Tolkien and the Gospel Story by Michael Peterson
We are drawn to stories—good stories. Tales and epics that are well told, the characters and plot so well developed, that we get drawn in, and even though we know the story is fiction, the story commands, as JRR Tolkien stated, secondary belief. We get the feelings as if the story WERE true. We get scared for that character, we care about that character, and we are excited for that character when he triumphs in the end. They engage our imagination in a way that factual stories cannot.
Even in our secular time today, we crave such stories in our movies and books. Bettelheim in his book “Uses of Enchantment,” and Tolkien in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” both wrote about the elements that make these stories so attractive to us. These stories depict a supernatural world; being able to cheat death, escape aging and time; that show us a love that is eternal; a love without parting, a love that overcomes death; where good triumphs over evil; where victory is snatched out of the jaws of defeat; where sacrificial heroism brings life out of certain death.
These myths, legends, and fairy tales speak to an underlying need, groaning, and longing that we have about ourselves, our time, and our world. They evoke secondary belief; a belief that good will triumph over evil, there is a supernatural world, that we are not stuck in time, there is love without parting, and there is a way of escaping death. And even though we know we will die; that evil triumphs over good, that there seems to be no escape—we have an underlying sense that it shouldn’t be that way. We are not meant to die, we are not meant to lose our loved ones, there ought to be a supernatural world, we are not stuck in time.
Fairy tales speak to us at a deeper level than facts and figures, materialism, and our physicality. They point to a reality that is truer than our factual reality and how we see our life lived in this world. They speak to the way the world should be.
Atheists argue that despite how beautiful these stories are, they are still lies. As much as they point to the way the world ought to be—they are still not true.
However, Tolkien argued that they were not lies. “Look at the gospel, look at the story of Jesus…everything that moves you about a story is there. Escape from death, a love that conquers death, good triumphing over evil, heroic self-sacrifice, and when everything looks the darkest, life out of death. Triumph out of defeat. Everything you want in a story.
The gospel story is not just one more wonderful story pointing to an underlying reality. Rather, Jesus IS the underlying reality to which all the other stories point.
The resurrection of Jesus was the underlying reality breaking into our world. That great wall dividing the way we think the world should be and the way it is was torn down by the birth, life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The resurrection is the great heroic ending. When Victory is won. When Evil is destroyed. When death is swallowed up in victory. Great stories are great because they point to the greatest reality, victory, and love of all time. The love of God, and his unmitigated care and desire for each and every one of us.
At our deepest level, these stories highlight a reality we know to be true. A reality that we subconsciously yearn for, and a story that emanates from Jesus–the greatest heroic epic of all time. A story that produces in us an incredible joy—a joy in the firm knowledge that God redeemed us, defeated death for us, will go to the greatest lengths to save us, and will never allow His love to depart from us. That in the end evil will be vanquished, and all tears and suffering wiped away.
With contributions from:
C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien on the power of fiction. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WoAE15gtEzg
J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories.” Essay.
B. Bettelheim (1976). The Uses of Enchantment: the meaning and importance of fairy tales. New York: Knopf Publishing.
Michael Peterson is a member of the Board of Directors of Plain Truth Ministries.