By Israel Galindo, Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning
The plethora of books with a variant of the title “The Gospel According To …” continues to fill bookshelves and entice the unwary buyer into reading some attempt to shoehorn popular culture into the biblical message. The earliest of this genre that I can recall was The Gospel According to Peanuts (still in print since 1965), after the popular cartoon strip by the late Charles Schultz. Being a confessing Christian, Mr. Schultz did on occasion openly present a Christian message through his syndicated strip—the most famous and endearing being the rendition by the blanket-hugging Linus of Luke’s birth narrative in Schultz’ animated Christmas television feature. Today we have our choice of The Gospel According to Dr. Seuss, The Gospel According to The Simpsons, The Gospel According to Harry Potter, The Gospel According to Disney, and The Gospel According to The Sopranos (I’m not making that last one up, really).
Ralph C. Wood, professor of theology and literature at Baylor University, has now added to that collection The Gospel According to Tolkien (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003. 169 pages. $14.95. ISBN 0-664-22610-8). It is arguably the only volume that can legitimately make a claim to that title, for as Wood ably demonstrates, Tolkien’s corpus is implicitly, but authentically, Christian. Tolkien’s Middle Earth trilogy has experienced a rediscovery, if not a revival, among a wider audience due to Peter Jackson’s brilliant movie interpretation of The Lord of the Rings, so the timing of this publication could not have been more strategic.
Wood presents an accessible theological interpretation to The Lord of the Rings material, though he draws from Tolkien’s entire corpus of writings, from works like The Silmarillion , The Hobbit, as well as letters and essays, in which Tolkien provides the background and history of the mythic Middle Earth as well as commentary on the nature and purpose of the literary genre in which he worked. This background material is in evidence especially in the first two chapters of the book in Wood’s treatment of the themes of creation, the Fall (both of the mythic world of Tolkien and of the real world), the nature of sin (“iniquity”) and evil. Subsequent chapters stay closer to the more familiar Middle Earth material of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. These later chapters deal with the themes of good and evil, and Tolkien’s vision of the Kingdom. The most valuable contribution of this book, I believe, is Wood’s treatment of the redeeming virtues in the panoramic drama of Tolkien’s world and ours. Specifically, his treatment of the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, courage, and temperance—as well as his treatment on Tolkien’s concepts of eucatostrophes, community, and the nature of stories—serve in an authentic way to connect the dots between Tolkien’s dense cosmology and the Christian faith.
For those wishing to delve into the informing Christian theology that plays out behind the curtain of Tolkien’s dramatic trilogy, or for those who want an overtly Christian introduction to the epic story of The Lord of the Rings, there is unlikely a better resource to be found. Wood’s book will not only help introduce the reader to the theological world of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, but will provide insight into the importance of stories—of good stories—to our ability to understand the Gospel message.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan.
His books on Christian education include The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice), and A Christian Educator’s Book of Lists.
Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center’s blog for theological school deans