So I have been reading a couple of books from Holly Ordway. I had heard her a couple of times on Catholic programs over the years. First up was her conversion story detailed in Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms, which I found very interesting.
There was much in what she wrote that I could relate to from my atheist days.
“Life inside the fortress of atheism was good. I thought I could make sense of the world just as well as, or much better than, the people who claimed to have faith. I didn’t believe in God, but I had a worldview that felt perfectly satisfactory. It wasn’t a particularly cheery view, but I preferred truth over comfort any day.
She relates her love of reading and then how Tolkien’s works changed everything for her. As she says her imagination had been baptized in Middle-earth. It would take some years for this influence to flower.
Reading through this I could not help to think about how I had deprived myself by purposely avoiding Tolkien and Fantasy in general and priding myself on SF as the most realistic. It was only much later fantasy epics played a part in my life, when I wondered why I loved virtuous heroes, while I was not virtuous myself. I think reading Tolkien earlier for me would be like the parable involving rocky soil. It was only on my way in to the Church that I even read the Hobbit and the LotR and it is still flowering in me slowly.
What I found most interesting, regarded her fencing coach Josh and his wife Heidi. Holly seemed to have a hair-trigger when it came to attempts by anybody to evangelize her, to sell her Jesus. Josh was not an evangelizer looking to just put another notch on his Bible Belt. He is a Christian that worked at being good at his job, respecting others, and building relationships. Over years he was there to train her and answer questions as they came up, especially as she started to wonder about religion.
I think many Christians would have scared her off as she started to tentatively ask questions. Josh really seemed to be the perfect person to play such a role in her life and to challenge her as necessary. To show her the intellectual arguments over a period of time.
I was stunned by the very concept that there were rational arguments for the existence of God. Never mind whether I agreed with the arguments or not, the simple fact that Josh said, “Let’s reason this out” rather than “You have to take it on faith” made me want to keep talking.
What’s more, these arguments made frighteningly good sense. I could see, even right there in that casino coffee shop in Reno, Nevada, that they made more sense than I wanted to admit.
This paragraph was one I could totally relate to upon first hearing a summary version of St. Aquinas’ Five Ways of Knowing God. I was stunned by the idea that there were rational arguments for the existence of God.
Her portrayal of Josh gave me a lot to think about and the kind of slow-brew evangelization he practiced. One that was not about him. Holly would not end up joining the church he was part of and she initially became Anglican before coming into the Church. I got no sense from the book that there was any tension regarding this.
Overall this was a very good read. Her writing is so evocative and pulled me into the moments of her life, not just the ones I could directly relate to.
The second of her books I read was Tolkien’s Modern Reading: Middle-earth Beyond the Middle Ages by Word on Fire Academic.
I think the only thing I didn’t like about this book is that the title is a too narrow indicator of the content. Although, this book would be hard to concisely title.
There are a lot of lessons to learn involving this book. Beyond exploding the myth that Tolkien was stuck in the past in many ways and disdained anything modern from books to technology. That in fact he was very-wide read in a wide range of authors and genres. That he was no technophobe. He could enjoy authors he was diametrically opposed to philosophically. I think if there was a contest where you had to match up books and authors that Tolkien enjoyed or disproved of, most of us would lose terribly.
This book also reinforced to me the idea that you just can’t snapshot people. To get an idea of them from just one period or instant of time. Tolkien was quite capable of reassessing an opinion he previously had regarding a book. So much has been made of various comments he made on other’s works, including his friend C.S. Lewis, that needed more context. This book provides plenty of insight into this. It is always good to be reminded that people are complicated.
I also liked the methodology she employed in this book. She severely limits what other authors and books might have influenced Tolkien’s legendarium to only those he directly mentioned or that there was proof that he knew of them. She takes a very insightful deep-dive into these influences. Tolkien enjoyed detective stories, and this book reminds me of one. For the Tolkien fan, this book is a great read. It is rather amazing how angry it makes me how Tolkien’s early biographers and people up to the present have so inaccurately stereotyped the man.
By the way, before reading this book I had wondered if Tolkien had read Dune. I found this unpublished letter to John Bush, 12 March 1966.
Thank you for sending me: copy of Dune. I received one last year from Lanier and so already know something about the book. It is impossible for an author still writing to be fair to another author working along the same lines. At least I find it so. In fact I dislike DUNE with some intensity, and in the unfortunate case it is much the best and fairest to another author to keep silent and refuse to comment. Would you like me to return the book as I already have one, or to hand it on?”