Posts Tagged ‘Apocalyptic Writing’

Of Gospel and Heresies: What Did I Leave Behind?

September 20, 2018

Of Gospel and Heresies: What Did I Leave Behind?

 

 

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels in Heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

——Mark 13:32

 

 

I don’t know about you, but personally, I hate going on a trip. It’s not that I hate being away from my home more than average, or that I worry incessantly about my home or that I hate being in unfamiliar settings. In fact, while I do think about my home, I’m generally curious about being in a new place. I enjoy noticing the differences, like what animals and plants I see or don’t see, how the architecture changes from place to place, what different foods are local favorites. What I hate, really hate, is actually leaving. I am always afraid of leaving something behind. And if I pack in a hurry, or even if I don’t, I almost always do leave something behind. Once it was the charger for my electric toothbrush. Once it was my child’s favorite toy. At one gamers’ convention I left a bag with over $100 worth of games and accessories in a hotel room, and only by sheer luck did I find it again. Several times it’s been the phone charger. So I hate leaving my home for a trip, I hate checking out of a hotel, every time I have to change locations I wonder what I’m going to leave behind this time. And I get more anxious when I have to leave in a hurry. If someone is threatening to leave ME behind, yet I don’t know what I might myself be leaving behind, I simply hate it.

I sometimes wonder if this says something about my spirituality. After all, a Christian is supposed to be a sojourner and a wanderer on the earth, traveling towards a heavenly city (Hebrews 11:13-16).   What does it say about me if my heart is with my treasure that I might be leaving in a Days Inn outside Eire? (Matthew 6:21).

Other people, it seems, are always eager to hit the road, or the airways or whatever. They count the days to their next vacation, when they take off on another trip to anywhere, as long as it’s out of town. And they must be having a great time, if 5000 selfies on Facebook are any proof. And sometimes I wonder what it says about their spirituality, too. Like Yoda said of Luke Skywalker, I might say of one of these eager travelers: “All his life has he looked away to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was, what he was doing.” They always seem to be dreaming of vacation, or of when the kids leave home, or of retirement, some future away from where they are, from the ties that bind.

While my spirit seems troubled by what I might leave behind, theirs is preoccupied that they might be “Left Behind.” Or more precisely, they’re preoccupied with the pop theology franchise “Left Behind.” It’s an interesting phenomenon, this theology. It goes back much further than the series of novels published beginning in 1995. In the 1970s we had the would-be prophecies of Hal Lindsey and movies like “A Thief in the Night.” In the 1800s we had the Great Disappointment, where more than 1 out of every 200 people sold all their property and waited for Jesus to return on October 22, 1844. Other estimates suggest as many as a half-million people were buying books, attending mass meetings and joining churches preaching this coming Rapture, at a time when the entire nation’s population was less than 20 million. That would be one out of every twenty people looking forward to the end of the world, attending sermons and lectures about the Rapture, and not putting anything on their calendar after October 21 because there wouldn’t be any point. Then and now, people search for meaning, meaning for their lives, meaning for the world, and specifically the meaning of the most obscure, colorful passages of the Jewish and Christian Bibles.

Jesus found that his followers, too, were eager to know the future. They knew the apocalyptic prophecies of Daniel and Zechariah and of the Essenes living in the desert. So when Jesus began to speak to them of the future, and to warn them not to get too tied down to this magnificent temple Herod was building, they asked him for prophecies of what was to come. And the three Synoptic Gospels do not disappoint. Although most the teachings of Jesus deal either with ethical teachings for the here-and-now, or with teachings about sin and his own redemptive work, Mark reports that he took time in the last days of his life to give his disciples a glimpse into the future, cloaked with apocalyptic imagery of the Sun and moon and stars being blotted out, the whole cosmos undone, and the Son of Man returning in glory.

Later, as persecutions of Christians got worse, the great apocalyptic book The Revelation of John was written by a prisoner on the island of Patmos. Like past apocalyptic writing, John wrote at a time when God’s people were being persecuted and it seemed as if evil ruled the world. John wrote to reassure the faithful that God is always in charge, no matter how it appears now. Like Daniel and Zechariah and other books that didn’t make it into our bible but which were known in his day, he wrote using imagery and even symbolic code, a style that the faithful would understand but outsiders would think was gibberish.

In the 20th Century, as science and journalism developed a new standard of objective truth, passages such as these became troublesome and fascinating for many Protestants. It was not always so. For most of Christian history, the literal truth of the Bible was largely assumed but wasn’t seen as terribly important. What mattered was the spiritual lesson God was conveying through the written word. But as some Protestant evangelists started making Darwin their scapegoat for all the world’s ills, they more or less adopted the scientist’s definition of what “truth” is, making the factual claims the bedrock on which the reliability of the spiritual teachings rested. How could we trust the word that Jesus died for our sins, they asked, if we find that God did not in fact cause the shadow on Hezekiah’s step to go backwards (Isaiah 38:8)? So instead of the mutual dialogue between science and faith that had dominated much of our history, war was declared on Science. Rather than argue that religion was a different sort of truth, expressed differently than scientific textbooks because it was too big to fit in those narrow confines, the Fundamentalists put their truth on the same level as scientific and factual truth-claims, and simply declared that their science was better than the scientist’s science.

This new theological insistence on factual literalism had another effect: it elevated the apocalyptic writings to the center of Evangelical thought. The early Reformers, like Luther and Calvin, had relatively little interest in apocalypticism; they were too concerned with figuring out how the Church should live and what it should teach here and now. Luther in particular sought to focus on Christ Crucified and Risen and on the grace he offers; there’s little talk of grace in John’s apocalypse. One day the saints will wear crowns and rule with their lord; but now we live very different lives, and that is where we should pay attention. But if you believe that every word of the Bible has to be literally true in order to believe the Gospel message, then you have a mountain to climb when you read John. Monsters with seven heads and ten horns, dragons, women sprouting wings—-the whole thing sounds like a Godzilla movie! But Fundamentalism doesn’t mean literalism; as Jerry Falwell explained, it means inerrancy. So the Protestant Evangelicalism of which he was product and producer focused on harmonizing all the apocalyptic writings of the Old and New Testaments and interpreting them so that all trace of factual error was eliminated. These strange images had to be interpreted, harmonized, and brought together into one unified prophecy of the future that hadn’t come, but which was just around the corner.

There’s a problem with this. The writings of Daniel and John are not aimed at the same audience. In fact, scholars claim that the great enemy that they refer to is not even the same; for Daniel it is the Greek tyrant Antiochus, while for John it is one of the Roman emperors who persecuted Christians, likely Nero or Domitian. The language about the world ending, this argument would claim, was never intended as a literal vision of the future but rather as a theological claim that the God who made the world is still in charge, and still in command of the order and the chaos we see, and can make, unmake and remake the world in order to give justice to the faithful. For the 20th century millennialist, this is unacceptable; the world was predicted to end and rather than accept this as poetic or symbolic imagery, it has to be literally true or the Bible contains error and can’t be trusted on any point at all. So we have to keep staring and staring and staring at the Bible, and squinting and sweating over the apocalyptic writings, until we come up with a coherent timeline that ties all the events described together into a future where the world really does end and we faithful really do get to wear crowns and sit on thrones.

But the original apocalyptic writings were written to audiences that were suffering at that moment, not in the future. The message was gospel, “good news,” for the Jews under Antiochus or the Christians under Nero. There is no “Rapture” where the faithful are caught up and spared the tribulations described, because the faithful were undergoing those tribulations as they were writing and reading the books! Elsewhere in the Gospels and in Paul’s letters we do read about the faithful being caught up to Heaven in an instant, in the twinkling of the eye, to join our Lord when he returns; but those writings have no mention of a tribulation to follow. They are simply inconsistent. Any attempt to harmonize them is a human interpretation, often masquerading as divine prophecy, which is rarely good. In the hands of Evangelicals, the symbolism and poetry and artistry and reassurance of the many Biblical apocalyptic writings became a theological Rorschach ink blot, where each one sees what he or she wants to see and what one sees says more about oneself than the object one is looking at. In the millennialist theology of today, the “Left Behind” theology as it is known (sorry, Omega Code!), the theology intended to comfort the poor and persecuted becomes a message to mostly white, middle-class American Christians. Whether you’re a hotshot reporter played by Kirk Cameron, or an airline pilot, or even a black pastor of a fairly large, nice-looking church, you’re one who up until that moment in the movie was doing pretty darned well. And if you’re the sort of person who buys these books and videos and movie tickets and who believes this message, you’ll stay well-off. All the good people, the ones who call themselves “the faithful,” get raptured out of the book or movie before the Antichrist gets cooking, before the Tribulation occurs; they’re off in Heaven in comfort, watching and munching divine popcorn I assume with front-row seats to the divine drama playing out on Earth without them, until the story ends and they get to take their place on the stage with their golden crowns and white robes. The people who get persecuted, who have to endure the Tribulation, are the ones who didn’t quite believe strongly enough or correctly enough or soon enough, who are perhaps good people but who weren’t sufficiently Evangelical so now they’re stuck until the seven years of terror are ended.

That is not what the Bible says. We may disagree exactly what it does mean, but it doesn’t mean that. Every mention of the Rapture agrees that after it occurs, the world is over. Jesus returns and the Kingdom comes; there is no Tribulation during which the faithful get to finally watch the others suffer and thus avenge themselves on all the people who mocked them or ignored them or had more fun than them. The Tribulation is not a show; it is not a spectator sport. It is now. Now is the time of trial. And all of us are in it together.

One of my teachers, Diogenes Allen, wrote a very fine and very readable book, Finding Our Father, discussing the importance of humility. Humility is both the cardinal spiritual virtue and the cardinal epistemological virtue. That is, we need humility to see God and to see ourselves accurately, and really we need it to see ANYTHING accurately. Without humility, we naturally see the world as a child always sees it: revolving around ourselves, judged “good” or “evil” based on how it makes oneself feel. Allen lists five implications of the sort of humility we are to have, and one in particular seems relevant to my purpose here: “We are not to seek to live in glory before our time.”[1] When any of us realizes some spiritual truth, we naturally want to think “Well, now, I know the truth, I am freed from my old errors and sins, I’m now one of the faithful. Maybe I should seek to help others, or maybe I should just rest secure in my salvation and let God save the others; but at least I know I’ve run the good race.” But we’re not there. We never will be “there” in this life. Every momentary realization of our true place, utterly insignificant in the world and simultaneously God’s beloved, humble yet secure, is the next moment threatening to slide either towards self-importance or anxiety. The Christian life is a paradox (and if you’re a religious person who isn’t Christian, I suspect you’ve also encountered the same truth). The objective reality of the universe says each of us is just a dust-mote floating on the breeze, and accidental collection of chemicals with delusions of grandeur. The life-giving spirit assures us that we are, despite all objective evidence, of infinite worth, what the philosopher Immanuel Kant called “dignity.” But that feeling of being valued by the source of the universe tempts us to push back against the threatening message of insignificance which the universe sends us with every reminder of our weakness and mortality, by instead thinking of ourselves as more and better and more powerful than we are. And one way we do that is by seeing ourselves as already freed, as children not of this world of pain but of the Rapture. It is hard to wake up every day and remember that Christ calls us to get out of bed and go out as servants to an ungrateful and unknowing world, servants even to neighbors who fundamentally reject the truths we hold dear and which hold us. It is much more pleasant to see ourselves as the world’s rulers already, any moment to take our rightful place in Heaven to look down on those sinners around us while they finally get their comeuppance.

Perhaps that is why Jesus gave us these saving words: Of that hour no one knows, not even the Son, but only the Father. Your job is not to try to find out what God has not seen fit to reveal even to the Christ; your job is to watch, and wait. For too many Christians, the message of Christ’s sudden return becomes an excuse to not care about the world, or about our neighbors. If they’re worthy, they’ll be fine just as we are; if they’re not, that’s their choice, their problem. Why clean up the world when God is just going to end it any day now? So what if today children are drinking lead-poisoned water, if tomorrow they’ll be sipping ambrosia and eating manna in Heaven? That is pretty much the opposite of what Christ says. He says, I may return tomorrow, or the next day, or a thousand years from now; but whenever I return, you’d better look busy doing the things I told you to do: feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, comforting the suffering, sharing good news, showing love and respect for the poor, the one with no family, and to the foreigner. Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to your Lord.

This world is the one that God has given us as our task, our stewardship, our job. The pay isn’t always great, but the retirement package is out of this world! But for some people, waiting for that final day on the job seems to drag. They go through life as if it were Friday at 4:30. They don’t want to start working on anything new. They don’t want to help one more customer. They’re terrified of being “left behind,” but don’t worry about what they might be leaving behind: tasks undone, suffering people uncomforted, faint-hearted unencouraged, hungry unfed, or strangers unwelcomed. Millennialism wants to be done, wants the work to be over, and reduces the Christian life to simply believing that the Christian life is already concluded. There is no need to serve others as Christ did, to follow in Christ’s footsteps. All you need to do is believe in the Rapture and you will be raptured. Again and again in millennialist movies and novels there is some character who is good, loving, goes to church, believes that Jesus is Lord, but doesn’t expect a literal rapture and thus is left to suffer. The works-righteousness of the Middle Ages was replaced by thought-righteousness, so that even believing in Jesus and loving God and the Church isn’t enough if you don’t love in the right way, with the right theology. That isn’t what Jesus said. That isn’t taking up your cross and following Jesus. What that is, is not doing your job because you’re staring at the clock waiting for time to go home. We need to do the work that God told us to do, and seek to imitate the life of the actual Jesus we see in the Gospels. That is what the Bible tells the faithful people to do. Because whether there’s a literal Rapture ten minutes from now or ten thousand years, I can promise you this: each one of us will end. Your world will end, and you will find yourself alone with God. As Kierkegaard said, this is “the earnest thought of death,” which makes life so serious. It definitely will happen, and it almost certainly be a surprise, the most certain and unexpected of all things. So as Christ says: Keep watch.

[1] Diogenes Allen, Finding Our Father (John Knox Press, Atlanta GA: 1974) p. 74

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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:

[SHOW CLIP: RAPTURE SCENE ON THE PLANE: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j7tOcyBkLEQ]

 

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):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D1oJFbPr5X8

 

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, http://www.wrmea.org/2002-december/zion-s-christian-soldiers-the-60-minutes-transcript.html (accessed October 13, 2014) or see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JsJ-dDPiTbk and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=adyUNQ7U8NQ