Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Rereading Tolkein - the Long Defeat

I have been rereading Tolkien's Lord of the Rings again, and I was just struck again how much theological imagery and such is in the book, how I don't think you can understand the book unless you come from a Christian, and in reality, a sacramental Christian background.

A thought for now - the elves in Lothlorien speak of how they are fighting "the long defeat". Of course it is the long defeat - they are still in Middle Earth, they have not gone over the sea into the West, and while there are joys and wonders, there is also wickedness and strife and encroaching evil. And while they desperately love their forest and land, they know that they are losing, that it will fade.

They called this "the long defeat". And Tolkien thought this described human existence in a fallen world quite well - "Actually, I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect 'history' to be anything but a 'long defeat' - though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory." (Letters of Tolkien, 195)

There are many times when being a Christian, when dealing with a church, when being a pastor makes clear that this life is indeed the long defeat - where things get diminished and fall and fail, where nothing is what it was. And we may have brief flares of new piety, new devotion. . . but they flicker and fail, and we compare ourselves to our fathers in the faith, and we see how flat and weak we are, even for all our own triumphs.

Here is the thing. This is the way it is, this is the way it has to be in a fallen world. In Ezra 3:12 when the temple is being rebuilt, the foundations relain, we hear "But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid." It was just going to be. . . less than it was. Or imagine Noah's approach to the world after the flood - of seeing all the change, of having there be rain and rain over and over again, of eating meat. . . things not the way they were.

That is Advent - where we see and remember that this life, for all its glitz and glamour, really is just the long defeat - and hence we look towards our Lord's coming. He came once, and He shall come again.

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