of the Middle Ages was not so very white as most Medieval flavored fantasy novels.  Huns and Mongols and the Russ had brought Asian peoples and influences.  There were Islamic influences from both the Middle East and Africa–even in Britain, but much more in France, Portugal, and Spain.  And why must every other fantasy novel depic a society with a king, some nobles, and peasants? Even the “real” Middle Ages had wider political patterns with “free towns” run by guilds and merchants, or the cantons of Switzerland under democratic rule, etc.  And actual “barbarians” are usually only barbaric to those who consider themselves above them, and they are almost never like Conan.  Some variety and research, please.

January 23, 2011 Posted by | blog series, book reviews, books, fantasy literature | 2 Comments

A Brief History of Modern Fanstasy Literature I

First published in ’09 on Levellers, my old blog.  Reprinted here because I’m trying to save the best of that blog even as I go forward with new things here at Pilgrim Pathways.  Everyone knows of my passions for theology-related subjects (including biblical studies, theological ethics, dogmatic/systematic theologies, church history and historical theology, theology from the Two Thirds World, and the intersection between philosophy and theology). Everyone who reads me also knows of my passion for politics, especially, but not only, in the U.S. context.  But I can’t focus on those passions all the time. I like sports, but have never been tempted to blog on sports.  However, I am a reading addict and I have special loves for 3 genres: detective stories, science fiction, and fantasy.  From time to time, I may blog on any of those as a way to take a break from my two dominant passions.  So, here are some reprinted postings on fantasy literature. MLW-W

I. Forerunners:

Fantasy has its roots in ancient mythologies, of course, and in Medieval stories of all kinds.  But modern fantasy literature, while it usually mines these as sources, attempts to create worlds of fantastic fiction for sheer entertainment.

If  we define “the Modern Age” as beginning with the Renaissance and Reformation movements of the 16th C., then the earliest “Modern” writer of fantasy literature may be Edmund Spenser (1552-1599). Spencer’s The Faerie Queene, is not only fantasy, but an allegory praising the Tudor dynasty and, especially, Queen Elizabeth I. (He was trying to suck up to the  Queen for a place at court, but it didn’t work.)

Nor should we overlook the great Bard of Avon, himself, William Shakespeare (1564-1616).  Shakespeare’s poems and plays covered many genres, but at least the following are fantasies:  A Midsummer Night’s Dream; The Tempest; and there are, at least, elements of fantasy in the tragedies, Macbeth (the 3 witches), and Hamlet (the ghost of Hamet’s father).

Little fantasy writing was done during the Enlightenment of the 17th C. because this “Age of Reason” valued science and history  and empiricism.  It gave birth to realistic fiction with the adventure stories of writers like Willem Dafoe.  This desert was necessary, however, because it allowed fantasy to develop as a distinct and separate genre from realistic fiction. However, even in the 17th C., the great blind Puritan poet, John Milton (1608-1674)  gave us the theological fantasy, Paradise Lost (1667), an epic poem depicting the pre-historical Fall of Satan and his Angels and the subsequent temptation and fall of human beings.

The Romantic movement in the 18th C.  reacted to the Enlightenment focus on reason, by celebrating emotions and imagination including reviving “romances” that continued the development of fantasy literature.  One major contribution of the Romantic period was the  birth of the Gothic novel (which is also a forerunner of horror fiction).  The first Gothic novel is usually said to be Horace Walpole’s 1794 work, The Castle of Otranto which introduces such Gothic features as a doomed castle or house, a cursed family, an author claiming to be only a translator or discoverer of an ancient manuscript, a haunted castle, a rightful heir, etc. 

II. Pioneers of Fantasy:

In the Victorian Age (late 19th and early 20th C.), fantasy really becomes a distinct genre–and this era also saw the beginning of true science fiction (a story for another time).  The earliest Victorian fantasy is probably Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) which uses the devices of a realistic novel to make a ghost story seem plausible.  (Scrooge’s initial doubt about the reality of the ghosts includes a skeptical explanation that his senses are fooled–and that explanation is never really refuted, leaving the reader to decide for herself or himself whether or not Scrooge really was visited by the ghost of his old business partner and 3 other spirits one Christmas Eve.)

Jacob Grimm (1785-1863) and Wilhelm Grimm (1786-1859) were two German brothers who were academic linguists–studying the way that words change in sound and meaning over time.  However, history will forever know them for their hobby:  collecting folk stories and fairy tales.  Grimms’ Fairy Tales was first published in 1812, with later editions expanding the collection.  Many of the best loved fairy stories and folk tales of Europe were anthologized  by the Brothers’ Grimm:  Rumplestiltskin, Rapunzel, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel, The Frog Prince, Cinderella.  A good contemporary edition is The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers’ Grimm trans. Jack Zipes (3rd ed., Bantam Books, 2003).

Whereas the Brothers’ Grimm anthologized traditional fairy tales, the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875)  took the next step in the development of fantasy:  writing original fairy tales with the same “spirit” as found in traditional folklore. (See an excellent collection here.)  Then the Scottish minister, poet, and author, George MacDonald (1824-1905), a direct & deep influence on both J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis and also an influence on others as diverse as Mark Twain, W. H. Auden, and Madeleine L’Engle, took the next step:  writing novel-length “fairy stories” such as The Princess and the Goblin (1872) and Phantastes (1858).  The latter is usually considered to be the first fantasy novel written specifically for adults, rather than children or adolescents.

A major fantasy writer of this period whom I knew nothing about before doing this research was William Morris (1834-1896).  Morris was an English architect, furniture and textile designer, artist, writer, and socialist associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  Morris wrote widely, but 7 of his novels toward the end of the 19th C. are fantasies.  A Medievalist, Morris deliberately wrote in a style modeled on the Medieval Romances.  His work represents a major development in fantasy because whereas previous authors set their stories in foreign lands or forgotten times, Morris was the first to create an entirely separate fantasy world for his books.  Apparently, his most famous fantasy novel is called, The Well at the World’s End (1896) and I look forward to reading it. [Still haven’t gotten around to this in January 2011. MLW-W]

Although today fantasy and horror are distinct genres, they were not during the Victorian era. (Even today, writers who want to, can blur the lines.) Some of the best known horror writers of the Victorian era, Mary Shelly (1797-1851), Bram Stoker (1847-1912), Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) and the playwright, Oscar Wilde(1854-1900) were also influential in the development of fantasy.  Shelly’s Frankenstein (1818) is both early science fiction (arguably the first “robot” story), horror, and fantasy.  Stoker’s Dracula(1897) draws from both the legends surrounding Vlad Tepes (a.k.a., Vlad the Impaler), whose actual history was bloody enough, and selects from the many ancient vampire traditions and uses them to tell a Gothic novel.  Most of Edgar Allan Poe’s works are Gothic (a style he chose because of its current popularity), but he also invented the detective story (“Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and “The Purloined Letter,”) and contributed to science fiction.  But his only completed novel, The Narrative of Arthur Golden Pym of Nantucket (1838) (which I admit, I have not read), is a Gothic fantasy–but was also influential on Jules Verne’s science fiction.  Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) is the last great horror story in the Gothic tradition, but it’s fantastic elements also influenced many a later “dark fantasy” writer, such as  H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937).

End part I.  Part II will describe the flowering of fantasy literature in the twentieth century and then outline the many roads taken since the pivotal work of Tolkien.

January 22, 2011 Posted by | blog series, books, fantasy literature | 2 Comments

Essential Theology Books of the Last 25 Years (1985-2010)

The Christian Century has asked a range of prominent contemporary Christian theologians to list their top 5 works in theology for the last 25 years.   CC  polled Stanley Hauerwas, Amos Yong, Emilie M. Townes, Lawrence S. Cunningham, Sarah Coakley, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, George Hunsinger, and Willie James Jennings.  Their results are here

It’s a good selection of thinkers and a good list, but I thought it’d be fun to poll the theoblogging and biblioblogging world for their picks.  Below are mine in no particular order.

  • Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Abingdon Press, 1996).  Won the Grawemeyer Award for religion.  Written in the wake of the Los Angeles uprising over an all white jury’s cynical aquittal of the racist police officers who beat Rodney King and in the wake of the ethnic cleansing in the civil war of the former Yugoslavia. (Volf is a Croatian-American.) Though not every part is equally satisfying, this is a powerful account of the necessity and difficulties of forgiveness.
  • J. Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account (Oxford University Press, 2008).   Even though modern theology and philosophy (since the days of European colonialism) are deeply involved in the construction of the flawed notion of race, the topic is usually ignored. Carter not only tackles it, but does it with more depth than I would have believed possible.  NO pastor (especially in the USA), evangelist, missionary, theologian or student of any theological discipline can afford to ignore this book.
  • Catherine LaCugna, God For Us: The Trinity and the Christian Life (HarperOne, 1993).  The late Catherine LaCugna gives one of the most powerful accounts of the Trinity I’ve ever read and shows how deeply important it is for Christian living. Far too many Christians (whether liberal or conservative) think of the Trinity as a “numbers game” which is abstract and remote and of no essential importance for Christian faith–whatever lip service they give to it.  All of them should read LaCugna and reconsider.
  • John Howard Yoder, For the Nations:  Essays Evangelical and Public (Eerdmans, 1997; repr. Wipf and Stock, 2002).  The last book Yoder published before his untimely death in December 1997.  Demonstrates clearly that the Anabaptist engagement with the state and the wider culture is anything but a “sectarian withdrawal.”
  • James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Systematic Theology (3 vols.) (Abingdon Press, 1986; 1994; 2000).  In 3 concentrated and dense volumes (Ethics, Doctrine, Witness) McClendon forges a Baptist (and baptist) theology for the new millennium that is both deeply catholic and which explains and defends the (Ana)baptist perspective to those trained in mainline (Constantinian) theology–whether liberal or evangelical, Catholic, or Orthodox.

I look forward to your picks and reasons.  Yes, it’s hard to limit to just 5, but that is part of the challenge.

October 4, 2010 Posted by | book reviews, books, history of theology | 18 Comments

Favorite Biblical Commentaries IV: The Major Prophets

The books listed in the Protestant Canon as “The Prophets” mostly coincide with the Jewish canon’s Nevi’im  (Prophets), with a few exceptions. As I mentioned before, what Jews refer to as “the Former Prophets” (Joshua, Judges, Samuel [=1 & 2 Samuel], and Kings [=1 & 2 Kings]) are placed in Christian canons together with some of the Writings (Ketuvim) as “Historical Books.”  Also, the Hebrew Bible places both Daniel and Lamentations in the Writings and not in the Prophets.  Catholic Bibles add the book of Baruch to the Prophets and Eastern Orthodox Bibles include both Baruch and The Letter of Jeremiah.  In what follows I’ll continue to follow the Protestant canon, but in the future, I may post on helpful commentaries for the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical books.

There is an informal division among the Prophets into “the Major Prophets”–books large enough to take up their own scroll (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekial, Daniel, Lamentations) and the “Minor Prophets,” called in Hebrew “The Scroll of the Twelve” because all 12 books are small enough to fit on one standard-size scroll.  This post will cover the Major Prophets.

Major Prophets:


  • Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets (HarperCollins, 2007).  Originally published in 1962, this edition contains a new introduction by daughter, Susannah Heschel (a Jewish feminist theologian).  There is no better introduction anywhere.
  • Gerhard von Rad, The Message of the Prophets. (Harper & Row, 1972). German edition 1967.  A classic that is still well worth consulting.
  • James Luther Mays and Paul J. Achtemeier, eds., Interpreting the Prophets. (Augsburg-Fortress Press, 1987).
  • Joseph Blenkinsopp, A History of Prophecy in IsraelRevised and Enlarged (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1996).
  • Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination. 2nd edition. (Fortress Press, 2001). 


Many modern scholars believe that this was originally not one book, but an edited scroll containing the works of two, or even three, prophets greatly separated in time.  Chapters 1-39 were written by Isaiah of Jerusalem who lived in the 8th C. B.C.E. (see 2 Kings chaps. 15-20) and ends just prior to the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon. Chapter 40 begins at the end of the Exile and looks to the soon return of the Exiles to the Land.  Those who view Isaiah as written by two authors, see chaps. 40-66 as belonging to “Second Isaiah” a convenient term for the unknown prophet of the Exile who is the author.  Those who see the book as written by three authors, assign chaps. 40-55 to “Second Isaiah” (the prophet of the Exile) and chaps. 56-66 to “Third Isaiah,” an unknown prophet of the post-exilic period.   Those seeing  2-3 authors often divide write 2 or 3 volume commentaries divided along these lines.  Isaiah is my favorite book of the Old Testament (and seems to have been Jesus’ favorite!). I agree that there are at least 2 authors, but those interpreting the book in the life of the church should focus on the redacted unity of the canonical form of the book.

  • Daniel Berrigan, S. J. Isaiah: Spirit of Courage, Gift of Tears (Augsburg-Fortress, 1996). A powerful interpretation of Isaiah to revitalize the church in imperial America.
  • Brevard S. Childs, Isaiah (Old Testament Library) (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2001).  Childs “canonical interpretation” means that while he accepts the 3-fold authorship, he finds it irrelevant for normative interpretation. The focus is on the canonical form of the book.  Best critical one volume commentary.
  • John D. W. Watts, Isaiah 1-33 (Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 24) (Thomas Nelson, 1985).
  • John D. W. Watts, Isaiah, 34-66 (Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 25) (Thomas Nelson, 1987).  Watts was my teacher. Influenced both by Childs and by the newer literary critical approaches (that put more emphasis on close reading of the text than on reconstructing historical events “behind” the text), Watts also focuses on the final form of the book. He reads the entire book from the perspective of the post-exilic redactor. (We students used to kid him that Watts didn’t believe in 1st or 2nd Isaiah, just 3rd Isaiah!) Thus, the division here is simply because of length; Watts does not break the two volumes along traditional critical lines.
  • John J. Collins, Isaiah(Collegeville Biblical Commentary, vol. 13) (Liturgical Press, 1986).  Aimed at the general reader from a contemporary critical Catholic perspective.
  • Ivan D. Friesen, Isaiah. (Believers Church Bible Commentary) (Herald Press, 2009).  Aimed at the life of the church. Especially helpful for Christian peacemaking.
  • R. E. Clements, Isaiah 1-39 (New Century Bible Commentary) (Eerdmans, 1981).
  • Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66 (Interpretation: A Commentary for Preaching and Teaching) (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1995).

Jeremiah & Lamentations:

Before the rise of historical criticism, it was universally assumed among both Jews and Christians that the prophet Jeremiah wrote both the Book of Jeremiah and the Book of Lamentations.  Although authorship is probably more complicated, it is still obvious that the books are related.  The laments of Lamentations are written in a very similar style of Hebrew to the poetic sections of Jeremiah and seem to respond to the same events.  So, very often, commentaries are written on the two books together, rather than separately.

The relation between the prose secions and poetic sections of Jeremiah has long been a critical question.  The book went through several revisions, too and many critics wonder if the chapters are in the right order.  The book is very closely tied to political events in Judah, but the time cues are confusing.  These kinds of technical issues sometimes distract from the radical message of the book, so I look for commentaries that address the critical problems without getting lost in them. 

  • Leslie C. Allen, Jeremiah:  A Commentary. (Old Testament Library) (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008).  I bought this when working on a Bible study series for adults called “Jeremiah the War-Resister.”  This is a great volume.
  • Daniel Berrigan, Jeremiah: The World, the Wound of God(Fortress Press, 1999). Not a technical commentary, but rich in theological and ethical insights. Berrigan continues to work on curing the church’s biblical amnesia.
  • Norman C. Habel, Jeremiah, Lamentations (Concordia Commentary) (Concordia Publishing House, 1968).  Long out of print, this is still a very readable introduction.
  • R. E. Clements, Jeremiah. (Interpretation:  A Commentary for Preaching and Teaching) (John Knox Press, 1989).
  • Elmer A. Martens, Jeremiah. (Believers Church Bible Commentary) (Herald Press, 1986).
  • Jorge Pixley, Jeremiah. (Chalice Commentaries for Today) (Chalice Press, 2004).  A Liberation theology perspective.
  • Adele Berlin, Lamentations (Old Testament Library) (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004).


As one can tell from the recent publication of the commentaries below, I started delving deeply into Ezekiel comparatively recently compared to others of the Prophets.

  • Bruce Vawter, A New Heart:  A Commentary on the Book of Ezekiel.  (International Theological Commentary) (Eerdmans, 1991).
  • Walther Eichrodt, Ezekiel  (Old Testament Library) (Westminster Press,1971).  This is the classic text by one of the leaders of the old version of the Biblical Theology Movement.
  • Margaret S. Odell, Ezekiel (Smyth & Helwys Press, 2005) with CD Rom.
  • Leslie C. Allen, Ezekiel 1-19 (Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 28) (Thomas Nelson, 1984).
  • Leslie C. Allen, Ezekiel 20-48 (Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 29) (Thomas Nelson, 1990).  These two volumes probably comprise the best technical commentary that I’ve consulted which don’t forget to interpret the text for the church.
  • Daniel Berrigan, S. J.  Ezekiel:  Vision in the Dust(Orbis B ooks, 1997).  It may be that Berrigan’s late-life biblical commentaries prove to be a more lasting legacy of church renewal than his early (and continuing) political activism.
  • Millard Lind, Ezekiel (Believers Church Bible Commentary) (Herald Press, 1996).



  • John E. Goldingay, Daniel (Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 30) (Thomas Nelson, 1989).
  • Toni Craven, Ezekiel, Daniel (Collegeville Bible Commentary, Old Testament, vol. 16). (Liturgical Press, 1986).
  • Paul M. Lederach, Daniel (Believers Church Bible Commentary) (Herald Press, 1994).
  • Sharon Pace. Daniel (Smyth & Helwys Commentary) (Smyth & Helwys Press, 2008).

September 24, 2010 Posted by | Bible, Biblical interpretation, blog series, book reviews, books | Leave a comment

Book Review: Covenant of Peace

Willard M. Swartley, Covenant of Peace:  The Missing Peace in New Testament Theology and EthicsGrand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans, 2006.

I started to read this book when it was first published, but things got in the way, as life often does, even for those of us who are bibliophiles.  This time, it was a mistake to get sidetracked.  In my humble opinion, this is one of the most important studies in New Testament theology and ethics written in a very long time. 

Swartley, President Emeritus and Emeritus Professor of New Testament at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (Elkhart, IN) surveyed 25 standard works in New Testament  theology and ethics and found a major lacuna–they all failed to notice how central the concept of “peace,” and “peacemaking” are to every strand of New Testament theology. (Richard Hays does better than most, but a new edition of his The Moral Vision of the New Testament would be strengthened by incorporating Swartley’s insights.) Swartley shows that peace is at the heart of the gospel message and, in differing ways, every New Testament document (with the possible exceptions of 2 Peter and Jude!) reflects that centrality.  The puzzle is that this has been missed by so many good biblical theologians since the rise of critical scholarship!

If those who teach courses in New Testament theology and/or ethics will use Covenant of Peace to supplement standard works in New Testament theology (e.g., Bultmann, Kümmel, Goppelt, Stauffer, Caird or, from the conservative spectrum, Ladd, Marshall, Morris) or ethics (Hays, Daly, Lohse, Schrage, Matera, Schnackenburg, Verhey), the results should transform the preaching and teaching of the next generation of pastors.  Those considering writing a New Testament theology or ethics should not send a draft to their publisher without reading this work first and incorporating its insights.  Those responsible for the regular exposition of the Word in the churches should read this immediately and let it inform their preaching at a deep level.  The book is that good.

Swartley even takes up the question, which has divided many contemporary Christian pacifists, of whether GOD is always nonviolent or whether Christian nonviolence and peacemaking may depend not usurping God’s role in wrath, vengeance, and judgment.  I am not completely satisfied with Swartley’s answer, but he lays out issues and evidence in a way that helpfully clarifies what’s at stake in both positions. (I may take up that debate in a future blog post.)

This is Swartley’s finest work.  Get it and read it slowly–with your Greek NT handy and taking many notes!  Then rededicate yourself to the gospel of peace through the Lamb’s victory over the Powers.

September 3, 2010 Posted by | Biblical interpretation, book reviews, books, pacifism, peace, theological education | Leave a comment

Major Writings of John Howard Yoder

Major Writings of John Howard Yoder (1927-1997).

1958 The Ecumenical Movement and the Faithful Church. Herald Press.

1959 Peace Without Eschatology? Herald Press. An early Yoder critique of “liberal” Christian pacifism.

 1961a As You Go: The Old Mission in the New Day. Herald Press.

 1961b Anabaptism in Flanders, 1530-1650: A Century of Struggle. Translated from the Flemish by JHY. Herald Press.

 1961c The Christian and Capital Punishment. Herald Press.

 1962 Christ and the Powers. By Hendrikus Berkhof. Translated from the Dutch by JHY. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Considering the huge influence since then of the “Principalities and Powers” theme in both NT studies and contemporary theology, Yoder’s translation of Berkhof has to count as one of his major contributions.

 1964a. The Christian Witness to the State. Faith and Life Press. Rev. Ed. 1977. New edition by Herald Press, 2002.

 1964b Discipleship as Political Responsibility. Herald Press. Rev. Ed., 2003.

 1968 Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Pacifism. Church Peace Mission, 6. Herald Press. Desperately needed back in print!

 1970 Karl Barth and the Problem of War. Abingdon Press. Now reprinted with other Barth essays. See below.

1971 Nevertheless: The Varieties and Shortcomings of Religious Pacifism. Herald Press. 2nd Ed., 1976. Revised and Expanded, 1992.  This is one of my favorite of Yoder’s books on pacifism and helped me to locate myself and to understand others.

1972a The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Revised and Expanded Edition, 1994. Yoder’s most influential work and rightly so. I’d be willing to say that any minister today who has not read this book needs to. I have now worn out 3 copies of the first edition and one of the 2nd.

 1972b The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism. Herald Press. Reprinted Wipf & Stock, 1998.  This is a good place to begin in reading Yoder.  It contains his longest reflection on the Sermon on the Mount, among other great essays.

 1973 The Legacy of Michael Sattler. Classics of the Radical Reformation, 1. Herald Press. Edited and translated by JHY. This made the life and major writings of this early Anabaptist leader available in English for the first time.

 1977 The Schleitheim Confession. Translated by JHY. Herald Press. The earliest Anabaptist confession of faith.

 1981 Preface to Theology: Christology and Theological MethodPosthumously published by Brazos Press, 2002.

 1983a Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution: A Companion to BaintonEdited by Theodore Koontz and Andy Alexis-Baker and posthumously published by Brazos Press, 2009.  This companion violume to Roland Bainton’s classic work, Christian Attitudes to War and Peace circulated privately for years and was used by Yoder in a course taught (“Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution”) at both Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and the University of Notre Dame.  It is thinner in places that Bainton covers well and thicker where Bainton is thin.

 1983b What Would You Do?: A Serious Answer to a Standard Question. Herald Press. Revised and Expanded 1992. The first half of the book is Yoder’s attempt to answer the standard question to pacifists, “If a violent person threatened a loved one, what would you do?” The second half of the book are alternative answers by other pacifists: Count Leo Tolstoy, S. H. Booth-Clibborn (early British Pentecostal), C. J. Furness (Fellowship of Reconciliation, writing during WWII), Henry T. Hodgkin (British Quaker, Cambridge philosopher and one of the founders of the F.O.R.), Joan Baez (American Folk Singer), Dale W. Brown (Church of the Brethren theologian), Dale Aukerman (Mennonite theologian), Tom Skinner (African-American former gang member turned evangelist), anonymous missionary, Gladys Aylward (British missionary to China), Terry Dobson, Dorothy T. Samuel, Sarah Corson, Angie O’ Gorman, Peggy Gish (Church of the Brethren), Art Gish (Church of the Brethren), Lawrence Hart (Mennonite minister and traditional Cheyenne Peace Chief).

 1984a The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel. University of Notre Dame Press.
The first major collection of JHY’s perspectives on method in Christian ethics, advocating a non-Constantinian view of the Church.

 1984b When War is Unjust: Being Honest in Just-War Thinking. Augsburg-Fortress Press. Revised Edition published by Orbis Books, 1996. This is one of the first and most serious pacifist attempts to take the Just War tradition seriously and reflect on what it would take to make such a moral system work. Many Christian Just War thinkers have been profoundly challenged by this work to strive to get their churches to recognize the difficulty and seriousness of JWT and not simply “baptize” whatever war or weapons or tactics governments want Christians to endorse. As a former soldier turned pacifist, this work influenced me to study JWT more thoroughly than most people who consider themselves in the JW tradition. I have used this to enlist JWT folk against particular wars.

 1985. He Came Preaching Peace. Herald Press. A collection of Bible lessons for adultsThis is another good place for beginning Yoder readers. Makes an excellent study book for adult church groups.

 1987 The Fullness of Christ: Paul’s Vision of Universal Ministry. Brethren Press.

 1989 Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism. Edited and Translated by H. Wayne Pipkin and John Howard Yoder. Herald Press. This is the first major collection of Hubmaier’s writings in English. Invaluable to historians of Anabaptism.

 1991a A Declaration on Peace: In God’s People the World’s Renewal Has Begun. Co-written with Douglas Gwyn, George Hunsinger, and Eugene F. Roop. Herald Press. This was a joint peace statement issued by the Historic Peace Churches and the Christian section of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. JHY represented the Mennonites, Gwyn the Friends/Quakers, Hunsinger, a Presbyterian, represented the FOR, and Roop the Church of the Brethren. JHY is the major author. I think I detect elements of Hunsinger, but since both Yoder and Hunsinger were deeply influenced by Barth, it’s hard to tell. Most of the book is classic Yoder.  Whereas the Reformed tradition has traditionally explicated Christology by the roles of “prophet, priest, and king,” leaving out the sage of the Wisdom writings, here all four Christological “offices” are expounded.  With each, the Declaration shows how the Church,  the community called out by Christ, participates in these offices, and the implications for nonviolence, peacemaking, and war resistance.

1991b The Death Penalty Debate: Two Opposing Views of Capital Punishmnent. Word Books. Co-written with H. Wayne House. House, an influential figure with the Conservative Baptist Association, argues in favor of capital punishment for murder. Yoder argues against. The comparison and contrast highlights issues of biblical interpretation and moral reasoning.

 1992 Body Politics: Five Christian Practices Before a Watching World. Abingdon Press. 2nd Edition, 2001.

 1994 The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical. Edited with an Introduction by Michael G. Cartwright. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Some excellent essays, but Cartwright’s introductions are far too long, making the resulting volume over-large and  unnecessarily expensive.

 1996 Authentic Transformation: A New Vision of Christ and Culture. Abingdon Press.
Co-written with Glen H. Stassen and D. M. Yeager with a previously unpublished essay by H. Richard Niebuhr.

 1997 For the Nations: Essays Public and Evangelical. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Here
is some of Yoder’s most subtle reflections on the relation of “church,” and “world.” The title is a deliberately chosen reply to the work of Yoder’s friend and sometimes follower, Stanley Hauerwas.  This was the last book Yoder published before his unexpected death in late December 1997.

 2001 To Hear the Word. Wipf and Stock. Posthumously published reflections on biblical hermeneutics.

 2003a The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited. Edited by Michael G. Cartwright and Peter Ochs. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Revised and Expanded in 2008. A major work in Jewish-Christian dialogue, it circulated privately for years and was never finally published until after Yoder’s death.

 2003b Karl Barth and the Problem of War and Other Essays on Barth. Edited by Mark Theissen Nation. Cascade Press.

 2004 Anabaptism and Reformation in Switzerland: An Historical and Theological Analysis of the Dialogues Between Anabaptists and Reformers. Ed. C. Arnold Snyder. Translated by David C. Stassen and C. Arnold Snyder. Pandora Press. This is the first translation in English of Yoder’s Th.D. dissertation at the University of Basel, previously published only in German.

2009.  The War of the Lamb: The Ethics of Nonviolence and Peacemaking.  Ed. Glen H. Stassen, Mark Theissen Nation, and Matt Hamsher.  Brazos Press.  Yoder was planning this book when he died. He had outlined it and had extensive notes on which essays to include. It is brilliant.

2010a. Nonviolence–A Brief History: The Warsaw Lectures.  Ed. Paul Martens, Matthew Porter, and Myles Werntz.  Baylor University Press. In 1983, in the midst of the Cold War, Yoder went to Warsaw, Poland and gave these series of lectures, deep in dialogue with the Catholic tradition.  They influenced Lech Walesa and the Solidarity-led nonviolent revolution in Poland.

2010b.  A Pacifist Way of Knowing:  John Howard Yoder’s Nonviolent Epistemology. Ed. Christian E. Early and Ted Grimsrud.  Cascade Books.  Gathers together essays of Yoder, some previously published, some unpublished until now, that show Yoder’s epistemology–how his commitment to pacifism controlled his dialogical approach to knowledge. This is one of he most important and least explored/appreciated facets of Yoder’s thought and the editors to us a great service by publishing them here. 

Yoder often had to be pushed by friends to publish writings that he, a perfectionist, did not think all that important. So, doubtless more posthumous collections will continue to appear. I know, for example, of a series of lectures that Yoder gave throughout Latin America during the 1970s. They were extraordinarily well received and the mss. have circulated in Spanish and English ever since, but the lectures have never been published in either language. Yoder was a true polyglot who was conversationally fluent in English, German, French, and Spanish, with advanced reading capability in Dutch, Flemish, and Portuguese as well. He carried on dialogues in nine (9) different languages.  Toward the end of his life he was studying modern Hebrew and Arabic in hopes of spending an extended stay in the Middle East. Considering all the sufferings of that area, I wish God had spared him for that trip alone.

At another time, I will give a brief bibliography of some of the best of the (growing) number of secondary studies on Yoder, but it is far more important for people to wrestle with Yoder’s thought directly, although reading Yoder takes practice! Do not attempt speed reading on his works!  But the struggle is worth it.

August 21, 2010 Posted by | books, ethics, heroes, history of theology, theologians, theology | Leave a comment

Book Review: Peace to War by Paul Alexander

Paul Alexander, Peace to War:  Shifting Allegiances in the Assemblies of God (C. Henry Smith Series) (Cascadia, 2009).

I first met Dr. Paul Alexander, 5th generation Assemblies of God minister,  in Dallas in 2005.  I was the Outreach Coordinator/Field Director for Every Church a Peace Church (an ecumenical Christian renewal movement attempting to recall all Christians and churches back to the nonviolence of Jesus and the early Church) and Paul was teaching theology and ethics at Southwest Assemblies of God University (SAGU) in nearby Watahatchie, TX. Paul had come to Dallas to attend an ecumenical peace church conference which I had helped organize.  He was the first Pentecostal pacifist I’d ever met–although, thanks to Paul, I’ve now met many more.

My early experiences with Pentecostals and Charismatics during my teens in the 1970s were not pleasant.  I won’t rehearse the details here, except to say that the Pentecostals I first encountered were legalistic, judgmental in the extreme, anti-science and anti-scholarship, racist, sexist, and, especially, filled with ultra-nationalist militarism.  By the time I met Paul Alexander, I had somewhat overcome the prejudices toward Pentecostals (especially Assemblies of God folk) that flowed from those early experiences.  I knew that Pentecostals in Europe and Latin America were often leaders in movements for social justice.  I had even read Jay Beaman’s Pentecostal Pacifism:  The Origin, Development, and Rejection of Pacific Belief Among the Pentecostals (repr. Wipf and Stock, 2009) which showed how the first generation of Pentecostals (in the opening years of the 20th C.) were almost all pacifists, but that this pacifism quickly eroded after the start of World War I.  By 2005, I had met several Assemblies ministers who knew of the pacifism of their denominational past, but they were all embarrassed by it. Paul Alexander was the first Assemblies minister I’d met who wanted to revive the Assemblies peace heritage!

Paul’s story is a remarkable one.  For most of his (still young) life, he’d conformed to much of the stereotype of my early experience with Pentecostals.  A 5th generation Pentecostal minister, he’d been raised in an Assemblies parsonage, gone to Assemblies camps, an Assemblies-run college (SAGU) where he’d cheered on the Gulf War I (’91), gone to the denominational seminary and been employed to teach theology at his college alma mater.  It was during his Ph.D. studies (at, of all places, Baylor University–a Texas Baptist university not known for friendliness toward Pentecostals or pacifists!) that Paul discovered his denomination’s pacifist heritage.  He found it intriquing and decided to write his doctoral dissertation on the origin and gradual abandonment of pacifism (gospel nonviolence) among the Assemblies of God.  To Paul’s surprise, he found himself convinced by the biblical and theological arguments of the early Assemblies ministers for Christian pacifism.  What began as a merely academic inquiry led to a second conversion–a baptism into the Christ-centered, mission oriented, Spirit-empowered, gospel nonviolence of the early Pentecostals.

This book is the published form of Dr. Alexander’s dissertation.  It shows early Assemblies ministers with remarkably global perspectives, very resistant to jingoistic nationalism (far more aware of national sins and critical of claims to American righteousness), whose pacifism was deeply rooted in the New Testament, an “unfolding revelation” approach to the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and well-informed by the history of the pre-Constantinian Church.  These Assemblies pacifists were not cowed either by charges of lack of patriotism, or by pragmatic arguments that would call gospel nonviolence “unworkable,” especially since they were used to “the world” dismissing other aspects of the Spirit’s work–in tonque-speaking, miraculous healings, the breakdown of racial barriers.  In the lead-up to World War I, jingoistic war fever gripped much of the nation (although fundamentalist lay-preacher and perpetual Democratic nominee for president, William Jennings Bryan, who was serving as Secretary of State for Woodrow Wilson, resigned when Wilson broke his campaign promise to keep the U.S. out of the war).  Assemblies ministers pushed back against the war fever, despite the legal pressures the government brought against dissenters.  Believing they were living in the End Times, these Assemblies ministers expected to be persecuted for their faith–including their faith in gospel nonviolence.

The official Assemblies statement on war and peacemaking from 1917 until 1967 was sent to President Woodrow Wilson as follows: 

Therefore, we, as a body of Christians, while purposing to fulfill all the obligations of loyal citizenship, are nevertheless constrained  to declare that we cannot conscientiously participate in war and armed resistance which involves the actual destruction of human life, since this is contrary to our view of the clear teachings of the inspired Word of God, which is the sole basis of our faith.

Despite the erosion of Assemblies pacifism after WWI to the point that, by WWII, the majority were no longer conscientious objectors, and despite a major debate over the statement in the lead up to WWII, the statement went unchanged until 1967 when it was modified to:

As a Movement we affirm our loyalty to the government of the United States in war or peace.  We shall continue to insist, as we have historically, on the right of each member to choose for himself whether to declare his position as a combatant, a noncombatant, or a conscientious objector.

The contrast in statements is startling.  Several things leap out in comparison, many of which are detailed and analyzed by Alexander:  1) Whereas the first statement affirms a Romans 13-influenced affirmation of loyal citizenship such as most Christians in most countries could and have affirmed over the centuries, it draws a line where such loyalty would demand unfaithfulness to the gospel as the Assemblies perceived it.  The second statement, despite the fact that a majority of Assemblies members are from outside the U.S., affirms loyalty specifically to the U.S. government–and without any qualifications.  2)The second statement claims a historical position of allowing liberty of conscience on the matter of  military position–when such liberty of conscience was NOT the original position of the denomination.  In other words, the second statement makes a historically false claim.  As Alexander makes clear, on no other moral issue does the Assemblies simply leave the decision to the individual member–without even any biblical guidance.  3) The Assemblies, like most Pentecostals, are strong biblicists–backing nearly every theological and ethical position with biblical warrants.  This is true of the first statement, which, even in a public letter to the President of the United States, claims Scripture as the sole basis of authority.  The second statement doesn’t even mention Scripture and no  biblical warrants are given for the position–in contrast to every other theological or ethical matter on which Assemblies takes a denominational position.  It is clear that an uncritical nationalism (a form of idolatry) has overwhelmed the Assemblies on the matter of war and peace.

Alexander shows many of the reasons that this has happened.  A major factor in the erosion of  Assemblies’ pacifism is the strong desire to minister (especially in evangelistic outreach) to members of the military.  This desire, as part of the larger evangelistic orientation of the Assemblies, was there from the beginning.  Evangelism was frequently cited as a reason for refusing to kill, too, but the desire to reach out to soldiers eventually eroded the nonviolence. He also shows shifts in Christology, pneumatology, and eschatology worked to erode early Assemblies pacifism.

  One factor that Alexander may have not seen (at least does not emphasize) is the restorationist nature of early Pentecostalism.  Early Assemblies members, like early Pentecostals generally, believed that they were restoring primitive Christianity from a state of corruption.  So, they were prepared to see aspects of the gospel that the older denominations missed.  They expected governments and other powerful forces of “the world” to be opposed to them and they had a pessimistic view of the general morality of most so-called “Christian” nations, so they would be more likely to notice the gospel nonviolence of Jesus, the NT, and the early Church and identify with that rather than the military morality of the wider culture.  But, today, Pentecostalism accounts for approximately one-fourth of all Christians in the world, and is the fastest growing form of Christianity.  The Assemblies are a large part of this global growth and with numerical growth has come more acceptance.  Yes, there is still prejudice against Pentecostals in academic and cultural elites, but nowhere near to the extent previously.  Scholarly journals, classes on global Pentecostalism in non-Pentecostal divinity schools, famous Assemblies ministers in high government places (e.g., the late John Ashcroft, former Secretary of State in the Bush administration), are indications that the Assemblies have moved from the “disinherited,” to part of the established culture–especially the culturally and politically conservative part of that establishment.  Pacifism, however, is quite at odds with that wider culture. When contemporary Assemblies members emphasize their “oddness,” their difference from “the world,” they are likely to restrict this to their tongue-speaking, belief in miraculous healings and other miracles, or the highly emotional nature of typical Pentecostal worship. If an Assemblies minister speaks about rejecting “worldly wisdom,” he is likely to be referring to the typical rejection of biological evolution or other generally accepted scientific theories that create tensions for simplistic forms of biblical interpretation, and not rejecting the nationalistic and imperialist militarism that pervades both major political parties.  Any recovery of Assemblies pacifism, would seem to depend (among many other things) to a recovery of the restorationist primitivism of early Pentecostal ecclesiology.

This book is a sad story–and a cautionary tale. The historic peace churches (Mennonites, Friends/Quakers, and Brethren) could easily lose their pacifism, too–and the process of erosion seems well underway.  But the book is also a hopeful one–reminding us how often God raises up new voices of faithful discipleship where old institutional churches have ceased to be dynamic vessels of the gospel.  Sometimes God renews older bodies, too, and that could well happen with the historic peace churches and/or with the Assemblies of God.

Alexander plans a sequel to this work which both argues the normative case for gospel nonviolence and which plots a way forward to a more faithful Assemblies of God, including recovering gospel nonviolence.  Alexander is one of the founders of Pentecostals and Charismatics for Peace and Justice (PCPJ) (originally called the Pentecostal Peace Fellowship and, then, the Pentecostal and Charismatic Peace Fellowship).  This vital and growing global organization includes individuals and congregations from many different Pentecostal or Charismatic denominations.  It is multi-racial and multi-ethnic, cross-generational (and excites numerous younger Pentecostals and Charismatics–a hopeful sign) and suggests that the vibrant peace witness of the early Assemblies (and other Pentecostals) could be revitalized today.

As a historical study, Alexander’s work needs supplementing by others.  We need similar denominational studies of the rise and fall (and rise again?) of pacifism in the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), the Church of God (Cleveland, TN), Apostolic Church of Christ, Apostolic Faith Mission Church of God, Church of God of Prophecy, International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, and numerous others.  There should also be studies of the charismatic renewal movements within mainline Christian bodies (especially in the 1960s and 1970s) and whether these led to any peacemaking emphases.

This is an exciting work and I have only been able to touch on a few of the dimensions covered.  I recommend it highly for all who are interested in the faithful renewal of the church universal. 

August 2, 2010 Posted by | book reviews, books, church history, history of theology, pacifism, peace, Pentecostals | 1 Comment

Book Review: Henry Mayer, All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery

Henry Mayer, All on Fire:  William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998; pb. ed., 2000).

Looking backward, it has seemed to many historians that the abolition of slavery in the U.S. was inevitable.  From that perspective, the voices of gradualists like Henry Clay of Kentucky have seemed reasonable and historians have tended to dismiss the strong voices calling for the immediate abolition of slavery as “fanatical.”  The editor and printer William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), founder of The Liberator (the first and leading abolitionist newspaper) and founder of The New England Anti-Slavery Society, the American Anti-Slavery Society, and the Massachussetts Anti-Slavery Society, is one of those voices too often dismissed as “shrill,” “unreasonable,” and “fanatical.”  Many of his contemporaries saw him the same way and were usually surprised that the author of editorials that thundered jeremiads against the moral complacency of his age was, in person, mild-mannered, soft spoken, and careful of personal relationships.  Henry Mayer has written a large biography of Garrison that rehabilitates him–showing that Garrison, as a professional agitator, changed the political climate and made the issue of slavery a moral priority that could not be ignored.

This is a wonderful biography that has made Garrison one of my heroes.  Born into poverty in a pious New England Baptist family (though never baptized because he couldn’t describe a conversion story in the style expected by his time), Garrison was a self-educated “mechanic,” as a printer, editor, and publisher.  When he began The Liberator in 1831 there were few if any voices calling for the immediate abolition of slavery.  All but two (John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams) presidents had been slaveowners and there were no political parties or presidential candidates who were not either apologists for the perpetual continuation of slavery or appeasers of the Southern slaveholders.  The U. S.  Constitution counted slaves as “3/5ths of persons” for census purposes, thus giving the slave states more political power than the non-slave states and forcing slaves to virtually vote for their own continued slavery.  The Missouri Compromise created a gag rule against even discussing the end of slavery in Congress (with Southern politicians constantly threatening secession if the rule was removed) and Southerners schemed to annex much of northern Mexico (which abolished slavery after independence from Spain) to spread slavery westward and keep slavery in perpetuity.  When Garrison began, the “liberal” view of reforming philanthropists was represented by the American Colonization Society which worked for gradual emancipation of slaves on condition of deportation to the U. S. colony of Liberia in West Africa (whose capital, Monrovia, is named after U.S. President James Monroe, a slaveholder and pro-colonization man).  These gradualists and colonizationists, including presidents Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, and Monroe, all deliberately denied any future for free blacks in the U. S. and all argued that equal citizenship was impossible because of the “degraded” condition of slaves and the inherent inferiority of persons of African descent.  To say it differently, when Garrison began his campaign for the immediate abolition of slavery and creation of a racially just and equal society, the “liberals” were all white supremacists and proponents of massive ethnic cleansing schemes–and they had the Constitution on their side.

So, Garrison, using the popular media of his day, sought not to play party politics, but to change the moral and political context in which any would be politician had to operate.  Within 5 years he could no longer be ignored or dismissed, colonization schemes were seen as the racist plans they were, and the question of abolition became THE moral issue of the day.

Garrison’s story could be seen as one of failure:  A Christian pacifist, Garrison hoped to abolish slavery by “moral suasion” that created a nonviolent social revolution that would call for a new Constitution. Instead, slavery was only abolished after a bitter civil war and even after the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution (which could only be passed and ratified because the former slave states were under military governments), white supremacy, segregation, and legal discrimination continued for another century. We have yet to see the racially just society which Garrison and his fellow abolitionists worked so hard.  The churches he hoped to purify divided over slavery along sectional lines and 11 o’clock Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour in the U.S.

But Mayer doesn’t present Garrison as a failure.  Instead, his is a story of how an ordinary person–not a general or politician or “captain of industry,”–can make a difference.  One person became a small group of people which grew into a movement.  The movement widened–participation by women created the first wave of feminism and the struggle for women’s suffrage and equality (which Garrison completely supported).  The movement divided over “the woman question,” over questions of political strategy (Garrison opposed voting until the Constitution was changed since voting in the current context perpetuated the flawed system, but others wanted to create abolitionist parties and candidates), over the issue of the use of violence in the struggle for justice, and much else.  Even many of the abolitionists were racially prejudiced, but Garrison and others worked to overcome this–attending black churches, staying in black homes and hosting black families in theirs, pushing against discriminatory laws.  Garrison even urged an end to all laws against interracial marriage–laws that would exist in 13 states until 1967.  If struggles continued after Garrison’s death, they built upon the struggles and victories of Garrison’s day.  His is a legacy which needs to be reclaimed for this generation.

Mayer’s book also deepens the account of U.S. history in the decades leading up to the Civil War (1861-1865), showing how deeply slavery and racism were woven into the law and culture and how the seeds of the Civil War were sown by the Constitutional compromises, the Missouri Compromise, the rebellion of Texas (and schemes of Texas annexation), the War with Mexico, the Monroe Doctrine, and, of course, the economics of cotton.  We also see Garrison intersect the lives of less-neglected figures from the wealthy Tappan brothers to Charles Finney, the Grimke Sisters, Lucretia Mott, William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Clay, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass,  Henry David Thoreau, Abraham Lincoln, and many others.  It was Garrison who first introduced Frederick Douglass to the world and who published the first edition of Douglass autobiography–for which he has receieved little credit.  (Today, Douglass is being recovered by scholars and popular history, too, after long neglect. But Garrison has yet to get his due.)

Readers of this magnificent biography should also see the collection of primary sources, William Lloyd Garrison and the Fight Against Slavery: Selections from The Liberator, ed with and introduction by William Cain.


July 25, 2010 Posted by | biographies, book reviews, books, civil rights leaders, ethics, History, racial justice, slavery | 2 Comments