In 1989, Dilbert (with great perception) gave us “generic news.” It is as true now as it was then, the news rarely really changes, yet we spend our days and hours constantly looking into “Denethor’s palantir.”
The Lord of the Rings tells of seven palintiri — “Seeing Stones.” These differed from the usual mythical crystal balls — they were used by the founders of the kingdom of Gondor to see current events, and communicate with each other, but not to tell the future.
By the time of the story, several of the palintiri had been destroyed, but three still existed. One was captured by the great enemy, the sorcerer Sauron. He was very wicked and had great powers of deception, able to corrupt almost anyone who encountered him. Another was held by Saruman (leader of the White Council), and the third secretly by Denethor, Steward of Gondor.
Saruman, originally a good (if proud) ally, looked into his palintir, and had his eyes caught by Sauron, who corrupted Saruman and turned him to his cause. Saruman treacherously betrayed his former allies, selfishly thinking he was serving his own purposes, but in fact only serving the cause of the wicked Sauron. (Just as when we do evil, we may think we are serving ourselves, but we are really only serving sin.) He became a mere vassal, a treacherous and unfaithful one, but still a vassal, of his evil master.
Then there was Denethor. In the last days of his stewardship, he became severely depressed, despaired of life, and finally, in a fit of madness, decided to burn himself and his son to death. It was only in his last moments, after his son was rescued from him, that he revealed that he had also been looking into a palintir. He held it up, and proclaimed:
Didst thou think that the eyes of the White Tower were blind? Nay, I have seen more than thou knowest, Grey Fool. For thy hope is but ignorance. Go then and labour in healing! Go forth and fight! Vanity. For a little space you may triumph on the field, for a day. But against the Power that now arises there is no victory. To this City only the first finger of its hand has yet been stretched. All the East is moving. And even now the wind of thy hope cheats thee and wafts up Anduin a fleet with black sails. The West has failed. It is time for all to depart who would not be slaves.”
Denethor had seen what was coming, an inevitable defeat. He would never bow to Sauron, never do his bidding, but he bowed instead to despair, to loss of hope, and with it the loss of clear thinking that always comes with despair. In his madness, he took his palintir in his hands and held it to his breast as he burned himself to death.
And so it was said of Denethor:
He was too great to be subdued to the will of the Dark Power, he saw nonetheless only those things which that Power permitted him to see. The knowledge which he obtained was, doubtless, often of service to him; yet the vision of the great might of Mordor that was shown to him fed the despair of his heart until it overthrew his mind.
There WAS hope, but Denethor could not see it. He was too busy looking at the things the enemy was showing him. That “great might of Mordor” would be destroyed, but Denethor would not be there to rejoice in it. He looked at the things that brought despair until “it overthrew his mind.”
Here we see a danger for even strong Christians who spend too much time reading that unchanging “generic news.” We see only the things which the news providers want us to see, an incessant stream of tragedies, corruption, immorality, wars, evil rumours, natural and man-made disasters, scare-mongering, and on and on. It hasn’t changed since Dilbert’s “generic news” twenty-four years ago, and it won’t be changing anytime soon.
Those who give us the “news” are not trying to encourage us to godliness. They are not on our side spiritually, but we let them drive our thoughts for many hours a day as we ever seek the latest happening somewhere in the world in our areas of interest. They care nothing for our desire for purity or truth, nor for encouraging us in hope — and yet, too often we see only what they permit us to see.
As Denethor, we may not bow the knee to the evil, yielding to the lusts and envy and anger that the news providers often seek to stir in us. We may be strong enough to resist. But “the will of Sauron entered Minas Tirith” through despair, and that despair came because Denethor let someone who wasn’t a friend show him events afar off.
So also the will of the evil one can enter the heart of a believer, if we let those who do not value what we value dictate what we see and hear. How many have never felt dismay, creeping towards despair, in seeing the things they show us of this world’s events? If the evil one cannot turn us to his service, he will try to turn us to despair and loss of hope — for despair is also his work, and it can twist our minds into many evil contortions. Despair in the heart can overthrow the mind, causing us to forget that hope which is reserved in Heaven for us, where the news-makers and news-reporters can’t touch it.
But we need to know the news, know what is happening, even if it is unchanging generic news, don’t we? So we turn again to Denethor’s palintir. And again. And again….
I had fainted, unless I had believed to see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
Rejoicing in hope….