Why The Lord of the Rings Is Dangerous
This is part three of a conversation between two authors whose books discuss the faith of J. R. R. Tolkien and the religious values underpinning The Lord of the Rings. Parts one and two appeared on our website earlier this week.
Bradley J. Birzer is assistant professor of history at Hillsdale College in Michigan, where he specializes in the history of the American West, and related topics. His book, J. R. R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth, was just published by ISI Books.
Mark Eddy Smith is a graphic designer at InterVarsity Press, which published his book, Tolkien's Ordinary Virtues: Exploring the Spiritual Themes of The Lord of the Rings, earlier this year. (purchase)
From: Brad Birzer
To: Mark Eddy Smith
Before we begin our discussion regarding Tolkien and Christianity, I would like to thank Christianity Today for inviting us to write on this topic. My favorite historian, Christopher Dawson, argued that it is impossible to separate the cult—that is, a community of persons who worship the same God—from the culture. Indeed, without a religious foundation, it is impossible to have a culture of any kind. Religion is the basis of each and every culture. A culture that loses its religious foundation can only continue for a limited amount of time, and only so long as it maintains at least some semblance of its religious inheritance. Tolkien, who attended the same parish as Dawson in the 1940s, I am sure agreed with this, and he would be happy to see the Christian elements of his mythology affecting Christian and non-Christian alike.
Second, I want to note how much I enjoyed your book, Tolkien's Ordinary Virtues. I think your use of G.K. Chesterton and Josef Pieper is brilliant, and I think you're an excellent writer. Your book is a wonderful contribution to the literature on Tolkien and myth.
Though I thoroughly enjoyed the entire book, you have two sentences that stand out from the rest. The first: "When God does call us, it may be to a journey of danger and terror, with the possibility of no return, or it may be to the simpler danger and terror of confronting a boss whose practices seem a little shaky" (p. 21).
In this one sentence, I think you've captured perfectly Tolkien's understanding of myth and Faerie. To enter Faerie, Tolkien wrote, was always perilous. One never knew what one would find, and the sheer beauty of even the smallest thing would overwhelm any mere human visitor, no matter how saved and sanctified. For Tolkien, Faerie is a sacramental understanding of life: Grace abounds, but we usually ignore it, more enticed by the things of this world. And, such enticements grow ever greater as we begin the 21st century: not just the Xboxes and Nintendos to numb our children, but the outrageously sexualized sitcoms and advertisements, appealing to the basest level of our physical selves. Indeed, it's hard to turn any direction without some thing, some noise, or some eye candy attempting to tempt us. Modernity, Tolkien believed, distracted us from that which is the only thing real and necessary: Jesus Christ.
Real Life—as opposed to the dull, murky, substitute life that modernity provides us—is much greater than what we can understand through our physical senses, our science, and our facts. Truth itself, Tolkien knew, was much greater than our finite minds could understand or comprehend, even with the glorious gifts of Scripture, tradition, and the Natural Law. The greatest thing we do in life is the least thing (if it registers at all) in Faerie. In other words, while our works are important, they are important for the here and now, not for salvation in the life to come. Salvation, the Augustinian Tolkien knew well, was strictly a gift, bought for us by the True Myth, the Incarnate Word, sacrificing Himself on the Cross. Jesus did this not out of obligation, but out of Love.