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Wisdom from Tolkien for today’s suffering world

This weeks article in Christian Today

Wisdom from Tolkien for today’s suffering world

How should we react to the war in Ukraine? Sadly, social media does not really help us, nor does the 24/7 news cycle. We tend to divide the world into the good guys versus the bad guys, but war is usually not that simple.

So how do we avoid becoming those armchair warriors, pub bores and internet experts who populate Twitter and Facebook? Those of us who don’t have the time to read and reflect on the many excellent analytical in-depth articles by more serious journalists and historians could do worse than learn from the wisdom of someone who experienced war at its worst – JRR Tolkien.

This week Tolkien was left off the list of 70 Commonwealth books to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, despite Lord of the Rings being one of the most influential and widely read books of all time. Perhaps he was too Catholic for the BBC – just as JK Rowling, who was also left out, was too feminist?

I have been reading The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien and came across a beautiful set of letters written to his son, Christopher, towards the end of World War II. They give us helpful insights into similar issues in today’s world.

Tolkien on Twitter

His comments on radio could be just as easily applied to social media today. He argues we would be better off if it had not been invented! “I daresay it had some potential for good, but it has in fact in the main become a weapon for the fool, the savage and the villain, to afflict the minority with, and to destroy thought. Listening in has killed listening.” (p 72)

Tolkien on War

“The utter stupid waste of war, not only material but moral and spiritual, it is so staggering to those who have to endure it. And always was (despite the poets), and always will be (despite the propagandists) – not of course that it has not, is and will be necessary to face in an evil world.” (p 75)

Tolkien on Evil, Suffering and Unexpected Good

“I sometimes feel appalled at the sum total of human misery all over the world at the present moment; the millions parted, fretting, wasting in unprofitable days – quite apart from torture, pain, death, bereavement, injustice….all we do know, and that to a large extent by direct experience, is that evil labours with vast powers and perpetual success – in vain: preparing always only the soil for unexpected good to sprout in.” (p 76)

In this regard, Tolkien warmly tells his son of how he was such a gift to them at a difficult time.

Tolkien on the Press and Prejudice

“It is depressing to see the press grovelling in the gutter as low as Goebbels in his prime …. we know Hitler was a vulgar and ignorant little cad, in addition to any other defects (or the source of them) but there seem to be many vulgar and ignorant cads who don’t speak German, and who given the chance would show most of the other Hitlerian characteristics.” (p.93)

As Christians we need to be careful of how we speak of those we perceive as enemies. They too are made in God’s image.

Tolkien on the Spiritual Battle

“You can’t fight the Enemy with his own Ring without turning into an Enemy; but unfortunately, Gandalf’s wisdom seems long ago to have passed with him into the True West.” (p 94)

There is a deep sorrow, empathy and pathos in Tolkien’s letters to his son. If we were aware of the true extent of evil in the world, we surely could not stand. But Tolkien was a Christian who believed in the coming day of judgement and a time when God would put all things to rights.

In a famous passage at the end of The Return of the King, he writes: “‘Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?

“‘A great Shadow has departed,’ said Gandalf, and then he laughed, and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count.”

There is something wonderful and profound about believing, not that all things are good, but that good will come from all things – even out of the broken, lost and evil world we inhabit.

It reminds us of Augustine’s great summary of the power of God in the face of evil:

“And, in the universe, even that which is called evil, when it is regulated and put in its own place, only enhances our admiration of the good; for we enjoy and value the good more when we compare it with the evil. For the Almighty God, who, as even the heathen acknowledge, has supreme power over all things, being Himself supremely good, would never permit the existence of anything evil among His works, if he were not so omnipotent and good that he can bring good even out of evil” (Augustine – Enchiridion chapter 11).

On that thought, Romans 8:28 seems a fitting place to end: “And we know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

David Robertson runs The ASK Project in Sydney, Australia. He blogs at the Wee Flea.

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15 comments

  1. Thanks David. Tolkien’s comment on Hitler was right and so are you when you say we should be careful of how we speak of those we perceive as enemies. We are all infected by sin. A friend of mine who is a Christian, recently told me, because of the terrible war in Ukraine, she had been praying every day for something to happen to President Putin, but God hadn’t answered her prayers. I don’t think for a moment He will answer such prayers. We need to simply pray that God will deliver us from all evil, bring peace to this sad world and leave the ways and means to Him. We must continue to put our trust in God and know that the wicked will never ultimately triumph over good.

  2. Was Tolkien really a Cristian, as you state?

    He was a devout Roman Catholic! But was he “born again”? From his writings, I doubt it.

    Unless we are clear about what & who a Cristian really is, we inevitably result in presenting a watered down Gospel, which looses it’s power & relevance; instead giving the impression religious affiliations make us a Christian.

    Sadly, our ministry then becomes compromised. Let’s have clarity please David.

  3. All those you have quoted, plus the “Reviews” of his books, history, and affiliations; plus his upbringing in Catholicism, and his “redecication” to Catholicism, none of which make him a Christian.

    Let’s have a Biblical analysis please of this issue, rather than clever Theological points. Where is the evidence he was “born again”? I can’t find any. Proclamations of the Gospel and Christ being the only way are singularly absent!

    1. So you have read Tolkiens letters, Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit? Which part of these books did you find proved he was anti-Christian? As you said lets have a biblical analysis and truth – rather than just name calling.

  4. David. I have written about this before. If Tolkien was born again, there’s no way he could be a devout Roman Catholic.

    Sadly, we have seen far too many high profile ministries fall into apostasy by accepting devout Roman Catholics & Anglicans (plus other denominations) are automatically Christian.

    Me like Spurgeon & Ryle (not to mention others) were abundantly clear on this thorny issue :- “Unless a man is born again he cannot see or enter the Kingdom””!

    You may gain many religious adherents & followers by fudging this issue, but along with the so called Ecumenical Movement we will not see any real Biblical fruit from such ministry. Even Calvary Chapel has fallen foul of this apostasy, as you can see from their treatment of Roger Oakland when he contended for the Biblical faith once & for all passed down to us.

    1. You have a strange and unbiblical understanding of grace. You seem to think that you can determine whether someone is born again by what church they belong to. It is just as unbiblical to assume that Roman Catholics are automatically not Christian as it is to assume that they automatically are.

      And I don’t appreciate your attempt to judge my motives. I say what I say not to ‘gain religious adherents and followers’ but because I believe it to be true. You no more have the right to judge my motives than you do the right to judge whether someone is a Christian solely on the basis of their denomination. As you said lets have a little more biblical analysis and a little less of the judgemental pontificating….provide evidence for what you say…

  5. Dear David,

    Frankly, I despair of your position & ministry, as you seem to have deliberately ignored & twisted all the points I have raised without addressing any of them honestly.

    EG. No where have I suggested Tolkien is “anti Christian” as you allege. I merely questioned whether he was truly a Christian by being born again, as I could (and can) find no evidence to support your assertion that he is a Christian. You have failed to realise and / or address this issue, but have rather decided to adopt the Theological approach of the “distraction technique”.

    Likewise, your suggestions I am judging solely on religious and/ or denominational affiliations is mischievous at best, and erroneous at worse. The Bible is clear we do judge, but by their fruits we will know them, and there is no evidence in anything you have written or in anything Tolkien has written that Tolkien was born again which all faithful preachers & Bible teachers should be clear on, and the ones I have quoted have always been clear this was the yardstick regarding being a Christian, and not church membership or affiliation.

    Sadly, unless there is a dramatic change in your approach & attitude on these essential aspects, I can see no point in discussing it any further, and will have to withdraw from supporting your ministry and “unsubscribe” from your Web Site; much as I have appreciate your courageous stance on other issues.

    1. You were the one who made the claim that Tolkiens writings showed he was not a Christian. Given that is your claim it is up to you to provide the evidence….feel free to do so. Feel free to unsubcribe as well….! It’s a free world and we answer to God…not man

  6. David. I forgot to mention your suggestion and implication my understanding of “grace” is faulty, along with me “judging your motives”.

    Frankly your “motives” are irrelevant. It’s your statement(s) I was questioning. When you state Tolkien was a Christian, you must be prepared to have thus questioned & challenged, particularly if & when the evidence does not support your statement. You, along with the rest of us, are not above contradiction!

    There is nothing gracious about making false statements, or suggesting or pretending something is different than is actually the case. I grant you I’ve often been inclined to concentrate more on “truth” than “grace”, probably my nature & 30 years as a Policeman, but I hope & pray the Lord Jesus & Holy Ghost have moderated that excess of my ‘old nature’ to encourage me to be more like my Saviour who was “full of grace & truth”. An excess of either renders us unbalanced, as does an absence of either.

    God bless you and guide you by the Holy Ghost through The Word which became flesh and dwelt (and dwells) among us. Much love & prayer, David Woolley.

  7. David, I apologise if I’ve given the impression I was attacking your motives, as all I was trying to do was explain the ‘results’ of your stance as opposed to your ‘motives’.

    Sadly, it’s a question of putting the cart before the horse, so to speak. If you publish a dogmatic statement, you must be prepared to support this with evidence. I would assert there isn’t any evidence to support your statement, and you’ve failed & refused to provide any.

    It’s no good trying to shoot the messenger & put him in the dock just because you don’t like the message. You made the dogmatic statement, without any evidence to support it, quite the contrary. This is frankly happening far too much today, whereby ministers are not prepared to address issues raised, but just criticise those raising the issue, which can only discredit the minister & his ministry.

    None of Tolkien’s writings, or the quotes you have given, point to the authority of the Biblical Gospel of salvation through Jesus & Him alone, or point to Tolkien being genuinely born again. Sadly, we may just have to agree to differ on this. Yours in Christ, David.

    1. You stated quite clearly that the reason I was citing Tolkien was to grow followers. You also made the dogmatic statement, that based on your reading of Tolkien, he was clearly not a Christian. You have been asked several times (it is now getting tiring) to provide examples of this…and you have refused.

  8. No testimony, and no witness from Tolkien or you that this man was “born again”, which there would be if he was. I rest my case, as the lack of evidence proves the matter, and you failed & refused to provide any evidence to support your assertion that Tolkien is a Christian. CASE CLOSED !!

    1. You stated that Tolkien was not a Christian – and that his writings proved this. When asked to give some evidence of this, you didn’t. You are the one making the claim that his writings prove he is not a Christian – please tell us where that is the case. I’m also not sure that you are in the position to make judgements about whether someone is born again or not. You are not God.

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