Monday, January 17, 2005
The Romance of the Road
For those eager to encourage a Christian ‘life of the mind’ amongst the humbler reaches of American evangelicals, a subscription to Touchstone magazine is an enjoyable way to go about it, for yourself or someone else - or even better, for yourself and someone else. I find it a pleasure just to see it come in the mail and I gloat over each copy.
Touchstone is a Christian journal, conservative in doctrine and eclectic in content, with editors and readers from each of the three great divisions of Christendom - Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox. The mission of the journal and its publisher, the Fellowship of St. James, is to provide a place where Christians of various backgrounds can speak with one another on the basis of shared belief in the fundamental doctrines of the faith as revealed in Holy Scripture and summarized in the ancient creeds of the Church.
There’s lots available on the website, too, even without a subscription: articles from back issues, Daily Reflections, and - one of my favorites - Mere Comments. I’m always pleased to find Tolkien mentioned therein, so this January 14 post was quick to catch my eye:
Observing Tolkien’s Birthday: Letters from Joel Tom Tate & Thomas Howard
Yesterday [January 4] was the birthday of J.R.R. Tolkien and so, when I got home from work, I used a recipe I’d found on the Internet for lembas and my daughters and I made a batch. As we baked I explained to them as carefully as I could who Tolkien was and what a hobbit is. They are six, four and just turned two, so none of them have seen the Lord of the Rings movies yet, of course.
After dinner we assembled upstairs in one of the bedrooms and made a journey through a house lit only by a Christmas tree and a few lamps. My two oldest girls carried the flashlights, and I carried the lembas and a container of honey. One bedroom was Mirkwood, the living room was the plains of Rohan and so on. We ended up setting up camp in the den downstairs where, by the light of our electric torches, we ate our lembas and I read Tolkien’s wonderful poem about the road that starts at our door. We talked about adventures and their eyes were wide with wonder…
…But I worry a little bit about events like this which are faintly liturgical without being explicitly Christian. Should I worry? And how old should a child be before she’s ready for The Hobbit?
The response is a wise and sensible one aimed at allaying the letter writer’s worries, but it all reminded me that the question touches on a concern shared by other Christians (usually of the more Calvinistic strains, who are by nature highly suspicious of the imagination) and exemplified by the splash page for Christianity and Middle-Earth, which reads thus:
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was J.R.R. Tolkien. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.”
The astute reader will recognize the scripture, which in its original state refers to John the Baptist. I could have left the quotation from the Gospel of John as originally written, and it would have been just as applicable, due to the fact that Tolkien’s first name was John; however, this is a Tolkien-flavored-Christianity website and requires its own ‘statement of purpose,’ which is precisely what is expressed in that paraphrase. I rely on the intelligence and lateral thinking abilities of my readers to enable them to see my intent and not suspect me of trying to start a new religion.
Part of the same response includes this anecdote:
[A] woman wrote to Lewis once, worrying that her child loved Aslan more than Jesus. Lewis reassured her that, having loved Aslan, the child would, when she encountered Jesus, recognize the very virtues and glories that had attracted her to Aslan.
We live in what is perilously close to a post-Christian society. As a whole, our children no longer learn the backstories of Western culture. Ideas and concepts that we older Americans take for granted are more and more a mystery to the young. They have little literary connection to the distant past (or to even their grandparents’ for that matter); the traditions and stories have been taken from them as effectively as if Norsemen had swooped in and burnt our schools and libraries, lock, stock and manuscript.
In my more naive days on the internet, when I viewed messageboards with a less jaundiced eye, the “Is The Lord of the Rings Christian?” issue would come up occasionally in discussions, usually to be energetically denied by this bouncy young heathen or that one, all indignant that his favorite movie be slandered. I found this bewildering at first – wasn’t the metaphor clear as a bell? – but eventually I began to comprehend the problem. Say ‘Christian’ to your average junior high students and they immediately have nightmares of syrupy music and pay-and-pray-preachers and handing out tracts on the street corner. (Unless of course, they recall more vividly that overwrought nitwit in Alabama who was all over the news shows screaming “Take your hands off our God!” or whatever it was. I must admit to hoping he was a Berkeley plant.)
The high romance of Christianity - the tales of kingless thrones and kings to come, of warriors and captains, of seers and wanderers and prophets and archangels so nicely nutshelled by Paul in Hebrews 11 and echoed in Arthurian legend - is not what was uppermost in their minds. They’re probably not even aware that such an idea as romantic theology exists, that to step out onto the Road behind Jesus Christ is to possess a place in the grandest and most authentic Fellowship of all.
Everybody doesn’t have to see Christ in The Lord of the Rings. Some Christians will see the metaphor clearly and be renewed and reinvigorated in their faith in Jesus Christ; others will watch it once or read it once and then forget about the whole thing.
But there are also many people to whom the basic themes of Christianity are an utter mystery – and here I have special hope for our children - who will have their hearts fresh-furrowed to receive the seed-concept of a both a sacrifice and a returning king.
Frodo is the shadow; Christ is the reality.
Aragorn is the shadow: Christ is the reality.
They will watch or read in fascination an epic battle between Good and Evil, a modern version of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, and perhaps for the first time ever be deeply moved by the power of storytelling in a way that has been denied them in their own lives by their own culture.
Thus someday, when the time is right, perhaps they will answer the call of Heaven and turn to the true Captain of their souls - because just possibly God in his mysterious wisdom chose to work through an English storyteller and a New Zealand filmmaker to show them a small hobbit named Frodo, innocent, gentle and portrayed with a angelic beauty that wouldn’t be out of place on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, taking up his cross and setting his face to Mordor and Mount Doom.
And it is that willingness to give up his own life to save Middle-Earth from burning in the fires of Sauron’s hell, the willingness of Christ Jesus to give up his own life to save mankind from the hell-fires of judgment and oblivion, that makes possible the other major storyline, both of Tolkien’s imagined tale and our own very real one:
The Return of the King.