Lord of the Rings Pt 5: Something Worth Fighting For

We live in a time when nothing is worth living for and certainly nothing is worth dying for. Everything is relative. There are no absolutes, no great truths, no heroic causes. Part of the appeal of Lord of the Rings is that it contains a sense of moral purpose. It is a world of valour, honour and courage. But in our world these things have lost their meaning. We want meaning and purpose, but we doubt these things exist in our age of tolerance. We like the idea of fighting for a great cause, but we are suspicion of great causes – we suspect that they are just power games.

But in Lord of the Rings there is something worth living for, fighting for and dying for. Once again this is ‘a splintered fragment of the true light’. The story of Lord of the Rings mirrors the story of history as the Bible presents it. There is something worth living for and something worth dying for – the rule of Jesus – not the rule of a tyrant, but the rule that sets us free. Here is a great cause that is not a power game because it is the cause of the Lamb. At its heart is the king who died for his people. And that is why it can set us free.

Our final extract is from the end of The Two Towers. Sam kind of entered the fellowship of the ring by accident, but he has come to see that there is ‘something worthy fighting for’. He says:

Sam: Those were the stories that stayed with you – that meant something even if you were too small to understand why. But I think Mr Frodo that I do understand. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t. They kept going because they were holding on to something.
Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?
Sam: That there is some good in this world. And it’s worth fighting for.

There is good and there is evil. These things are not relative. It is not simply a matter of perspective or a manipulation by the powerful. There is something worth fighting for. We see Aragorn and King Théoden mounting their last stand ‘for death and glory’. Interestingly when Jesus explains to his followers that he must die in the passage form Mark 8 that we read, he goes on to promise them ‘death and glory’ (see Mark 8:34-38). Here is a cause worth dying for. Here is the promise of eternal glory. Sam says: ‘Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer’.

And finally Frodo and Sam speculate about whether one day their names will be part of the great heroic stories. ‘I wonder if we’ll ever be put into songs and tales,’ says Sam. And that is what I am offering you: a place of the great story, the true myth, the ultimate adventure, a share in the kingdom of the Lamb.

The book set is available here from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.

The DVD set is available here from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.

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Lord of the Rings Pt 4: The Power of Sacrifice

Ultimately in Lord of the Rings the power of evil is not destroyed by any army. It is not destroyed by military power or human strength. ‘All our hopes,’ says Gandalf at one point, ‘lie with two little hobbits somewhere in the wilderness’. Frodo and Sam enter Mordor to destroy the ring in the volcanic fires of Mount Doom. And they doubt they will return. They accept their fate to die destroying the ring. In The Two Towers Galadriel comments: ‘In his heart Frodo begins to understand the quest will claim his life’.

Evil will be destroyed not when the ring of power is turned against it. That would simply create a different evil world. It is destroyed through sacrifice.

Colossians 2:13-15 says:

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. (Colossians 2:13-15)

Jesus, too, defeats evil through sacrifice. At the heart of human history, at the heart of God’s place of salvation, at the heart of the defeat of evil is a man dying on a cross. The ultimate power of evil is its power to accuse. Satan’s claims as his own by pointing to our rebellion against God. And we are all guilty. We are rebels against God. We have all chosen to live our lives our way. But Paul says here in Colossians that God forgave our sins because of Jesus. Jesus died in our place. He took our punishment. It is as if the charges against us, says Paul, were nailed to his cross. He died in our place. And so Satan comes to accuse. He says: these people deserve to die; they deserve to be punished. But God says: indeed they do, but Christ has died for them; their punishment is paid. They are free. The power of evil is broken. The victory is secure.

At the end of the Bible the Apostle John sees a vision of heaven. “Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.” Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the centre of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders.” (Revelation 5:5-6)

On the throne of heaven is a lamb. It is a picture of Jesus. He was like a lamb sacrificed on an altar. He died to set us free. And now he reigns.

God invites you to enter that reign, to be part of his kingdom, to share his future. And that reign is not tyrannical. This is the empire of the lamb. The king who reigns is the one who was slain. He is the one who loves his people so much that he died for them. And so gives us freedom and offers us love.

The book set is available here from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.

The DVD set is available here from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.

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Lord of the Rings Pt 3: The Hidden King

When we first meet Aragon he is a stranger in the corner of an inn. He is anonymous, unknown – even sinister. It only gradually emerges that he is the king. There is a dramatic moment in the council of Elrond when Legolas the Elf tells Boromir that he should have more respect for Aragorn, the rightful king of Gondor.

There is surprise written all over the faces of the hobbits. They have come to trust Aragorn, but they have no idea he is the king. Even more significantly, Aragorn son of Arathorn is unknown to Boromir. He is at best a legend. It is only among the elves that Aragorn’s identity is known.

Aragorn has chosen to live an anonymous life as a Ranger. He has refused to accept kingship for fear of repeating the mistakes of his ancestors. He knows the story of Isildur. He understands humanity’s weakness and he fears repeating it. ‘The same blood flows in my veins, the same weakness.’ Aragorn understands that all humanity is flawed. It is not just that each of us does wrong things. The blood in our veins contains a weakness, a tendency to selfishness and rebellion against God.

At the end of The Fellowship of the Ring Frodo offers the ring to Aragorn. This is his moment of temptation; his time of testing. Aragorn refuses to use the ring. And so Aragorn can reign because he has rejected power. He has passed the test. Arwen says to him: ‘You will face the same evil and you will defeat it.’ (Notice that Frodo offers the ring to Gandalf, Galadriel and Aragorn – for each it is a test and each passes the test.)

Mark 8:27-31 says:

Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ.” Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him. He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.

‘The Christ’ was God’s promised king. So far in Mark’s Gospel Mark has been showing us that Jesus is God’s promised king. He has been showing us the authority of Jesus over sickness, over people, over the spirit world, over the natural world, over sin and even over death. Now at last the disciples see it. Their eyes are opened to the truth. Jesus is God’s king.

But look at 8:30: “Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.” It sounds like news to shout for the rooftops. God’s promised king is here. God is re-establishing his reign of life and freedom. but Jesus tells them to keep quiet about it.

Why is that? The answer is in the next verse. Look at 8:31: “Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him. He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.” Jesus is the king who will die. And he refuses to allow people to proclaim him as king until they realise that he is the king who must die.

In Mark 10:40-45 Jesus says:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”’ (Mark 10:42-45)

Remember that we have believed the lie of Satan. We think that God’s rule is tyrannical. And we have made human rule tyrannical. That is what Jesus says. We lord it over one another. But Jesus is saying, You should not be like. And you should not be like that because I am not like that; because God is not like that. When Jesus died he finally and utterly dispelled the lie that God is a tyrant.

When we hear talk of giving our lives to God to let him take control, we think: No! I want my freedom. God is a kill-joy.

But Jesus says: That’s a lie. Look at me, hanging on the cross, dying in your place, giving my life for you.

Look at Mark 10:45: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” God’s king has come to serve his people, to give his life for us, to set us free.

We take power and we become enslaved. The king who gives up power sets us free.

The book set is available here from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.

The DVD set is available here from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.

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Lord of the Rings Pt 2: The Problem of Power

At the heart of the story is the ring and it is the ring of power. Lord of the Rings is a story about power. And it is a story about the corrupting nature of power. The ring symbolises power. And the ring corrupts those who come into contact with it. It deceives and it ensnares. Above all, humanity – ‘the race of men’ as the book keeps calling them – cannot be trusted with power.

In the ancient past rings are made; rings of power. They are given to the elves, the dwarves and the race of men. They are given power to reign. But they are deceived. They think power and autonomy will be better; that it will bring freedom. But power and autonomy destroy them. In the race of men more than any others power corrupts.

The nine kings to whom the nine rings are given become the Ringwraiths or the Nazgûl. Neither dead, nor alive, these terrifying, black, hooded figures pursue Frodo throughout the story. They have become servants of Lord Sauron and they carry out his tyrannical rule.

This is repeated when Isildur has the chance to destroy the ring and free the world of its evil forever. But instead Isildur keeps it. The lure of power is too strong for him to resist.

The lure of the ring affects other races. At different points in the story Frodo offers the ring to Gandalf who proves to be the leading wizard and to Galadriel who is the leading elf and a bearer of one of the three rings given to the elves.

When Frodo offers Gandalf the ring, Gandalf replies: ‘Don’t tempt me Frodo. I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe. Understand Frodo, I would use this ring from a desire to do good. But through me it would wield power too great and terrible to imagine.’ Even power taken with good intentions corrupts and destroys.

And when Frodo offers Galadriel the ring, she says: ‘Instead of a dark Lord, you would have a queen – beautiful and terrible as the dawn, treacherous as the sea, stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair.’

Both Gandalf and Galadriel see what would become of them if they possessed the ring. It would make them great, all-powerful. But power itself would control them and corrupt them. They would become tyrants. Galadriel sees that she would be loved by all, but it would transform her into a demagogue. The temptation is great, but they resist. Galadriel says: ‘I pass the test’.

But in the race of men the desire for power and control forms a fundamental weakness. In The Fellowship of the Ring the weakness of humanity is typified in the character of Boromir played by Sheffield’s own Sean Bean. Boromir is a hero and he dies a hero’s death defending the hobbits. But the desire for power is the dark heart of his character; a weakness that jeopardises the quest of the fellowship.

This is real life. We see it in political life. Freedom fighters become tyrants. Yesterday’s oppressed become today’s oppressors when they get power. But you may have experienced it in the office, in the workplace, in the home. Human beings cannot handle power. Power is our doom. Did you notice, just before Boromir addresses the council of Elrond that the ring itself seems to speak and whispers ‘the doom of men’. Power is the doom of men because we are flawed. At one point Aragorn says to Frodo that he has vowed to protect him and Frodo replies, ‘Can you protect me from yourself?’ We cannot wield power over others because we cannot control ourselves.

What Tolkien is doing is dramatically confronting us with the truth about ourselves. Gandalf says: ‘It is in men that we must put our hope’. But Elrond replies: ‘Men are weak … the strength of men has failed.’ We are flawed beings – fatally flawed.

Genesis 3:1-7 says:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ ” “You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realised that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.’

In Romans 5:12 the Apostle Paul says: ‘… sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned …’

The Serpent offers us freedom, power, control, autonomy. But it is a lie. The Serpent represents Satan (Satan-Sauron). The Serpent makes ‘the race of men’ doubt the goodness of God’s rule. Satan portrays God’s rule as harsh and restrictive. He makes God out to be a tyrant. But it is a lie. God’s rule was a rule of freedom, joy, prosperity and security (Genesis 2:8-9).

And so humanity rejects God’s rule. We decide to become like gods – determining for ourselves what is right and what is wrong. We push God off his throne. We seize power for ourselves. We want to be in control of our own lives. We think we will be free.

But we have shaped human rule in the image of Satan’s lie. The rule of God was a rule of freedom and blessing. The lie of Satan was that God’s rule is tyrannical. And we do not use our freedom and power like God’s rule. We rule like Satan’s lie. We rule harshly and tyrannically.

The giving of the rings to the nine kings is a like a retelling of the story of Genesis 3. They think that taking hold of power will set them free. But they become the living dead. And the failure of Isildur to destroy the ring is like a repeat of that story.

This misuse of power also affects the land. In Genesis 3 the land is cursed. Humanity was to rule over creation in a way that caused the earth to flourish. But now we destroy the world. We see this in pollution, deforestation, global warming and so on. Long before anyone had heard of the environmental movement, Tolkien was alert to these issues. The fate of Isengard, the home of Saruman, acts as a picture of this.

When we first see Isengard it is a beautiful, tranquil forest. But under the corrupt rule of Saruman it becomes an industrial wasteland. Humanity’s corrupt rule affects not only people, but God’s good creation. We see this in Genesis 3 itself. See 3:17-19. And this is the fate of the Shire – the home of the hobbits – if anyone rules by the ring of power.

The Shire is presented as a kind of paradise – paradise at its most romantic and, dare I say, sentimental. But what haunts Frodo’s dreams more than anything else is the fate of the Shire if the ring is used to rule.

We have become what Gandalf and Galadriel saw they would be become. We have become tyrants. We have created a world full of evil and suffering. We think we will be free is we live without God, but we end up enslaved. We enslave one another. We enslave ourselves. None of us are not free to live the life we were made for. We cannot be the people we want to be, let alone the people we should be. Our freedom and power destroy us.

The book set is available here from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.

The DVD set is available here from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.

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Lord of the Rings Pt 1: A Splintered Fragment of the True Light

In three separate polls to mark the year 2000 Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien was voted the nation’s favourite book. More recently the books have been adapted into films under the director Peter Jackson, each becoming one of the top ten earning films of all time.

Tolkien  was good friends with C. S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia stories for children and apologist for Christianity. Both were Oxford dons. Lewis become a Christian in part through his conversations with Tolkien.

Lewis describes how Tolkien enabled him to see Christianity as ‘true myth’. What he means is this. Lewis was moved by pagan stories – especially stories of sacrifice and divine sacrifice. They moved him, they enriched him, they changed him. But all the time he rejected Christianity. Tolkien pointed out the inconsistency of this. Lewis relished pagan myths, but rejected Christian myth. But in fact there was an infinitely greater reason why the so-called Christian myth should move us and shape us which is: it is true. Lewis and Tolkien spoke of the central truths of Christianity as ‘truth myth’. The Son of God becoming man in the person of Jesus, the death of the Son of God on the cross, the resurrection of Jesus to life, the return of Christ in the future to judge and renew the earth – these are what they called ‘true myth’.

By myth Tolkien and Lewis did not mean something made-up. They meant a story whose meaning transcended what could be stated in cold prose; a story that expressed truth and emotion that could not be expressed in ordinary statements.  At the end of The Two Towers Sam talks about ‘the stories that stayed with you – that meant something even if you were too small to understand why’.[1]

The big and crucial difference between Christianity and other myths was that the Christian story relates events that really happened. It is not the story of events that happened in an unknown world at an unknown time. It is the story of events that happened in our world ‘under Pontius Pilate’ (as the creeds say). Lewis wrote: ‘Now 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: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths.’ Or again, he writes: ‘Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact … By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.’

So Christianity is myth in the sense that the story of Jesus transcends this world, transcends history, gives meaning to our lives and hope for the future. But more than that, it is true myth because it is based on historical events. It is not one myth among others, but the truth. It is the story which gives meaning to our lives and to history.

When Tolkien creates Middle-Earth and Lewis creates Narnia, they are creating their own mythological worlds – stories than convey truth in a way that transcends what can be said in simple prose. But all the time they are trying to reflect the true myth of the story of Jesus. In conversation with Lewis, Tolkien once said: ‘We have come from God and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God.[2] It is that splintered fragment of the true light that we are going to explore. The truth that Lewis and Tolkien want to convey in their stories is the truth that is found in the story of Jesus.

For Lewis Jesus is represented by Aslan – the lion who is both gentle and fearful. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan dies on the altar in the place of Edmund so that Edmund can go free and escape the punishment he deserves. It reflects the story of Jesus who dies on the cross in our place so that we can go free and escape the punishment we deserve.

What I want to do in future posts is explore some of the ways in which Lord of the Rings reflects the truth we find in the story of Jesus. Tolkien did not write an allegory where each person and event represents some other truth. We should not expect to see direct parallels with the Christian story. But we do find a splintered fragment of the true light.

The book set is available here from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.

The DVD set is available here from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.

[1] The quotes from Lord of the Rings are taken from the film version because this paper was originally given as talk illustrated with film clips and because more people have seen the films than have read the books. Though the films are generally faithful to the books, there are some points of divergence.

[2] Cited in Humphrey Carpenter, JRR Tolkien: A Biography, p. 151.

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Organic, reproducible and cross-centred mission

Last week I was speaking at the Radstock conference. Radstock is a rather unique mission organisation because rather than ‘doing’ mission it provides connections and expertise to help local churches do mission in partnership with other local church – a much more NT way of doing it! Check out their website to get a feel for what that looks like in practice.

It was a great joy to spend time with church planters from around the world and here some wonderful stories. One will have to do for now. We heard of a young woman called Geeta from northern India who was possessed by a demon until a pastor prayed for her release. Now her whole family are Christians. Under the supervision of her pastor, Geetas has been going to local villages telling them the gospel. As a result, in the last six months five new churches have begun. Geeta is just 18 years old.

I’ll probably posts some thoughts from my talks and the audio will go up on the Radstock website in due course. In the meantime, Mike McKinley (a church planter in the States and a Radstock trustee and part of 9Marks) has posted his notes on the 9Marks blog:

1. Organic Mission

2. Reproducible mission

3. Cross-centred mission

This last talk is a bit of a taster for my forthcoming book, The Ordinary Hero: Living the Cross and Resurrection (May 2009, IVP).


A non-literate pattern of disciple-making

Neither the early church, nor the Chinese church had access to many Bibles. The canon of the New Testament was not fixed until into the fourth century. More significantly, all Scripture was hand-copied. It is unlikely that most churches, let alone individual Christians, had copies of the entire Bible. Many may not have had much at all. Yet here was a movement that flourished and grew. At various points it faced heresy and survived. The same is true of the Chinese church. Under Mao Bibles were destroyed. As with the early church, few churches, let alone individual believers, had a copy of the Scriptures.

This is routinely thought to be a ‘despites’. These movement flourished ‘despite’ not having Bibles. But could it be that the lack of Bibles contributed to their spread?

The problem is not the Bible (of course)

The problem, of course, is not with the Bible! I am not suggesting we burn our Bibles or let them gather dust on our shelves. Indeed I would argue that no movement will ever flourish without the Bible. These movements may not have had Bibles (plural), but they did have the Bible.

Of course we must maintain the centrality of God’s word. The Bible will be yardstick by which everything is measured. But it words must be ingested and learnt so they can be spoken in life-on-life situations. Its story and its stories must be learnt and retold by everyone.

So what is the issue?

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When God stepped into the story: reflections on Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’

I’ve just finished reading Atonement by Ian McEwan. (I’ve not seen the film.) The book is beautifully written with the amazing sustained descriptive passages that are characteristic of McEwan. It’s the story of a teenage , Briony Tallis, whose false accusations lead to a young man, Robbie, being wrongly imprisoned for se xual assault. Robbie and Briony’s older sister, Cecilia, are in love so Briony’s act destroys two lives. By the time Robbie is released, the second world war has begun and he has been conscripted. He and Cecilia, who has forsaken her family to become a nurse, meet only briefly before he is send away to France. As Briony realises what she has done, she endeavours to atone, leaving the privileges of her up-bringing and the pursuit of literature at university to devote herself to nursing during the war.

But she cannot self-atone.

On this first really fine day of May she sweated under her starchy uniform. All she wanted to do was work, then bathe and sleep until it was time for work again. But it was useless, she knew. Whatever skivvying or humble nursing she did, and however well or hard she did it, whatever illumination in tutorial she had relinquished, or lifetime moment on a college lawn, she would never undo the damage. She was unforgivable. (Ian McEwan, Atonement, Jonathan Cape, 2001, 285.)

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How I teach the Bible in a household church

Following my first post of the discussion on sermons, I was asked to elaborate how I teach the Bible in a household congregation. So here’s a description of how we do it in our congregation (it may well be different in other TCH congregations).

We do classic interactive Bible studies in which the teacher identifies the big idea of the passage, and then produces a sequence of investigation and interpretation questions that lead the group to that big idea before exploring its implications in their lives.

We have found, however, that this is still a strongly literate mode of learning – somewhat akin in many people’s mind to an English comprehension exercise. I know graduates and readers (like me) find this hard to grasp, but non-book people struggle with this mode of learning. We have found it can therefore disenfranchise people from the Bible. The truth is arrived at through a process that appears mysterious to them.

So …

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The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure …

Yesterday we had another ‘vision Saturday’ when the congregations and teams in the Edge Network come together. We’re looking at a series of ‘identities’ that are ours in Christ and which should define who we are and shape how we live. This time it was heirs of God. I began with a story …

Let me tell you a story that Jesus once told. Jesus said the kingdom of God was a bit like this.

A man was walking home from working in the fields when he decided to take a short-cut across a scrubby area that never seemed to be used for anything. There was no clear path through the field so he picked his way through as best he could. About two-thirds of the way across he tripped suddenly and fell into the long grass. A few inches from where he fell he saw to his surprise a piece of metal sticking out of the ground. Curious, he pulled away the grass and brushed off the top soil. It was the metal corner of wooden chest. He tugged away the tufts of grass and dug away at the soil. He pulled and twisted the chest until it was free. He paused. And then lifted its lid. Inside were jewels, pendants, gold coins – all covered in dust, but clearly extremely valuable.

What was he to do?

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