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.              


John said... should have videoed this with your cell phone.

Tell me exactly what is meant by a sacremental world view. Is it that God is the creator and I should see Him in everything I view, or is it something entirely different?

Ioannis said...

It is perhaps a sacramental principle that all of Creation is instrument for man rather than against him. That from Allen Allchin referencing the cosmic dimensions of Christ.

elizabeth said...

As always, an enjoyable post. I had picked up a book of O'Connor's letters... I should read more of them...

Kirk said...

Nice post, TC. Here's some fodder for another great blog entry:

(Will he take the bait? How could he resist?) ;-)

John said...


I’m not the best one to describe a sacramental world view—but I’ll try. It is one of those things I comprehend better than I can explain. For us, a sacrament (or as we say, a “mystery”) is not a symbol, but an event. As Dr. Wood said, “memorials are for dead men.” In the sacramental view, the grace of God transforms all of creation. For example, the baptism of Christ transforms the very water itself. In the sacramental view of the world, all things are seen as being transformed by the grace of God. I suppose my first early consciousness of this was 10 years ago in Bulgaria. I had never before considered that a mere place could be “holy,” in the sense of being sanctified by prayer. Mind you, this was no emotional, warm-fuzzy feeling, but a real sensation of being in a holy place, something I had never previously experienced. All this is wrapped-up, somehow, in a sacramental view of the world.


Dr. Wood recommended to his audience that they definitely purchase the book of O'Connor's letters. They are really good. I didn't mention it the post, but he used her story, "The Artificial Nigger," as the basis of his post.


With such a tempting lure, how could I not?

James the Thickheaded said...

Stumbled on Dr. Wood's website some months ago contemplating my Dad's eulogy... which eventually I gave. Found much in his writing of merit... and think rather that some of his tough eulogies in fact reveal his faith quite well. Highly recommend them... to those of us especially who find the "celebration of life" bit somewhat tiresome. He keeps it real. Some actually read like Faulkner + faith. Good man. Would have loved to have heard his talk. Thanks for your notes.

Kirk said...

Reading O'Connor now. So much upon which to cerebrate.

"He needed the assurance of a call and so he called himself."
"It was me could act," the old man said, "not him. He could never take action. He could only get everything inside his head and grind it to nothing. But I acted..."

Anonymous said...

thanks for share.

Hans-Georg said...

I am not sure he has not got Lewis somewhat wrong ... if you mean CS.

At any rate, I am doing a continuation of CSL's Narniad insofar as Queen Susan's life in England is concerned. It includes references to Tolkienian and Blytonian English citizens as well.

Chronicle of Susan Pevensie

Lundahl said...

I had never before considered that a mere place could be “holy,” in the sense of being sanctified by prayer.

Blog message about St Patrick, and if you want to read about the man who personnally by prayer and abstinences from sleep as well as food sanctified at least all of Ulster and probably fifty places in Connaught, the message includes a quoted press release about a book with his story.