Abraham: "The Father of Everyone"

People mean well when they say it, but is it true? Is there any scriptural basis for Abraham as a prototype for all faiths at once?

Unfortunately no.

In Judaism, Abraham is an ancestor by blood. In Christianity he is an ancestor by faith. In Islam he is an intolerant role model. The first is ethnically supremacist, the second is spiritually supremacist, and the third is militantly supremacist. None leaves much room for religious pluralism as they are presented.

My approach to the question of Abraham is similar to that of Jon Levenson, and not someone like Bruce Feiler. We do ourselves a disservice when we are afraid to be honest about religious traditions. By all means turn Abraham into a multiculturalist if you want to. But be upfront about what you’re doing, and don’t claim a scriptural precedent for it.

Judaism

The Hebrew Bible opposes the idea that Abraham is the ancestor of more than one people on an equal basis. His line of inheritance passes to one son and one grandson (Isaac and Jacob), but not the others. He is the ancestor of this line by blood, the Jewish forefather by natural descent (Isa 51:2). The Jewish people are his seed (Ps 105:6, Isa 41:8). He was circumcised and even kept the Torah, though it hadn’t been given yet (Sir 44:19-20). He’s the father of many nations (Gen 17:5), but proselyte conversion — getting circumcised and taking on the full Torah — is the only way for pagans to be saved on an equal basis; becoming Jewish is the way Gentiles become children of Abraham.

Otherwise they are just Noah’s children. They can still be saved, and in fact most Jewish expectations entertain pagan salvation on a second-class basis. Many texts speak of Israel as a light to the nations, and her salvation going forth to the ends of the earth (Isa 49:6, 51:4; Mic 4:1); Gentiles would be added to Israel and thus saved (Isa 56:6-8; Zech 2:11, 8:20-23; Isa 45:22; Tob 14:6f; I En 90:30-33). Other texts speak of the Gentiles being subjugated under Jewish imperialism (Isa 49:23; Mic 7:17; I En 90:30; 1QM 12:13), and still others hope that Gentiles will be destroyed and their cities occupied by Israel (Isa 54:3; Ben Sira 36:7,9; I En 91:9; Bar 4:25,31,35; 1QM 12:10).

There is diversity, but it’s generally clear. The Jews — the physical descendents of Abraham — stand at the center of human history, and their blessings radiate outward to pagans who acknowledge the significance of God’s covenant with Israel. Gentiles can be saved as Gentiles, if they turn from idolatry to the worship of Israel’s God, and follow minimal Torah standards required of righteous Gentiles. If they fully convert (get circumcised and take on the whole Torah), then they become Jews and are saved as children of Abraham. If they chose the former option, they are saved as second-class members of the covenant community.

Christianity

It’s a common belief that the Abraham of Christianity breaks down racial barriers, and to some extent that’s true. According to the apostle Paul, Abraham was justified by his faith alone, and such faith is the common ground uniting Jews and Gentiles on an equal basis. But two things need to be kept in mind.

(1) Paul demolished Jewish privilege, but he introduced a new form of supremacism: obviously, the exclusion of non-Christians. If salvation is by faith in Christ, how meaningful is it, really, to speak of such faith “breaking down barriers”? In fact, Paul’s language of destruction for the unsaved (throughout all his letters) is more grim and uncompromising than most of the Jewish texts mentioned above, which at least entertain hope for pagan salvation, even if as “Noahide” second-class citizens.

(2) Paul not only introduced a new form of supremacism, but in one letter he went even further by replacing Jewish privilege with an implied Gentile privilege. In Galatians he disinherits the Jewish people by claiming they were no longer even Abraham’s seed. In Romans he had the sense to drop this argument.

Let’s see how Paul radically reinterprets the figure of Abraham in the two letters (for more detail on what follows, see Philip Esler’s books).

Galatians

In Galatians, Abraham is primarily the ancestor of Gentiles (Gal 3:6-9,14). His seed refers to Christ (Gal 3:16), and Gentiles are then included in this seed via Christ, through spiritual adoption as sons of God (Gal 3:26-29). Paul’s argument is rather ridiculous, but he seems to think he has scored a zinger. He fixes on the fact that Abraham’s seed is singular throughout Genesis, insisting with relish that “scripture does not say ‘seeds” but ‘seed'” (Gal 3:16), which he then (re-)interprets as Christ instead of the Jewish people. As if that weren’t offensive enough, he then includes uncircumcised Gentiles in Abraham’s seed at the expense of law-abiding Jews.

Abraham’s seed is obviously singular in Genesis, but it’s also obviously a collective noun (Gen 12:7,13:15,16; 15:5,13,18; 17:7,8,9,10,12,19; 22:17,18; 24:7). The seed refers to the Jewish people who keep circumcision and the Torah yet to be handed down by Moses (Gen 17:9-14). By making the seed refer to Christ, Paul disinherits the Jewish people. The promise bypasses them altogether, referring directly to the messiah, and then brings law-free Christians (who are mostly Gentiles) into the seed from there.

As for what Paul says about faith-righteousness, it’s admittedly clever. He exploits a chronological technicality: Abraham had faith before he was circumcised (and before the law was given), and since that faith made him righteous, what’s good enough for Abraham is good enough for pagans. Rival missionaries in Galatia would have made the obvious retort: you can’t cite Gen 15:6 while ignoring Gen 17:9-14. Abraham’s faith-righteousness in Gen 15 was credited to him on account of his covenant loyalty in Gen 17, without which the former would not have been credited to him. Paul simply denies the second part.

It’s one thing to put Gentiles on equal footing by exploiting a chronological technicality. And it’s certainly nice to insist that Gentiles don’t need to become Jews in order to be saved on an equal basis. But it’s quite another to go beyond this with the “seed” argument implying that Jews have been disenfranchised and Gentiles have the leading edge.

Romans

In Romans, Paul tries to sanitize and improve his argument. Abraham is now the impartial ancestor of the Jewish and Gentile peoples (Rom 4:1-17). His seed does not refer to Christ anymore, but to both ethnic groups (Rom 4:16-17), against the polarizing implication of Galatians that Jews have been disinherited. In fact, Abraham became circumcised and sealed his faith-righteousness precisely in order to become the ancestor of Jews as much as Gentiles (4:11-12).

Paul no longer wants to abolish ethnic boundaries, as he did in Galatians. He does not repeat the offensive baptismal formula that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal 3:27-28). Now he uses baptism (Rom 6:1-15) to reinforce ethnic differences: Gentiles escape the power of sin (Rom 6:16-23) in a different way than Jews (Rom 7:1-25). Gentiles die to ungodliness — to “impurity and lawlessness” (Rom 6:19) — and then become slaves of God (Rom 6:22), while Jews die to the law (Rom 7:4). But even though the law has no saving value, Jews are encouraged to practice it (Rom 14:5-6), and Gentiles are even commanded to obey at least parts of it while in Jewish company (Rom 14:15,21), so as not to give offense.

It’s important not to lose sight here. As “Jewish-friendly” as the Romans version is, Paul’s view of Abraham is still radical and supremacist. Christians descend from Abraham, but not from Isaac and Jacob — Jewish lineage is still skipped over. It’s a spiritual ancestry. The promises made to Abraham benefit Christians alone, and in Paul’s day there were less and less Jews becoming Christians. Paul hoped in vain that this was a temporary state of affairs, that the biological children of Abraham had been “cut off” only to make room for Gentiles, and would be “regrafted” at the apocalypse (Rom 11). But of course the apocalypse didn’t come, and in twenty years Judaism split forever with Christianity.

If Paul could finally insist on a measure of respect for the Torah and Jewish heritage in Romans, it was lip-service, since the law was ultimately useless and Jewish election a farce. Abraham was an ancestor by faith — Christian faith — and a clear prototype of spiritual supremacism.

Islam

In Islam, Abraham isn’t an ancestor. He isn’t the “father of many nations”, as he is in Judaism and Christianity. He is one of many prophets who points towards Muhammad — a true Muslim, in other words, like Moses and Jesus (Qur’an 3:67). According to the Qur’an, the original forms of Judaism and Christianity were Islam. Abraham, Moses, and Jesus all taught Islam and it was their followers who later hijacked Islam and created what we know as Judaism and Christianity. As such, the Jewish and Christian preoccupations with ancestry and election distort the true Muslim teachings. Abraham is a role model — an intolerant one — not a father figure.

Qur’an 60:4 specifies this role model in relation to people of other religions. Abraham expressed animosity and hatred for people including his father, who don’t worship Allah. His hatred is precisely what makes him a good role model. The same passage (Qur’an 60:4) also makes clear that Abraham told his father he would pray mercy for him, and that this prayer of mercy (believe it or not) is what makes him a bad role model. In other words, Muslim believers should imitate Abraham when he says — to even his closest relative — that he hates someone and will hate him forever because he is not a Muslim. But believers should not imitate Abraham when he says that he will pray for a non-Muslim.

So in the Qur’an, Abraham is an exemplar of intolerance and hatred for non-Muslims.

Jon Levenson even suggests that the jihad could be the spiritual successor to Abraham’s binding of Isaac. Where Jews have the substitutes of circumcision and the passover lamb, and Christians the eucharist, Islam has never accepted vicarious sacrifice. It demands personal sacrifice only, and the jihad is one such way to put the role demanded by Qur’an 60:4 into practice.

Conclusion

As a liberal Unitarian I sympathize with the intentions behind interfaith dialogue — intentions, basically, to turn Abraham into a prototype of Unitarianism! We need to respect each other, and to respect each others’ creeds. But respect entails honesty, not distortion; reading in context, not cherry-picking; and being willing to disagree with scriptures that are not enlightened, instead of claiming that such scriptures are actually enlightened but woefully misunderstood.

If we have problems with our sacred cows, we can do as Paul did, and reinterpret as we please. We can turn Abraham into a prototype that serves our needs. We can make him a Unitarian and respecter of all faiths. But unlike Paul, we should acknowledge what we’re doing: reinterpreting a problem, not agreeing with something which has been there all along but tragically misread. It’s often claimed that the Qur’an is a book promoting peace, and that those who say otherwise, or act on it otherwise, misunderstand the Qur’an. In fact they understand it very well.

Someone like Robert Spencer also understands the Qur’an, and rightly points out its supremacism. But he then somewhat misleadingly claims that “in the understanding of both Jews and Christians, Abraham is a great father figure who embraces a huge variety of people”. As we’ve seen, Abraham excludes and embraces in all three religions. It’s true that the exclusive factor is particularly aggressive in Islam, and that Judaism and Christianity at least carry supplements in their theology that facilitate moving beyond the supremacism. But no one was a pluralist in antiquity. Whether ethnically, spiritually, or militantly, the monotheist religions enshrine a supremacist Abraham in their scriptures.

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"Paul and the Law" Pick List

Three years ago I posted a Historical Jesus Pick List, which I’ve meaning to follow up with a list for “Paul and the law”. These are my rankings of Galatians and Romans treatments. As before, I choose scholars not to endorse everything they say (though again my #1 choice comes close), but because they make contributions I personally think are important. Also as before, a certain N.T. Wright fails to make the cut, though ironically it’s the recent release of his Paul and the Faithfulness of God which prompted me to post a list of far better treatments.

The first three are my crown jewels, (1) Esler for the imperative frameworks of honor-shame and social identity, (2) Sanders for obvious reasons, (3) Nanos for a persuasive alternative to Esler. The next three also make a strong tier, (4) Watson by decimating both the old and new perspectives, (5) Tobin by combing through all of Paul’s contradictions and tensions, and (6) Given by calling Paul on his lies and deceptions. I couldn’t leave off (7) Wrede, and the final three have important insights while missing the mark on whole.

1. Philip Esler. Galatians (1998); Conflict and Identity in Romans (2003). Esler’s books provide everything I look for. They ground Paul in the honor-shame framework of the Mediterranean. They account for dramatic shifts in thought between the two letters. They explain why Galatians is sectarian favoring Gentiles, and why Romans bends over backwards to favor both ethnic groups. They tease out murky backgrounds, suggesting that Antioch was about treachery instead of mere hypocrisy, and that Rome was about a church situation on top of Paul’s personal conflict with the pillars of Jerusalem. They reject the old Lutheran perspective, while being unafraid to acknowledge Paul’s offensive similarities with Luther. For the law was obsolete, and the best it promised but never delivered was now available by a different route (the spirit). Between the times of Abraham and Christ was a long period of gloom and doom; righteousness was anticipated by figures like David and Moses, but no one had the righteousness of Abraham, who was an exception to the rule in a faithless era. Esler’s work is the best treatment of Galatians and Romans to date.

2. E.P. Sanders. Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977); Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People (1983). He’s the Schweitzer of the quest for the historical Paul. He smashed Protestant interpretations to smithereens. He ushered in a new era of study, which in turn prompted break aways, spin-offs, and rebellions. No matter what fads creep in, sensible critics return to his basic premise: that Paul broke with Judaism by shooting down the law and Israel’s special place in the divine cosmos. Not because he found these inherently wanting; not because they implied an inferior way of religion; and certainly not because he couldn’t keep the law himself. But because Christ’s bizarre victory over evil made everything else trivial that nothing was sacred anymore. As a result, Paul began digging himself into holes explaining why the sacred used to be — and then desperately out of these holes, the steepest slopes being those of Rom 7 and 11. Sanders work remains the place to start, and the place you return to in varying degrees, for a solid understanding of Paul.

3. Mark Nanos. The Irony of Galatians (2002); The Mystery of Romans (1996). The opposite of Esler can be just as persuasive. There was a time I found myself nearly convinced by Nanos’ work. Unlike other “Jewish-friendly” reconstructions (Gaston, Gager), these books never go off the rails or abuse your trust. Parts of them I still agree with, especially the key argument of the Romans book, which clarifies the identity of the weak in Rom 14-15. These Jews are weak for the same reason Abraham would have been weak in Rom 4:18-25, had he failed to trust in God’s ability to create life out of death in a stupendous context. In other words, the Roman Jews were weak for being non-Christian (failing to confess the resurrection), not for being Jewish (since they should be fully confident in their beliefs about diet and holy days). As far as the Galatians book goes, it’s always going to be a tall order to milk a Jewish-friendly apostle out of this letter, but Nanos’ theory of ironic rebuke never seems forced or strained, whether or not you can accept it. Nanos makes the strongest and most persuasive case for a Jewish-friendly Paul who remained part of the synagogue.

4. Francis Watson. Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective (2007). This revised critique of the Lutheran perspective is just as smoldering as it was in the ’80s, and its thesis remains intact. We get the same sectarian Paul who divorced himself from the synagogue and said the law was obsolete. But Watson calls us to move “beyond the new perspective” too — which is effectively a plea to move backwards and forwards at the same time. Backwards to Sanders’ view of Paul (which he has always approved) but forwards beyond Sanders’ view of Judaism (which he now only half-approves as a corrective to Lutheran caricatures). Backwards also, in acknowledging that Sanders basically had it right before scholars like Dunn and Wright tried improving on Sanders in the wrong way — over-emphasizing Gentile rights at the expense of Paul’s radical breed of exclusive Christology. Watson’s only major liability is his sectarian model, which works fine for Galatians but not for Romans, where Paul is trying to reinforce at least some ethnic distinctions in the body of Christ. Watson skewers the old and new perspectives without mercy, and leaves us a more alien Paul to ponder.

5. Thomas Tobin. Paul’s Rhetoric in its Contexts (2005). For a long time, this was the book I was waiting for: an exhaustive catalog of Paul’s revisions in Romans, which correct his claims made in Galatians and also the Corinthian letters. Abraham is no longer the ancestor of primarily Gentiles, but rather Jews and Gentiles in equal measure. Paul’s freedom language is no longer from the law, but from the power of sin. The law is no longer active in confining people under sin, but passive in relation to it (the power sin is the real culprit). And much more. Esler accounted for some of these shifts in terms of audience; Sanders thought Paul was having a genuine change of heart as he struggled with his Jewish heritage; and Given claimed that Paul was just covering up his offensive views with deceptive polish. I think there are elements of truth to all of these, but Tobin offers perhaps the most obvious reason of all: Paul evolved to clean up his image. His nasty reputation was killing him.

6. Mark Given. Paul’s True Rhetoric: Ambiguity, Cunning, and Deception in Greece and Rome (2001). This is the kind of book we need to see more of, that treats Paul like a real person instead of a theological architect, who lied to make his offensive views digestible. It suggests that in Romans Paul’s views on the law and Israel hadn’t softened at all. He was shrewd and sophistic, saying things he really didn’t mean, patronizing the Jewish people with platitudes hither and yon. When he credits them with having “adoption”, “the covenant/law”, “worship”, “the promises”, and “the patriarchs” (Rom 9:4-5), that’s empty credit, because we know what he really thinks: that real adoption comes from being liberated from the law and being led by the spirit, that there are two covenants, an old and a new, the former of which has been superseded by the latter, and that real worship takes place “in Christ” (the temple of one’s body) rather than the Jerusalem temple; etc. A book like this forces interesting questions about the nature of one’s “gospel truth”, and given how often everyone lies, it’s a treatment that needs more attention. Given knows (and shows) too well what Paul really thought under his greasy arguments about Israel and the law.

7. William Wrede. Paul (1904). This short classic does Paul more justice, and with less tools, than many of today’s sophisticated treatments. Like Schweitzer, Wrede was a genius and his summary on redemption alone was ahead of its time: liberation for Paul was not deliverance from the torment experienced by guilty souls, but rather a complete change in the nature and conditions of people’s existence. Paul spoke in terms of external powers, forces, and dominions, not internal states of being. Redemption went beyond forgiveness of sins; it involved a dramatic switch of allegiances, a bondage, slavery, to new powers. As for Paul’s Gentile mission, it had to be free of Jewish ethnic customs and broadcast the superiority of Christianity in all ways, and “the doctrine of justification was nothing more than the weapon with which these purposes were to be won”. Wrede is still right after all these years: “righteousness” was not central to Paul’s thinking.

8. Douglas Campbell. The Deliverance of God (2009). This reminds me of a math textbook I used in an Advanced Calculus class. It was all over the map, its proofs unwieldy, and it even bungled some theory. None of us could understand why the professor chose the damn thing, but he explained that its failures were its strengths: it forced students to come to terms with the math concepts through the author’s illuminating deficiencies. That’s a perfect description of Campbell’s tome. It makes us wrestle with two competing schemes of salvation in Paul’s thought — justification and transformation — and tease out their full implications. But Campbell jumps the shark in reshaping the former into the latter. That kills the patient. Justification theory is certainly present in Paul (Rom 2-4), even if only as a weapon to claim ground in a Jewish-pagan context. It’s subordinate to transformation theory (Rom 5-8), granted, but not a mirage. The even greater value to this book is its correctives to the new perspective, especially in the way it rehabilitates legalism in the Jewish framework when understood properly. Campbell’s compulsive project assesses the old and new perspectives against a huge canvass of justification and transformation.

9. James Dunn. Romans (1988). I throw this bone to the hyper-New Perspective. It argues that Paul affirmed Judaism more than he opposed it. He affirmed covenant faithfulness and claimed the law should be fulfilled. He only opposed the way the covenant confined the scope of salvation to the Jewish people. Paul didn’t oppose the law, only the works of the law, since ethnic observances (like circumcision, food laws, sabbath) confined the grace of God to the chosen people — they were covenant badges signaling Israel’s favored status. Faith-righteousness did away with these badges and opened salvation to Gentiles on an equal basis. Like Wright, Dunn has a perfectly valid point about about the meaning of “works”, and this interpretation works well enough in a context like Rom 2-4. But not in Rom 5-8, where Paul goes on to contrast faith with the law on whole. Paul says he destroyed the law in its entirety, and Jewish “works” are nowhere in view in Rom 5-8. But where works are in view, Dunn has shown beyond a reasonable doubt that Paul was speaking of ethnic observances characterizing one as Jewish, and not good deeds in general.

10. J. Louis Martyn. Galatians (2004). Here’s another commentary with problems but massive strengths to make up for them. It assesses Paul’s most affronting letter in terms of a dramatic apocalyptic divide between two ages. Martyn sees Christ and the Spirit as invasive entities that wipe out ritualism, sacramentalism, pseudo-possession and false empowerment — indeed nothing less than the whole of “religion” itself. If the case is overstated, it perhaps needs to be in order to appreciate how dark Paul thought the age of Moses and the law really was. (Aside from Martyn, Esler is a rare scholar to clearly grasp this point.) It doesn’t make for a pleasant view of Paul, and I think that’s why so many resist it. Certainly those advocating a Jewish-friendly Paul will never accept it; nor will those like Tom Wright who want to see Paul in covenant-climaxing terms within the framework of their own Christian supersessionism. The unpleasant fact is that Paul was a hard-core supersessionist — far more so than most are willing to give him credit (or blame) for. Marytn underscores the black-and-white contrast of ages in Paul’s thought.

What I’m Reading: The Seven Altars of Dusarra

One of my favorite books growing up was a fantasy novel called The Seven Altars of Dusarra, by Lawrence Watt-Evans. It’s been out of print for a long time, and for whatever insane reason I discarded it at some point. But it’s available in ebook, which I began reading last night.

It’s a sword-and-sorcery novel in the vein of the early pulps, and the second in a quartet called The Lords of Dus: The Lure of the Basilisk is the first (which I read last and thought of as a light prequel), The Sword of Bheleu the third, and The Book of Silence the fourth. I remember the third and fourth volumes being really good too, but none fired my imagination like the second.

The story’s hero is Garth the Overman, morally ambiguous like all the great pulp-fantasy heroes. His personality reminds of Conan; his world is like that of Fafhrd and Grey Mouser (Lankhmar/Newhon); the sword he steals from one of the altars — and which possesses him to wreak devastation in the third book — calls to mind Elric’s Stormbringer. Yet I don’t remember any of this seeming like copycat formula or pastiche. Here is a reader review at Goodreads, written just last year, a lot of which targets how I felt about the book 32 years ago:

Watt-Evans sends Garth, via the Forgotten King, to another portion of the map, this time with the job of stealing “whatever lies upon the seven altars of Dusarra.” Soon Garth arrives in Dusarra and discovers that this job is, in fact, a hell of an undertaking.

What is a straightforward, fearless overman to do? How about throwing himself into any situation or opportunity that arises without forethought or strategy, relying on his martial prowess and gumption to get him through? Seriously, this guy fails in the planning department, and there were many times I wondered just how he was going to get out of the shit.

This frequent uncertainty — combined with an eerie city that is obsessed with the “dark gods” of the national pantheon — made for good reading, and I enjoyed paging through this in a day. The setting and plot reminded me of Leiber’s Lankhmar stories, especially all of the scenes set in ill-lit temples devoted to perverse deities. The story takes a violent turn in the last act, and some of the gore surprised me; brutal as George Martin may get in Westeros, Garth and his warbeast do not hesitate to spill mass quantities of blood to achieve their means. The finale sets the stage for bigger things, and I remain interested in seeing where this all goes.

I gotta say: this series hit me from nowhere, and now I wonder what other fantastic tales are out there, hiding behind the wind namers and dancing dragons and black prisms and smart-mouthed city wizards that dominate the genre.

Not only did Dusarra remind me of Lankhmar, I actually ended up liking the stories of Garth better than those of Fafhrd and Grey Mouser. I dare say The Lords of Dus, and The Seven Altars of Dusarra in particular, will remain my favorite pulp fantasy after all these years. Back to reading.

The Best of Peter Gabriel

Here are my dozen Peter Gabriel picks. This is some of the best rock music ever recorded.

1. Red Rain

The lead track on So made me fall in love with music in a new way. It was inspired by a nightmare about a sea parting and being filled with blood.

2. Wallflower

Songs like this aren’t written anymore. It’s my favorite when I’m feeling depressed. It was apparently inspired by an Amnesty International pamphlet about Argentina.

3. Sky Blue

Years of sweat — rewriting, practicing, and polishing — lie behind this one. It’s one of those rare songs I consider perfect in hitting the right notes in every place without fail.

4. The Rhythm of the Heat

In Africa, Carl Jung joined a group of ecstatic drummers and dancers, and became overwhelmed with fear that they would go mad. Gabriel was obsessed with Jung’s account, and he tries to capture the essence with the incredible drum sequence at the end.

5. Secret World

About the private world two people occupy, the overlap of dreams and desires, and mysteries. The music is impossible not to adore.

6. Shock the Monkey

This is the original (longer) album version, and the proper one. The crescendo of the last minute and a half is a rock-music miracle.

7. Mercy Street (Live)

An ode to Anne Sexton, who fought depression and suicidal tendencies. It’s about the bonds between father and daughter, the resulting turmoil — and the live version is simply pristine.

8. Growing Up

Gabriel’s most psychedelic song, and his best video.

9. San Jacinto (Live)

Gabriel’s live performances are always stellar, but this song especially. It’s about the culture clash between Native America and the present-day U.S., and “holding the line” of one’s cultural traditions.

10. The Tower That Ate People

I never saw Ovo, but I love this song Gabriel wrote for it. There’s a Tower of Babel vibe to it that I’m sure I’d understand if I saw the media show.

11. Washing of the Water

A broken heart and soul. And more grief than I knew a song could hold.

12. In Your Eyes

Everyone loves this one, and it’s usually the final act of Gabriel’s concerts. The Secret World version below is the best.

The Best Scenes in The Lord of the Rings

Yesterday I featured the worst scenes in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, the ones I removed in my special cut of the films. Today I rank the best scenes. It’s easy to get the impression from yesterday’s post that The Fellowship of the Ring is my favorite film, while The Two Towers and The Return of the King leave much to be desired. That’s not the case at all. Even before my ruthless editing, the third film has always been my favorite, because whatever its deficiencies it more than makes up for on whole. It’s tragic on a biblical level and an emotional juggernaut.

Of the following twenty scenes, seven are from The Fellowship of the Ring, four are from The Two Towers, and nine are from The Return of the King.

1. The Grey Havens. The best scene of the book is the best scene of the film, and breathes Tolkien’s theme of the long defeat: the failure of Frodo, the passing of the elves, and the foreordained deterioration of men. If it doesn’t make you cry, then you don’t have your priorities straight. If on my deathbed I could watch one scene from one film, it would be The Grey Havens from The Return of the King. The white shores and far green country awaiting Frodo would be out of my reach, but I’d take comfort anyway.

2. “Do You Remember the Shire?”/”The End of All Things.” I have to take these two scenes together, as they’re counterparts. In my (many) theatrical outings a decade ago, they overwhelmed me and affected me so much I was shaking. No film has ever had that kind of power over me. The first scene is the courage, finishing the one-way journey with no real hope of success. The second is the aftermath, the unexpected victory even in failure (Frodo claimed by the Ring), and accepting imminent death.

3. The Breaking of the Fellowship. This one’s a cheat, but really everything is a favorite scene from Aragorn and Frodo’s farewell to the closing credits. The Uruk-hai battle is fantastic, and the scene between Aragorn and the dying Boromir is probably the noblest in the trilogy. Frodo’s resolve to go to Mordor alone, remembering Gandalf, and Sam chasing after him in the boat all culminate in an emotional scene foreshadowing dark times ahead. This entire sequence stands as a serious cinematic achievement for its perfect closure despite being a cliff-hanger.

4. The Siege of Gondor & the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. This one’s another cheat, but once the boulders start flying, the battle for Minas Tirith doesn’t let up until the last oliphaunt goes down. It’s relentless chaos and destruction — the catapult attacks, winged Nazgul, Grond, and (best of all) the apocalyptic charge of the Rohirrim. Eowyn’s confrontation with the Witch-King exceeds expectations, and the army of the dead is a brilliant transposition from the book. Their victory implies that Theoden and Denethor were both right, that Sauron’s forces could not have been defeated by the armies of men.

5. Flight to the Ford. Beginning with Arwen and Frodo on horseback and ending with the incredible flood at Bruinen. Arwen’s close evasive action, coupled with the pulse-pounding choir music, still leaves me mesmerized after seeing it so many times. It’s a testimony to Jackson’s vision that he can alter a crucial scene from the book and make it even better. I also find it fascinating how horse chases work so well in movies, unlike car chases which easily become boring. This scene is the best horse chase in any film, hands down.

6. Gandalf and the Balrog (TT). My favorite scene of the second film is the flashback starter. The battle between Gandalf and the demon as they hurtle down the shaft makes the preliminary confrontation on the bridge look like child’s play. Great music goes with it too. Complaints about the Balrog’s wings continue to this day (Tolkien’s Balrogs of course don’t have wings), and it is rather silly that the creature is falling when it could have just flown upwards. But it doesn’t matter; this scene is a juggernaut.

7. The Morgul Vale. The most terrifying scene in the trilogy and true to the book. I could easily vote it the best purist scene, even if the Witch-King isn’t on horseback. It’s hard to imagine the terror of the Black Breath being conveyed so convincingly, but here it is. I was nearly cowering in my seat the first time I saw this in the theater, just like Frodo cringing and holding his ears against the Nazgul shrieks. Tolkien describes a “noisome exhalation of decay”, and the sorcerous reek on display is hideous.

8. Frodo and Bilbo in Rivendell/Gollumized Bilbo. We don’t get much of Frodo and Bilbo together in the Shire, which turns out to be fine, because their interactions in Rivendell are perfect. First is the scene by the waterfall, where Bilbo produces his finished book, “There and Back Again”, and they contrast their adventures. In the later scene, Bilbo passes over of Sting and the mithril vest and asks to see the Ring. His sudden demonic transformation nearly gave me a heart attack when I first saw it; it’s that scary.

9. The Mirror of Galadriel. I had forgotten how frightening some scenes in the first film really are. Peter Jackson started as a horror film director, and no one else — certainly not Speilberg or Lucas — could have made Lothlorien so ethereally haunting and Galadriel’s temptation so terrifying. Much as I love the way the Shire and Rivendell are realized in these films, it’s the eerie forest of Lothlorien that impresses me most. The scene at the Mirror is the best, and it’s great that we get to see the water ring Nenya.

10. The Voice of Saruman. This eight-minute scene is brilliantly acted by Christopher Lee and a vast improvement over the lame “Sharkey” epilogue from the book. The dialogue is pure Tolkien, even including the part about “the rods of the five wizards”. You can feel Saruman’s relentless contempt for Theoden as he goes on about Rohan being nothing more than a “thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek and their brats roll on the floor with the dogs”. It’s wonderful poetic justice when he’s impaled on his own machinery.

11. The Forbidden Pool: “A Clockwork Orange”. The waterfall and pool are just how you imagine them from the book, and the shot of Gollum squatting over and eating the fish is great. His regression to self-pity and schizophrenia after Frodo’s treachery is heartbreaking, and in the extended version the rangers beat the living shit out of him. Faramir comes off considerably darker than Tolkien’s character, and rightly so. This is the kind of reality lacking in most fantasy, where good guys are usually a bit too good to be true.

12. Frodo Poisoned/Sam and Shelob. The first part of Shelob’s lair is pretty good, but the second part is an absolute classic. The spider is played brilliantly against Frodo after his narrow escape (Shelob’s revenge), and her silent stalking (with no scoring) as she positions herself above to sting him is genius directing. The rescue battle shows Sam coming into his own, just like Tolkien wrote him, and his grief over “dead” Frodo is some of Sean Astin’s best acting.

13. A Knife in the Dark. Misty Weathertop, the steady advance of the five Nazgul, and the music all combine to offer a scene scary and gothic. And the sight that greets Frodo when he puts on the Ring comes right off Tolkien’s pages. Much like the Morgul Vale (#7), I could vote this one of the best purist scenes. Jackson nailed the Nazgul in a way that shows him at home in the horror genre.

14. “Where is the Horse and the Rider?” In the book Aragorn recites this poem (the Rohan anthem) as he approaches Edoras. But it’s far more cinematic to have the King of Rohan himself tragically recite this before going into battle, what he thinks is certain doom for his people. This one still gives me chills after so many viewings. Great theatrical acting on Bernard Hill’s part, and by far the best part of Helm’s Deep.

15. Pippin’s Song for Denethor. The editing here is brilliant. Pippin singing — cut to Denethor gorging — cut to Faramir galloping to suicide — cut back to the steward’s slobbering mouth — back to Pippin’s lamenting anguish — to Faramir again — it’s a uniquely memorable scene that has Jackson stamped all over it. Billy Boyd is a gifted singer. It’s impossible to forget the details of this scene, it carries such impact.

16. The Treason of Isengard. The interior of Orthanc is splendid, especially the chamber of the Palantir. The wizard battle between Gandalf and Saruman, absent from the book, could have come off rather cheesy. But it’s surprisingly well done. There’s none of the lightning or fireworks of B-grade fantasies; the wizards use telekinesis to beat the crap out of each other, and you can practically feel their bones cracking as they get pounded against the walls and floor. The score is perfect, and the choir reaches that intense crescendo as Saruman goes crashing through the double doors.

17. Arwen’s Fate. Elrond’s vision of the dead Aragorn, and Arwen wandering alone in the empty forest of Lothlorien, brilliantly captures the long defeat theme. Elrond’s monologue comes from Tolkien’s appendices: “Aragorn will come to death, an image of the splendor of the kings of men in glory, undimmed before the breaking of the world. But you, my daughter, you will linger on in darkness and in doubt. Here you will dwell, bound to you grief, under the fading trees, until all the world has changed and the long years of your life are utterly spent.”

18. The Black Gate Opens. The theatrical version wrecks this by omitting the Mouth of Sauron. In the extended version the Mouth displays the mithril vest in order to prove that Frodo is dead and the Ring is on its way to Sauron. Going into battle, the army of the west really has no hope at all, and Aragorn’s line (“For Frodo”) refers to the hobbit’s sacrifice — they are avenging his death rather than buying time for him. But it’s a great scene in either case. Even the theatrical version conveys hopeless courage as the Army of the West charges the hordes which outnumber them.

19. Sam’s Star. This really should have been in the theatrical version: Sam overcome by a single sign of beauty in the worst hell on earth, and Frodo on death’s door. The shot of Mordor here is the best in the film, a wasteland reminiscent of Ted Nasmith’s drawings. Much like other scenes between Frodo and Sam in Mordor (especially the sacred ones of #2), it’s diminished by commentary.

20. The Green Dragon. Here is hobbit culture at its purest. The hobbits get drunk and rumor-monger, the Gaffer tells Frodo he’s as cracked as Bilbo, and Merry and Pippin are just themselves — a couple of singing, boisterous clowns. Their song (“Hey-ho, to the Bottle I Go”) is actually a fusion of two songs from the book, one of which Pippin sings solo while taking a bath at Crickhollow. This scene renders the “Concerning Hobbits” prologue superfluous and shows more in a single minute than Bilbo’s voice-over explains in five.

My Special Cut of The Lord of the Rings Films

It seems that everyone agrees Peter Jackson has gone off the rails. His Hobbit is a mess as his Lord of the Rings is a masterpiece. This week-end I watched the latter, a marathon I hadn’t done since 2004. I’m pleased to say the trilogy holds up superbly. Especially since I improved on it by removing scenes I can’t stand, thanks to special software. Now The Lord of the Rings is truly perfect.

Here is the list of all the scenes I cut. The three extended DVD versions have a total running time of about 11 hours. My special cut runs about 10 hours (9 hrs 56 minutes), which means I ended up axing about 10% of Jackson’s story. If you have the software for it, I encourage you to make your own special version of the films. It’s such a treat to watch The Lord of the Rings without being able to complain about the worst scenes that make you curse at the screen. Stay tuned tomorrow for my ranking of the best scenes.

THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING

Concerning Hobbits. I used to love this extended scene. Ten years later I now see that it fails on every level. (1) It’s effectively a second prologue, voiced-over by Bilbo, on top of the excellent prologue narrated by Galadriel. (2) It commits the sin of explaining, not showing; we see plenty of hobbit culture at Bilbo’s birthday party and the Green Dragon that we don’t need it explained to us. (3) It rudely jerks us back and forth between Bilbo (in his study at Bag End) and Frodo (in the wagon with Gandalf), which makes for a poor introduction to them both, dividing our interest. (4) Indeed, Bilbo opening his front door to Gandalf is his perfect first scene. If you think you like the Concerning Hobbits prologue, I encourage you to dig out your theatrical version and play it; it’s the much stronger and better introduction to Frodo and Bilbo.

Basically I use the theatrical version from the start of the film up to Gandalf passing through Bilbo’s “No Admittance” sign. From then on, I use the extended version which is otherwise flawless. Except for a small matter…

The Doors of Moria. There’s a story to this one. On the day before The Fellowship of the Ring was released in the theaters, I was certain I would hate these blockbuster adaptations of my favorite story. But I was trying to get in the spirit and be a good sport, and when a co-worker asked me what part of the movie I was looking most forward to, I said (somewhat sarcastically) the part where Gandalf threatens to knock on the doors of Moria with Pippin Took’s head. Of course, by the time I got to Moria I was in love with the film after all, but still disappointed that my favorite line didn’t make it. To add insult to injury, Jackson further reduced Gandalf by having Frodo solve the door riddle for him. I removed this from my special cut. And since the extended version has the Pippin line I wanted, all is now perfect.

Also: I cut some of the battle with the Watcher of Moria, which looks a bit like a videogame.

THE TWO TOWERS

The Osgiliath Detour. I love Jackson’s Faramir. He’s a darker character than Tolkien’s, tempted by the Ring as he should be, and much more believable. The “Clockwork Orange” scene at the Forbidden Pool (Gollum getting beaten to a pulp) is one of my favorites. But I absolutely hate the detour to Osgiliath — more than any scene in the trilogy. Faramir should have let the hobbits go when Sam explodes at him. That’s where I made my special cut, right before Faramir can say, “The Ring will go to Gondor.” In my version of The Two Towers, Frodo and Sam do not reappear until the epilogue in the forest.

The Osgiliath scene is actually a disaster in every way. The Nazgul that confronts Frodo is poorly used. Frodo’s attack on Sam is unconvincing. Worst is Sam’s monologue, cribbed from the Stairs of Cirith Ungol in the book, about the “tales that really matter”. It’s one of my favorite Tolkien passages, in which Sam reminds Frodo about the great heroes of Middle-Earth who “had many chances of turning back, but went on, and not all to a good end”. Jackson rewrites the pessimism in favor of crass cliches; now those great heroes kept going, not despite the hopelessness of their cause, but rather the opposite: “because they were holding onto the good in this world worth fighting for”. Having Faramir recant and let the hobbits go after this cheesy line makes it twice as awful.

Helm’s Deep. I took a heavy axe to Helm’s Deep, as the catalog of crimes is huge. First are the elves, who have no business participating. They undermine the thoroughly bleak feeling the battle is supposed to have. I obviously couldn’t get rid of every scene with elves, but I did cut all the close-up shots, and especially Haldir, whose death was melodramatic and contrived. (Unlike the genuinely emotional deaths of Boromir and Theoden.)

There are also lame scenes prior to the battle filled with corny dialogue. I removed them all. One such scene is Legolas and Aragorn’s shouting match over the way they are outnumbered. Another is when Aragorn tells the young Haleth that “there is always hope”. Always hope? The idea that hope springs eternal is an alien intrusion in Middle Earth. The Aragorn of the books said things like, “We must do without hope, and at least be avenged.” (After leaving Moria.) See also my comments about the Osgiliath scene above.

Finally, there are the videogame battle sequences: Legolas surfing on his shield; Aragorn and Gimli jumping a wall and holding off multitudes of orcs. Anything like this I got rid of.

In the end, my version of Helm’s Deep is far shorter and much more impressive.

Pippin Manipulates Treebeard. Let me be clear: I love the fact that the ents act like Switzerland and first decide not to get involved against Saruman. I also approve the way Treebeard reverses the democratic entmoot decision like a tyrant, when he sees the tree massacre and flies into a rage. I consider all of this an improvement on Tolkien. However, I do not like how Pippin engineered Treebeard’s discovery of the clearcut. This is the same problem I had with Frodo solving the riddle at the doors of Moria. I understand that Jackson wanted to give the hobbits more proactive roles, but making them clever at the expense of immortals like Gandalf and Treebeard are cheap Hollywood maneuvers. So I cut the scene — a truly stupid and ridiculous one — where Pippin suddenly tells Treebeard, in a very conniving fashion, to go south, as if Pippin would know the precise location of a tree massacre but Treebeard would not. The result is that in my cut, Treebeard stumbles on the tree slaughter by accident, and in that scene I removed Pippin’s condescending “I’m sorry, Treebeard”, which implies that he regrets having to give the ent a wake-up call.

THE RETURN OF THE KING

Smeagol and Deagol. This scene is mostly well done, but I don’t care for it. A prologue is unnecessary in the second and third films. (Gandalf falling with the Balrog is an excellent start to The Two Towers, but that’s a flashback more than a prologue.) The Return of the King opens perfectly on Frodo and Sam waking up in Ithilien. I should also note that Gollum’s makeup job is atrocious as he evolves over the centuries. Bottom line, I removed the entire scene. We know how Gollum began.

Early extended scenes. With the exception of Saruman (criminally omitted from the theatrical version), all of the extended scenes prior to Denethor entering his pyre chamber are either silly or superfluous. They bog down the pace at points when things are supposed to moving quickly, and some of the levity (used so well in extended scenes of Fellowship of the Ring and Two Towers) clash with an increasing dark tone. So from the point of Saruman’s death up to that of Denethor marching into his death chamber, I simply use the theatrical cut of the film. Thus in my version, there is no drinking game between Legolas and Gimli. Merry does not kneel before Theoden. (A poorly handled scene, unlike Pippin’s oath to Denethor: Merry acts like a giggling school girl with no dignity whatsoever. Also, there’s not even the payoff we get in the book, when Merry speaks to the dying Theoden on the Pelennor Fields; Jackson wisely chose Eowyn instead.) Pippin does not speak words of encouragement to Faramir, which somehow ring hollow. Sam does not encourage Frodo with “There and Back Again” optimism near the cross-roads, which contradicts his more realistic outlook in the book (on which point see my criticism of his Osgiliath monologue in The Two Towers). Merry doesn’t have the uninspired dialogue with Eowyn en route to Minas Tirith. Most importantly, Gimli does not act like a clown on the Paths of the Dead, and he certainly does not blow ghosts away from him with his goddamn breath — a truly outrageous scene — nor do we get the cheesy avalanche of skulls.

After the point of Denethor’s entry into the pyre room, however, the extended scenes are all excellent. Denethor gets in his best line from the book: “You may triumph on the field of battle for a day, but against the power that has arisen in the east there is no victory.” Gandalf confronts the Witch-King, who shatters his staff. Eowyn does battle with the Orc leader Gothmog. Eomer grieves in rage on the Pelennor Fields. It takes Pippin a long time to find Merry wounded on the battlefields — well into evening. We get the Houses of the Healing. There are two important scenes in Mordor, with Frodo and Sam joining the orc army, and the especially moving one of Sam seeing the star, when Frodo is at death’s door. And finally there is The Mouth of Sauron at the Black Gate. Naturally, I retain all of these.

However, there are three particularly offensive scenes from the Pelennor Fields I removed…

Ninja Legolas. His oliphaunt acrobatics put a stain on an otherwise perfect battle where you feel the heavy realism of war on both sides. Suddenly with Legolas, we’re out of Braveheart and into Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (a film I deplore). Legolas has cheesy stunts elsewhere (like the shield-surfing at Helm’s Deep, which I also removed), but at least they’re usually brief. His oliphaunt stunt goes on forever. Not in my version. Gone.

Indiana Eowyn. Eowyn’s oliphaunt maneuvers aren’t as offensive as Legolas’, but they’re silly nonetheless and there’s no reason to keep them. Besides which, the extended version gives Eowyn and Merry more battle scenes — better and more believable ones than the Indiana-Jones like ride under the oliphaunt that ends with Eowyn chopping off its legs in a single stroke.

A Far Green Country (Gandalf deludes Pippin). I don’t like trashing this scene, because it involves some of the best writing from the final pages of the book, and is brilliantly acted by Ian McKellan and Billy Boyd. The problem is that it’s horribly misused. Gandalf comforts Pippin with promises of a paradise he’ll never obtain. Only the elves go to Valinor. Mortals — men, dwarves, and hobbits — never get to see those “white shores and far green country under a swift sunrise”. Frodo and Bilbo were exceptions, granted them as Ringbearers.

It was painful to cut this scene, because unlike Sam’s Osgiliath monologue, the transposition is well conceived. It’s an inspired scene, much like Boromir’s moment with the Ring on Mount Caradhras (a great move from Emyn Muil in the book) and Wormtongue’s creepy come-on lines to Eowyn (recreated from her description in the Houses of Healing). But I had to kill it. We can’t have Gandalf feeding poor Pippin delusions.

And finally, this one from Mordor.

Ducking from the Eye. This one irks me. That Frodo and Sam could hide from the Eye by “ducking” is rather silly, and it continually cuts back and forth to interrupt what’s going on at the Black Gate. Because it just looks wrong, I removed it to keep the spotlight on the approach to the gate right before the Mouth of Sauron appears.

(See also: My Special Cut of The Hobbit, which involves more drastic editing.)