The Bible, Greg Wright points out, is much shorter than J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion combined. Yet, for some people—even Christians—the Bible has taken a backseat to Tolkien’s work as the vessel of Truth.
That’s a knotty issue for Christians—and especially for Christian fans of Tolkien, Wright included. But Wright has done the hard work of picking away at that knot, and he’s chronicled the effort in his new, engaging book, Tolkien in Perspective: Sifting the Gold From the Glitter.
Wright, an ordained minister of the dramatic arts who holds degrees in theology and English literature, has studied Tolkien’s work for 25 years, and it shows. He has also been the featured Tolkien columnist at HollywoodJesus.com, where his writings—and the reactions they prompted—have informed much of the book.
Wright says reader reaction has fallen into two camps: Readers either wholeheartedly endorsed Tolkien’s work as near gospel, or they found it dangerous.
“My primary intent during the years leading up to the release of the movie was to contribute at least one voice of moderation amidst the hype and hysteria,” states Wright. “I wished to take some of the unnecessary sheen off rabid Tolkien defenders, and to bring a little light into the darkness of fearful detractors.”
Wright works toward two stated goals: to show Christians how Tolkien’s work can point unbelievers to Christ, and to make sure believers don’t replace the Bible with Middle-Earth.
The book’s backbone is “consecration analysis,” which focuses not on the effects but the intent of a work of art. Wright sees “effects analysis” as unhelpful since anything of this world can be put to constructive or destructive uses.
Wright thus approaches Tolkien’s work by asking the following questions:
“Was Tolkien successful in honoring and glorifying Christ in his novel? What corn do we find, and what chaff? And is it Tolkien’s own chaff that we find, or the chaff that we tracked into the threshing floor on the soles of our own shoes?”
What perhaps most distinguishes Wright’s work is not the good writing and reasoning, though that’s certainly appreciated. Rather, it is his ability to walk the fine line and really understand that not all that is gold glitters. Time and again he slices to the core of a difficult issue.
For example, Wright speaks of Tolkien’s mythology (the T-mythology, he calls it) and the power of myth, which he says has always been “as potent as fact.” Understanding myth, and Tolkien’s reliance on it, is essential to getting Wright’s points—and to fully appreciating Tolkien’s work. Wright points out, however, that myth “unfortunately, has acquired a less-than-complimentary, pejorative sense amongst Christians.”
So, as Wright uses consecration analysis for The Lord of the Rings, he considers not only the text of the work itself, but also Tolkien’s Middle-Earth mythology behind the work and Tolkien’s own writings, which are illuminating and one of the book’s strengths.
For instance, in talking about the role of religion in Tolkien’s mythology, Wright digs up a fascinating quote from Tolkien on the Arthurian legend, which Tolkien said was lacking because “‘it is involved in, and explicitly contains the Christian religion.'”
Wright packs a lot of interesting discussion into fewer than 200 pages. He tackles Tolkien’s relationship to modernity, his Catholicism, his understanding of the role of his writing in God’s grand scheme. At each step, Wright presents straightforward arguments.
And some of the arguments jump off the page to really engage readers: the role of Samwise Gamgee; Tolkien’s coinage of the words “dyscatastrophe” and “eucatastrophe” to describe types of storytelling; and themes of free will and providence that poke through Tolkien’s narrative.
Wright’s chapter about Tolkien’s “Fourth Age”—with its date and space calculations—will probably interest die-hard Tolkien fans more than the general consumer of his work. And the chapter on “alternative views” of Tolkien’s work, while helpful, seems almost out of place and might have better been placed up front.
Nevertheless, Wright has definitely thought outside the box, and the results are highly engaging—especially his argument regarding the “pre-Christian” nature of Tolkien’s tale.
“Oddly enough, the powerful relevance of Middle-Earth is not found in a distinctly Christian world view but a deliberately pre-Christian world view,” Wright says. “Tolkien was remarkably prescient in seeing that what our modern world needed was a new pre-Christian mythology, a new story to point the world to Christ—not to replace the True Story, but to point the way back for disenfranchised or disillusioned seekers.”
Wright sees this as good news for those serious about bringing others to Christ. And Wright’s book is good news for those wanting a good read.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
Buy the book now from Amazon.com.
Also read our review of Ralph Wood’s new book, The Gospel According to Tolkien.