How Good It Is

How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity! It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down on the collar of his robe. It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the LORD bestows his blessing, even life forevermore. (Psalm 133)

“Such was the virtue of the land of Rivendell that soon all fear and anxiety was lifted from their minds. The future, good or ill, was not forgotten, but ceased to have any power over the present. Health and hope grew strong in them, and they were content with each good day as it came, taking pleasure in every meal, and in every word and song.” (“Fellowship of the Ring” by J.R.R. Tolkien)

I often think of this passage when I think of what it would be like to live in peace. How nice it would be to be bored, to have time to wait for the Next Adventure without someone trying to disrupt my world with meanness. Readers of Tolkien, like me, often reflect on the extent to which World War I and the horrors of trench warfare shaped this man’s life and how he wrote. He must have longed for the peaceful days before the war and missed friends he lost at war. He must have asked why God would allow such a thing to happen.

I believe that his distinctly Roman Catholic faith played a very strong role in his life. I tried to write a paper in undergrad on this subject.

True story, the professor who graded the paper was also a comparative religion professor and he let me know normally he wouldn’t sign off on what sounded like a fangirl, biographical analysis of Tolkien. He gave me just enough rope to write the paper because he found my theological views elsewhere interesting. I used that rope to hang myself, intellectually speaking.

He wanted me to get deep. I wasn’t ready yet. It would take me another few years to cross the Tiber – become Catholic in Catholic-speak. In that between point, the text wound up sounding shallow and fangirl-like. I was looking for something in Tolkien, but I didn’t yet know what it was.

I barely passed the class. As the prof put it, I passed because he accepted partial blame for letting me try. It was that bad. I knew it was bad, but eventually you have to hit submit. Such is the writer life. Deadlines happen.

Let’s see if I can do better now.

The argument between Lewis and Tolkien, infamous among literary geeks like me, involved the use of allegory in fiction. C.S. Lewis believed in evangelizing via allegory. Tolkien believed if he just wrote a great story he didn’t need to worry about evangelizing. He wanted to write a great story. His story would be better for putting the narrative first.

I think Tolkien was right. Don’t get me wrong, at all. Narnia, is good fiction. Aslan is obviously Jesus. And, that detracts from the story for me, like when a stranger comes to my door with a Bible to try to convert me. I’ve heard this story before.

If you read Lord of the Rings, it is about someone destroying a ring. Deep down, I suspect that the ring represents sin and Gollum represents the sinful man. But, does it really? Did Tolkien ever see Ring of the Nibelung, and was he deliberately using the same source material very differently in his retellings? LOTR is not a Christian allegory. It’s so much richer than that.

In literary critical circles, there is something called biographical criticism, and that’s what I’m doing here. We aren’t saying that the author *meant* to write about the war and his experiences at the war. That’s kid’s play. We are using what we know of the author’s life, beliefs, and base materials to give us a richer appreciation of the text as written. What do we know about their life story that might have sub-consciously influenced the text? Then – because we all share a common humanity, understanding what the author might have been thinking helps to deepen our understanding of why so many of us love Lord of the Rings so much.

Tolkien wrote a story that resonates deeply with my soul. I wanted to know why. Short answer: because I was a Catholic who just didn’t know it yet.

You don’t have to be Catholic or Christian to see that the faiths of Lewis and Tolkien made a difference to the core narrative they each chose to tell. In the process of reading the text, I’d posit that Lord of the Rings changes you deep inside after reading it. The gray lands (death) no longer seems so scary. You’re a little less afraid to let go of your self-destructive addictions.

You don’t even need to realize you have been evangelized, but you have. God has just used Tolkien to reach your soul at a time and place where obvious Christian allegory might not work.

That is kind of the point. To me, that is what being Catholic means. You could say that I became Catholic because I want to be a better Christian author. And, you would not be wrong.

Looking back, I’m actually not sure this is a better paper than I wrote in my early twenties. But I’m going to hit send anyway. At least this time I won’t get an angry F. Peace.

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