Christian Apologetics and “The Hobbit”
The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief. It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality…
…The Gospels contain a fairystory, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, selfcontained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.
It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be “primarily” true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed. It is not difficult, for one is not called upon to try and conceive anything of a quality unknown. The joy would have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the “turn” in a fairy-story gives: such joy has the very taste of primary truth. (Otherwise its name would not be joy.) It looks forward (or backward: the direction in this regard is unimportant) to the Great Eucatastrophe. The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is preeminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.
– J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories
Although Tolkien wrote these words some years later than The Hobbit, they are an insightful window into his literary world. Additionally, the quotations above (and many others like it from this essay and Tolkien’s letters) provide the reader with a bridge from the literary, sub-created world of Middle-Earth to the world outside the pages (even though Tolkien saw those two worlds as closer than most people). This is of chief importance when it comes to discussing the Christian worldview of Tolkien, his approach to writing fairy stories, and the applicability of literature in the realm of Christian apologetics. It has often been noted that this is true for works of writing such as C.S. Lewis’s beloved Chronicles of Narnia. But could this also be true of Tolkien’s works, or others for that matter? I think it can.
And so it was in this vein that I quoted a few of Tolkien’s words above in a recent radio interview on KFUO’s new show Cross Defense. From what I can tell so far it is a much needed antidote to the lack of apologetics in Lutheranism, broadly speaking. I am thankful for the work and attention of Rod Zwonitzer and those who have worked hard to make this program possible. I was also glad to be a guest on the show this past Monday and discuss two of my favorite things, literature and apologetics. We spent a great deal of time working our way up to the primary content of the discussion on how the Christian faith is depicted in good works of literature, such as The Hobbit, even if it is more subtle there than perhaps it is in other works, especially those by Tolkien himself. We also discussed the recent movie, comparing and contrasting (though mostly contrasting) it with the book, among many other things.
If you’re interested in learning and exploring more about this aspect of apologetics (what is often called right-brained apologetics, or apologetics for the tender-minded), or want to know more about my thoughts on the recent Hobbit movie, I’ve posted a link to the radio show at KFUO here. In brief, however, apologetics for the tender-minded seeks to use works of literature, music, and the arts as bridges to communicate the Christian faith. We tell stories every day. Think about our conversations with family and friends over the phone or at the dinner table. We also tell stories when it comes to our religious (whatever that may be) positions. Whether someone is an self-professed atheist or a confessing, orthodox Christian, our worldviews are also stories; they tell us about who we are, where we came from, where we’re going, and the like. Also, each religion of the world tells a story about god, man, sin (or lack there of), salvation, eternity, and so forth. Approaching apologetics this way is different from the typical questions and answers from skeptics that we are used to. But it is nonetheless important. For many, the question: “Is it true?” is not the one they are asking, even though we should encourage them to ask this about their assumptions and worldview. Lately I’ve noticed that many people are asking, “Why does this matter or why should I care?”
This is where right-brained apologetics steps in, using literature, music, and the arts as bridges or windows into the Christian worldview and even glimpses of the Gospel. (Think of stained-glass windows being a visual sermon, or paraments and church architecture communicating Christian doctrine). Christianity ends up answering both our intellectual questions and existential needs. So, Christianity not only has the one story which claims to correspond to the world and the facts around us but it also claims to have the best story, the one that is most beautiful. For a Biblical example of this read Paul’s exchange with the stoic philosophers in Acts 17. Not only does he argue for the truthfulness of Christianity on an intellectual basis, but he also does so existentially, using their own writings subversively in order to proclaim the Gospel, taking the truth that was mixed in with the lies to point to the one who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Finally, if you’d like to read some good essays on apologetics for the tender-minded, I’d recommend reading Tolkien’s essay On Fairy Stories, C.S. Lewis’s essay Myth Became Fact, and John Warwick Montgomery’s edited collection of essays titled Myth, Allegory, and Gospel.