We often forget that while JRR Tolkien didn’t write “as” a Christian, he was a Christian.
While my daughter has spent the last four and a half months in New Zealand studying Philosophy of the Arts, Comparative Biology, Introduction to Contemporary Art Practices, and Pacific Arts, we’ve frequently talked about the coming World Premier in Wellington, New Zealand of THE HOBBIT: An Unexpected Journey. Major scenes of the new movie as well as the original LORD OF THE RINGS were filmed in various places all over the massive island nation and so I’ve come to associate my daughter’s time there with the tale of Frodo and Bilbo.
Two nights ago, we started watching LOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring.
We came to the scene in which the Balrog, “tall and menacing with the ability to shroud themselves in fire, darkness, and shadow. They frequently appeared armed with fiery whips "of many thongs", and occasionally used long swords. In Tolkien's later conception, they could not be casually destroyed—significant power was required. Only dragons rivaled their capacity for ferocity and destruction, and during the First Age of Middle-earth, they were among the most feared of Morgoth's forces” is deflected from following the Fellowship by Gandalf’s sacrifice.
We once had a pastor who used that scene to give us a clearer image of what the Christ has done for us out of love – to stand between the forces of Satan and our path in life, hopefully up out of the darkness. It’s significance has stayed with me for a decade and the scene of the Fellowship of the Ring weeping once they have escaped the Mines of Moria made me choke up again. It’s clearly what the disciples did once Jesus had died on the cross. Shocked, stunned, leaderless, they could only weep and wonder what they could possibly do to go on.
While I cannot imagine what the disciples felt, it’s writers like Tolkien who offer me images of what those moments may have been like. Also, he did not hit the reader or the movie-goer over the head with a club made from the Cross Of Christ. I have iterated before and I will iterate again the words of CS Lewis: “We do not need more little books about Christianity. What we need is more books about other subject written by Christians with their Christianity latent.” (GOD IN THE DOCK, “Christian Apologetics” 1970 Eerdmans)
Latent does not mean hidden. If that is what Lewis had meant, then he would have written: “We do not need more little books about Christianity. What we need is more books about other subjects written by Christians with their Christianity occult.” Lewis was a wordaholic. If he’d meant “hidden”, he would have used the word occult.
The word latent is rich with meaning, and you can lay a solid bet that Lewis used it intentionally and with full knowledge and approval of every one of its meanings: (adjective) 1. present but not visible, apparent, or actualized; existing as potential: latent ability; 2. Pathology . (of an infectious agent or disease) remaining in an inactive or hidden phase; dormant; 3. Psychology . existing in unconscious or dormant form but potentially able to achieve expression: a latent emotion; 4. Botany . (of buds that are not externally manifest) dormant or undeveloped.
Tolkien was a friend of Lewis’ and while they enjoyed arguing against each other, both were English professors and had a deep affinity for words. Neither one would use a word – especially in their writing – incorrectly or without giving it full scrutiny and weight. It is the weight of Tolkien’s work that makes it seem so real. So when he wrote that scene, no number of atheists can take the latent Christianity from it, whether they wrote the screenplay or try word games to say that “it can mean whatever you want it to mean”.
Sorry – that’s not how Tolkien wrote.
I ran into a similar situation at Moorhead State University. It was autumn and the Fine Arts Department was going to perform Handel’s MESSIAH during the holiday season. After the choir had warmed up, the director sat and said, “This is one of Handel’s greatest works, but I just want you to know that you should be singing your heart out to whatever it is you believe in – because this music was made to be believed in!”
I walked out because Handel didn’t write THE MESSIAH for people to sing to Loki, Ramakrishna, Allah, or the Buddha – he wrote it to celebrate the Messiah, Jesus Christ. I was a dumb kid then. I’d have stayed today – because I know that Handel’s work is, just as Tolkien’s work is – written from the heart of Christian men, to bring glory to the Son of God. That intent is latent – and both Handel and Lewis left the convincing up to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Where it should be. I also might have been able to put flesh to the Gospel had I remained. I blew it. Good thing He’s a forgiving God as well.
What thinkst thou?