Book Review: The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth (On Bad Literary Criticism)

Messiah Comes to Middle Earth_CoverPhilip Ryken. The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth: Images of Christ’s Threefold Office in the Lord of the Rings. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017, xiii +136pp., $16.00/£11.79

(Note: This review appeared originally on Transpositions, the blog for ITIA, the Institute for Theology, the Imagination, and the Arts here at St Andrews. I re-blog it here by permission.)

J.R.R. Tolkien never hid the fact that he was Christian. He was forthright as well regarding the fact that Christianity played an important role in the creation of The Lord of the Rings. At the same time, Tolkien had little patience for readers who were all-too-eager to ‘decode’ his books for their Christian significance. He wanted them, above all else, to be read for the story, to be enjoyed, and he wanted critical readers to avoid projecting their own presuppositions upon the tale. Tragically, the temptation has been far too strong for far too many, and a host of subsequent books have attempted to explicate and explain the ‘inner’ Christianity of Tolkien’s world. Oh, that more authors had heeded his advice—for few of these books have succeeded.

Regrettably, among them must be counted Philip Ryken’s 2017 volume, The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth: Images of Christ’s Threefold Office in the Lord of the Rings. In this book—originally offered as a series of lectures at Wheaton College’s Wade Center—Ryken links the threefold office of Christ (as Prophet, Priest, King) to three characters in Tolkien’s great work (Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn, respectively). Gandalf, for example, images the office of prophet in his performance of sign acts, words of council, and foretelling. Frodo and Sam image the priesthood (of all believers) in the bearing of burdens and friendship. Aragorn images the office of king by, you guessed it, becoming king. Each lecture follows a similar pattern: a focus on a specific office, a note of its theological pedigree (specifically, from the Reformation), discussion of the Tolkien character who mirrors that office, notation of Tolkien’s concerns about precisely this kind of reading, comparison of the office in question to the role of college president, and a concluding section of application. The resulting book is messy, intrusive, overplayed, and deeply dissatisfying, an awkward mash-up that exhibits invasive categories of evaluation and that, in the end, does real disservice to Tolkien’s clearly expressed concerns about theologically projective readings. It is, in short, one of the best examples of the very worst kinds of Christian literary criticism. In what follows, I want to use Ryken’s book to highlight some hallmarks of bad Christian literary criticism.

First, a key hallmark of bad Christian literary criticism is disrespect for the source material. Tolkien has been explicit—in both the introductory text to The Lord of the Rings, as well as in his letters—about the kind of reading he hoped readers would perform. Above all else, The Lord of the Rings is meant to be read as a story—a reclaimed and pre-Christian mythology for England, but one that nevertheless honours the Creator in its architecture and execution. Christianity does indeed sit behind the books, but in a self-consciously implicit way. This makes any ‘Christian’ reading of the books suspect, and Ryken’s—despite his explicit acknowledgement of these factors!—even more so. The result, against Tolkien’s explicit wishes, is to read his book in a way it was never meant to be read—as a foil for Christian teaching.

In addition to being read as a story, Tolkien’s book was written as a kind of pre-Christian mythology—it is, in that sense, proto-evangelical more than properly evangelistic. Such a world, crafted as Tolkien intended, left a number of elements consciously on the outside. Among them, arguably, are any of the Semitic elements of Christian religion—such as prophets and priests. Let’s be explicit: there are no prophets in Tolkien’s world (if there were, they’d probably be Southrons). There is very nearly no religion, as a matter of fact. Consequently, Gandalf is presented as a figure of wisdom, of lore. His signs are due to magic, and he predictions are made on account of his wisdom and lore. In fact, if there is any corollary to be made with our world, then in Tolkien’s conception Gandalf most represents an angel.

In similar way—again because there is consciously no religion—there are also no priests. No one offers sacrifice, or performs religious rites. Frodo does indeed ‘bear a burden,’ but this looks very little—if at all—like priestly intercession. The very idea of introducing these concepts to the story commit an invasive violence to its self-contained harmony.

A second hallmark of bad Christian literary criticism is the dominance of ‘Christian’ categories. By ‘Christian,’ let me be explicit, I mean evangelical categories—language, terms, ways of thinking. Take, as a brief example, Ryken’s treatment of Frodo as a priest. In order to make the connection, Ryken must appeal to the Reformation doctrine of the ‘priesthood of all believers,’ and from this to extrapolate a ministry of burden bearing and of friendship. But does such a concept of priesthood accurately reflect either a) Christ’s priesthood of self-sacrifice and intercession, or b) Tolkien’s concept of priesthood as a Catholic? I think the answer on both counts must be no. In this, and in many other places, it feels like Ryken’s evangelical language stands at odds with what we know to be Tolkien’s (staunchly!) Catholic convictions. For example, Ryken appeals on numerous occasions to the category ‘biblical’ as a meaningful reference point for his claims. But would Tolkien claim to be biblical? Or would he rather claim to be “Catholic,” or even simply “Christian”? In these ways, Ryken’s utilization of evangelical language sometimes feels like a whitewashing of Tolkien’s Catholic identity. In one place, Ryken even describes Gandalf as having a “gift of discernment”—a phrase so out of place in the world of Middle Earth that when I told my wife she exclaimed, “Gandalf no more has a gift of discernment than he has a size medium robe.” [15] It is an invasive, jarring presence that simply doesn’t fit Tolkien’s world.

A third hallmark of bad Christian literary criticism is its preponderance of teachiness. There is a longstanding trend in evangelical thinking to prize something only when it can be utilized in teaching. If a book, a song, or a movie can helpfully illustrate a practical theological point, then it has spiritual value, but not otherwise. In view of this, at times Ryken’s book came to feel like a long, overdrawn, sermon illustration. In fact, Ryken’s appeal to his personal office as college president (which reads very oddly, I should say), and the three sections of application at the end of each chapter, both serve to reinforce this perception. The book ends up feeling like a (rather pedantic) sermon. Christ is a king, Ryken argues. Here are some scriptures to prove it. Aragorn is a king, Ryken argues. Here are some passages in Tolkien to prove it. As a personal example, college presidents are also like kings (or priests, or prophets), here are some reasons why. Point, proof-text authority for point, next point. This is teachiness in action.

In practice, what teachiness does to literary criticism is to keep us from reading the book on its own merits. Instead, we read it for some other reason, for something else that it can give us. In this way, Christian critics of literature are often little better than, for example, Marxist readers of the Bible. They read with large, coloured glasses on, glasses which only admit certain wavelengths of acceptable light. If the practice is infuriating when Christians want readers to read the Bible for what it is, how bad must be our witness when we execute the same injustice on other books?

Tolkien’s world possesses immense imaginative power—not only in its own creation, but in its capacity to operate as a kind of proto-evangelism. Christ is indeed present in the books, and yet his presence is masked; he is in the architecture, hiding in the walls, lurking in the laws and physics of Middle Earth. He is the Logos of both our world and Tolkien’s, and yet the conscious masking of his presence in The Lord of the Rings was and is a powerful rhetorical tool that we violate when we make explicit.

George MacDonald, writing about the fantastic imagination, once said, “We spoil countless precious things by intellectual greed.” Greed for meaning, greed for significance, greed, in Christian circles, for a kind of acceptable orthodoxy. May we not spoil The Lord of the Rings in such a spirit of greed. In fact, for God’s sake let’s just read and enjoy the books!

Orientalism–Some First Thoughts

Orientalism_CoverAs a side-track to my main research (on collective identity) I’ve found myself reading, and enjoying, Edward Said’s Orientalism. The book is both challenging and illuminating, and I thought that I might take advantage of a few blog posts to highlight things I am being driven to think about. Today I want to reflect on the power that questions have to shape a discourse.

One of Said’s central claims in Orientalism is that the concept of the “Oriental” is created by the West, then deployed in discourse with the Orient as a means, often enough, of political, moral, social, and economic change. To put this differently, in the historic dialogue between “east” and “west,” the west has traditionally held the power (for example, European domination), defined all the terms (for example, “oriental”), policed the discussion (e.g., by means of language and dialectic control), and even granted the right to speak—or proscribed it, as the case may be. In short, there has been an unequal relationship between East and West, and this inequality has been woven warp and weft into the Western conceptualization of what it means to be “oriental.” Untangling this weave is Said’s intended goal.

The very nature of discourse between Orient and Occident is, fundamentally, shaped by Occidental conceptions of discourse, and these forces are in turn shaped significantly by the West’s exposure to the Enlightenment with all the attendant clarities and ambiguities freighted by that watershed. Concepts like ‘rationality,’ the self, what constitutes a good, and the human relationship to the natural world, are not neutral givens in such a discourse. All the same, they are deeply held convictions which stand tacitly behind the Western identity—they don’t merely shape questions, they shape the shaping of our questions. Western identity not only generates a certain set of questions which it brings to something ‘outside’ the west, it shapes the how by which such questions are formed in the first place. A key difference between the west and the non-west is in this how by which questions themselves are formed.

What I am getting at is that these features in the western mind that shape the very shaping of questions in turn shape the shaping of answers. When the west, rich in power and self-possessed of its privileged position, queries an outsider culture, the query itself becomes a shaping power in that culture. First, because of the imbalance of power, the weaker culture is forced to provide an answer—and it must be an answer that satisfies the west’s terms. Second, if the weaker culture is incapable of providing such an answer, then the west (traditionally) provides its own answer. Either way, the answer is then retroactively projected on the weaker culture. Together, the answers given—or provided—come to shape the weaker culture’s sense of itself. This, broadly, is what has happened with the concept of “Orientalism”—it is a construct of the West, by the West, and for the West, which has in turn come to shape the self-perception of the East, often with unjust, flattening, distorting, and even violent effects.

Orientalism_Giulio Rosati The Dance

What I am wrestling with, then, is the concept that the type and manner of a given question can come to form and even alter the subject with which it is engaged. This, to me, raises a question about the etiquette of questions. And yet, perhaps such shaping is inevitable. At the quantum level, we are told, the fact that you have looked at and isolated a quantum element itself changes the quantum element. This means that at the most rudimentary level of relationships, our attention always has changing, shaping power over a given subject. If this is the case, and if I can justifiably extend this to bigger discourses, then there are no situations where I might ask a question which will not in some sense shape the answer. In the interplay between knowledge and power, the quest for knowledge will always, in some form, shape and be shaped by the dynamic of power—whether I am a scientist observing butterflies, a policeman querying a prisoner, or a social scientist examining a cultural phenomenon.

If no question can avoid shaping, then the only shaping that remains is the shaping of our etiquette when it comes to questions. How do we query in such a way that invites, opens, expands our mutual understanding, but doesn’t do violence, flatten, distort, or dehumanize? I’ve not reflected on this much, but I have a few intuitions. First among them is one that says listening will be a key component. Am I attending to the cues offered me by the subject I am questioning? Am I striving to really hear the answer offered—or not offered? Am I attentive to text and subtext alike? And am I shaping my own questions relative to the subject?

Another intuition says that I’ll have to think about the kinds of answers I will accept. Have I considered what qualities will constitute a satisfactory answer? Do I hold all the power in terms of granting whether or not an answer qualifies for a satisfactory rating? Am I in possession of sufficient wisdom to know the difference? Thinking about questions and answers in this way makes me think further about situations of public calamity and cries for ‘answers.’ Those who demand answers hold the power of satisfaction for a given answer, and the one who gives an answer, aware of this, is often afraid lest blame be assigned to them in the process. The questioner is not asking for information, but to assign your answer to a category. In such an ethics there are, without doubt, many more categories to examine and nuances to explicate.

Serpent_Le Peche Originel 2

Fascinatingly, the first recorded questions in the Bible exhibit this shaping power of questions. Following the narrative of creation Eve converses with the serpent in the Garden of Eden. The serpent asks a question: “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” The question shapes Eve’s perception—in this case, diabolically—from benevolence to distrust, from contentment to discontentment, from understanding to confusion. The data of Eve’s life to that point is now muddled by a foreign and dangerously imperious invasion, and in her newfound doubt she is susceptible to its argument.

Now note, especially, that when God appears on the scene He also asks a question. The Lord calls to Adam and says, “Where are you?” I like to remind people that God does not ask because He needs the information. He most certainly knows where Adam is, and yet in asking such a question is it possible that God is presenting a different kind of opportunity? That God does not ask for information, but asks so that Adam can reframe himself? Does God’s question shape the situation as well, offering Adam the opportunity to resituate himself relative to this new situation of disobedience? If so, then the right answer might have been, “I am standing outside of Your commandment.” We’ll never know, but the situation certainly bears thinking about.

Good Living is Good Dying: A Reflection on Beowulf

This is the edition I read in University.

“Now the repute of thy might endures for a space; straightaway again shall age, or edge of the sword, part thee from thy strength, or the embrace of fire, or the surge of the flood, or the grip of the blade, or the flight of the spear, or hateful old age, or the gleam of eyes shall pass away and be darkened; on a sudden it shall come to pass that death shall vanquish thee, noble warrior.” (Beowulf, xxvi)

“Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12)

Why tell a life story? Why recount a person’s deeds? There are times, of course, when we tell the stories of infamous deeds, and these we recount to inspire a warning. But most often we tell stories to inspire greatness. Epic deeds paint grand pictures for our emulation, and the goal of these mighty deeds, planted in our hearts and minds through the stories we absorb, is to bear fruit in our lives. Soak in anemic, empty stories and the fruit in your life will be anemic and empty; saturate yourself in stories with rich and nutritious stuff—even stories which you don’t fully understand—and the fruit in your life will be rich and nutritious. Such a story is Beowulf—no mere epic of swords, golden rings, and monsters, but a powerful, richly nutritious tale for the mythic soul of man, written to inspire us to be better men ourselves.

But there is a twist. Where we might expect a story about how to be better men to focus on life, Beowulf is a story about death; it is a tale not of living well, but of dying well. And this makes good sense, because in the ethical economy of Beowulf’s world how you live is closely—nay, intimately—intertwined with how you die. The measure of the man is determined by how well he faces death. Here the ethics of the ancient world are at odds with our modern one, because death is a subject we are particularly at pains to ignore. Thus, when we turn and apply the examining light of ancient literature to our own lives, the results are both stark and uncomfortable.

Sadly, no archaeological evidence for Grendel has ever been recovered.

Beowulf’s tale is both short and simple. An evil creature, Grendel, is terrorizing the subjects of King Hrothgar. Beowulf arrives to challenge the beast in a mighty contest. He waits at night for the fell creature to arrive, then slaughters it and wins fame for himself and his king. But the deed is not yet done—soon thereafter the mother of Grendel comes to wreak more evil, but Beowulf chases her down, takes her life and sets the people free from terror, earning gold and fame in the process. This, however, is not where Beowulf’s story ends. Years later Beowulf has become a mighty king in his own right, when a dragon, awoken by the greed of men, begins to terrorize his people. Alone, and knowing he will die, Beowulf pursues and eventually kills the dragon, losing his life in the process.

How does the ethic of dying well run throughout this story? There are three currencies in the world of Beowulf: gold, fame, and your life. Mighty (that is, noble and good) men perform mighty deeds (they wager their lives) in order to earn gold and fame. We are tempted to think that accumulation is the goal of these wagers—long life, much gold, and great fame. But Beowulf’s poet wants us to know the grave danger embedded in each of these: namely, to think that these currencies are ends in themselves, to forget that death comes to all. For what does a man take with him when he dies? Does his fame go with him to the grave? Does he carry his gold with him? No. And so the man who fails to use these currencies rightly is an unjust man. The man who forgets the approach of death, and lives in cowardice merely to preserve his property, is in the ethic of Beowulf doomed.

“Now the repute of thy might endures for a space,” admonishes King Hrothgar, because “on a sudden it shall come to pass that death shall vanquish thee, noble warrior.” Death sits at the door—do not trust in your wealth or fame! He may as well have quoted Moses: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Under this ethic, when death is foremost in our minds, our relationship to the material subjects of our lives is revealed: what you do with your gold, and what you do with your reputation, and what you do with your life, become paramount concerns. These things cannot be kept: they must therefore be used. Noble men spend their gold, their fame, and their lives wisely. Cowardly men do not.


From within this, the story of the Beowulf’s contest with the dragon becomes the high point of this struggle. The dragon is an image of greed—it hoards its gold and does not share it. And in this terrible image we ought to see ourselves; we are tempted, even now, to keep and hoard our gold; to be deceived by the allure of wealth into thinking that the more we have, the better off we will be; that the measure of a man is in the accumulation of his possessions. Beowulf preaches the opposite ethic. It is not in possessing, but in giving, that a man is revealed. And hence the dragon must be destroyed.

Beowulf knows that taking this task will not earn him earthly fame—a contrast to his struggle with Grendel. There he stood to win gold and fame through that mighty deed. With the dragon, however, there will be neither wealth nor fame. There is only the deed. And here the character of Beowulf is proved once for all: is he a mercenary, we ask, out only for gain? By no means! “Then for the first time,” the poet observes, “he had to show his strength without Fate allotting him fame in battle” (Beowulf, xxxv). An action undertaken without the promise of earthly reward—an action, that is, of self-sacrifice—is thus the most noble of all.

Beowulf takes eleven companions with him to fight the dragon, and here the parallels to the Passion of Christ should not be overlooked: Jesus, of course, had twelve disciples, but one (Judas) abandoned the ranks before his passion. Ten of Beowulf’s companions abandon him in cowardice; one, Wiglaf, remains to fight at his master’s side. Ten of Jesus’ remaining disciples also abandoned him—but John alone remained. Thus, as Jesus goes on to fight the dragon of human sin alone, so Christlike Beowulf advances on the dragon of greed alone—a final, brave act to display the grand selflessness of true manhood.

Consequently, faithful Wiglaf becomes our stand-in. He is our way to enter into the story of Beowulf. He models for us how we are to respond to the tales of mighty, selfless deeds—that is, with mighty, selfless deeds of our own. Will we be the loyal servants, or the cowardly earls? The poet has no qualms identifying which he thinks is the right path, and Wiglaf declares that:

God knows that, as for me, I had much rather the flame should embrace my body with my gold-giver. It does not seem fitting to me, that we should bear shields back to our dwelling, if we cannot first fell the foe, guard the life of the prince of the Weders. I know well that, from his former deeds, he deserves not to suffer affliction alone among the warriors of the Geats, to fall in fight; sword and helmet, corslet and shirt of mail shall be shared by us both. (Beowulf, xxxvi)

But of those who ran, he only says this: “Death is better for all earls than a shameful life” (Beowulf, xxxix).

How you spend your wealth, how you spend your fame, and how you spend your very life are, according to the ethics of Beowulf, the factors that determine the ultimate value of your life. It is the knowledge of death that determines your choices and actions in the present. Keep your death in mind, and you will make right choices about the currencies you possess. This is a critical voice we continually need to hear—especially in an era which praises what Beowulf’s poet would surely see as the cowardly determination to preserve life, rather than the righteous goal to spend your life-currency justly. To Beowulf, a good death is better than a long life in cowardice. This is a reminder we desperately need, for in this nothing has changed: as with Beowulf, death comes to us all. It is an engagement none of us can avoid. And when death arrives your wealth, your reputation, and (of course) your life cannot go with you. What you have not spent will be accounted to you as waste. Therefore learn to spend your life, your wealth, and your reputation rightly, in the now. Make a study of selflessness and right living. Learn from the ancients how to be a man. Read Beowulf.