Now at a Theater Near You

    This Wednesday, The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, the most eagerly anticipated film in years, opened at theaters across the country. And critics are virtually unanimous in their praise. But critical praise doesn't explain why people were counting down the days until the film opened. Only the story told by J. R. R. Tolkien can do that. And that story is the product of Tolkien's Christian faith. The Lord of the Rings is a three-part story about a ring that gives its bearer the power to enslave the world. The ring is thoroughly evil. After being lost for 2,500 years, the ring comes into the possession of Frodo Baggins, a member of a race called Hobbits, the least likely group anyone would expect to be given such an important charge. What follows is a quest to return the ring to the fire in which it was forged and thus to destroy it. Tolkien was an avid student of Celtic and Norse myths, and it's obvious that he drew heavily on those stories. But what sets The Lord of the Rings apart from those sagas and other works of fantasy is the Christian faith Tolkien brings to the story. The values and beliefs embedded in the story are deeply Christian. For instance, in The Lord of the Rings, evil seduces the characters by using their ideas about what's good against them. As one character says when he turns down the chance to have the ring: "do not tempt me . . . The way [of evil] to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good." Evil in The Lord of the Rings isn't the opposite of good; it's a perversion of the good. And that's a Christian notion of evil that we see, for example, in the writings of St. Augustine. Even more telling are Tolkien's heroes. His heroes don't come from among the wisest, strongest, or most powerful races. Instead Tolkien's heroes are members the smallest, weakest, and least significant race: the Hobbits. And the heroism that the Hobbits bring to the quest is their distinctly Christian virtues, especially love and the capacity for sacrifice. This confounding of our expectations is a common biblical theme, one that Tolkien was aware of. For instance, when God chose David -- a highly unlikely candidate to be king -- we are told that whereas Man looks at the outside, God looks at the heart. And of course the Son of God himself was born in a stable. The film -- the first of three -- affords us an opportunity to tell others about the centrality of the Christian faith and worldview in the greatest work of imagination of the twentieth century. But Christians shouldn't stop with the movie. For one thing, since it's part one of three, it leaves the characters mid-quest. And the film version of The Lord of the Rings is no exception. The movie is excellent, but what we see onscreen is a sort of "greatest hits" of Tolkien's book. The result is familiarity with the basic story and the ideas the story embodies, but not a real appreciation for Tolkien's world. If you have not read the books, I commend them to you. And we need to pray that other filmgoers leave with the same idea. One critic, David Ansen of Newsweek, saw the movie and said that he thought a trip to the bookstore might be in order. I heartily agree. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (Houghton Mifflin, 1974).


Chuck Colson


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