Maybe I should bring a book with me…
After graduating from college and seminary, I was a full-time, itinerant speaker communicating to high school students. My travels would have me on the road at camps from June to August; sometimes spending as many as eleven weeks at different camps. I was also serving as a volunteer pastor at a small church plant. The year is 2008 and God used a rather small book to change the trajectory of my life and ministry.
The semester was over and I had a few weeks to breathe before hitting the road in June. Knowing that most camps didn’t have wifi or that I had a phone I could even throw at the internet, I had an epiphany – I should take a book with me. I was a pretty good reader but it never really occurred to me stretch my mind while in the throws of ministry. Remember, I was under the impression that DOING is always better than KNOWING. This is actually a false dichotomy that will soon be explored.
I headed off to the library and began perusing the new book section where a title soon caught my eye. It felt as though Tree of Tales leapt off the shelf and into my untrained hands. As I picked it up and turned it over, I realized it was about someone that had interested yet eluded me. Tree of Tales was written as a collection of essays by the faculty of St. Andrews University in Scotland to commemorate the 60th anniversary of a lecture, “On Fairy Stories”, delivered by J.R.R. Tolkien in the 1930’s. The back cover reported that this book was going to investigate the Christian worldview of this famous writer and how his faith was creatively communicated in his magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings. The editors claimed they would demonstrate Tolkien’s vision in both theology and philosophy.
At this point I had never read any Tolkien; not one sentence. I had seen the blockbuster films and I remember thinking I saw Christian themes. Was it possible that Elves, Ents, Dwarves, and Orcs had something to do with Christianity? There wasn’t really anyone I knew to ask and I came from a background that would have answered, “Of course not. And why are you going to movies in the first place?” The book was thin, the margins were wide, and there weren’t many words on each page. I thought that even a guy like me had a chance of understanding this book. I checked it out and headed off for another summer of intense ministry.
Do you remember my story of the three girls I attempted to persuade using bad logic? This was that summer…2008.
I was completely captivated by this little book. I read how Tolkien believed that rightly using the human imagination was an act of worship. I began to see the redemptive story arc with such characters as Aragorn, Theoden, and Farimir. My understanding grew so that I could grasp how a good story need not be preachy or in your face. This was new! Never had I been exposed to such thinking. Could it get any better?
There is a camp in central New Hampshire that I have visited on several occasions. I was invited to speak to their teen camp that summer. Unfortunately, NH was receiving their annual rainfall in about five days. It was a deluge! I’m glad all I had to do was show up to preach and not figure out what to do with 150 restless teens. All this meant I had plenty of time to read.
I came to the chapter on Tolkien’s relationship with C.S. Lewis. Lewis I knew a little better than Tolkien. My understanding was that he was a well-known Christian author who cranked out several books, fiction and non-fiction. I knew these two men were friends, both were trained and later taught at Oxford, and both survived the trenches of France during World War I. What I didn’t know, dear reader, was that C.S. Lewis, the man many assume to be the greatest Christian author of the 20th century, was an atheist. Wait…what?!?!? How could this be? Let me tell you what I learned.
From his childhood on, Tolkien was always organizing literary clubs. These small groups would gather to discuss important works of literature and also to write and critique their own. The Coalbiters (precursor to the Inklings) was one such group that was very interested in Norse mythology, read in the original languages. This group of friends, including Tolkien and Lewis, would gather in the evening and read ancient viking sagas in old Icelandic. Seriously. Apparently, Tolkien was so good with these ancient tongues that he could make up his own jokes (“a thane, a druid, and a shield maiden walk into a bar…”). They would read Beowulf, The Prose Edda, The Elder Edda, tales of the Germanic horsemen, and would often venture into Greek hero myths as well. These men were captivated by good hero stories.
One evening, after the pipe smoke got a little to thick, Lewis and Tolkien decided to take a stroll around Addison’s Walk outside of Magdalen College, Oxford. It was here that Lewis declared that these stories deeply moved him but he was still unsatisfied. “They are just lies, but they are lies breathed through silver so that they have the ring of truth.” Tolkien listened and then began to show his friend that all great hero epics and stories point to the One, True hero. He explained to his friend that the one “hero myth” that he would not give ear to would be the one that would alter his destiny and completely change his life. The Incarnation was the “myth” becoming fact in space and time. I read how Tolkien lovingly, patiently, creatively, and intellectually explained the gospel to his dear friend. Lewis later stated that it was that night that moved him from atheist to theist and not long after, he gave his life to Jesus.
The rain was still falling heavily outside my leaky cabin but I hardly noticed. A question arose in my mind that I believe was prompted by the Holy Spirit. It asked, “Andy, what would you do if I brought a thinking atheist into your life? Will you continue to use dismissive arguments and platitudes?” I had a mental image of an intelligent atheist laying siege to my flimsy arguments; telling me that my Bible was false and my faith a sham. My blood pressure would go up, my face turn red, a lump would form in my throat, the quiver lip would set in, and I would retort with a shaky “nuh-uh!”
I was suddenly assaulted by the memory of the conversation I had a few weeks prior at Camp Patmos. The untold hours of biblical and theological education roused in me a single thought that brought tears to my eyes that rivaled the New Hampshire rain: I knew what I believed but I didn’t know why.
I see that I have well-exceeded the 1,000 word mark. Next week I will tell you about what happened next and how some those “sex-crazed, Roman and Greek drunkards” became some of my friends.