This is the next in the series of reader-requested blog posts.
Fellow Tolkien scholar Olga Polomoshnova writes:
What is the most influential book of your life and how has it influenced you? I hope I’m not suggesting something you’ve already written about. If I’ve missed it and you’ve already spoken about it, I’d be happy to think about another question.
Thanks for the topic, Olga. I’ve blogged about a great many books, but I don’t know that I’ve ever tried to narrow it now to the one most influential in my life. I know my favorite one — The Lord of the Rings. I suspect this is the answer anyone might expect from me, but favorite and most influential are not necessarily the same things, are they?
Before I get going on this, I suppose I should put a warning on this one. To answer these questions truthfully requires me to dig deep and get personal. Some readers may find this uncomfortable. Basically it comes down to a choice. I can either be honest with myself so I can come to terms, or I can worry about offending someone. I can’t do both. Read on if you’re so inclined.
You’d think narrowing things down to a single book would be easy. If someone asked me about the most influential movie in my life… Star Wars. I know that answer without hesitation, and I know the reasons why. Books have always been a means to an end for me, the gateway to something new, never the destination itself. Once I’ve been inspired by something or someone, books gave me the means to discover more. When I was a kid, I spent a great deal of time combing the stacks in the library for just about anything. Then, as now, I was curious, and I learned quickly not to rely on the encyclopedias. Good starting point, but… I always thought I could find better. From books, I found an ancient ritual detailing how to become a werewolf. Can’t make that up. I found the death photos of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. I discovered far off lands and amazing animals. My favorite as a kid was the Chinese panda for no reason I could ever explain… and Tyrannosaurus Rex. I journeyed to the stars, explored lost cities, and rummaged through forgotten treasure troves, all through books. I’d read about Louis Pasteur one day, Yuri Gagarin the next, and Attila the Hun the day after that. My curiosity had no limits. Invariably, this means that in confronting this question of the most influential book in my life, I had to turn it around a bit. Influential… how? No one book ever dropped into my lap and inspired me to go forth and do in maximum awesomeness. No one book kicked me out into the wide world with a grin on my face and a belief that I could defeat anything. No one book shaped my world so completely.
Or so I thought. After a great deal of consideration, it turns out there actually is one book that shaped my world at nearly every level: The Bible. When I narrowed it down to this, this blog took on a whole new level of confrontation for me. And I do mean confrontation. The Bible’s influence on me was negative for decades, so much so that I debated not even publishing this. As I write this, this is my fourth attempt to do so, having deleted the previous three drafts. Thing is, to write a piece with substance means getting visceral and confronting even yourself at levels that most are unwilling to do. That’s the center of all personal growth. That’s why I ultimately chose to write about this after all. The Bible, and its influence on the people around me, has been the catalyst for a great many things that I wish could have gone differently in my life. It’s only been with hindsight and self-reflection that I’ve been able to see exactly how and why this book has helped to forge who I am today. And that leads to the second part of the question posed to me.
Let’s start with perhaps the most obvious point. I am not a Christian. I’ve never claimed to be. I don’t align myself with any given religious tradition. Over the course of my life, I’ve discovered that I rather enjoy learning about and comparing different traditions when left to my own devices. The combative part of this begins invariably when I’m around people who, for some reason, feel the need to convert me. I know how this is going to sound, but it’s as though I attract this turmoil into my life somehow, like I’ve been branded with some kind of target that only the evangelically inclined can see. Without going into too much detail, let’s just say it got to be obnoxious past the point of actual abuse in many situations. I’d get the business from both sides of my extended family so often that I ended up learning to weaponize The Bible to use against them from an early age. Ever stand in line at a concert or sporting event and get hit up by people passing out religious tracts? Odds are good that was my family. They do this for fun. In addition to this, I grew up in rural Texas outside Waco, the heart of the so-called Bible Belt of the Southern United States. (Different states will proclaim themselves to be the center of the action, so take from that what you will). In similar manner to my family’s tactics, I’d be accosted by random strangers in book stores, toy stores, shopping malls, at the gas station, even on the job working a customer service desk or fast food. They’d actually wait in line for the attempt to convert me. They’d materialize from around every corner and profess that I needed to hear the Good Word before it’s too late. You know, because I’ve lived in a vacuum my entire life and have never heard of this. Yes, I’ve done my homework, and yes, your arguments are as unconvincing as the last thousand people who tried the exact same approach. Good job. Friends who have seen this in action for themselves just shake their heads and chalk it up to that part of “Troy World” where the laws of the omniverse simply don’t make sense in a bubble that forms around me. I’d have girlfriends over the years who would listen to my many tales and say things like, “You should go to my family’s church two states away. It’s completely different. Very inviting. You’d like it there. It’ll change your mind completely and show you just how normal the world can be.” After much protesting and eye rolling, I’d capitulate because that’s what usually happens in fledgling relationships. We’d make the trip, and the otherwise gentle soul at the pulpit would single me out at the top of the sermon and proclaim in a loud voice that I was going to Hell. And, of course, there’d be some manner of familial intervention as the girlfriend’s parents, siblings, and extended family all tried to save her from whatever Hellspawn she was dating. This has happened on more than one occasion, without fail. It’s cartoonishly stupid when it happens only once. The first prayer I’ve ever uttered in complete sincerity in a church was “Jesus, protect me from your followers.” For some reason, that never quite goes so well. Gee, no wonder I’m not a Christian.
This whole affair brings out the very worst in me as surely as if someone puts a gun in my face. It’s a part of myself that I’ve never liked. Instinct puts me immediately on the offensive, and somehow that’s always my fault according to the kind and loving individual who only wants to save my soul. I’ve mellowed out as I’ve grown older and not nearly as wise as I’d hoped. I’ve learned to (mostly) overcome my “default settings” through meditation and anger management therapy. What I can’t fix, I expend through sword training. I try to live and let live. I really do. While I’m certainly not a Wiccan either, I find their creed is among the best I’ve found anywhere: “And it harm none, do what you will.” Truly, words to live by. I get similar advice from across the spectrum. My spiritual path is mine. Not yours, not theirs. Mine. If religion has changed somebody’s world for the better, so be it. If it has left them scarred and battered, then they are perfectly within their right to defend themselves. Anyone who has ever gone through the Dark Night of the Soul knows what a trial that is. I’d never wish that on anyone, having been there myself a number of times. I’ve lost count the number of times I’ve been there because somebody tried to save my soul. I’ve learned that what it really comes down to, regardless of the crutch of scripture, is insecurity. In any group, there is strength in numbers. Cults rely on the idea of conversion in order to prove to themselves their cause is just. When there is defiance, it means the person doing the defying is either lost, confused, or otherwise infiltrated by evil. Evangelicals of any stripe do not accept a different perspective, and they will never see how harmful their ideas really can be. If they did, they wouldn’t be evangelicals. Instead, they’ll say something like, “If you’d only let Christ into your heart and join us, all of this hate would fall away.” And if not, then what? Continued persecution? Isn’t that the very thing Christians point out in their own origin story involving Romans and lions? Is the message “Do as I say, not as I do?” In my humble opinion, forged in my life story, evangelicals are doing far more damage than any demon they can name. And it’s not just Christians. It’s evangelicals in general, in any religious sect and even in many secular circles. It’s basic human nature to want everyone to be just like them. It’s comforting to walk with those who think like you do. I get it. I’d like to propose a concept I learned from Star Trek called IDIC: Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination. It’s a high-minded ideal, worthy of a loving God who sees more than any of us, for those who believe in such a thing. It’s the exact polar opposite to harmful dogmatic practice. But I suppose it’s easier to undermine hate and fear within yourself by externalizing it. If this offends anyone reading this, I’d suggest taking a step back and asking yourself why that is. Take a good look. This is why more lives have been lost in the name of religion than for anything else in the whole of human history. That’s how it all starts. It’s going on right now in the form of radical Islamic terrorism. It is no different than the heavy-handed nonsense that went on during the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the Reformation. It is no different than the persecution of the Jewish people by Pharaoh or by Nazi Germany. It’s the kind of thing that keeps racial tensions at an all-time high and sows mistrust between neighbors. It all comes down to which lines people choose to cross. Argue Godwin’s Law all you like. There’s a fine line between being obnoxious and being a militant. Anything else is just a question of scale. It’s a disturbing realization when you understand the most sinister mask of evil that can be worn is the face of good. Was Lucifer not the most beautiful of the angels? Tolkien said the same of Sauron in Middle-Earth. How many politicians and used car salesmen always look their very best in an effort to sell you on their point of view? But then, don’t we all do that from time to time, say, at a job interview or on a date?
Uncomfortable to consider any of this, isn’t it? Welcome to my world. I dare say if any of us dig deep enough, we can justify nearly anything in the name of anything else. We’re all human. Perception defines reality. It takes a centered perspective to see how far out on the fringes something might be.
As I say, this sort of thing brings out the very worst in me, and it’s not something I’m proud of. I trust my point has been made abundantly clear. I’ve worked extremely hard to overcome thinking like that. Instead, I focus on myself, on being someone I can be proud of without the need to impress or sway anyone else. I lead by example where possible. Much of what you read back there was put forth simply by rote. That’s how entrenched ideas can become in absolutely anyone. Potentially the worst thing that can happen to any of us is to become that which we most fear and hate in the process of fighting it. That’s exactly how hate and fear work, by infiltrating our core and putting on that mask of good. When you point the finger at someone else, you point three fingers back at yourself. Yes, I’m also aware of the irony of doing that myself with this very blog. The circle is now complete. When I left you, I but was the learner. Now I am the master… *cough, cough* Moving on…
Bringing this back to The Bible itself, my own spiritual path has to be considered in relation to it. There are two quotes that often come to my mind when the topic of religion comes up, even in the best of circumstances. The first is by Joseph Campbell: “I don’t need faith. I have experience.” That’s an irony for me considering that Faith is one of the ten points on my personal Code of Chivalry. It’s something I work through without needing the crutch of religion to do so. The second quote that comes to mind on the heels of the first is from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” The saying goes that the man who seeks the Divine will often rely upon holy books in his quest; the man who finds the Divine needs no holy books. I have experienced both the sacred and the profane to the extent that normal “mundane” life bores me, leaves me unmotivated, and often leaves me feeling disconnected. It’s like living life in muted shades of gray after experiencing Technicolor. I’ve encountered angels. To be more accurate, I’ve encountered the same angel three times, at very different points in my life. The first such encounter was at the age of four, long before I was capable of understanding anything like the rhetoric of The Bible. I still don’t know her name, but I’ve found her presence to be the closest thing I’ve found to true peace. In those times between her appearances, I’ve flirted with the darker aspects of that spectrum. I’ve hunted ghosts for fun, and let me say from experience we have far more to fear from the living than we do from ghosts. They are the morons of the spirit world, largely existing as environmental recordings. The stronger the emotion, the more vivid the recording. I’ve stared into the “face” of something decidedly far more malicious than a mere ghost, and more importantly, it stared into me. Terrified? You bet I was. It’s as much a reason why I invest so much time in angelology as actually seeing an angel. I spent a good deal of time learning to defend myself and others against things that the occultly curious accidentally unleash. A side effect of growing up in Bible country is that those who rebel against the societal norms will experiment, often stupidly, with things they have no business trying to understand. Sometimes it’s drugs and alcohol. Sometimes it’s Ouija boards, which they market as a family board game. Sometimes it goes a lot further than that. This, too, is the negative influence of The Bible, like it or not. There’s very little in The Bible that ever worked to my benefit in protecting myself or others, likely because it comes down to belief. I found other ways. They’ve served me well. And, of course, part of being a teenager is that you learn things the hard way. I’ve learned that, like our physical world, the unseen world is considerably more complex than mere “good and evil,” and the difference between the two is sometimes easy to tell, and sometimes it’s just a hair’s breadth away. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt, burned it in effigy. I claim no expertise in any of it. I merely suggest that all of this and more has come into my world due to my experiences with The Bible and its followers. That’s one side of the story of how this book has shaped who I’ve become. For obvious reasons, I tend not to talk about it much. I break the silence here because it’s relevant to do so, and it’s actually quite refreshing to say something after all this time. Much like the guy who claims to have been probed by aliens, who’d believe me anyway? Break out the tinfoil hats! We’re having a conspiracy party! Besides, why would I feel the need to convince anyone of anything after a lifetime of people trying to convince me of something they’ve never experienced for themselves? That sort of thing only invites ridicule from people who make themselves feel superior by belittling others, which I’m sure some devout evangelical is accusing me of right this very minute. Harrumph, harrumph, harrumph. Experience is the great equalizer when it comes to virtually any subject. With it, no one can sway you. You’ve seen the evidence before you firsthand, even if it’s scientifically proven that eyewitnesses are the least reliable of evidence in any situation. Muddles the playing field a bit, wouldn’t you say? Yet we rely on experience. Without a similar experience, no one else will truly be able to understand. It’s not their place to do so. They have other experiences meant to shape their understanding about something else. No matter how you stand, experience is always subjective to the person.
The other side of the coin comes from simply taking a step back and approaching The Bible in an attempt to understand it. This, too, has been a process. Once I stopped trying to use it as a weapon, I quickly found that the stories within helped to unlock other aspects of my world that I found far more inviting. My historical happy place is the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Just because these were turbulent times that I wouldn’t want to live through, that doesn’t make it uninteresting. The Bible as it exists in English translation today comes from that era, a product of its time. Through it, I’m able to better appreciate the zeitgeist of the era. This means a greater understanding of art and philosophy. It means being able to read the works of the great Medieval mystics and not being completely lost. It means understanding the flow of the language and adapting to the point where it’s easier to read the likes of Shakespeare, Milton, or Dante. Because of the history surrounding The Bible, I’m able to comprehend the nuances of the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Reformation. The scriptures are completely inseparable from any of this. To understand one is to better appreciate the other, and vice versa. If you can compare different versions of scripture from different eras, you can chart how something changed with an eye towards understanding why. For example, I’ve only recently finished a decade long study of The Geneva Bible, comparing it to the KJV. I’ve blogged how insightful that process was. Is it something I really needed to do? No, but it’s an exercise that helped me to confront and excise a great many personal demons as well as to see for myself how these translations changed the Western world.
The really ironic part of all of this is that in understanding The Bible, I’ve been able to better appreciate Tolkien and Middle-Earth, thus bringing this whole thing full circle back to something I’ve truly enjoyed since first discovering it. The Lord of the Rings remains my favorite book. The more I understand it from Tolkien’s perspective, the more rich the experience becomes. It’s never the same book twice because I have changed each time I read it. In moving through Middle-Earth to understand The Silmarillion, I’m able to connect back Biblical themes and see where Tolkien’s inspiration takes him. Do you know what Tolkien does that I appreciate so well? He teaches rather than preaches. There’s a huge difference there. Had I discovered Tolkien before the Bible thumpers had gotten to me, there might be another universe where I’d have been a monk or something. We’ll never know. But through Tolkien, I have learned to appreciate The Bible. Through better appreciation of The Bible, I’ve learned to grasp other literature and history. And through that, I’ve learned to better understand the shortcomings of people, including myself. One could say it’s a kind of religious experience of its own, the kind that opens a person up to a greater world, one worth participating in for the right reasons. One free of judgments from limited perspectives and small-mindedness.
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