The Hobbit and the Renewal of the Church (3)

4. Beginning at the End

          Let’s remember as we make our way through TH that even though it is a prequel of sorts for TLOR, the latter took on a life of its own that distanced it somewhat from TH.  For instance, the ring of invisibility Bilbo finds and uses in TH is not yet the One Ring of Power that becomes the focal point of TLOR.  And Sauron, the Dark Lord of the trilogy, is known only as the Necromancer in TH and is little more than a literary device to enable Gandalf’s movements in the story.  These two staples of the latter work play small roles in TH.  This should alert us that in this prequel Tolkien is doing something different than he does in the trilogy and that we should adjust our reading expectations accordingly.

          Oddly enough, we will begin at the end.

          TH concludes some years later with Bilbo, Gandalf, and Balin (one of the dwarves) offering reflections on their shared adventure.  Upon hearing good news of the fortunes of Dale and the Lake-town Bilbo muses that the “prophecies of the old songs” had been fulfilled after all.  Gandalf replies that he should not be surprised.  “You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit?  You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all”(330). 

          Gandalf reminds Bilbo here that he is a part of something much larger and of vaster significance than he could imagine.  In the initial gathering of the dwarves and Bilbo with Gandalf to prepare for the journey to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim their stolen gold, Gandalf intimates as much.  When he mentions his earlier nearly mortal encounter with the Necromancer the dwarves bristle for they believe they have a score to settle with this enemy for his earlier wrongs against their people.  Gandalf bristles back at them:

“Don’t be absurd!  He is an enemy far beyond the powers of all the dwarves put together, if they could all be collected again from the four corners of the world.  The one thing your father wished was for his son to read the map and use the key.  The dragon and the Mountain are more than big enough tasks for you” (30).

This group and their mission seem to be a part of larger sorties against the enemies of Middle Earth.  Their task is appropriate to them.  Others (Gandalf and the White Council) will have to deal with the Necromancer.  Yet their work is all a part of a larger strategy.

          Further along in the story the dwarves sing a song that makes this same claim.  Having feasted at Beorn’s table before they commence their journey through the terrible forest Mirkwood, they sing a song very similar to the one they sand in Bilbo’s house before setting out on their journey.  It is a song about a wind, a special wind it seems, that blows a parallel course to that of our intrepid adventurers.  The significance of this wind is not exhausted by their journey, however.  It’s last verse takes off into the cosmic sphere.

“It left the world and took its flight                                                                        over the wide seas of the night.
The moon set sail upon the gale,
And stars were fanned to leaping light.” (140)

          These parallel songs surely invite us to view the dwarves’ journey and the wind’s journey as overlapping realities.  The latter is the greater and incorporates the former into its own trajectory.  Tolkien was well aware that in both of the biblical languages, Hebrew and Greek, the word for “wind” also meant “spirit” or “breath,” and was the word used in reference to the Holy “Spirit.”  It is highly likely Tolkien intends, for Christian readers at least, to see in this wind overtones of a divinely sovereign hand at work.  As difficult, slow, obscure, and ambiguous as the journey is for its participants, Tolkien shows us that a sure and unstoppable, cosmic power undergirds and empowers it.  Once again, the dwarves’ journey seems implicated into a far greater movement of forces.

          In TLOR Tolkien has Samwise Gamgee tell Bilbo’s cousin Frodo, the Ring-Bearer, the same thing. Exhausted and out of hope from the journey to Mount Doom to destroy the Ring of Power, Frodo is ready to give up.

“’I can't do this, Sam.’
‘I know. It's all wrong. By rights we shouldn't even be here. But we are. It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn't. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.’
‘What are we holding onto, Sam?’
‘That there's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo... and it's worth fighting for.’”

          Here we discover an analogy to the kingdom-focused horizon of Christian faith.  As we started at the end of TH, so it is helpful to start at the end of the biblical story to get our bearings.  How a story, our story, ends is the best guide to what’s important to watch for all along the way.  In Rev.21-22 we get John the Seer’s vision of God’s new creation.  And what do we find there?  A whole new world, a new heavens and a new earth (21:1), and a city descending from heaven to this new earth, the New Jerusalem, in the shape of the Holy of Holies, which becomes coextensive with the new creation.  Creation has become God’s temple, his “home” (21:3), the eternal habitation of God and humanity on a planet fragrant and beautiful with full flourishing.  Humanity, the Seer writes, will spend eternity “reigning” (22:5) with God. 

          A glance from the end in Rev.21-22 back to the beginning shows its congruence with this end.  The garden of Eden is a rudimentary temple where God is present with his people (Gen.3:8).  They, in turn, are God’s image-bearers – those divinely commissioned as royal representatives of God the Great King charged to reflect his will and way in the creation and the protect and nurture the garden temple in which God dwells.  Further, humanity is to extend the boundaries of that temple by inhabiting and pacifying the rest of the as yet uninhabited and uninhabitable world.

          Different language, to be sure, but to the same end.  God has a great program he’s working on.  His people are part and parcel of that program.  God’s interested in way more than simply individual forgiveness; and he’s not at all interested in hustling his people off to a spiritual (read immaterial) existence in “heaven” (that which is not earth or earthly).  Remember, the holy city comes down out of heaven to the new earth (21:2).  This is the kingdom of God:  the worldwide communication, communion, and community of God and humanity on a renewed creation (earth).  This comprehensive divine-human community is the glory of God, which as the great 2nd century theologian Irenaeus of Lyon put it, is “humanity fully alive, and life is beholding God.”

          Proverbs 29:18 reads:  “When there’s no vision, the people get out of control.”   Social cohesion and mission disintegrate where there is no shared vision of a compelling future which catches a group up into its own momentum and disciplines.  Lacking a vision of God’s kingdom work that embraces the whole cosmos and every creature into its grace-bathed transformation of all things into the design and purpose for which God created it leaves the church at the mercy of a lesser vision’s power to shape its life.  The obvious candidate in our context is the marketplace with its competitive, self-interested, and individualistic vision of life.  A church formed by such dynamics will surely be a church with little social cohesion around a compelling vision.  And such a church we are.

            Tolkien hints in this direction in two places.  In Thorin’s recounting of his people’s loss of their treasure to the dragon Smaug, he says that dragons do not enjoy their stolen wealth.  “Indeed,” he continues, “they hardly know a good bit of work from a bad, though they usually have a good notion of the current market value” (27).  Sound familiar?   When describing the goblins into whose clutches Bilbo and the dwarves had fallen, Tolkien tells us they made no beautiful things, only clever ones, along with tools and implements of torture.  Further, they prefer to enslave others and force them to their death to produce these things (69).  Again, sound familiar?                                                                                              

This kind of comprehensive, soul-numbing, death-dealing view of life[1] and the world certainly gestures toward the kinds of things we experience today under the global capitalism that embraces our world.
          Bilbo’s adventure with the dwarves is part of a movement of the inhabitants of Middle Earth against these enemies and oppressors with an aim of a future more glorious even than its past.  It is for a Middle Earth, free and flourishing, that they sally forth to the Lonely Mountain to regain the dwarves’ hard won treasure of yore.  This vision catalyzes them all, even the initially reluctant hobbit to hit the road on the adventure of their lives.

          The church needs to revive itself by drinking deep drafts from the vision God has given us.  Thus we can see more clearly to remove the false accretions that have glommed on to the faith like barnacles which we have subsequently mistaken for the real thing.  And with our hearts scrubbed clean, God’s own vision can take root in us begin to shape us to the movement that both demonstrates and serves this larger vision.

          In a word, the church does not live from today to and for tomorrow; rather it lives from tomorrow (God’s kingdom) to and for today.

[1] Even after Smaug is killed the power of the lust for the loot remains over the company and threatens its reaching its final goal (286).


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