Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas from Middle-earth! The Spirit of Christmas Exemplified in Frodo Baggins

As I mentioned in my last I Have An Inkling Blog entry, there is no Christmas in Middle-earth because the stories pre-date the coming of Christ. However, there are some events which take place which seem (at least to me) to foreshadow what Christ would do. As Tolkien and C. S. Lewis would remind us, mythology often pictures Christian ideas and events. For example, there is the recurring theme of a god who dies and is resurrected. Of course, Gandalf the White is often seen as an obvious picture of the resurrected Christ.

For the Christian, the Jewish scriptures often foreshadow Christ in what some have called Types. (This Truth for Today page has a good synopsis of this Theological view.) Jonah in the Great Fish for three days is seen as a Type of Christ's death and resurrection. Abraham's offering of Isaac on Mount Moriah is also seen as a picture of Christ's death and resurrection. As the writer of the book of Hebrews in the New Testament writes:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had
received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it
was said, "In Isaac your seed shall be called," concluding that God
was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received
him in a figurative sense. [11:17-19 NKJV]

Moses, Joseph and others have also been referenced as picturing Christ in certain ways.

I think there is a picture of Christ in The Lord of the Rings that has been overlooked. Whether Tolkien intended it or not, I have always thought it was no accident that Frodo leaves Rivendell on December 25, and that the Ring is destroyed near the end of March, which would be some time around Easter. (See "Appendix B" of The Return of the King.) Frodo began his journey from the safety of Rivendell on December 25. In our western culture, Christians celebrate Christ leaving Heaven to be born in Bethlehem on that same date.

There are many ideas of what the "spirit of Christmas" is. The way many of us "celebrate" the holiday here in the United States, I wonder if we think the spirit of Christmas is materialism and overindulgence. Forty-some years ago, "A Charlie Brown Christmas" helped us to remember that Christmas is about more than receiving presents, but does the Story of the Christ-Child give us any help in how Christians should live today?

The true "spirit of Christmas," I believe, is found in the book of Philippians in the New Testament. The believers in Philippi were becoming rather arrogant and bickering among themselves. The Apostle Paul writes to remind them:

If you've gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means
anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree
with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don't push your way
to the front; don't sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help
others get ahead. Don't be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget
yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.
Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn't think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the
privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having
become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn't
claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then
died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a
crucifixion. [The Message 2:1-8]

The spirit of Christmas is the spirit of giving. Not giving expensive presents that we cannot afford, but giving of ourselves for others. It is thinking about others and their needs rather than our own. This is what Frodo did when he stood up in front of the Council of Elrond and said, "I will take the Ring to Mordor." No one was requiring him to do it, but Frodo realized that he was the only one who could accomplish the mission, if anyone could. He willingly gave up the comforts of The Shire and the House of Elrond to make the journey to Mordor, which, as far as he knew, would mean his death. As Abraham figuratively received Isaac back from the dead, so Frodo is figuratively raised from certain death when he is rescued by the Eagles.

Frodo exemplifies the spirit of Christmas by his selfless willingness to go to Mordor for the benefit of others. May the same spirit be seen in us this Christmas and throughout the year.

Friday, December 21, 2007

No "Merry Christmas" in Middle-earth! Ban on Tolkien Sure to be Announced

Did you realize that in Middle-earth they did not celebrate Christmas? Even worse, the midwinter holiday in The Shire lasted two days and was called by that pagan name "Yule". I even heard they had Yule logs and said to each other "Have a cool Yule," instead of "Merry Christmas". Just wait until Donald Wildmon and Go Fish* find out about this.

Seriously, Tolkien's Middle-earth is supposed to pre-date Christ. Ian McKellen, who played Gandalf in the movies, made a big deal out of the fact that there are no churches in The Shire. But the reason there are no churches in Middle-earth is because the stories pre-date the Church, not because Tolkien's beliefs are completely hidden or excluded. But we are in the Church Age; what should our attitude be about "Christmas"?

Go Fish has a rather in-you-face song titled "It's called Christmas." The chorus goes like this:

It’s called Christmas, what more can I say?
It’s about the birth of Christ and you can’t take that away.
You can call it something else, but that’s not what it will be.
It’s called Christmas with a capital "C."

The song begins with a bit of spoken diatribe against those who say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." Don't get me wrong. I make a conscious effort to say "Merry Christmas" to people when it is appropriate. But using the phrase "Happy Holidays" does not necessarily mean the well-wisher is consciously avoiding the term "Christmas." The generic greeting is, first and foremost, shorthand for "Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year." And when we talk about the "Holiday Season" in today's culture we are usually including Thanksgiving as well. Not everyone who says "Happy Holidays" or "Holiday Season" has insidious motives, as some might have us to believe! I remember when I worked at a job where I completed transactions with customers. This time of year I would mix up my closing remarks to avoid sounding stilted: "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays" or even "Have a great evening." With the attitude of some today, I'm almost afraid to say "Happy Holidays" lest someone think I am a Heathen!

On the other hand, some of the nonsense from the other side of the issue is just ridiculous. Calling a Christmas tree a "Holiday tree". Silly. One ad even went so far as to say that their item would cause joy when it was unwrapped on "Holiday morning." Come on. Have we really come that far in this culture that we are afraid to call things what they are lest we offend anyone?

I remember in the 1960's and 70's (Man, am I old!) that the big deal was X-mas. Don't put X-mas on your store signs--that's blasphemy! That's X-ing Christ out of Christmas. It wasn't until later that I discovered that Christians have been using "X" for Christ since the First Century. The letter X looks exactly like the Greek letter Chi (pronounced khee), which is the first letter in Christos--Christ. (Most students who went to a Christan College know that Xian and Xnty are the quick way to write "Christian" and "Christianity" while taking notes.)

A ladies singing trio from the late 50's and early 60's calledThe White Sisters sang a song titled "Keep Christ in Christmas." I don't know if the whole X-mas controversy "inspired" the song or not. I don't remember all the lyrics, but part of it talks about letting "Christ have first place" at this time of year. It does not seem to me that Christ is having First Place in most of the complaining about and campaigning against "Happy Holidays". When Wildmon sends out his e-mail newsletter saying "Send me money because I'm getting Christmas back into the stores," is Christ getting First Place? I wonder. When the average person sees "Christmas Tree" instead of "Holiday Tree" is he more likely to think of the "true meaning of Christmas"? I wonder.

Christmas is about giving, not winning. Christ Himself was the first Christmas gift. If Wildmon and others spent as much time giving themselves to feed the poor, visit the sick and generally spread goodwill among men, as they do organizing boycotts and sending threatening e-mails, I think we would be better off.

Some time in the next couple days: The Christmas Spirit as exemplified in Frodo Baggins.

*Note, for those who might not know: Donald Wildmon is the founder of the American Family Association and has called for boycotts of stores that use "Holiday" instead of "Christmas" in their advertisements. Go Fish is a contemporary Christian Band that sings "It's Called Christmas." Read more about the song in the article above.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

New Line Cinema's New Movie is NOT The Hobbit -- or is it?

An unlikely hero is chosen for a quest to unknown wild regions and obtains a golden object which helps assure success. No, I am not talking about Bilbo Baggins, but Lyra Belacqua. Lord of the Rings fans had been hoping that we would be seeing a film titled The Hobbit from New Line Cinema by now. Instead, this holiday season New Line released The Golden Compass, based on Philip Pullman's book originally titled Northern Lights (re-titled The Golden Compass for the U.S. Edition). The Hobbit it is not, but there are some interesting parallels.

Despite the fact that The Golden Compass is based on a novel by an avowed atheist, it takes on pretty much the same framework as most heroic quest stories. The reluctant hero finds himself involved in circumstances beyond his control and it is discovered that he has special abilities that are needed for the Quest. Bilbo was purposefully chosen by Gandalf to help the Dwarves recover their treasure because he saw traits in the Hobbit that even Bilbo did not know he had. Lyra was chosen for her quest because of her special ability to use the Alethiometer (The Golden Compass). Along the way both heroes learn lessons of courage that they will need later in the Quest.

I have not read the Pullman books, so I can't really comment on most of the controversy that has arisen. If the books did not exist, the movie would play like any other fantasy or science fiction movie because most of the religious themes have been subdued. Like Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, the movie comes off as just another victory-for-the-little-guy-over-the-authoritarian-powers-bent-on-controlling-everyone story. In fact, the ending very much parallels the ending of the original Star Wars movie (Episode IV: A New Hope). Good triumphs over Evil; what more can we ask for in a Fantasy/Adventure Film?

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Finding Meaning Niggling in Obscurity

Frederick Sweatman, Sidney Herrtage, Herbert Ruthven, Alfred Erlebach, Charles Balk, Wilfred Lewis, Hereward Thimley Price, Lawrenceson Fitroy Powell, Father Henry Rope, J. R. R. Tolkien. Except perhaps for the last name in this list, I doubt even the best Champion on TV's "Jeopardy" would recognize these as assistant editors for the Oxford English Dictionary (often referred to as the "OED"). Even James Murray, Editor-in-Chief for a half a century while the First Edition of the Dictionary was being completed, is not a "household name." Simon Winchester gives us some insight into what it took to produce the massive OED in The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. (Winchester is also the author of The New York Times Bestseller The Professor and the Madman, which is about Dr. William Chester Minor, the insane surgeon who contributed myriads of example sentences for the Dictionary.)

In 1919, when Tolkien got on board to help complete the OED, he was assigned words beginning in "W" including Warm, Wasp, Water and Winter. Tolkien had recently been released from the hospital after fighting "trench fever" contracted during World War 1 in France. Tolkien certainly did not become famous for his work on the OED. However, Winchester comments that Tolkien said later in life that he "learned more [while working on the OED] ... than in any equal period of my life." (p. 208)

While the Oxford English Dictionary gives us "the meaning of everything," we struggle with more basic issues. Even beyond "What is the meaning of life?" (which the Dictionary only answers academically), we struggle with "What is the meaning of MY life?" The vast majority of us live on in obscurity, wondering if our lives make a difference at all. What contribution are we making in this world?

Tolkien's short story "Leaf by Niggle" (usually found with the essay "On Fairy Stories" in anthologies, such as The Tolkien Reader) talks about an artist who seems to be niggling his life away. ("Niggle" means to be occupied with trivial things.) He is trying to complete his one great painting, but is constantly interrupted by his neighbor's problems and other trivial matters. He eventually takes a trip (an obvious reference to death) and find himself in a hospital (apparently the first stage of Purgatory*). Eventually he is released and discovers that the artwork that he had been working on was actually a glimpse of spiritual reality.

Tolkien's story seems a bit obscure, but it seems to me he is trying to make at least two points. First of all, the things we view as niggling are often actually the more important things in life. Helping others, while it may seem to be an annoyance that keeps us away from doing what seem to be "the important things," is actually part of helping others to glimpse spiritual truth. "Ministers of the Gospel," whether clergy or lay people, often forget that. Secondly, the art we create (whether a painting or a story) can give people a glimpse of spiritual reality. If the artist is vitally connected with spiritual truth, both his life and his work should provide glimpses of that truth to those who interact with the artist and/or his art.

What is the meaning of MY life? What impact am I having on this world? We may never have a "household name" or even be part of something as big as the Oxford English Dictionary. But if we will keep doing what we know is right, God will give us opportunities to make a difference in people's lives. We can provide glimpses of spiritual truth to our world.

*Note: As a Roman Catholic, Purgatory was part of Tolkien's belief system. I personally do not believe in Purgatory after death. God purges us in this life.