Thursday, December 13, 2012
Dr. Wood on Tolkien and O'Connor
Dr. Ralph Wood, professor of Literature and Theology at Baylor University, recently delivered two excellent presentations in Tyler, Texas at the invitation of the Kalos Foundation. Sylvania Church, technically still Baptist--but now something a bit more--hosted the lecture on J.R.R. Tolkien. The Bishop Gorman Catholic High School library served as site, appropriately enough, for the invitation-only talk on Flannery O'Connor. I cannot imagine two literary subjects that would be of any greater interest to me.
Baylor University has come a long way from the days when Brann the Iconoclast characterized the Baylor Board of Regents as "men who could not father an original thought if hurled bodily into the womb of the Goddess of Wisdom." A good friend of mine was one of several professors recently brought on board, partially in a conscious effort to increase the Orthodox presence on campus. 12% of the student body is Roman Catholic. If those numbers fail to impress, just remember that this is the premier Baptist college in Texas and the Southwest.
Dr. Wood, now age 70, grew up in East Texas. He received a $150 scholarship for one year at the old East Texas State Teachers College in Commerce. There, in 1962, he attended a rare lecture by Flannery O'Connor (this two years prior to her death.) The rest, as they say, is history. He has been studying, lecturing and writing about her ever since--and along the way, introduced young evangelical Protestants to the riches of the Catholic literary tradition (and I lump Russian Orthodox writers in with this as well.)
Wood remains Baptist, or as he says "Bapto-Catholic." His somewhat different Baptist church in Waco has cherry-picked some elements of the liturgical calendar, has icons in the classrooms, and tries to convey that the communion service is something more than a memorial. All well and good, that. Rather than criticize the inadequacies and severe limitations of the mix-and-match approach, I will just express deep appreciation for the work that he does. You might say that Dr. Wood is simpatico, and a great and genial friend of Catholic and Orthodox Christians.
I arrived at the Tolkien lecture fairly early, which gave me time to observe the audience as they filtered in to the sanctuary. I have been a long time away from such evangelical settings, and I find they now makes me uncomfortable. Without sounding like a misanthrope, all that chatty, forced-friendly hoo-rawing just strikes me the wrong way. I suppose it was the lack of reverence--no sense of being in a church. They could have just as easily have been at a concert or football game. [And, I am showing my age here, but I find it hard to stay in the company of people who talk on cell-phones in a restaurant (consequently finding myself eating out less and less) and am still shocked by young people who have not been taught to not wear hats in church. As you can gather, I am well on my way to being an old crank.]
Dr. Wood had some harsh things to say to his audiences, if they were listening closely. He pointed out that the faith espoused by both Tolkien and O'Connor was an "angular" Christianity-- at cross purposes with the world. He commented that the world one saw on television was the same as in "our churches" (and by this I take it he meant evangelicalism.) "No difference," he concluded. In the second lecture, Wood referenced O'Connor's dictum that "sentimentality is to Christianity as pornography is to art." He told his audience that the next time the "Holy overhead projection screen" descended with the latest praise songs, just to think of it as the unfolding of a Playboy centerfold, for it is exactly the same thing. He made several scathing references to our obsession with "shopping." Dr. Wood gently chided one questioner for his use of the word "consumer," and noted its connection to "one who devours."
In the Q&A, one lady struggled a bit with her question. She wondered why all these great literary figures (or at least the ones under discussion) were, well, you know...Catholic? She had hit upon something, however. Protestants can write great literature, to be sure--just not like this. Dr. Wood used this as a lead-in to introduce his listeners to the idea of a sacramental world view, and how this could impact literature and the arts. Another questioner commented that "he just didn't see the salvation story in Tolkien." Dr. Wood strongly suggested that the problem was not with Tolkien, but with the false premise the man was trying to force upon his literature. Clearly, if you are expecting a story line akin to that found on the "Christian fiction" aisle at the Lifeway Christian Bookstore, then you are not going to have much use for Tolkien.
Dr. Wood opined that, if there is a Third Millennium, then Tolkien will still be read, while Lewis will be forgotten. He also characterized O'Connor as the only great overtly Christian author this country has produced. The lectures ended too soon for me, but I was fortunate enough to have a good visit with the professor after his last presentation.