Cloud of Witnesses: The Writings of J.R.R. Tolkien

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on January 12, 2014)

lotr1973I want to let you in on a little bit of my strategy for today.

I figure the only way I’m gonna get people to stop teasing me about my Christmas Eve Service blunders is to give you even more geeky stuff to tease me about. Today’s choice for the “Cloud of Witnesses” series is the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. Let the teasing commence!

For some of you, you saw that on the worship sheet and were mildly amused, shaking your head at crazy Gregg. But I realize for some of you, I have some serious convincing to do. How are short creatures and pointy-eared elves and that creepy Gollum thing I put on the screen a couple months ago an appropriate topic for worship? (No clips today; love the movies, but I realized many of the themes I’m highlighting today aren’t as strong in the movies as they are in the books.)

I want you to know in all truthfulness this isn’t a game or a gimmick. In a real and serious way, Tolkien’s writings have shaped my faith, have undergirded my view of God, my view of the world, and my view of what is right and honorable.

I know not everyone likes or has even read Tolkien. And I will do my best to make today helpful if you haven’t. But I would guess that most of us have books or authors that have been hugely influential in our lives. Would you help me out by naming some of them? Who are the authors or the books which have shaped you for the better, that have helped you see truth in our world? [ASK] Thank you! So many good influences in our lives.

My goal today is not to convince you to like Tolkien or to read the books. 

Like with each witness we focus on in this series, the goal is to find things which help us to fix our eyes more faithfully on Jesus. You’ll see that while I am not beginning with the bible, I am most definitely going to use the bible today in important and grounding ways.

I have a very real and conscious goal in regard to this: I want to model and uphold a value which Friends have held for a very long time, that God can and does speak through all things in our world.

There isn’t some gigantic division between what is “secular” and what is “sacred”…rather, God can and does choose to communicate through anything. All of life is sacramental. All of life, including literature, can carry the truth and the grace of God. Tolkien’s created world is not perfect. Not everything found there models the fullness of God or the world we live in. In fact, it looks a lot like the British empire of his lifetime: socially stratified, male dominated, and very white.

But I’m actually really excited to share about this today, in ways I never have anywhere before. I want to share how much the invented world of Middle-earth, as Tolkien calls it, shaped my morality and prepared me to understand Christ’s message to take up my cross and follow Jesus.

On my ninth birthday, my aunt and uncle gave me The Hobbit.

I remember reading it in the car while our family was driving from our house in California to Diamond Lake in southern Oregon. We rounded a bend and saw the Klamath Lake basin right as I was reading about Bilbo the hobbit arriving at a place called the Long Lake. That’s the picture I still have in my mind when I read that section. As far as I’m concerned, Peter Jackson should have made that part of The Hobbit movie in Oregon, not New Zealand.

But I wasn’t hooked until a few years later, as a fifth grader at Brook Knoll Elementary School in Scotts Valley, California. I walked into the library–I can still see in my mind the vertical, rotating bookshelf and the bean bag chair on the floor–I walked in to the library and pulled The Fellowship of the Ring off that bookshelf and plopped in the chair. I spent many recesses and lunches there as I read through the trilogy over the next few months.

From the second chapter, called “The Shadow of the Past”, it’s clear we’re in a different and deeper world than The Hobbit. The little magic trinket Bilbo found in The Hobbit, this little curiosity of a gold ring, becomes in The Lord of the Rings a sinister link to a darker world, a world on the edge of evil and ruin. It becomes a symbol of ultimate power, and it presents everyone who encounters it with a choice: Will I try to use this ring and tame its corrupting power to my own good and honorable uses? Or will I see it for what it is, something that needs to be destroyed? Because as long as it exists it leaves the potential of great harm for everyone in the world.

I mean, as a fifth grader, I was so much older than when I’d read The Hobbit. I was so ready for the depth that was there. Ha! But I did love the richness. The different cultures. The competing values. The glimpse of a deeper history, imagined though it was. Each part of the journey in the trilogy opens the reader to a new, imagined world. There is a powerful consistency at work no matter what the culture: everything is decaying. Human choice (or elven choice, or dwarvish choice, or hobbit choice)…choice and free will don’t lead the world to a better place, but into decay, into pride, into oppression, into fear.

There are always bright spots. Each culture has an example or two of someone demonstrating wisdom and showing a different way. But everywhere, the trajectory is clear: the most likely and easiest path is toward self destruction and oppression. The way of wisdom, of sacrifice, of hope…this is rare and difficult.

Jesus’ words in Matthew 7 come to mind:

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

From fifth grade into my mid-twenties, I read the trilogy at least once a year. 

I devoured all the other Tolkien stories I could find as well. As I got into high school and college, I read a biography of Tolkien and a book which philosophically analyzed his works. I read a whole series of books by his son, showing the process and development Tolkien used to write his books. I’ve been and am a complete Tolkien geek, no doubt about it.

I’ve come to learn that Tolkien was a committed Roman Catholic with a strong faith in Jesus Christ. C.S. Lewis credits Tolkien with convincing him to move out of agnosticism and into being a Christ-follower. I’ve come to learn that Tolkien intentionally infused his stories with his Christian, Catholic values and worldview. The fact that I was shaped toward Christianity by reading these books is not surprising. Tolkien wrote it first and foremost to be a good story; but in order to be the best story he could write, he flavored and structured it around the best truths he knew and experienced, around the good news of Jesus Christ.

It’s all there. But it isn’t there like in Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, where you can draw allegorical lines: Aslan = Jesus. Queen Jadis = Satan. Edmund = US in our sinfulness. For Tolkien, it’s all through the fabric of his imagined world, in the choices the characters make. Listen to Tolkien’s words from the foreword to the second edition of the Lord of the Rings:

“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and the experience of readers.” [p.xvii]

He was writing a feigned or imagined history, written with his Christian worldview in mind. You don’t see Jesus in one character. Jesus isn’t Gandalf or Aragorn or Frodo…but rather, one can see choices and characteristics in all three of those characters, indeed in many of the characters, which reflect and remind us of Christ.

So it’s all there, intentionally, philosophically, as I’ve come to realize at this point in my life.

But I want to make one point really clear. This all affected me long before I knew it was supposed to be there, long before I could draw out the parallels to scripture, long before I could articulate “theologies” and “worldviews” and “ethical narratives”.

I just loved the stories. I just loved the characters. I just loved the world. And it wormed its way into my developing heart and soul and mind, teaching me implicitly what kinds of things were good. What kinds of things were right. What kinds of things were honorable.

I know some may be squirming in your seats, thinking that maybe I am not giving the bible as much credit as I should be, that I am elevating a book to a place it shouldn’t have, that I’m getting the cart in front of the horse. But I’m not “lowering” the bible in anyway at all. Instead, what I am intentionally trying to do today is raise our view of the power of God’s Holy Spirit. The bible has authority and value because it is inspired by God’s Holy Spirit. I would even say it is uniquely inspired, more so than any other piece of writing by far.

But let’s celebrate that God’s Holy Spirit cannot be confined to the words in the bible! The Holy Spirit speaks through lives and poems and art and history and everything! The Holy Spirit, I firmly believe, spoke to me and shaped me through Tolkien’s writings. It shaped me profoundly, and I believe one of the reasons it was so attractive to me was that it breathed with the life and values of God’s Holy Spirit.

Let me try to outline a few of these values I internalized from Tolkien’s writings.

Power corrupts. In these books the ring represents something which gives great power to the one who wears it. One of the major arcs of the story is how one noble man, Boromir, is slowly corrupted by the desire for that power, leading him to try and steal it from Frodo and make it his own. He and so many others find the desire for power overwhelms and causes breaks in relationships.

Evil is real. These are dark stories. Hope is always present, but you can’t read Tolkien and avoid the conclusion that true evil exists and hurts the world and the people in it.

But, in his writings evil is NOT black and white, all or nothing. Evil is dependent upon one’s choices; evil is something that anyone has the potential of falling into. At a key time of decision about what to do with the ring, an elf named Elrond speaks the truth that permeates this world:

“For nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron [our great enemy] was not so.” [p. 261]

Another of the seemingly completely evil characters is Gollum. But when Frodo labels Gollum as loathsome, Gandalf the wizard reminds Frodo it was the power of the ring which corrupted Gollum:

“‘I think it is a sad story,’ said the wizard, ‘and it might have happened to others, even to some hobbits that I have known.’” [p. 53]

You can take almost any evil character in the books, and find something redeemable and honorable. You can take almost any good character in the books, and find something horrific and evil. Choices are the true things that are right or wrong, good or evil.

It is not honorable, but dangerous to pursue your own power and place and prestige. There are countless examples of this throughout the Lord of the Rings. Saruman. Denethor. Boromir.

On the other hand it IS honorable to sacrifice your own advantage for the sake of another. So many give up what is best for themselves in order to help others, or to help Frodo destroy the ring. At one point Aragorn has to decide whether to follow Frodo into the enemy’s land on the dangerous quest to destroy the ring, or risk death by chasing the enemy who has captured two other hobbits. He doesn’t even consider what would be best for him, to go to the city where he could re-claim his rightful place as king. Instead he chooses to risk his own life to try and save his friends.

Indeed, sacrifice is the ultimate, unexpected weapon against those who are power seeking. The heroic decision in the Lord of the Rings is to resist the temptation of power in the ring, and choose to destroy it. Gandalf the wizard speaks at one point about how incomprehensible that is to their enemy.

“That we should wish to cast him down and have no one in his place is not a thought that occurs to his mind. That we should try to destroy the Ring itself has not yet entered into his darkest dream. In which no doubt you will see our good fortune and hope.” [p. 485-6].

To choose the narrow way, the right way, is incomprehensible to our world of power.

Like I said, I’m a geek and I love these books. A few more themes…

The little and the weak are just as able to be heroic in this world…maybe more so because sacrifice and surrender is all they can do. It’s the tiny, naive, simple hobbits who take the heroic task of carrying the ring to the enemy’s land to be destroyed.

Not only that, but even when you do all that is in your power, it takes fate or God’s hand to work all things out. Despite all odds or expectations, at the end hope does win out! Gollum, the “loathsome”, corrupted creature, is the one who makes the quest succeed, not Frodo. Bilbo, Gandalf, Frodo, even Sam all at some point make choices of mercy to let Gollum live, because as Gandalf says,

“I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it.” [p. 58]

Those choices of mercy don’t in fact lead to Gollum’s healing; but at the end, when Frodo stands at the place where the ring can be destroyed, Frodo fails. He succumbs to the power of the ring and claims it as his own.

Gollum, unredeemed, steals the ring from Frodo, and in his joy of claiming it, falls into the fire and the ring is destroyed. The quest and their wildest hopes are achieved, but it is Gollum’s lust for the ring that “saves” everything from Frodo’s claiming of the ring.

“‘Do you remember Gandalf’s words,’” Frodo says: “‘Even Gollum may have something to do? But for him, Sam, I could not have destroyed the Ring. The Quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end. So let us forgive him! For the Quest is achieved, and now all is over.’” [p. 926].

The lesson here? All creatures have free choice. Some may try their best and fail, some may simply act selfishly; but ultimately, there is a force at work that brings about what is good and right no matter what choices people make. Something deeper and more redemptive is at work to make the ultimate hope sure.

One last message: even when you do all things right, you may not live happily ever after. Many of the characters who sacrificed the most, who made the best choices, end up losing their place in the world anyway. The elves leave Middle-earth. And Frodo, the one who sacrificed most, leaves as well. Here are some of his last words:

“I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.” [p. 1006]

Frodo’s healing comes in fullness only beyond the world.

Those are some of the things I learned and internalized.

My values came to reflect these messages from the stories that I loved. I think they had such hold on me because these are the very characteristics of God as lived out in Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit wove these truths into my soul.

And then…when I got into high school and began taking my faith seriously again, when I saw these same themes in the bible; when I began experiencing the reality of God’s Holy Spirit leading me in my life, and saw the Spirit led me to the same kinds of values…I was more than ready to accept it. I made the connections between these truths that had come from the story, and with Jesus Christ from the bible. Here are just a couple examples of how these themes are found in the bible:

Evil is real:

“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Eph. 6:12

Evil is not black and white: The tax collector, not the Pharisee goes home justified in Luke 15. The Samaritan, not the Priest or Levite, takes care of the wounded man. Jesus teaches that often the hero is the one we have labelled as evil.

It’s honorable to sacrifice on behalf of others: Jesus says in John 15:

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

I honestly think I understand what Jesus said in Luke 9 more deeply, because of Tolkien’s writings.

“’Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for you to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit your very self?’” Luke 9:23-25.

I’ve rejected the prosperity gospel as well as triumphant nationalism because of these books. I strive to refuse labeling and stereotyping because of these books, holding on to the truth that even the best can make terrible choices, even the worst are capable of redemption.

Tolkien was shaped by the bible and faith, and he put it in his writings. And God’s Spirit used those glimpses to shape me, and to make the bible come alive in truth for me. What a beautiful sign of God’s faithful, collaborative work! What power we are given, as God co-labors and creates through us in the world! God continues to speak through us in our various creations. Your words, your art, your life can speak the truth of God just as well as Tolkien did for me. God can inhabit your life for the sake of others, just as God did Tolkien’s writings, even as the Spirit inhabits the bible and gives it power!

Today, my hope and prayer is that we will open our eyes wide to all the ways God is speaking to us through people and art and the world. My hope and prayer is that we will follow Christ with deep faithfulness and sacrifice, that we will see that Christ calls us to value these types of truths on the screen. My hope and prayer is that we will allow God to speak and create through us, so that our words, our art, our lives can speak the truth of God and shape our world!

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