Myths

Tolkien for Dummies, Part 2

Tolkien for Dummies, Part 2

Part 1

Tolkien grew and became a formidable rugby player, and also a linguist of first class. He was so gifted in languages that he began to form his own language. His intellectual interests increased even more when he started the Tea Club and Barovian Society.a And they would meet frequently for tea and discuss their particular interests. For Tolkien, it was Northern European Languages and Legends.b

He recited for them the Norse Volsunga Saga,  in which a dwarf is featured with a treasure horde and a magic ring. The Norse myths Tolkien found so fascinating even featured dwarves as underground metalworkers.

Tolkien’s gifts were conspicuous, and this eventually led him to change the literary world. It was his background as an orphan, home-schooled by a faithful and sacrificial mother, the influence by his local priest who cared for them and watched over his soul, and his affinity for strange languages that propelled Tolkien to be more than just another writer, but a writer who cherished his faith and heritage, and who did not abandon all hope when life seemed to crush him, but persevered in his gifts.

The Legacy of J.R.R. Tolkienc

Our world would be poorer without two other worlds: Narnia and Middle-earth,” said Christopher Wright.d Tolkien produced a mythology that was internalized. He produced a world that others could imagine. The casual reader, or even the casual Christian reader will look at The Lord of the Rings and admire its poetic brilliance and the protagonists’ perseverance, but you need a good set of Christian eyes. The way you gain these eyes is by training them to see the world not just as a mechanical production of God, but as a witness and a testimony to the glory of God; to see the world through the story of God, and then to judge every other world (“sub-creation,” to quote Tolkien) by the story of God’s world. In other words, the story of God is the model for every other world. This is why we can watch or read anything decent in this world and immediately see facts that reflect the wisdom of God.

The Lord of the Rings is unique, because Tolkien himself wrote the following in a letter to a friend:

 The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work;…e

You may think this is strange because there is no Church, no acts of prayer, or worship in the Trilogy. This is where I think Tolkien offers probably one of the best observations on how to interpret his books, and also how to look at different works as a Christian. He continues his quote:

…it is fundamentally religious and Catholic, unconsciously at first…this is why I have not put in anything like “religion” in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.”f

If we come to The Lord of the Rings trying to find “religion by counting how many times they pray or go to church, we will be soberly disappointed…we need to look hard at the shape of the story itself, not at discreet acts of religion.”g This is a rich application to our witness in our culture. The Word of God is more than a set of propositions we recite, it is a story we believe. While quoting Bible-verses is fruitful, establishing the story of redemption can be even more fruitful. I tend to believe that the medium of literature is a great way of preaching the gospel story. The subtlety of Tolkien’s words is that when an unbeliever reads or watches Tolkien’s art he is first captivated by the brilliance of it, then he is confronted with a series of questions about good and evil, the depravity of man, the wise counsel of Gandalf, the courage of Sam and Frodo, and the determination of Aragorn. All these have the effect of confronting unbelief with a world they are not familiar.

The genre of fantasy carries the ability to communicate divine ideas. Tolkien wrote:

 Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode. Because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.h

Tolkien is echoing the orthdodox understanding of mankind created in the image of God (Imago Dei). The reason we create stories is because we are imitators of the true Story-Maker. The best worlds are the ones that reflect and communicate our world. Good fantasy reflects our ability to create things after the likeness of God’s creation. Middle-Earth is a reflection of this world.i This is why it is so realistic. The narrative of Middle-Earth itself is the religious element of the story. It contains hints of the Christian message, while refusing just to repeat it. C.S. Lewis in the Chronicles of Narnia was explicit in writing a Christian allegory for children. Tolkien wrote a mythology. Just because a mythology did not happen doesn’t mean it cannot relate to the truth.j And this is what Tolkien did. At the end of the Rings trilogy, there is a happy ending to this world. The world at the end is made new. Evil is destroyed. There is lasting peace in the kingdom. There are many sacrifices made, indicating that to achieve the world we believe the Gospel seeks will demand sacrifices from God’s people. It means we may have to abandon the Shire and speak against Mordor. It means we may lose the things we most cherish like Aragorn going into exile for the sake of what he loves most. But in the end, Tolkien is establishing a story built on a heroic community of people, from all sorts of different backgrounds, imperfect, but loyal to the mission of defeating evil.

What then does the life of Tolkien teach us?

First, Tolkien was not a product of solitary imagination. He studied, learned, read vociferously. Tolkien’s mother believed in a good education. Not just a random education, but a particularly holistic education. Mabel wanted her priest involved in the training of her children. That little Catholic parish was acting biblically in providing for the widow and the orphan. Education matters. Why do we take such a strong stand on Christian education? Because a Christian mind needs to be shaped by the knowledge of the world God created, not the world created by chance.

Second, let me encourage you to read The Lord of the Rings trilogy if you have not. It is never too late to begin reading good literature.

Third, appreciate not just the explicit Christian writings, but also the classics. Build a library of good literature. This is a great legacy to leave your children and family members.

Fourth, understand that all literature is religious in nature. The author is always trying to communicate some worldview, whether good or bad. There is no literary neutrality.

Fifth, parents: read, read, read! Do you want to capture your children’s heart and mind? Read to them. Ralph Smith is a CREC pastor in Tokyo, Japan. He has three very brilliant children. I asked him last year in Minneapolis what he did to cultivate a love of learning in his children. He said: “We read the Bible, Shakespeare, and everything else out loud at home. I wanted them to hear the Word before they could fall in love with it.” This is a good application for children in worship. Why do we insist that our little ones remain with us during Covenant Renewal? It is because we believe that the Word – even before they are reading – is effective to their hearing. It builds in them a vocabulary that expresses joy and knowledge, and truth.

Finally, and by far, one of my favorite features of The Lord of the Rings is their incessant love of food. There is constant feasting! In Tolkien’s world, food is communal. It is to be shared. It brings people together and accentuates joy. The importance of what happens around these meals makes the sacrifice of war worthwhile and that let’s the reader know there is something worth fighting about. This is the beauty of Tolkien’s writings. He turns every situation into an act of preparation for war. This is the language we use of the Lord’s Supper. It is food given to prepare us for war.

I hope Tolkien provides you some inspiration to look deeper at literature and realize again and again that this world is given for us, and that the worlds we create need to reflect and pay homage to the Creator of the World, namely Christ Himself.

  1. A sort of prequel to The Inklings.  (back)
  2. Mark Horne, J.R.R. Tolkien, a Biography.  (back)
  3. Using many notes and inspiration from Mark Horne’s final chapter on the Legacy of Tolkien.  (back)
  4. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/news/2003/aug29.html  (back)
  5. Quote found in Brian Nolder’s paper God and Hobbit.  (back)
  6. Brian Nolder, God and Hobbit.  (back)
  7.  Ibid.  (back)
  8. Quoted in Nolder’s paper from Tolkien’s Fairy-Stories  (back)
  9. Tolkien does write that Middle Earth is this earth  (back)
  10. Horne, Legacy of Tolkien.  (back)
Reformation Myths, Part 1

Reformation Myths, Part 1

Reformation Sunday is coming! With the popularity of new movements, the Reformed faith has become a familiar furniture in the evangelical house. Still, Reformed theology can be very divisive. Our calling as Christians is to strive towards like-mindedness with the non-Reformed, but this does not mean that we ought to strive towards like-mindlessness. The call to unity is a call for us to dialogue with other Trinitarians with an open Bible and a humble spirit. a. To begin this conversation we need to clear away misunderstandings; to clear away the myths concerning the Reformation. It is my humble opinion that the greatest expression of Trinitarian orthodoxy in the world today is found in the Reformed faith. Explaining precisely what this great tradition desired to do will help us ground ourselves in the Reformation’s conviction that the Scriptures are our highest authority in life.

Critics have developed many myths about the 16th century Reformation. Ironically, the critics would not have the privilege and liberty to express their criticisms if it had not been for the Reformation. They persist nevertheless. We will examine four of these myths; two now and the others in the days ahead.

The first myth is that the Reformers did not care about the outward unity of the Church.

In Jesus’ high-priestly prayer in John 17, He commands that we be one just as He and the Father are one. But the more astute may say, “But wait a minute: the Reformation did not unite the Church, it actually fractured it greatly.” In some sense it did. However, what one may fail to understand is that Christian unity cannot be rooted in corruption. A corrupt and immoral Church cannot continue to bless the nations. You see, the issue here is not just unity, the issue is uniting around the right things. The Reformers understood this. They understood that unless false doctrine and corruption were dealt with you would have a weak, paralyzed Church incapable of being the salt and light of the earth. The Reformers were so concerned about not dividing the Church that when Rome charged the Reformers with the sin of schism (the sin of division), Calvin called for a Church-wide council, so that both sides could be examined. He wanted another ecumenical council to debate these important issues; perhaps they could come to an agreement and not divide. In fact, Luther—the father of the Reformation—said to Philip Melanchthon before he died that his greatest fear would be that “many harsh and terrible sects will arise, God help us!” The Reformers feared the idea of a divided Church. They wanted to unify the Church but their vision never came to pass. Our hope is that the vision begun in the Reformation will continue in the decades and centuries to come. Still, the Reformation understood that unity is not based on the appointment of an arch-bishop or a pope. Installing an ecclesiastical figure does not bring unity unless purity and true doctrine are at its base. The Reformation was intended to be a reformation of the Church since the Reformers understood that without the Church there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

The second myth is that the Reformers wanted each individual Christian to read the Bible on his own and interpret the Bible on his own. 

Some define this as the priesthood of all believers; that every man was his own priest and interpreter. But this is not what the Reformers meant by the priesthood of all believers. The Reformers did not want individual Christians taking their Bibles home and acting as if they were an authority in and of themselves, and that therefore they needed no one to guide them. On the contrary, the priesthood of the believers for the Reformers meant that all believers had common access to the heavenly throne of grace; that we could act as priests to one another. The Reformers did not mean that instead of having one pope, every Christian would be his own pope! Rather, they wanted the Bible put in the hands of the people so that it could be studied in the context of a community. The Reformers never intended for the people to try to understand the word of God apart from the guidance and teaching ministry of the Church. After all, the Reformers were biblical people and they knew Paul’s words that the Church needs pastors and teachers to equip the saints. This is why they wrote confessions and catechisms for adults and children.

The Reformation did not mean biblical anarchism. In fact, Luther feared that some would disregard the Church once they had their own Bible. Luther feared lack of submission to those in positions of authority in the Church. To those who did not seek the guidance of the Church, Luther had this to say: “If we read the Bible in our own way, we will just go to hell in our own way.” Martin Luther believed as Paul did that God gave ministers and elders to equip the Church in all truth. So, this idea that the Reformers believed that it was every man for himself and that people could come to their own conclusions without the accountability of the Church is a great myth. Theology apart from the Church is anarchism. The Reformers rejected this idea.

  1. Thanks to my friend, Rich Lusk, for elaborating on these  (back)
Reformation Myths, Part IV

Reformation Myths, Part IV

The final myth is that when the Reformers broke from Rome, they broke free from liturgical worship. True Protestant worship is spontaneous and unconstrained by liturgical forms. “Who needs a bulletin? Let’s just follow the Spirit.” This is the general belief of most evangelicals in America– that breaking from Rome is breaking from liturgy. Of course, everyone has a liturgy; some are thought through, others are not. And because of this supposed idea of how a Reformed Church should be, many Protestants have ended up with spontaneous and entertainment-driven worship. But here is the irony of all of this: before the Reformation, the people would gather to be entertained by the Roman Church. Now they were not entertained by skits and praise bands as many do today, rather they were entertained by seeing the priest do his magic. In those days, the priest would take the bread and wine and magically it would be turned into the substance of Christ’s body. But when the magic was done the people themselves did not take the bread and wine; only the priest took the bread and wine. The people just sat there and listened to the priest talk in a language that they did not know. It was a sort of passive entertainment. Do you know how the Reformers reacted to this magical trickery and this passive entertainment offered to the people? The Reformers said: “Enough of this!” “The Reformers rediscovered the biblical truth that the whole congregation is a priesthood called to offer up spiritual sacrifice before God.a

The Reformers insisted that the people together with the minister do the work of worship; that people instead of sitting down passively and watching the trained musicians or the priest do his trick were now going to become themselves living sacrifices unto God. So, instead of only the trained musicians in the choir singing, the Reformers began to take the laity, the common people, and trained them to sing. Luther, of course, was a much better trained musician than most of the Reformers, so he began to compose beautiful music. He began to train the congregation to sing robustly, not like monks, but like warriors. And Calvin, who was not musically gifted, hired a musician to put the psalms into music bSo, you see what is happening is that the  passive nature of the people in worship, where only the professionals sing–that is in fact still prevalent in our own day– has much more in common with Roman Catholicism than it does with Protestantism. The Reformers wanted the congregation involved in the liturgy: in the singing, confessing, and every other part of worship. Therefore, the Reformers did not abandon the liturgy, they corrected the liturgy of Rome. Instead of only priests and trained singers involved in the church, while the people remain silenced, the Reformers involved the entire congregation in sacred worship.

Many of you who have probably visited a Roman Catholic Church may say, “The modern Roman Catholic church is not like the Catholic Church of the 16th century.” The modern day Catholic church has services in English and the people sing and the people take the bread and wine every Sunday. Do you know why this is the case? Because many years after the Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholics realized that the Reformers were taking over the world and that they were losing the game and so they concluded: “We need to imitate the Protestants.”

It is not uncommon to have someone visit the congregation I pastor in Pensacola and say that our liturgy looks Catholic. But this means that they have bought into a myth. It is not that our liturgy looks Catholic, it is rather that anything that the Catholic Church does that appears in any way similar to what we do at our Church was learned from the Protestant Reformers, not the other way around. Do you think the modern day Protestant understands the Reformation? I would like to think they do. But every time you hear these myths stated remember what really happened. Remember and remind non-Reformed people that the Reformers loved the unity of the Church, they believed strongly that the people should read their Bibles in the context of the church, that the Reformers believed in predestination because the Bible taught predestination, and that the Reformers, not Rome, restored worship to the people.

Why do we celebrate the Reformation? Because the Reformers believed that the ancient paths of Moses and Paul were good paths and that we should walk in them and find rest for our souls.

  1. Thanks to Rich Lusk for some of these insights and quotes  (back)
  2. called the Genevan Psalter  (back)
Reformation Myths, Part II

Reformation Myths, Part II

Continuing our brief look at some of the Reformation myths that have developed since the 16th century, we now come to the second.

The second myth is that the Reformers wanted each individual Christian to read the Bible on his own and interpret the Bible on his own. Some define this as the priesthood of all believers; that every man was his own priest and interpreter. But this is not what the Reformers meant by the priesthood of all believers. The Reformers did not want individual Christians taking their Bibles home and acting as if they were an authority in and of themselves, and that therefore they needed no one to guide them. On the contrary, the priesthood of the believers” for the Reformers “meant that all believers (had common access to the heavenly throne of grace) could come to the throne of grace with equal access…that we could act as priests to one another…the Reformers did not mean that instead of having one pope, every Christian would be his own pope, rather that the Bible is put in the hands of the people, so it may be studied in the context of a community. The Reformers never intended for the people to try to understand the word of God apart from the guidance and teaching ministry of the Church. After all, the Reformers were biblical people and they knew Paul’s words that the Church needs pastors and teachers to equip the saints.This is why they wrote confessions and catechisms for adults and children.

The Reformation did not mean biblical anarchism. In fact, Luther feared that some would think that since they now had a Bible they would no longer need the Church. Luther feared this lack of submission to those in positions of authority in the Church. To those who did not seek the guidance of the Church, Luther had this to say: “If we read the Bible in our own way, we will just go to hell in our own way.” Martin Luther believed as Paul did that God gave the church ministers and elders to equip her in all truth. So, this idea that the Reformers believed that it was every man for himself and that people could come to their own conclusions without the accountability of the Church is a great myth. Theology apart from the Church is anarchism and the Reformers rejected this idea.

Reformation Myths, Part I