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The Hobbit can Save us

By September 28, 2012 19 Comments
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Most nights my family goes through the same rituals –  the kids are herded up the stairs (which isn’t easy… they always have some excuse for why they need to do this or that) they brush their teeth, put on their pj’s, and climb into bed.  I’ve made it a habit since they were very little to read to them. Over the last few years we’ve made it through the first four Harry Potter books – stopping only because the story seemed to be getting a bit more dark. Lately, I’ve been reading The Hobbit to my eight year old son (the girls were not too interested) as a way to prepare for the upcoming movie, but also to prepare for a future reading of The Lord of the Rings.  We’re about 100 pages in – Bilbo has escaped Goblin mountain by tricking Gollum, and is now stuck up in a tree with the other dwarves as the wolves gather around them.  My son loves the story – he looks forward to it every night and gets irritated when I quit.  When I told him that there are three more books after this one his eyes lit up.  “Can we read those too?” he asked, to which I nodded.  Then he asked, “Did your dad read them to you when you were little?”  I responded with a laugh.  He didn’t… and it’s humorous to think about him doing so.  My dad did, however, introduce me to other forms of fantasy and myth.  My first movie was Return of the Jedi.  He and my uncle bought me loads and loads of comic books – Spider Man, The Avengers, Batman, and Ghost Rider, just to name a few.  He would even let me stay up late on a Saturday night to watch Dr. Who.  I think I was one of the few eight year olds who knew what the Tardus was.

I noticed something the other night when I sat down by my son’s bed and opened the draw.  There, next to The Hobbit, was his bible.  I paused – “Maybe I should be reading the bible with him,” I thought to myself.  I thought for a minute then grabbed The Hobbit, found our place, and started reading.  Do I want him to learn to read the bible? Yup.  But more and more I’m convinced that myths and fantasy like The Hobbit prepare our hearts to receive the gospel.  More than learn facts, figures, and morals I want my kids to strengthen their imaginations.  Only then will they be able to see beyond the shallow questions so often brought to the bible.  Only then will they be able to construct a gracious posture towards those who are different from them.  I’m convinced it’s through our imagination we develop the ability to question the way things are so we might cast visions that point to how things could be. So yes, I plan to read the bible with my kids.  But for now I’m content to let him follow Bilbo along his journey.  I truly believe that following Bilbo along the way for a little while will make it much easier to follow Jesus for the rest of his life. 

Jason Lief

Dr. Jason Lief teaches courses in Christian education and youth ministry. A Northwestern College graduate, he served as the chaplain for Pella (Iowa) Christian High School while earning a master’s degree in theology from Wheaton College Graduate School. He also completed a doctorate in practical theology from Luther Seminary. He previously taught theology and youth ministry at Dordt College for 10 years. Dr. Lief is the author of “Poetic Youth Ministry: Loving Young People by Learning to Let Them Go” and "Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within the Secular West: Transgressing the Sacred.”

19 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I think this gets at the Van Sloten – Lief – Hoezee debate. It's in the 6 days of the week, in all sorts of ways outside of preaching, that we respond to the (Article 2 of the Belgic Confession) s0-called Second Book of Revelation. On the Lord's Day, God speaks to us in covenantal, promissary terms, in Gospel terms, which is why we preach only and always on the Scripture text. That's what the worship service is about: it's a covenantal business meeting. But during the rest of the week, in many and various ways we get these (okay Van Sloten) "sermons" like The Hobbit. My wife and I often tell people that Tolkien was for us like a Bible, in our youths, in the way that it explored the world for us. We also read it to our children in their childhood, and it was powerful for them. But I never thought to preach on it. I rather honored it in the way that it wants to be honored. Not as sermon materials, but as a story to be read out loud in the places and ways in which stories are read out loud. I suggest Van Sloten's approach, to preach on The Hobbit, would certainly do it injustice. Whether it does injustice to Metallica I have no idea. The very name Metallica makes me think of Saruman. Not good.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    Good piece, Jason, and good comments, Daniel. I'd affirm most everything you wrote in your comment, Dan, and I'd do that just generally. Of course, in the case of Tolkien what you have is something written in a way calculated/designed to resonate broadly with the Gospel and with a broad catholic view of the kingdom. As I recall, Tolkien thought his friend C.S. Lewis was a bit ham-fisted in the more direct allegories he developed in the Narnia chronicles. Tolkien instead opted for a world with echoes and resonances that both prepare hearts for the Gospel–as you put it, Jason–and that reverberate with all the right spiritual notes, too. No way–a la my dialogue with John Van Sloten–does that make it rise to the level of an authorized preaching text akin to Scripture but that (vital) fact in no way diminishes the noble place such writings properly occupy in a believer's life (and in the lives of our children!).

  • svm says:

    So, are you saying it's like a parable?

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    I'm not sure to whom svm's question about a parable is addressed but I'll take a stab at it and let Jason chime in if he wishes, too. I would say that as a literary form, something like Tolkien–as well as other such tales in films or TV shows or other novels–can readily be distinguished from the genre of "parable." Parables were generally short and were designed by Jesus to undermine (often anyway) what everyone thought the kingdom of God was in order to reveal its true nature. I doubt Tolkien saw his work that way nor do most contemporary writers or artists. But I've noticed lately that whenever someone asks if something in culture is kind of like a parable, it becomes a short hop, skip, and a jump to their saying–as my interlocutor John Van Sloten wants to say–that this makes it a preachable text because, after all, Jesus told parables and isn't one parable as good as the next? A parable is a parable is a parable, n'est ce pas? Well, no. On that point we need to be clear: Jesus' parables are authoritative for us and became part of Scripture because they were spoken by the incarnate Son of God not just by virtue of the fact that they were parables. Probably there are Bruce Springsteen songs that tell modern parables in the sense of telling stories that are designed to teach a larger point. But parables don't become authoritative to us just on account of fitting into a genre Jesus also happened to use–they are authoritative when Jesus tells them. Because he is, to state the merely obvious, God's "one and only" sent to this world to do just that in a way no one else is.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I'm with Scott all the way. One further point (and I haven't read Van Sloten's book). If I'm preaching on The Magic Flute, or the Silmarillion, then what about the great great wealth of scripture that my congregation will not have exposed to them, or even read? I mean, we've only got 52 weeks plus holidays. The genre of preaching has evolved for the Bible; the Bible wants to be preached, if I may say. I don't think Macbeth or Metallica want to be preached. Van Sloten's approach doesn't seem to me to do justice to anything. However, not having read it, I will leave it only to a comment.

  • David Timmer says:

    Does John Van Sloten really say that it is the genre of a parable that gives it authority ("one parable is as good as another")? Just askin'; haven't read the book yet. It's not at all obvious to me from his Perspectives article that he would take this view. On the other hand, does Scott Hoezee really think that the only thing that gives biblical parables authority is the fact that "they were spoken by the incarnate Son of God"? That seems a rather essentialist view. Is there anything in between the genre and the speaker that might be relevant – like maybe the content? A story that reveals the unexpected nature of the Kingdom of God might be seen as a "parable" in theological terms (if perhaps not in form-critical terms), no matter its speaker. Although we would certainly want to give primary authority to the parables of Jesus in the matter of the Kingdom (as Van Sloten acknowledges), I don't see why we can't recognize Kingdom-resonant stories told by others as secondary parables.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    David: John Van Sloten likes to call many things "parables" today and wants to try to say that these contemporary parables are being told by the Holy Spirit in basically the same way as when Jesus told parables. Thus, the movie "Hugo"–on which JVS preached a whole sermon with Hugo as his exegeted preaching text–becomes eo ipso as valid a "text" on which to base a sermon as a Jesus parable in Mark 4. That is the point on which we diverge, of course, even though that in no way impugns or diminishes the valid insights one may glean from movies, novels, etc.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    It seems to me a lot of this revolves around one's notion of the "institution" of the church, and what is the purpose of a worship service, and therefrom, the purpose of a sermon. Do I dare say that Van Sloten's road is essentially, if not "accidentally," or not yet "really," classically Liberal? It ain't Catholic. I think Nevin would be waving his hands like a lifeguard.

  • Grace says:

    I don't think the effect of Van Sloten's work is bringing things like Hugo and Metallica to Church but in bringing God back home again.

  • “I truly believe that following Bilbo along the way for a little while will make it much easier to follow Jesus for the rest of his life.” I totally agree with Jason here. How amazing that, the incarnate Son of God now resurrected; that Jesus would be the one through whom an imagination like Tolkien’s was conceived and made, and that his ‘promised to be moving authoritatively in the world right now’ Spirit would kindle that imagination, co-creating something as magnificent at The Hobbit. I’m hoping it preaches well in November (in both theatres and at our church).

    A few quick comments in response to the comments.

    To Scott’s continued attempt to create a straw man inferring I am saying the Spirit’s truth in creation is on par with the bible (‘akin to scripture’… ‘one parable as good as the next’…’basically the same way as when Jesus told parables’), I again affirm that the bible is my first and final in terms of it’s authority. Surely our reformed worldview has room for Jesus authoring authoritative revelation in more than one place.

    To Dan’s concern of only having 52 weeks, I share this concern (and note it in my book – which you should read some time 😉 ). While less scripture gets covered, less deeply, in one sense at NHC, what does get covered is always connected to a creational ‘text’. That connection, in my experience, results in a world full of creational reminders of biblical truth, resulting in the six days being filled with scripture. Plus there is the whole revelatory upside of the idea co-illumination (chapter three)!

    David Timmer – secondary parables, I like that language. Secondary in terms of perspicuity, gospel clarity, captured in ‘words’ directly from the mouth of Jesus, etc… Finding Nemo is not on par with the Prodigal Son. If you ever do read the book, I’m not sure it will give you a full picture of how this all has been working for us. For both me and for the people in our community, it’s taken years to begin to understand and live into this big a view of Jesus Christ. The journey has stretched our imaginations much like how Leif hopes the Hobbit will stretch his children’s.

    Dan Meeter – Classically liberal? If liberals hold as high a Christology as we’re now grasping, then I guess I am one. In my understanding liberals lean the other way.

    Grace – our world belongs to God.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    Straw man? John, you DO put your so-called "creational texts" on a par with Scripture. Oh, you wouldn't let a creational "text" trump or contradict Scripture, I realize that much. But you do treat both as equally authoritative in most every other sense. That is the only possible reason you dare treat culture as the text on which you preach and that you–by your own terminology in the pulpit–"exegete" for your congregation in place of exegeting a biblical text. But you know what, the real problem here is you seem to think the preacher's job is to preach "truth" as some general category. Thus, if you find "truth" in how a landlord does his job or "truth" in the hydrology of a river, that's what you preach. But preachers are not called to preach truth as a general category. We're called to proclaim the Gospel as it comes through the written testimony of God's Word and its witness to the Word made flesh that just is Christ Jesus the Lord. We preach "Christ clothed with the Gospel," not truths in some broad sense wherever we find them. In this post you, to my mind, say it all when you admit that at your church you preach "less Scripture less deeply." Yet you are ordained as a Minister of the Word. It's like a doctor saying that in his practice he's going to pay less attention to medicine and delve into it less deeply in favor of ideas he finds in other realms. "M.D." stands for "Medical Doctor." I don't see how downplaying medicine fits that description.

  • "I am… the truth," Jesus.

    Scott, I preach 'Christ resurrected'. And the way I see it, Jesus, by his Spirit, enthroned, is now Lord of all creation, and is surely moving through all things in all of these mysterious, holy ,sovereign and providential ways. Like I said at lunch the other week, I think we all agree on the same huge Reformed pneumatology; our debate is over whether or not we can 'see' those Holy Spirit movements as believers. If we can see them, then I think we should preach them. Perhaps we'll just have to agree to disagree on this huge point. 😉

  • John R says:

    John

    It seems a bit of a stretch to think that Jesus means to say that he is some sort of propositional truth. "I am the way, the truth, and the life," seems rather to focus upon Jesus as the person who reveals God the Father.

    I was also wondering what you mean by "Christ resurrected." This isn't intended to stand in contrast to the historical Jesus or some such thing, is it?

    Another question that arises for me from this discussion is about the degree (quality) of revelation one finds in the "book of creation." It seems that in some cultural artifacts such as the Book of Mormon, the intensity of revelation is dim…maybe very dim. The revelation in pornographic web sites seems even dimmer, since they seem to be a result of taking the good gifts of creation and using them against the creator. Even events like lions ripping apart antelope seem fairly limited in revelatory capacity both in terms of extent and clarity. So why not concentrate on the Bible as the primary source of revelation about the person and work of Jesus in the task of preaching. Preaching, in my view is not so much about delivering truth about God as it is facilitating an encounter with God, though the later usually involves some of the former. JR

  • JR,

    I wasn't trying to say that Jesus is a propositional truth. I was trying to say that the line between a propositional truth/reality/created thing, and the Source of all wisdom, truth, reality and created things is sometimes very thin; like a Celt's iconic 'thin place'.

    I wrote, "Christ resurrected" in reference to Jesus' ongoing life in relation to our lives. We follow a living Lord. Sometimes I find Christians are so focussed on Christ crucified (and the attendant doctrine of substitutionary atonement), they lose sight of the rest of the story. We're saved into a life where we can know God through Christ in abundance (and via all things that have been made through and for him, in my view).

    I deal with the question of the dimness/darkness of some creational texts in my book. One of the arguments I made for going there was based on the incarnation – Jesus chose to go messed up people and places in order to redeem them. How else can the be renewed if we're not in conversation with them?

    I agree that with some cultural artifacts, the revelation is pretty dim. Often I'll choose not to go there in response (believe it or not 😉 ). But its important to note that not all creational sermons are based on beauty, truth, God's goodness in the thing. Sometimes the 'text' is a parable of judgment, or an icon showing what a world without God looks like. When I preached the tragic life of Amy Winehouse (before she died) I preached about a 'freedom' that really doesn't lead to freedom (in relation to Paul's teaching on the topic – “You know well enough from your own experience that there are some acts of so-called freedom that destroy freedom.” Romans 6:16, MSG).

    Your question on why go there at all when God's revelation is closer and clearer in scripture is a good one. I do it for a couple of reasons; first for the co-illumination (ch 3 in my book) – creation deepens my understanding of the bible and vice versa and therefore my knowledge of God (I can not imagine a bigger or better or more God glorifying view of the person of Jesus Christ), second for missiological reasons – sadly, for many in our world today, creation is a more reliable text than the bible. God's truth in a mountain, film, epigenetics, etc is closer for too many.

    And back to the "Christ resurrected" comment, this is what Sidney Greidanus said to me several years back after hearing me talk about early iterations of all this stuff at a Calvin College sesquicentenial workshop; "I think I see what you are doing. I've spent my entire life connecting the Jesus of the New Testament to the Jesus of the Old Testament. You are connecting the Jesus of the New Testament to the resurrected Jesus today."

  • John R. says:

    John,

    True, Jesus goes to messed up people, but not to redeem the context in which he finds them so much as to save them as persons. He goes to a party of tax collectors not to redeem the Roman tax system, but to bring them into the kingdom of God. He visits a "loose" Samaritan woman, not to redeem Samaritan water distribution systems in Samaria. Jesus comes to redeem people who will them turn and take the gifts of creation and put them to proper use?

    And then there is the question about to whom one is preaching in church. I always thought it was to those who had entered the kingdom, but in a way that helped those who had not to overhear the gospel in case they were in attendance. This was the understanding of the early church. In conversation at Starbucks using creation texts as pointers to more decisive revelation makes sense, but in church why not use the scriptures.

    I'm also curious about your criteria for "not going" to certain parts of the "book of creation." Are the rules for this, biblical, practical or what? Does the intensity or dimness of the text come into play? Again why not just go to the high lode ore of scripture rather than low lode alternatives.

    I also continue to wonder about the idea of co-illumination. Isn't taking about the Book of Mormon co-illuminating the Bible like talking about a candle co-illuminating the sun? Maybe a different term would be useful. Despite your insistence otherwise the "co" language tends to prompt us to see them as equals of some sort.

    I like your impulse to bring creation and its cultural artifacts into the sermon, but why not be content to say that Amy Winehouse is an illustration of the sort of freedom put to misuse, rather than saying she is a source of revelation. Isn't that language confusing.

  • Before I jump in again John, have you read my book on this (ch 3 on co-illumination)? I feel that some of what you're asking is dealt with more extensively there.

    To your comments, isn't Jesus all about redeeming all things? Sure, humanity is creation's pinnacle, but isn't Jesus big enough to renew both?

    Re: the church audience, I hear what you're saying. Our church plant here in Calgary is always a mix of believer, non-believer and lots in between. So does our congregational demographic make it 'more natural' to preach this way than it would be for a more traditional Christian congregation? Perhaps so. But I want to re-affirm that the primary reason we do this is for the way the creational text seems to shine light on the biblical text, adding nuance, color, deepening understanding, bringing it into the present, connecting it to something today so that every time that 'something today' is encountered, there's a reminder. It just happened again for me this morning (the last part of this blog post.)

    "[TITLE] So then a Geophysicist, Hydrologist, Oceanographer and Agronomist walk into a Bible verse…

    Last night I tossed and turned trying to sort out the details of my next book on the topic of work. It's tough writing in situ – ie: for a week a month, for the next year – while still doing my day job. Sometimes the complexities and frustrations of making space cloud my sense of being called to write this thing; Is this really going to work? This morning this bible verse spurred me on;

    "In his hand are the depths of the earth and the mountain peaks belong to him. The sea is his for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land." Psalm 95:4

    When I read "depths of the earth," a recently preached geophysics sermon came to mind, and I recalled how a geophysicist's analogs are much like a theologian's anthropomorphisms, and how both are gifts enabling us to see unseen things. "The mountain peaks belong to him," brought to mind my sermon on river hydrology, where a university researcher shared his recent discovery regarding mountain tops – that above the tree line they hold water like a bucket, graciously regulating outflow rates in an increasingly warming world. "The sea is his, for he made it," reminded me that I have to get to that sermon on humpback whales soon, and made me wonder what the nature of ocean currents could teach me about God's providential care of the earth. "His hands formed the dry land," made me feel a bit guilty. For the past two years I've been dreaming (with a local farmer) about series of messages on God's truth in agriculture. Didn't Jesus say something about seeds somewhere?

    This has to be the way you mean for it to be God; the bible pointing to creation, and creation illumining scripture in return. What a beautiful way to reveal yourself. I need to get on with this book."

    re: "not going to certain texts" I'm not sure I have a satisfying answer for this John. Wisdom? The Spirit's leading? Communal discernment (we do much of this in groups at NHC)? All of these are subjective, and leave one at risk to preach hobby horses (like how some of us like to preach certain biblical texts again and again). Again, why go to dim glimmers when we have the bible? For us its the something more that 'co-illumination' speaks of. The whole concept of co-illumination inferring two equals is a new one for me John… its never come up until this month. Perhaps a new term that is less open to this inference would be more helpful.

    Why am I not content to just let Amy Winehouse be an illustration? Lately I've been thinking I need to think this difference through a bit more. Here are a few 'thinking out loud' thoughts;

    1. A creational 'text' differs from an illustration in terms of its authority. When I exegete a film's truth thinking that it's in some mysterious way Spirit authored, I spend more time on it, listen to it more humbly, submit to it differently than I would an illustration. The creational text also gets more play in the actual sermon as a result. In our church the creational text is often the starting point (even though the bible always the starting point as the text that has enabled me to see God's truth in creation in the first place).

    2. When I treat the creational artifact as a text I am less inclined to 'use' (misuse) it; or to make it fit too conveniently into what I want it to say. By letting it stand on its own, it's integrity is maintained and the connection to the biblical text seems more authentic. The thing itself is more authentic, more real.

    3. Reading creation as a revelatory text also ups the expectation of a hearing the Spirit's voice, personally knowing Jesus in the preaching moment. I don't think we'd expect this as much with just an illustration. Reading creation as a text is more akin to reading a parable when understood this way.

  • John R. says:

    Jesus is indeed "big enough to renew both human creatures and the rest of creation," but perhaps redeeming involves more than renewal. It involves a change of heart in the human creature. Renewal of creation on the other hand mostly seems to involve undoing the damage that those human creatures did.

    To your last three points.
    1) If the difference between an illustration and a "creational text" is the quality of regard that you accord the illustration as opposed to the "creational text," perhaps all we need is for the preacher to be more humble, respectful, etc. with regard to illustrations. It might be as simple as that.
    2) As for the more independent status of a "creatiional text," somebody has to draw the connection between the Bible and the illustration or the creational text, and as long as one does it with integrity, without doing violence to either, what's the difference?
    3) I think of illustrations as examples of human rebellion against God and its consequences, on one hand, or examples of what God is doing in our world to grace and save us (but this later detection would be impossible to do without the foundational biblical text to guide our identifying these instances.) Hence the need for the biblical text as the foundation of the sermon. While "he shines in all that's fair," not everything in creation is fair and we would only be able to identify his brightness with biblical guidance.

    And incidentally in case someone should think I have forgotten the original posting, I just want to say that I love the Hobbit and hate Daniel Meeter.

  • Thanks for the dialogue… I enjoy the sharpening.

    To your last three points on my last three points,

    I like what you say in points one and two re: increasing the integrity with which we engage God's truth as revealed in illustrations. (For the record I believe that even if the preacher uses creational material 'simply' as an illustration, it still has some degree of revelatory weight – if all truth is God's truth, then even if the creational thing is not being elevated to or read as a 'text' (to the degree I'm leaning into the idea) is still bears some revelatory weight.

    Would you agree with this last point? That illustrational truth is authored by the Holy Spirit, and that when used in the sermon illustrations carry some level of revelatory authority (not on par with the bible, but at some level)?

    I think this is what's at issue in our discussion. Not that this is a 'percentage of authority' or measurable kind of thing, but clearly I'm willing to lean into God's truth in a created thing and give it more authority than others are presently comfortable with.

    How authoritative is God's truth in an illustration in your view? Is what God is authoring in creation merely a candle next to the sun (of his word in the Bible)? Is what Jesus is speaking today via the Holy Spirit a low lode alternative to the high lode ore of what he spoke through his Spirit in the bible?

  • Great, now I'm going to start answering myself… 🙂

    I think part of the answer has to do with 'what the Spirit has SAID about what the Spirit has said' in a given revelatory text. We all believe that God's Spirit was at work in a revelatory way via the history, poetry, wisdom, parables, letters, etc that make up the content of the bible. We also believe that the Spirit inspired and led the process of writing down these things. And we believe that the Spirit gave its imprimatur to the revelatory reliability of these written down texts via the affirmation of the canon in early church history.

    When I preach God's truth in a present day created thing, none of these imprimaturs are in place. Certainly not to the extent that they are with the Holy Writ. But God still moves via history, poetry, wisdom and letters. And Jesus did say we'd do greater things than these. And we Reformed folk are certainly not Holy Spirit cessassionists.

    At New Hope CRC, part of the affirming process has come via our local community; the fact that many are growing in their walk with the Lord. To be honest, the fact that the CRC (via Faith Alive) published my book has also been an Holy Spirit affirmation in my mind. On a Classis level, we've been at this for 15 years, and have received a (mostly) strong level of support. One of my classical examination sermons was based in part on God's truth in the parable of Johnny Cash.

    I know these imprimaturs are local, early, and a very small sampling. But our sense is that the Spirit is indeed at work in this. Ergo my reason for presenting these idea to you guys.

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