I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say this or not, but I’m beginning to think that JRR Tolkien might have had some kind of connection to Christianity. I’m also even less sure if I’m allowed to say *whispers* that I’m enjoying the Rings of Power Amazon series.
For some bizarre and problematic reasons, folks have been upset with this show since the cast reveal, but it’s a pretty good show, especially if you’re a fan of The Lord of the Rings or just high fantasy.
Some of the best works of fantastic storytelling are that the audience already knows how things will end up. We know that the Prince and Princess end up happily ever after. We know that Anakin will become Darth Vader until conquering the Dark Side for his children, even if it costs him an arm and a charred leg. We know those darn hobbits will climb the mountain and throw the ring in, defeating Sauron.
So why do we need this prequel story? Why is it worth our time when we know where things will end up? Well, believe it or not, this is a familiar issue to Christians - what do we do now that Jesus came, died, rose, and will come to us again? Let’s talk about it.
Welcome to Checkpoint Church - where nerds, geeks, and gamers come together to talk about faith, games, and a strong desire to be a part of the dwarf kingdom - adopt me, Durin. I’m your Nerd Pastor Nate. If you like these weekly deep dives, be sure to sub and hit that bell to find out when our next one drops.
John 21:15-19 (NRSVue)
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”
Let’s start with a primer - what is the Rings of Power?
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is a fantasy television series based on the novel The Lord of the Rings and its appendices by J. R. R. Tolkien
The series is set in the Second Age of Middle-earth, thousands of years before Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
It begins during a time of relative peace. It covers all the significant events of Middle-earth's Second Age: the forging of the Rings of Power, the rise of the Dark Lord Sauron, the fall of the island kingdom of Númenor, and the last alliance between Elves and Men.
These events take place over thousands of years in the original stories but are seemingly being condensed for the series.
But the question remains - why tell these stories? What’s the point of literally making a series out of appendix notes?
The obvious answer is that Tolkien is a hallmark of creativity, and there is enough of a cult following for the series to at least garner interest and at most go ‘viral.’
But on a more metaphysical level - why would Tolkien have gone to the effort of telling these stories? Why flesh out so much of the banal behind-the-scenes stuff?
Before I dive into it - I want to recommend the Tolkien work On Fairy Stories to everyone who can tolerate reading - because that’s most of what I’m getting into here.
For Tolkien, the fantasy story is something set apart and deserving of its subgenre in fiction. Some of his contemporaries might have been H.G. Wells, who was writing science fiction, or Mary Shelley, who was writing Gothic fiction. However, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis had stumbled into another form of story - the Fairy Story.
He notes a few hallmarks well in the aforementioned On Fairy Stories, but I want to touch on two here.
First - the fairy story is grounded in realism.
That is not to say that it is realistic or accurate to life. It is fantasy through and through, but it is connected to the truths we know and understand on earth. Trees are important. The ground is important. Earth is vital. The Fairy Story must be, at least, capable of truth. Unlike video games which often ask for a vast suspension of disbelief, the Fairy Story only asks for a little bit of your skepticism to be turned off.
Second - the Fairy Story is headed towards eucatastrophe.
This is a term that Tolkien coined that is a eu- ‘good’ catastrophe.
As an example, consider the ending of The Lord of the Rings - spoilers, I guess
Though victory seems assured for the big bad Sauron, the One Ring is permanently destroyed due to Gollum's waylaying of Frodo at Mount Doom.
Frodo fails his impossible quest at its very end, claiming the Ring for himself – however, at this moment, Gollum suddenly appears, steals the ring, and in his ecstatic gloating, falls into the fire.
If not for Frodo's last mercy in sparing Gollum's life (a significant risk due to Gollum's blatant treachery, met with bitter protest by Sam), and if not for the Ring's corruptive influence on Gollum, Sauron would surely have reclaimed it.
Thus, Evil is inadvertently and unforeseeably defeated through a small act of kindness and corruptive machinations.
So, the end of the story isn’t where we’ve been heading all along. For the Fairy Story, knowing the ending isn’t enough. The trials and challenges lie between the start of the story and where things end up.
With this in mind, let’s take a quick journey into our scripture for today.
This passage of scripture captures a conversation between a resurrected Jesus and Simon Peter, who will go on to form the foundation of the first church.
Jesus asks Peter when they are off alone - Peter, do you love me?
Peter is like, yeah, Jesus, you know this. Of course, I love you.
Jesus then says feed my lambs.
Then he asks a second time, do you love me?
Peter responds accordingly, and Jesus says, tend my sheep.
Then Jesus asks a third time, and Peter is grieved at this and says Lord, you know this, come on - I love you!
Then Jesus responds, feed my sheep.
Then Jesus recounts the life of a well-lived person - going from being a child to dressing one’s self to being dressed by another.
Then Jesus simply says, follow me.
What is going on here?
The precedent for the Disciples up until this point has been an understanding that Jesus is bringing the kingdom of God with him. There is a sort of expectation that they will be seated at the right hand of Jesus, like, tomorrow.
But Jesus reveals a new kind of an old truth - we call it eschatology. Jesus brought a conquering of sin with his death, but that doesn't mean everything is honky dory.
The kingdom of God that Jesus brought is all at once here and still arriving as we, the modern disciples, continue to share the gospel. In this way, it is a now and a not-yet situation. The kingdom is now. But also to come.
It's not a perfect parallel, but this is strikingly familiar to the eucatastrophe of Tolkien - The end is known. We know how things end up, but a lot can happen between now and then - good and evil.
On the one hand, friendships can be made, potatoes can be had, and second breakfasts can be shared.
On the other hand, our loved ones can die, kingdoms can fall, wars can be waged, and friends can be betrayed.
The eschatological ending is ahead doesn't mean we should drop our guard in the Here and now.
This is what Peter is being told - there are still many days ahead for Peter. He will be so old that others will have to dress him, but if he loves Jesus, he has a job to do in the meantime.
A lot can go wrong between the now and the not yet, so Jesus tells Peter to care for and feed those who are to come. It's the obligation of those between spaces to care for the church to come, to share the gospel, to care for the sick and needy, the orphan, the widow, the enslaved the downtrodden.
So what does this mean for us today?
So I ask again - what's the point of a story like the Rings of Power? Why would Tolkien bother with all of the lore in those appendices?
Because the in-between times matter, the lives and loves lost, the good times had, the friendships broken and restored, these people matter, and their stories are worth being told.
You - you are an integral part of the appendix of the greatest story ever told. In the story of a savior who took on flesh, was betrayed and crucified, and rose again, you are in the storybook—your account matters to the overall story being told.
Tolkien and the scriptwriters for Rings of Power could have skipped the story of Galadriel, Durin, or The Stranger, but they didn't.
And God didn't pass you over, either.
God loves you, personally.
We love you, personally.
We believe that you, specifically you, matter.
So whether you're a harfoot, hobbit, or a hankering for grapes, know that you're always welcome here at Checkpoint Church. But you don't have to eat them like THAT.