2016-06-30
Brian D. McLaren, founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in the Washington, D.C. area, is the author of the groundbreaking 2001 book, "A New Kind of Christian," in which McLaren challenges Christians to discard liberal, evangelical and conservative labels to reinvent the church in a postmodern, post-Christian world. He is a founder of Emergent, a network of Christian leaders.

"The Return of the King" is the third installment of director Peter Jackson's filming of J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. In this final chapter, Frodo the hobbit, with his friend Sam, make their way to the Crack of Doom to destroy the Ring of Power, while the future of Middle Earth is settled with the crowning of Aragorn as king of Gondor.


I want to talk about how good and evil are portrayed in "The Return of the King." It's been suggested that Frodo and Gandolf come across as too pure and the Orcs so evil in the movie, where Tolkien's books depict all creatures as flawed. Do you agree?
Well yes and no. Those Orcs really do have bad teeth, true. But look at Gollum. He has really bad teeth too, but in this despicable creature is still something remotely lovable and some trace of dignity, and he has a very important role in the story. The great continuing flaw of Sam--probably the most lovable character in the whole story--is his inability to have compassion for Gollum.

In defense of the movie and the Orcs, though, I think revulsion is part of how fairy tales work. They teach us revulsion, which is underrated. We need to develop a sense of revulsion against the abuse of power, for example.

How do you think it compares to the Christian story, which Tolkien famously worked from. Does Christianity portray good and evil starkly?
In a "whodunnit," the bad guy is often the person you least expected. And there's that dimension to the story of Jesus, as you can see in the hot debate recently about Mel Gibson's film--Jesus, the good guy, is Jewish, but some of the bad guys are Jewish too. And the Romans are bad guys, yet there are a couple of Roman good guys in the story.

So the Gospels tell about the obvious kind of evil, but they have some surprises. A great example is Peter, when he makes the confession about Jesus being the Messiah. In the next breath, Jesus tells him '"Get behind me, Satan." It's just fascinating. Sermons tend to turn everything into a kind of a Sunday school moralism, but the Bible itself is a lot more ambiguous.

The ambiguity of the ending, too, is so great--that Frodo, even though he has conquered, still carries this wound that somehow he never fully recovers from. My son hated that. It just made him so mad that Frodo had to leave Middle Earth.

How did you understand that?
It's just realism, that happy endings have a little bittersweetness, and that there really are such a thing as scars, in this life anyway.

But doesn't Christianity promise that we'll be restored to a pre-Fall purity, that we're all be cleansed? And yet Bilbo and Frodo are still scarred.
One reason is that the movie is not the end of the story, but the end of one chapter in a very very long story. Frodo even leaves a few extra pages in his account for the next volume, and heads off to the Gray Havens, which is a new beginning as well. So that isn't necessarily un-Christian theologically. It's a refreshing correction to a kind of sappy, easy route to a happy ending that you find in an awful lot of Christian preaching and writing.

So how do you read the destruction of the Ring, with cracking earth and the lava is pouring down? It seems so apocalyptic.
This question is very alive in biblical studies right now. Medieval and modern Christian theology creates this very clear apocalyptic myth, if I can put it that way--this idea that history is about to be over and we'll all go to heaven. It's related to the Platonic invasion of Christian faith. The Platonic ideal is perfectly static. Nothing changes, because everything is in such a state of perfection that the only way it could change would be to get worse. We started with perfection before the Fall, and we can't wait to get back to it. It's as if we're given this experience of life that forms us and is then completely invalidated.

A number of very responsible biblical scholars are saying this is a gross misunderstanding of the Christian story. It's popular, and it's been brought into the heart of popular Christianity. But they look at the Book of Revelation and say, "This isn't some map of the End Time; this is a vision into deeper realities in the present." The things that we interpret as heaven in the Jewish prophets, for example, they interpret as a dream of justice coming to life on earth. Tolkien's work is more in tune with some of this serious theology than with this sort of pop Christianity.

Like the Left Behind series?
Yeah, the whole Left Behind thing, but even the more all the imagery about being in heaven and floating in clouds and all that. At the end of the Book of Revelation, God says, "Behold. I make all things new." One way to read this is to say, not that it's an end to everything, but that the Bible ends with a new beginning.

Speaking of Left Behind, the popularity of those books seems to depend partly on their realistic, literal approach to these themes. Can Tolkien's mythmaking really reach people these days?
The theologian Walter Brueggemann says we read the Bible as if it were a recipe book, when in fact the writings of the prophets, Brueggemann says, work like poetry--they fund the imagination with images that help us face the world in a moral way. That's what I think Lord of the Rings does. I can't tell you how many times in the last couple of years I've heard people compare things to the Ring of Power. It gives us an image of something attractive and powerful that will destroy you. I think it's succeeding in that beautifully.

What does the movie say about how to deal with evil? Clearly, Tolkien wants to say that you can't just sit at home in the Shire when evil's afoot. Is this movie a call to join the army and fight Saddam Hussein?
You could imagine people saying that, or they could ask, What if bombs and guns and all the rest are part of the Ring of Power?

That makes sense, if you agree that we're supposed to identify with Frodo, who is more conflicted, than with Aragorn, who is flashing his sword around.
Yes. Only the weakest can be trusted with the power. One of the ideas of postmodern thought is that the powerful marginalize the weak. We need to be aware of the way that power masks truth, because power only listens to the truth of the powerful and doesn't listen to the truth of the oppressed and the powerless.

So here this story is all about the heroism of the powerless. Aragorn is a great human leader, but his role is subsidiary to Frodo's. If I were to name my favorite scene in the whole movie, it's that wonderful scene near the end, where the four hobbits try to bow to Aragorn and he says, "You don't bow to anybody," and then bows to the four least, these Halflings. The ultimate glory is not getting glory; the ultimate glory is giving glory. So it's Aragorn's coronation, and he kneels.

To me that's a very Christian idea. That's part of where just Tolkien's brilliance just really comes through. And he gets my 11-year-old to understand what is a pretty sophisticated thing. Contrast that with Left Behind, which almost seems to try to stop from thinking more deeply, and you're just on two different planets.

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