We're celebrating Oscar season by talking with five religious thinkers (listed at right) about each of this year's Best Picture nominees. Fleming RutledgeFleming Rutledge, an Episcopal priest, is a nationally known preacher. Her sermons have been collected in "The Bible and The New York Times" and "Help My Unbelief" and, most recently, "The Undoing of Death." Beliefnet's Paul O'Donnell talked with her about Best Picture nominee "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring."

"The Lord of the Rings" brings to the screen the first book of J.R.R. Tolkien's famed trilogy to the screen. Accompanied by a fellowship of men, dwarves and elves, the gentle hobbit Frodo sets out to destroy a ring forged by the dark lord Sauron, by throwing it into Mt. Doom.

Tolkien, we all know, used a lot of Christian themes. What's so Christian about this movie?
It makes clear that the ring is wholly evil. It cannot be used for good. Its seductive power is so great that no one is immune to it, including Galadriel. The temptation to absolute power affects every being-- no being is so virtuous or exceptional that he or she can be trusted with it. That's certainly a profoundly Christian idea. There is no exceptional human being. Adam and Eve thought they were exceptional, and they weren't.

So what does the ring translate to in Christian terms? Is it creation?
Well, you know, Tolkien hated allegory. He vehemently refused to call his work allegory, and so I stay away from thinking in that way.

The temptation to look at it as allegory is strong though. Tolkien goes at these themes so hard.But he's going at them in a strictly narrative way. I don't see anything that holds up as a consistent thread to Biblical events.

Where is God in the story?
There is a fascinating interplay between the will of the ring--the will of the Dark Lord who forged it--and a greater will, who isn't identified. Gandalf says to Frodo that Bilbo was meant to have the ring-but not by its maker. There was something else at work beyond any desire of the ring maker. That's explicitly Christian. Beyond the desire of Satan is the will of God. And so, the fact that Bilbo and Frodo were meant to have the ring is this sign in the working of Middle Earth that there is a larger purpose.

That larger purpose sometimes looks like random chance. The ring lies on the bottom of a lake for years before it falls into Bilbo's hands, seemingly by accident. But it turns out to be destiny.
I would say providence, to use Christian language. One scene that is terribly inadequate in the movie is the Council of Elrond. Most of the important theological themes appear in the that scene in the book. For instance, Elrond says, "All the people are gathered by chance, so it would seem. Yet it is not so. Believe rather that it is so ordered that we who sit here must now find counsel for the peril of the world."

So the sense of this divine order is explicitly stated. All those who are called--the elves, the men and the hobbits--all play their role according to this order. So again this greater force at work, this larger will, which is larger than the will of Sauron.

Yet in the movie Frodo chooses to carry the ring.
Yes, there's always this interplay between human decision and the larger decision. That's a theological discussion that will go on until the Second Coming. There will be the those who emphasize human choice, and those who emphasize the decisions of God. I belong to the latter. At the council, the book says, "A great dread fell on Frodo, as if he were waiting the pronouncement of some doom. . An overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace by Bilbo's side in Rivendell filled all his heart. At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words as if some other will was using his small voice. 'I will take the ring,' he said, 'although I do not know the way."

So even though Elrond later says to Frodo, "You have taken it freely," nevertheless, I think the primary emphasis is on irresistible grace, if you will. Some other will was using his small voice.

Where does that phrase "irresistible grace" come from?
It's associated with Calvinism. I don't subscribe to the whole Calvinist program, although Calvin himself is a peerless theologian. But there were five points of Calvinism, and irresistible grace is one of the five points. And I think the Christian faith stands or falls on it.

Tolkien himself of course was Catholic.
Yes, though a lot of this would not be particularly Catholic.

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