Reflections on The Lord of the Rings


“Well” said Pippin “I have known of him all my short life as you may say; and lately I have traveled far with him. But there is much to read in that book and I cannot claim to have seen more than a page or two. Yet perhaps I know him as we’ll as any but a few.”- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of The King, 760.

I am often known as a Christian, and am frequently believed to be someone who knows a great deal about Jesus. The above is a far more accurate depiction of our relationship. Knowing about Jesus is difficult, and getting to know Jesus is even more so. Yet it has been my experience that the difficult things are often the most worthwhile. The Lord of the Rings is a story about characters who are passionate about doing such things.

The trilogy contains delightful stories. They capture the imagination quickly, and yet, the depth of the world Tolkien created is large enough for adults to explore. J.R.R. Tolkien employs subtle Christian allegory through the books, which adds a depth of symbolism and metaphor which extends outside the book and into the real world of religion and philosophy. The author has something to say about the way the world works, as well as the nature of good and evil.

I read an article (*) this week that didn’t care for Tolkien’s work, or others like it ( the author, cited Beowulf among them). The crux of the disagreement: the definition of heroism. The blogger- a well spoken linguist- took exception to the idea that heroes are violent or destructive. She implied that this was barbaric and unenlightened and quoted Brian Andreas, “Anyone can slay a dragon …but try waking up every morning and loving the world all over again. That’s what takes a real hero.”

First, I must say, I agree with the principle of the quote. Heroes are indeed those who display courage and character, regardless of their flaws. Heroes are not solely to be judged on their destructive prowess. The reality of postmodern filmmaking and storytelling is such that heroes are often murky characters. When this combines with Hollywood’s desire to sell tickets through explosions and chase scenes, we are often left rooting for a character who is, in great measure, a villain.

Yet earlier definitions of “hero” were a corollary not due to the fact that he destroys, but rather, because of the character of what he destroys. Watering down the definition of “hero” to “a nice and loving person” robs us of a valuable word, rendering it meaningless. True, the postmodern reader may disagree with the idea that a person or thing may be wholly evil; yet because we have moved beyond modernism hopefully many would agree that Evil exists (i.e. the dragon in the above quote, **). This brings me to the substance of my contention: not just anyone can slay a dragon!

It takes a hero to destroy evil. Heroes come in all shapes and sizes (Tolkien makes this clear) but not everyone is a hero. Many quail in the face of evil, some corroborate with it, and some are indifferent and hope to remain neutral in the battle between the two sides. Evil cannot destroy evil. It may seek to do so from evil intention but in so doing, evil has grown and not diminished. There is a strength of character required for a hero. True they may be flawed, but their aim must be good, or else they may become a villain. Indeed, “the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

In The Lord of the Rings there is a character named Aragorn, the king who returns in the third book. He is an excellent example of a hero; he loves the world, does not glory in violence, yet neither does he shrink from the task of defense of the weak and destruction of evil. Those who travel with him become more like him, they are encouraged by his presence and begin to imitate his apparent lack of concern for his own well-being. This is what I appreciate about Jesus – those who follow Him well, become more like Him. The New Testament depicts Jesus as a hero. He is someone who consistently and successfully combats evil. People often think His heroism lies in the fact that He was a great lover of the world, which is true but it is not enough for me. This would not make Him a hero, only a very nice man. At the end of the story He is Jesus, The Lord, The Christ, The Dragon-Slayer, the Ultimate Hero.

* (a disclaimer) I must apologize, I didn’t take down the blog’s information, and thus I cannot cite the blogger and allow her rebuttal. Further, I must apologize for a lack of familiarity with the work of Brian Andreas, my issue with the quote comes from the way it was used and thus not with this author.

** Thus a good person who destroys a dragon, regardless of the ease of the task, would, to some degree, be a hero by virtue of the fact that she has destroyed something evil. There are indeed potential holes in this line of thinking; a thorough examination of which would exceed this post. However, the thrust of my above argument is not normative ethical behavior, rather the simple proposition: the defeat of Evil accomplishes the purposes of Good.

Love Interruption

I want love to walk right up and bite me grab a hold of me and fight me leave me dying on the ground.

And I want love to split my mouth wide open and cover up my ears, and never let me hear a sound.
I want love to, forget that you offended me or how you have defended me, when everybody tore me down.
Yeah I want love to change my friends to enemies, change my friends to enemies and show me how it’s all my fault. -Jack White Love Interruption

The story of narcissus is an old one.  It is about a man so in love with his own image that he died looking at it rather than leave his reflection.  I was thinking about this as I came across the song above (not full text) at a hipster establishment.  My ears perked up at the catchy tune but  quickly I was listening with intently to the lyrics.  I have no idea whether the song is intentionally ironic or if it is about some particular instance in the author’s life.  I am interested to hear comments by anyone who leaves them.

The song is interesting because the singer is at odds with “Love.” Love in his mind is harmful, but paradoxically he appears to want to be harmed.  The singer wants a love that will stand up and fight him into submission.  He wants it to change what is familiar (his friends) into enemies and beat him into submission, clearing out his senses.  It may just be the pastor in me but this is a fascinating view of love.  Wen Jesus says things like “love your enemies” (Lk 6:27), or ” “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. ” (Jn 15:12-13) this is the sort of love he is talking about.  Self-less love is the sort that splits us open and tears out the ego inside us. This does not happen peacefully; there is a violent battle for control, an epic contest of survival.  The question is “who will come out on top?”  When the dust settles and the blood dries will it be me who lives, or someone greater? We resist this sort of change because it means death, and a death of someone we hold rather dear, ourselves.  Generally the chief barrier to God’s work in my life is me; I don’t like being interrupted.  I’d rather continue on my way, regardless of superior alternatives.  I need the love White cries out for, one that will change me into someone who reacts to the people with a greater concern for their hearts rather than narcissism.






The Art of Non Evangelism

Recently I had the pleasure of meeting a man name Carl Medearis who works as a follower of Jesus with Muslims across the globe.  Carl is a fascinating man aand he has written at least one book, whose title I borrowed for this post.  The book spends a some time talking about what many of my seminary books are describing as a trend in the world of Christendom, living “missionally.”  Most  of these books will bore you by telling you what you already know- Christians are not perceived well in the USA and this is likely due to the fact that we have gone off topic, we talk about the wrong things.  Carl, on the other hand, appears to be quite successful at building relationships wherever he goes and slowly getting people to talk about Jesus.  Christian or not he thinks its significant for people to know what they think about Jesus.  The thing I find so interesting about Carl is that he is fairly leery about the words “evangelism” and “mission” and even more so about the cultural baggage associated with them.  Whether he is chatting with Muslims, GLBT folks, or the average business man he tries to approach them as people, rather than as an object to be changed.  The book is a decent read, and though I don’t agree with everything in it, I’d recommend it.

I was recently tasked with writing a paper on my “personal theology of evangelism.”  I was given only six pages to talk clearly and compellingly about the significance of Jesus.  After 5 years of seminary and many years of being a Christian the task seemed impossible and I confess I wrote and rewrote the paper again and again.  To explain the problem I’ll borrow a term I found annoying in my Biochem classes as an undergrad, a philosophical concept called “reductionism.”  Science has, since the Greeks, been looking for the most fundamental building block for reality, the thing upon which all other things rely.  A great deal of my issue with evangelism as an “ism” is that it seeks to reduce what for me is irreducible: the person and work of Jesus.  Karl Barth may have come closest in saying that all of theology comes down to the song “Jesus loves me, this I know for the bible tells me so.”  But I still find that I can not take the narrative of the Old and New testaments, the Gospels themselves and boil it all down to a few bite sized pieces and still find it representative of the whole.  The glue that holds it all together is vital.  My story as a Christian only makes sense in light of the larger story of the Church and of the bible itself.  In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis says “that people often want a child’s answer answer to deep questions. They ask, ‘Why is there pain and suffering in the world?’ — And then when you try to give them a Biblical answer, they complain ‘That’s too complicated, I just want a simple answer.”  This is not to say that puppet show Christianity isn’t valuable.  Indeed statements like “Christ died to save the world from Sin” are incredibly meaningful, but only insofar as they are unpacked and explained.  To quote my paper “Evangelism is, at its best, an attempt to persuade those who do not yet understand him fully of the significance of Jesus.  This task is carried out by those who are only slightly further along.”  I have Christian and Non Christian friends who are too well educated to be interested in a 4 point gospel, but I am certain they would be interested in Jesus.  I have been getting hold of a larger gospel in seminary, one I find thoroughly compelling and which I hope I can learn to explain with the same kind of passion.