What the Lord of the Rings can Teach Christians About Community Pt 2

“For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places”  Ephesians 6:12

What is it that binds people together into the type of community that the Bible refers to as “koinonia – a sharing of life”? What is it that causes people to be willing to lay down their lives for one another, to serve one another, to sacrifice, forgive, encourage, support, and build one another up? The classic trilogy, Lord of the Rings (LOTR) from J.R.R. Tolkien gives us amazing insight into some biblical truth. It does so by showing us how that kind of community is possible between men who previously distrusted one another, Elves and Dwarves who hated one another, and Halflings who would prefer nothing better than to avoid them all while staying home eating salted pork and smoking a pipe filled with Longbottom Leaf.

Key to understanding how this incredibly diverse group was knit together into a Band of Brothers, sacrificing their all for one another is that they knew they were in a war together. And it was not a small, minor skirmish. It was a war for the fate of the world. It was a war in which the most hideous evil to ever exist was seeking to enslave, torture, and crush all people of goodwill. They knew that they were together in a struggle to the death between good and evil. If you ever speak to, or read about soldiers who together faced an enemy that sought to destroy them then you have learned about the bond that can only come in the face of such danger. In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, you King Henry speaks to his vastly outnumbered men on the eve of battle. He inspires them with the recognition that back in England there is a multitude of men who will one day wish they had been part of that “lonely few”, that “band of brothers”. There is something about facing danger together that forges a bond that nothing else has the fire to accomplish.

Followers of Christ are engaged in such an epic struggle. Paul says that we are in a wrestling match that is a life and death struggle. We are wrestling against a spiritual evil that is wicked and wants to destroy us. In order to face that enemy we must buckle on our helmets and breastplate, take up our sword and our shield and go to battle. It is serious business. What is truly fascinating is that Paul’s call to arms in Ephesians 6 comes directly on the heals of his call to all of us to be in right relationships with one another in which we submit to one another out of love for Christ. We are NOT to go into this battle alone. We are to go into this battle locked arm and arm with other followers of Christ, other fellow soldiers.

The Fellowship of Ring, those nine disparate characters, quickly came to realize that despite all their significant differences, they were not one anothers enemies. They were in fact one anothers brothers with a common enemy. Followers of Christ must realize those same two things. No matter how significant our differences we are not one anothers enemies. We are in fact one anothers brothers and sisters in Christ and we have a common enemy. That enemy is the “devil who prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour’ 1 Peter 5:8.

Perhaps for those followers of Christ who have been raised in a western culture, the problem is that our enemy is not a flesh and blood enemy. It is a spiritual enemy. We tend to ignore the spiritual reality around us and focus on the material world. As a result we forget that we are actually in a battle. The more we come to realize that we are in a battle together and that we must trust one another to guard each others back, the more we will see the kind of community that the world longs for. We will begin to see people ask to become a part of our shared life. True Christian community, forged in spiritual battle will provoke the world to want to join us.

What Can Lord of the Rings Teach Christians about Community? Pt 1

The classic trilogy written by J.R.R. Tolkien has been dissected countless times as people have sought to plumb its philosophical and theological depths. There have been volumes written on the world view presented by Tolkien, on the nature of good and evil, on the place of sacrifice and honor, on courage and fear, and a host of other things. What strikes me is that I have never seen anything that deals with the nature of community or what the Bible calls fellowship. What surprises me about this is that the first book in the trilogy is called, “The Fellowship of the Ring”. So that got me thinking, “What can we learn about fellowship or community from the writings of Tolkien?”

One of the most striking things that I get from the book when it comes to community is that real community requires forgiveness. It requires forgiveness even in the face of the most painful of trespasses. There are two instances where this truth is revealed. One is in the betrayal and death of Boromir and the other is the friendship that develops over time between Gimli the Dwarf and Legolas the Elf.

Nine very diverse characters set out on a journey that will seal the fate of the world. They must take a magic ring to a distant volcano and throw it in so that it, and the evil that inhabits it, will be destroyed. Failure to do so will mean that evil will, in all likelihood, dominate the world and destroy all men. The evil of the ring is alive and it tempts people to make use of it. It deceives people into thinking that they can use the power of the ring for good when in fact the power of the ring will use them for evil. The warrior Boromir falls to this temptation. He thinks that if he can take the ring from Frodo, the bearer of the ring, then he can use its power to save his people.  His attempt to take the ring fractures the fellowship. When Boromir quickly realizes his error, his sin against the others, he repents to the point of his own death while protecting the two Halflings, Merry and Pippin. The surviving members of the fellowship could have easily remained bitter towards the dying Boromir. As a result of his attempt to take the ring it looks as if their mission will fail. But instead they give him compassion and forgiveness and honor him in death.

For Gimli and Legolas the issue runs far deeper. Their two races have been suspicious of one another for generations. Past clashes and betrayals and misunderstandings have built a huge wall of division between two peoples who once were allies. During the course of their journey and their life and death struggles together, these two mismatched characters become the closest of friends, willing and ready to die for one another. It is truly a demonstration of the words of Jesus, “greater love has no man than this, that he lays down his life for his friends”. Gimli and Legolas become that kind of friend to one another because they learn to forgive and to trust.

In both cases forgiveness does not come easy or cheap. In order to forgive Boromir the group had to recognize that they could have just as easily come under the tempting spell of the ring. They understood the truth of the proverb, “There but for the grace of God, go I”. Looking deep into your own soul and seeing your own short-comings and even brokenness is not a pleasant exercise. But it must be done if we are to have the strength and motivation to forgive others. In the case of Legolas and Gimli they both had to admit their own sin and repent of it. They both had to acknowledge that they were wrong about the other and that their actions and attitudes were wrong. They had to in some way reject generations of heritage that they were raised in, rejecting the things taught them by their own people. Any one of those things is a painful task. To have to do all of it seems nearly impossible.

There is a part of me that wonders if some measure of the popularity of Lord of the Rings isn’t to be found in our unexpressed longing for community and fellowship like that of Tolkien’s characters. Somehow there is a recognition that we are far too alone and isolated, our relationships are too shallow. We long for a world of relationships where people do forgive one another and they do sacrifice for one another and the do love one another to the point of ultimate sacrifice. Ever since Adam and Eve and the division that sin brought into human/divine relationships, we have had this ache in our souls for real community. How wonderful is it that Jesus promises to restore those relationships through the cross and by faith. The Cross opens the door for them, but we must be willing to do the hard work of forgiving others because we too have been forgiven. The Holy Spirit gives us the true power that we need in order to face our own sin and forgive the sin of others.

Lord of the Rings, Good; Harry Potter, Bad; Really?

Why is it that so many Christians love Lord of the Rings (LOTR) and vilify Harry Potter (HP)? I ask the question because to my way of thinking there is no significant difference between the two works of literature. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic work we have a story of good versus evil, friendships forged in a struggle for the future of world. It is set in a world in which wizards, spells, magic, and violence abound and in which good eventually triumphs. In J.K. Rowling’s series of books we have a story of good versus evil, friendships forged in a struggle for the future of world. It is set in a world in which wizards, spells, magic, and violence abound and in which good eventually triumphs. So help me out here. Why do Christians generally approve of LOTR, even writing books and teaching seminars on it’s Christian themes, and berate HP as evil, corrupting of children and somehow part of a satanic plot to turn children into wizards and witches?

I think much of the answer has to do with Christians not using the critical thinking skills that God has given us and falling victim to some of our ugliest prejudices and fears. The first major difference between the two works is their authors. Tolkien was a known, safe, respected commodity. He was an Oxford professor and close friend of the nearly sainted C.S. Lewis. That in itself probably earns him a pass in the minds of many Christians. Tolkien simply carries an aura of respectability. Of course it doesn’t hurt that his Roman Catholic faith is seen as a backdrop to his work. Rowling on the other hand was a complete unknown, which immediately causes the conspiracy theorists among us to go searching for some deep dark plot. Her instant success, far beyond that of Tolkien, certainly caused even further hand wringing and even jealousy among some. The final ugly part of this is that as a woman writing about magic and wizards she became accused of being some sort of witch herself. After all, how could she have possibly written such a  popular book, without some sort of evil force behind her?

I think that a second factor in the differing reactions has to do with timing. Tolkien’s work came out in a time when Christians still engaged the art and literature of the culture. Christians actually read things like Dickens and Poe and Dostoevsky. They did so with eyes wide open and minds engaged, searching for the great themes of life and faith. What they found was stories of redemption, forgiveness, faith, perseverance, honor, and hope. LOR is just that kind of work. Rowling had the misfortune of writing in a time when many Christians have retreated into a spiritual ghetto. It is a place where people only read “Christian” books, listen to “Christian” music, and watch “Christian” movies, all with only your “Christian” friends. We have our own “Christian” television, radio, theme parks, schools, even plumbers and real estate agents. All one needs to do is slap a symbol of a fish on your business card and you have instant credibility in the “Christian” ghetto.

In ways that are ultimately damaging to the cause of Christ many Christians are closing their minds to the timeless truths of God that are found outside the ghetto. One example would be that most Christians have never and will never see the movie, Hotel Rwanda. Yet it may well be one of the most “Christian” movies ever made. It is about self sacrifice, forgiveness, love, redemption and struggle in the midst of a sinful, fallen world. It is a movie of hope in the heart of darkness.

The final nail in the coffin for Rowling and HP is certainly that fact that children were seen as her target market. Tolkien did not write for children in spite of the fact that LOTR is incredibly popular with adolescents. In fact, Tolkien chided his friend Lewis for writing The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, because it was aimed at children. That was a step down to Tolkien. Because HP is so much about children and for children, the conspiracy theorists had a field day. It only added to the fear that Rowling was somehow secretly looking to lure children into a life of wizardry and witchcraft and away from Jesus. It is a sad day when Christians are guided by fear, rumor, and prejudice.

I long for the day when the majority of the Christian world will once again engage the major cultural works of history with a critical and not a jaundiced eye. We need to look for those great truths and themes that the Bible teaches and that show up regularly in the best artwork, literature and film. We need to find the themes of forgiveness and redemption, of sacrifice and love, and instead of railing against the artist, use those themes and the way they touch the human heart, to point people to Jesus. Paul did this in Athens when he quoted Greek philosophers as a stepping stone to talking about the creator of the world. But of course to do that, you need to know what those Greeks said and then see how it can lead to Jesus. And that my friends means we must use the brains God has given us, to point people to Him, for His glory and honor.

I look forward to hearing about someone who came to Christ because they read Harry Potter and a Christian friend used that to point them to Jesus.