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New Statesman finds guide to Middle-earth

31 August 2018

A MIXED bag, this week: a gun-toting pastor on YouTube; a concerted assault on Pope Francis; Rowan Williams as a book reviewer.

Giving Lord Williams space as a lead book reviewer in the New Statesman was an inspired decision. His review of a Tolkien exhibition at the Bodleian Library is a subtle and convincing reading of The Lord of the Rings as a book that shares his view of Christianity: “The centre of the moral world of The Lord of the Rings is a mixture of common-sense ethical humility and a carefully concealed doctrine of divine grace. . .

“At the crucial moment of the story, Frodo himself fails: he gives way to temptation, a temptation of genuinely apocalyptic implications.

“Sam is an idealised version of a socially ambivalent and archaic stereotype. . . He is anything but perfect: his stubborn parochialism and his taunting of Gollum are failings, with bad consequences. But he retains some fundamental instinct of moral realism. This helps him share Frodo’s burden without collapsing.

“Frodo’s empathy for Gollum (rooted in a shared understanding of the Ring’s terrible seduction), finally leads to a genuinely shocking denouement; but Gollum, furious, alienated by Sam, recklessly greedy for the Ring, saves Frodo from his self-inflicted catastrophe and dies as a result.

“Somehow, the tangled web of interaction between these three ends in ‘salvation’. Some force overrules and rescues them — but only through the weaving together of a whole set of flawed agencies, mixed motives, compassion, prejudice, courage and craving.

“Tolkien is seeking to model the way in which the creator works not by intervening but by interweaving. It is this starkly unexpected conclusion to the quest and the journey that makes the book most clearly a Christian fiction.”

THE man presently burdened with the ring of Peter was in Ireland last weekend, a visit that was never going to be easy. But who is the Gollum who lurches from the shadows to bite the ring from his finger? Perhaps it is Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former ambassador to Washington, who last week published a 7000-word letter accusing the Pope of knowingly covering up the crimes of the abusive Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, whom Benedict had supposedly condemned to a life of prayer and penance.

There are problems with this theory: for one thing, Pope Benedict’s actions were supposed to be secret. Certainly, no one knew about them until last week, and the Cardinal continued to operate as normal until he was publicly exposed earlier this year and Pope Francis stripped him of his honours.

But Archbishop Viganò demanded that Pope Francis resign, and the story was huge in conservative Roman Catholic circles. It made the front pages of both The Washington Post and The New York Times. The Guardian’s splash, from Ireland, was “Pope begs for forgiveness after decades of abuse and cover-up”, but there was still room for the Viganò angle within the story.

What was really noticeable was the speed with which the conversation polarised between the Left and Right of the Church. People believed, or disbelieved, the story almost entirely on the basis of what they already thought of Francis’s reforms.

Archbishop Viganò believes that all the Church’s ills are due to the influence of a “Lavender Mafia” of gay priests. This means that the hapless Pope is assaulted with equal ferocity by those who think he is too hard on the gays and those who suppose that he is too soft on them. It is a cur­ious irony that so many of the latter party idolise Pope Benedict.

IN THE magazine Atlantic, I found the story of Pastor John Correia, of Phoenix, Arizona, and YouTube, where he has an immensely popular line of videos demonstrating how to kill people.

The lead is great: “Someday John Correia will meet Jesus. As an ordained pastor, he has thought about how their first conversation will go. That is why he keeps his Heckler & Koch VP9 loaded with a 9-mm magazine in pristine condition. ‘You’re only going to draw a gun on the worst day of your life,’ Correia told me. ‘You want to make sure the equipment works. I treat these mags like babies.’ If he drops one and dents it, he never carries it again. ‘I don’t want Jesus to look at me and go, “How come you didn’t test your equipment, dummy?” Better to be shot dead in a fair fight.’”

He does, however, sound a genuinely engaging character. He urges people to de-escalate situations, and not to die, or kill, for the sake of their wallets. Yet such is the state of fear and rage in the United States that he also says “If you know how many guns you own, then you don’t own enough,” and that he started on this course when he was dissatisfied with the instructions from his self-defence tutor.

Perhaps the most telling detail is that he teaches from surveillance videos that depict the act of murder. YouTube has thousands and thousands of them for him to watch.

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