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On Honoring the Quest
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Friday, July 04, 2014
Alf Cengia

I'm painfully aware that I sometimes write about subjects which are above my pay grade. This week's topic is likely one of those efforts. But this Quest theme appears to have been haunting me and demanding my attention over the past few weeks. So, here I go again.

It began when I read Paul Henebury's review of Louis Markos' On The shoulders of Hobbits. The book inspired me to reread Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (LOTR), after many years. Markos opened up new insights on virtue that I hadn't recognized before.

Dr. Henebury chose to highlight Markos' following observation, which struck a chord with me:

“Only those who possess fortitude can bear to have their desires mortified for a higher cause; only the truly courageous can endure the loss (permanent or temporary) of those things that they consider their right and their due.”

What Markos means by that higher cause is ultimately the Christian's Quest for God's Kingdom. It's not that the Christian's Quest is to bring about this Kingdom - not at all. That Kingdom cannot come until God inaugurates it. The Quest is to boldly take up the journey along the Road to serve God and endure to the end.

The LOTR is not overtly Christian and Tolkien's motivation for writing the book wasn't to evangelize the world, yet powerful Christian themes inexorably wove themselves into his books.

People like Ralph C. Wood and Fleming Rutledge have also done some astounding work in this area. In The Gospel According to Tolkien, Wood observes the correlation between some of the main protagonists and the Christian theme of servitude. He cites Christ's willingness to humble Himself (Philippians 2:5-8) and draws attention to Mark 8:36-37:

"The close kinship of the Gospel and the central call of the Quest is not far to find. Jesus commands his disciples not to save their lives for their own sake but to lose them for his sake and the Kingdom." (p163)

He notes that Samwise Gamgee (Sam) knew from the outset that he wouldn't be accompanying Frodo just to see "elves and mountains and dragons." In fact "he was undertaking an errand that would require nothing less than everything."

Sam's attitude is what Wood recognizes as "the meaning of servanthood in the Kingdom." He tells Frodo that:

"I know we are going to take a very long road, into darkness; but I know I can't turn back...I don't rightly know what I want: but I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the Shire. I must see it through, sir, if you understand me."

Most of the protagonists understood that there were no guarantees. They might indeed fail or die during the Quest.

Gandalf fell at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm in Moria while trying to defend his friends. Even Boromir who faltered momentarily, in the end gave his life up for the sake of the Quest. Likewise Sam understood that he would most likely be required to "help Frodo to the last step and then die with him"; even though he dearly wanted to see the Shire and his friends again.

Fleming Rutledge puts the Quest theme into its proper Christian perspective when she observes that:

'There is no real freedom outside the will of God; the paradox is that "slavery" to the will of God is the only true freedom." ~ The battle for Middle-earth (p 180)

Another vital point that many Christian observers of Tolkien's work note is that Frodo actually fails to destroy the Ring. In the end it is not within him (or anyone else) to resist the Evil Power that created it, even though they all play a part. And while it was important for the Company of the Ring to individually honor their role in the Quest, no victories are achieved alone or of their own power.

Behind the scenes and missed by many readers is Illuvatar (God). It is ultimately Illuvatar's provident intervention that saves the day in using Gollum to salvage the Quest at the last moment. Ironically, Bilbo (The Hobbit), Frodo and even Sam unwittingly play their parts in that final victory by showing mercy to Gollum in sparing his life.

Interestingly, I was recently drawn to watch the old John Wayne western, El Dorado. While not a Christian movie it has a distinct quest theme. Each of the main characters has some disability or drawback. Yet they rise to the call of El Dorado - a town in dire need of saving from a greedy rancher and his gunslingers.

As two stanzas of the El Dorado theme song go:

In sunshine and shadow, from darkness till noon
Over mountains that reach from the sky to the moon
A man with a dream that will never let go
Keeps searching to find El Dorado....

My Daddy once told me what a man ought to be
There's much more to life than the things we can see
And the godliest mortal you ever will know
Is the one with the dream of El Dorado

The lyrics were based on Edgar Allen Poe's Eldorado. Poe's version included the phrase: "Down the Valley of the Shadow." It reminded me of Psalm 23 even though Poe likely didn't intend it that way.

I often get lost in concerns and frequently experience burnout when focusing on the daily headlines. But even if languishing in the valley of the shadow I know I must bring my focus back on Christ and the Kingdom of God. These are the Christian's True Dream of Eldorado.

Frodo and Sam could not have endured the journey through Mordor alone. Even a giant of the faith like the Apostle Paul needed Christian fellowship and support along his perilous travels. Like Paul we need fellowship among ourselves and daily communion with Christ to strengthen us for as long as we're here.

As in Middle-earth, this world's Sauron is reigning on his throne and the floodgates of Mordor have opened up.

Yet we should be comforted in the fact that God's strength is made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9; Isaiah 40:29). And we know how it will all end (Revelation 21:4-5).

Bilbo Baggins:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began
Now far ahead the Road has gone
And I must follow, if I can.


About Alf Cengia

Last week: The Peace Activist Oxymoron

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