Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
“The Hobbit Party” and “Called to the Life of the Mind”
By Byron Borger
January 19, 2015
The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom That Tolkien Got, and the West Forgot
Jay W. Richards and Jonathan Witt (Ignatius Press; 2014) $21.95
Called to the Life of the Mind: Some Advice for Evangelical Scholars
Richard J. Mouw (Eerdmans; 2014) $10.00
It is said that many of our most popular actors, filmmakers, and contemporary novelists have a liberal political bent; from John Steinbeck to Robert Redford, from Barbara Kingsolver to George Clooney, I suppose this is so. But J.R.R. Tolkien, one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century whose epic books have been made into some of the most popular films of our time, was a classic Roman Catholic conservative. Indeed, he often described himself as a hobbit “in all but size” and was, as this new book winsomely explains, “socially and politically conservative even by hobbit standards, and his conservatism was closely bound up in his deeply Christian, and specifically Catholic vision of man and creation.”
The Hobbit Party will be of interest to many, and perhaps will be appreciated as a refreshing study of the Middle-Earth stories. An accessible book of Christian political philosophy, it reflects how our deepest convictions about the nature of humans and our understanding of creation truly do shape our basic views of what constitutes a just social order.
This careful study of Tolkien’s socio-political views makes it a thrilling read and a great discussion book for anyone interested in either the novels or contemporary public affairs. The authors respond to the various misunderstandings and misappropriations of Tolkien by others, and, as learned conservative Catholics themselves, they see things that others may not. This gives them great panache in their accolades to smaller government and sustainably scaled institutions, and their critiques of materialism, greed, and the technologies of the large corporate State. As Thomas Howard writes,
This book is a ‘drop-everything and read it’ book. Richards and Witt have opened up an often ignored aspect of Tolkien’s work, namely the sense in which his myth bespeaks a political and economic order that stands in stark contrast to the presiding power structures that dominate this unhappy globe. It should be made required reading in all courses in political philosophy. It’s a glorious book.
I heartily commend this book to readers who want to explore the societal implications of Middle Earth. For those less familiar with Tolkien, the authors explain the plots and characters and places, the good and the bad. If you don’t know serious Catholic social thinking, they offer many fine explanations and illuminating quotes.
And yet, there is a bigger question that is not raised in the otherwise salutary The Hobbit Party: is all of this faithful to a Biblical worldview? Tolkien may have been writing out of an engagement with accepted social teaching of the church, and The Lord of the Rings may be a fine reflection of that serious approach to, as Art Lindsley says on the back cover, “limited government, man’s temptation to power, freedom, just war, socialism, distributism, localism, love, and death.” But the big question is whether the answers are theologically adequate and truly Biblical.
Richard Mouw is a friend of CPJ who has long advocated a uniquely Reformed vision of social and political thinking, and has written helpfully about how such a project can be pursued. His brand new book -- a slim collection of short essays -- is magnificent, if humble. Mouw offers advice for anyone who wants to do overtly Christian scholarship. As Kuyperian philosopher James K.A. Smith writes, “Called to the Life of the Mind is a distinct call for the faithful cultivation of the mind in the service of Christ.” As J.I. Packer notes, “Mouw’s wise genius for Christ-honoring straightforwardness has never been better displayed than it is here.”
I do not suggest that Witt and Richards do not intend a “faithful cultivation of the mind in the service of Christ” or that they do not honor Christ. Yet it does seem that many of the profound insights offered by Mouw seem not to be operative in their Tolkienesque critique of the social and political left. Are they helpful in illuminating Tolkien? Surely. Are they helpful in offering a broadside against contemporary liberal views and what Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis called “the abolition of man?” Again, surely. But is this adequately Christian in its perspective and vision?
Called to the Life of the Mind reminds us of the high calling of evangelical Christian scholarship to be Biblically rooted and theologically consistent. It would be a fine book to read alongside The Hobbit Party. And we must do this -- read outside of our own Reformed evangelical tradition while maintaining essential Biblically inspired categories and assumptions to inform our critical engagement of such reading. As Cheryl Bridges Johns of Princeton Theological Seminary writes, “Mouw assures us that we can navigate the perilous terrain” of this exact sort of scholarly adventure. She notes that he helps us in our task, with “the hyper-critical, the fragmentation of knowledge, the isolation, all the while attending to the One in whom all reality coheres. I can hear him saying, ‘You can do this.’ ”
- Byron Borger runs Hearts & Minds Books. Capital Commentary readers can get a 20% discount on books listed here by ordering through Hearts & Minds.
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”