The Faith of Tolkien

On the advent of the release of the third and final installment of The Hobbit films, and in honor of Advent the greater, I’m amused at the giant story of faith sitting hidden in plain sight in the American culture.  J.R.R. Tolkien was not only a devout Catholic, he was an evangelist.  And his quiet evangelism has shaped a legacy for modern evangelicals in a way that few of us are aware of.  If you, on the other side of this screen, are an evangelical Christian in America or Europe, there’s a pretty good likelihood it’s because of the guy who wrote the Hobbit.  If you hate evangelical Christians in America, you should likewise hate the guy who wrote the Hobbit (troll that you are).

Tolkien describes, in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” the great turn of events that must happen in every Fairy Story for it to legitimately qualify for the genre.  He calls that crisis and redemption a “eucatastrophe.” He writes,

At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite—I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.

He then describes how the gospels are a form of Fairy story, though true, and he calls the resurrection of Jesus a eucatastrophe.

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my Tolkersfeeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy- story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self- contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.

Now it’s exactly this kind of thinking that Tolkien shared with his friend C.S. Lewis.  They both worked at Oxford, Tolkien as a professor and Lewis as a tutor.  They gathered together in a pub with friends to drink and read their writings to one another in a group they dubbed The Inklings.  And sometimes they strolled down the Addison walk at Magdalen College together.  On these treks, Tolkien talked to Lewis, then an atheist, about how God wrote himself into his own story in order to bring redemption out of the tragedy of the human condition – the greatest eucatastrophe of all.  Tolkien was influential in bringing Lewis to faith.  Lewis, in turn, encouraged Tolkien to publish his works about hobbits and orcs and dragons.

Most people know what a significant influence Lewis has had on Western European and American society through books like Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and the Chronicles of Narnia.  Lewis was a passionate defender of a propagator of the Christian faith after Tolkien helped him get there.  Most pastors in America have at least dabbled in Lewis, and to this day it is not uncommon to hear him quoted in the Sunday sermon.  His Narnia series alone has sold over 100 million copies, making him one of the most read fiction authors in history.

So the quiet little walks with the evangelical Tolkien created one of the greatest evangelists and Christian authors of the 20th century, one who is still shaping preachers and congregations and readers today.

So as the Hobbit releases this week, Christians should hail this as the great achievement of one of their direct spiritual ancestors.  All the fiery impulse of the good underdog standing up to bullying evil is captured in this Fairy story.  And keeping stories like this alive in our culture will always awaken a moral impulse that makes people wonder at the source of good and evil.  It makes us long for the triumph of good, for the eucatastrophe of our broken world.  Rather than settling for preachy, two-dimensional Christian movies that are painfully overt and poorly written, Christians ought to celebrate works like the Hobbit.  And we ought to call attention to the fact that the literary legacy of one of our most devout is now being fawned over by the movie going public on Saturday night, while his spiritual legacy once-removed is still prodding congregations on Sunday morning.

Chesterton on Christmas

A selection from G.K. Chesterton’s essay, “Christmas,” about retailers marketing Christmas too early.

brown“There is no more dangerous or disgusting habit than that of celebrating Christmas before it comes, as I am doing in this article. It is the very essence of a festival that it breaks upon one brilliantly and abruptly, that at one moment the great day is not and the next moment the great day is. Up to a certain specific instant you are feeling ordinary and sad; for it is only Wednesday. At the next moment your heart leaps up and your soul and body dance together like lovers; for in one burst and blaze it has become Thursday. I am assuming (of course) that you are a worshipper of Thor, and that you celebrate his day once a week, possibly with human sacrifice. If, on the other hand, you are a modern Christian Englishman, you hail (of course) with the same explosion of gaiety the appearance of the English Sunday. But I say that whatever the day is that is to you festive or symbolic, it is essential that there should be a quite clear black line between it and the time going before. And all the old wholesome customs in connection with Christmas were to the effect that one should not touch or see or know or speak of something before the actual coming of Christmas Day. Thus, for instance, children were never given their presents until the actual coming of the appointed hour. The presents were kept tied up in brown-paper parcels, out of which an arm of a doll or the leg of a donkey sometimes accidentally stuck. I wish this principle were adopted in respect of modern Christmas ceremonies and publications. Especially it ought to be observed in connection with what are called the Christmas numbers of magazines. The editors of the magazines bring out their Christmas numbers so long before the time that the reader is more likely to be still lamenting for the turkey of last year than to have seriously settled down to a solid anticipation of the turkey which is to come. Christmas numbers of magazines ought to be tied up in brown paper and kept for Christmas Day. On consideration, I should favour the editors being tied up in brown paper. Whether the leg or arm of an editor should ever be allowed to protrude I leave to individual choice.”

The God of Protests

Today's headlines

Today’s headlines

The God of the Bible is a God of protest.  He sent protestors into the world known as prophets, who decried the brokenness of the world and the damage wrought by sin.  And he calls you and I to be protestors.

The prophets were performance artists.  They put on public displays to call attention to their protests, often in ways that made them impossible to ignore.  Jeremiah walked around with an ox’s yoke on his shoulders, warning that God’s people would bear the yoke of Babylon because they had not been faithful.  Isaiah walked around naked for three years, warning that the people would be stripped of all they had if they did not repent.  God told Ezekiel to lay down in the street for a year to show that Israel was weighed down by their sins.  (And Ezekiel replied, “A year?!  Can’t I just graffiti a building or something?”) John the Baptist was a performance artist, whose symbolic artwork was to tell people to dunk themselves under water as a way of pointing out that they were living unclean lives.  And then he said that a performance artist was coming whose sandals he was not worthy to untie.

Jesus was a protestor.  And Christmas was the best protest of all.  Because in the midst of humanity’s overt rebellion against our maker, God lay down in the intersection of human life to stop traffic when he lay in the manger.  In that act, God protested our sinfulness not by condemning us, but by joining us.  In so doing, he modeled the kind of protest his followers are called to – one in which we join the most needy, and do so in a way that can’t be ignored.

So in a chaotic world broken by sin, join the God who is the God of protest.

  • If we want to protest racism, tutor a child of another ethnicity.
  • If we want to protest injustice, pay the court fees of the defenseless.

    Jesus

    An artist’s rendering of Jesus

  • If we want young men to take violence seriously, stop teaching boys to celebrate violent sports, media, and entertainment and instead teach them dignity and manners.
  • Do for your next door neighbor what you wish you could do for the entire world.
  • Have lunch at the house of the guy that everyone resents.
  • Pay the hospital bills of the injured person on the side of the road.
  • Stand as close as you can to people who are likely to have stones thrown at them.

Taking to social media with inflammatory rhetoric will not create a world of decency and respect.  Instead we have to act in such a way that we would be confident that it would be a better world if everyone else did the same thing we’re doing.  Or as Jesus put it, we are to do unto others as we would have them do to us.  That kind of protest will stop traffic.

Life Without God

AdamBefore we commit to something, if we’re wise, we weigh the consequences.  Before we take a job, we consider the pay, the hours, the benefits, the commute, the effects on our families, and the relative enjoyment and fulfillment we will find in it.  Sometimes we take one because we’re desperate, and anyone who has done so knows about how well that works.  When we date and marry, if our friends are wise, they ask us if our romantic interest is good for us, if they’re fun, if they fulfill us, if we can see ourselves with them over the long haul.  We’re often too enamored to ask these questions ourselves, but this is what the voice of wisdom would say.

It concerns me that there is another decision which the bulk of the population makes wholesale without wise consideration of the consequences, and that’s the decision to live life without God.  Whether by tacit negligence of explicit rejection, we choose to do life on our own terms without God.  I wonder how that decision might go if we weighed the consequences as we do with a profession or a partner.

No Origin

Without God, we come from nowhere.  We are not designed.  We have no purpose.  When we talk about living a meaningful life, we really can’t mean “meaningful” in any traditional sense, because without an origin, we aren’t made for a purpose.  We are, in stark terms, an accident, blindly wrought by inanimate forces of nature, a marionette of physics.  If we were sensible about this, we would never have reason to get out of the bed in the morning, because there is nothing for which we are made.

No Destination

Similarly, we’re not going anywhere.  From the dust we come and to the dust we return.  As a result, there’s obviously no goal.  Again, meaning must be crucified as a twisted prank of evolutionary forces.  The most basic of purposes – making the world better – is a stupid waste of time.  The world is going to perish in the eventual heat death of the universe, long after human life is gone, with no one left to remember it or appreciate it.  Self-awareness will have been a cruel mistake.  Raising our children is an arbitrary pastime.  Accomplishments are trophies thrown in the fire.  With nowhere to go, we have absolutely no reason to live.

No rules

Realize the tectonic implications for politics and ethics.  Any rules we have to govern human life are arbitrary constructs.  Might does make right, by sheer virtue of the fact that no one else can.  Values like civility or fairness or justice are tools of power for the manipulative to use to force a gullible (and religious) lower class into behaving and working to produce luxuries for the rulers.  Voltaire was right – if there is no God, he must be invented to keep the peasants in line.  Nietzsche was right – if there is no God, values are the whims of the strong.  If there is no God, the only real morality is anarchy, and complex political systems to reign that anarchy in are just stalling techniques to help the rich die in peace.

Without God, the obvious consequence is that we have no past, no future, and a horrible present.  This in no way proves that there is a God, it simply, and wisely, lays out the consequences of casually ignoring the possibility that He exists.

Faith in the Next Generation

Screen Shot 2014-11-10 at 9.23.52 PM

A few thoughts on the call to revive the faith in the next generation.  All hope is not lost.  Read it here….

Preparing for a Church Interview

group

Job interviews are so stressful that they can cause pain. We think through every word, over-analyze the questions, and beg God to tip the scales for us. And I’m describing what employers like me, not just applicants like you, must endure… In almost 20 years as a pastor (and a veteran of youth ministry myself), I’ve interviewed a lot of potential youth pastors. Through them all, I’ve collected a storehouse of awkward stories, memories that make me wince, and an overpowering determination to help youth workers navigate their next interview with more confidence and impact. Mistakes are golden, of course, as long as we learn from them…

Reposted from Group Magazine.  Read the rest here.

Dreams for Driscoll

It’s now public news that Pastor Mark Driscoll, of the megachurch Mars Hill of Seattle, has resigned.  This comes after a string of inflammatory controversies.  Love keeps no record of wrongs, but Google sure does, so it doesn’t take long to find out that Driscoll was accused of:

  • bullying staff members, who ended up picketing outside of his church
  • using church funds to artificially purchase and inflate sales of his book
  • talking about women in pejorative ways, and
  • using a pseudonymous online account to post profane rants.

After a six week hiatus amidst mounting calls for his dismissal, he’s resigned.

Screen Shot 2014-10-16 at 8.22.53 AMThis now awakens in me a longing to see a story of redemption written here at the end.  The 43 year old church leader still has a lifetime to rewrite the narrative.  I’m reminded of the story of St. Nicholas of Smyrna who, apparently, after slapping another theologian with whom he disagreed, spent the rest of his life doing penitent acts of charity which would eventually form the basis of the stories of our St. Nick.  I’d like to see Driscoll’s turn into a story of resurrection.  So if I had the pen of the divine narrator, this is how I would write it….

Driscoll fades from public view saying little more than that he’s taking a sabbatical with his family. They sell the million dollar house.  His wife begins working as a school teacher, an irony that is not lost on Warren Throckmorton and the last couple of commentators who are following the story, given how militantly opposed Driscoll was to women providing for their families.  The story goes dark for about a year.

Then a photographer catches a shot of Driscoll.  It goes up in the Christian media for a day.  People tweet it.  He’s in San Francisco, and the picture shows him behind a counter, wearing an apron, smiling and serving a meal at a homeless provider.  The picture is fuzzy and no one can get the straight story on whether or not it was him.  He doesn’t show up there again.  Some time passes.  Again there’s a report that Driscoll is working in an AIDS clinic doing bedside visitation with the dying in San Francisco.  Rumors mount.  Driscoll allows one interview, just saying that he is trying to do God’s will and wants to remain private.  Behind the scenes there is a circle of young adults that he’s mentoring in the inner city.  They’re a private band dedicated to spiritual depth and loving the poor.  Driscoll lives an alternative life of a kind of Mother Theresa in the shadows.  He does not seek audiences.  He contracts no speaking gigs.  He doesn’t write…for a while.  Then, a few years later, he releases an autobiography.  It’s a confession.  And it talks with psychological depth and self-awarenesses about the forces that once drove him and the forces that drive him now.  He becomes a Henri Nouwenesque kind of spiritual mentor, and suddenly every large-church pastor in the world seeks Driscoll out.  They want to talk about their failures and their fears, their conflicts and their depression.  He receives them all warmly and never says a word to the journalists about what he’s doing.

Driscoll lives into old age a redeemed man and a true pastor.  He becomes a legend that people talk about with reverence.  The stories of his younger years fade and are eclipsed by the saint that he has become.  Now Driscoll is what every pastor should be – a living manifestation of the Sermon on the Mount.  He is someone who hides in the shadow of the cross and lives as a subplot to a story that is greater than his own.

Just saying, if I were writing a good story, this is how I would want it to go.

Christians, Ebola, and the Beginnings of Revival

koreanchurchRegarding the origins of the Great Revival in Korea at the turn of the 20th century, during a massive outbreak of cholera, a historian writes:

“At the same time an epidemic of cholera in Seoul brought reports of the indefatigable toil of the Christian missionaries for the sick and dying there, how they performed duties from which the bravest Koreans often shrank, exposing themselves without stint, and saving hundreds of lives.  ‘All these recoveries made no little stir in the city.  Proclamations were posted on the walls telling the people there was no need for them to die when they might go to the Christian hospitals and live.  People who watched the missionaries working over the sick night after night reportedly said to each other, “How these foreigners love us!  Would we do as much for one of our own kin as they do for strangers?”

When Horace Underwood was seen hurrying along the road in the twilight, some of the Koreans remarked, “There goes the Jesus man: he works all day and all night with the sick without resting.”

“Why does he do it?” said another.

“Because he loves us,” was the reply.'”

-Palmer, Korea and Christianity, 1967, citing Moffett, The Christians of Korea, 1962.

How To Bully a Nation’s Pastors

houstonThe line between Church and State was established to keep the State out of the Church more than to keep the Church out of the State.  That original intention has now been trounced by the city of Houston, Texas.

The city of Houston has an openly lesbian Mayor, and cultural controversies have surrounded her election in the Bible belt.  It has also passed a non-discrimination ordinance which permits people to use the gender of the restroom they associate with, rather than the one to which they biologically belong.  Opponents have filed a lawsuit against the city in regards to the ordinance.

The city’s attorneys have now subpoenaed the sermons of five pastors, forcing them to hand over all materials they’ve produced that reference the Mayor, the ordinance, or homosexuality.  If the pastors do not comply, they face fines and confinement.  The pastors were not involved in the suit, but were involved in a caucus of 400 churches that opposed the ordinance.  No matter what the outcome is, the effect is a chilling attempt of the State to silence the Church.

I seem to remember just a year or two ago hearing that all the gay and lesbian population in America wanted was a legal right to equal marriage rights.  It seems like it didn’t take long for the effort towards tolerance to become a club to be used against the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion.  Perhaps now that there is a string of lawsuits against Christian business owners and even personal attacks directed at employees of businesses owned by Christians, it’s time we stop pretending like “tolerance” is the goal.  It looks like the goal is the power to silence Christians, even in their houses of worship.

The Church has withstood worse.  From its earliest days, Christians have been killed for refusing to worship emperors, taxed for refusing to convert to State religions, and imprisoned for fighting State-led injustice.  We tend not to give up.  It comes from the fact that the Creator of the universe at one moment in history walked among us, and, among other great promises, told us that “the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church” (Mt. 16:18).  If hell doesn’t stand a chance, I doubt Houston will fare any better.

In the meantime, we are to love people who do not love us and point the world towards Jesus.  We stand on the shoulders of two millennia of ancestors who have done just that.

Mentoring as Memory Making

father_child_fishingI can remember my grandmother showing me how to bait a hook, and my grandfather teaching me how to distinguish the tension in the line that is caused by a river’s current from the pull of a snagged trout.  I don’t mean I remember the idea.  I mean I can see in my head some clear pictures of them teaching me – of a silver fish in the bottom of a gray bucket, of a yellow kernel of corn in my hand next to the hook, of Granddad smoking his pipe on the bank.  That was almost 40 years ago.  40 years ago, I had thousands of experiences each day, but that one I can still picture.

I can remember my youth pastor teaching me how to read the Bible.  We were having a Bible study in a dusty upper room of a church, back when churches still had libraries, and we sat on the floor in a circle, and he showed me how to think through the biblical text.  We were reading Isaiah.  The carpet was green.  I can see us sitting there.

I can remember a leader in my college ministry at church teaching me how to articulate a rational defense of the Christian faith. We sat in the basement of his house watching VHS tapes of William Lane Craig debating other scholars.  We would pause the tape to debate the points that he made, and also to talk about our girlfriends and our desired careers and the news.  I can remember the very intense look my friend would get when he mulled over philosophical questions.  He’s now a philosophy professor who teaches at the same school as Craig.  I picked up a book in a theological library the other day because I saw my friend had written one of the chapters, and he had written about a subject I remember us arguing about one night.

Mentoring is not the act of an expert passing on a field of expertise.  It’s the moment that someone who is passionate about one of their interests stops to show why it matters to someone else.  What matters in that transaction is not that someone with a professional certification educates someone else.  What matters is that a memory is made when two hearts and minds gather around a topic of a similar interest.

Imagine what would happen if everyone who is passionate about Jesus took just a moment this week to talk with someone else about what Jesus has done for their marriage, their morals, the meaning of their lives, their parenting, their friendships, their prayer life, or their inner peace.  Imagine if all they did was share a question they wondered about concerning Jesus so that two people could wonder it together.  Mentoring is making memories that Jesus can use for the rest of someone’s life, and everyone who follows Jesus ought to be a mentor.

This week can pass by forgotten, or it can live on in someone’s memories for the next 40 years.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 299 other followers