National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  January 30, 2004

Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) begin their climb toward Mount Doom in a scene from "The Return of the King."
-- CNS/New Line Cinema
For all their warts, institutions preserve collective wisdom

Pacific News Service

I saw the last installment of “The Lord of the Rings” with a Trappist monk who afterward commented that he thought the film and other Hollywood fantasy epics are responding to and abetting the rise of a nonreligious spirituality. J.R.R. Tolkien built his trilogy around one of the great human stories -- the struggle of a character with his or her destiny -- but the hobbit Frodo plays out his story outside any doctrinal architecture. At the end of “The Return of the King,” the good wizard Gandalf announces the dawn of the age of men -- “May they be blessed” -- but gives no clue who is bestowing the blessing.

At first I thought, “So what’s wrong with nonreligious spirituality?” Institutionalized religion has a history of oppression, torture and war. Why not abandon it in favor of individualized definitions of spirituality?

The problem lies in the mixed blessing of institutions, which are the sum, more or less, of their very human members. For all their warts, institutions are our means to the end of passing on wisdom founded in collective experience. The nascent Christian church laid the groundwork for pogroms and crusades. But it also created a bureaucracy that preserved classical Roman history and culture and that, centuries later, provided the means to the rediscovery of Greek philosophy.

Some historical background: Christianity rose to dominance in large part because it was the first effort at popularizing religion as a means to the end of living a whole, meaningful life. The Greeks, the Romans and the Jews reserved the teaching and practice of virtue to a select group -- property-owning male citizens, for the Greeks and Romans; those born to Jewish women, for the Jews, who taught that once born Jewish, all were subject to the law, rich or poor, male or female.

In teaching that every Jew was equal before the law, Judaism provided the means of democratizing the pursuit of virtue. In his teachings, Jesus draws upon Greek philosophy as well as the Jewish commitment to equality. Early Christian writers and teachers elaborated on that integration. Without denying the offenses committed in the name of the church, we can safely say that it incubated and popularized the concept -- now taken for granted as our cultural ideal -- of universal equality before a law grounded in tolerance, mercy and charity.

The epics of Homer and Virgil, the great poets of classical Greece and Rome, are stories of the triumph of cunning and strength. Tolkien’s prose epic sits comfortably on the same shelf, but with the salutary addition of a new, Christian philosophy handed down to him by the institutions of the church. God or the gods may be absent from The Lord of the Rings, but the story climaxes with an explicitly Christian conundrum: Despite enduring a year of the most extreme privation to achieve his goal, Frodo is unable to destroy the powerful ring and, at the crucial moment, slips it on. St. Augustine would have nodded his head in weary recognition at this illustration of original sin -- the innate human tendency to seek power without grace. The ring’s destruction comes instead at the hands of the hapless outcast Gollum, toward whom Frodo has repeatedly exercised mercy and restraint.

Thus the salvation of the species depends not only on the strong but on the weak. We the powerful are enjoined to exercise mercy and charity not only because they are good in and of themselves, but also because in some mysterious way that a Christian would call “grace,” our fates are bound up with those whom we despise.

In his introduction to the collector’s edition, Tolkien emphatically rejects the notion of allegory. The ring is not a stand-in for the atomic bomb, he writes; the evil Sauron is not the double of Hitler. Tolkien argues that he is creating not allegory but a history of an imaginary era that suggests our own without imitating or prefiguring it.

Fair enough. But Tolkien was a devout Christian, and as the Roman Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor pointed out, our beliefs are the light by which we see. Does the suspicion and indifference we hold toward the institutionalized churches, synagogues and temples have its roots in how they have failed us? Or in how we have failed them? Yes, and yes. The responsibility is shared between those who have abused the power of the church and those who have chosen to stay at home, thereby allowing the hierarchy to wield power as it pleases.

So many churches stand empty, waiting for those who temperamentally and philosophically ought to be filling their pews, even as a Christian epic in fantasy clothing sells out its seats. The film versions of “The Lord of the Rings” will likely bring more people to Tolkien’s books. But I would be more surprised and impressed if they brought more people to embrace the philosophy that permeates them, and the churches that teach it.

Fenton Johnson’s latest book is Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey (Houghton Mifflin).

National Catholic Reporter, January 30, 2004

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: