Lord of the Rings Has Ring of the Christian Lord
- Tuesday, December 18, 2001
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP) -- Near the end of his life, J.R.R. Tolkien received a letter from a young girl posing a question concerning the chief end of man.
Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy which has now become a motion picture, provided the youngster an answer that lends insight into the worldview of the realm in which he casts his fantasy novels.
"It may be said that the purpose of life for any one of us is to increase according to our capacity, our knowledge of God by all the means we have and to be moved by it to praise and thanks," he wrote. "[To God we must say,] 'We praise you, we call you holy, we worship you, we proclaim your glory, we thank you for the greatness of your splendor.'"
Tolkien's three-book fantasy series -- written in the 1940s and 50s -- are now the subject of a movie trilogy, the first installment of which will arrive this week. The remaining two parts will be released during the holiday season over the next two years.
In a lecture on the life of Tolkien, James Parker, professor of worldview and culture at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said the movie will serve as fruitful viewing for Christians.
"He operates out of a thoroughgoing trinitarian worldview and (he) says that very explicitly, plainly and bluntly on several occasions," Parker said. "He has a traditionalist Catholic worldview, which means his doctrine of God, his doctrine of the Trinity and his Christology were totally orthodox.
"I have differences with him because of his positions on soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) and ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church). But in terms of his trinitarian formulation of the doctrine of God, there would be no differences (between Protestants and Catholics) because of his historical orthodox expressions of those doctrines. In fact, he says himself that <i>The Lord of the Rings</i> grows out of this fundamental belief system."
Parker said the most obvious declaration of Christianity in the trilogy is found in another book by Tolkien, The Silmarilion. In it, Tolkien details the historical background of Middle Earth -- the fictional world in which the story of The Lord of the Rings takes place.
In The Silmarillion, Tolkien speaks of The One who is the creator of the universe and everything in it. This parallels the Genesis creation account, Parker said. The providence of God is also obvious throughout The Lord of the Rings because Tolkien's Middle Earth is clearly a moral universe with a set of universal absolutes regarding right and wrong, good and evil, Parker said.
"Not only is God superintending Tolkien's Middle Earth, but He is governing it according to His will and accomplishing His own ends; this comes through in many places in the story," he said.
It was Tolkien who, as a professor of Anglo-Saxon language at Oxford University, led a colleague to embrace Christ in 1929. The colleague was C.S. Lewis, who would go on to become a stalwart apologist for the Christian faith. Lewis also wrote a Christian fantasy series, The Chronicles of Narnia, along with apologetic works such as Mere Christianity, and The Problem of Pain.
It was Tolkien's view of myth -- that it is always grounded in the reality of the transcendent God, (even if subtly) -- that ultimately shattered the barriers to Christianity for Lewis.
"Tolkien did not mean by 'myth' that it is defined as 'non-historical,'" Parker said, "but that it exhibits certain characteristics, certain ideas, recurring themes such as the dying and rising God, the sense of the moral universe behind things.
"Lewis said when he read the Gospels, he felt like he was reading a myth because it contained mythical elements. But ultimately, he knew it was fact. This was the 'true myth' that was absolutely true and historical."
But can the Tolkien movie bridge the gap between Christians and non-Christians in a way that will enable believers to proclaim the saving Gospel of God? Parker feels confident that the movie -- with its patently theistic world, albeit a make-believe one -- will do just that.
"The moral universe will do that," he said. "If they are really into Tolkien, you can go back to The Silmarilion and the view of God which comes through there. And you can contrast that with other views in say, Star Wars (with its impersonal, pantheistic 'force'), or even Harry Potter, as far as that goes.
"Also, the sense of providence that goes through it -- there is a sense of providential oversight in The Lord of the Rings that is inexorable. You have all these individual players whose roles are not lessened by the overarching providential drive of the story."
Original publication date: December 18, 2001
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