Archive for the ‘Presentation Papers’ Category

Theological Reflections on J.R.R. Tolkien, pt. 1: The Hobbit

December 27, 2014

Theological Reflections on J.R.R. Tolkien, pt. 1:  The Hobbit


Tolkien confessed that, if he had been writing an allegory of the modern world, he would have been compelled to make the hellish consequences of war much worse than they are in The Lord of the Rings: “The Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-dûr would not have been destroyed but occupied.”

—from The Gospel According to Tolkien



Having completed a short study of Tolkien’s work and thought, I now look back and consider how his theology stacks up to the popular theological currents today. It is true that Tolkien was not a professional theologian was not really even “doing theology;” but then, neither are many of the most influential theologians in the U.S. today. In fact, modern American religious history, from William Miller to Billy Sunday to Bill Bright, has often shown the untrained theologian to be more influential than the “scholar;” and why not? Scholars tend to write for other scholars; at best, they teach somebody (a pastor or teacher or judge or whatever) who eventually goes on to translate the esoteric intellectualizing into some sort of life-philosophy or public policy. What is rare, though, is to find an “amateur” (in the true sense: one who practices an art for the love of it rather than for money) who has the insight Tolkien. As I look forward to the release of the final Hobbit movie, and as I anticipate the convening of a new Congress, I am struck by the contrasting theological themes that play out in Middle Earth and The Political Landscape. In brief, The Lord of the Rings can be fruitfully seen as a critique of Christian Zionism, and The Hobbit as a critique of the Prosperity Gospel; and together, they offer a valuable comparison to the dominant strains of The Religious Right.

Tolkien was not an ascetic. All the biographical discussions I have read affirm that. However, he does not equate money with virtue, or see comfort as automatically indicative of divine favor. Today, many (not all) of the largest churches are non-denominational megachurches preaching some variation of The Prosperity Gospel: if you tithe, and follow the pastor’s directions on social-political issues such as gay marriage, you will become wealthy and happy; if you are not wealthy and happy, you are sinning, and need to give more money, be more socially judgmental and more stridently anti-intellectual. There is a direct cause-effect taught in many of these megachurches; and this theology is spreading beyond the U.S. to Africa. Tolkien’s heroes, by contrast, know better. Bilbo is not a monk; he enjoys his six meals a day, his pipe and beer and comfortable home and nice clothes. And when we meet him, he probably does believe he “deserves” all that he has, since he has always been a good society man and never done anything unusual. But when he leaves his home, his views on wealth moderate. He becomes like Luke’s “Unjust Steward,” who uses his wealth not to make more wealth, but to make friends. He gives away all of the treasure he has rightfully earned from the dragon’s hoard; and when he is pressed to accept some reward, consents only to take as much as he can easily transport home. It is hard to tell whether he is really wealthier after plundering Smaug or not; he gives away all the troll hoard and spends much of the dragon treasure buying back his own belongings from his “heirs” after he has returned home only to find he has been declared dead. What has changed is that he holds his property more loosely; or rather, it holds him more loosely.

Tolkien’s characters show that some wealth is useful and contributes to happiness; but too much is perhaps worse than not enough. The Master of Lake-Town ends up dying alone in the wilderness with the dragon-gold he has stolen from the town. Thorin too ends up dead as a result of his greed. Smaug has literally absorbed much of his treasure, his skin embedded with countless gems; and in the end they lie with his carcass under the lake, considered cursed by those who know of them. The dragon hoard brings death to those who covet it most; but still, it proves to be a blessing to those who hold it lightly and pass it on freely. It is through trade, not theft or conquest, that prosperity returns to Dale.

Tolkien does not demonize wealth. He does not say that those who have comfortable lives are automatically “oppressors” who need to be overthrown. In fact, he points to the goblins’ hatred of the “prosperous” as one of their many unsavory qualities.[1] He shows none of the Marxist-inspired disdain for wealth and authority, which we commonly see in liberation theology; and he shows little of the Neo-platonic asceticism that appears in much Christian mysticism and monasticism. Pleasure is good, in moderation. His heroes often do renounce wealth, sometimes for many years (as did Aragorn when he became a Ranger); but when they do it is as a means to an end, and when that end is achieved they can enjoy the good things in this life again. What he does reject is the idolization of wealth. And here is where so much of today’s theology leaves the path of wisdom, which Tolkien has marked for us. The central, simple message of the Prosperity Gospel is that if you give up some money, God will give you more money. God becomes little more than a banker who pays extravagant interest on whatever you loan him. You are giving up something in this world, in order to gain something in this world. That’s not faith; that’s trading. When wealth is the primary motivation for worshipping God, the primary means by which you worship God (through tithing), and the primary or sole expression of God’s good will and the state of one’s God-relationship, wealth has in fact become God. This deification of wealth is what The Hobbit warns us against. To that extent, I would say the movies are a loss over the book; the book does not have so many side-plots or exciting fight scenes to obscure this point. Thorin’s lust for the Arkenstone echoes the acquisitiveness of this kin and forbearers who dug so deep that they claimed the fabulous heart of the mountain for themselves. Tolkien suggests that this was the event that drew the dragon to them. Too much wealth and too much adoration of their own wealth summoned the incarnation of Greed, which is what Smaug represents. Lust for his hoard destroys some, nearly destroys others, and is only truly a blessing for those who seem to desire it least. The wise and the good show themselves by surrendering their wealth when it is appropriate. In a material sense, Bilbo’s condition is little changed at the end of the book. While the Prosperity Gospel says that the righteous tither will grow more wealthy, Bilbo takes great risk, suffers great deprivation, and gives up most of his legitimate reward to help others, and in the end is right back where he started: in his own hobbit-hole, smoking a pipe and enjoying the company of Gandalf and one of the thirteen dwarves. Whatever he gained from his adventure, if it is measured in prosperity it was a very bad bargain; so much effort for so little gain! The famous Prosperity Gospel preacher Rev. Fredrick Price said in an interview that God wants us to be prosperous, and that if anyone believes in God and is not wealthy then he or she is “missing the mark.”[2] This is a fascinating phrase, since “missing the mark” is the literal translation of the Greek word “harmatia,” which is the word most translators of the Greek original tests of the New Testament translate as “sin.” Price is saying, essentially, that if you are poor then you are a sinner; that is the essence of the Prosperity Gospel. To be without money shows that you are without God, and to be with God is to be with money. It is this easy equation of God and Money that The Hobbit warns us against, not by thundering sermons against greed but by gently telling us a child’s fairy tale, and in the process showing us how one ought, and ought not, to be oriented towards the material goods of this world.


[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, chapter 4, “Over Hill and Under Hill.”

[2] Interviewed by Dr. Randal Balmer, in Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: a journey into the evangelical subculture of America; pt. 3, “Coming of Age”. Isis Productions, Chicago; 1993

Lecture: The Christian World of The Hobbit

October 29, 2014

The Christian World of The Hobbit


            I’m taking the title of this lecture, and much of the material from Devin Brown’s book of the same name.[1] This is a very readable book; if I have any complaint, it that it comes across at times as some sort of inside discussion. The author often uses phrases like, “This will of course be familiar to Christians….” Even a non-Christian scholar might want to understand Tolkien better, and might want to understand the religious messages; asides to the fellow Christians can be off-putting. Also, the author generally can show his points from the textual evidence, so the reliance on Christian intuition or experience is not always necessary.

            These are basically lecture notes. I did not deliver the entire paper, but rather used it as the foundation for my talk. What was presented was more of an oral summary of most of the main points.




  1. In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
  2. Bilbo Baggins, a well-off middle-class hobbit, is enjoying a lovely morning on his own doorstep when the wizard Gandalf walks up. This is extremely unusual and the hobbit greets him happily but a little apprehensively. The Bagginses are well respected in the community for their complete predictability as well as their relative wealth, and Bilbo is nervous when the wizard says he is looking for someone to go on an adventure. The hobbit declines vigorously, but the wizard still puts up a secret sign which leads thirteen dwarves to show up the next day. Gandalf tells the dwarves that he has chosen Bilbo to be their burglar. The dwarves introduce themselves, and tell Bilbo that their leader Thorin is the rightful King Under the Mountain, that their kingdom was destroyed by a dragon, and that they are going to steal their treasure back from the dragon. Bilbo faints.
  3. The next day the dwarves set off without Bilbo. Gandalf arrives and rushes him out the door, without time to even pack properly. The fourteen travel on initially without Gandalf, and after some time on the road are cold and hungry in the rain when they hear voices, which belong to trolls. They send Bilbo to burgle some food, but his inexperience and bungling lead instead to all the dwarves being captured and nearly killed before Gandalf suddenly arrives to rescue them.
  4. They travel to Rivendell, the home of the High Elves, and their leader Elrond, with whom Gandalf wishes to consult. By a seeming coincidence, Elrond discovers that their map has magically hidden notes indicating a secret door into the dwarves’ fortress, and instructions on how to find it. The party is reprovisioned by the elves and departs.
  5. Some days after the party is captured by goblins, except for Gandalf. Gandalf rescues them and while they are fleeing Bilbo is lost in the goblin caves. While there he meets a nasty and miserable person named Gollum, who engages him in a riddling contest which Bilbo manages to win, again by luck as much as cleverness. Gollum determines to kill Bilbo anyway, but Bilbo has (again by “luck”) found Gollum’s magic ring, and by luck finds that the ring makes him invisible. With this he is able to escape, although his escape is complicated by a decision not to kill Gollum but merely to evade him.
  6. Bilbo finds the dwarves and Gandalf outside the caves. They are chased up trees by wolves, and soon goblins arrive as well. They are nearly killed when giant eagles who happen to be passing by (and hate goblins) rescue them. But all that stuff in the movie about the giant white goblin and Thorin fighting and so on never happened.
  7. Soon they leave the eagles and go to the homestead of Beorn, a mysterious person who is sometimes a bear, and who has domestic animals that act as servants. Beorn gives them rustic hospitality, shares his vegetarian food with them and finally sends them on their way with new provisions to replace what they lost to the goblins. The group is certainly hard on ponies!.
  8. They travel through the mysterious and dangerous Mirkwood, when running out of supplies they do what Gandalf warned them not to do: they leave the trail to try to beg food from the Wood Elves they can hear around them. The elves lead them deeper into the woods until they are completely lost. Then the party, except Bilbo, is captured by giant intelligent spiders. Bilbo uses his magic ring to help him trick the spiders, kill a couple and rescue the dwarves.
  9. Then the dwarves are captured by the Wood Elves. Bilbo manages to remain invisible and follows them to the elven fortress. The Wood Elf King imprisons the dwarves but treats them fairly well, but won’t free them without information and Thorin and the others will not tell him about their mission to regain their gold. Finally Bilbo manages to free them by hiding them in barrels and floating them down the river. Again, all that stuff about the elves chasing them never happened, and Legolas is not in the book at all. The barrel riding diversion is a lucky break since they later discover the road ended before arriving anywhere, so they would have died had they not left it.
  10. They arrive at a human settlement built on pilings in the lake by the survivors of Smaug the dragon. The Master of the town is initially disturbed, but hides this. The townsfolk are excited and see the arrival of dwarves as the fulfillment of prophecy that the dragon will soon be dead and the rivers will run with gold!
  11. After several days of trying to find the secret back door into Smaug’s lair, Bilbo discovers it, again by luck. The dwarves send Bilbo alone to burgle something, and he succeeds. The second time the dragon awakens and Bilbo flatters him and distracts him with riddles. The dragon guesses that Bilbo is not alone and that he and his friends came from the Laketown. Bilbo discovers that there is a bare patch on the dragon’s belly where a scale is missing.
  12. The dragon traps the dwarves and Bilbo in the secret tunnel but can’t get to them, so he flies off to destroy the human town. After more than a day the dwarves finally work up the courage to go investigate the dragon’s lair, and find he is gone. They revel in the wealth piled around them, and Bilbo finds the fabulous Arkenstone, the great gem Thorin desires more than anything and which seems to represent the great wealth of the dwarves in this story. Bilbo initially pockets it for himself.
  13. Unknown to them, the dragon is killed by the men of Lake Town, but not before badly damaging the town. It is only by luck that a magical thrush has overheard Bilbo tell the dwarves about the missing scale, and then told a human who happens to know thrush-language, so that human, named Bard, could shoot an arrow that killed the dragon.
  14. The Master of Lake-Town turns the people against the dwarves by blaming the dwarves for the dragon’s rage and saying they should demand a share of the dwarves’ gold. Wood Elves arrive and help with emergency supplies for the town. Their king, who likes gold too, agrees to send his army with the Men to demand some gold.
  15. Thorin refuses to negotiate with an army or to talk to the elves at all, so the two armies besiege the mountain. The thirteen dwarves hole up waiting for reinforcements. Bilbo sneaks off and gives the Arkenstone to the Men so they can offer to trade it for Bilbo’s share of the treasure, hoping in that way to buy peace. This only delays conflict, however. Thorin is enraged and nearly kills Bilbo, but is persuaded to send him away penniless instead. But just as the two sides are about to fight, an army of goblins riding wolves appears. The humans, elves, and the newly arrived dwarf army hastily agree to fight together against the goblins. They are still losing when an army of giant eagles arrives to aid them. The four armies together fight the goblin horde, and the battle is finally turned when Beorn in bear form suddenly arrives and claws his way through the goblin ranks to Thorin, who lies mortally wounded.
  16. Bilbo was knocked out early in the fight, and lain unconscious and invisible during all these events. He is finally found in time to be taken to Thorin, and the two reconcile before Thorin dies of his wounds. The new dwarf king, Thorin’s cousin Durin, honors Thorin’s agreement to pay Bilbo’s share to the Men in exchange for the Arkenstone; but he also insists on giving Bilbo his rightful one-fourteenth share. Bilbo refuses to take any more than one pony’s carrying capacity. He and Gandalf return to the Shire, Bilbo’s homeland. Bilbo finds that he has been declared dead and that his acquisitive friends and neighbors are selling off his estate! He spends much of his loot buying back his own goods, and never gets his silver spoons back from his cousins. He gives most of the rest of it away. But in the end he retires, not quite as respectable but a bit richer, and the friend of dwarf, elf and wandering wizard for the rest of his days.
  17. The story ends with Bilbo being visited by Gandalf and Balin, one of the dwarves. Balin and Bilbo both show their prosperity over the years. The wizard and dwarf tell Bilbo how prosperous the land is now; there is so much trade that the rivers are said to run with gold. Bilbo says it seems the prophecies have come true, and Gandalf tells him that of course they have; just because Bilbo helped doesn’t mean they weren’t prophecies or that there wasn’t some force managing to make them come true. Bilbo says, “Thank Goodness!” and the two enjoy their pipes together.

The Lord of the Rings is not a grim book, but it is serious. The good suffer, the innocent die, and even admirable characters turn out to be flawed. And ultimately, even the hero, Frodo Baggins, fails, and does evil in spite of himself; the world is saved when Gollum does good in spite of himself. The characters and peoples in the story are not allegorical stand-ins, but they are metaphors; some are metaphors of nature (Treebeard, Tom Bombadil) others for modernity and the power of evil (Saruman, Sauron, the One Ring), or humanity threatened by inhumanity (The Shire, Gondor), and still others share the role as Christ figures (Gandalf, Aragorn, any of the Ring Bearers). And ultimately, this is an apocalypse, Tolkien’s Armageddon or Ragnarok; the elves are leaving Middle Earth, magic is fading, and the world itself is on the edge of destruction.

  The Hobbit is set at a time when shadows are gathering, about a generation before the events of The Lord of the Rings. The cover of my copy describes it as “The Enchanting Prelude to “The Lord of the Rings’”. This is a bit misleading, as if it was written as a prequel. In fact, it was the first major fictional work published by Tolkien; The Lord of the Rings was only written because his publishers wanted to follow up on the great success of his first book with “more hobbit stories.” Tolkien expressed some regret for having written The Hobbit as a children’s book, but he didn’t let that choice prevent him either from including some real frights and violence on the one hand, or some serious theology on the other. If you’ve only seen the movies, you only have a hint of how different the two “hobbit stories” really are. The Hobbit has a good many songs, a conversational style with numerous asides to the reader, and overall a much simpler style and structure than does The Lord of the Rings. This simplicity can at times hide the deep theological insights undergirding Tolkien’s story of a reluctant hero.

The fairy story was said to serve four functions: first, Fantasy.


“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

Before the wizards, elves, monsters, or even an explanation as to what a “hobbit” is, we enter the Secondary World which Tolkien is creating through a description of the physical environment. What is a “hobbit”? Why does it live in a hole? How can a hole be comfortable, when most holes we know are either wet and yucky or dry and barren? In two sentences, we are already outside our normal world, and asking questions about this new one.

Second, Recovery: Tolkien describes a number of rather ordinary things in this extraordinary hole, and as the book goes on we see still more: carpeted and tiled floors, chairs and coat pegs for guests, tea kettle and pocket-handkerchiefs, flowers and green grass and good tilled earth. At the end of the hobbit’s long adventure, returning after a year to his home, the old familiar hills and meadows move him so much that he bursts into spontaneous poetry. The time we spend in Middle Earth is meant to allow us to do the same: to see afresh what we have come to overlook. Sometimes this Recovery is meant just to inspire appreciation; sometimes it invites critique; and sometimes it seems to do both.

Escape: Bilbo Baggins lives in a world familiar in some ways, utterly alien in others, and nostalgic in still others. Before his adventure, he lives a life of middle-class comfort, with tea-time and nice clothes and friends. At the same time, he is a hobbit, half the size of the people we’re used to, dressed as we are except for his bare feet which keep him always in touch with the earth; a hobbit who lives in a world of dwarves and elves and goblins and wizards. And while his life in this extraordinary world seems like an ordinary grocer’s, it is natural in a way few of us can ever experience: no motor cars making the miles disappear in minutes, no electric lights obliterating the alteration of sun and moon, no bulldozers leveling hills and trees to make room for thousands and millions to pack into ever more crowded cities. The time we spend in Middle Earth is time we spend away from the limits of our modern lives, in touch with a world more heroic and full of possibilities, and in touch with nature and truer values than those that normally preoccupy us.

For Bilbo, too, the adventure is an Escape. At the start of the story he is living a limited, controlled, respectable life. He cannot imagine being without his pocket-handkerchiefs. He is so timid that he screams and faints just hearing the dwarves and Gandalf talk about adventures. Gandalf drags him out of his literal “comfort zone,” and Bilbo learns he can do without quite a few of his possessions; and he finds he possesses things he never knew he had: such as courage, cleverness, loyalty, and self-sacrifice.

Lastly, Consolation: The great gift of the fairy-story is the Happy Ending, the Eucatastrophe. Bilbo experiences this again and again, and we experience it through him. The great turning point in his life is when he is alone and lost in the goblins’ cave, and finds a magic ring. In this story, we are not told anything about it being a world-destroying curse, and this clearly was not the original intention. In fact, the only power of the ring is to grant invisibility, something that hobbits are said to have something of a knack for anyway. It’s a common fairy-tale device, and in the first version of The Hobbit it is won fair and square in the riddling contest with no hard feelings afterwards. That is, the emphasis is on Bilbo’s self-reliance and cleverness, as well as his providential good luck. This unexpected gift in his moment of despair is one of the greatest Eucatastrophes Bilbo personally experiences. Other “lucky breaks” come to him unexpectedly and sometimes even without his knowledge. Tolkien is saying, more or less, that sometimes we make our luck and sometimes it makes us, but it exists. And as Gandalf informs Bilbo, what seems like luck is something more: he says,


“Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”


What seems to be a story with a series of lucky breaks, the sort of thing critics generally hate, is really a story of Providence in action, perfectly in control and perfectly hidden. Critics disparagingly call this the deus ex machina, the god in the machine; but that is Tolkien’s point: it is God in the machine! Bilbo’s response to Gandalf is instructive: “Thank goodness!” What a Consolation to discover both that there are bigger forces in the world and bigger concerns than oneself, and still to find that one is included!

Now, for the monsters: like Beowulf, Bilbo has his dragon. Unlike Beowulf, Bilbo has only a very small part in slaying it. Beowulf does not live “happily ever after” once the dragon is slain; it represents the sunset of the hero, an end which comes to us all. Smaug represents Greed Incarnate. He comes to destroy the dwarves when they are at the height of their prosperity, when they have uncovered the mysterious Arkenstone, the heart of the mountain, and made it their own. His greed even infects the treasure; the Master of Lake-Town is said to be infected with the sickness of dragon-treasure, which causes him to steal much of the money intended to rebuild his town and flee into the wilderness, there to die alone. Smaug is so obsessed with his treasure that he notices when even a single goblet disappears from his immense pile; but his only use for all this wealth is to sleep on it. In the end it is his blind fury at having been robbed that leads to his death.

Even before hearing tales of dragons, Bilbo’s life revolved around his possessions.[2] He really is a nebbish, a perfectly bourgeoisie character even if he is only three feet tall and has hairy feet. He prizes his comforts. His life is more predictable than the ticking of a clock. His neighbors respect this, and he values their opinions. He’s not ungenerous; he knows his duty to his guests and will go without a second seed-cake if he must, although it distresses him. But his generosity is circumscribed by his comfortable, predictable life. By the end of his adventure, while he loses the respect of most of his neighbors, his generosity is boundless. He welcomes the invited and the uninvited, the hobbit, elf, wizard or dwarf to his home. He gives away all rights to the dragon treasure to try to buy peace between the dwarves, men and elves; and when pressed to accept it, he consents only to take the small portion he can transport on one pony. He gives away the troll horde as well. He still appreciates his comforts, but his comforts no longer bind him.

Thorin, by contrast, is a tragic figure. His obsession with wealth nearly leads him to murder Bilbo, and to go to war with the Wood-Elves and Men with whom his people once had allied. Bilbo’s example finally redeems him, leading him to realize on his death bed that the world would be a merrier place if more people prized a hobbit’s simple comforts over piles of gold. But he has virtues as well: courage for one, self-sacrifice when required, perseverance, a willingness to work hard and do without. The Master of Lake-Town, on the other hand, is a pretty shrewd politician: calculating, persuasive, with a keen eye to present circumstances and how they affect his standing with the people. All in all, the Master is a pretty modern guy all right; which is precisely why he is just the sort who so quickly falls victim to the sickness of dragon treasure. Unlike Thorin, he dies unrepentant, unredeemed, unloved and alone.

The goblins are even more types of the dark side of modernity. Tolkien describes them thus:


Now goblins are cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted. They make no beautiful things, but they make many clever ones…. It is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them, and also not working with their own hands more than they could help; but in those days and those wild parts they had not advanced (as it is called) so far. They did not hate dwarves especially, no more than they hated everybody and everything, and particularly the orderly and the prosperous;…


Goblins are darkness and evil as much as Elrond’s elves are light and joy. They don’t even need the temptation of dragon gold to be greedy and malicious; sadism and laziness are inherent traits, as is envy of the orderly and prosperous. In the end, though, even they serve a good purpose: the threat of the goblins is the one thing that finally leads the men, elves and dwarves to lay aside their squabbling over gold and make a common cause, reforging the old alliances destroyed by Smaug and his treasure.

I don’t have much to say about the spiders. I do know that Tolkien was bitten by a spider as a child in South Africa, that he said it didn’t affect him but his biographers seem to doubt that. He included a giant spider, named Ungoliant, in The Simarillion as one of the manifestations of cosmic evil aiding Melkor in his attempts to destroy the world. And later, Tolkien’ placed Shelob, the giant spider who is said to have been descended from Ungoliant, as a monstrous force more or less independent of Sauron and as ancient and malevolent though not as ambitious. Shelob seems to represent pure appetite, delighting in killing and eating and unconcerned what she ate; the spiders in The Hobbit seem much the same, if more chatty. They aren’t interested in dragon gold or in tea kettles; they delight only in capturing, tormenting and finally killing and devouring others. Bilbo’s only act of violence is killing some of the spiders to rescue the dwarves; and this violence is seen as a good thing, both necessary to save the others and as a real turning point in Bilbo’s growth from nebbish to mensch.[3]

Enough of the monsters: what about the Good Guys? In The Hobbit, Tolkien presents the dwarves as basically reliable if not always good or generous, and basically brave if pressed albeit quarrelsome, condescending and ungrateful at times. When Bilbo is about to sneak into Smaug’s lair for the first time, he asks “Now who is coming with me? He did not expect a chorus of volunteers, so he was not disappointed.” Two look a mite uncomfortable at refusing, and Balin actually agrees to go partway; Bombur is asleep; but the other nine have no qualms about staying back and sending Bilbo alone. Tolkien writes:


            The most that can be said for the dwarves is this: they intended to pay Bilbo handsomely for his services; they had brought him to do a nasty job for them, and they did not mind the poor little fellow doing it if he would; but they would all have done their best to get him out of trouble, if he got into it, as they did in the case of the trolls at the beginning of their adventures before they had any particular reasons for being grateful to him. There it is: dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots, some are not, but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don’t expect too much.


The dwarves may be unusual and mysterious to Bilbo, but in Middle Earth they are just one people among several. Gandalf, on the other hand, is as wonderous to Bilbo as hobbits are to us. He is the fairies’ Faerie, the Perilous Realm’s Perilous intrusion. And he is one of those elements of so-called “luck” (or Providence) that comes along when most needed. He is not omnipotent; in fact, his magic seems fairly minimal. But he is a manifestation of Magic and a world beyond the understanding even of dwarves and hobbits.

His only equal seems to be Elrond. Elves are wise and magical, Elrond in particular; and his people give the Thorin expedition advice and material assistance that even Gandalf alone could not. But they also share the common traits of fairies: mysterious, sometimes mischievous and selfish (particularly the Wood Elves), often whimsical and seemingly mocking.

Beorn seems to be a metaphor for Nature. He is sometimes a savage bear, and sometimes a rough but basically good man. He has to be approached carefully and respectfully. He is not pure wilderness, but barely cultivated; his stead is far more primitive than The Shire but includes domestic animals and sturdy accommodations. And in the end it is Beorn who saves the day, scattering goblins to rescue Thorin when he falls, so that he can die surrounded by friends.

Beorn is too wild and strange to be a role-model; Elrond and Gandalf are too mysterious, magical and Other; and the dwarves by contrast are simply too unheroic to be described as the heroes of the story. Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit, is the hero and role model, although to the end he seems an unlikely candidate for either job. How can we know that the hobbit is the hero of the story? Because Tolkien sees himself as one. In a letter to a friend he wrote:


“I am in fact a Hobbit in all but size. I like gardens, trees, and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats. I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humor (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome); I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much.”



If Bilbo Baggins is basically Tolkien reimaging himself, or perhaps idealizing himself, then what is different? In his book he lists these particular characteristics that differentiate hobbits from “Big People:”

  1. Size, obviously. A hobbit is half the size of a normal human.
  2. They are stealthy; they can hide from us pretty much whenever they want.
  3. They have no beards, which particularly distinguishes them from dwarves.
  4. They eat a lot.
  5. They have naturally leathery soles on their feet and thick hair on their feet matching the curly hair on their heads, so they don’t need shoes.
  6. And as Thorin observes, they prize good food, good drink and good company more than all the gold in the world, making them a naturally peaceful people (though the Sacksville-Bagginses do steal Bilbo’s silver spoons).

They aren’t perfect by any means; but again, most of their faults are those we would expect from any people living in a small rural community. Their homeland, The Shire, is based on Sarehole Mill, the English village Tolkien’s mother moved the boys to after the death of their father in South Africa. The main difference between hobbits and us that while we include both city people and country folk, hobbits have only country folk; there are no hobbit cities, though there are communities and even towns where hobbits and Big People live together. Left to themselves, hobbits are more down-to-earth than we are. This is literally seen in their bare feet and in their small size. And their size, and their shyness, reflects the idea that they represent humility. They don’t seek to dominate anyone else, and would consider it absurd to try. They are intelligent but don’t seek to become great scholars. They don’t worship their heroes, but generally consider them a little odd even if they remember fondly the good they did.

At times, Bilbo is a bit player in his own story. He is drafted by Gandalf to go on an adventure, and initially terrified as he eavesdrops on Thorin and Gandalf planning the heist. His first attempt at burglary is a miserable failure. In fact, up until the escape from the goblins, he is literally a burden, needing to be carried by the dwarves when fleeing. After being dropped and lost, he begins to grow. First, his escape from Gollum is accomplished through a combination of luck, intelligence and virtue. Finding the ring just happens to him; winning the riddling contest is partly luck and partly cleverness; and sparing Gollum shows his good nature. Rescuing the dwarves from the spiders also involves both cleverness and courage as well as the gift of that magic ring. Freeing the dwarves from the Wood Elves is accomplished without any force on Bilbo’s part, and eventually he even pays the elves back for the food he stole. He also returns the keys to their jailor to help keep him out of trouble, a very kind gesture. And finally, there is his encounter with Smaug. This again is solved through a mix of hobbit cleverness and something more than luck; but the real key is Bilbo’s moral struggle. Tolkien describes Bilbo going down the tunnel to Smaug’s lair for the first time. None of the dwarves dared to accompany him; even Balin, who liked him best, would only go partway. So he creeps along as quietly as he can through the black tunnel, until he hears “some vast animal snoring in its sleep down there in the red glow in front of him.”


            It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.


This is Bilbo’s apogee as a hero, and it is completely internal. The “real battle” is mustering the courage or responsibility or whatever to keep going despite the danger and fear. And because he finds the strength of virtue to do the right thing, the story is able to have a happy ending. Frankly, I think this is one place where Jackson’s movie weakens the whole effect. The thirteen dwarves do little in the story except make things worse for everyone, until the goblins attack. Everything that happens, particularly the death of the dragon, happens because of what Bilbo brings himself to do. And increasingly, Bilbo becomes more a witness to events than a real actor. His efforts to mediate peace delay the fighting between dwarves and elves, but had the goblins not arrived they still would have fought. The final great act of Bilbo is a failure; he gives the Arkenstone and with it his claim to any part of the dragon’s treasure away, and then returns to the dwarves to face whatever might come of it. But Bilbo’s failed peace effort does allow one final accomplishment: the redemption of Thorin. In life, Thorin had been increasingly caught up in his desire for treasure, and particularly the dragon’s treasure embodied in the fabulous Arkenstone. Bilbo is able, after some struggle, to give it away. Because he returns to Thorin, Thorin is able to repent of his greed and fury at Bilbo and to receive forgiveness, so the two are able to part as friends before his death. Durin, Thorin’s heir and the next King Under the Mountain, agrees to honor the deal Thorin had made to ransom the Arkenstone, allowing the Humans to rebuild Dale and the Wood Elves to share in the new prosperity.

Tolkien’s attitude towards wealth is instructive. Described by a biographer as an “unabstentious Catholic,” Tolkien enjoyed his material comforts; but at the same time, his tastes were simple. His hobbits enjoy good food and even tend towards plumpness; they enjoy their comfortable homes and nice furniture and all the other pleasures of life. But they do not gather wealth excessively. The dragon’s gold brings Bilbo out of his comfortable life, on an adventure that proves to be, as Gandalf predicted, good for him. He grew as a person by learning to do without; but he never became an ascetic. And his great heart does not result in great wealth; the blessings of God do not express themselves in riches but in richness of life. He has enough and to spare, which he generously shares with others. He loses some of the respect of his neighbors, while gaining the friendship of strangers.

For Bilbo, the adventure brings out his moral richness. He becomes, or finds that he is generous, even to his own loss, if the cause is right. He is loyal and responsible. He has courage. And he is merciful and empathetic, particularly as he looks at the miserable Gollum. Pursuing this adventure brought these virtues out. Before his travels, Bilbo’s “Took side” was suppressed. His courage shows in his agreeing to join the group, but he also is initially terrified. His generosity is limited to a willingness to do without a third seed-cake if his guests are hungry. And we see little sign of a capacity for empathy or pity; his comfortable life simply provides no occasion for it.

In others, the dragon’s gold brings out not hidden virtues, but hidden vices. The Master of Lake-Town is the prime example: a shrewd businessman and politician, he is the very sort most inclined to fall to the sickness carried by dragon-gold. Thorin, too, is overwhelmed with greed. Both are killed through their lust for the gold, though Thorin’s soul is redeemed at the end. The Wood-Elf King likewise prizes gold too much, which makes him an enemy of the dwarves; but it seems to bind him less since he still helps the men of Lake-Town before setting out to chase the dwarves. Overall, we could say that “the love of money is the root of all evil.” The desire for money, or dragon’s gold, is the motivating force behind the story and the chief threat undermining community. When money is spent or given away to promote community and fellowship, it leads to happiness; when it is an end and not a mere means, it leads to solitude, suspicion, hostility and misery. The reward of a good life and a good heart is not wealth, but freedom from the domination of wealth. The providential forces that guide Bilbo’s seeming luck bring about a prophecy where the rivers run with gold, not by generating riches but by generating trade and cooperation.

[1] Devin Brown, The Christian World of The Hobbit (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012).

[2] The Christian World of the Hobbit, pp. 86-114

[3] Perhaps presumptuous for a goy like myself, but the words fit better than any I could think of.

The Lord of the Rings and Apocalyptic Writing

October 21, 2014

This is a rough draft of the lecture I offered to one of my church’s adult Sunday School classes on Oct. 19, 2014.  I was rewriting and reorganizing up until the last minute; in particular, I could not decide whether to discuss the “Character Sketches” or “The Lord of the Rings as Apocalyptic Literature” first.  Also, I didn’t cover the material in italics at all.  However, you might find the information useful, if you are the sort of reader who cares more about ideas than style.

The Lord of the Rings


As discussed last week, Tolkien saw four purposes to fairy stories: Fantasy, Recovery, Escape and Consolation. I would summarize the relationship between these four thus: Fantasy allows us to see the familiar and commonplace as magical and extraordinary, and to see the possibility for the extraordinary to break into the familiar and commonplace. As C. S. Lewis put it, talk of enchanted woods helps us see all woods as enchanted; that is Fantasy and Recovery in action. And as Samwise Gamgee put it, the people in those stories had lots of chances to turn around, and didn’t, because they were holding onto a hope that there was still some good left and that good can still come to us even when so much bad has happened; that is Escape and Consolation at work. The Lord of the Rings is a fairy story, and these are its central functions. However, as Tolkien also says, to understand the story, we need to look at the particularities of that story. The storyteller has a reason for telling it just this way.

            Not only was this a three part series, but each part has two volumes; so it is a very complicated plot. Considering that writing wasn’t even his day job, it is amazing that it only took from 1937 to 1949 to write. It took another six years to get the entire series into print; Tolkien first offered it to Collins Publishing, which rejected it, then turned to Allen & Unwin. Tolkien’s first choice to follow up on the success of The Hobbit would have been to publish The Simarillion, but Allen & Unwin had suggested he write “more hobbit stories;” so starting in 1937 he began composing a new tale, including hobbits but also picking up on many of the themes and much of the tone of The Simarillion. For those of you who have not read the books or seen any of the movies, first, how long have you been in al Qaeda? And second, here is a brief recap. The story begins pretty much as “Hobbit: The Next Generation,” some 60 years after the events of The Hobbit. So yes, I’m telling the story out of sequence because I wanted to end with The Hobbit in celebration of the coming film. Bilbo is an old man, preparing for his 111th (or “Eleventy-First”) birthday party. His favorite cousin and legal heir, Frodo Baggins, is 33 and therefore has just legally become an adult. Gandalf arrives, ostensibly for the party and to provide fireworks; but actually, he is there for a much more serious reason. He has become suspicious of the magic ring Biblo found on his adventure with the dwarves, and has determined that he should separate Bilbo from it. With assistance and some pressure from Gandalf, Bilbo slips away to Rivendell, the kingdom of the elves, to retire, leaving the ring and all his possessions to Frodo. After further investigation Gandalf returns, having confirmed his fears that Bilbo’s ring is actually a powerful talisman, the “One Ring to Rule Them All” created ages ago by Sauron, servant of Melkor, and worn first by him in his attempt to conquer Middle Earth. He tells Frodo to take the Ring and his faithful gardener, Samwise Gamgee, to Rivendell, where the wise elf Elrond will help decide what to do with it. The two hobbits pick up two more, meet a mysterious human called Strider, and after adventures and mishaps manage to reach Rivendell. There it is decided that the Ring must be returned to Mordor, the land Sauron rules, and there destroyed in the very volcano where it was first forged. Frodo volunteers to take the Ring, and representatives of the Humans, Elves and Dwarves agree to accompany him, along with his three hobbit friends. After adventures, hardship, war and suffering, Frodo succeeds in his quest. The Ring is destroyed, Strider is revealed to be the true King Aragorn and takes his rightful throne, and at the end of the movies the elves and wizards, together with Bilbo and Frodo, leave Middle Earth forever to return to the western lands where elves originated, the White Shore, which is essentially Heaven. In Tolkien’s writings, it is revealed that the Elves all leave Middle Earth to return to the Creator, the Dwarves tunnel deeper into the earth and are eventually forgotten, the Hobbits gradually grow taller and become humans. The kingly line begun with Aragorn peters out anticlimactically, eventually leaving a less magical world with more mundane terrors and joys, in which we now live.

            Now that I’ve totally ruined the story with a flat and rushed retelling, let me try to say something about why it is far more significant than my synopsis suggests. This work is part of Tolkien’s overall project of creating a mythic backdrop for England and the modern age. He aims first to write the best stories possible, using all his gifts of Sub-Creation and Fantasy to offer his readers a chance to see a new world, and to see their own world anew. He imbues his stories with Christian themes and values, though he rarely mentions even the elvish religion described in The Simarillion. This is an ancient, prehistoric world from our perspective; God has not been revealed. We therefore see little in the way of religion and no signs of religious institutions among the peoples of Middle Earth. Tolkien despised allegory; he preferred give his readers plenty of room for their own exercises of Fantasy. Therefore, unlike the Narnia stories which were appearing at the same time, he has no direct Christ figure (Aslan), no overt biblical references (such as referring to humans as “Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve”), and in general no “code” such that a reader who didn’t get the reference could be said to have misunderstood the book. Instead, Tolkien presents a story much more in the form of a fairy-story or legend about a quest to accomplish some task, overcoming monsters and other challenges moral and physical along the way, through which the inner heroic nature of some persons is revealed, while others fail in the quest and fall tragic victims of their inner flaws.

The Lord of the Rings as Apocalyptic Literature

The Ring can be analyzed as Fairy-Story, or even Epic; today, it is discussed more as Action-Adventure or perhaps Sword and Sorcery. As a theologian, I consider it as another literary genre: Apocalyptic. This is what I argued in my paper for SECSOR, though there I had more video to show off. Apocalyptic is a genre of Biblical writing, which appears in later portions of the Old Testament as well as in the New. According to Stephen Harris, the author of the textbook I used when I taught Intro to New Testament at Santa Fe College, the word “apocalypse” means “revelation,” and “is thus a disclosure of things previously hidden, particularly unseen realities of the spirit world and future events. Apocalyptic writers typically describe visions or dreams in which they encounter supernatural beings ranging from hideous monsters to angels who communicate God’s future intentions.” Harris lists several qualities of apocalyptic literature in the Bible. Since my main interest here is to compare Tolkien not so much to the Bible as to other 20th Century writers, I will try to be brief.

  1. Universality: the writers typically do not merely discuss a particular city or even nation, but address the whole world.
  2. Cosmic Dualism: particularly, there is a dualism between matter and spirit, with the spiritual realm having great power to act in and control the material world.
  3. Chronological dualism: apocalyptic writers describe how this age is evil, but will be swept away by a future good age.
  4. Ethical dualism: people are either material and evil and walk in darkness, or they are spiritual and good and godly. The evil will be destroyed when this evil age is destroyed; the good will live in blessedness thereafter.
  5. Predestination: whatever will happen has already been foreordained by God.
  6. Exclusivism: reject the world and its evil ways completely, show total fidelity to God.
  7. Limited theology: no sympathy for outsiders; they are damned and deserve it.
  8. A Violent God who wreaks judgment and vengeance.
  9. Eschatological preoccupation: much interest in what comes after death, etc.
  10. Use of symbols and code words.

Apocalyptic writing and preaching has been important in Christian preaching for a long time. What is interesting here is how, starting in the 20th Century, there began to be a number of apocalyptic fictional writings and movies. In the 1970’s there was A Thief in the Night, which was a relatively low-budget production aimed at showing Evangelicals, particularly youth, a literal understanding of the events predicted by apocalyptic Biblical writings, as these are interpreted primarily by 19th and 20th Century Protestant Evangelical Dispensationalist theologians. In 2000 the movie The Omega Code opened in December near the top of the box office sales. But the real phenomenon has been, of course, the Left Behind series, which first saw publication in 1995 and became a series of movies beginning in 2001. The books have sold many millions of copies, often topping the New York Times bestseller lists despite the fact that the NYT does not generally count sales at purely Christian bookstores, where many copies were sold. For those of you who never saw or read such a thing, here’s a taste:



These movies show many of the classic traits of Biblical apocalyptic literature, particularly emphasizing ethical dualism, limited theology, predestination and an image of God as judgmental and harsh, willing to leave millions to suffer on Earth because of their lack of faith or doctrinal purity. They do differ from the Bible in one respect: they try to present everything as literal fact. Therefore, they tend to interpret or eliminate the code words and symbols presented in the Bible. A really literal presentation of John’s Apocalypse would look like a Japanese monster movie; instead, “The Beast with seven heads” becomes a human being, usually the Secretary-General of the United Nations, with other symbols being similarly interpreted. Generally, this also means that other supernatural elements are downplayed as well.

To begin to make my case that The Lord of the Rings is apocalyptic literature, let me start with this clip (Aragorn Arrives at Helm’s Deep):


First, the qualities that LOTR shares with apocalyptic literature from the Bible: First, it is universal. This is not just the battle of one kingdom against a tyrant; it is the battle of humanity against utter destruction. It is an army bred not just to conquer a kingdom; it is an army bred to destroy the world. In such a battle, there is no middle ground; even those who seek to remain neutral will eventually either take sides or be destroyed by the evil. The Bible has a cosmic dualism; Tolkien does not divide reality into “spiritual and material,” but between Primary World and Faerie, the Perilous Realm. While John told his story of being taken up into Heaven and seeing visions, Tolkien tells stories of a Secondary World where magic, monsters and elves are real. Unlike the apocalyptic norm, however, Tolkien’s Illuvatar is neither vengeful nor overtly controlling. Tolkien might point out that we should look at the story’s origin, the Storyteller, to understand the tale. Most Biblical apocalyptic was written to people undergoing violent persecution. To them, the assurance that God is firmly in control despite all appearances was vitally important. Tolkien aims at an audience that may or may not currently believe in God, though he hopes to nudge them along. His primary interest is to provide moral ideals and imaginative role models. He wants the reader to be able to put himself or herself in the character’s place. He wants us to feel the moral challenge Frodo and Sam feel when confronted with Gollum, or Borimir’s struggle against the Ring. Thus, he needs free will. As the elf Galadriel tells Frodo the hobbit, “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future .” (in the movie The Two Towers). Even if you think you are the most insignificant person alive, you matter, and may even save or doom the world; so every choice you make matters.

By contrast, in the Left Behind movies you hear the repeated refrain, “You cannot go against the word of God.” Ultimately, nothing any of the characters in the movies does matters one whit. You cannot fight the Antichrist; everything that happens, even the evil of the Antichrist, is part of a script God wrote before Time began, which must be followed until the last line.

This is why I object to the Left Behind theology. Unlike the original, Biblical audience, it is not really directed at the persecuted. The characters in that movie were all pretty middle-class and comfortable. Evangelical theology grew out of the revival tradition, which generally aimed first to make the listener of the sermon as uncomfortable as possible. The message was not, “Take comfort, for God is in charge;” it was, “You are sinners in the hands of an angry God; be afraid, for God is in charge.” While Tolkien hopes his reader will be empowered to make moral choices and act decisively, the Evangelical emphasis is not on doing good but on believing correctly. This is shown most dramatically in the movie through the character of a young preacher, who knew the theology and who preached to his congregation, and all of them are raptured away and he is left in an empty church, because he didn’t believe enough. (A Thief in the Night has a similar Christian character who is left to endure the reign of the Antichrist because she attended a church that didn’t teach Evangelical theology.) In the end, there is a real paradox here, that begins to peek out when you read the back of the box for Left Behind. The box asks you, which character would you be? How would you be in this story? But every viewer of that story is expecting NOT to be anyone. We good people will be raptured away; you bad people, who looked down on us and said we were silly, will be forced to live through the Tribulation while we look on from Heaven. Tolkien invites you in, to participate as one or maybe several of the characters, and to really imagine yourself facing these terrors; Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins invite you to escape all the troubles and all the fear and all the suffering, and to move from the relative comfort of your middle-class life to the complete joy of Heaven without any of the suffering of any of the people in the stories. The ones who suffer are good, but they weren’t good enough or they didn’t believe enough or believe rightly; now you can do better than them and learn, not from imitating them but by avoiding the mistake that put them in the story in the first place.

One of the purposes of “the stories that matter” is that the reader or listener can put himself or herself into the story and learn something from it. This is why Beowulf fights monsters instead of fellow Norsemen. I read a promotional tag for Left Behind; “Which one would you be?” But the problem with Left Behind is that it seeks to speak “literal truth” and thus to evoke Primary Belief. And if this is a tale of the Primary World, there is no way anyone should want to see himself or herself in the story. It becomes a cautionary tale, not an inspirational one. Before the characters could become role models, we first have to see them as fictional. When we see them as fiction, we can resolve to make them real, in us. That is the genius of Tolkien and the failure of this sort of literalist dispensationalism. I can meaningfully ask, “What Would Frodo Do?” and when I answer myself, I can try to do that in my own life. The fact that The Lord of the Rings is a fairy-story makes this all the easier. Before I can learn any such lesson from the slurry of biblical images and party politics that is today’s dispensationalist theology, I have to stop taking it literally; which is the one thing I am told NOT to do.

The Lord of the Rings and Left Behind are both tales about the end of the world. One purports to be Fantasy, a fairy-story, that is shot through with religious lessons. The other purports to be a literal reading of the Christian Bible and a road-map through the future. One offers images of how to face challenges; the other seeks to frighten the reader or viewer into avoiding those challenges by giving the story Primary Belief. One invites the reader or viewer to enter the story for a time and then return to the Primary World; the other urges the reader or viewer to avoid becoming part of the story. And one promotes the Christian virtues, and particularly humility; it is the totally unheroic hobbits who save the world. The other promotes self-righteousness coupled with fatalism. I can illustrate that with one line that comes up repeatedly in the “Left Behind” theology: “You cannot go against the Word of God.” The dispensationalist is thoroughly convinced that he or she knows exactly what the future holds; our only job is to speak the lines God wrote for us. After the Rapture, the characters agree that they cannot hope to overthrow or meaningfully oppose the Antichrist; the only thing they can do is “witness.” There is no point in trying to reduce the suffering around them, since this suffering is foreordained; all they are to do is tell people that this suffering was all predicted by their theology. In a similar way, Evangelical preacher Kay Arthur said “You cannot go against the Word of God” as she described how Israeli Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated to prevent peace between Israel and the Arabs; after all, such a peace would prevent the battle of Armageddon.[1] Others say that poverty is part of God’s plan, so we shouldn’t try to eradicate poverty. Others say God is raising the Earth’s temperature, and that any attempt to protect the environment is literally doing Satan’s work (this from a large church near Sun City, Florida). Tolkien, on the other hand, says that God entices and urges, but does not overrule our freedom. God uses our freedom as part of His design. Even Gollum’s sin becomes an integral part of saving the world. And Tolkien’s writings take the mistakes people make, and the suffering these cause, seriously. The dispensationalist may gleefully look forward to the Battle of Armageddon, confident that he or she will be safely in Heaven watching everyone else suffer and thinking smugly, “I told you so!” Tolkien looks at war as grim, full of suffering and pain, even when it is also necessary and honorable. The dispensationalist may say God and only God rules the world, so we shouldn’t think about the environment; Tolkien uses Saruman’s desolation of the land around Isengard to show us the effects of our modern mind of metal and wheels. Tolkien’s style invites us to see ourselves as imitators of the characters, as Paul offered himself, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” The lessons he offers reaffirm that call to be sub-creators and co-workers with Christ. The “Left Behind” theology, by contrast, encourages a proud sense of having secret knowledge, a superiority over all those around you who disagree with your right views; and in style, by claiming to be literal, Primary World truths, they actually discourage one from imitating whatever positive examples one might find.

The Cast of Characters

I can’t possibly discuss the full significance of all the characters; even if I were up to such a task, time doesn’t allow it. Instead, I will focus on a few characters who seem to me to be particularly interesting from a theological perspective. And since this is “The Lord of the Rings,” I will begin with a character which is not a person, has no spoken lines, and yet moves the entire story: the One Ring.

Without going too much into the details of the mythology of The Simarillion, the Rings of Power are said to have been made from the essence of the original light of Creation, stolen by Melkor the rebel and then used by his lieutenant Sauron after Melkor’s second and final defeat. While the elves were persuaded to make rings for themselves, the dwarves and for men, Sauron forged the One Ring for himself, which would give him control of the others or at least neutralize them. With this magic, Sauron nearly conquers Middle Earth, until the ring is cut from his finger by Isildor, a human king and warrior. However, Isildor decides to keep the ring for himself and use it to maintain his own power. Eventually the ring slips from his finger at a key moment, and he is killed. The ring then passes to Gollum, then Bilbo, and finally to Frodo Baggins, a good-hearted and unassuming hobbit.

Some have tried to argue that the Ring is a symbol for the atomic bomb, a power so destructive that it should never have been made. Tolkien rejected that and all other attempts to reduce his writing to straightforward allegory. The One Ring is a metaphor for evil, for the desire to control, but it is not meant to represent any one “real world” evil. That would limit the meaning and the applicability of Tolkien’s story too much. What the Ring does represent is the nature of evil, and temptation.

The Ring has three primary powers: invisibility, longevity and coercion. The invisibility aspect seems to have begun in The Hobbit before Tolkien had decided to make this anything more than a lucky ring. However, he knew the story from Plato’s Republic of the magic Ring of Gyges. That tale argued that anyone who had a ring of invisibility would be shameless; knowing his deeds could not be seen by others, he would stop at nothing to satisfy his own appetites and ambition. Its second power, longevity, answers particularly to the fear of moral humans: death. The ultimate result of both of these is made visible in the character of Gollum. He lives in darkness, where no one can see him. To be invisible means to be cut off from community with others, to be solitary. His greatly lengthened lifespan is no gift either, as his life has length but no corresponding content; it is just an endless repetition of eating raw fish and the occasional murdered goblin to satisfy his hunger. The Ring’s power of coercion is primarily seen in its control of Gollum, who is nearly consumed by the Ring. In the hands of a powerful wielder, like Isildor or Sauron, it becomes the ability to command others against their will.

Evil rarely tempts head-on; generally, it appeals to our virtues first. Gandalf sees this and fears to even touch the Ring for a second, knowing his own pity for others would lead him to want to control them, for their own good, and thus destroy their personhood. Boromir is a brave warrior who wants only to save his homeland; but his bravery is used against him by the Ring, to tempt him to kill Frodo, steal the Ring for himself, and then replace Sauron as the Lord of Middle Earth. Frodo, and Sam briefly, and Bilbo are able to handle the Ring more safely, probably because they are hobbits: simple, rustic, unpretentious, rightfully humble hobbits. They have no desire to dominate others and no belief that they could. There is simply very little for the Ring to grab onto.

As to the original Lord of the Ring, Sauron, he has invested so much of his own power into creating the Ring that he has no real physical form anymore. In a very real sense, he is The Ring. His will radiates out from his stronghold in Mordor, to control the orcs and other evil things that serve him; but he lives only because the Ring still exists, and until he is united with it he is divided and weakened. In the end, Evil is defeated by humility, by weakness and not strength, as the hobbits Frodo and Sam throw the Ring into the volcano where it was forged and the only place it can be destroyed.

Next I would like to discuss Legolas the Elf and Gimli the Dwarf, and more generally with elves and dwarves. Illuvatar the Creator made the Valar to be his servants and co-workers, and delegated much of the work of creation to them. He directly created two beings: Elves and Men. Only Illuvatar could do this, because only God can create a free-willed being; the work of the Valar was to create a world with lesser beings where these two peoples could live. The Elves were immortal in that they don’t die of old age, though they can die either violently or voluntarily.   They were intended to live in Valinor, also known as the Undying Lands, a Paradise created by Illuvatar as their home. However, one group of elves disobeyed. Having been seduced, morally weakened and then betrayed by Melkor, the rebellious Valar who serves as a Lucifer figure, this group of elves left the place the Creator assigned them to chase their evil foe to Middle Earth. Ultimately they failed to defeat him, and found themselves exiled from the Undying Lands.

Dwarves have a different origin from either Elves or Humans. They were created by one of the Valar, who desired to imitate Illuvatar and make a people. As we saw last week, it is natural for the created to imitate the Creator. However, Illuvatar was not pleased, because the Valar had not asked permission first and Illuvatar wanted the Elves to be the first people; at the time the Dwarves were made, the Elves had not yet been awakened. Also, the Dwarves had no free will, since only God can make a free-willed person. Their maker therefore prepared to destroy them in obedience to the Creator, but the Creator knew that this was not a rebellion but just over-eagerness on the Valar’s part; and he also took pity on the Dwarves. Therefore, he gave the Dwarves free will, but said they must wait until the Elves were awakened before they could be brought to life on Middle Earth.

Thus, Elves are created by Illuvatar the Creator, and are the very essence of Faerie: magical, immortal, and from another land, Valinor, not really native to this world. The Dwarves are said to have been created in the depths of a mountain, so they are much more “of this earth.” They are long-lived but mortal. They are as skilled craftsmen as are the Elves in many ways, but not as magical or wise. And their maker created them tough, to fight Melkor, and they seem to be even more resistant to the temptations of Melkor and his lieutenant Sauron than the elves were. They are said to be “step-children” of Illuvatar, since they were not made by him initially but he took care of them and gave them full personhood. Tolkien writes that there is much tension between elves and dwarves, partly due to their different temperaments (elves being rather “out there” and otherworldly, dwarves being solid, stolid and practical). Sometimes this led to dwarf nations staying neutral in the battles between good and evil, preferring to ignore the rest of the world rather than ally with either the elves or the evil orcs.

Legolas the Wood Elf and Gimli the Dwarf represent old enemies. In The Hobbit, the Wood Elves capture a party of dwarves trying to cross through their forest to reclaim their kingdom which was destroyed by the dragon Smaug. Gloin, Gimli’s father, was one of those dwarves who was captured, then freed by Bilbo the Hobbit. The climax of The Hobbit (and the end of the movie series) is “The Battle of Five Armies,” where an army of Wood Elves (led by Legolas’ father, the Elf King) attempts to take the dwarves’ treasure by force, together with a group of Men, only to ally with the Men and Dwarves to fight a goblin army that arrives (watch the movie to see who the fifth army is).

In The Lord of the Rings, Legolas and Gimili are initially rivals; Gimli’s father had been imprisoned by Legolas’ father, so neither really trusted the other’s people. They each join the Fellowship to destroy Sauron and the evil Ring of Power initially to keep an eye on each other. Their rivalry becomes a competition to see who can be the bravest and most effective warrior; rather than fighting each other, they compete to see who can do the most good. Through shared hardship and willingness to sacrifice themselves, they become fast friends. After evil is defeated, Elves eventually return to Valinor, leaving this world to the Men. Dwarves simply disappear from history; I’ve looked and I can’t find where they went. But Gimli and Legolas are such great friends that after many years of traveling together and visiting each other’s lands, Gimli joins Legolas for the final voyage to Valinor, becoming the only dwarf to enter the Undying Lands.

Legolas and Gimli illustrate Tolkien’s belief that good, and only good, brings people together, through shared endeavors and through service to one another. Good induces and invites; it does not override freedom. Thus the friendship between Legolas and Gimli had to develop on its own. Despite personal, historical and even metaphysical reasons to oppose each other, they become the best of friends.

By contrast, the origins of the Orcs reveals the nature of Evil. The Orcs were created by Melkor, not in obedient imitation of Illuvatar but in rebellious envy. Melkor wanted a people of his own. However, Evil cannot create anything; as St. Augustine said, Evil is only the absence or lessening of Good, not an independent reality. To make a people, Melkor had to parasitize the good creation. He corrupted and mauled captive elves to make them into his creatures. They are creatures of pure hate; they hate themselves, they hate other races, and they hate their creator and lord. Evil never has true community, or true freedom; it knows only coercion and violence. The orcs show this in their squabbling and murder of one another, as well as other creatures. They are said by Tolkien to make no beautiful things, but many clever ones, particularly for war. They aren’t stupid; they are simply evil. They are incapable of voluntary cooperation at all, because they are incapable of either trust or service to neighbor; they only work together when forced to by a stronger leader.

The contrast between dwarves and orcs shows the difference between genuine sub-creation and illegitimate invention. The maker of the dwarves could not match God’s creative activity, though he tried to imitate the Creator as best he could. When he realized he could not and should not have tried, he even offered to destroy his work in contrition. Because of this, God gave that sub-creation real existence. By contrast, Melkor would not be humble before God, and his attempts at creation are all not in imitation of God but attempts to supplant God. This sort of work cannot be redeemed. It is evil and all it does is evil. It is not true creation at all, but merely a twisting of what was originally created good. And ultimately, evil is self-destructive, just as good is nourishing and truly creative.

This contrast shows up again in the contrast between Gandalf and Saruman. Both of these are maiar, spiritual beings who took physical form at will and served the Valar in their work of creation. Five of these spiritual beings took the form of wizards. Two went east and play no major part in any stories. Radagast the Brown is mentioned in passing in the published books, becoming a much more important character in the movies. The two principle wizards are Saruman the White and Gandalf the Grey. Saruman is the mightiest and wisest, but his greatness is the source of his temptation. He seeks to understand his own nature, better to control the power rather than merely serve it. He thus refracts his own white, becoming Saruman the Many-Colored; his apparently white robe is found by Gandalf to actually be millions of different threads of every hue. As Gandalf says, “he who breaks a thing in order to understand it has left the path of knowledge.” Instead of serving the good, Illuvatar the Light, Saruman has splintered his light, thinking this would make him even more knowledgeable and powerful; instead, it leaves him too shrewd for his own good, and he tries to join forces with Sauron to gain still more power and safety. He is described by Tolkien as having a mind of metal, full of wheels and machines. He is the archetypal modern industrial scientist, using his creative powers without regard either to nature or to other persons, seeking only his own safety and power. In the end his politicking, plotting and betrayal failed, and he wound up escaping imprisonment only to be defeated by an army of hobbits led by Samwise Gamgee. What could be more pathetic?

Gandalf the Grey, on the other hand, grows stronger by not seeking his own good, but that of others. He is said by Tolkien to have been particularly close to the Valar of Mercy, and it is pity and mercy that drive him. While he is known for dire prophecies, he always acts for the good of others. In the end he offers his own life to save his friends and ensure the quest to destroy the Ring will continue. As a result, he is reborn to the place where Saruman would have been, becoming Gandalf the White. It is in service to others that the faithful find true greatness. He does not seek to master this new power for his own ends, as Saruman did, but rather serves it and uses it for others.

I will not try to do justice to the other main characters here. I will suffice to point out perhaps the major difference between the Narnia tales and The Lord of the Rings: a gaggle of Christ figures. C.S. Lewis wrote evangelical (small “e”) allegories, so he has a straightforward Christ symbol: Aslan the Lion. Tolkien is determined to depict a world before Christ or even Abraham. However, as he said in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” all fairy tales are a sort of precursor or echo of the Gospel consolation. If every fairy story is a kind of Gospel, Tolkien can have several characters who are a precursor of Christ. And in fact, he would say, every Christian should be an imitator of Christ, in his or her own way. Aragorn is a type of Christ the King who returns; he offers literal healing and redemption even to the dead; and he offers his life in a suicidal attack on Mordor to give Frodo a better chance to succeed. Frodo bears our evil upon himself and suffers for it, and finally rids us of it. Gandalf lays down his life for his friends and comes back to life again. But even humble Sam the Gardener has his part to play, as a type of St. Christopher, the Christ-Bearer, who carries Frodo the last few steps.

[1] Bob Simon, “Zion’s Christian Soldiers,” 60 Minutes, Oct. 6, 2002, (accessed October 13, 2014) or see and

Tolkien lecture 2: Monsters, Fairy Stories and the Imageo Dei

September 30, 2014

Tolkien lecture 2: Monsters, Fairy Stories and the Imageo Dei

 This is my current draft of the second lecture of a series of four which I am preparing for my church’s adult Sunday School sessions in October.

Two early childhood creations mentioned by biographers are the language he and his brother invented together and the story he wrote about a dragon. It seems that his mother early instilled in him an appreciation for both the world of imagination and the intricacies of grammar and the way language functions. Much later, however, he reported that as a child he lost interest in “fairy stories” for a time, eventually becoming interested in fantasy again as an outgrowth of his studies in philology.

As an adult, he wrote stories for his own interest and for his children, while at the same time becoming a successful professor of philology. These two interests combined strikingly in his lecture titled “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” which he delivered in 1936 to the British Academy and published the next year. This essay is credited with revitalizing Beowulf studies. Tolkien began by lamenting the status of Beowulf criticism at that time, claiming that there really wasn’t any. Instead, he argued, there were a lot of historical dissections of “The Beowulf,” attempts to find the mundane historical foundation or to find some pre-English precursor, instead of any attempt to consider the story as it is presented to us now. For those of you rusty on your high-school English literature, here’s a brief synopsis lifted from Wikipedia:

In the poem, Beowulf, a hero of the Geats in Scandinavia, comes to the aid of Hroðgar, the king of the Danes, whose mead hall (in Heorot) has been under attack by a monster known as Grendel. After Beowulf slays him, Grendel’s mother attacks the hall and is then also defeated. Victorious, Beowulf goes home to Geatland in Sweden and later becomes king of the Geats. After a period of fifty years has passed, Beowulf defeats a dragon, but is fatally wounded in the battle. After his death, his attendants bury him in a tumulus, a burial mound, in Geatland.


All in all, it is a pretty simple story: boy meets monster, boy kills monster, boy kills monster’s mother, and then nothing more is said about the boy until fifty years later when the boy, now an old man, kills and is killed by a dragon. Tolkien summarizes the consensus of scholarship in his day as saying that the story puts the important things at the edges and the unimportant things in the center, and that whatever flaws it has, it is still Highly Significant. He agrees that it is highly significant, but disagrees that it is misguided. Instead, he argues, the critics are unhappy because it is not what they want it to be, whether that be an epic, an historical narrative or whatever. It is instead a poem, and should be read as one. It should be read as a finished product intended to say something particular about life, not simply rummaged through to find what historical facts about the ancient Norse might be gleaned. Above all, the center is right where it should be: on the monsters. Modern critics wish to do away with monsters and find the “real” basis for the story. “Reality” has to be some historical account of a human fighting an enemy, or maybe an allegorized story of a war between two clans, or something “normal.” Tolkien says no: the emphasis is on the monsters, and should be. The poem of Beowulf, he argues, was written by an early Christian monk, who looked back over the heritage of his pagan Anglo-Saxon history (just barely past) to comment on the pagan understanding of life. The hero strives against monsters because he is not just some guy fighting some other guy; he is every hero fighting death itself. In fighting Grendel, he fights evil itself, that which hates music and joy and all the mead hall was meant to celebrate. He defeats it, and thus becomes truly the hero. The hero is he who fights that which threatens to corrupt and destroy human nature and human fellowship. The hero is one who behaves heroically in the face of these dangers. And, the poet shows us, the hero (in pagan times) is one who is heroic without hope. Having proved his boasts true and defeated Grendel and his mother, the next time we meet Beowulf he is facing a more inhuman monster, a dragon, who is truly Death itself. The Teutonic hero faces death bravely, and slays the monster while himself being slain. The beginning of the hero and his end are thus presented in the poem, and that is all paganism offers: birth, striving, death, and then nothing. The ancient monk who wrote the poem both celebrates the heroic virtues of the past, and illustrates the limits of the pre-Christian view of life. No “realistic” story could have done this as well; the hero strives against cosmic forces, and these must be represented as the monstrous, superhuman forces that they are if the hero’s struggle against them is to reflect humanity’s struggle with the cosmos.

This then is Tolkien’s explanation of Beowulf: a Christian poem making Christian points using the language, imagery and even older tales from the pre-Christian past. The author does not mention the Norse gods, Tolkien says, because they are false gods and he doesn’t want to endorse them. Today Thor is one of The Avengers, but when “Beowulf” was written Thor was still The Thunderer who our grandfather prayed to but we no longer do, but who still lived in the back of our minds. We today can treat the Norse gods as fairy tale creatures who live far away in another realm; for the author of “Beowulf” it seemed better just to ignore them.

In many ways, Tolkien saw himself as doing what he felt the author of “Beowulf” had done. At the time he gave the lecture, 1936, he had just finished the manuscript for The Hobbit. This is a fairy-story, and I’ll say more about that later, but it really is a very different tale. The Lord of the Rings had not even been imagined, since it grew out of his publisher’s urgent request for “more hobbit stories.” But Tolkien had been working on The Simarillion for more than twenty years. It was a labor of love for him, beginning as an attempt to create a national myth of England equivalent to the Finnish saga he was studying in 1912. He tried repeatedly to get it published in his lifetime, but even with his other literary successes Allen and Ulwin were hesitant about taking on such a large and complex work; besides, it had no hobbits. Instead, it remained a private project, and since it remained unpublished he continued working on it his entire life, leaving it for his son Christopher to edit and publish posthumously. And this was a work that uses older themes and tales of a pre-Christian world to present Christian values. Many readers of Tolkien have remarked on the fact that there is no institutional religion and little explicit belief ever expressed in his more famous works; but this again is fitting, particularly given what he says about “Beowulf.” Tolkien is depicting a world where there is no “chosen people” because the Creator has not yet chosen any nation. God has not become revealed in history. And certainly, there has been no Incarnation. With the true god unknown in the world, any religion would be false, so it is better just not to deal with it. At the same time, Tolkien’s world is one that is much closer in time to the Creation, and Eru Illuvatar, his name for the Creator, is more present everywhere. The elves were the first people created, immortal and magical, destined eventually to fade from the world and return to their Creator. Wizards are the human forms of the Maiar, who are essentially messengers of the Valar, the heavenly host who surround and assist the Creator. You might say they are the angels’ angels. So in a very real sense, humans are surrounded by agents of the divine though they do not know it. In the Revelations of John we read that in the New Jerusalem there will be no temple, because God is everywhere. In Middle Earth, God is likewise everywhere and therefore not worshipped anywhere specifically. At the same time, though, in Middle Earth God is invisible, because He has not revealed Himself; God’s purest agents are the practitioners of magic, the wizards and elves, who appear to the mortals around them as merely unusual and powerful beings like themselves, superlatively powerful and wise but not “supernatural.” Tolkien’s mythology has its own versions of Satan and the Fall, and the name “Sauron” implies a serpent (notice the similarity between the name “Sauron” and the word “dino-saur,” Latin for “terrible lizard”). The tales of the Simarillion and The Lord of the Rings are thus cosmic tales of the struggle between good and evil, order and chaos, creation and destruction.

And of course, in cosmic tales you must have monsters. The elves are the original people, closest to Eru Illuvatar; the orcs are elves captured and mutated by Melkor, the Lucifer of Middle Earth, the Valar who rebelled against the Creator. They are thus literally evil made flesh, though individually of a low level. By contrast the Balrog and Smaug represent personifications of greed and malice equal to Fafnir, the giant turned dragon which Siegfried slew in German mythology. The struggle against monsters is a cosmic struggle, a moral struggle, and a physical struggle against a dangerous foe, all at once. It is a physical struggle because they are physical realities and pose physical dangers. They thus also require physical courage, and cleverness, and other virtues to overcome, just as “ordinary” dangers such as war and hardship would require. It is a moral struggle because the monsters represent moral evils made manifest, and evoke in others the vices they represent; or sometimes they result from the ordinary vices. For example, the dwarves of Moria were too curious and too greedy and too proud, and thus dug too deeply into darkness and secrets they should not; in that way they uncovered the Balrog which destroyed their kingdom. This monster was only defeated by one who fought bravely without hope of advantage for himself, but on behalf of others. Service to neighbors is an important virtue in Tolkien’s writings, whether it is Gandalf defending the bridge or Mr. Niggle who leaves off painting his picture so he can run an errand for his neighbor with the bad leg.[1] And monsters are also cosmic evils, representations of the powers that would plunge everything back into Chaos, incarnations of death and greed and oppression. When Beowulf fights the dragon, he knows he is going to meet Death, and determines to meet it bravely and dutifully. Tolkien’s monsters are likewise manifestations of the decay that threatens the world. And just as the author of Beowulf described his monsters as children of Cain to link them to the rebellion against God, Tolkien’s monsters are generally agents of Sauron, servant of Melkor the arch-rebel of The Simarillion. To fight monsters is thus to do the work of defending and repairing Creation itself, becoming God’s co-worker.

But enough about monsters: what about elves and fairies and the good? These are the subjects of Tolkien’s 1939 lecture at St. Andrews’ University, “On Fairy-Stories.” At this point Tolkien was already a successful author; The Hobbit was selling well and had gotten good reviews, and his publisher was pushing him to write a sequel. That sequel, barely started at this point, would ten years later be The Lord of the Rings. And of course, Tolkien’s labor of love, The Simarillion, was seventeen years in the making at this point and still growing. He might have been humble about his qualifications to write about fairy-stories, but the world was beginning to know him as an excellent writer of fairy-stories himself.   This essay also, of course, says much about what he saw as his own mission as a writer.

Tolkien begins by attempting to define the concept “fairy-story” more clearly. Many so-called “fairy tales” really aren’t, in his view. Some are simply moralistic allegories aimed at children and sugar coated by saying the heroes are fairies. Some are simply talking beast fables, similar to fairy tales but lacking the magical or fantastic element. So saying anything using a fairy as a character is a “fairy-story” is too narrow, Tolkien thinks; and saying anything with a marvelous nature (like Aesop’s fables) is a fairy-story is too broad. And speaking as a philologist, he points out that before the Tudor period “fairy” was not used to refer to a magical being like an elf, but rather to a magical place or dimension, the Perilous Realm, the land of enchantment. The fairy-story is the story of another reality than the one we generally inhabit, one more mysterious and beautiful and dangerous. It is the realm of Magic, provided “magic” is understood as perfectly serious and real, and not confused with “the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific, magician.” As an example, he points to the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a story that is full of magic but has no “fairies” at all. This is a story he lectured on often and had previously discussed in a scholarly essay.

After a discussion of the sorts of tales he would include under the genre “fairy-stories” and the various sorts of faux fairy stories he would reject, he turns to consider the question of the origin of fairy-stories. This question could be considered in two ways, and Tolkien discusses both. The first is the question of the origin of a particular story. This is the sort of thing that scholars debate constantly. If, for example, you find a similar tale in two widely different locations, what is the explanation? Do some tales just travel around the world until every culture has some version? Do some tales originate in multiple locations simultaneously? Tolkien moots most of these questions that so fascinate scholars. First, he says they aren’t using the tale as it was meant to be used. Just as he complained so-called critics had for years dissected Beowulf rather than just read it as a poem, so he says they often do with all fairy-stories. It’s a fine procedure in its own way, but it doesn’t tell us anything about the actual story. We often find stories about witches eating (or trying to eat) children, but that doesn’t mean Hansel and Getel, Baba Yaga and “Hocus Pocus” are “the same story.” And deciding that the first two arose independently and the last imitated the first but not the second tells us little about why this theme should have been used in this story in this way. Ultimately, Tolkien points out, any explanation of the fairy-story goes back to some Story-teller, who had a particular reason for telling this tale in this way. He writes that “The human mind, the tongue and the tale are all coeval.” That is, fairy-stories are as ancient as language and the mind itself. This may be more provable than Tolkien knew, if those cave paintings of horned men suggest (as some scholars believe) that Paleolithic humans imagined a magical man-beast. Tolkien says in his essay that the human mind is able to abstract the qualities from the world and combine them in new ways, imagining the green of grass on an old witch’s skin or the yellow straw being spun into yellow gold. This is the essential creative activity of the human mind: taking the things God has made and seeing them in new ways, in new relationships, and with new possibilities. This is the beginning of Faerie.

The origin of the fairy-story is the story teller. The origin of Faerie is the ability of the human mind to abstract concepts from the observed world and combine them in new ways. But why should anyone seek to do this? Why make up stories about other worlds, and the Perilous Realm? Why did the ancient storytellers choose tales of Faerie, and why do so many modern storytellers continue to do so? Why does there continue to be such a hunger for fairy-stories, even among modern people?    Tolkien says that the chief value of fairy-stories, if they are well done, lies in their literary merit just as it does for any other work of art. He utterly rejects the idea that they are “children’s stories” or as we call them today, “Young Adult literature.” Their chief value is not that they are good for children; if they are good, they are good for everyone. But fairy-stories in particular serve four distinct functions: Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, and Consolation, all of which Tolkien says adults generally need more than children do.

Fantasy: Of the four, Tolkien regards Fantasy as the most important: he devotes as much space discussing Fantasy as he does the other three combined. Tolkien says it is because human beings are inherently, essentially creative. It is human nature to want to create something new. As he puts it, “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.”

As a theologian, I find this statement extremely interesting and even exciting. Tolkien is making a claim about the doctrine of the Imageo Dei, the image of God in which Adam was created. We have an irrepressible urge to create because we are ourselves created in the image of the Creator. There are, of course, many sorts of creation. Building, making and using tools, running a business, writing a science textbook or a dramatic novel or painting a still-life, even having and raising children are all creative activities. Tolkien is not saying that only Faerie is connected with the Imageo Dei or that only fantasy writers are truly following the example of the Creator. But he is saying that fantasy is one expression of the Image of God. It can be abused, creating nightmares and idolatries and pagan cults of human sacrifice, whether those be the old Norse religion or the mythologies underlying 20th Century totalitarianisms; but the abuse of the gift does not change the fact of its divine origin.

Tolkien’s word for this human activity is “sub-creation.” We live every day in the “Primary World,” the world God has made. Made in God’s image, we have a desire to create our own “Secondary Worlds.” That is what Fantasy represents. The story-maker tries to create an internally consistent and compelling Secondary World, and invites the reader or hearer to enter it for a time. When the story-maker does a good job of it, we enter into that world. That is often called “suspension of disbelief,” but Tolkien finds that a poor term since it suggests a deliberate choice to push aside disbelief; if the Secondary World is compelling and the story well-told, disbelief does not appear in the first place. It is more like dreaming, as we enter into the Secondary World and give it Secondary Belief: not equal to the belief we give the Primary World, but just as real for the time we are under its spell.

Recovery: Life can be exhausting. The sameness of the passing days can drain the spirit. There are only three primary colors, only straight or curved lines; the elements of reality are always the same. The sameness can dull our ability to see them at all. To see reality clearly we must learn to see it anew, from a different angle. We must see the elements of reality in their distinctiveness. We need the gift of Recovery. Fantasy allows us to take the elements of reality and recombine them in new ways. This in turn allows us to see them afresh and to appreciate them as they are in nature. We see the familiar and are startled to see it from a different angle. Above all, we see things, in Tolkien’s words, “as we were meant to see them—as things apart from ourselves.” Over-familiarity leads to a sense of possessiveness; Recovery means regaining a clear view, to see things in their independent reality. Tolkien says that Fairy-Stories are not essential to this sort of view of reality; humility would be enough. But fairy-stories are one way we can regain this view of things as things instead of seeing them simply as revolving around ourselves. And furthermore, Fantasy can allow us to set all our ideas free from their previous confines and relationships and experience them in new ways.

Escape: The gift of Recovery grants the ability to Escape. In Tolkien’s day as in our own, there is much scorn directed towards “escapist literature.” At the very least, it is often considered like candy: it’s alright if you’ve already eaten your vegetables. It’s unhealthy or at best empty, but not too bad in small doses. Some critics would go further and see all such “escapism” as unhealthy and perhaps a bit immoral. You should put your feet in the “real world” and stick to your work; anything else is shirking your responsibilities. I’m afraid Christianity has contributed to this attitude, particularly Paul’s injunction that Christians should forswear frivolity and confine themselves to singing hymns and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:15-20, for example). Tolkien takes these critics head-on and says the “escape” offered by Fantasy should not be compared to the laborer shirking his responsibilities but rather to the prisoner slipping his chains. Humans have probably always longed to escape the limits of their existence, to fly or swim as easily as a bird or fish, to converse with other animals and so on. More specifically, fairy stories allow us to escape the limits of our own lives. In this mechanized, industrial, polluted, crowded, impersonal, confining and completely un-heroic world we live in today, Tolkien thinks, it is only natural to long for at least a temporary escape. When we have learned to see the trite and familiar in new and fresh ways, and to see the ideas that made up our Primary World in new relationships and full of new power, we can break free of the psychological confinement and limits which we have accepted too easily. And perhaps, he says, they can put us in touch with true reality. He cites the attitude of some of his contemporaries that electric street lights and railroads and traffic jams are “real life” and “inevitable progress.” Really, they are unreal; what could be real about making night as bright as day, isolating human life from the land and air that sustains it, making long distances seem short? Fantasy may create monsters that live in the sea or fly in the skies, but at least it does not try to utterly do away with the oceans or the heavens. Only modern industrial man would think to do that. Escape from that sort of world is escaping from the artificial to seek the natural.

Consolation: Escape opens the way to Consolation. What, exactly, is Consolation, and how does the Fairy-Story offer it? I would answer that by returning to a piece of literature which is not a “Fairy Story” but which does contain many elements of Faerie: the poem Beowulf. True, dragons and ogres are clearly denizens of the Perilous Realm; but monsters notwithstanding, the remarkable thing about Beowulf, the first thing I noticed when I first read it as a teenager, was the relative lack of fantastic elements. No gods or elves or spirits aid the hero or even advise him; the human is on his own against the monsters. That, Tolkien says, is the ultimate conclusion of paganism. One fights against the forces of evil and suffering and decay until one loses, and that is the end of it. Beowulf, in the poem, fights and dies bravely, without consolation. Old age, more than the dragon, finally claims him, as it claims us all. What the poem lacks is what Tolkien called the “Eucatastrophe.” This is another word of his own invention. It literally means “the good catastrophe.” What we usually call a “catastrophe” is the sudden reversal of order and joy, the sudden collapse and destruction. The Eucatastrophe is the sudden reversal, the sudden and unexpected turn of good that come out and redeems the catastrophe. The abused stepchild finds she has a fairy godmother who sends her off to the ball, there ultimately to win her way out of poverty and serfdom. The fatherless son, starving and penniless and the victim of con men, finds his way to a magical realm where he overcomes a giant and wins wealth and fame. What is the traditional end of a fairy-tale? Say it with me: “And they all lived happily ever after.” The fairy-story is an expression of the hope that one might somehow, despite all reason and the way things usually go in the Primary World, somehow Escape from disaster. And of all the disasters that threaten, what is the ultimate? We may dream of escaping from gravity or poverty, but the ultimate escape is the escape from Death. And ultimately, that is what the Fairy-Story hints at: Somehow, by some magic, we might escape the Dragon that claimed Beowulf.

This is why Tolkien claims the Fairy-Story as “a kind of evangelium.” The fairy-story is the story of wondrous Escape and the promise that life might be a bit better than appearances seem to allow. This, Tolkien claims, is a universal hope of all humankind. There is no one who could not wish this were true, except someone who has really fallen to wrath and despair. As a Catholic, Tolkien was familiar with St. Augustine’s prayer: Our hearts, O LORD, are restless until they find their rest in Thee. The fairy-story reflects that restlessness and answers to it. It is a kind of gospel, a precursor to the Gospel. But as humans, the story-tellers through the ages could only create their Secondary Worlds and place their consolations therein. God has placed the ultimate Consolation in the Primary World. The Gospel is the ultimate Eucatastrophe. When history seemed dark and hopeless, Light was born. When Death had won, suddenly the stone was rolled away. As Tolkien writes, “This story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—–and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.”

Tolkien scorns the notion that two stories with similar themes are “the same story.” It is essential, he says, to focus on the Story-Teller, and the intentions of the story-teller in telling the story in just this way. So he is definitely not saying that all fairy-stories are the same. What he is saying is that they all speak to a common longing: the need for a Eucatastrophe, the escape from Death, Consolation. And in saying that the Gospel is a Fairy-Story, he certainly does not mean that it is “only” a fairy-story. This was the center of his argument with Lewis, and how he finally turned him from rationalism back to belief. Something can be “mythology” and still also be true in this Primary World. That is, we can understand the historical events of the Gospel as the fulfillment of the intentions and desires of earlier mythology, while still believing that they actually did happen in the “real world.” As the Scripture puts it, Christ came “in the fullness of time,” when all Creation groaned for liberation. The fairy-story reflects that universal longing.

Looking at these non-fiction essays, we can see what Tolkien was up to in his writing. First, as he says, it is essential that the work has its own literary merit. His first goal was to write a good story; if it isn’t good reading, no noble purpose can make it good. Like the author of Beowulf, Tolkien sought to express Christian truths implicitly, telling stories of a pre-Christian and even pre-Abrahamic time. Also like Beowulf, he celebrated the virtues of the heroic age, such as courage and loyalty, putting them in the service of his Christian message. More explicitly than Beowulf and more like the fairy-story, Tolkien sought to create a Secondary World through his exercise in Fantasy, to give his readers the opportunity to join him through their own Secondary Belief. In doing so, the reader has a chance to see another world, a world without motor cars or tenements, a world closer to nature than many of them experience in their lives, and to appreciate again the joys such a world can offer. He presents the dangers and challenges of life as monsters and demons to be fought and defeated, whether by courage, or cunning, or humble persistence. He presents supernatural aid in the form of magic, primarily exercised by elves and wizards. He gives his readers a chance to see things afresh, whether they are things that have become invisible through overfamiliarity or things that are no longer familiar. And he offers stories of Consolation, and Eucatastrophe, where faith is satisfied and virtue rewarded after it seemed impossible. They are stories of redemption; and one reason they have endured and become so popular is that readers, and now viewers, often come away a feeling a little bit redeemed. And while Tolkien rejects the direct allegorizing of C. S. Lewis and seeks to give his reader the imaginative freedom to apply the story to his or her own life, he does expect that by tasting a little redemption in his Secondary World, the reader’s appetite for the true Redemption will be awakened.

[1] “Leaf by Niggle” is an interesting story, but more complicated than I feel I can really explain here; I recommend you read it yourself.


Tolkien lecture 1: Intro and bio

September 18, 2014

I use this forum to publish a variety of ongoing projects.  Here, I am working on a mini-course on Tolkien which I am to lead for my church in October.  These are the notes for my first lecture. 



Tolkien lecture 1: Intro and bio


First, when I start a new class I usually tell the students who I am and what relevant background I have for the course. In this case, I admit I am an amateur when it comes to Tolkien. My specialty is philosophical theology, and most people think of Tolkien as a writer of fantasy literature. Perhaps, if they are bit more informed, they think of him as a religious fantasy writer. Religion and Lit. is not necessarily my professional expertise, but it is a longtime interest.

My first qualification, I would say, is that I wanted this course. I’ve heard for a long time that if you want something done around the church, you should volunteer to do it. With the last of the Hobbit movies coming out this December, there seems no better time to look at Tolkien.

My second qualification is my decades-long interest in fantasy literature, movies, games and so on. Tolkien really established fantasy and influenced generations of writers afterwards. Another writer of fantasy literature, great in his own way though not as grand perhaps, was C. S. Lewis. I was pleasantly surprised when I first learned that these two great religious writers were friends and collaborators. I read both Tolkien and Lewis first in the mid 1970s, during the Tolkien craze in the U.S. and like millions I loved the books. In my church youth group we did discussions of some of Lewis’ books, but never discussed Tolkien. It was much later that I first realized that Tolkien was just as much a religious writer as Lewis, although they had very different styles and strategies.

As I began my scholarly work in Religious Studies, I encountered various psychological methods of analysis, including those of Carl Jung. I learned that Jung influenced Joseph Campbell, whose work on comparative religions in turn influenced George Lucas. Tolkien’s more theoretical discussions of religion and mythology began to interest me as alternatives to the Jungian approach. More on that next week.

And getting back to my professional focus, I became interested in Tolkien as a theologian about ten years ago, when SECSOR issued a call for Tolkien papers in conjunction with the release of Peter Jackson’s Ring movies. That seems only fair, since Tolkien was not really schooled in theology yet he wrote theologically significant essays, and I’m a theologian who’s not really schooled in Tolkien yet I write about him. One thing I hope to do here is discuss some of the theological concepts developed by Tolkien, and consider whether they offer better alternatives than some of the most popular theology today. Again, more on that later.

Still, I would not dare to stand in front of a group like this, which I know to be pretty sharp, if it weren’t for my confidence that sheer enthusiasm can make up for a lot in a teacher; and I am enthusiastic about Tolkien, both as a writer and a theologian. As a first step towards a greater appreciation of Tolkien as a theologian, I’d like to start with a short summary of Tolkien’s life, and consider in particular how some of the events of his life shaped his writing and his religious thought.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born January 3rd, 1892, in Bloemfontein, South Africa. His father, Arthur, was a branch manager of Lloyds Bank of Africa, having come originally from England with his wife Mabel two years earlier. The climate in South Africa was not good for mother or children and John was often sick. His father died in South Africa in 1896 of rheumatic fever, while the family was away visiting England. They then moved there permanently, first living in the small town of Sarehole Mill for four years before returning to Mabel’s hometown of Birmingham in 1900. Birmingham at that time was at the epicenter of English industrialization, and young John desperately missed the rural life he had left to move to this mechanized and dirty city. It was also about this time that he began studying languages and grammar. His mother converted to Catholicism, which estranged her from many in her family. Four years later she was dead from diabetes, leaving the parish rector, Father Morgan, as their legal guardian so that they would be raised as Catholics (1904). John was 13.

For the next four years the brothers lived with an aunt who was not emotionally close, but spent as much time as they could at school or the church with Fr. Morgan. In 1908 the boys moved out to a boarding house near the church, and John met another lodger there, a 19-year-old girl named Edith. Although she was three years older than he was, they declared their love for each other in 1909. Fr. Morgan did not approve when he found out about their relationship, and moved John Ronald to another house and forbade him from seeing her until he turned 21, at which point he would be legally an adult.

Over the next four years the two exchanged letters but never saw each other. JRR finished his schooling and won a scholarship to Oxford. On the day of this 21st birthday he wrote a letter to Edith and proposed. When she replied that she was already engaged to another man, he traveled to see her five days later and persuaded her to marry him. She converted to Catholicism a year later, and they were married Nov. 22, 1916.

JRR finished his studies at Exeter College of Oxford University, focusing on philology. After he finished his studies he joined the British army and fought in France during WWI. Originally sent to Flanders, he soon became ill and spent most of his military service in and out of hospital until he was discharged. By 1918, when the war ended, he wrote “All my close friends but one are dead.”

During this time his career was beginning to take off. Privately, he had begun writing poems years earlier, and began work on the Simarillion in 1917. Professionally he worked as a tutor and on the New English Dictionary, particularly the letter “W”. Years later, when an editor attempted to tell him that spelling “dwarves” with a “v” was not proper according to the Oxford dictionary, he replied, “I WROTE the Oxford English Dictionary!” This was also a time when he learned a great deal about language, as he researched the etymology of words back to Old English and other roots.

In 1920 he became a Reader at Leeds University, and in 1925 he was elected Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, beating out his former tutor. The position required at least 21 lectures a year; his second year he gave 136, and eventually settled down to 72 a year through the end of the 1930s. So he wasn’t lazy.

May 11, 1926 Tolkien met C.S. Lewis. Lewis is said to have been warned never to trust a Catholic or a philologist, and Tolkien was concerned that Lewis might oppose his efforts to improve the linguistics portion of the college syllabus; but the two became friends because of their shared interests in good beer and good stories. At the time they met, Lewis was not religious; his conversations with Tolkien and mutual friend Hugo Dyson led to Lewis’ conversion to Christianity in 1931. Lewis’ ongoing suspicion of Catholicism did somewhat strain their lifelong friendship at times.

In 1932 Tolkien, Lewis and several others formed a literary club, calling themselves The Inklings. This group met weekly to share meals, give public readings of ongoing projects (and offer criticism), and generally socialize.

One biographer remarked that after this point in Tolkien’s life, nothing much happened. That’s “nothing,” of course, aside from writing some of the most widely read and beloved books in the English language, with combined sales of over 250 million copies and still going. But at this point, the story becomes less about what made J.R.R. Tolkien, and more about what J.R.R. Tolkien made. In addition to his scholarly work, he had been writing fantasy first for himself, and then for his children; but he never intended to publish most of it. He was a respected scholar and a popular and busy lecturer, working far harder than his job demanded; he was a husband and father; and he met weekly with the Inklings. And that is where it probably would have remained, except for an event that Tolkien recounted years later in a letter to a friend. He said that around 1930 he was grading exams for secondary school students to earn some extra money, when finding a blank page in the exam book and feeling bored he scribbled, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” And there he left it, he said, for a very long time; but eventually he began to wonder himself what a hobbit was and what they were up to, so he began writing a story to find out where it would lead. While he was working on that he wrote, in 1936, probably his most important non-fiction work, his essay on Beowulf titled, “The Monsters and the Critics.” This lecture is credited with revitalizing and revolutionizing Beowulf studies, and today we can see it as a statement of Tolkien’s own intentions as a writer. He shared early work on “The Hobbit” with Lewis, who urged him to publish. The tipping point came when a former student who worked for Allen and Unwin Publishers showed it to a coworker, who urged him to finish it. It was then reviewed by the resident reader of children’s literature, Stanley Unwin’s ten-year-old son Raynor, who gave it a very favorable review and said it did not need any changes. And at that point, Tolkien began the transition from obscure but respected scholar to world-renowned author.

The Hobbit received favorable reviews, including one written by C. S. Lewis that predicted that the work could become a classic. And as Rayor Unwin had predicted, children enjoyed the book and found it very exciting. As a result it sold very well, and soon Allen and Unwin were pressing him to write “more hobbit stories.” Tolkien, on the other hand, wanted to publish The Simarillion, which is a collection of tales describing the creation of Middle Earth. The work does not have the easy style of The Hobbit, or the narrative unity; and worst of all, it has NO HOBBITS. Instead, Tolkien began work on a sequel to The Hobbit which also picked up on some of the themes of The Simarillion, the struggle against Melkor the evil rebel against the creator God, and so on. This work turned into the massive Lord of the Rings. This is published as a three-part story, though the parts themselves are actually separate volumes so it could appropriately be said to be a six volume series. The story of Bilbo’s obtaining the magic ring, which had been a fairly short affair in the original telling, was expanded and the character of Gollum added to The Hobbit to tie it closer to the story Tolkien wanted to tell. While The Hobbit is a fairly straightforward fairy story about a rather stuffy, middle-class, nebbish who gets dragged off by a wizard and his dwarf friends on an adventure (and in the process becomes something more), The Lord of the Rings is a tale of four simple hobbits who are swept up into not only a world war, but a cosmic struggle of the agents of good against an evil that has existed since the creation of the world.   As it was written during the time of World War II and the Cold War, many readers sought to see it as an analogy or political allegory; but Tolkien vigorously denied this. He wanted it to be received as whatever the reader’s imagination said, so each person could apply it to his or her life. At the same time, while it was not explicitly or obviously Christian the way Lewis’ Narnia tales were, religious themes are integral to the book. The religious undertones and the epic scope of the work make Tolkien the figure he is. In the USSR, there were people called Tolkienisti who read smuggled books in secret. While it is likely the Soviets would have disapproved of fairy tales like The Hobbit, I have a hard time believing people would have risked persecution to read Tolkien were it not for the substance and sustenance they found in The Lord of the Rings.

In 1965, the American firm Ace Publishing released an unauthorized edition of The Lord of the Rings. Although publishers generally were expected to respect international copyrights, Ace had decided that since The Lord of the Rings wasn’t registered in the U.S. it would treat the work as public domain. Tolkien reacted by quickly reaching a deal with another American publisher, Ballentine, to publish the authorized version, and then made efforts to promote the authorized edition and to encourage his readers not to buy from Ace. Tolkien readers are a loyal and basically moral group, and proved willing to pay a bit more for an authorized version that paid the author royalties. Eventually Ace was forced to capitulate and pay royalties. The upshot of the lawsuits and publicity was that Tolkien became an internationally known author, and sales soared. It was the beginning of the Tolkien boom.

After this, even works that had been passed over by publishers began to attract attention. Hobbits or no, anything by Tolkien was likely to attract a readership. There was even consideration to finally publishing Tolkien’s own personal favorite, as far as I can tell, The Simarillion, although it remained unpublished and he continued to work on it until the end of his life. He passed away in 1973, while his son Christopher continued to edit and publish his father’s previously unpublished works for years after.

If I made it this far and didn’t run out of time or have to skip oodles of material, I am surprised. However, let me close by trying to sum up what I think a survey of Tolkien’s biography reveals about him as a man:



As we look at Tolkien’s life, we can see how events made him the man he was.

  1. As a child,
  2. He showed an early interest in language, making up his own as a game. He also showed an interest in fantasy and fairy stories.
  3. Also, he was born in South Africa, but the dry climate did not suit him. His happiest memories were his young childhood in rural England. Shehole became the model for The Shire. By contrast, he hated the large, industrial city of Birmingham.
  4. He had a strong appreciation for nature and an aversion to technology that harmed the environment, such as cars and later trains.
  5. He lost both his parents at a young age. He knew suffering and loss.
  6. His mother converted to Catholicism, and was estranged from much of her family as a result. He learned that you may have to give up something for faith, because faith is important.
  7. As a teenager (to age 21),
  8. He was raised by Fr. Morgan. His aunt, in whose home he and his brother lived in the years after their mother’s death, was cold and distant; Fr. Morgan was engaged and supportive. Tolkien’s faith and his studies were a shelter and escape from an unpleasant home situation.
  9. His long separation from Edith and their eventual marriage shows his devotion and commitment.
  10. As an adult,
  11. He was a patriot, and he knew the horrors and loss of war.
  12. He was a perfectionist; he worked harder than he had to as a scholar and a teacher, and as a writer he generally had to be prodded to publish because he was unsure if his work was really ready.
  13. He was a devout Catholic.
  14. He was devoted to his family, writing regular stories for his children. His marriage to Edith lasted more than fifty years, until she passed away in 1971.


The Most Dangerous Idea in Religion (presentation paper)

September 18, 2011

Philosophical Scraps

Presented to the Ecumenical Christians of Oberlin,


ABSTRACT:  The Most Dangerous Idea in Religion


This essay is a personal response to an article that appeared in 2007 in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  Five internationally known religious writers responded to the question, “What is the most dangerous idea in religion?” each offering his own nominee and some reasons for fearing that particular idea above others.  I wish to examine these opinions, and discuss:  what common themes emerge between two or more of these dangerous ideas, suggesting some common ground between the different perspectives presented in this article?  What common shortcomings do the responses share?  I seek to analyze all these ideas through the lens of my own nominee:  “The Most Dangerous Idea in Religion is My Own.”


The Most Dangerous Idea in Religion:  A Religious Perspective

         In 2007, journalist John Blake asked some of the leading religious writers of our day, “What is the most dangerous idea in religion?”[1]  The answers, published in an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, are perhaps most surprising in their predictability.  Richard Land, a leading ethicist for the Southern Baptist Convention, said it was “Violence in the name of God.”  Mentioning radical Islam in particular, he pointed out that “It’s corrosive to public discourse to say if you disagree with me, I’m going to kill you.”  Dr. Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, an internationally recognized scholar of Islam, said the most dangerous idea was “Converting others to your religion.”  While he admitted that “I wouldn’t believe in a religion if I didn’t believe it to be better than other religions,” (and thus that endorsing a religion implied a sense of superiority and exclusive access to the truth,) he argued that seeking to share that truth with others is “a very loaded and dangerous idea” because it is “always embedded in power.”  The missionary or evangelist seeks to share the truth with others; and worse, he or she also brings in schools, hospitals and other resources.  Missionary activity is all about showing that your group has the resources to provide for needs and thus to show off power; as he says, “you don’t find Muslims coming to prosyletize in the United States.  But you do find Americans going to all sorts of Muslim countries.” Rabbi Harold Kushner, the liberal Jewish teacher and author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People (among other books), would presumably disagree with both his Christian and Muslim colleagues.  His nominee for most dangerous idea is “My religion is right.”  Whereas Dr. An-Na’im asserted that to believe in a religion is to accept that your religion is right and others are wrong, Rabbi Kushner argued that “You have to understand that religion is not about getting information about God.  Religion is about community.”  And of course, community is the very opposite of exclusivity, which both the Christian and the Muslim seem to accept is an essential part of religion.  To Rabbi Kushner, believing that your religion is right is dangerous because it undercuts interfaith dialogue.  My love for my religion need not lead me to despise yours, any more than my love for my wife should lead me to insult or despise your wife or your marriage.  We each have our own commitments, and we each share a respect and joy over them.

New Age spiritual writer and psychologist Wayne Dyer argued that the most dangerous idea is, “Follow our rules or else.”  Quoting Carl Jung, Dyer claimed that we all have an innate connection to God as parts of God’s creation; organized religion of any sort merely gets in the way of our direct experience of God.  Fellow PBS spiritual authority Deepak Chopra argued that the most dangerous idea is “A tribal view of God.”  In his quest to combine the insights of Western science with his Hindu spiritual upbringing, he has become convinced that while our understanding of the world and of technology has advanced greatly, our spiritual sensibilities remain both primitive and parochial.  Only by moving beyond our spiritual tribes to embrace the higher unity of all spirit will we be able to live in peace and grow to our full potential.

So, to sum up:  All these men (and all the writers interviewed for this article were men) agree completely:  That other guy is NUTS!  The Evangelical Christian says the Muslim is dangerous; while it is true that he carefully specifies that it is only “radical” Muslims who are dangerous, it is definitely a subgroup of Muslims, not Christians or anyone else or even “radicals” per se.  The Muslim says it is evangelists, missionaries, and specifically American missionaries who are dangerous; and of course, the most common are the Evangelicals, whose very name reveals that their religion is essentially connected with spreading the good news.  And it isn’t just overt spreading of the Gospel that is dangerous:  the hospitals, schools and other social work for which Southern Baptists are so well known, even in countries where they are forbidden by law to preach the Gospel or to accept spontaneous converts, is also part of the insidious plot against Islam.  The rabbi, living as a minority religion in mostly Christian or Muslim countries, sees the rejection of interfaith dialogue as the most dangerous idea.  The religious syncretist sees religious particularism as the most dangerous idea.  And the psychologist sees organized religion as dangerous, because it conflicts with the psychological, individualistic spirituality he represents.  Each one agrees that the most dangerous idea is the idea he sees dominant in some other group, and which is an external threat to his own group.

This is a political definition of a “dangerous idea.”  A “dangerous idea” is one that is dangerous to others, and particularly to me and mine.  It is not a religious definition.  When I read this article, I was struck immediately by this fact.  The Evangelical did not condemn the religious violence carried out by Protestant terrorists in this country, from the KKK and Know-Nothings to the Olympic Park Bomber and more.  He did not condemn the violent rhetoric of Christian Zionists and millenialists, who push for the ethnic cleansing of occupied Palestinian territories precisely because they look forward to the Rapture and the war between Israel and all its neighbors and the final, fiery cataclysm in which Satan, the U.N. (widely considered the tool of the Antichrist) and all other evils will be destroyed.  He did not condemn the common practice of mass prayers for the death of liberal judges and politicians.  Likewise, when the Muslim condemned religious conversions backed by imperial power, he did not suggest that Muslims should return the Christian lands of Egypt, Palestine, Turkey, North Africa, or Albania, all converted during times of total political and military control by richer, more sophisticated Muslim colonial powers.  He did not even condemn the widespread laws punishing anyone who might seek to return to the Christian or Jewish faith of his or her earlier ancestors.  If your father or grandfather became a Muslim to gain economic resources, you’re stuck; if you duplicate that decision by seeking to convert from Islam, you’re both a victim of neocolonial oppression and a criminal deserving imprisonment or possibly death.  Those who reject organized religion see organized religion as the most dangerous idea; those who belong to minorities see the majorities as dangerous, and so on.

The religious definition of “dangerous” is different.  My immediate reaction was shaped by my Christian background; but I believe most religions have similar notions.  The Christian formulation is this:  Fear not what can kill only the body and then can do no more; fear that which can destroy the soul.  (Matthew 10:28)  The terrorist’s bomb cannot kill my faith.  The missionary cannot snatch my faith from me, if I have it at all.  The church or mosque cannot rob me of my personal connection to God unless I choose that it should; indeed, historically these have often spawned anti-establishment mysticism and spirituality.  The only thing that can destroy my soul is my own idea.  The only religiously dangerous idea is my own.

Seen in this light, must we reject all the nominees for “the most dangerous idea in religion”?  No, but we must reinterpret them.  How is violence in the name of God dangerous to the one who practices it?  How is the notion of evangelism dangerous to the evangelist?  How is the tribal view of God dangerous to the members of that tribe?  And so on.  How am I harboring those ideas that I see as dangerous?  As Paul writes, “you then who teach others, will you not teach yourself?  You who say, “Thou shalt not steal,” do you steal?” and so on.  (Romans 2:21)  That is what is sadly, predictably lacking in the five arguments in this article; and it reflects something universal in our tendency to think about religious matters.  We tend to judge easily and well the sins of others, particularly when we are ourselves in physical danger or emotional discomfort.  We have more difficulty seeing how we ourselves may engage in those same sins.  And perhaps most difficult of all, we often fail to appreciate that the most dangerous ideas of others have their sense in the lives of those others.  To Rabbi Kushner, “My religion is right” is the most dangerous idea; to Dr. An-Na’im, it is a natural and even inevitable assumption of any religious believer, in itself only dangerous if it leads to missionary activity; which to Dr. Land, it is a fulfillment of the Great Commission, given by the Divine Word Incarnate that we should make disciples of all the world (Matt. 28:19-20), so that refusing to practice this “dangerous idea” is disobedience to God; and so on.

When I conclude that the most dangerous idea in religion is my own, I must in turn hesitate to judge others too harshly.  After all, I was taught to “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”  (Matt. 7:1)  Quite simply, what others think or say may be wrong, but it is not the most dangerous thing, since any external threat can at worst kill me.  Of course, on the other hand, if everyone thought this way there would be no “dangerous idea” in the sense of being dangerous to others.  As long as I am more worried about my own religious intolerance, my fear of the intolerance of others is somewhat tempered.  As long as I am worried about my own tendency to impose my truth on others, my fear of the missionary from another faith is mitigated.  Quite simply, when I remember that I am a sinner, flawed, and quite frankly a danger to myself and to others, I have a lot less time to judge others.  This could in turn have enormous social consequences.  For example, think how much quieter the debate over same-sex marriages would be if only those who had always been faithful to their partners were allowed to speak?  Anyone who has been divorced, or committed adultery, or cheated on a boyfriend or girlfriend, or even considered it, (since, as Jesus said, to look at a woman with lust is to commit adultery; see Matt. 19:10) all of these should just keep quiet about family values and the meaning of marriage.  Instead, each of these will think about what marriage means to himself or herself, which will probably lead them to agree with the disciples of Jesus:  If that is what marriage is, it is better not to marry at all!  Then the problem would no longer be a religiously dangerous idea at all, but only a political question of how best to live together.  This might not solve the problem, but it would at least calm it down.

Perhaps, though, in my rush to condemn the judgers I have myself judged them.  Instead of pointing out what is wrong with the five nominees for Most Dangerous Idea, perhaps the better path would be to see if there is anything they agree on.  Four of the five express some fear of some sort of compulsion in religious matters.  This suggests the importance of freedom of conscience.  Everyone longs for freedom of conscience for himself or herself.  And all five share a common fear of intolerance, or more broadly, close-mindedness.  The tribal person, or the violent one, and so on are all close-minded.  They are not just certain; they are closed to any possible dialogue or new information.  This close-mindedness lies behind the willingness to compel others, whether by threat or institutional power.   So I suggest that the most dangerous idea, the cardinal dangerous idea is, “I know what I know.”

The person who says, “I know what I know,” seems to be stating a tautology—-which would be self-evidently true, empty and thus harmless.  But in fact, “I know what I know” generally means, “I know what I know and nothing can change my mind; I am inflexible, close-minded, impervious to facts and logic.  And why should I change, since I am right, and I know it?  And why aren’t you agreeing with me, since I know I’m right and therefore you must be wrong?”  And this idea has the added strength that even the person who holds it may think he or she is merely stating a tautology.  I’ve known a fair number of close-minded persons; I can think of only one who consciously and directly said, “I’m close-minded.”  Even to say this implies an element of self-criticism or at least self-awareness that is already gazing at the path of understanding, even if it fears to tread it.  “I know what I know” requires no self-awareness.  It sounds, at least to one’s own ears, like a claim to knowledge and wisdom.

“I know what I know” is, of course, true in a sense, and true of every person equally. In Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Johannes Climacus says that the difference between the simple person and the wise one is that the simple one knows, and the wise one knows that he knows or knows that he does not know.[2]  The wise one, like Socrates, knows that his or her knowledge has limits and falls short, and that true wisdom is often more aspirational than actual.    Faith is not knowing, he says; faith is floating over 70,000 fathoms and still being joyful.[3]  That sort of believer does not dare compel or impose upon or judge another person, since when one’s own faith is so much work, who has time to look over someone else’s shoulder?  At the same time, this sort of believer has that joy, and does not succumb to the dictatorship of relativism.  I know what I know, which is my own experience; I don’t know what I don’t know, which is yours.  I know I don’t know what I don’t know; this is humility.

As I said, the original article has a political tendency:  what are the five religious ideas most dangerous to others, and specifically to me, the person who is asked?  As a political principle, “I know what I know” seems pretty powerful and pretty destructive to the body politic. Why ask the considered opinions of all sides, when you can simply shout everyone down and impose the right answer?  Why listen, when you’re right?  This isn’t a left-wing or right-wing observation; I’ve seen avowed Marxists and avowed Libertarians argue the same way.   “I know that I don’t know” would be a powerful political principle as well.  It’s hard to push for humility, of course.  It’s hard to be decisively uncertain.  It is much easier to embrace the self-confidence of invincible ignorance, to choose one’s preferred side and to ram it home without further let or hindrance from facts.  Sadly, though, what is so helpful to ensuring victory in a debate may be counterproductive if the goal is to ensure the prosperity of our nation, or survival of our species.  We need truth to survive and to thrive, and to find truth we need to be open to the truth, and that means humility.

So I suggest that the most dangerous idea in religion is, “I know what I know.”  It is dangerous in that it is dangerous to our social and cultural life together, since it fragments us into impermeable echo chambers where we listen only to the sounds of our own voices.  It is dangerous to our survival and vitality, since it gives us a ready defense against reality when facts or logic conflict with our preferences.  And it is truly religiously dangerous, threatening the soul and not merely the body.  Instead of floating joyful over 70,000 fathoms of water, “I know” believes the water is at most a few feet deep.  If “faith is hope for that which is not seen,” then “I know” is the death of faith, and thus of the believer as well.  And “I know what I know” seems to embrace the concerns of all the other nominees for Most Dangerous Idea.  It is the wellspring of them all.

Presented to the Ecumenical Christians of Oberlin on April 10, 2011.  All rights reserved ; permission to reprint by the express written consent of the author only.

[1] John Blake, “Faith and Values:  What’s the most dangerous idea in religion?”  Atlanta Journal Constitution, June 30, 2007, main edition (…/WhatsTheMostDangerousIdea06307.pdf)

[2] Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, v. 1; edited and translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1992) p. 181

[3] Postscript, pp. 140, 204; see also Søren Kierkegaard, Stages on Life’s Way:Studies by Various Persons; edited and translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1988) pp. 444, 470

The Rapture or the Ring: Kierkegaard’s Two Views of Death and Eschatology in Film

September 14, 2011

ABSTRACT: (Originally presented at the 2005 meeting of SECSOR.)  In this paper I intend to contrast Kierkegaard’s category of “the earnest thought of death,” which he treats as the fundamental entrance into the religious life, with his depiction of the “esthetic,” or pre-moral view, which Kierkegaard said was the most common life view.  Kierkegaard worked to clarify religious thought and concepts, and I will in turn use the categories he developed for this purpose to examine the evangelical science fiction of the Left Behind movies (among others), and the equally eschatological Lord of the Ring series directed by Peter Jackson. I will discuss why, from the Kierkegaardian perspective, the Left Behind films are extremely problematic, and why the Tolkien films seem closer to Kierkegaard’s definition of “religious” even though they are products of secular cinema.  Finally, I will consider what existential messages are inherent in these films and speculate as to what cultural and political implications this may hold.

The Rapture or the Ring:  Kierkegaard’s Two Views of Death and Eschatology in Film

In this paper I first intend to present Kierkegaard’s category of “the earnest thought of death,” which he treats as the fundamental entrance into the religious life.  I will contrast this with his depiction of the “esthetic,” or premoral view, which Kierkegaard said was the most common life view.  Kierkegaard worked to clarify religious thought and concepts, and I will in turn use the categories he developed for this purpose to examine two very different genres in “religious” film today:  the evangelical science fiction of the Left Behind movies (among others), and the equally eschatological Lord of the Ring series directed by Peter Jackson. I will discuss why, from the Kierkegaardian perspective, the Left Behind films are extremely problematic, and why the Tolkien films seem closer to Kierkegaard’s definition of “religious” even though they are products of secular cinema.  Finally, I will consider what existential messages are inherent in these films and speculate as to what cultural and political implications this may hold.

Kierkegaard’s Two Views of Death

Kierkegaard’s discussions of death were probably leading causes for his reputation as “the gloomy Dane,” and I hesitate to raise that simplistic image again.  However, he felt that the individual’s attitude towards death was crucial to that individual’s own spiritual maturity, so it is impossible to ignore the discussion.  I will begin by comparing two discussions he presents:  first, his upbuilding discourse “At a Graveside” from Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions; and second, his observations under various pseudonyms in “In Vino Veritas” and the first volume of Either/Or.

The Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions, unlike his eighteen previous discourses, are distinguished not by their text or topic but by the fictitious setting of each.  Kierkegaard sets his last discourse in the context of a funeral, not for anyone important but apparently for a rather ordinary citizen.  The one distinguishing characteristic of his fictive deceased is that he “recollected God” all the days of his life, and in particular recollected that one day he would die and stand before God.  There is no discussion of pearly gates or such, but rather a vigorous discussion of the significance of death and mortality.  Kierkegaard claims that it is the earnest thought of death that gives this life meaning, and that moves the individual from the “esthetic” life of egoism and shallowness into the rich depths of the religious.

Kierkegaard says a great deal about what the earnest thought of death is, and what it is not.  It is not being somber, wailing at a funeral, being fearful or gloomy; it is not a mood of any sort.  Primarily it is the thought that I will dieI will die:  not just all flesh or those I love but me.  I will die:  not rest from my labors or find peace or any of the other evasions and euphemisms we commonly rely on.  All that I care for, my every project, hope, dream, desire, and fear will be cut off permanently.  Death is absolutely certain and absolutely uncertain; I know it will happen but cannot know when.  When I truly realize this, much that might have seemed important is shown to be utterly trivial; my career, my fame, my wealth, and more will vanish as if they had never been.  And much that I might have delayed or ignored becomes terribly urgent:  repenting of my sins, apologizing to my neighbor, telling my wife and children that I love them, or finding peace with myself and my life as it is, to name some.  The earnest thought of death relativizes life, but it also renders every moment more precious.  Time is, after all, running out, so one cannot afford to cling to life like a man on a burning roof afraid to leap to safety; and neither can one afford to drift thoughtlessly along as if one had all the time in the world.

Within a day of publishing the slim volume of discourses on imagined occasions, Kierkegaard published the massive Stages on Life’s Way.  Whereas the first is simple, direct, homiletic, and acknowledged, the second is convoluted, poetic and philosophical, and written under a variety of interlocking pseudonyms.  Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms are not mere pen names; they are characters intended to embody the existential views they represent as well as describe them.  The first of the stages, the “esthetic” stage of premoral and prereligious egoism, is presented in “In Vino Veritas,” a collection of speeches given at a banquet.  This chapter, like the discourse at the graveside, is prefaced with a (very different) discussion of the importance of recollection; and like the discourse, the banqueters are summoned by one of them to “the earnest thought of death.” However, for them it leads in an opposite direction.  Where meditation at a graveside led to sobriety, here it is the prelude to drunkenness.  In the discourse, the thought of death leads one to seriously contemplate one’s relationship to eternity; for the banqueters it leads only to greater immersion in frivolity and estrangement from eternity.  And the reason why is fairly obvious:  the earnest thought of death at the graveside is your thought of your death; for the banqueters, it is the thought of the death of everything else.  To them, recollection of death means to be gloomy and cynical, to meditate on how everything dies, and yet somehow to imagine looking on after one’s death as others go through your funeral.  A dead body is amusing, and a dead wife can be the inspiration for her beloved’s poetic genius; the significance of death is that it happens to others to make one’s own life more interesting or creative, to loosen one’s own bonds to the real world of relationships and commitments and moral values so that one may float free in the world of ideas.  The contrast becomes even more striking when one takes the literary hint Kierkegaard builds into the Stages by using pseudonyms from his earlier book, Either/Or.  The first volume of this work is full of meditations on death, despair, and boredom, showing how the esthete fails to take death or life seriously and winds up with a meaningless existence.  To the esthete, life seems interminably boring; to the earnest one (says Kierkegaard) it is not boring precisely because it is terminal.  To the esthete, life is mood and emotion; to the earnest one it is commitment and striving, with joy to be sure but not with the pursuit of pleasure as the ultimate goal.

The esthete considers death third-person, objectively.  While this may evoke a strong mood or emotional reaction, the esthete never really allows death to “get to” him or her.  The religious person, by contrast, considers death personally, subjectively.  Whereas the esthetic and objective way leads to unclarity, lethargy, and beckons one to become lost in mood, the earnest thought of death summons one back to the urgency of life’s task and to the true reality before God which life’s finitudes and illusions otherwise obscure.[i]  The two views of death Kierkegaard offers can together serve the individual as a touchstone for evaluating alleged spiritual insights.  If a poet or orator comes with enthralling words and dazzling insights, and one is taken to see these as signs of true spiritual depth, one can ask:  does this poem, speech or sermon evade the reality of death, or obscure for me my personal mortality?  Does it trivialize what should be paramount, or magnify what death reveals to be meaningless?  Then look elsewhere for spiritual insight, no matter how esthetically beautiful the words may be.  Or, does this sermon, advice, or manner of life take seriously the preciousness of one’s time on Earth, and truly show what really matters and what does not when measured by the decisiveness of death?  Then there is something profound here, even if it is masked in plainness or seeming triviality.

Eschatological Moviemaking and the Earnest Thought of Death

Kierkegaard resorts to eschatological language and scriptures in his discourse on death; but it is significant (and consistent) that he does not interpret these concepts eschatologically.  For Paul, it is the Day of the Lord which comes “as a thief in the night;” for Kierkegaard it is the individual’s death.[ii]  The end of the world is unimportant, or unessential; what matters to you is that you will end, and what matters to me is that I will end.  What happens to third persons, even to billions of third persons, is still not earnestness.  Kierkegaard would probably say that an apostle can use such language, because an apostle is a different sort of existence than an ordinary person, even a “genius.”  But for the rest of us, it is unhealthy and basically esthetic to speculate about the Rapture or the Final Judgment.  Whether Jesus is coming tomorrow, you can’t know; but you do know that God is coming for you, personally, at the day of your death.  That is the fact which should focus your attention.

Eschatology went Hollywood in the 20th century, and the dawn of a new millennium has done nothing to slow this down.  In fact, the general unease that has pervaded American culture since 9/11 seems to have heightened interest in literalist interpretations of the books of Daniel and Revelation.  In the second half of the 20th century there have been documentaries, feature films, and innumerable books purporting to present the script for the Last Days.  The classic in this genre, which I would describe as fundamentalist Christian sci-fi, is A Thief in the Night, released in the 1970’s by Mark IV Films (an evangelical production company).  During the Christmas movie season of 2000, The Omega Code, produced by Trinity Broadcasting and starring Michael York as the Antichrist, debuted among the top 10 moneymakers for the week.[iii]  Shortly after this, the movie version of Left Behind, based on the amazingly popular book of the same name, was released first on video and then in theaters.[iv]  In this movie, Kirk Cameron stars as a hotshot reporter who is caught up in the middle of the Rapture, the rise of the Antichrist, and the fulfillment of the prophecies found in John’s apocalypse.

Each of these films has slightly different interpretations of scriptural predictions, based partly on the particular “literal” interpretation each follows. But when one considers common elements in all three movies and the various books, T.V. sermons, and other popular presentations, general themes emerge.  There is a general distrust of international multilateralism, since the Antichrist will be a world leader who will unite many nations.  There is an emphasis on believing over action; this is not to say that one isn’t expected to live by the evangelical moral code, but it is clear that it is believing the literal truth of Revelation (or rather the interpretation of its obscure symbolism being offered) which saves, not good will towards one’s neighbors or even moral action.  Often (but not always) the United States is depicted as resisting the Antichrist.  But what is most common and, for my purposes, most relevant is that in virtually all of today’s popular versions of the evangelical Christian apocalypse, the believer is not in fact in any danger.  The millions of believers of these predictions, whether they follow the theories of Tim LeHaye or Hal Lindsey, all expect to be raptured out of the physical world.  They will not in fact die, though the world itself will.  Their focus therefore is not, as Kierkegaard would have it, on the “earnest thought” each individual can have when he or she considers his or her own death; instead it is really where Victor Eremita would have it, on the passing away of the world while you, the viewer or reader, look on from a safe distance.  In short, the fundamentalist eschatology reflects an esthetic worldview.

If eschatological films have such potential to lead viewers away from the religious consciousness and towards the esthetic, is it possible to create films which heighten earnestness instead?  Kierkegaard paid a great deal of attention to religious communication, and his observations on print media are relevant to film as well.  The fundamental (no pun intended) mistake of most Christian science fiction, and indeed of most fundamentalist eschatology, is to imply that the good person will avoid trials and tribulations.  Evangelicals generally do know better, but that is the message that is conveyed. In fact, the Apocalypse of John does not claim that Christians will be raptured away to escape the tribulations he describes; rather, his message to readers is to remain faithful to Christ through the tribulations and to trust that God is Lord of history.  Neither do Paul or the Gospels state that after the Rapture there will be a time of persecution for those Christians who weren’t good enough or evangelical enough to escape, but are still too good to go along with the Beast and his minions; rather, it is assumed that Christians will be caught up to Heaven only when Jesus appears to judge the world, at the end of history.  The Biblical witness is, therefore, that speculations on what will happen “after the Rapture” are misleading.  Nothing will happen; the Rapture is the last event in the world’s life, just as death is the last event in the individual’s life. The lesson of apocalyptic is how to live in the last days.  And from a Kierkegaardian perspective, every individual lives in the last days, I in mine and you in yours.

How might we tell such a story?  Kierkegaard offers some hints in his work, Two Ages.  This short piece is a literary review of a romance novel published in Copenhagen in 1845.  By placing the ethical and religious message in an apparently nonreligious medium, the author gains two things.  First, the message is slipped in on the reader, who likely did not expect to find a call to “leap into the arms of God” in a literary review. When the message comes where it wasn’t expected, it can startle, and perhaps seem fresh and new.  Second, when the religious message comes through a novel or a review of one, it comes “without authority,” to use another of Kierkegaard’s favorite terms.  It does not thunder from heaven; it stands next to you and talks face-to-face, as an equal if not a servant.

How could one make an eschatological movie like that?  The film versions of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings are just such movies.  Instead of writing preachy, avowedly Christian and “prophetic” books, Tolkien wrote “without authority.”  Instead of didactic prose which would require only acquiescence from the reader, he wrote complicated tales of fantasy which demand imagination and reflection, and effort.  It is a gospel that can sneak up on you and suck you in without you knowing what is happening, at the risk that you might wander in and out without detecting the good news offered to you there.  By contrast, the eschatological Christian science fiction is presented as literally true, or about to become true, with fictional elements thrown in to make an interesting story.  Instead of fairy tales, they present avowed prophecy, with the implied threat that if you don’t listen to the warning you will suffer as the characters in the story do.  It would seem as if no two genres could be further apart:  how can one usefully compare them?

Comparing such films as The Omega Code and Left Behind to The Lord of the Rings is further complicated by the fact that the production team for the Tolkien trilogy was not particularly religious. So we have the subtle symbolism and metaphor Tolkien employed in the books being further muted in being conveyed through a secular film project.  The task of comparing these films to the evangelical Protestant sci-fi films would seem to be an “apples and oranges” project which could have no real significance.

The first point of contact between these two bodies of film is that both are literally “eschatological.”  The evangelical films clearly deal with the death throes of a fallen world. The Lord of the Rings is likewise framed in eschatological terms of struggle against cosmic evil and chaos, and the impending death of the world. The more usual claim perhaps is that Middle Earth is “changing,” but this change is a real ending:  the immortal and magical elves are leaving, the days of wizards is passing, and soon the world will be left to Men.  Tolkien’s tales may seem to be more creation than eschatology, as the death of Middle Earth allows for the rise of the world of Men; but this combination is not absent from Scripture or fundamentalist films either, as the overthrow of the reign of the Antichrist clears the way for the New Jerusalem.[v]

The door to comparison has been opened; can we push through further?  Can we find anything meaningful or useful behind that door?  I believe Kierkegaard offers a way we can answer both questions, “Yes!”  First and more generally, there is much for even an evangelical to gain by appropriating Kierkegaard’s individualized use of apocalyptic language.  Kierkegaard himself did not really seek to discredit literal readings of Creation or eschatology or Scripture in general.  However, he did feel that the literal truth mattered less than the personal appropriation. Secondly and more specifically, we can analyze these very different eschatologies the way Kierkegaard compared various claimants to the Christian pedigree in his own day:  by examining their earnestness.  The earnest thought of death is intended, partly, to serve the individual as a touchstone for examining his or her own existential state.  It can also serve as an indicator of the earnestness of a religious understanding offered for one’s approval.  One point that comes through strikingly in the Ring trilogy is the seriousness with which the films take death.  True, in the Return of the King Gandalf tells Pippin of the blessed land that awaits them after death, leading the hobbit to affirm, “Well then, that’s not so bad.”  By contrast though, think of the distress Arwyn shows as Frodo lies dying on the border of Rivendell, or Sam shows as he lies apparently dead in Shelob’s lair.  Think of the profound grief of Theoden at the grave of his son.  Death is always seen as a loss, both for the dead one and those that loved him (or her).  Likewise, the death of Middle Earth is not eagerly or joyfully anticipated as a release from bondage or beginning of a new age; it is a fearful and mournful thing, even if it can lead to a happier future when the returned king will rule in peace and justice.  Tolkien treated (and Jackson treats) death as something which is indeed a loss, even if it is on another level a gain.

Of course, part of the reason for this is that it is by no means certain (at least not to the characters) that the death of Middle Earth will lead to anything good.  The quest of the Fellowship is a desperate gamble, “a fool’s hope” as Gandalf puts it.  Much depends, then, on how Middle Earth dies.  If it chooses shrewdness, caution, selfishness, or arrogance, it will lead to the age of the orc; if it dies fighting for what is good and true, defending the weak and giving to the needy and foolishly hoping and striving, it can lead to the age of Men.  That this Middle Earth will die is certain; the films chronicle only the manner and the results.

Finally, there is the films’ orientation towards their viewer.  Kierkegaard himself devoted considerable attention to the matter of the author’s method and intent if the reader was to be “built up.”   Tolkien came to similar views through his consideration of myth and fairy stories.  Both desired that the reader put himself or herself in the tale, identify with it, learn from considering its values and insights, and personally appropriate what seemed good.  This aspect certainly comes through in the film trilogy as well.  The hobbits in particular are Everyman.[vi]  They are ordinary, and they know it.  Tolkien thought of himself as a hobbit, and there is nothing put-offish about the hobbits to keep the viewer from identifying with them.  But whichever character one might see oneself reflected in, they are examples and exemplars.  They do what is right simply because they refuse to give up.  And it is precisely because of their stubborn goodness that they must undertake the quest, and why they suffer.  As Saruman says to Gandalf and might have said to all of them, “You have chosen the way of pain.”  Because they are good, they suffer, they strive, and some even die.  Evangelical eschatological sci-fi films, by contrast, invite the viewer not to identify with the main characters.  It is only the mediocre Christians who are to be “left behind” to suffer tribulations and persecutions.  For the good ones, the true believers, the death of the world is a spectator sport.


There are a number of films which claim to be earnest Christianity, perhaps even prophecy.  These works claim to be literal Scripture depicting possible, probable or almost as good as certain versions of future events.  Some of thee films are produced for internal consumption by the Church while others are sent into the general marketplace to seek an audience among the unconverted as well.  I have argued that many of these near-future Christian science fiction films fail the test of earnestness, tend to lead their viewers away from the earnest thought of death, and hence are esthetic, no mater how sincerely they are offered as true gospel.  I have also argued that the Tolkien film trilogy, despite the fact that the films are not presented as religious, still contain enough true earnestness within the fairy tale medium to act as evangelium (as Tolkien would say) and to build up the viewer (as Kierkegaard would phrase it). The Tolkien movies use the death of Middle Earth to say something about the life of the individual who must choose whether to struggle to bring something better out of life or simply to surrender to the darkness.  By contrast, evangelical science fiction claims that what you do has no importance to the outcome.  All that matters is if you accept or reject the established will of God.  An oft repeated phrase, in these films and in much evangelical preaching today, is that “you cannot oppose the word of God.”  Whatever has been prophesied will occur, and there’s nothing you can or should do to change it.

The heroes of “Left Behind” are not exactly evil; if they were they would not be persecuted by the forces of the Antichrist.  But if they had been truly good, and particularly if they had believed the theology of the filmmakers, they would be safely in Heaven, watching the Tribulation from a safe distance.  The death of the world has no significance for the truly faithful, except as its onset moves them into the express lane to Paradise.  It is only a problem for other people.  This third-person relationship to the eschaton can lead to a similar detachment from the thought of one’s own death.  And this in turn can have profound consequences for political theology and theological politics.  For example, in The Omega Code 2:  Meggido, we see the President of the United States in hand-to-hand combat with the Antichrist.  By resisting first the blandishments and then the threats of the evil leader of the European Union, the President and most of the U.S. military has remained on God’s side.  The President has tried to personally kill the Antichrist, and of course has failed; but soon Jesus will come to throw him into the lake of fire.  Ultimately, all the actions anyone has taken have no greater significance than to help determine his or her own fate; success and failure are swallowed up in the final Paradise which follows the carnage of Armageddon.  In a report on the television newsmagazine 60 Minutes titled “Zion’s Christian Soldiers,” several prominent evangelical leaders are shown repeating the theology of these movies as Christian doctrine, and suggesting (or outright claiming) that it is God’s will and the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy that Israel should expel the Palestinians from the West Bank, that the Israeli Prime Minister who attempted to negotiate with them was assassinated for opposing the will of God, and that a nuclear world war triggered by Middle East tensions is absolutely unavoidable and is to be welcomed as the prelude to the return of Jesus.  Here we see the final payoff for the esthetic eschatology:  nationalism, reckless confrontation, unconcern for the other, and blind confidence in one’s own righteousness and one’s coming reward.

So the comparison I would draw between these film eschatologies is this:  In the Tolkien films the end of the world is frightful, the good bear an unfair portion of the suffering and may even die, the hand of Providence is often hidden and must be trusted on faith (“a fool’s hope”), and the death of an individual is tragic even if it is not the final end.  On the other hand, in Christian evangelical science fiction the end of the world is frightful only for the bad or mediocre people who do not escape it through the Rapture, the truly good do not suffer at all or bear any burden on behalf of the world, and one’s own actions do not matter in the slightest because the hand of Providence has written the whole story down already for those who believe.  Despite the fact that Tolkien deliberately wrote myth which veiled his Christian message, there can be no doubt that the films based on his writings come closer to the existential condition of the original Biblical writers and readers.  The Jews under Antiochus Epiphanes could hardly have believed that the prophecies of Daniel were intended to suggest that the good people were to be spared suffering.  Christians who witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem by the legions of Titus would never have thought the apocalyptic writings in Mark’s gospel didn’t apply to true Christians but only to false believers.  Christians who endured the persecutions of the Roman emperors certainly believed that they were living through the last days described by John of Patmos.  The apocalyptic writings on which evangelical Christian sci-fi is based were all written by and for believing communities which were enduring hardships at that very moment, by and for individuals who faced imminent death for the sake of their faith, who were living in the condition not of the blessed raptured ones but of those “left behind” in the movie.  The existential orientation of the apocalyptic Scriptures is that of the uncertain, powerless, innocent ones in a hostile world struggling to keep the faith with God and one another, even when God seemed far away.  The intent of those writings was to give the audience a message of hope and examples of faithful suffering obedience to imitate.

Despite the secular influences on them, the Lord of the Rings film trilogy comes closer to putting its characters and its viewers into a situation and state of being similar to that experienced by actual Bible-age people than do the so-called “literal” presentations of evangelical sci-fi.  In that state of being, the viewer is better enabled to make the sort of choices the original readers were called to make.  Fundamentalist sci-fi invites its viewers only to choose whether to believe the theology and thus escape all the hardships, or to suffer like the people in the movie.  It is really a disengaged stance which they are invited to adopt; which is also to say and esthetic stance, or as Kierkegaard also named it, an idolatrous stance.

The stories of the Ring and the Rapture come to us from earlier centuries; and yet both have resonated with the 21st Century American consciousness.  The story of the Rapture continues to offer what it always did:  the assurance that God reigns and justice will prevail, that history means something and is leading towards a beautiful consummation, and that in the end we will see that everything makes sense within the whole.  The Ring stories reassure us differently, by showing that we can make sense, and bring sense out of the senselessness we feel surrounding us.  The first I might call a cosmological consolation, the second an ethical consolation.  Both give reassurance that evil and chaos are not the end.[vii]  American culture has struggled for years to hide from the hard necessities of mortality.  The result is a multibillion dollar industrial complex of health care and cosmetics designed to remove sickness, age and death from our sight.  9/11 dealt a serious blow to that illusion.  It is harder to believe oneself immortal and omnipotent after such a devastating event brought about with such relative ease.  As the insecurity of mortality produces anxiety, the ground is prepared for true earnestness to take root.  It is natural and desirable that the popular culture should produce stories which seek to place individual lives and apparent chaos into a wider, ultimately rational and benevolent context.  It is also natural and desirable that the popular culture should produce stories showing how individuals can face and conquer their fear and the chaos of an often hostile world, be good and finally help produce goodness despite it all.

If I had to choose, I would choose the Ring stories over the Rapture films.  I have already discussed my theological and psychological reasons for this preference.  Even stronger are my political concerns.  Rapture theology has been used and is used to demonize “them”  and exalt “us,” rendering self-criticism all but impossible and making the other nothing more than a stock villain in one’s own play.  Rapture theology often inspires not only confidence in God’s final victory, but also a disregard for the present reality and people.  In an age that sees such things as the Tulsa bombing, the Sarin gas attacks in Japan, and the destruction of the World Trade Center, this sort of “religion” (which I, following Calvin and Kierkegaard both, would name “idolatry”) is too dangerous for words.  It is not just a casual concern whether a religious phenomenon is “true” or not; all should be concerned when esthetic, shallow passions masquerade as religion and take on divine prerogatives in order to lay a road of destruction for the individuals to follow.  And it should be a concern for everyone to strive for that true earnestness, and to urge others towards earnestness, which can help each one best deal with these anxious times and best preserve oneself and the whole.

[i] Three Discourses, pp. 83-84

[ii] 1 Thess. 5:2; also 2 Peter 3:10, Rev. 3:3, and others

[iii] The Omega Code:  TBN Films, Inc. 1999.

[iv] Left Behind:  the movie  Cloud Ten Pictures, 2000.

[v] Revelations 21-22

[vi] Verlyn Flieger, Splintered Light:  Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World;  (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI 1983) pp. 134-35

[vii] These are not necessarily mutually exclusive; one can both see one’s fears and burdens as part of a larger story and strive to play out one’s own part in it as best it can be.  Tolkien’s characters certainly see themselves as parts of the greater story, without this leading them away from earnestness.


September 14, 2011


Presented to the American Academy of Religion

                                                                                                                                                        November, 2005
In his seminal work After Virtue, MacIntyre portrays Kierkegaard as the arch-liberal, destroyer of moral reasoning and the virtues.  He is said to have championed the “criterionless choice,” the decision to be esthetic/or ethical for no reason, since there can be no reasons for existential choices.  All that is important, in this reading of Kierkegaard, is to choose with passion, to be sincerely and unequivocally committed to whatever arbitrary life-choice one has made, whether to be saint or sinner. [1]  As an illustration of the breakdown of the Enlightenment project of basing ethics on universal standards (rather than revelation, tradition or community) this portrayal serves an important part in the overall argument of After Virtue.  But as a reading of Kierkegaard, it is tendentious because it is partial; it only works if one ignores the signed works which Kierkegaard published alongside his pseudonymous books.

In Whose Justice?  Which Rationality? by contrast, MacIntyre quotes Kierkegaard with approval, contrasting his “Purity of heart is to will one thing” with the fragmentation of value seen so often today.[2]   He does this in the context of his discussion of the Augustinian moral tradition, suggesting that Kierkegaard may not be the absurdist boogeyman he is often said to be (in, for example, After Virtue).  The claim that Kierkegaard might be an Augustinian is nothing new; what particularly interests me is the notion that MacIntyre’s writings themselves seem to support this reading, and what the implications of this might be for his argument and for an understanding of Kierkegaard.  The key elements of the Augustinian moral tradition are identified in Whose Justice? as (1) the expansion of the moral community beyond the polis to the civitas Dei; (2) the centrality of the concept of will (voluntas) to direct and order human desires, and thus to motivate human morality; and therefore (3) the characterization of pride (superbia) as “the fundamental human vice,” and humility (humilitas) as the cardinal virtue, so that no other virtue is possible unless pride is checked and humility attained.[3]  I shall return to the first later, and the centrality of will is almost a cliché in Kierkegaard discussions; so let us turn our attention to pride and humility.

The upbuilding discourses have relatively little in common with Kierkegaardian ethics as expressed, say, in the deontological portions of Judge William’s writings.  By contrast, they show a keen interest in the virtues, a theme not alien to other aspects of William’s thought.  In modern philosophy (such as MacIntyre’s discussion), it is common to associate virtue ethics with antifoundationalist, tradition-based ethics.  A tradition or linguistic community will have certain character traits that it values, and these become its virtues.  In Christianity these would include love and humility, whereas in the Homeric age courage would be more highly valued.[4] Kierkegaard is himself heir to an ethical tradition running from Pauline Christianity through Augustine, Luther, Kant, and many others.[5]  However, his adoption of virtue ethics is not here based on a self-conscious membership in this tradition.  Rather, it seems more rooted in epistemological considerations.  William assumes that he knows the essential human nature, and that he knows what is the universal that we are to realize, and hence he has a pretty good idea of duty as well.  Kierkegaard by contrast has asserted that we do not know what the good is, or even our own nature.  We do not know what our duty might be, what values or what human nature we should strive to actualize.[6]  But we can know what character traits are appropriate to our state of ignorance.  Love was discussed in the discourses of October 16, 1843.  Patience is another virtue that receives extensive treatment, in following discourses.  Concern and expectancy are also discussed.  Each of these virtues or character traits has one thing in common— receptivity.  In adopting these virtues, one opens up to the other, to God, to the unknown.  One must receive knowledge of one’s true self, of the good, of God, of the needs of the neighbors one ought to help.  The religious individual must adopt the stance of positive passivity, actively awaiting some sort of revelation, however long it might take and however piecemeal it may turn out to be.  While “patience” is specifically described as a virtue of weakness, in fact all the virtues described in these upbuilding discourses are virtues of weakness.  After one has nurtured the proper virtues and developed the proper nature, right action and true understanding of duty will follow more easily.  One begins from a condition of ignorance, and must learn, often slowly, what one should do or become.  Remarkably, even courage, traditionally thought of as the most aggressive, assertive, “manly” virtue, is described by Kierkegaard as the courage to be humble; and cowardice is described by him as self-assertion and pride based on a fear of one’s own nothingness before God.[7]

Why pride should be the deadly sin is clear from the first upbuilding discourse to the last. In “The Expectancy of Faith” (1843) Kierkegaard describes faith as the highest gift, the only unqualifiedly good gift.  It is equally accessible to anybody; at the same time, it can only be received by one who is willing to grasp it.[8]  One must have the expectancy of faith if one is to be assured of victory over time; one must be taught by God to have that faith in God.  And if one is unwilling to grasp this, and would instead have pride in being self-taught or in having distinguished learning not available to all, one can never receive the expectancy that alone can overcome anxiety throughout one’s life until its end.  It is pride that would block the individual from receiving the one good gift; humility is the condition to receive the gift, and the gift itself is the humility to rely upon God.  Likewise, in the last of the eighteen discourses, “One Who Prays Aright Struggles with God and is Victorious — In That God is Victorious,” again it is pride that leads away from victory and humility that is essential to attain it.  Here the “struggle” is to convince God to give one the good gifts one desires and save one from the bad; the “victory” is not that God relents and gives one what one asks, but that one realizes that God is goodness itself and already wants what is truly good for each person, so that you give up your pride or desire to be in the right if God fails to fulfill your wish.  One struggles with God to persuade God to fulfill one’s desires; one is victorious when one’s desires change, and one’s only desire is God.  Just as Job demanded God appear and explain why he, a righteous man, was suffering, so the one who struggles in prayer wants first to have good things, then concentrates his or her will on one wish, then ends by seeking an explanation why God who is good did not give this one good thing.  Kierkegaard writes:

The external world and every claim on life were taken away from him; now he is struggling for an explanation, but he is not even struggling his way to that.  Finally it seems to him that he is reduced to nothing at all.  Now the moment has come.  Whom should the struggler desire to resemble other than God?  But if he himself is something or wants to be something, this something is sufficient to hinder the resemblance.  Only when he himself becomes nothing, only then can God illuminate him so that he resembles God.  However great he is, he cannot manifest God’s likeness; God can imprint himself in him only when he himself has become nothing.  When the ocean is exerting all its power, that is precisely the time when it cannot reflect the image of heaven, and even the slightest motion blurs the image; but when it becomes still and deep, then the image of heaven sinks into its nothingness.[9]

All of this is a far cry from the stereotype of Kierkegaard as the champion of the choice “for no reason,” who urges one to make the leap of faith by one’s strength of will and live sincerely with whatever choice one has made.  Here there is a reason:  victory, fulfillment of one’s truest and deepest needs and wish.  One does not make a leap, but ceases to struggle and allows God to pull one across.  There does seem to be something one can do by one’s own will, but that is only to resist God.  The pride that leads one to try to do for oneself leads to failure; the humility  to cease striving allows  one’s nature to reflect God’s, and allows one to receive the good gifts God freely offers.

Kierkegaard has both theological and philosophical reasons for endorsing just this sort of virtue ethics; and his strategy can be interpreted in two very different ways.  The discourses are certainly based on Scripture, and hence reflect Christian traditions even if they are held to be only “religiousness A.”  Furthermore, the Scriptures are interpreted through a largely Pauline-Augustinian-Pietist lens, emphasizing individual will and commitment, and the importance of humility before God and of openness to God’s grace.  Therefore, it is possible to see Kierkegaard as a voice of the Augustinian moral tradition, and to see his arguments as valid only for readers who have bought into that tradition. At the same time, many of his arguments appeal to more universal standards of rationality and truth and objective (gasp!) reality.  Is he writing for the internal consumption of the Augustinian moral community, or to convert the unconvinced?

These same questions arise when we look at one of Kierkegaard’s favorite authors, Johann Georg Hamann.  Hamann was a contemporary and friend to Kant, and introduced Kant and Germany to the philosophy of David Hume. Kant famously took Hume’s epistemology as a challenge to be met and overcome, rescuing certainty in human knowledge by moving the realm of knowledge from the physical and metaphysical realms to the realm of a priori concepts.  Hamann saw Kant’s solution as worse than Hume’s skepticism, for if Kant is right and truth itself does not come through the senses then the Incarnation (where Truth became a flesh and blood man to be known through the senses) is essentially false.  Additionally, he had philosophical objections to Kantian idealism; he claimed that Kant’s solution relied on abstracting knowledge so that it could be systematized, then rejecting whatever did not fit the system.[10]  In response to Kant’s first Critique, Hamann argued that Hume basically had it right:  all knowledge really is derived from the senses.  Until thought can eliminate the need for language, thought cannot eliminate its essentially sensual roots, for language is sensuous and arises from the senses.[11]  But Hume has shown (convincingly, Hamann thought) that there is no certainty either of sense knowledge nor of spiritual knowledge.  Hamann accepted this and argued  that reason, believing and sense-experience are in fact all connected and all rest upon receptivity.[12]  If one is to have anything other than skepticism either of God or earthly matters, one must have faith.[13] It is pride that leads a person to reject the conditions under which true knowledge is given and to grasp after an impossible certainty; it is humility that opens up to receive the knowledge which is available to our human condition.

For Hamann, faith is humility, and humility is both the cardinal virtue and the essential prerequisite for knowledge; pride is the deadly sin and the first error.[14]  As he writes:

Faith and doubt affect man’s ability to know, as fear and hope affect his appetitive instinct….  All our knowledge is in part, and all human grounds of reason consist either of faith in truth and doubt of untruth, or of faith in untruth and doubt of truth…. If the understanding believes in lies and enjoys it, doubts truths and despises them with disgust as bad food, then the light in us is darkness and the salt in us has lost its savour — religion is pure church parade, philosophy is an empty word-display, superannuated and meaningless opinions, out-of-date rights without power.  Scepticism about the truth and credulity of self-deceit are thus inseparable symptoms as cold and heat in a fever.[15]

Or as Kierkegaard writes:  “False doubt doubts everything except itself; with the help of faith, the doubt that saves doubts only itself.”[16]


Hamann has been called the first important Augustinian of the modern era.[17]  Kierkegaard might be the most widely influential, considering the range of thinkers who have drawn from him.  Kierkegaard learned much from Hamann, and both shared a concern to protect Christianity (specifically Augustinian, Lutheran Christianity) from corruption and co-option by philosophy.  Each sought to carry out this task not by simply opposing Christianity to philosophy, but by developing Christian philosophy.

If we return to MacIntyre’s After Virtue, we see that his history of philosophy needs a fundamental rewrite.  One of his primary villains in the Enlightenment corruption of moral philosophy actually turns out to be part of an Augustinian alternative to the Enlightenment project, one with roots going back to the days of Kant and Hume.  It is not simply a reactionary or fundamentalist stonewalling, but a genuine attempt to respond to the Enlightenment challenges with different answers.  This Augustinianism extends the cardinal virtue of humility from theology and ethics to epistemology.  Epistemologically, humility means accepting uncertainty and seeking receptivity, accepting that knowledge is given rather than created in the human mind.  Morally, humility means accepting the other as other, recognizing the independent concrete reality and importance of the other.  (With minor extensions this humility can even be extended to the nonhuman world and offer a basis for environmental ethics.)

My first, almost trivial conclusion is that MacIntyre has misread history:  moral philosophy and virtue did not vanish; they were still going on at least as late as Kierkegaard.  This means, second, that we should consider the Augustinian alternative proposed by Hamann and Kierkegaard  as a live option, not simply as a passé forerunner to Aquinas as MacIntyre implies.  By what standards can we judge this option?  By its own standards, Augustinianism would claim that pride leads to errors of morality and understanding, to crimes and sins as well as prejudices and mistakes.  Humility means being open or receptive to the otherness of persons and the otherness of facts, practicing love as well as open-mindedness. However, this argument only justifies Augustinianism in holding to its own values; can it produce an argument why  anyone should  embrace its views?

In Whose Justice?  Which Rationality? MacIntyre claims that the strength of a tradition is seen largely in how well it can account for the arguments of rivals.[18]  If, as Cardinal Ratzinger has said, our age is a dictatorship of relativism, can modern Augustinianism respond with anything other than dogmatism?  The chief appeal of relativism is its toleration.  Truth claims are seen as inherently oppressive; only a moral nihilism is sufficiently open to the feelings of others.  It is impossible and even immoral to make judgments or raise questions about the practices of another culture, the argument goes; each culture and perhaps each individual must define its own good and evil.  Looking at the history of crosscultural judgments over the millennia — crusades and jihads, pograms, segregation and so on — the moral mandate to “live and let live” is undeniable in the would-be postcolonial world. This is why Benedict XVI’s call to respect the teaching authority of the Catholic Church has such limited appeal. He offers an answer to moral ambiguity and uncertainty, but he seems to be speaking only to those who already more or less belong to his moral tradition and are in danger of leaving or diluting it.  That is, the appeal to authority is meaningful primarily to those within the group, and only to those who are already convinced that ambiguity and uncertainty are bad.  Many in the postmodern world seem more than ready to embrace this uncertainty, in order to preserve the more valued virtues of tolerance, open-mindedness and progress.

Hamann was able to remain a strong advocate for tolerance while remaining a vigorous defender of objective truth.  When the cardinal virtue is humility, one must accept the fact that some of one’s beliefs are in fact false even while remaining committed to the search for truth.  And likewise, at least some of the other’s beliefs may well be true; in any case, it would be the height of arrogance to attempt to forcibly impose one’s views on another.  This approach to morality and theology rejects the bigotry of insisting that everyone must adopt the same tradition or values, beyond the value of openness to truth; at the same time, it remains optimistic that there is in fact truth and that it will make itself known, albeit partially, to anyone who is truly willing to accept it.  Ironically, relativism or emotivism are usually considered rationalist positions, as compared to the intuition and revelation called for in an Augustinianism like Kierkegaard’s; yet it is relativism that renders reason irrelevant to morality, while Kierkegaard allows an important continuing role for moral reason.  It seems that prideful reason cannot achieve the universal moral certainty is seeks, and ends up with skepticism or with rival claimants to absolute truth; it finally must abandon its quest to guide moral action entirely, yielding the task to emotion and custom.  Kierkegaard’s approach to the virtues, based upon Hamann’s simultaneous convictions that truth is knowable and that uncertainty is unavoidable, relies on revelation and grace, on God’s power and on human humility; yet this humbled practical reason is able to remain fruitfully engaged in guiding human choice, action and belief.

Kierkegaard’s upbuilding discourses present a vision of virtue largely based upon Hamann’s epistemology.  This epistemology was itself based upon Hamann’s understanding of the Incarnation, where truth (God) gave itself so that any who would receive it humbly could do so.  He broadened this theological doctrine to become the basis of general theory of knowledge:  all truth must give itself, and faith is necessary to receive knowledge of the world just as much as knowledge of God.  Therefore humility is a cardinal virtue not just for the Christian pursuing a life of discipleship, but for any knower, and in relation to any reality.  If Augustine widened the moral community beyond the polis to include the civitas Dei, Hamann may have widened it even further; now the moral horizon and moral community includes anything that is.

Given all this, what is there here for the nonreligious person?  Is this a morality of use only to the believer, or is there a word here for the nonbeliever as well?  After all, it is hardly likely that postmoderns are going to line up to embrace Augustinian Christianity no matter how solid its philosophical underpinnings or how worthy its virtues.  Certainly, it is possible to embrace the virtues of humility, love, patience, even faith (in Hamann’s sense) without becoming an avowed theist.  Simone Weil has a very similar moral vision, though she frames it in reference to an impersonal God which Kierkegaard explicitly rejects.  Iris Murdoch presents a non-theistic morality based on love as humble acceptance of the other and the rejection of egocentric pride.  Clearly there is much to work with here in exploring the virtues, as well as in the philosophical framework of Hamann and Kierkegaard.  On the other hand, Hamann would be the first to admit that epistemology is not innocuous; every philosophy has its own theological assumptions, its own gods.[19]  The essence of the Augustinian moral tradition is the recognition that the self is not the center of the universe, that there are other centers of value and the highest center of value is God (for the theist) or Being (for the non-theist).  Even if one rejects the concept of a personal God, it is very difficult to reverence Being and the cosmos as higher than oneself without coming to feel something akin to faithful submission.  Therefore, it seems likely that eventually the implications of this sort of ethic would lead one towards the religious.[20]


Alexander, W. M.  Johann Georg Hamann:  Philosophy and Faith.  Martinus Nijhoff, The

Hague.  1966.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, edited and translated with

introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong.  Princeton University Press; Princeton NJ:  1990.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue.  University of Notre Dame Press; Notre Dame IN:


Whose Justice?  Which Rationality? University of Notre Dame Press; Notre Dame IN:  1988

Smith, Ronald Gregor.  J. G. Hamann 1730-1788:  a Study in Christian Existence; with

selections from his writings.  Harper & Brothers, Publishers; New York.  1960.

[1] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, (University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame IN 1984) pp. 40-43, 49; see also Louis Pojman, Kierkegaard and the Logic of Subjectivity

[2] Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice?  Which Rationality? (University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame IN 1988) p. 165

[3] Whose Justice?  pp. 153-58

[4] Whose Justice?  pp. 1-29; 146-63

[5] Robert C. Roberts, “The Virtue of Hope in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses,” in The International Kierkegaard Commentary, v. 5, ed. by Robert L Perkins (Mercer University Press, Macon GA, 2003) pp. 184-5

[6] Søren Kierkegaard, “Every Good and Every Perfect Gift is From Above,” in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, edited and translated with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ 1990) pp. 126-32

[7] Martin Andic, “Against Cowardliness,” The International Kierkegaard Commentary, v. 5, p. 290

[8] Søren Kierkegaard, “The Expectancy of Faith,” in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, edited and translated with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ 1990) pp. 8-14, 28-9

[9] Kierkegaard, “One Who Prays Aright Struggles with God and is Victorious — In that God is Victorious;” Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, p. 399

[10] W. M.  Alexander, Johann Georg Hamann:  Philosophy and Faith  (Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague.  1966), p. 72

[11] Ronald Gregor Smith, J. G. Hamann 1730-1788:  a Study in Christian Existence; with selections from his writings  (Harper & Brothers, Publishers; New York; 1960), pp. 214-217

[12] Smith, p. 257

[13] Smith, p. 76; Alexander, p. 163

[14] Alexander, pp. 37-39

[15] Smith, pp. 231-32

[16] Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses  p. 137

[17] Alexander, p. 160

[18] Whose Justice?  pp. 166-67, 362-66

[19]Alexander,  p. 86

[20] And of course, that is what Kierkegaard, and Hamann too,  have been saying all along.