2016-06-30
Macky AlstonMacky Alston agreed to discuss "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" only after warning us that he'd never read the Tolkien trilogy. His other credentials more than covered him. The son and grandson of ministers and a seminary dropout, Alston is a consultant on media and religion for Auburn Theological Seminary in New York. His second film, "Questioning Faith," about six believers' search for meaning in tragedy, recently appeared on HBO.

"The Two Towers" is the second installment in the Lord of the Rings series. The hobbit Frodo, charged with taking the eponymous ring to Mordor to be destroyed, cautiously befriends the ring's former owner, Gollum, who agrees to be Frodo's guide. Meanwhile, Gandalf sends Aragorn to help the men of Rohan hold off a massive army of orcs at Helm's Deep until he can come to Aragorn's aid.


Was this a Christian movie?
The most obvious Christian character is Gandalf, the leader with his disciples, his fight with evil, his death and resurrection, and his approach to the new dawn, the salvation of Middle Earth, when evil is ultimately overthrown. The movie feels apocalyptic, like it's heading toward some ultimate victory of good over evil.

It's a Christianity that seems a little out of fashion. The stakes are so high.
It isn't just good guys versus bad guys. The characters struggle minute-by-minute with good and evil internally, and that mirrors the battle between good and evil battle on a cosmic level. The scenes with Frodo, who has the ring, and Gollum, who used to have it, are the most memorable. It's their constant battle, between the voices of hope and faith and of bitterness and betrayal. That resonates with me entirely. That Pauline perspective that we're constantly struggling within, that we have to give ourselves over to faith and pray for grace.

So it's Christian in that it makes individuals the actors in the cosmic drama.
"Our fates are in the hands of two little hobbits," is one of the last lines in the movie. The smallest of beings, which means us.

You are a player in the apocalypse, the movie wants you to know.
And I feel that right now. When I was in seminary, people were very uncomfortable with the apocalyptic strands in the Gospels and the letters of Paul, because they were so violent. Right now, those stories are utterly meaningful. We're not reading those passages out of the text for our comfort level. Rather, we're asking how do we make sense of today?

The weirdness of the title, "The Two Towers," goes without saying. I saw the movie in downtown Manhattan, overlooking the wasteland that was World Trade. I thought, Lord God, this is where we are! However we interpret this myth, with all its lack of nuance, this is what life is about right now in New York City and in the world.

It's almost impossible to see this movie and not think of Iraq.
Man alive, the war began while I was in the movie theater! It felt so connected to what's going on on Earth right now. It would be easy to draw the conclusion that we're the good guys in the war we're facing right now. But it would be just as easy for an Iraqi to think he is the one stuck in the keep waiting for some magical ending.

But it's a little problematic to read movie in terms of what' s going on internationally. They were really the problem I had with the movie. For one thing, the Aryan elf looks like the ideal good guy, while the orcs look like black people. They couldn't have one person of color who's a good guy?

What about the dwarf, Gimli?
He's a good ole boy! A country bumpkin. The other thing is the accents. The good guys went to Oxford and Cambridge and the bad guys are Cockney. Good guys speak well and bad guys speak poorly.

So it's dated in a number of ways.
And in a superhero story, you want one wonder woman! I wanted to see the blonde woman, Vigo Mortensen's love interest, out there flashing her sword!

But of course we have to read the Bible in terms of its cultural context too. So many people get hung up on how it might not be considered politically correct from a 20th century standard and miss the struggles at its heart. One could say the same for LTR. The most powerful message of the movie is not who is good--nationally or genetically. We must look within, and ask if we're motivated by good or evil. What voice are we hearing?

All this makes George W. Bush, a Christian and a leader, is an interesting figure right now. He is acting very individually, like the Christian story asks us to do.
I agree. With counsel, he's doing what he thinks is right.

And in a sense, he has the ring.
Absolutely. And the question is, has the ring done him in? Is he being moved by forces of evil that he takes for the forces of good? Or is he moved by goodness? That's what we're all trying to discern. Regardless of what he's doing, I, a mere hobbit, have to realize that I am a player. When there are only 300 in Helm's Deep, they need all the help they can get. Whether it's a tree-"the rocks themselves will cry out"-or a person. So I also have to act.

It comes back to that Deuteronomistic bit: you've got the choice between blessing and curse, life and death: whatcha gonna do? It's key to the Jewish walk, and the Christian walk and it's key to The Lord of the Rings. It's here, it's now, we can't go back to the Shire. You have the opportunity to take up your cross right now. To go--the Abrahamic thing-"Go." Not I'll get back to you tomorrow. That's what all these hero myths are talking about-Lord of the Rings, Star Wars: what are you going to do right now? That's all that matters, because that's all that really exists.

The climax of the movie is really when the orcs are on the point of taking Helm's Deep. Aragorn asks, are we going to get up on our horses and ride out there? As a viewer, I say that's hopeless, that's ridiculous. It's martyrdom. But the movie says they had the faith to act valorously against all odds. To believe that good can overcome evil, even when it looks like evil has utterly won the day.

And it's then that-who knows, because of, or whether or not--over the hill appears the good. If they had not ridden out, that same army would have crested the hill. The question is, what are we going to be a part of? The choice for the king was giving himself over to death or giving himself to the possibility of life, and die victoriously-because that's a victory in the landscape of this movie.

That's the Easter moment.
Think about it. If you're in Helm's Deep, you're thinking, if there is a God, then certainly he's not powerful enough to adhere to. So forget it. Either I'm going to give into despair, or I'm going to get the most out of life I can, in terms of power. That is the Good Friday story. That's the story of the disciples who saw their teacher die on the cross, that most humiliating death. Then they have that Easter experience.

Whatever we believe in, what we have to hope for in those moments is some kind of revelation that makes us continue to believe in life, something beyond the power of death. And in my experience that feels like grace. It doesn't feel like my will has just figured it out. But rather that some thing has appeared to me in the form of love.

When the elf princess goes off to the other world-
Did she go? It's unclear to me.

Hollywood usually make her stay.
I want her to stay!

Tolkien seemed to say that eternity is more important than this world. You have to keep your eye on the prize, which is eternal life.
As a 20th century person, who went to school post-liberation theology, my read on her is that she bailed. She did the right thing for Tolkien, but the wrong thing for me. I am definitely oriented toward salvation here on Earth. The fight is here. And heaven is here. That's not to say I don't believe in life after death. That is to say that we are called to incarnate God's kingdom here and now, and not for some reward in the hereafter. That's the story of the movie.

That first scene, where Gandalf is sucked down into the mountain, battling with the horrible monster. I can't say how, but that seemed to me a very spiritual moment.
Well, that's the cost of discipleship. The Bonhoffer idea. You're going to go to hell. You're going to experience hell in your life. You're going to get crucified, if you take up your cross. However, there will be an Easter moment for you. If you give up your life, you gain it. If you fight for your own individualistic existence, you're going to lose it. That's the story of the ring. You fight for your own power, you're going to die, it's going to kill you. You go down into hell, holding onto this horrible flaming beast and you come back better than ever, going from gray to white. That is real.

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