2016-06-30
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.

Tolkien also seems to have had a lingering affection for the British culture's pagan roots. Safety is always found in the woods, among strange mythical creatures.
That's very much common to him and C.S. Lewis. There's this wonderful passage in Lewis's Space Trilogy where he says that all the great myths of all the people of the world will find their true focus, meaning, and home in the Christian story. "The whole work of healing [Earth] depends on nursing that little spark, incarnating that little ghost that is still alive in every real people and different in each," he says. He suggests that there is something theological in all myth, and one day all of that will be shown to have been part of the drama of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

So I wouldn't necessarily make a sharp distinction between paganism and Christianity in Tolkien because I think both Tolkien and Lewis wanted to draw the better parts of the myths of other cultures into the orbit of the Christian story.

The greatness of Islam in the Middle Ages, for instance, was surely part of God's purpose. And the struggle now is for Christians to live those values--tolerance, graciousness, hospitality, beauty, science, the pleasure gardens that were so famous in the Islamic high period. All that surely will find its place eventually. It's up to Christians not to get off on this self-righteous, arrogant, triumphalistic, incredibly self inflated view of ourselves we are very much in danger of having and imposing on others. That's the West at it's worst. What Lewis was calling for was culling out the best of every culture and Tolkien must have shared that.

There is an irony in the little hobbits turning out to be crucial actors. What's going to save the world is not the powerful elves or dwarves, but the least.
Very critically and very specifically so. At the Council, Elrond says, "This is the hour of the shirefolk, when they arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers. . Who of all the wise could have seen it?" That's almost an exact echo of 1 Corinthians 1:27. "God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong." That is the hobbits. Elrond says, "This quest can be attempted by the weak as as by the strong."

And once Frodo becomes the ringbearer, he suddenly gains this sense of moral force.
That's absolutely right. The role one plays will sometimes have a power all its own. I was just reading an article about this young woman who was burned over 90 percent of her body on 9/11. Initially they thought she had no chance to live, but she's gotten better. As she did, she took on this heroic role. She came to represent victory over this evil force. At first her family was worried that this huge burden would be too much for her. On the contrary, she thrived on it, she says, knowing that people were looking to her to redeem today.

The role that is thrust upon you becomes your sustenance. Marriage is like that too, properly understood. The marriage itself, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, becomes an actual force, so that a couple will fight for the marriage in a way they would never have fought to stay together just as a couple.

Gandalf even says to Frodo, "We don't choose our times. It's not for us to decide is what is given to us."
That clearly is relevant not only to what we're living through right now. It's also obviously a very moral and theological notion. The significance of each individual in the greater scheme is of critical and ultimate importance. When Frodo looks into Galadriel's mirror, he comes to know that he's part of a great history in which he has become involved. He is a very small player but playing a huge role.

Any Christian can see him or herself that way, as players in this larger scheme. Certainly, St. Paul sees universal history as a colossal drama played out on a cosmic scale, with the forces of sin and death set over against the greater will of God. And human beings, as Paul made crystal clear, are in thrall to the powers of sin and death and cannot free ourselves. It is only by aligning ourselves with the greater purpose of God that we become free.

In Paul's epistle to the Ephesians we read that God has prepared good works beforehand that we should walk in them--Ephesians 2:10 That's the sense in which I'd like to place Frodo.

It's sort of an antiquated way of looking at one's mission on earth. These days we talk more about our own spiritual journeys.
Well, you could say it's antiquated, or you could say it's the one way of understanding the human story. We've become idolatrous. We've put ourselves in the middle instead of seeing ourselves as part of this far greater drama.

It's extremely encouraging to know that there's a greater drama and not just me. If you believe there is this greater story and you're small part is important, it gives you the strength to keep on keeping on, as they said in the civil-rights movement.

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