Feeding My Tolkien Obsession with Two Books

One night my wife looked over at me sitting on the couch and asked, “are you seriously reading that book?”  The book was the Letters of JRR Tolkien.  She could not understand why anyone would want to read hundreds of pages of someone’s personal letters.  Admittedly, it is rather odd.  This book is certainly not for everyone.  But for those who have enjoyed Tolkien’s stories, this set of letters offers an intriguing and enlightening glimpse into his mind.  I most enjoyed seeing Tolkien speak of his Catholic faith as well as getting the window into his mind as he worked, for years and years, on writing the Lord of the Rings.  Honestly, I found myself skimming more and more of the letters as I went as it did get a bit tedious.  The verdict is, if you are a fan of Tolkien then this book  might just be for you.

Another book any Tolkien fan ought to read is Tom Shippey’s JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century.  Shippey had written another book on Tolkien, which I have no plans to read (I am done with Tolkien for a while).  In this one his goal is to show that Tolkien deserves a place among the most well-respected and admired authors of the 20th century.  Many academics and critics have disparaged his work as lesser since it is of the fantasy genre.  Shippey’s study of Tolkien’s work reveals just how brilliant and well-read Tolkien was and how much depth there is in Tolkien’s work.  If you are a fan of Tolkien, check this one out too.


Eucatastrophe and Game of Thrones

I read Game of Thrones back before it was cool.  Back then when people saw you reading a 1000 page tome with pictures of dragons and swords on the front, they probably thought you were just a nerd.  Now its hip and mainstream.  I’ve watched the first three seasons of the TV show and am looking forward to the next season.  More than that, I am hoping George Martin manages to finish the series before he dies of old age!

In a previous post I wrote about JRR Tolkien’s concept of eucatastrophe.  If a catastrophe is when everything goes wrong, a eucatastrophe is when everything goes right.  More precisely, a eucatastrophe occurs in a story when the main character is facing death and defeat, when it looks like there is no hope, and then everything turns out okay.  My wife and I watched Shakespeare in Love  recently and Geoffrey Rush’s character says that in a play everything turns out okay in the end.  When asked how he responds, “I don’t know. Its a mystery.”  This line is certain to bring a laugh to the viewer.  Tolkien might smile and respond though that the word for this mystery is eucatastrophe.

We see this concept all over Lord of the Rings.  Just one example.   After writing The Lord of the Rings (LOTR), Tolkien began working on a rewrite of The Hobbit to bring it more in line with the later story.  The Hobbit is a simple story of a hobbit who joins some dwarfs to go fight a dragon.  This story took on a much greater importance in light of  the events that happen in LOTR. Near the end of the entire story, in the appendix actually,  Gandalf speculates how much more awful the battles outside of Minas Tirith would have been had Sauron been able to summon Smaug the dragon.  If Bilbo and the dwarves had not triumphed in the earlier story, the victories told in LOTR would be empty.  And the only way the dwarves triumphed, even set out on their quest, was because of a chance meeting that Gandalf had with Thorin, the rightful dwarf king.  In the book Unfinished Tales we get a quote from Gandalf, imagining what might have been:

“It might all have gone very differently indeed. The main attack was diverted southwards, it is true; and yet even so with his farstretched right hand Sauron could have done terrible harm in the North, while he defended Gondor, if King Brand and Kain Dain had not stood in his path. When you think of the great Battle of the Pelennor, do not forget the Battle of Dale.  Think of what might have been. Dragon-fire and savage swords in Eriador!  There might be no Queen in Gondor. We might now only hope to return from the victory here to ruin and ash.  But that has been averted – because I met Thorin Oakenshield one evening on the edge of spring not far from Bree. A chance-meeting, as we say, in Middle Earth” – Unfinished Tales, p. 340.

Now we come to Game of Thrones.  I won’t try to offer a deep analysis of Game of Thrones, though I have seen both good and bad ones.  Christianity Today wrote an article on Game of Thrones and the author failed in attempting to compare Tyrion (from GOT) to Gollum (from LOTR).  It seemed the author noted Tyrion’s small size and Gollum’s hunched figure…and ended the analysis with that.  Other than their small size in common, they have few similarities.  An argument could be made that Tyrion is the closest thing to a moral character in an often amoral story, especially when compared to the rest of his family.

One thing that hooked me on Game of Thrones as a book, and what I suspect many like about the show, is how any character can die at any time.  I was shocked in book one when the main character died.  Reading it, I expected Ned Stark to be the protagonist for the whole series.  Then his head got cut off.  Since then, anytime a character begins to look like he or she may be stretching above the crowd, his or her head is chopped off too, or death comes in some other gruesome way!

This makes the story more tense as no one is ever safe.  And any analysis of Game of Thrones must be tentative, for the series is not yet over.  There have been moments in the series that could perhaps count as eucatastrophe.  When the wildlings are attacking the wall in book three, all seems lost, then Stannis’ forces arrive just in time to save the day.  Or in book one, when Tyrion is faced with trial by combat and facing certain execution only to have Bronn, perhaps the best fighter in the room, step up and fight for him.

Part of the challenge with interpreting events in GOT is that the story is so morally grey.  Tolkien’s work presents us with a clear picture of good and evil.  There is no question who is on which side.  But characters in Martin’s work are both good and bad.  So in book two we have the huge battle of Blackwater, just outside the capital.  The reader is sympathetic to characters on both sides.  When an army shows up and saves the day, is this good or bad?  If you were cheering for Tyrion, a sympathetic character, it might qualify as eucatastrophe.  But if you look at it from another angle, it is just a catastrophe.

We have to wait and see what the grand arc of the story shows.  Will there be a final eucatastrophe, when some semblance of good and justice and order triumphs, or will everyone end up dead in a hopeless finale?  I hope Martin finishes the series so we can get the whole scope in order to better think through these questions.  For now, it seems that Martin’s is the world we may feel we live in most of the time, though it is Tolkien’s world, and vision for the world, that we hope is true.

Eucatastrophe – Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories

Most of my earliest reading on my own was novels.  After reading a lot of John Grisham and Michael Crichton, I started to get into sci-fi and fantasy.  I read more Star Wars novels than I care to remember.  Eventually I got into The Wheel of Time and Game of Thrones (before it was cool).  Then I went to college and seminary and began reading theology, history and philosophy.  I still read novels occasionally, but most of my reading for the last decade has not been fiction.

This year that is changing.  I’ve already read two novels (The Fault in Our Stars by John Green and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak), as well as continuing the complete Sherlock Holmes.  And I’ve read a good bit of Tolkien.  His work On Fairy Stories, while not fiction itself, gives a strong philosophy of fantasy literature.

First, fantasy literature is not just for children.

“Among those who still have enough wisdom not to think fairy-stories pernicious, the common opinion seems to be that there is a natural connection between the minds of children and fairy-stories, of the same order as the connexion between children’s bodies and milk.  I think this is an error; at best an error of false sentiment, and one that is therefore most often made by those who, for whatever private reason (such as childlessness), tend to think of children as a special kind of creatre, almost a different race, rather than as normal, if immautre, members of a particular family, and of the human family at large…Fairy-stories have in the modern lettered world been relegated to the ‘nursery,’ as shabby or old-fashioned furniture is relegated to the playproom, primarily because the adults do not want it, and do not mind if it is misued” (58)

“If fairy-stories as a kind is worth reading at all, it is worthy to be written for and read by adults” (67)

I don’t know if I thought I had out-grown fantasy novels as I moved into “serious” works of theology and history.  But it is interesting that so many of the best stories are fantasy stories, taking place in mythical realms.  And those who read such stories are often seen as less serious.  Oh, you’re reading Harry Potter…why not try Dickens?

Yet, according to Tolkien, a good fairy story is entirely believable within its universe, or as he calls it, sub-creation:

“What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator.’ He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside” (60).

“Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary.  The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will make it…If men really could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-stories about frog-kings would not have arisen” (74-75)

All writers write from within their own worldview.  Tolkien wrote as a Christian.  This does not mean his stories are fronts for evangelism or simple allegories where such-and-such character stands in for a biblical character.  Tolkien’s world is more complex than that.  Yet we see in On Fairy Stories how his Christian faith relates to his writing, with the term Eucatastrophe:

Escape is a key part of fairy-stories – escape from death – “the consolation of the Happy Ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it.  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 posses a word that expresses this opposite – I will call it Eucatastrophe.  The eucatastrophe tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function” (85)

Why do the good guys always win?  Because there are other forces at work, forces for good and justice that work behind the scenes, that have a hand in things.  When seen in this light, even a depressing Tolkien story, like that of Turin Turambar, can be seen in a larger context of hope and the setting right of all things.

Further, when we see good win out we feel joy, for we are cheering for this.  This is how we hope our world turns out, even if in our day-to-day lives we are so unsure of it.  Tolkien writes, “The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ is successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth” (88)

Ultimately, the story of this world as Christians tell it is the greatest Eucatastrophe:

“Approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (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 essences of fairy-stories.  They contain many marvels – peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: ‘mythincal’ in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete 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 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 skeptical 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 wrath” (88-89)

As I read this work, I couldn’t help but think about other popular fantasy stories and how they include or don’t include this idea of eucatastrophe.  But that’s for another post.

The Tolkien Reader and Unfinished Tales (Review)

The Tolkien Reader is a great little book for fans of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings who want to get a taste of stories he wrote that take place outside of Middle Earth. One such story, Farmer Giles of Ham, is entertaining and funny, introducing us to a simple Farmer who through various twists and turns ends up representing his village in a fight with a dragon.

The other great story here, Leaf by Niggle, may just be the best thing I’ve read on the goodness of work. We meet a man named Niggle who loves to paint but can never quite put on canvas the beauty in his head. The good news for Niggle is that there is a place where the beauty he only dreamed of is made real. If this is Tolkien’s vision of heaven or the afterlife, it would do good for more Christians to read it. Whatever heaven is, Tolkien understood, correctly I would say, that from a Christian perspective it is not just an endless song-service of praise to God. Humans were created to work in the first place, we work now, and we will have work to do then.

When originally released, Leaf by Niggle was paired with On Fairy Stories. On Fairy Stories is Tolkien’s philosophy of fantasy literature (i.e., fairy stories). He defends fantasy literature as not just something for children which adults outgrow when we become more rational. Instead, fairy stories take place within a world (a sub-creation) where all that takes place ought to be entirely credible, within that world. In this essay Tolkien introduced the word, eucatastrophe, the joy of a happy ending. The concept of eucatastrophe is certainly rooted in Tolkien’s Christian faith, trusting that no matter how bad things get there will be a good ending to the story.

I’m going to write 1-2 more posts solely on On Fairy Stories.  For now, I offer my review of another book from Tolkien, Unfinished Tales:

You’ve read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings many times. You’ve worked your way through The Silmarillion. Then you enjoyed the fantastic Children of Hurin. Now you want to read more from Middle Earth. Unfinished Tales seems to be the next place to go.

For me, it will probably be the last place. These are a collection of writings in various degrees of completion. Some, such as the Coming of Tuor to Gondolin, give only a glimpse of what could have been a fantastic, epic story. Sadly, the glimpse is boring. Others give Christopher Tolkien, JRR’s son, the opportunity to parse various copies of the same story, comparing differences into the minutiae. It reminds me of a Bible scholar comparing ancient manuscripts. The clearest example of this is the story of Galadriel which, while interesting, was nearly unreadable.

There are some gems though. The story of Aldarion’s love for the sea competing with his love for Erendis was fantastic. The stories that provide background for Lord of the Rings, such as the Quest for Erebor, and the history of the Istari where we get a lot on Gandalf, were treats.

So if you’re a Tolkien fan, I recommend this book. But beware. If you thought The Silmarillion was difficult, and I did, this will really give you a hard time.

Exploring JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit by Corey Olsen (Review)

I have read and reread Tolkien’s classic The Hobbit many times. It is a fantastic story and a wonderful introduction into Tolkien’s Middle Earth. A few years ago I discovered the podcast of The Tolkien Professor, Corey Olsen. I have listened to many of his podcasts since then and it feels as if you are getting a graduate seminar in Tolkien as you listen. After rereading The Hobbit again in the fall I decided to finally read Olsen’s analysis of it.

It should be noted that this book was not written to piggyback off the success of the movies, Olsen was working on this book prior to the movies coming out. There are many books, or at least there were on the Lord of the Rings in the early 2000s, that purport to share lessons from the stories. The majority of these books are written with good intentions, almost as Christian devotionals, but are shallow and instantly forgotten. Olsen’s book is not such a book, it is fantastic work by a true Tolkien scholar. 
Further, the spirit of Olsen’s book somewhat reminds me of the spirit of Tolkien. Tolkien was a Christian but his books were not meant as allegory. There are truths and lessons in there if you look for them, but they are not as blatant as Lewis’ Narnia stories where Aslan = Jesus. In analyzing Tolkien’s book there were a number of places where Olsen could have gone the sermonizing route but did not. That

step is left to the reader. I greatly appreciate that, as, like Tolkien’s work, it demands a bit of thought by the reader. In other words, any lessons here are not spoon-fed.

If you are a fan of the Hobbit, then check this one out. You may want to read the Hobbit as you read this, because Olsen does not explain the story in detail. For example, when Gandalf leaves on his errand, Olsen makes no mention of this, assuming you know at what point in the story that happens. So at least have the Hobbit story fresh in your memory. And enjoy!

The Halcyon Dislocation-Review

An island university disappears after a science experiment goes wrong.  It reappears in an alternate universe and the residents of the island must learn to live in their new world as hopes of return diminish.

This is the premise in Peter Kazmier’s story, The Halcyon Dislocation.  If you enjoy Tolkien, Lewis and other good fantasy, this is a book you ought to check out.  For that matter, if your interests are more along the lines of science fiction, this book may be for you too.  I think it lays more on the fantasy side, but there is sci-fi in there.  Either way, it is a great story with fast-paced action, interesting characters and thoughtful dialogue.

The dialogue is one thing that most struck me.  Throughout the book the characters engage in discussions about science and religion, the existence of God, the validity or reasonableness of religion and so on.  Where Tolkien gives us religious themes and Lewis gives us allegory, Kazmier gives us Christian and atheist characters debating religion in the midst of adventuring around their new surroundings.  Yet this is not cheesy Christian fiction book.  The characters come off as real, the sort of people you might actually meet on a college campus.  While some of the characters change over the story, as they should in any good story, there is no climax with mass conversions or anything.  In the real world we all move through life, working and studying and living together.  During this time we may discuss, and argue, what we believe.  Kazmier’s world reflects that.

In other words, this is not a religious tract disguised as a novel.  Kazmier gives us a good story that contains believable characters talking about the deeper things of life.  Not only is it a good story, it leaves you wanting more.  When is the sequel coming out!

One thing that did strike me as odd is how quickly it seemed nearly everyone adjusted to being in a new world.  It seemed that most people just kind of rolled with it.  There are hints early on of some people not adjusting well and of strong leadership helping the community through.  It just seemed that the gravity of the situation was lightened.  Most characters seemed to adjust incredibly quickly – “we’re in a new world…we may never see our families again…what’s for dinner?”

That aside, it is still a great book.  Thanks Peter.

Full disclosure – I received a free copy from the author for purposes of review.

The Mind and The Machine (Review)

Any book that combines a discussion of Raymond Kurzweil’s theory of the coming singularity with analysis of the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien is probably going to be a good read.  Matthew Dickerson’s The Mind and The Machine: What it Means to Be Human and Why it Matters does not disappoint.  Dickerson’s basic question in the book is to ask whether a human can be understood as just a complex biological machine.  This view he calls physicalism, where the physical world of matter is all there is.  Dickerson contrasts this with dualism, the view that a human consists not just of body, but of body and spirit.

The first half of the book is focused on showing the shortcomings of a physicalist view.  He argues that under physicalism, things like creativity and heroism cease to exist.  Creativity is defined as the bringing of something new into existence, something original.  Heroism is making virtuous choices.  The problem is that under physicalism there is no free will.  If humans are just biological machines, extremely complex computers, we can only do what we have been programmed to do by nature or nurture.

He also argues, suprisingly, that physicalism leads to a devaluing of nature.  This appears surprising because it is often religious people, at least of certain persuasions, who are seen as so valuing the spiritual that they care nothing for the world around them.  But Dickerson says that the views of Kurzweil and others devalue the body: if we’re going to merge with computers, what need is there for the natural world?  Further, if the only things that exist are physical things, Dickerson argues than everything humans do is “natural.”  Humans, as part of nature, do natural things, whether this is polluting rivers or cleaning them.  And if determinism is true, which it must be under this view, then it is inevitable that we will do whatever we do.  There is nothing “unnatural.”

Dickerson’s third argument may be even more surprising, as he argues that physicalism gives less reason to trust in reason or science than does dualism.  In this he turns some physicalist arguments back on themselves.  Many say that humans only believe in religion as part of our evolutionary programming, it was something helpful in the past.  Yet if all our beliefs only come about out of usefulness, then the same is true of our trust in reason.  If a mind outside the physical brain is illusion, then so to is reason.

The second part of the book then goes through the same subjects, showing how a dualist perspective better accounts for human creativity, heroism and the rest.  It should be noted that Dickerson argues for an integrative dualism where body and soul cannot be separated from each other, both are needed for a human to be fully human.  This differs from a “ghost in the machine” dualism where the soul is like an entity living in the body, pulling the levers and running the show.

Overall, this is a fantastic book.  It covers a lot of ground while engaging with a variety of fields from science to literature.  Dickerson does not claim to have a knock-down rational argument for or against naturalism or dualism.  Instead his point is to ask which view better explains our existence as humans: “What I have suggested was that if humans are spiritual beings, then we ought to have some spiritual compass” (206).

To Dickerson, and I think he’s right, it comes down to assumptions.  If you assume from the outset that humans are just physical creatures and nothing more, that the brain is just the matter you can see inside a skull, then no argument for a soul makes sense.  Dickerson asks us to question that assumption.  What if we leave open the possibility that there is more to the world than what science can find, then what is physical and material?  Does a spiritual sense better explain creativity and heroism, reason and a moral basis for ecological practice (i.e., polluting the planet is wrong).  If so, perhaps there is something out there beyond the natural world.

That said, questioning our assumptions is tough.  If Dickerson can get us to do that, he has succeeded.

Finally, I did think the book slowed down near the end.  Perhaps, and this will sound bad coming from a Christian pastor, it is because that while his defense of creativity and heroism relied on the work of Tolkien, his defense of reason and science rested on scripture.  I believe everything he said about scripture is true and that there is a strong motivation in there for trusting reason and doing science.  But using scripture to support the argument in one chapter and not another seemed uneven.  It would have been better either to add scripture to the heroism and creativity chapter, or to find examples (like Tolkien) for the science and reason chapter.

Favorite Books I Read This Year – Fiction

I am going to reflect on a few of my favorite books from 2011.  But note that these are books I read in 2011, not necessarily ones that were new in 2011 .

Katniss Everdeen and Lisbeth Salander

Both of these powerful female characters star in extremely popular trilogies:  The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and the final book in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.  Being the father of a newborn baby girl, I wonder if I subconsciously am looking for books with strong female leads.  I doubt I should look too deeply into it, as both these book series have been on the bestseller list for months.

If you’re looking for exciting, engaging stories, check out either of these series.  They both also provide thought-provoking themes.  The Hunger Games confronts our entertainment driven society, in the process creating a story that combines two things we are obsessed with, war and reality television.  What is a world like where war becomes the reality tv?  The Millennium trilogy focuses on violence against women (the title of the first book in the original Swedish is Men Who Hate Women) in the forms of abuse, rape and human trafficking.

Dickens, Dostoyevskey, Austen and Tolkien

Thanks to the Kindle offering old books for free, I got into the classics this year.  Before I did that though, I reread The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings along with The Silmarillion which is a sort of “Old Testament” to the other stories.  Reading those stories got me fired up for The Hobbit, coming next year to the big screen.

As for other classics, some may say I should turn in my “man” card, but I have to say I enjoyed reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

When I was in 10th grade I was part of the cast for the fall play,  A Tale of Two Cities.  I have fond recollections of storming the Bastille.  Since then I always wanted to read the book, so I finally did this year.  The sacrifice of Sidney Carton is one of the most inspiring scenes in literature.  I also stuck with Dickens to read A Christmas Carol, which every person should read at least once in their life, preferably during the holiday season.

Finally, I left the British isles and moved over to Russia, reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and then (rereading) The Brothers Karamazov.  Simply amazing.  The Brothers Karamazov may be my favorite novel of all time.    If you don’t want to tackle it, at least read the chapters “Rebellion” and “The Grand Inquisitor”.  In the first chapter Dostoyevsky, a Christian by the way, puts forth one of the strongest arguments against God’s existence.  This argument is from the lips of Ivan, the atheist in the story.  He presents it to his brother, the devout monk Aloysha.  Aloysha’s only answer is to bring up the suffering servant, Jesus Christ.  This leads into the next chapter, a story written by Ivan set in Sevilla, Spain during the Inquisition.  Jesus shows up and the Grand Inquisitor puts him on trial.  Basically, Jesus and his message get in the way of the work the Church is doing.  Ivan may have some respect for Jesus, but like many people he sees a Church that has strayed far from Jesus’ message.  It drives me to ask the question, and should drive all of us who work in ministry to ask, if Jesus showed up today, would he be in the way as we go about our church activities?

Listening to the Saints – Classic Fiction (and Vocation)

I spent a large portion of this summer reading a few of the works by one of the greatest novelists of all time: Fyodor Dostoyevsky. For the first time I read Crime and Punishment, then I reread The Brothers Karamazov. I also read Notes from the Underground, one of his less well-known works.  Dostoyevsky’s books are thick and thought-provoking. They are not page-turners, instead they are filled with long psychological speeches examining the human condition.

Recently I decided to give Dante’s Divine Comedy a try. This is considered one of the great works of western literature. I have had great difficulty reading it, mostly because epic poetry is so unfamiliar to us today (I also think I have an older translation). But through this trouble the beauty of Dante’s work, taking the reader on a journey through hell, purgatory and paradise (I have not begun Paradise yet), has been clear.

Last winter I decided to re-read Tolkien: first The Silmarillion, then The Hobbit and finally The Lord of the Rings. Like any truly good books, Tolkien is more enjoyable each time I read him.

All these writers have one thing in common: a Christian faith. They share this with other great writers of fiction throughout history.  What strikes me is that they are just considered great literature. You do not find Dostoyevsky or Tolkien in the “Christian fiction” section of a bookstore (Remember bookstores?). They did not set out to write “Christian” books. Instead they just wrote great literature.

In Andy Crouch’s excellent book Culturemaking: Rediscovering Our Creative Calling he lists four ways that evangelical Christians have interacted with culture:

*Condemning Culture

*Critiquing Culture

*Copying Culture

*Consuming Culture


While there may be a time and a place for each of these, what they have in common is that each is in some way merely a reaction to culture. Crouch argues, beginning with Genesis 1-2 (that is all the farther I am in the book!) that God’s people, created in God’s image, should be creators and cultivators of culture. (By the way, if you don’t want to read the book but want a good summary, check out Bob Robinson’s posts on the book, here is the first one.)

There is a tremendously important message here for Christian college students: you do not need to be a pastor or missionary to do holy work. In whatever field you study, you can be a creator and cultivator of culture. Speaking specifically to the arts, how great would it be if the best books were written by Christians? (Of course, there are profound Christian themes in the Harry Potter series and the author is a member of the Church of England). How great would it be if the best films were made by Christian directors, screenwriters and producers? Or if the best music (okay, we have U2) was made by Christians?

But this goes beyond just the arts.  People in all fields from business to food service, education to engineering, are creating and cultivating culture.  One of my goals as a pastor working with college students is that all students understand God has called them to a vocation.  My hope is they do not see a divide between this call and the “spiritual” stuff they do on Sunday mornings.

Harry Potter and the Truth in Good Stories

As I sat in a Barnes and Noble for hours, awaiting the release of the final Harry Potter book, I wondered if we would ever experience this phenomenon again.  Hundreds of people, mostly kids, waiting for a book that will be released at midnight?!?!  Lots of people attend midnight showings of movies.  But I imagine this will be the only time in my life people line up for a midnight book.

I remember when Harry Potter was much more controversial than it is now, though there are certainly still some Christians who oppose it as evil.  Aside from all other arguments in Harry Potter’s favor, I just had trouble encouraging kids to NOT read a book.  If a ten or eleven year old kid wants to read a 700 page monster, get out of his way!  I also thought that if Christians were so concerned then maybe they should write a better book (temptation to take a shot at Left Behind series…moving on).

The final Harry Potter movie recently hit theaters.  While the Harry Potter movies have been mostly enjoyable, they are nowhere near the epic Lord of the Rings adaptations.  I thought the first two were fun and faithful to the books, but a little stiff as if the filmmaker was afraid to take artistic license and make it his own.  A successful film adaptation of a book requires both the director being faithful but also making a good movie that can stand on its own.  Lord of the Rings was successful because the movies are as much Peter Jackson’s as they are Tolkien’s.  I thought the Harry Potter series came closest to this with the third film or perhaps the two-part seventh film.  By far the fourth film was the poorest, for many reasons.  One of which was that Hermione, one of the three central characters, did nothing but stand around the whole time.

I believe  Harry Potter succeeds as a story because it grips something deep inside of us.  There is a reason why so many great stories are similar, for they are echoing something deep within our humanity.

Jesus of Nazareth’s life, death and resurrection brings the story of scripture to its climax.  This story, beginning with creation and moving on through many ups and downs, rights and lefts, is one epic, long story.  Christians believe that all that came before, the Old Testament, is fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth.  Once again, Jesus completes the story.

What is cool is that the early Christians, those who lived about 100 years after Jesus, saw something similar when they interacted and dialogued with Greek philosophy.  Justin Martyr (103-165 AD) in his Second Apology:

Socrates…cast out from the state both Homer and the rest of the poets, and taught men to reject the wicked demons and those who did the things which the poets related; and he exhorted them to become acquainted with the God who was to them unknown, by means of the investigation of reason…no one trusted Socrates so as to die for this doctrine, but in Christ, who was partially known even by Socrates (for He was and is the Word who is in every man… (Second Apology, 10)

Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD) wrote in his Stromata:

Accordingly, before the advent of the Lord, philosophy was necessary to the Greeks for righteousness. And now it becomes conducive to piety; being a kind of preparatory training to those who attain to faith through demonstration…For this was a schoolmaster to bring ‘the Hellenic mind,’ as the law, the Hebrews ‘to Christ.’ Philosophy, therefore, was a preparation, paving the way for him who is perfected in Christ”(Stromata 1.4)

The idea is that just as the Jews had the scriptures to prepare them for the coming of Christ, so the Greeks had philosophy to prepare them.  The principle here is simply that all truth ultimately points to Jesus, or to put it another way, Jesus completes all the stories.

The same thing is seen in the fictional stories we love.  In fact, this is one of the primary things that led CS Lewis to embrace Christianity.   He had abandoned Christianity as a youth because he was convinced it was just one myth among many that humans invented. In 1931 Lewis had a long conversation with J.R.R. Tolkien (and Hugo Dyson).  Tolkien responded to Lewis’ critiques that myths were not lies, instead they were the best, and sometimes, only way of conveying truth. Tolkien argued that since we are created by God the stories we write, though they contain error, reflect a fragment of the eternal truth that is with God.

Lewis came to agree and later wrote: The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact…The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. The story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened”

Lewis’ Narnia stories are famously allegory, with Aslan clearly being the Christ-figure.  Tolkien was not a fan of such allegory and thus there is no character who exactly parallels Christ as Aslan does in Narnia.  Yet we still see things that point us to ultimate truth.  In Lord of the Rings Frodo is a hobbit and as a hobbit has little to attract people to him, for hobbits are not big or powerful. Frodo carries a heavy burden. While so much action is going on with Gandalf and Aragorn, the action of kings and battles, the things that we tend to think make a difference in the world, we remember that the real battle is being fought elsewhere. In the same way, while historians focus on the Caesars and other powerful people, Jesus fights his battle in the periphery.  Finally, for all the ways Frodo is similar to Jesus, in the end Frodo fails. Frodo cannot throw the ring into mount doom.

Just as Jesus succeeds in the wilderness temptation, reminding us of the many ways God’s people had earlier fallen into temptation in the wilderness, so Jesus succeeds where Frodo failed.   It is where stories diverge from Jesus that we understand they are incomplete.  Frodo fails to destroy the ring, for he is a flawed and imperfect creature.  Jesus alone can accomplish the victory over evil.

Like other characters in great literature (and film), Harry Potter has some Christ-like qualities and in other places, like Frodo, falls short.  In light of the final movie coming out, many articles have appeared on the faith of JK Rowling and Christian themes in Harry Potter (here and here and here.).

Finally, the stories of Greek philosophy, Frodo Baggins and Harry Potter are similar to our own life stories.  My life story consists of some truth, some good that can be affirmed by my Creator.  But my life story is also one of brokenness and failure, yet it is these things which are taken up into Christ as I am transformed.  Perhaps there is a lesson for Christian witness here: every person and culture contains some truth which points to the ultimate truth in Jesus but also falls short in some places (or as Andrew Walls calls them, the indigenizing and pilgrim principles).

Writing this makes me yearn for the next great story…its certainly won’t be A Song of Ice and Fire, Dance with Dragons was disappointing!