Today, millions of people will go to see The Two Towers, the second installment in the trilogy based on J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. If they pay close attention, they'll see more than an epic adventure. They'll also get a glimpse of Christian truth.
It's well known that Tolkien rejected allegorical interpretations of Lord of the Rings—the notion, for example, that the ring represented the atom bomb. But Tolkien's Christian faith was a different matter. And it's no surprise that his faith found its way into the story.
Tolkien wrote to a friend that Lord of the Rings is a "fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision." When, in both the book and the film, Gandalf calls himself a "servant of the Secret Fire," that fire, Tolkien told a friend, is the Holy Spirit.
The good news is that the connection between Tolkien's faith and Lord of the Rings wasn't lost on director Peter Jackson and his co-writer Philippa Boyens. They told columnist Terry Mattingly that while they didn't set out to make a religious film, they understood the role that Tolkien's beliefs played in his life and work.
And knowing what he believed, they decided to honor the things "that were important to Tolkien." Thus, they said, "some of the messages and some of the themes" in the films "are based on his beliefs." Principal among these beliefs is the Christian idea that, as Solzhenitsyn once put it, "the line between good and evil runs through every human heart," and it oscillates back and forth.
The cinematic version of Lord of the Rings is more than a story about good versus evil. It's a story that, as Mattingly puts it, offers modern audiences "another chance to understand the timeless roots of sin." Characters wrestle with the evil within them. Even when they seek to do good they must guard against the possibility of doing the right thing for the wrong reasons or in the wrong way.
Director Peter Jackson told Mattingly that "Tolkien's themes really resonate today." That's right, and they're going to keep on resonating. As he put it, "I don't think humans are capable of actually pulling themselves out of these basic ruts."
Exactly—that's why two thousand years ago the Son of God, whom Tolkien worshipped, became one of us. He knew that only by living and dying as one of us could the problem of human evil, the "rut" Jackson spoke of, be overcome.
In some ways, Lord of the Rings, both the film and the book, is what the Church fathers called preparatio evangelica, preparation for the Gospel. It's a story where the characters, while not possessing the fullness of Christian revelation, can nonetheless glimpse this truth. Understanding their world and their thoughts prepares us to understand the fullness of Christian revelation.
So, three cheers to Boyens and Jackson for honoring what was important to Tolkien.
Go ahead and invite a friend to the movies and then out for coffee and conversation. Let's be prepared to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the interest in Tolkien's world, a world that helps us—and our neighbors—better understand why the Word became flesh.
By Charles Colson