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Lord of the Rings: Tolkien's Christianity

As a Christian watching The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I find myself asking: What does it mean that among the most popular movies of recent years are several involving young men coming of age? Frodo and Harry Potter are prime examples of a type. In these films a young man sets out on a journey of discovery in which he finds not only himself, but secrets that may benefit the entire world. The journey is through a fantasy world in which good and evil, light and darkness, powers natural and supernatural are at war. In these films, the young hero is a very appealing character, with remarkable gifts, who leaves the familiar surroundings of childhood, embarking upon a path toward a place of magic and wonder where life's deepest secrets are revealed. Engagement in a cosmic struggle of epic proportions is the means through which these young men find salvation, enlightenment, and a sense reunion with the One. (The Christian Bible, too, is full of such heroes and such journeys: think Abraham, the young Moses, David off to slay Goliath, or young Jesus confronting the powers and principalities of his world.)

Could it be that these movies offer what neither secular culture nor organized religions have succeeded in providing for a certain generation, namely, a path to salvation?

This possibility may seem objectionable, especially since the organized religions are in the salvation business and are reluctant to acknowledge that there is any serious competition. My own view is that movies are an excellent medium of inspiration and enlightenment. Furthermore, the Rings trilogy is a powerful example of how a work of fiction can evoke a feel for the sacred calling, and this is an important reason for this work's success.

The Rings trilogy is profoundly Christian.

Tolkien and his colleague C. S. Lewis, one of the most prominent voices for evangelical Christianity of the past century, often discussed the ways in which the Christian faith could be expressed in alternative shapes and forms. They believed that one can communicate the content of Christianity without merely repeating Bible verses, or words lifted from traditional creeds or confessions. And they both set out to create a new literature that would speak to traditional Christians as well as to readers who were alienated from Christianity.

Tolkien wanted to create a literature in which the faith was implied rather than imposed, and suggested rather than preached.

Of course, the effort to do this may seem both impossible and unnecessary to Christians who identify their faith with certain words or phrases, and believe that there is one and only one way to faithfully communicate Christianity. By contrast, Tolkien saw the need for speaking truth in fresh, new forms, accessible to those who are put off by official church dogma.

In the Rings trilogy, the words "God" or "Christ" never appear, but the reality which these words refer to is communicated in every word and phrase of the text.

First, and most important, is the basic fact that events that transpire in Middle Earth do so, not according to the will and intent of the characters who populate these realms, but rather according to a lovingly crafted plan, which would be referred to in Christian parlance as "Providence." The suggestion that the "Ring" can be the key to whether good or evil prevails speaks of a universe founded upon certain principles, or as Christians would put it, "created" by a certain God.

Second, the characters in the narrative are shaped and defined according to their particular role in the unfolding of that plan. Central to the Rings cycle is the notion of Christian heroism, as expressed, for example in both Frodo and Sam. The true heroes for Tolkien, are not those who excel in qualities of strength or intelligence, but rather exhibit a spiritual depth. The outward manifestation of the inner light is fidelity to a higher cause.

At bottom, what makes the hero truly heroic is devotion rather than valor.

The ethic that governs Tolkien's imaginary world is the same one articulated by St. Paul who wrote: "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love."

Finally, the universe which Tolkien has created, and is faithfully rendered in these movies, is deeply sacramental in that through its stunning scenery and lavish visual detail, the light comes shining through.

(For a more thorough discussion of Tolkien's Christianity and his intent in writing the Rings trilogy, see the article by Patrick Grant in CrossCurrents.)

In writing the Rings, Tolkien was not reinventing the wheel so much as he was adding yet another spoke alongside other Christian epics of earlier times like "Beowulf" and "Paradise Lost." What Tolkien did was to take the experiment one step beyond these classics, or even the similar efforts of his friend and colleague C. S. Lewis.

Tolkien succeeded masterfully in speaking to that wider circle of readers for whom organized Christianity has lost its appeal.

Of course, evangelical Christians may ask how successful Tolkien was as "winning souls to Christ." If the measure of success in this regard is affiliation with organized Christianity, one will never know. But, for Tolkien, that may well have been beside the point. After all, even Jesus did not intend to start a religion, he intended to provoke people into a new relationship with the Infinite. In so far as any literature can be helpful in this regard, the Rings trilogy is.

Here I speak from personal experience. I remember growing up in mainline Protestantism of the Middle West, being encouraged by my parents to participate in the "youth fellowship" program sponsored by our local church. Fellowship meetings were most often held on Sunday evenings in the church basement; but the activity organized by the faithful adult volunteers from the congregation were not ones likely to stir any sense of excitement in me or my teenage friends.

If it weren't for parents commanding our participation, few of us would have voluntarily appeared at church on those Sunday evenings. The very word "fellowship," said it all: this was an activity organized by authority figures intent upon keeping us on the straight and narrow. In his trilogy, Tolkien transforms not only the word, but its meaning almost entirely. Setting out into a world of danger and adventure, armed with sometimes magical powers to do battle with the cosmic forces of evil, accompanied by a motley band of friends and comrades with whom one shares experiences that are beyond anything one could have possibly imagined in this mundane world, while being freed of the conventional constraints of home and hearth: this is at bottom what the faith first articulated by Jesus Christ is all about. That the adventure also involves resolution of the deepest conflict within oneself and the encounter with the infinite in the midst of this finite world, makes the journey all the more liberating and enlivening. Had John Walker read "The Lord of the Rings," he might not have needed the fellowship of the Taliban.

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and Executive Director of
  CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2005).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.