Sunday, June 21, 2009

Thinking on evil, God and fellowship in 'The Lord of the Rings'

Recently, my kids starting watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy again. As I watch Frodo struggle with the burden of carrying the Ring, I'm reminded about the nature of evil. I too often catch myself thinking of evil and sin as a condition or state, but these films remind me that it is actually insistent and aggressive, moving hungrily and greedily, clawing out territory.

In these films, one of the ways evil is represented is in the One Ring, originally created by and infused with the power of Sauron to control the other Rings of Power. In Fellowship of the Ring, Gandolf will not even touch the Ring, so wary is he of its power. It is not a magic tool to be manipulated but has its own purpose and seeks to bend the will of those that bear it to its own. “It wants to be found,” he warns Frodo as he gives him the task of carrying it.

We can see the greedy and insidious nature of the Ring in the characters who encounter it throughout the three films—including Gollum, Boromir and even Sam. But its insidious nature is most striking in Frodo. The burden wearies him, and it also changes him; by the end of Return of the King, the weight of it is not only eating into his skin at his neck (by the weight of the chain that bears it) but also into his heart. We watch it cloud his judgment more and more, sap his strength and attempt to destroy his relationship with Sam. And in spite of all of Frodo’s determination and desperate will power to get it to Mount Doom, it eats at his will and soul and finally overpowers him.

As I watched Frodo’s face transform into a twisted grin as he fully gives into the Ring’s power, I couldn’t help but think of the descriptions of sin and evil I’ve read. There’s the slithering insistence of the serpent in the Garden and the warning God gives Cain that “sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you.” Peter echoes that warning, when he tells writes, “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” There’s Paul’s magnificent mini-treatise on the sucking power of it all in the opening section of his letter to the Romans. And in The Rest of the Gospel, Dan Stone describes sin as “a power, or force, that is in rebellion against God and produces sin as its fruit.” It isn’t just a condition, but active and aggressive. And “as long as it dwells at the center of our being,” says Stone, “it will produce sins.”

But as aggressive and powerful as evil and sin are, there is good news to be heard: God is more so—much, much more so. As destiny works its way through to rid the world of The Ring in The Lord of the Rings, so throughout our Story God has been aggressively and faithfully working his own plans to restore, redeem and heal us and his creation. As insidious, hungry and machinatious as evil is, it cannot and does not win, for we turn a page and at last comes Jesus, whose birth, life, death and resurrection explode outward with a Life that swallows death and evil.

And here, in the middle of that Story, we turn around to find that God extends to us a hand that not only frees us from that hungry, greedy, clawing thing that seeks to destroy us (and, through us, those around us) but also create in us a new life (which, through us, brings life and restoration to those around us as well). When we trust that Jesus is who says and can do what he says, he brings us back into the relationship with the Father and each other that we were created to share—and we find that God’s Spirit is in us. We are changed on the inside. We may not feel like it or look like it, says Stone, but we are. We have a new nature. We have a new Spirit at the core of who we are. And part of the rest of the journey is learning to live out that life and that truth. It doesn’t mean we won’t struggle with sin or its consequences, but we will, as Dallas Willard puts it, become more and more the “kind of people” who are like Jesus.

And we are created to be those people together. In A New Testament Trilogy, Tom Johnston and Mike Chong Perkinson draw a wonderful allusion between the nine in Tolkien’s fellowship and our own calling:

What Tolkien’s world tells us is that fellowship finds its origins in the context of mission. Where there is a purpose greater than ourselves or even the meeting of our own personal needs. Like the nine men in the movie who volunteered for the dangerous mission of returning the ring to Mt. Doom, we find ourselves in a similar situation in our churches and in our world. There is an evasive evil in our world that seeks to destroy us, and most of those that inhabit the earth, including many Christians, who are simply unaware of the danger that looms about us. God has placed it on the hearts of His people to make the journey to Mt. Doom, if you will, with the fellowship (that is, of the “Cross”) to destroy the evil influence (1 John 3:8b). It is a journey that has uneviable odds, enormous obstacles, and armies that outnumber and outclass us at every angle. It is the battle for our families, our cities, our state, our country, and even our world. Our Mt. Doom, like that of Tolikien’s world seems impenetrable by the likes of us and cannot be done by an army one. . . .

The biblical concept of koinonia, the basis of community, cannot take place unless there is a sense of commonality of heart and purpose—a mission that unites us. Koinonia for the Western 21st Century Christian has been reduced to potlucks or coffee and doughnuts. You know, “stay after the service and enjoy the fellowship.” True fellowship can only take place where people are willing to share their lives as they share their hearts for something bigger than themselves. . . .

Koinonia . . . begins with Jesus as we enter into communion with our risen Lord and from that relationship participate in the greater mission. . . . Out of this partnership comes a genuine and deep koinonia that knits souls together in a way that normal social gatherings at church cannot. Much like Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring, genuine fellowship takes place when people are committed to a common purpose.

It is good to be reminded of the harsh reality and nature of evil. And it is good to be reminded that we live in a Story where evil is and will be defeated, where Life and Rightness and Love are winning and have conquered. And it is good to be reminded of our own fellowship and purpose in that Life.

(Image: screenshot from Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, New Line Cinema)

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