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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Is "The Lord of the Rings" Christian Fiction?

by Mike Duran

When it comes to defining Christian fiction, Tolkien's epic fantasy is a reminder of the genre's inherent stickiness. While many Christian readers embrace The Lord of the Rings novels for their literary depth, depiction of good and evil, redemptive themes, as well as the author's religious worldview, those same readers are not so quick to label the tale "Christian." Why is this?

However one chooses to define Christian fiction, the following three elements are usually contained therein:

  • Author -- Christian fiction is written by Christians
  • Audience -- for Christians
  • Message -- and contains at least a marginally accessible Christian message
These three earmarks -- author, audience, message -- serve as a barometer for much of what we call contemporary Christian art.

But by those standards, Tolkien is only 1 of 3. He was definitely a Christian author. (In fact, his greatest accomplishment may, in the end, not be his fantasy trilogy, but his role in C.S. Lewis' conversion.) Yet in regards to audience and message -- two pivotal planks in the prevailing argument -- he strikes out.

David Dark, in his book Everyday Apocalypse, expounds upon Tolkien's "moral aversion" to message-driven fiction:
In his efforts to overcome the popular misreading of his work on Middle-Earth as a project in allegory, J.R.R. Tolkien expressed a distaste for the domineering quality of the allegorical while offering a helpful distinction: "I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse 'applicability' with 'allegory'; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader; and the other in the purposed domination of the author."

"Purposed domination" is a wonderfully illuminating phrase in Tolkien's explanation not only in regard to what he assures us he isn't doing in The Lord of the Rings but also concerning a mode of creative expression to which he feels an almost moral aversion. Purposed domination, we might say, is the method of propaganda. It leaves the audience with no room for "applicability," and the propagandist wouldn't have it any other way. The tightly controlled "message," after all, was the point in the first place, not the dignity of the reader or the story (if we can even call it a story).
The very thing Tolkien eschewed, this "tightly controlled message," is often a defining factor in Christian storytelling. Like it or not, much Christian fiction relies on the "domination of the author" rather than "the freedom of the reader." As I suggested recently, if it needs interpreting, it ain't "Christian". Multiple opinions as to what your novel "means" (especially opinions that lack Gospel distillation) could be evidence that your "message" wasn't "tightly controlled" enough.

Dr. Ralph Wood, Professor of English at Baylor University and a Tolkien expert, in his wonderful essay, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings: A Christian Classic Revisited, states that Tolkien, "...called The Lord of the Rings 'a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.' Its essential conflict, he insisted, concerns God's 'sole right to divine honour' (Letters, 172, 243)." But despite the author's stated intent, Wood affirms that "Tolkien's work is not self-evidently Christian."

And herein lies the rub.

Even though J.R.R. Tolkien was a Christian, an expert at his craft, and his work was "fundamentally religious," it is the subtle, nuanced, non-explicit presentation of those themes that keeps him outside the camp of "Christian fiction." In other words, the very thing Tolkien decried -- i.e., "the purposed domination of the author" and unwillingness to allow "the freedom of the reader" -- are the very things that cause many believers to paint his masterpiece as un-Christian (or at least, spiritually neutral).

It makes me wonder whether we have collapsed the boundaries of Christian art too far. Unless there is "explicit Christian themes" and overtly Christian characters, or a "tightly controlled message," the artist, no matter how Christian she is or how "fundamentally religious" her work, falls outside the pale of Christian art. How many great Christian writers, musicians and artists are not embraced by the Christian subculture simply because their work does not adhere to a predetermined template? Well, if it's any consolation, neither did Tolkien's.

So is The Lord of the Rings Christian fiction? Your answer will ultimately determine what you think Christian fiction is or should be.


  1. My short answer is yes. Take the Christian out into real life and ask the same question - Who is the Christian? Is it some caricature of a typical conservative Bible thumping person who believes something without really knowing if it is his/her belief or their parent's or church's? Is it the school teacher who pours their life into their students? Is it the man who is a "sanitation worker" by day but helps out in a Boys' club by night? The homeless man who has been touched by the love found at a soup kitchen?

    The problem with Christian fiction is we have too narrow a focus that doesn't include much of the realities of life. There is one kind of Christian and that's it? That makes our God awful small, no?

    Is the story of Ruth Christian enough for what it does not contain? Jesus used fiction a lot when He talked to the crowds. His stories were connected to God, but not overt (the parable of the sower). His message was for everyone, not just "Christians". And was the author a Christian? Well, not really, because He was THE Christ... We shouldn't hide our light under a bushel. It needs to shine for the whole world to see - isn't that true Christian fiction?

    Word verification - doven: A special cooking appliance built for the Temple to deal with small white birds

  2. Mike,

    Great post. Thank you for your delicate dissection of a literary classic and its Christian author's intent. I love that Tolkien rejected the "purposed domination of the author" and gave his readers freedom to read, enjoy the story, and take away what they will.

    I tend to write what I read, which is fiction with no purposed message. It shows when the author gives the reader respect and freedom, by proposing no agenda or "tightly controlled" message. This is the essence of great fiction, I believe.

    Readers need to be given freedom to think and interpret and trust. Currently, I live in the Czech Republic, where the aftereffects of decades of propaganda are glaring. Contrasting, there is nothing more beautiful than a work with room to interpret, with freedom.

    I am not as concerned with what is and is not "Christian" fiction... but that which is great fiction--writing that inspires and elevates and speaks and frees. This is my primary goal. No agenda, hidden or overt. But something beautiful and pure and true.

    Thank you for opening the discussion,

    Jennifer King

  3. Steve,

    You're right: Being a Christian is much bigger than just espousing a set of beliefs. Sadly, much of what we define as being a Christian is really a caricature -- Christians read their Bibles, pray, go to church, don't cuss, drink, or smoke, etc. But as you point out, there are other, often less tangible or overtly "religious" elements, that are intrinsic to living as a Christian. Yet for some reason, these do not always make our list.

    In a similar way, I think Christian fiction has potentially boxed itself in and defined itself in terms of caricatures. By narrowing our criteria for what makes a work of art "Christian," we are now beholden to a spiritual subset of what should be a much bigger equation.

    Thanks for your comments!

  4. I love your post, Mike. I agree with your commments, and those of poster Steve. Most of the time, I stay away from "Christian" fiction (even though it is my belief system) because it's so rigid and reeks of caricature.

    Most Christian fiction I've read has tied things up in a nice, neat little bow by the last page of the story and I yearn for more authenticity than that. Life doesn't get all tidied up most of the time, like an episode of The Brady Bunch, why write an unrealistic or inauthentic story for the sake of perpetuating a myth. Every individual's story in the Bible certainly wasn't all sunshine and roses.

    And, I love the Tolkien quotes! Thanks for a great post.


  5. I don't know if Lord of the Rings is Christian fiction, having never read it nor seen the movies, but I question whether Christian fiction has to target a Christian audience.

    Seems to me that some Christian fiction is seeker-friend, attractional, or whatever the current buzzword is. It's written for people who aren't Christian in hopes of pointing them towards Christ. If you don't categorize this as Christian fiction, what would you call these books? Simply message books?

  6. Patricia, I think it's important for our stories to be "seeker-friendly" and sometimes target a non-Christian audience. But this means the boundaries of what we call Christian fiction would need to be redefined and broadened. Therein lies the problem. Yet if we write only for Christians, not only are we failing to produce a second generation of readers, we are potentially just talking to ourselves. Thanks for your comments!

  7. Mike,

    Thanks for starting this interesting discussion.

    My question for you regarding your comment "if it needs interpretation, it ain't Christian, if it requires interpretation" is, how do you juxtapose this with Jesus' parables? It seems to me that Jesus trusted that those seeking truth would find it, so why should we shouldn't we give our readership the same dignity?

    Once upon a time Christian fiction was intended for the reading public as a whole, and it had dramatic impact on culture as a result. Dickens was so impassioned about changing society (Christians and non-Christians alike), his characters still haunt us today.

    So great was Harriet Beacher Stowe's impact, that President Lincoln credited her with starting the civil war. Perhaps we need to cast off the elements that define contemporary Christian fiction, and write passionately about the themes God has written on our hearts like the great Christian writers of centuries past.

  8. Great comment, mcimma! My statement, "If it needs interpreting, it ain't Christian," is meant to illustrate what, I think, is the dilemma created by some advocates of the contemporary Christian fiction industry. For many, Christian fiction must contain explicit Christian elements in order to actually be considered "Christian." Stories which are more subtle, nuanced, or less explicit, then become problematic. In other words, because some expect the "message" to be explicit, the more interpretation that is needed for a piece, the less "Christian" it actually is. thanks for your comments!

  9. Interesting stuff, Mike. I particularly find it weird that Tolkein saw allegory as unsavory domination by the author, when literature is replete with so many fabulous allegorical novels (Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, The Catcher in the Rye, Pilgrim's Progress, etc., etc.) and of course he would have known that.

    Although I hate to speak ill of the dead, if Tolkein really said the RING trilogy isn't allegorical, I think he was being less than honest. Or perhaps his subconscious simply tricked him. The parallels between the storyline and the quintessential struggles of a Christian life are just too blatant for coincidence. Everybody sees the same things in those novels, and if it quacks like a duck...

    By the way, an aspiring ACFW author recently told me a purely allegorical novel cannot possibly be "Christian" since by definition allegories are TOO subtle to come right out and boldly state the gospel. So the poor allegory gets attacked from both camps, apparently. :)

    To me the most valuable take-away from your piece is the importance of never making your story a slave to your theme. So true. I also try to remember it ought not be the other way around, either. Theme is as important as plot, character, setting, voice and all the other elements of fiction. Careful attention to, and balance in, all these things is what makes a novel great.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post.

  10. Yes I think it is all too easy to narrow one's world view. Just finished "The Alchemist", is Paulo Coelho a Christian? I can answer for myself but no one else.

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  12. I completely disagree. I think your initial assumption about what defines Christian Fiction is arbitrarily small-minded.

    Here's an excellent quote by C. S. Lewis, "We must attack the enemy's line of communication. What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects--with their Christianity latent."

    I think Lewis is right on the money with this and Tolkien put it into practice. There is an underlying assumption that Christianity is a proselytizing religion i.e. one for the masses, not merely for other Christians. That's one way we grow. I think to define Christian Fiction so narrowly as only that written for other Christians actually works against our faith.

    So, to recap, I disagree with your 2nd and 3rd postulates on these grounds. That leaves only the 1st and therefore TLOR is Christian fiction. To be sure this is a complicated issue and neither this post nor my comment can plumb the depths. Yet what I've shared must be taken as part of the discussion. I look forward to more on this topic.

  13. Right on Daniel, very good comments and a great view of Christian writers.

  14. Daniel, I think you're missing my point here. I believe the current industry "tends to define Christian Fiction... narrowly". Which is why I posed the question the way I did. So many Christians have been inspired by Tolkien's classic. Nevertheless, in today's Christian market, LotR is simply not explicit enough. In other words, it is the label "Christian fiction" that creates the conundrum and shapes expectations.

  15. My apologies, Mike. I commented too soon. It did not occur to me that you were describing the current state of Christian Fiction and how the publishing industry views it. Viewed that way, I think you're exactly right. Thanks for explaining this.

  16. LotR is indeed a Christian work, but a Catholic Christian work.
    As most of Protestantism accepts the "once saved" idea, than for that writer it is all about the introduction, the message.
    As a Catholic believes life is about daily conversion, and as C.S. Lewis writes "all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature", than the quest is the thing.
    Tolkien shows proper Christian choices, friendship, living, purpose, and ultimately sacrifice.


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