Both the Deuteronomy and the 1689 Confession study series are at a halt, pending any new lessons yet to be posted online, and so I am taking a break and revisiting an old love, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. (I consider myself a book purist, and do not particularly care for Peter Jackson’s movie variations.) I first read Tolkien, along with C.S. Lewis, in my early Christian years about 25 years ago. Tolkien’s LOTR endures through the years, good and fresh for many re-readings; it ranks as number four in the top ten of all-time most read books. Online articles that mention Tolkien and Lord of the Rings abound to this day, with several such articles in the past few months (note this recent post from Justin Taylor, remembering what happened 85 years ago), and more over just the last few years. The Gospel Coalition blog alone features several articles, including the aspect of “reading for worldview,” and this good observation:
Those who dismiss The Lord of the Rings as simply Harry Potter for grown-ups, or as a source of bumper sticker material for aging hippies to put on their Volvos (“Not all those who wander are lost”) have really missed the central prophetic vision of the books—a prophetic stance taken against modernity . . . or perhaps what we might want to call mordornity. This is the prophetic element that makes Tolkien’s vision a fundamentally Christian one. There are places where I prefer Lewis’s Protestant take to Tolkien’s Catholicism, obviously, but on this issue Tolkien reflects the ethical perspective of the entire Christian tradition. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.
Also, from the introductory “Reading for Worldviews” article:
Oddly, many modern readers are not only drawn to books that reflect their own personal worldview, but also to those that present them with a radically different worldview. On the one hand, they want to see the values they hold dear acted out on a fictional stage, partly so that they may study, and be challenged by, the decisions made by the hero. On the other hand, they want to explore realities that stand outside their normal experience and thus carry with them a sense of danger that is strangely appealing.
Thus, Christian readers are drawn to The Lord of the Rings because they encounter within its pages a world that affirms Judeo-Christian concepts of good and evil, virtue and vice. And yet, at the same time, Tolkien’s epic fantasy has attracted tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of atheist and agnostic readers intrigued by a world that privileges many of the things they reject: absolute standards of right and wrong; hierarchy and kingship; the reality of a supernatural realm that impinges upon the natural; the existence of a higher purpose that chooses us rather than us choosing it.
Yet at least some Christians continue to dismiss LOTR and lump it into the same category of “problematic/evil reading” along with Harry Potter and all fairy tale stories. The following article Harry Potter vs Gandalf – a rather lengthy essay that may take more than one reading session — (the author is knowledgeable regarding the literature of Tolkien, Lewis, and J.K. Rowling) takes a detailed look at how “magic” is used in different literature, noting seven literary “hedges” that Tolkien and Lewis employed to “fence off” magic from the reader in this world, hedges which are not present in the Harry Potter novels:
- Tolkien and Lewis confine the pursuit of magic as a safe and lawful occupation to wholly imaginary realms, with place-names like Middle-earth and Narnia — worlds that cannot be located either in time or in space with reference to our own world, and which stand outside Judeo-Christian salvation history and divine revelation. By contrast, Harry Potter lives in a fictionalized version of our own world that is recognizable in time and space, in a country called England (which is at least nominally a Christian nation), in a timeframe of our own era.
- Reinforcing the above point, in Tolkien’s and Lewis’s fictional worlds where magic is practiced, the existence of magic is an openly known reality of which the inhabitants of those worlds are as aware as we are of rocket science — even if most of them might have as little chance of actually encountering magic as most of us would of riding in the space shuttle. By contrast, Harry Potter lives in a world in which magic is a secret, hidden reality acknowledged openly only among a magical elite, a world in which (as in our world) most people apparently believe there is no such thing as magic.
- Tolkien and Lewis confine the pursuit of magic as a safe and lawful occupation to characters who are numbered among the supporting cast, not the protagonists with whom the reader is primarily to identify. By contrast, Harry Potter, a student of wizardry, is the title character and hero of his novels.
- Reinforcing the above point, Tolkien and Lewis include cautionary threads in which exposure to magical forces proves to be a corrupting influence on their protagonists: Frodo is almost consumed by the great Ring; Lucy and Digory succumb to temptation and use magic in ways they shouldn’t. By contrast, the practice of magic is Harry Potter’s salvation from his horrible relatives and from virtually every adversity he must overcome.
- Tolkien and Lewis confine the pursuit of magic as a safe and lawful occupation to characters who are not in fact human beings (for although Gandalf and Coriakin are human in appearance, we are in fact told that they are, respectively, a semi-incarnate angelic being and an earthbound star.) In Harry Potter’s world, by contrast, while some human beings (called “Muggles”) lack the capacity for magic, others (including Harry’s true parents and of course Harry himself) do not.
- Reinforcing the above point, Tolkien and Lewis emphasize the pursuit of magic as the safe and lawful occupation of characters who, in appearance, stature, behavior, and role, embody a certain wizard archetype — white-haired old men with beards and robes and staffs, mysterious, remote, unapproachable, who serve to guide and mentor the heroes. Harry Potter, by contrast, is a wizard-in-training who is in many crucial respects the peer of many of his avid young readers, a boy with the same problems and interests that they have.
- Finally, Tolkien and Lewis devote no narrative space to the process by which their magical specialists acquire their magical prowess. Although study may be assumed as part of the back story, the wizard appears as a finished product with powers in place, and the reader is not in the least encouraged to think about or dwell on the process of acquiring prowess in magic. In the Harry Potter books, by contrast, Harry’s acquisition of mastery over magical forces at the Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft is a central organizing principle in the story-arc of the series as a whole.
A few more links to some interesting posts about the Lord of the Rings, from Christian blogs:
- Tolkien on Fairy Stories
- Tolkien and the Long Defeat
- How to Read J.R.R. Tolkien
- The Allure of Middle Earth
- Did Tolkien Waste His Life
- The Orange Mailman’s “Lord of the Rings Communion Devotion”
A final thought, excerpted from the above-linked “Tolkien on Fairy Stories”
Perhaps the most persistent (and nastiest!) critique leveled against Tolkien is that his work is “escapist,” that it draws its readers away from the rigors of the “real world.” Tolkien gives the lie to this critique by reminding his readers of something so obvious it is often overlooked: “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”
Tolkien is not thinking here of a killer or rapist confined to a jail cell for the protection of society, but of a political or military prisoner who has been captured by the enemy. In the latter case, the prisoner who escapes is neither naïve nor juvenile. Indeed, he is both practical and realistic. Far from donning rose-colored classes or acting like a cock-eyed optimist, he bravely and maturely refuses to define himself by the artificial boundaries around him and yearns for the free open air that he knows exists outside his prison walls.
Bilbo, Gandalf, Frodo, Aragorn, and Faramir are all escapists, for they risk their lives to free the world of Middle-earth from the control of forces (Smaug, Sauron, Saruman, Shelob) that would steal life, kill joy, and destroy the earth. They do not accept the creeping darkness that relativizes, existentializes, and uglifies. Rather, in the face of this onslaught, they uphold a counter-vision of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.
The 1689 Baptist Confession exposition series is currently in chapter 22 – the chapter on worship and its elements. Two paragraphs here address the specifics of prayer – both corporate and private – and thus the 1689 study includes a mini-series on the elements of prayer. (Now I am caught up to the latest available message in the series; this will continue with future lessons as they become available on Sermon Audio.) A few thoughts here, regarding the issue of ‘praying according to God’s will,’ from this lesson (March 13, 2016) — three common errors, or points of misunderstanding, regarding interpretation of 1 John 5:14:
- The “Room Service” view interprets 1 John 5:14 with over-emphasis on the ‘ask.’ Asking is what matters, and therefore to ask about anything is in itself according to God’s will.
A well-known scripture example that refutes this error, is the apostle Paul’s request (three times) for God to remove the thorn in his flesh; the answer was no. Another incident I recall here, brought up in Tom Chantry’s recent Deuteronomy series: Moses’ pleading with God to be allowed to go into the promised land—that too was not allowed, and was not according to God’s will.
- The “name it and claim it” view, one we’re familiar with from all the false teaching on Christian television, takes the scriptural reference that “if two or more people agree” and concludes that therefore, if at least two people agree to pray about something, God will do it.
R. C. Sproul has referred to this idea as, God as our “celestial bellhop,” at our beck-and-call for anything we want. As Sproul observed (quote available at this blog link):
We are reminded of statements like “Ask, and it will be given you” (Matthew 7:7); “If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 18:19); and “Whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” (Matthew 21:22). Shorthand summaries like these have provoked bizarre theories of prayer where people have violently isolated these passages from everything else Jesus and the Bible say about prayer. Distortions also abound when we approach these aphorisms simplistically. Consider the earlier statement about any two people agreeing. It would not be difficult to find two Christians who agree that ridding the world of cancer or wars would be a good idea. Their prayer in this matter would not automatically accomplish their desire. The Word of God indicates that wars, poverty, and disease will be present at the time of Christ’s return. To expect their absolute elimination before the appointed time is to grasp prematurely the future promises of God.
The third idea is not so much error, but partly true combined with a misunderstanding regarding God’s decretive versus perceptive wills. The “Submissive but unsure” doubtful view, submits to God’s will, but remains uncertain as to whether the request being made is according to God’s will. Here we consider God’s two wills: 1) His decretive will regarding everything that happens, everything that will occur; and 2) His perceptive will, that which is revealed throughout scripture as God’s precepts, God’s moral law, how we should live as Christians. When we pray for things regarding our future – things not specifically revealed in God’s word – we submit the request to God and His will, with that uncertainty as to what the answer will be. But when we pray for things that pertain to God’s perceptive will, we know that He will answer. Prayers for greater patience and endurance, for more peace, and other Christian “fruits of the spirit” ARE according to God’s will, prayers that we can have confidence that God will answer. Indeed it is so, as Hodgins related, that often we can look back at a particular situation and realize, that yes, in this situation, this time I was more patient, this time my temper didn’t flare up – continuing answers to prayers that are according to God’s will.
This particular story is mentioned in several places: the original event in Numbers 32, Moses’ reference to it here in Deuteronomy, plus follow-up in the book of Joshua. Study of the Deuteronomy text includes the original incident; this is a situation regarding “what Moses didn’t know.” Moses did not know that the Trans-Jordan should even be given to Israel — the promise was always about the land west of the Jordan River; and Moses did not know the heart motives of the men who came to him asking to have that land. Heinitially suspected them of their motives, as being like the previous generation that discouraged their fellow Israelites to not go in and take possession of the land. Were they really hoping to get out of helping in the conquest of Canaan? Or were they honest all along, planning to do as what they explained to Moses after his initial judgment? Moses, as well as us reading it, do not know their thoughts on this point. What Moses did was hold them to their words, their vow – and as the story later unfolded, they were true to their words and went out in the lead, at the front of the army.
Other considerations here: though Moses had not known it, clearly God had purposed for this part of the land — the trans-Jordan (east of the Jordan River) – to be a part of Israel, and thus it would be parceled out to some of the tribes. Yet the way in which it was distributed, did not come directly from God’s directive, but as a request from the leaders of those tribes. Looking at the overall situation, their desire to have that land was not really the wisest choice. They willingly put themselves geographically apart from the heart of Israel – on the frontier and fringe of society. The Jordan created a natural barrier; at certain times of the year – due to flood stage – the Jordan could not easily be crossed. These tribes isolated themselves, as further away from the place of worship – a situation that Chantry likened to our day in the case of Christians who are more distant and frequently not at church due to their past choices such as their occupation (having to work on Sundays).
Though not mentioned in this lesson, we do see the concern that these tribes later had when, in Joshua 22, they set up a replica of the altar to God on their side of the river, indicating that generation’s desire to stay connected to the rest of the nation. Later history of Israel, though, does confirm the overall problem, their unwise choice: this area was quick to apostatize, and 2 Kings 10:32-33 tells us that this land was the first area to be taken away by the Assyrians: In those days the LORD began to cut off parts of Israel. Hazael defeated them throughout the territory of Israel: from the Jordan eastward, all the land of Gilead, the Gadites, and the Reubenites, and the Manassites, from Aroer, which is by the Valley of the Arnon, that is, Gilead and Bashan.
I’ve been listening to Tom Chantry’s recent series through Deuteronomy (only completed through Deut. 4, and apparently on break at least for the summer): a good series with many interesting points regarding the first few chapters of Deuteronomy.
Deuteronomy 2:8-23 is one of those seemingly dry narrative texts in which Moses provides detail about various races of giants, historical data of events that had already taken place in which one people group had replaced another. We tend to ask, why is this in the Bible and what has it to do with us?
The lesson on this text (“There Be Giants”) first considers the issue of “giants,” with some interesting facts concerning the average heights of different people groups throughout history. The “giants” were people of relative height compared to other groups of people. Historical evidence such as uniforms on display at museums indicates that even at the time of the U.S. Civil War (150 years ago), people were overall shorter than today; medieval armor indicates the same regarding Europeans of a few hundred years ago. Throughout history there have been very tall people, those close to 7 feet up to perhaps 8 feet; today we often see them as NFL football players, and Americans today on average are, compared to historical norms, at the higher end. Because of the relative length of the ancient measurement, the cubit, we don’t know exactly how tall some of these ancient people were. The bed (or possibly coffin) of Og the king of Bashan describes the largest recorded size, of a ‘giant’ who was not a ‘freak’ (such as Goliath in relation to the Philistines) but an actual ruler.
The more important lesson from this chapter, though, is that of God’s sovereignty over the nations. Though the book of Daniel is more well known for directly addressing this, in God’s word we find the same truths taught in multiple places, the same teaching that affirms the unity of all scripture. The Deuteronomy text especially points out that even nations of giants, those people especially gifted with physical strength, were defeated and no longer around. The people of Israel needed to not fear the inhabitants of Canaan (as their parents of 40 years earlier, at Kadesh Barnea). We likewise can learn from this: nations which appear as very strong and powerful, will yet topple. It is God who raises up nations, and God who brings them down to ruin.
As Chantry well observed, as application for us, especially in reference to politics and government, in this (once again) U.S. election year:
The strength of men is meaningless in the face of divine sovereignty. Why did all of these nations fall? Because God said that it was time for them to do so…nations, just like men, live under the decree of God. We do NOT create our own future. Now that’s an important thing for us to contemplate in an election year, is it not? Because every candidate of every political stripe is going to sell that message one way or another. ‘We are going to create our future’, and they’re going to ask you, as a voter, ‘what sort of a future are we going to create?’ It’s a helpful thing for the Christian to sit back and say, no, no, we do not rule the future. God rules the future. God determines. Governments retain their power only so long as God permits. That’s not intended as a rabble-rousing statement. I’m not indicating that we or any other Christian ought to take up arms against the government. I’m merely observing a reality. It is a reality of scripture and a reality of history, that governments retain their power only so far as God permits. And when that power ends, it ends; and sometimes it ends with startling speed. We cannot put confidence in history. … We live under the decree of God, and God does with nations as He does with men. He does whatsoever He wills.