I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackclothmade of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Revelation 6:12-14 (NIV)
Over the past year or so I have been slowly listening to Professor Corey Olsen’s series of podcast lectures on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Over the same period of time, I’ve been reading Tolkien’s letters. For me, one of the most profound things to come out of both the lectures and the letters is a seemingly minor point, which I have come to recognize as having profound implications. Professor Olsen observes that Tolkien was a medievalist, and in the middle ages the common world view was that the world and humanity were slowly getting worse and inevitably heading towards destruction. Tolkien clearly believed that our technological advances were not actually advancing society in a positive way*. You see this played out in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings as the machines of war created by Sauron and Saruman are set against the powers of nature in forms of tree herds, floods of water, and eternal powers hidden in the forests.
The idea that we are moving towards destruction, of course, flies in the face of what I find to be the common world view today. We like to believe that humanity is inherently good constantly getting better. Technology and human advancement is moving us towards a better world in which peoples and nations come to mutual understanding and respect. Famine gives way to food for all. Death gives way to medical miracles. Pestilence gives way to environmental utopia. War gives way to peace as we all embrace the better angels of our nature.
As I look around me, read the headlines from around the globe, and talk to people of diverse opinions, I have come to believe that this seemingly trivial question of which direction the world is heading isn’t really trivial at all. It’s fundamental to the way we perceive and approach life.
Today’s chapter reads like a medievalist’s nightmare. Things are not getting better, they are quickly getting worse on the Earth. The four riders of the apocalypse spread war, death, famine and pestilence across the earth. Believers are persecuted and slaughtered for their faith. And, reading like a number Hollywood disaster movies, stars fall from the sky with ensuing cataclysmic effects of nature, sending people scurrying into the mountains to escape the disaster.
I am a relatively positive person. I try to approach life with a “glass half-full” perspective, look for the goodness in others, and seek to discover the silver lining in tragic circumstances. At the same time, I look back across my lifetime. I study history. I cannot see a fundamental change in human nature. I’ve seen tremendous advances in treating symptomatic human problems, but I’ve also seen that the cures often create their own set of problems. I have not seen major shifts in addressing the underlying problems of human greed, the lust for power, hatred, selfishness, not to mention the senseless evil (the existence of which many choose to ignore) I find always at work under the surface and in the shadows.
Today, I am feeling a bit sobered. I believe that history is, indeed, an epic battle of good and evil. I believe that tragically flawed humanity is forever erecting a tower of Babel and seeking a pinnacle of god-like goodness that it can never, and will never attain. I believe that God and good is at work achieving amazing victories small and large, and I believe that the enemy, evil is at work ever thwarting, marring, and twisting for selfish, chaotic ends. I believe that Life and good will win in the end, but I also believe that today’s chapter stands as a reminder of what we instinctively know in our souls; That which resonates in our greatest epic stories: there is darkness before the dawn.
*From a letter 9 August 1945, Tolkien writes to his son Christopher: “The news today about ‘Atomic bombs’ is so horrifying one is stunned. The utter folly of these lunatic physicists to consent to do such work for war-purposes: calmly plotting the destruction of the world! Such explosives in men’s hands, while their moral and intellectual status is declining, is about as useful as giving out firearms to all inmates of a gaol and then saying that you hope ‘this will ensure peace’. But one good thing may arise out of it, I suppose, if the write-ups are not overheated: Japan ought to cave in. Well we’re in God’s hands. But He does not look kindly on Babel-builders.”