The First Sunday of Christmas, 2008
Has anyone else here seen The Lord of the Rings films? I hope so. They are great movies.
I have seen the third movie now two times. I assume I will see it again and probably in the theatre, too. Who knows how many times I will watch it on video or DVD. I am already looking forward to the extended version. I have seen the two preceding films several times each. I have even read and reread the books over the last twenty years. I love these stories. They are epic in scope. They speak of hope and despair. They are tales of overcoming impossible odds to defeat an evil threatening to destroy everything.
I don’t know about you guys, but I love this stuff.
What makes these films so popular? What is it about these stories that draw people? Is it simply a very astute marketing scheme? I am sure that has something to do with it, but this story has been popular in America for almost 50 years. There is something to this story of hobbits, elves, the Nazgul (undead kings of ages long past), dragons, orcs and talking trees. I have been struggling to figure out what it is.
Is it the drama?
Is it the fantastic creatures?
Is it that Tolkein simply spins a good yarn and I am drawn to that?
It is probably all three. Listen to this passage from the book The Return of the King. p. 125
In rode the Lord of the Nazgul. A great black shape against the fires beyond he loomed up, grown to a vast menace of despair. In rode the Lord of the Nazgul, under the archway that no enemy ever yet passed, and all fled before his face. All save one. There waiting, silent and still in the space before the Gate, sat Gandalf upon Shadowfax: Shadowfax who alone among the free horses of the earth endured the terror, unmoving, steadfast as a graven image in Rath D’nen. “You cannot enter here,” said Gandalf, and the huge shadow halted. “Go back to the abyss prepared for you! Go back! Fall into the nothingness that awaits you and your Master. Go!” The black rider flung back his hood, and behold! He had a kingly crown; and yet upon no head visible was it set. The red fires shone between it and the mantled shoulders vast and dark. From a mouth unseen there came a deadly laughter. “Old fool!” he said. “Old fool! This is my hour. Do you not know Death when you see it? Die now and curse in vain!” And with that he lifted high his sword and flames ran down the blade. Gandalf did not move. And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the City, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry or war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn. And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns. In dark Mindolluin’s sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the North wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last.
This is amazing. I do not know how many of you have seen the films or read the books, but this moment is one of my favorites. When things are at their darkest, there is always the miraculous. Tolkien was not afraid of miracles. He was not afraid to grab the reigns of his own tale and allow the impossible to happen. The story is full of moments like these. The movie adaptations are no different in this respect. Every time you think that the good guys are down for the count a miracle happens. There would be elven archers – scores of them coming to the aid of a doomed army. In the passage I read to you we have a cavalry of thousands of the fiercest horsemen in all of Middle Earth appearing at the last minute to stem the tide of battle. There is a living forest that moves from one part of the countryside to another just to help out in the Battle of Helms Deep. Tolkien even employs giant eagles that appear just in the nick of time to turn the tide of another battle.
As implausible as this seems, Tolkien makes it all work. I find that he so quickly draws me into the story that I accept all of it. Sure! Why not? Giant eagles? That’s great! Wahoo! Where can I get one? With all the bargains after Christmas there must be at least one place selling giant eagles at a reasonable price. I just love it.
Now, a lot of people want to say that the Lord of the Rings trilogy is a Christian allegory. There is even a book on the Theology of Tolkien. I can see where they are coming from. I can see the ideas of death and resurrection. Hope is a consistent theme. Again, in the passage I read, he employs a cock crowing to signal hope. In scripture, it may signal Peter’s defeat, but we know it signals Christ’s victory in death as well. The devil will be cast down. What appears foolish is, in reality, the deepest truth.
I think, however, that Tolkien was not writing such an allegory. He was a scholar of lore who was trying to create another mythical world simply in order to create the elvish language, a language that has never existed. They are great stories, but they are not necessarily Christian allegory.
Nevertheless, it is an interesting idea. Tolkien was Christian. He and C.S. Lewis were close friends. They debated theology and shared their stories and a love of lore and myth. However, Tolkein was shaped by his Christian beliefs and I think that we may need to pay attention to what he is showing us about ourselves through his tales.
We are often more readily drawn to the fantastic than to the ordinary. Some of us would rather read about the slaying of thousands of orcs at the hands of mythical knights, rooting them on all the way then to deal with the issues that plague our own world. We would rather escape. We would rather hear a tale where evil is something plain to discern and good triumphs in the end. I think Tolkien knew this. I do not think that he held it against us. It is human nature to seek solace. It is human nature to want a break from all that plagues us. It is normal to want the good guys to win.
But, brothers and sisters, this is Christmas, the days when we celebrate the Birth of God and hear the stories of his childhood. Today we hear of the fruition of prophesy. I think that the author of Luke shares this story with us for several reasons. One is that he knows that human beings are drawn to the epic tale. This is a part of the life of Christ that evokes the epic.
Yet, Luke is not spinning a tale to entertain us. Luke wants to tell us something about Christ and what it means to be Christian. What draws us in? Is it a star? Is it a prophesy? This may be what initially grabs our attention. But where we lay their gifts, where we bow and kneel is before a baby boy in swaddling clothes. This is a cooing, crying baby boy who hungers for his mother’s breast. This is God. There is no greater miracle. There are no number of giant eagles that can equal this miracle, for this child is the salvation of all creation. There is no greater epic. The Lord of the Rings pales in comparison. Luke wants us to know that this child is God.
All divinity and all humanity are enshrouded in this: all joy and all pain.
So, what I want to know is this: does this epic, this incarnation grab our attention in the way that Tolkien’s epic does? Should it?
Certainly slick marketing is successful at getting the attention of the masses. Maybe we should try that. We have all the elements of an epic story. We have wizards, prophecies and an evil empire. We have a child in danger, a young mother and her brave husband. There is war and terror. To be completely honest, I get frustrated sometimes because I perceive that we are more excited by tales like Tolkien’s than the Gospels. But the Gospels and Tolkien are not telling the same type of story, are they? I am not certain that it is right to even compare the two. Perhaps Luke’s tale should not attract us in the way that Tolkien’s does.
The difference between Tolkien and Luke is this: Luke is telling us a true story that redefines all of creation. Tolkien, no matter how much Christianity he may or may not include in his story, is not telling us something real. It is an escape. It is entertainment. No matter how much of human endeavor may be illustrated, Tolkien’s Middle Earth is a place where we can go to hide from the world. Luke offers no such escape. This is not a story we relate to. It is a story that changes us.
Luke and the other Gospel writers bring God into the world. They bring God to us and not the other way around. This is the truth about Christ. This is Emmanuel. This is how God is with us. He is born in the same manner as the rest of us. There is doubt, mystery and suffering all around. There is love, joy and complete self-giving.
When we read about the Christ child, we should also be thinking about Jesus’ baptism, the last supper and his resurrection. This birth foreshadows all of the ministry of Jesus. Every encounter that Jesus has with the people of Israel, with the poor, the ill, the sinner and the powerful, whether miraculous or ordinary, is wrapped up in the child Christ. Every encounter with God lies with Christ in swaddling clothes. We in our identity with Christ, through our encounters with him, lie with Christ in swaddling clothes.
This is why we cannot sell Luke’s story like we sell a movie because scripture takes us into the world. It leaves us as vulnerable as the infant Christ. It is no escape from the world. It is meeting the world head on.
Christian life is no escape. Tolkien’s story, no matter how much I may love it, and I do love it, is not the truth. As we observe these days of Christmas, as we pray and think upon the shepherds, the maiden, the husband, the magi, let that story enter us. Let us allow it to transform our lives so that we, like Christ Jesus, may embrace the world in vulnerable love.