The Lord of the Rings, The Passion of the Christ, and the Highway of Holiness
I don't remember a time when the realm of popular culture has seemed more alive with divine purpose.
During the past year or two, how often have we been publicly reminded—through movies, books, and events—of vital truths about who we are and who God is? Through Peter Jackson's third Lord of the Rings movie, Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, and other prominent cultural events, we have been pushed off of the path of complacency and back towards the "highway" depicted by Isaiah:
"And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness. The unclean will not journey on it; it will be for those who walk in that Way; wicked fools will not go about on it. No lion will be there, nor will any ferocious beast get up on it; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, and the ransomed of the Lord will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away" (Isa. 35:8-10; NIV).
Some of those pushes have come as punches: the Da Vinci Code book comes to mind. This novel slugged us right in the intellectual complacency, and many Christians and churches have been slugging right back. We've been reminded that we tend to sit comfortably in what we know—in our hearts as well as our minds—about the divinity of Christ and about the "exceeding greatness of God's power" (Eph. 1:18) in history. We have too often sat silent, without communicating that witness to people. It is only when a thinly veiled attack on the truths of the Gospel and Christian history climbs its way to the top of the bestseller lists that we begin to stir. It jars us into remembering ourselves and our God, and into telling the truths of our faith again to those who have too easily bought fiction as fact. We should thank Brown for pointing us back to the "highway" and reminding us that it is our duty to point others there, too.
But God doesn't leave all the good stories to the Devil, any more than he lets the Devil have all the good tunes! At least, that was the opinion of J. R. R. Tolkien, who wove into his own bestselling tales the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. Yes, the Lord of the Rings—even though it is set on a pre-Christian, apparently non-religious landscape—is in its own way a push back towards the highway.
In writing his own "epic for the times," Tolkien followed the method of the ancient Christian author of Beowulf: celebrate the heroic virtues of courage, self-sacrifice, and protection of the innocent, but frame them within those greater virtues of faith, hope, and love. Tolkien wrote in the teeth of the modern world: corrupted by power-hunger and heedless of the divine worth of individual human lives. His hobbits, though pre-Christian characters, acted out their parts in a larger providential story—the "hidden hand" that we know as God. They exemplified self-sacrificing love, friendship, hope, and even faith that the designs of that "hand" were for the best. And in the end, though they made as many mistakes as we do, they triumphed.
Yes, the Lord of the Rings shakes us from the complacency of a success-driven, materialistic, depersonalizing world and reminds us that the highway is not the way of comfort or inaction. It requires sacrifice. But it is the only road that leads surely to success. The apparent "successes" of the wicked can end only in failure. The Devil has already been defeated.
One recent cultural event has come not so much as a push, but as a dynamite blast, helping to clear from the highway's on-ramps a huge, craggy stone of falsehood. This "blast" is Mel Gibson's portrayal of the Passion of Jesus. Not without flaw, this movie nonetheless serves the church in the best possible way: it reminds us that the common portrayal of Jesus as a Nice Man with a moralistic message is a hollow fiction. The Nice-Man Jesus crumbles before the truth of who he actually was and what he did for us. Gibson has dealt a strong blow to the complacency of quasi-Christian moralism, clearing the way to the atonement Christ provided through his sacrifice.
Another public push back towards the highway has begun as the result of an actor's private pain and his discovery of an unlikely friend from the distant past. A few years ago, the actor Gerard Depardieu (Green Card, Cyrano de Bergerac, and other noted movies), worn down by emotional troubles and hedonistic lifestyle choices, returned to the Christian faith of his youth. He also discovered a spiritual kinship with the 4th-century bishop and theologian Augustine of Hippo—who was similarly saved out of the dregs of fame-seeking and sensuality. Last year, so taken and transformed was Depardieu by Augustine's brutally honest and soaringly devotional Confessions, he pledged to do a series of dramatic public readings of passages of the Confessions. "I went to a psychoanalyst for 20 years," said the actor, "and I can say that Books X and XI of the 'Confessions' offer answers to our most intimate questions and calm our most painful queries." What a welcome blow to the modern West's most characteristic "besetting sins": the complacencies of self-centeredness and sensualism.
Though they are mixed products of sinful people (aren't all our best efforts?), these cultural products and events remind us of something we too easily forget: though these past couple of years may seem in many ways "the worst of times," they are also—because God loves us too much to leave us as we are—the best of times.
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