The Banality of Amorality: An Essay On the Hobbit

So here we are: The Hobbit is officially out. I haven’t seen it yet, but the hour draws nigh. I can’t wait.

I recently saw a few films that reminded me of the power of Tolkien’s tale, which traffics in good and evil and other such outmoded concepts. It’s nuanced, but it’s stubbornly traditional in that it features heroes and villains. It’s very common nowadays to “complexify” leading characters such that they are, like a child’s first stab at a watercolor, a confused array of bad and righteous. One moment they are acting heroically; the next they are caving morally. It’s all very hard to follow.

A natural Christian response to this trend, this mainstreaming of amorality, would be to decry it. That would be a merited response. But here’s the thing: all these anti-heroes and darkly shaded characters are interesting for a while. Perhaps a long while. But in reality, they pale in comparison to a true hero. The Christ-type speaks to all of us at some level. We are made in God’s image, and there is something inherent in the human condition that cries out for honesty about sin, yes, but more significantly desires a conquering king. We’re hard-wired to cheer for the savior.

All of which renders amorality banal. Boring, ultimately. Confusing. Sure, we’re all a mixture, a mixed bag. I get that. But that’s not what the heart aspires to in its quiet moments. Even outside of Christ, we see dimly the need for true goodness. We want the great myths of salvation and liberation to be true. Of course, in our sin, we don’t necessarily want to submit to the rule of the hero; we might find redemption more appealing in the abstract than the particular. In fact, I think that’s what you could say our Adam-inherited sin nature leads us toward. We’re all for transformation and rescue, but only in so far as it goes.

This does not obscure the point, though. Amorality is banality. It ends up being boring. It inevitably goes out with a whimper, not a bang, while the self-sacrificial Christic heroes–whether intentionally constructed along these lines or not–endure. Harry Potter, Iron Man, Batman, Frodo Baggins, Aragorn (man it feels good to write these names again), Gandalf–these are the figures that inspire us. To varying degrees, their goodness puts a lump in your throat. Makes you want to be something greater. Makes you want to leave the theater and withstand evil in your own little corner of things. Goodness, you see, is exciting, as Jonathan Edwards showed in his stratospheric book on “true virtue” (it is a beast of a text, but it’s eye-opening). It’s moving. It’s vivifying.

Righteousness sings.

Some Christians will respond by saying we’re a mixed bag, though, so we don’t really want to support unrealistic characters. That’s fine as far as it goes. But the center of our faith is blazing. His name is Jesus Christ. He’s pure good. And you know what? He’s in the business of making sinners like you and me new creations (2 Cor. 5:17). His cross has “crucified” our old nature (Rom. 6:6). So while sin still tempts us and causes us to stumble, we are not 50% good/50% evil as redeemed people. We are new. We are counted righteous. The Holy Spirit is transforming us and enabling us to live in victory as conquerors despite earthly trials (Rom. 8:31-39). So at the end of the day, I want to be careful about how I think about my nature. You and I are not anti-heroes. That’s not what the Spirit creates when he moves on a sinner.

Sure, before grace strikes, we’re evil people. But then why would Christians support morally conflicted anti-heroes as the ideal? We shouldn’t. We really and truly should love goodness and moral excellence. Even as evangelicals, we are way too cynical, distrusting, disbelieving, and mocking toward purity. Like the broader culture, we’ve gone way overboard when it comes to virtue; we sneer at it. That’s dishonoring to God. It’s a lie, furthermore. There really is good in the world. There really are people who persevere to the end. There are husbands who kill adultery as it lies in wait for them and who stay faithful to their wives all their days. There are women who genuinely love their families and kill selfishness on a daily basis.

You may have been scarred by a rough church experience or a bad home. I empathize with you if so. Such fruits of sin do scar us and leave us distrusting, sadly, of those who claim to be good. But that does not–must not–mean that there is no good in the world, and that there are not gospel-created Christians who consistently live out a godly life.

All this to say: amorality is boring. It’s not the murky folks who have the fun. It’s not the hedonists who get the joy. It’s Christians who know true delight, albeit delight of a regularly self-sacrificial nature. True pleasure is not in living a perpetually conflicted existence that allows you to sample sin, lurch after virtue, and then return like a dog to vomit to evil. True pleasure is in holiness, purity, moral excellence, spiritual piety, godly devotion, care for others, gospel truth, biblical wisdom, church fellowship, self-discipline, and worshipping the Triune God.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to my Hobbit countdown, and to singing this song multiple times a day to my justly startled wife.

  • entropy

    I’m not sure I understand what you are saying, don’t watch The Hobbit because the characters are flawed like real people? Tolkien’s world is the opposite of amoral, when amorality is defined as an absence of, indifference towards, or disregard for morality. In Tolkien’s world there are consequences for sins like greed,
    The characters in Tolkien’s stories make heroic choices against stacked odds which is exciting and worthy of emulation but the great thing–the even more inspiring thing–is when they fail and they are faced with the consequences of their actions. For example, Boromir’s repentance at trying to steal the ring and his subsequent redemption. We see how much better it would have been if he hadn’t but also that we are capable of turning from our past and choosing good once again.

    • ostrachan

      In the first paragraphy, entropy, I was saying that I love how traditional the Hobbit is. I added a line just now to make it clearer. I think LOTR is terrific and deeply moral in the biblical sense. Thanks for the comment.

  • Johnathan

    I understand and agree with some of your points, but have to disagree for the most part. Morally conflicted anti-heroes may not be the ideal to imitate (certainly not in comparison with Christ), yet there is still much to learn in their stories. Jesus told stories about prodigal sons and tax collectors. Noah, Moses, Sampson, Saul, David, and Jonah (to name just a few) are far from ideals. The Bible could easily have been edited to cut out the messy, murky, morally conflicted parts of their stories… but those bits remain for a reason.

    • ostrachan

      Yes, he did. But what was the point of the prodigal story? That God saves and redeems sinners. We don’t become the “ideal,” because only Jesus is the ideal.

      But Noah and Moses, while far from perfect, are also far from an anti-hero. I have to disagree. They are most definitely not anti-heroes. The flaws of these godly people do very much point us to Christ.

      Of course, Tolkien’s own characters are flawed. But that is a vastly different reality than the kind of morally neutral, consistently inconsistent, uninspiring characters continually put before us today. A person can be sinful but also good. Can’t we all easily think of many older Christians who have their flaws but are nonetheless strong believers? I think we can. I think there’s more goodness in the world–in Christians, that is–than our modern arts often suggest.

      But folks are more than free to disagree. Just know I will consider you an anti-hero.

      • Johnathan

        Exactly. We have those stories, because there is a point to them.
        I think one of the (many) problems with mainstream stories nowadays is quite the opposite: much of pop culture today tells us that people are basically good. And I’m amazed at how many people I know (many of them Christians), think that. How can there be any understanding of salvation and grace with this worldview?
        Just to be clear, I am not sticking up for stories with gratuitous sex or violence. That’s another problem. But I don’t think either of us were talking about stories where the sin is glorified.
        So, how about some examples? Who are some popular anti-heroes that you find boring? Perhaps that will help clarify my issues with this article.
        Personally I think Iron Man is a great example of an anti-hero (alcoholic, self-centered, manipulative and controlling), as is Moses (impulsive, rash, cowardly, reluctant, stuttering murderer). The greatness of Moses is not because of who he is, it’s because of his obedience to God. I would say the same about all the other Biblical (anti)heroes that I mentioned before. As you said, their flaws point us to Christ.
        I don’t think anyone can really read about the lives of Moses, Sampson, Saul, David, and Jonah and come away thinking that people are basically good. But hopefully they will come away thinking that God is very good.

        • ostrachan

          Johnathan, appreciate the stimulating debate. My point is that there are many people in the Bible, and in everyday life in our age, who actually are good people because of God’s grace in Christ. They’re not pulling themselves up by the moral bootstraps; they’ve been transformed by the Holy Spirit. But they are not wildly inconsistent. They are consistent. They are good to their families. They are faithful to their husband or wife. They love their kids. They sacrifice their money to support missionaries.

          There is good in the world. There is consistency. There is moral beauty. There is purity. Surely we all fall short as even biblical leaders did. But this does not mean that there is no such thing as a steady, faithful Christian. I reject that idea outright. And I think too many Christians have bought into both the “anti-hero” and the “broken sinner” understanding of Christianity that unwittingly handicaps us in a spiritual sense such that we think that it is impossible for us to grow and mature in Christ and be steadfast in our faith.

          Think about the apostles. They’re not perfect, far from it. But are they not faithful believers? Don’t they persevere, even with their shortcomings? Don’t they take the gospel to the world? Aren’t there many figures in church history who have done the same? These people were sinners, yes, and some had fairly spectacular failings. But we MUST have a category of Christianity that includes foundational realities like the Spirit’s power through Christ’s cross such that we really and truly are “more than conquerors,” as Paul says in Romans 8:37.

          • Johnathan

            Owen, I appreciate the debate as well.
            I agree with most of what you’ve said, I’ve just ended up with slightly different conclusions.
            It is very true that many Christians have bought into the “broken sinner” viewpoint that makes us think it’s impossible to grow and mature.
            I’ve just also observed that many Christians have bought into the “people are basically good” viewpoint, that also keeps us from growing and maturing, because we don’t recognize any need for God in our every day life.
            Suffice it to say, I think faithful, consistent Christ followers and flawed, conflicted Christ followers are both realities in this world (frequently even in the same person). And both stories are worth telling and learning from. I think that the deeper we get to know Christ, the more we see our own depravity and the need for Him to “search us and know our hearts and try our thoughts”. That’s why Paul can both tell his readers to be imitators of him and also call himself the chief of sinners.
            That’s all! Appreciate the discussion.

          • ostrachan

            Well I certainly believe that we’re inherently sinful people. That persists even as Christians.

            However, I don’t take Romans 7 as speaking to a believer, because Paul speaks of this person as a slave to sin. A Christian in my view is most definitely not a slave to sin. That’s what Paul says in Romans 6.

            I do think you’re right that some people will struggle over the long haul. I’m not blind to that. But I don’t want us to buy in to this culture’s perspective that, oddly, flaws are more worth considering than the ideal. Impurity is more interesting than purity. That’s just not true. The central figure of the Bible is Jesus, and he never sins.

            Are anti-heroes sometimes enjoyable to watch? Yes. Sometimes. But my point is that we must be very careful that we don’t grow so interested in darkness and murkiness that we don’t love the light, or that the light is boring to us. I see this perspective among younger evangelicals and it’s highly problematic. Yes, we’re flawed, but we’re also called to grow and mature. And how do we do that? By living in the Spirit’s power as Christ did (John 17).

            It is true that we see our sin more as we grow in Christ. Absolutely. But the thing is, we’re not supposed to stand still as Christians. We’re supposed to keep growing. If our theology is subtly keeping us in place, not allowing us to grow, then we need to seriously evaluate it. Paul was the chief of sinners in his words, but he was certainly growing in his faith and wholeheartedly pursuing the Lord. So should we. And so can we. And a part of that is loving purity, and excellence, and getting excited not simply by conflicted people who can’t do what they want, but real heroes who push through the darkness to be salt and light.

  • Johnathan

    Agreed. All good points. Jesus is the ultimate hero, and he is able to keep us from stumbling and to present us blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy (Jude 24). There is nothing more exciting and inspiring than an obedient Christ follower walking with the Spirit, being transformed into the same image from glory to glory.
    I was just coming at it more from a perspective of “let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (I Corinthians 10:12). We have many stories and examples of flawed heroes (or anti-heroes) that are given to us as an example, written down for our instruction (I Cor. 10:11)…
    And as you have pointed out so well, the very next verse in that passage says “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (I Cor. 10:13)
    Those are the best stories.