The theology of the ‘ring’

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Dec. 14, 2002
John Blake – Staff

Two towers under assault. Armies mass. Merciless attacks flatten cities and destroy lives.

This may sound like a description of the post- 9/11 world but it’s actually scenes from the upcoming film “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.”

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The film, which opens nationwide on Wednesday, is one of the most anticipated releases of the year. It follows a small band of men, elves, dwarfs and hobbits who go on a perilous journey to destroy a ring that radiates evil.

Though set in a fantasy world, the film is based on books by J.R.R. Tolkien, a writer and scholar who was a Christian. Tolkien’s tales, although not overtly Christian, are filled with moral lessons for our time, pastors and scholars say.

Some of them include:

> Don’t become a monster to defeat a monster.

How does one fight terror without using its methods? The United States is debating that question. But the fellowship of the ring wrestles with it while trying to defeat evil characters like the murderous Urak-Hai.

James Fowler, director of Emory University’s Center for Ethics, says Tolkien shows what the fellowship would become if they chose the tactics of their enemy. They would resemble the Urak-Hai, a race of ruthless, man-eating hulks whose lives are centered on destroying “the other.”

Fowler says the wizard Gandalf illustrates the correct way to resist evil. Though it would save him, he refuses to use the magical ring to resist the evil forces pursuing the fellowship. Gandalf is aware that its unlimited power would corrupt him, Fowler says.

“He struggles against evil without ever adopting evil’s stratagems,” Fowler says.

> Renunciation is superior to acquisition.

Tolkien’s world in “The Lord of the Rings” is full of characters who give up something precious. Frodo gives up his chance to possess the ring; Arwen, her immortality to love the man Aragorn. Samwise Gamgee risks his life to save Frodo.

American culture is preoccupied with getting more, but Tolkien suggests that acts of renunciation are more heroic than those of acquisition, says Rolland Hein, author of “Christian Mythmakers” (Cornerstone Press Chicago, $13.95).

“It’s one of the paradoxes of life that we receive as we give,” Hein says. “We come into our full humanity by denying the lower aspects of ourselves and personal ambitions in all sorts of things.”

> Heroism comes in surprising packages.

One of the twists in Tolkien’s tale is that the hero is physically the frailest. He’s Frodo, the little hobbit, who shows that courage isn’t a matter of being big and free from fear, says the Rev. Ed McNulty, an ordained Presbyterian minister who publishes Visual Parables (, a journal that examines the subject of faith in films.

“Frodo is scared out of his wits all the time, but he goes ahead,” he says. “He’s like those firemen walking up the [World Trade Center] stairs on 9/11. Heroism wasn’t a matter of these big, tough macho like characters but ordinary cops and fireman going in and sticking with it.”


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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday December 16, 2002.
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