Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of a three-part review.
Philip Ryken. The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth: Images of Christ’s Threefold Office in the Lord of the Rings. Hansen Lectureship Series. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017, xiii +136pp., $16.00/£11.37
In last week’s post, I began my review of Philip Ryken’s The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth: Images of Christ’s Threefold Office in the Lord of the Rings. I was amazed, reading it, to observe that while Ryken frequently noted Tolkien’s concerns regarding theologically projective readings, he nevertheless appeared to do exactly that in his book. It provided an opportunity to reflect on some hallmarks of bad Christian literary criticism. In this post, we will look at two of those criticisms: disrespect for source material and the dominance of ‘Christian’ categories. These hallmarks may be imperfect categorizations, but as a lifelong lover of Tolkien’s work, as an appreciator of good literary criticism, and as an evangelical, here are my concerns about books such as this one.
First, a key hallmark of bad Christian literary criticism is disrespect for the source material. Tolkien has been explicit—in both the introductory text to The Lord of the Rings, as well as in his letters—about the kind of reading that he hoped readers would have. Above all else, The Lord of the Rings is meant to be read as a story—a reclaimed and pre-Christian mythology for England, but one that nevertheless honours the Creator in its architecture and execution.
Christianity does indeed sit behind the books, but in a self-consciously implicit way. This makes any ‘Christian’ reading of the books suspect, and Ryken’s—despite his explicit acknowledgement of these factors!—even more so. The result, against Tolkien’s explicit wishes, is to read his book in a way it was never meant to be read—as a foil for Christian teaching.
In addition to being read as a story, Tolkien’s book was written as a kind of pre-Christian mythology—it is, in that sense, proto-evangelical more than properly evangelistic. Such a world, crafted as Tolkien intended, left many elements consciously on the outside. Among them, arguably, are any of the Semitic elements of Christian religion—such as prophets and priests.
Let’s be explicit: there are no prophets in Tolkien’s world (if there were, they would probably be Southrons). There is very nearly no religion, as a matter of fact. Consequently, Gandalf is presented as a figure of wisdom, of lore. His signs are due to magic, and his predictions are made on account of wisdom and lore. If there is any corollary to our world, then Gandalf most represents an angel.
In a similar way—again because there is consciously no religion—there are also no priests. No one offers sacrifice, or performs religious rites. Frodo does indeed ‘bear a burden,’ but this looks very little, if at all, like priestly intercession. The very idea of introducing these concepts to the story commits an invasive violence to its self-contained harmony.
A second hallmark of bad Christian literary criticism is the dominance of ‘Christian’ categories. By ‘Christian,’ let me be explicit, I mean evangelical categories—language, terms, ways of thinking. As a brief example, consider Ryken’s treatment of Frodo as priest. To make the connection, Ryken must appeal to the Reformation doctrine of the ‘priesthood of all believers,’ and to extrapolate through this lens a ministry of burden bearing and of friendship.
But does such a concept of priesthood accurately reflect either a) Christ’s priesthood of self-sacrifice and intercession, or b) Tolkien’s concept of priesthood as a Catholic? I think the answer must be no.
In this, and in many other places, it feels that Ryken’s evangelical language stands at odds with what we know to be Tolkien’s (staunchly!) Catholic convictions. For example, Ryken appeals on numerous occasions to the category ‘biblical’ as a meaningful reference point for his claims. But would Tolkien claim to be biblical? Or would he rather claim to be “Catholic,” or even simply “Christian”? In these ways, Ryken’s utilisation of evangelical language sometimes feels like a whitewashing of Tolkien’s Catholic identity.
In one place, Ryken even describes Gandalf as having a “gift of discernment”—a phrase so out of place in the world of Middle Earth that when I told my wife she exclaimed, ‘Gandalf no more has a gift of discernment than he has a size medium robe.’ (15) It is an invasive, jarring presence that simply does not fit Tolkien’s world.
It is for factors like these aforementioned that Ryken’s utilisation of Tolkien feels so invasive and, well, misplaced. All the information is correct, but it is being used in the wrong ways, in the wrong context, and for the wrong purposes. And to this wrongness is added something else—a final criterion of bad Christian literary criticism, to which we will return next week: teachiness.