In a recent post, English priest-blogger Fr. Ed Tomlinson likened the threat of secular modernism in the church to Tolkien’s Balrog. You may remember the great demon pursues the members of the Fellowship as they are fleeing the mines of Moria. The final confrontation is at the Bridge of Khazad-dum.
Gandalf defies the Balrog crying, “You shall not pass!”
“With a bound the Balrog leaped full upon the bridge. His whip whirled and hissed…at that moment Gandalf lifted his staff, and crying aloud he smote the bridge before him. The staff broke asunder and fell from his hand. A blinding sheet of white flame sprang up. The bridge cracked.
Right at the Balrog’s feet it broke, and the stone upon which it stood crashed into the gulf, while the rest remained, poised, quivering like a tongue of rock thrust out into emptiness. With a terrible cry the Balrog fell forward, and its shadow plunged down and vanished. But even as it fell it swung its whip and the thongs lashed and curled about the wizard’s knees, dragging him to the brink. He staggered and fell, grasped vainly at the stone, and slid into the abyss.”
Fr. Tomlinson compares the battle between secular modernists and conservatives in the Church to Gandalf’s stand off with the Balrog, writing,
“Modernism… threatened Catholic orthodoxy in the second half of the last Century. In many ways it was and is like a spiritual Balrog which has, in truth, been defeated though its danger is still present and felt.
The defeat is clear because modernists… have not produced fruit that will last. Mass attendance is down where their ideas played out, their concrete churches, stripped bare by their passions, look tired and ugly today… [their ideology] has emptied seminaries and religious orders. Put bluntly they have not convinced the next generation of their ideals. It is therefore only a matter of time before they vanish. For those who follow watered down religion lose faith altogether. Hence the young raised on a modernist diet have largely given up on God and the church and simply vanished into the secular culture around them.
So Modernism is dying as we enter the 21st Century. Seminaries are now housing men more orthodox than their tutors and it is the religious orders that value tradition that are growing. And the few young people who have not abandoned church now hunger for orthodoxy where it has been introduced to them.”
Fr. Tomlinson’s vision from England echoes Benedict XVI’s 1969 prophecy that the church is going through a great battle, and that it would emerge leaner and simpler: “It will become small and will have to start pretty much all over again. It will no longer have use of the structures it built in its years of prosperity. The reduction in the number of faithful will lead to it losing an important part of its social privileges. It will be a more spiritual Church, and will not claim a political mandate flirting with the Right one minute and the Left the next. It will be poor and will become the Church of the destitute.”
Certainly the whole church is going through a tectonic shift from European and North American dominance to becoming the Church of the South, the Church of the poor, persecuted and marginalized.
If Fr. Tomlinson is right that secular modernism in the church has had its day, we must still beware the Balrog’s whip. There is a sting in the tail of the world’s powers, and like an angry wasp at the end of summer, the Balrog of secular modernism can still crack the whip that curls and clings to bring us down.
That last crack of the whip is likely to come in an unsuspected and unexpected way. I would not be surprised to find that faithful Christians are pushed into Benedict XVI’s slimmer and poorer condition through a wave of persecution. At first in the United States and Europe, the Balrog’s whip will manifest in legal and financial aggression. It will move on to exclusion, denial of equal rights, and then imprisonment, and even martyrdom. Those who doubt this possibility are the ones who most need to be alert.
Times are dark, but hope is never lost. History shows that this is precisely the pattern of the battle and the plot line of redemption. After the long defeat and death, a victory and a resurrection—and every time in such a way that it is completely unexpected and a sheer delight.
As when Gandalf the Grey returned as Gandalf the White.
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