The Common Good
March-April 2002

What the Church Can Learn From Hobbits

by Roberto Rivera | March-April 2002

The theology of the Rings.

Praise the Lord!" read the headline in the Dec. 21, 2001 Washington Post. No, the Post hadn't gotten religion. The headline was summing up reviewer Desson Howe's response to Peter Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

Howe wasn't alone in his enthusiasm. Jackson's opus received virtually unanimous praise. Many reviewers had Rings near or at the top of their "Best of the Year" lists, and the film is being mentioned as a serious Oscar contender.

Financially, the film is also an unqualified success. It grossed $74 million in its first five days, and it's possible that New Line Cinema, which spent nearly $300 million making the three films, will recoup its investment with the first film alone. It appears that Rings may join the book in achieving the status of cultural phenomenon. The question is: What can the church learn from hobbits?

The question is pertinent because, unlike nearly every other mass culture icon, Lord of the Rings is the product of an unmistakably Christian set of sensibilities. Its defining characteristics—the ideals that shaped the narrative, even the author's sense of what he was doing as he wrote—come straight out of Christianity.

To cite but two examples, Tolkien's depiction of how evil insinuates itself into our lives, by appealing to our ideas about what is good and then perverting them, is straight out of saints Ambrose and Augustine. And the reversal of expectations, wherein the weakest and least significant residents of Middle Earth wind up saving it by wielding what might be called "weapons of righteousness," is a recurring biblical theme. Stated simply, the book and the movie that have captured the imaginations of millions would have been impossible without Christianity.

As Daniel Taylor, author of The Healing Power of Stories, tells us, a lot can happen when you capture people's imaginations. "When I am tempted, as I always am, to put my personal advantage ahead of the common good...I am little moved by abstract ethical injunctions, and actively encouraged to ‘me-firstism' by psychological-sounding appeals to my needs and rights. But I can sometimes be nudged toward something resembling concern for others by remembering a story from long ago about wizards and hobbits."

Truth is, appeals to scripture fare scarcely better than ethical injunctions. That's why the biggest lesson the church can draw from the success of Lord of the Rings is the importance of telling its story, of reaching both heart and mind through a person's imagination.

NOW, TALK OF IMAGINATION, story, and—God forbid—myth makes a lot of people nervous. But that's a thoroughly modern conceit; it forgets that what Christians know about the God they worship—God's love, justice, and compassion—comes primarily from the narratives contained in the Bible. It forgets that, for most of Christian history, Christians would gather together on the Lord's day and rehearse—in the sense of remembering—the story by which their salvation was purchased. This story not only tells us about God, it tells us about ourselves and how we should live our lives.

In his book The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, the late Hans Frei of Yale wrote that, for most of Christian history, a reader (or hearer) of the biblical stories was expected "see his disposition, his actions and passions, the shape of his own life as well as that of his era's events as figures of that storied world...." In other words, our lives only made sense in the context of these stories.

Then came the rise of modern science. Narrative and stories were pushed aside in favor of a more "scientific" way of explaining the world around us, a change that the church embraced. Churches neglected the telling of this story for arid propositions that left us cold and bored. Belief became a matter of subscribing to certain propositions about God, rather than seeing our lives in the context of a great, unfolding drama—what in German is called heilgeschichte, salvation history.

None of this changed the fact that people need stories, nor did it lessen the importance of the imagination. So, every once in a while, a story comes along to remind us what we used to know about the importance of narrative and the moral imagination.

Which brings me back to my question. If stories about hobbits and wizards can prompt people to rise above self-centeredness, imagine what the Christian story can do, especially since it's true in ways that not even Lord of the Rings is. And the first step lies in telling that story. Because once you've got a person's imagination, chances are the rest of the person will follow.

Roberto Rivera is a fellow of the Wilberforce Forum and a contributing editor for Touchstone magazine.

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