“The Lord of the Rings” – Not Allegory, but Romance

C.S. Lewis said the following, specifically with Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in mind:

“A strict allegory is like a puzzle with a solution: a great romance is like a flower whose smell reminds you of something you can’t quite place. I think the something is ‘the whole quality of life as we actually experience it.’ You can have a realistic story in which all the things & people are exactly like those we meet in real life, but the quality, the feel or texture or smell, of it is not.

In a great romance it is just the opposite. I’ve never met Orcs or Ents or Elves – but the feel of it, the sense of a huge past, of lowering danger, of heroic tasks achieved by the most apparently unheroic people, of distance, vastness, strangeness, homeliness (all blended together) is so exactly what living feels like to me. Particularly the heart-breaking quality in the most beautiful places, like Lothlorien. And it is so like the real history of the world: ‘Then, as now, there was a growing darkness and great deeds were done that were not wholly in vain.'”

C.S. Lewis, from a letter to Lucy Matthews. 11 September 1958

A good, true “romance” in the literary sense is a story that doesn’t relate to, or teach a clear “lesson” about, life as we know it in a strict “this represents that” sense. But in the telling of the story, and the development of the characters, it feels like real life. It stirs your affections, awakening pleasure and sorrow and fear and joy. You see much that is applicable, as Tolkien talked about, to real life as we all live within the great Story (capital “S”) that the Creator is telling. And in being this way, a romance is filled with Truth, of echoes and emotions that remind us of our true country. The “quality and texture” is there, and is realistic. The Lord of the Rings is filled with more truth than I’ve experienced in lots of other books, though it’s not an allegory. We don’t need it to be. And the things a story like that stirs in us are possibly more real and rich as a result.

It’s good to read books that have these qualities, because they wake us up, I think, to truer feelings, which all point to the new heavens and earth that are coming. When things will be the way they were meant to be in the first place. We only glimpse it now, but reading the right kinds of books can shape us into the right sort of people, who desire and feel for the right sort of things.

A church’s gathered corporate worship…

“[For many churches], Sunday Morning is a platform driven spectacle, led by mega-celebrities at mega-churches and would-be-celebrities and smaller churches. Rather than a challenging and diverse diet of milk and meat, celebration and lament, confession and assurance, we’re fed a pump-up-the-jams hype fest that culminates in a “You can do it!” sermon and a marketing pitch for membership. It’s an environment that feels hostile to doubt and suffering, unless your goal is to overwhelm them both with enthusiasm [...]

“The solution isn’t trying harder to please religious consumers and church shoppers. Instead, we need to look to the old paths, where the good way is, and keep telling the only Story that gives us a sense of ultimate hope in this tragic and broken world.”

Mike Cosper

Playing and Singing Hymns

I’ve heard hymns sound staunch, anachronistic, pharisaical, sappy, and above all comically glorious. In pop culture the singing of hymns represents a special brand of puritanical escapism and a retreat to “the good old days” of hard-headed faith.

I’ve also heard hymns sound sleazy, shallow, frivolously syncopated and sloppily paired with an alternative rock band (only churchgoers know this horrific reincarnation of the classics). Between these two evils, I choose the hard-headed version, as it is at least slightly dignified.

Mostly, I conclude that the hymn played and sung with subtlety and meekness of style is best of all. That way, no brazen human calculations drown out the sweet poetry and theology that I love, that feeds me.

Brian James, from the JG Hymns project

Critiquing The “Worship Experience”

I’d like to come alongside another author here. Jared Wilson wrote a post today entitled “What’s Wrong With Producing a Worship Experience?” This is an important question, since the American “Evangelical” church is plagued with an incorrect mindset about gathered, visible worship of a church. We hear the lingo all the time, about producing, staging, or aiding a worship “experience” in our church gatherings; but much (though not all) of what churches and worship leaders have said on the subject is unbiblical and unhelpful.

Wilson’s post quotes a conversation reproduced in another book, about the consumerism pervasive in Western churches. At one point the conversation says this, which sums up the critique here, of staging an experience for someone to “meet God” in worship: “When the church gets into the business of staging experiences, that quickly becomes idolatry.”

The other party in the conversation replies, “I’m stunned. So you don’t encourage churches to use your elements of marketable experiences to create attractive experiences for their attenders?” to which the original speaker rejoins, “No. The organized church should never try to stage a God experience.”

I absolutely agree, though agreeing with this critique is very unpopular much of the time.

So here’s my “coming alongside” of Wilson’s post, with a couple of extra thoughts about why churches should care about more than providing personal worship experiences.

We Have Perfect Access To God Already

Much of the “worship experience” mentality is based on the idea that something happens with God in a church gathering that can’t happen elsewhere. Now I do think something is very unique to the gathering of a local church. But it’s not the “God experience” many have turned it into. We need to understand that, positionally, we’re there now as worshipers, and nothing extra happens between us and God when the awesome light show starts and we start singing (if your church rolls the way of the awesome light show).

Here’s the thing: we have the fullest possible access to God now, because Christ stands in the presence of God as our perfect Priest. Jesus is offering worship, standing in that place for us now. Right now. When we gather together, we do it to remind ourselves again of the God we have full access to, through Jesus. In his excellent book Rhythms of Grace, Mike Cosper says, “God’s presence is a constantly available comfort and help to the Christian,” and, “When a Christian shows up, God shows up. We are God’s temple (1 Cor. 3:16). When the church gathers, it gathers as a collection of people in whom God dwells. God inhabits the gathered church because these scattered worshipers are all temples, who together make a greater temple. God is with us, and the gathered Church becomes ‘an outpost of hope in a dying world'”

But often I think we’re looking for a little something in addition to the perfect access to God that Jesus provides. And then we often become discontent or upset with a church that can’t provide a powerful enough “experience,” and get us to God in an experiential way on Sunday morning. If we’re chasing a sensory overload of God-experience in our church gatherings, very few churches will ever be able to satisfy that craving. And ponder this: do you think the church gatherings we read about in the book of Acts produced anything like the experiences churches try to facilitate today? I think not. There was something else to it.

So what do we meet for then? We meet, not to have some crazy experience with God, but to remind ourselves and one another of the great, strong, gracious, saving God who has made us alive together with Christ. We remind ourselves and one another of the Gospel, and, as Hebrews 12 tells us, to run the race of faith with endurance, laying aside every weight and sin, always looking to Jesus. He is the Author and Perfecter of our faith, in every way.

This is where we find endurance for the race, and this is how we get to God. Not through a carefully orchestrated theatrical God-experience, but through Jesus. The question for our church gatherings then, is, are we providing ways for people to muster lots of willpower and personal worship from within themselves (through vague, self-centered song lyrics, super dark concert-type environments, etc.)? Or are we presenting a rock-solid picture of Jesus and of the Gospel every Sunday in our singing, prayers, readings of Scripture, and preaching? We should want to stop trying to muster up emotional attitudes of worship from within, and run to our Savior again this Sunday. Let’s help one another do that, and know that right now we are God’s. As the conversation on Wilson’s blog reminds us, “the only thing of value the church has to offer is the gospel.” Let’s be content and overjoyed in this reality, and be content and overjoyed with our local churches if they faithfully bring us to our Savior each week and not to a mere fleeting experience.

Peter Kreeft, and the Real Hero of “The Lord of the Rings”

This is really a great lecture. Kreeft’s insights into The Lord of the Rings are right-on, and I especially enjoyed this because I wrote a senior thesis paper on this subject matter in college. If you’ve never heard some of this, it’ll give you a deeper appreciation for what Tolkien was up to in his writing.

Peter Kreeft is the author of The Philosophy of Tolkien, where you’ll get more of these insights, in greater detail and depth.

Book Review: “Eternity Changes Everything”

Eternity Changes Everything by Stephen Witmer. The Good Book Company, 2014. $10.49.

I really do agree with Stephen Witmer in this book, that “[there's a] reason we’re not restless for the new creation: we’re not really certain it is our future” (71). As Christians, we have an incredibly joyous and hopeful future that has been secured for us by Christ’s death and resurrection. And many Christians either don’t know enough about what Scripture tells us about our future, or if we do, we’re so surrounded by distractions in our culture and our ever-busier schedules that we don’t look forward to our future. Witmer’s book is very helpful as a simple, joy-filled exhortation to think often and deeply about the new creation, and the surety of our life there with Christ. It must be hard to try to write a short book about such a weighty topic, but Witmer pulls it off, I think. It’s not exhaustive, but it’s concise and powerful, and effective in its friendly tone. Jared Wilson is right-on in his endorsement, that “Reading this is like enjoying a coffee with a new friend as he shares the secret of the universe with you.”

The driving point of the book is that contemplating eternity rightly will give us “restless patience,” which is a term Witmer coins and then uses throughout. This is a very helpful concept. We should be restless for Christ’s return and for the new heavens and new earth, and patient as we wait because we know that is all secured by Christ already. Witmer points us to Paul’s life for an illustration of this tension, saying, “Paul didn’t settle for now. Paul lived in the present, but he didn’t live for the present. He worked hard in the present, but he lived for the future;” and, “his circumstances neither destroyed nor propped up his contentment” (66-67). Witmer’s point is that a Christ-centered restless patience fuels our hard work in every area of our lives, specifically for Christ’s Kingdom; and that we can be patient through the worst of trials in this life, because we are confident of how little it all compares with the glory of the new creation. In one of my favorite sections of the book, Witmer says,

“If you’ve settled for now, you have placed yourself on a path to inevitable despair. Why? Because we live in a broken, sinful world. God still hasn’t fully asserted his kingly rule over the earth. Because it’s broken, this world cannot satisfy. The absolute best job won’t perfectly satisfy. Nor will the best house, marriage, food, or vacation. Settling for now is the path to despair.

“Here’s an irony: the best way to enjoy this world is to not settle for it. When you see this world as a preparation for the next, not as the be-all-end-all to your happiness, you can suffer its disappointments without being crushed, and savor its delights without forgetting there’s better to come” (69).

And this is the reality that Witmer encourages us to live in: that everything is changed by knowing about, and being confident in our eternal life, in the new heavens and new earth, with Christ as our King. We can work hard in every area of our lives, whether it’s painting our house or preaching the Gospel to our neighbors, because it’s all valuable to our King who is moving all of history toward a great, joyous culmination and completion. And we can suffer any wrong, and any trial that God ordains on the way, because of that secured future. No matter what happens, our bright future with Christ is totally fixed and secured, and we will enter into it. You’ll see Witmer, in this short book, fall in with authors like C.S. Lewis and John Piper, who work to exhort us to see every good thing in this life as both an echo of Eden, and a signpost pointing to the new creation; and see every trial as God-ordained, refining and preparing us for our eternal life with Christ. I heartily recommend this book. Its message is extremely valuable, especially in a materialistic culture that preaches faith in shallow, material, passing pleasures, and that doesn’t know how to deal with the actual brokenness of life. I pray it will encourage you to live in light of our glorious future as Christ’s redeemed church, and be restlessly patient for our true home, through every trial and joy.

Here’s one more great quote, which I hope illustrates how valuable of a read this is:

“Joy in an imperfect present flows to us from a perfect future. If our joy is in the things we have now, losing them is the worst thing that can happen; all our joy goes with them. [But if] our joy is in the things we will enjoy in our eternal future, nothing we might lose now can touch our joy. We’re free to enjoy the things we have now without worrying about their impermanence; we’re free to lose them without feeling that our life has gone, too” 69-70).

Reading The Beauty Of “The Pilgrim’s Progress”

Totally unrelated to this post, two ironic things have happened in the last couple of weeks. First, Ligonier announced their release of a new series by Derek Thomas, published on DVD, which looks great. Second, Justin Taylor wrote a post about this series on his blog, quoting Dr. Thomas, who asks whether this generation will be the one in which The Pilgrim’s Progress disappears.

I’m right in the middle of reading through The Pilgrim’s Progress with my British Lit. class, and I’ve been getting kind of a fresh look at the book this time through. I’ve been meditating a lot on what goes on in this story, and the truths Bunyan is portraying in the allegory. So I appreciated Justin Taylor’s post, and the quotes and clips there from Derek Thomas and J.I. Packer, about the book’s value, especially for the church. Maybe this all means that we’re all thinking about this book, and should be writing and talking about it, in-part so the next generation doesn’t lose an appreciation for it. Maybe. In any case, here I go – not necessarily because I’m fearful of the book’s disappearance, but mostly because I’ve grown to really love it.

For fun I thought I’d do a short series of posts about a few of the characters who are really standing out to me this time through the book. If nothing else, it’ll be helpful and devotional for me to think a little deeper about the people inhabiting this story.

But first of all, though, I wanted to write just a couple thoughts about what kind of story The Pilgrim’s Progress is, and how we should read it. These are things I’ve learned as I’ve taught through the book, while also reading through it each time, for five years now.

An allegory is a story written with an intentional symbolism in the characters, places, and plot. There is a relationship, sometimes a one-to-one relationship, between things in the story and things outside of the story. The best allegory takes invisible, intangible, or inward truths and circumstances, and makes them visible. The Pilgrim’s Progress does this in maybe the purest sense.

There are degrees of allegory. One degree would be when it’s written something like The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. C.S. Lewis buried his allegory a little bit below the surface of this story, more deeply in certain places, so that you might have to think hard to get the symbolism. The Father Christmas scene in this book, if you’re familiar with it, is one of those “thinkers” (for me anyway). Then there’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, where the allegory is right there on the surface of the whole thing. You don’t find yourself reading Bunyan’s story and getting lost in the story quite for its own sake, at least not as much as in something like Lewis’s Narnia books. But these two “kinds” of allegory each have their beauty and purpose.

Here’s the beauty of Bunyan’s allegory: it’s as if he took the whole inward journey and battle of faith for a Christian, and flipped it with the real outward, physical world. All of a sudden, initial awareness and guilt over sin, conversion and new life at the cross, and the ups and downs of a persevering faith in Jesus are here what you would see, if those things were all visible. And so the result is real, tangible pictures of things and people breaking in and giving perspective and light and, hopefully, clarity and encouragement as we process the ups and downs of our faith. We go with Christian as he flees the City of Destruction, and loses his burden in faith and repentance at the cross. We meet characters like Evangelist, Pliable, Worldly Wiseman, Interpreter, Hypocrisy, Atheist, Ignorance, and Hopeful. We climb the Hill of Difficulty with Christian, experience the horrors of the Valley of the Shadow of Death, nearly meet our demise in Doubting Castle, and even so we persevere with Christian on the road to the Celestial City. And if we are Christians, born again to new life in Christ, we have, or will, do all these things.

To borrow from J.I. Packer’s quote that Justin Taylor shares in his post,

Certainly, it would be great gain for modern Christians if Bunyan’s masterpiece came back into its own in our day.

Have you yourself, I wonder, read it yet?

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