It was in May of 1986 that I first visited the great World War I battlefield at Verdun. Along with Auschwitz, Verdun is on my Top 10 list of places every human being should visit to learn the extent of evil that people can inflict on one another. Over the course of 10 months in 1916, nearly 2,500,000 French and German soldiers flung death at one another. Total casualties cannot be known, but the estimates range nearly as high as one million, of whom 300,000 were killed in action. The toll does not end with the soldiers; over the course of the battle nine French villages ceased to exist, and an area the size of Manhattan suffered such devastation that the French government deemed it unrecoverable and left it to nature to repair. To this day much of the battlefield remains a poisoned wasteland and graveyard for over 100,000 missing soldiers of both sides.
France has done its best to honor the dead. In 1932 President Albert Lebrun opened the great Ossuary at Douaumont, one of the villages destroyed in the battle. The Ossuary ranks among the most impressive monuments of Western civilization, attempting both to remember and honor the dead, and to remind the living of their sacrifice. Some might consider the reminders grotesque. Beneath the Ossuary is a crypt which contains the bones of at least 130,000 unidentified French and German soldiers. They are there for all to see, together in death, having surrendered their lives that the lives of their nations might continue. Of course their nations did continue , and still do, although much diminished and much broken, even as the bones of their lost sons and daughters.
Professor J.R.R. Tolkien insisted that there was no hidden meaning behind his works on Middle Earth. Such was his assertion in his Foreword to The Lord of the Rings:
I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.
– J.R.R. Tolkien, Foreword to the Second Edition of The Lord of the Rings
Yet there are allegorical elements throughout his writings, however unintended. Tolkien’s Catholic world view infused his work with well-known Christian concepts such as atonement, salvation, redemption, and fulfillment of prophecy. A consistent story line appears throughout his writing, repeated on several levels. It is the story of paradise defiled, of blessed people tempted by evil into betrayal of their calling, of their exile and dissolution, and their restoration at last after the struggles of their exile produce the required degree of contrition and of resolve to live up to their destiny. In The Silmarillion the tale plays out in the long defeat of the Noldor in their forlorn quest to regain the Silmarils from Morgoth the defiler of Middle Earth. The cycle ends and begins anew in their redemption beyond all hope by the Valar, the powers over the earth who had exiled the Noldor from the blessed realm of Valinor because of their rebellion. In The Hobbit it is the restoration of the House of Durin as the Dwarves under the leadership of Thorin Oakenshield set in motion the events that bring the death of the great dragon Smaug and the coronation of a new Dwarf King Under the Mountain. And in The Lord of the Rings it is the return of Aragorn as King Elessar of Gondor, restoring the long lost (and nearly forgotten) kingdom of the Númenóreans after the defeat of Sauron, Morgoth’s chief lieutenant.
Among the many things we learn from Tolkien is that things happen in cycles. Life is cyclical, not linear. What happens to the fathers happens to the sons, and what has come before will come again. Whether he realized it or not, that is the Hebraic way of looking at the world. And it is quite biblical. As Solomon, the son of David, teaches us:
That which has been is that which will be, and that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9 NASB)
Consider the fragility of human existence. We survive within a specific set of environmental parameters – a fixed range of temperature, hydration, radiation, and atmospheric content. From a cosmic perspective the margin of error is very small; the slightest adjustment in even a single factor, such as the amount of oxygen, quickly moves the environment from pleasant to deadly. Yet we have learned how to venture into the realm of the deadly when necessary. Thanks to protective clothing, equipment, and protocols, our species can operate within the vacuum of space, in the ocean’s depths, in the radiation-charged atmosphere of a nuclear reactor, and in the hot zone of an infectious disease laboratory.
We venture into these deadly environments, but we do not live there. We cannot survive there without observing the strictest standards. Those who enter these realms understand this. Astronauts, deep sea explorers, nuclear engineers, and epidemiologists are professionals who have answered the call to highly specialized career fields. Not all who enter the paths of these professions advance to the point that they can operate confidently in the most dangerous places. The selection and training standards must be established at the highest possible levels for the simple reason that the slightest error can produce lethal results. Richard Preston explained this principle inThe Hot Zone, an investigative look into the origins of viral hemorrhagic fevers like Ebola. We learn from his book that the protocols for entering, working in, and leaving an infectious disease lab are elaborate and time-consuming, but necessary. No amount of caution is excessive when microscopic killers can infiltrate through the tiniest puncture of a protective suit or escape through an improper seal of an airlock. The viruses create the hot zone, whether it is in the lab or in the human body. Because of the radical transformative nature of these microorganisms, the highly trained professionals who work with viruses like Ebola in a very real sense act as mediators between them and the general population.
In fact, the role of these professionals is not unlike the role of the Levitical priests.
A standard feature of civilization is the rules of the house, the guidelines by which a person can be welcomed into and remain peacefully within someone’s home. At the most basic level these are rules children learn from their parents at the earliest age. Parents explain proper behavior and children grow up doing what they have said, or suffering the consequences if they disobey. As adults the children pass on these rules to their children so they may act properly when visiting Grandma and Grandpa. This maintains peace in the family, not only ensuring respect for the elders, but establishing and reinforcing a foundation for loving relationships.
If this is so, then how should we approach The Cat in the Hat? Since its publication in 1957 by Theodore Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss), The Cat in the Hat has become one of the world’s most popular and successful children’s books. Geisel wrote it as an attempt to find an easier way for children to learn to read, but his creation has become much more than that; the Cat is now a cultural icon. The book has everything that would appeal to children: an engaging story told in simple, silly rhyme, colorful illustrations, and an outrageous degree of irreverence for the house rules. The story opens with a rainy day in a normal house, where a Boy and his sister Sally are left at home with nothing to do while their Mother is out. Suddenly their quiet boredom is interrupted by the entrance of the Cat who promises, “Lots of good fun that is funny”. He then proceeds to violate every rule of the house by using everything he sees – including the pet Fish in its bowl – as a plaything. Just when we think it can get no worse, the Cat introduces his friends Thing 1 and Thing 2. The three anarchic intruders accelerate the mayhem, and in a very short time everything that is sacred, including Mother’s new gown and her bedroom furniture, have suffered violence. At the height of the disaster, the Fish alerts the children to the approach of their Mother and urges them to do something to stop the destruction. The Boy jumps into action, grabbing a large net with which he captures the Things and orders the Cat to pack them up and take them away.
With the intruders gone, the children and the Fish contemplate how to clean up the enormous mess. To their surprise, the Cat returns with a machine that puts everything back in order just in time. Thus The Cat in the Hat ends on a good note, with the house rules mended. Yet that is not the end of the lesson. While Dr. Seuss may not have intended it, his story resembles the tale of another Son concerned about violation of the house rules established by His Parent:
What is the secret of the success of Star Trek? Since 1966 three generations of science fiction fans have followed the adventures of four separate crews on the starship Enterprise, as well as other heroes of Gene Roddenberry’s creation through six TV series and 12 movies. There must be something more to the Star Trek universe than adventure stories, special visual effects, and outlandish aliens. Perhaps it is that Star Trek provides us with an opportunity to imagine, to push the boundaries of what is “real”, at least according to what we encounter in our everyday lives.
Certainly that was a key ingredient in the original series, the popularity of which has long outlived the three short seasons it was on the air. In 1987, Star Trek: The Next Generation picked up the mantle and carried on that boundary-pushing tradition. In “Where No One Has Gone Before”, the fifth episode of its first season, a propulsion expert named Kosinski (Stanley Kamel) comes aboard the USS Enterprise to make modifications to the ship’s engines that will enhance their performance. What we soon learn is that Mr. Kosinski’s equations are meaningless by themselves; the real power behind the modifications is the presence of Kosinski’s assistant, an alien known only as the Traveler (Eric Menyuk). In the first test, the Enterprise moves faster than ever thought possible into a region of space far beyond our galaxy, a result which astonishes not only the ship’s officers, but Kosinski as well. Only young Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton) notices the Traveler’s role in the proceedings. As the officers argue among themselves, he draws near to the Traveler to learn the truth. Their conversation includes a very interesting bit of dialogue:
Wesley: Is Mister Kosinski like he sounds? A joke?
Traveler: No, that’s too cruel. He has sensed some small part of it.
Wesley: That space and time and thought aren’t the separate things they appear to be? I just thought the formula you were using said something like that.
Later in the episode, the Traveler explains, “You do understand, don’t you that thought is the basis of all reality? The energy of thought, to put it in your terms, is very powerful.” And with that we have an articulation from a fantastic science fiction television show of a profound truth first explained by Moses 3,500 years ago.