Original post at http://jmsmith.org/blog/hobbit/
Hello Dojo readers!
This week I finally got to see “The Hobbit” (in 3-D, no less!), and I was absolutely enthralled. I LOVED the Lord of the Rings trilogy that Peter Jackson gave us in the last decade, so I was excited to let him take me back to the Middle-Earth created by the folks at Weta.
So when I read the response of some Christians to the question posed by a friend on Facebook, I was somewhat baffled.
One of my friends, Lawrence Garcia, who is keen on all things Tolkien, and also a Pastor, was likewise troubled by some of the negativity he read in that Facebook discussion thread. So when Lawrence asked if I’d be interested in publishing a response to Christians who are skeptical of the film here in the Dojo I agreed without hesitation.
Should Christians See Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit”?
The sacred texts by which most Christians order their lives admonish them to “test all things” (1 Thess. 5:21). So we should not be surprised to witness some suspicion (e.g. the discussion among readers on Dr. Michael L. Brown’s recent Facebook thread on this topic) toward a mythological movie like that of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 classic.
As a matter of fact, we should expect it.
However, it would likewise be unchristian to make a uninformed a priori judgment about the movie, or the work that stands behind it, without actually having “tested” it, by which I mean arriving at an informed understanding of precisely how Tolkien understood his work (he thought it a “Catholic” work) and the more pertinent question of whether or not Jackson’s rendition is faithful to the original vision, if indeed it is Christian.
In sum, St. Paul is telling us to do our homework.
As I see it four options are possible:
(1) Both Tolkien and Jackson’s The Hobbit are Christian (precisely how remains to be seen).
(2) Tolkien’s The Hobbit is Christian while Jackson’s version is not (perhaps he deviated from the author’s original vision).
(3) Neither Tolkien nor Jackson’s The Hobbit are Christian.
(4) Tolkien’s The Hobbit is not Christian while Jackson’s version is (perhaps the most unlikely).
If Tolkien’s The Hobbit, or The Lord of the Rings for that matter, are straightforward allegories like his counterpart C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia (where Aslan is clearly the Christ figure) this would be an open and shut case: the work is undoubtedly Christian. But as is well known, Tolkien despised allegory “in all of its forms,” causing us more difficulty in issuing a positive verdict on the matter.
And if The Hobbit’s Christian sense is not explicitly on the surface of the story, as in allegorical writing, we will have to look beneath the surface to the very warp and woof of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Peter Kreeft in his The Philosophy of Tolkien illustrates precisely how to accomplish this:
The main way The Lord of the Rings (or The Hobbit) is religious is in its form, its structure: (a) of its worldview and thus of its world, its setting, the world of Middle-earth; (b) of the plot, full providential design and cosmic justice; and (c) of the characters as manifesting themes like providence, grace, heroism, hierarchy, glory, resurrection, piety, duty, authority, obedience, tradition, humility, and “eucatastrope”… all these themes have a religious dimension.
Is this “religious dimension” discernible in The Hobbit?
I suggest that it is, and though space forbids me to examine whether all of the above are present in The Hobbit’s infrastructure I will select one that is specifically at the heart of the Christian faith: grace.
For it is by grace—absolute favor bestowed upon the totally undeserving—that guilty sinners receive salvation from their Lord rather than retributive judgment.
Such Christ-like grace is nowhere more explicit in The Hobbit than the moment Bilbo Baggins spares Gollum’s life rather than slaying him while stuck at the exit of the Misty Mountains. Bilbo has the Ring on at this moment rendering him invisible, and he is contemplating whether or not to slay Gollum who currently stands in his way of escape. The passage in the book continues:
He must get away, out of this horrible darkness, while he had strength left. He must fight. He must stab the foul thing, put its eyes out, kill it. It meant to kill him. No, not a fair fight. He was invisible now. Gollum had no sword. Gollum had not actually threatened to kill him, or tried to yet. And he was miserable, alone, lost. A sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror, welled up in Bilbo’s heart: a glimpse of endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking around and whispering. All these thoughts passed in a flash of a second. He trembled. And then quite suddenly in another flashed, as if lifted by new strength and resolved, he leaped.
Gollum—Smeagol—deserves no pity whatsoever, he is deceptive and cunning, evil and merciless, vile and yes, murderous; and as a matter of due course Gollum deserves death and final judgment. And yet, Bilbo is able to sympathize and pity Gollum; he’s able to see the Hobbit-like creature beneath the dark surface of this now-damnable creature.
Yet Bilbo spares him.
Every Christian with inspired clarity should be able see their Lord’s pitying hand in this moment of hobbitic mercy. Mercy over judgment is the stuff of the Gospel! Later, in The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf tells Frodo, Bilbo’s nephew,
“Deserve it (death)! I daresay he does. Many that liveth deserve death. And some that die deserve life. And can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out judgment… I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it” (emphasis added).
The mercy that is thus continuously disposed upon poor Gollum is ultimately for his hopeful redemption. Louis Markos in his On the Shoulders of Hobbits sums it up beautifully:
Gollum is loathsome, both here and throughout The Lord of the Rings; he does not, in any sense, deserve pity, love, or mercy. But then the pity wells up within Bilbo at this decisive moment is not human but divine. In a flash of what can only be described as divine insight, Bilbo is enabled to see Gollum’s misery through Gollum’s eyes, to experience vicariously, and therefore understand, the horror of his dark, hopeless condition. It is that insight that allows him to love Gollum as a suffering thing in need of grace.
And though Peter Jackson adds some questionable characters (in the sense of their nonappearance in the actual book itself) into The Hobbit storyline, he manages to capture, cinematically speaking, this Christ-like grace placed upon Gollum most wondrously. It is, after all, the Invisible One who continuously pardons Gollum-like sinners—“enemies” as Scripture calls us. At this juncture in the film I couldn’t help but see a momentary glimpse of the pity that Christ himself sees as he gazes upon me in all of my lonesomeness; I can only hope, as Gandalf did for Gollum, that this stay-of-execution will be my eternal “cure.”
Therefore, having “tested” all things Tolkienish we can conclude that both Tolkien and Jackson’s versions of The Hobbit are, in their most profound sense, Christian.
And remember, St. Paul not only exhorted Christians to “test all things,” he also commanded that wherever “something is excellent or praiseworthy” that we should “meditate on these things” (Phil. 4:8); and the divine-grace poured out upon Gollum in The Hobbit is most certainly worth deep pondering.
Pastor Lawrence E. Garcia is the Senior Teaching-Pastor of Academia Church. He is a committed scholar, devoted to the educational growth of his congregants, and raising up a new generation of disciples, who will think, tell, and live out the Christian story.