I have the privilege of serving as an English professor at Houston Baptist University (HBU) under the inspired Christian leadership of Robert Sloan. As president of HBU, Sloan has made it his vision and his goal to conform all that we do and all that we are to the simple but profound confession: Jesus is Lord. The Lordship of Christ is not just a catchy slogan for us; it undergirds every facet of our teaching, scholarship, administration, student affairs, finances, and community life.
Wheaton College, located in a suburb of Chicago, is privileged to be led by a man who shares this integrated vision for Christian higher education: Philip Ryken, former senior pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. Ryken has brought to his presidency not only top-notch scholarship—he has a degree from Oxford and has written or edited over 40 books—but the heart of a pastor, the mind of a philosopher, and the soul of a poet. Like Sloan, Ryken views his calling as working on multiple levels: guide, intercessor, shepherd, encourager, advocate, judge, and leader.
But where can men like Sloan and Ryken find resources to equip them to fulfill such a multifaceted calling? Our age certainly has no lack of self-help and leadership books, but they are not enough. College president-as-CEO is not sufficient for one who would lead as a disciple of Christ and who would thus embody the messianic roles of prophet, priest, and king.
Prophetic Discernment and Priestly Presence
Serendipitously for Ryken, his university houses the Marion E. Wade Center, which boasts the best collection of C. S. Lewis’s letters and papers in the world and one of the best for Lewis’s friend and fellow Inkling, J. R. R. Tolkien. Though Ryken could have looked to the nonfiction of Lewis for advice and inspiration, he turned instead to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s epic fantasy trilogy, a work that not only teaches its readers the nature of messianic prophethood, priesthood, and kingship but also embodies those teachings in a timeless tale.
Accordingly, Ryken’s book, The Messiah Comes to Middle-Earth: Images of Christ’s Threefold Office in the Lord of the Rings, offers both a scholarly analysis of the characters and journeys of Gandalf (prophet), Frodo/Sam (priest), and Aragorn (king) and a pastoral application to the life of the Christian college president—and, by extension, to all Christians who discern a calling on their lives.
In drawing out the exact nature of Gandalf’s prophetic role, Ryken reminds us that Tolkien’s beloved wizard performs very few acts of magic. Indeed, “for all his miraculous powers, the wizard’s prophetic influence [lies] chiefly in the domain of wisdom. Gandalf shape[s] the affairs of Middle-earth by the power of his words.” This becomes most clear when Gandalf refuses to take the Ring of Power when Frodo offers it to him.
Unlike his fellow wizard, Saruman, who seeks to wield power over the men of Gondor and Rohan, Gandalf prefers to exercise his office through the giving of prophetic counsel. Which does not mean he spends most of the book predicting the future. To the contrary, Gandalf dissuades the Fellowship from trying to look too far ahead—as Denethor and Saruman do, to their ruin, by means of the “magic” seeing stones.
“More than telling the future,” Ryken argues, “Gandalf sees the present in true perspective, and this too is a prophetic gift. Although the biblical prophets are perhaps best known for their predictive prophecies, the preponderance of their ministry involves speaking uncomfortable truths about the present situation. What distinguishes Gandalf most is his gift of discernment.” It is statements like this that mark the strength of Ryken’s book, for such statements simultaneously offer deep insight into Gandalf’s role in The Lord of the Rings and practical advice for Christian educational leaders.
Why do leaders like Ryken and Sloan need the discernment of Gandalf? Consider the many things they must address and balance if they are to fulfill their calling in our beleaguered and fragmented age: “[e]conomic turmoil, technological innovation, rapid globalization, increased government regulation, media scrutiny, public skepticism about the mission of higher education, student unrest, the volatile climate of social media, and the sheer complexity of campus life in the twenty-first century.” They need prophetic discernment, not sheer force—which is why the young Solomon asked for wisdom, rather than power, wealth, or long life, to enable him to rule over an unruly Israel.
And yet, even the fabled Wisdom of Solomon will not suffice. Whether one’s goal is to helm a Christian university or destroy an evil Ring of Power and set free the diverse peoples of Middle-earth, prophetic discernment must be complemented by the offices of priest and king. In Tolkien’s epic, Frodo and Sam together take on the role of priest of Middle-earth, putting into action Gandalf’s prophetic advice.
“From Aaron to Ezra,” Ryken explains, “the Old Testament priests entered God’s holy presence to make atonement and to offer intercession.” As the fulfillment of the faithful priest, Jesus “would not only intercede for transgressors but actually bear their transgressions.” In a similar way, Frodo and Sam bear the burden of the Ring, persevering in their quest no matter the personal cost.
At one point, Sam bears upon his back the weight of Frodo the Ringbearer. In doing so, he not only intercedes but practices what Ryken calls “a ministry of presence.” In fact, Ryken defines a priest, in part, as “someone who stays close beside his friends.” Peter Jackson’s wise decision to remain faithful, in his film trilogy, to the “open tenderness and physical affection” between the two hobbits caused some film critics to suspect “homosexual overtones,” but such critics failed to understand both the depth of love between Frodo and Sam and the importance of priestly presence to the novel.
As president of Wheaton, Ryken clearly takes seriously the ministry of presence, accounting it one of the central offices of his vocation. “There is always something for a president to do on a college campus: host dinners, go to plays and concerts, attend athletic competitions, visit classes and lectures, drop by dormitory events and house parties, show up at retirement receptions, and so on. People expect to see the president, and rightly so. The simple presence of the primary leader pronounces the blessing of the entire campus on any activity.” I have seen the president of my own university perform just these functions and have felt his priestly impact on the student body.
So far, so good. But won’t Americans, raised in a democracy, find the third office of kingship to be troubling and anti-progressive? Perhaps, and yet few Americans who read the novels or view the films fail to feel a sense of climactic joy when Aragorn comes to Gondor, receives his crown, and is joined to Arwen in a royal wedding that foreshadows the marriage of Christ and the church that will usher in the new heaven and earth. Aragorn the king does not bring arbitrary domination but justice, pity, healing, and peace.
Applying Aragorn’s coronation to his own role, Ryken assures his readers that to “see a kingly dimension to campus leadership is not to advocate for an imperial presidency. Rather, it is to recognize that as the sovereign Christ fulfills his kingly office, he appoints certain leaders to serve particular institutions, and the proper exercise of their God-given authority brings blessing into the world.”
Just as Aragorn’s kingship empowers him to restore order to Middle-earth and protect its various populations and regions, so the “calling of [presidential] kingship includes protecting an academic institution from internal and external threats to its missional identity, theological integrity, financial health, or legal standing.” Only those presidents who can discern (prophetically) the present and future dangers to their colleges, intercede (priest-like) for their faculty, staff, and students, and offer decisive (kingly) leadership on matters of doctrine and discipline will be able to hold at bay the many Saurons and Sarumans, Orcs and Shelobs, who would relish the defeat of Christian higher education.
Ryken’s smoothly written and highly accessible book may not break new ground in Tolkien scholarship, but it is well researched and effectively organized, and it provides a fresh perspective on The Lord of the Rings that highlights both its subtle Christian message and its flexible applicability to the challenges and dangers of our modern (and postmodern) world.
Louis Markos teaches English at Houston Baptist University and holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities. His books include On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis (Moody) and From A to Z to Middle-Earth with J. R. R. Tolkien (Lampion Press).