Editor’s Note: This is the first 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
J.R.R. Tolkien never hid the fact that he was Christian. He was forthright as well regarding the fact that Christianity played an important role in the creation of The Lord of the Rings.
At the same time, Tolkien had little patience for readers who were all-too-eager to ‘decode’ his books for their Christian significance. He wanted them, above all else, to be read for the story—to be enjoyed—and he wanted critical readers to avoid projecting their own presuppositions upon the tale.
Tolkien even went so far as to note, in the foreword to the second edition of the trilogy, his firm dislike for all allegorical readings. Tragically, the temptation has been far too strong for far too many, and a host of subsequent books have attempted to explicate and explain the ‘inner’ Christianity of Tolkien’s world. Oh, that more authors had heeded his advice—for few of these books have succeeded.
Regrettably, among them must be counted Philip Ryken’s 2017 volume, The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth: Images of Christ’s Threefold Office in the Lord of the Rings. Over the course of three chapters—originally offered as a series of three lectures for the 2015-16 Hansen Lectureship Series at Wheaton College’s Marion E. Wade Center—Ryken links the threefold office of Christ (as Prophet, Priest, King) to three characters in Tolkien’s great work (Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn, respectively). Gandalf, for example, images the office of prophet in his performance of sign acts, words of counsel, and foretelling. Next, Frodo and Sam image the priesthood (of all believers) in the bearing of burdens and friendship. Lastly, Aragorn images the office of king by, you guessed it, becoming king.
Each chapter follows a similar pattern: a focus on a specific office, a note on its theological pedigree (specifically, from the Reformation), discussion of the Tolkien character who mirrors that office, notation of Tolkien’s concerns about precisely this kind of reading, comparison of the office in question to the role of college president, and a concluding section of application. None of these sections contains any false information. Instead, Ryken quotes The Lord of the Rings accurately and fairly, and his theology is solid throughout all three lectures.
However, there is something amiss in the execution of his argument. The chief wrong, in my estimation, is that while Ryken accurately documents Tolkien’s concerns about spiritual readings, he appears to have not heeded Tolkien’s warnings at all. The resulting book, then, ends up reading as intrusive, overplayed, and deeply dissatisfying–an awkward mash-up that exhibits invasive categories of evaluation and that, in the end, renders a real disservice to Tolkien’s clearly expressed concerns about theologically projective readings.
In part 2 of my review, I will use Ryken’s book to highlight what I think are three hallmarks of poor Christian literary criticism—a disrespect for source material, a dominance of ‘Christian’ categories, and a preponderance of teachiness.