Culture

My thoughts on TV, film, books, etc.

Enjoying the songs of middle-earth

When I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as a child, I didn’t have much time for the songs. The short ones I endured, the long ones I skipped. Now I’m discovering a hitherto unknown appreciation for this poetry.

Roads go ever ever on,
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.

J. R. R. Tolkein, The Hobbit

As we’ve already seen this week, the Christian hope is described beautifully by Tolkein. This time the focus is on rest. The Christian journeys through this world in a constant state of war with spiritual forces. But our eyes, which currently see the conflict of fire and sword, will one day enjoy the sight of meadows, trees and hills that we have previously known only by faith.

Thorin’s resurrection hope

For those who don’t know how The Hobbit ends, and don’t want the end of the last film to be spoiled, this would be a good post to skip. I’ll be blogging a few thoughts from The Hobbit for the whole of this week, as I’ve just finished reading it, so you might want to check back next Monday. For the rest of you, read on…

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The Riddle of Strider

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.

If you recognise those words, you probably know they refer to Aragorn, or Strider, a key character in The Lord of the Rings.

At the start of this verse, Tolkein cunningly subverts our expectations by altering a well known phrase. We’re all familiar with the saying ‘not all that glitters is gold’, and for years I thought the first line of the above poem was simply a rephrasing of this well worn proverb. But when I looked more closely, I realised that Tolkein has altered the meaning. Rather than saying that not all gold looks valuable, he says that everything that is golden looks as if it isn’t valuable. His phrase is all-encompassing. All that is gold does not glitter. Everything worth having looks worthless, and anything that looks valuable is a fake.

Aragorn is not recognised for who he really is, so he goes by the name of Strider, or Longshanks. Neither seems intended as a compliment, and the locals in Bree where we first meet him don’t trust him at all. He wanders perpetually, never settling, seemingly having nowhere to call his home. But Tolkein warns us not to be deceived by appearances. This traveller has purpose. Not all those who wander are lost.

As the story develops, we see that Aragorn’s age and experience have made him stronger, and his awareness of the past have given him an ability to resist the comings and goings of others. While others around him wither, or are destroyed by frost, Aragorn knows he is the heir of an old, old kingdom. He puts down deep roots into his heritage, the kingdom of his forefathers, and he is able to be sturdy, dependable, and above all, strong.

Having said that, when Frodo first sees a hooded man in a corner of a room, there is nothing to suggest the presence of a king, much less the presence of a long-awaited heir. Here is a man seemingly at a loose end, wandering the earth with nothing to live for, his life nothing more than ash. But from those ashes a fire shall be woken, and a light from the shadows shall spring. The man sitting hidden in a corner, hiding away from the adulation that most kings crave, will one day be the source of fiery light to many.

There is a blade which will bring this about. It is a broken blade, a useless and defeated blade, but a blade which is imbued with resurrection hope. When it is renewed, the crownless wanderer shall settle in the home he had all along, as the rightful king and the one who brings peace.

As Aragorn says, “I am Aragorn, and those verses go with that name.” But it could equally well describe another. There is another king who laid aside his crown and wandered the earth with nowhere to lay his head, but he was not lost. He was old, from before time itself, and he knew the eternal purpose for which he had come. His flame was cruelly extinguished, leaving nothing but ash, yet from that ash awoke a new flame, greater and more terrible than before. The Sun of righteousness rose from the shadow of death, and there was healing in his wings, because, as Aragorn showed, the hands of the king are the hands of a healer. The broken blade of his body was renewed, and once again the crownless is king. Now those who recognise him must follow in his footsteps, wandering the earth, yet they are no more lost than Aragorn. We, like little Aragorns, are moving towards a home where they will be given crowns and will reign. But we merely imitate the One great and true Aragorn, the man Jesus Christ. In his kingdom, the last shall be first, and although the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, in the kingdom of Christ it is certain that all that is gold does not glitter.

Only a famous death will do

The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an emperor. Striking story! But now, the people want to know how the story ends. Only a famous death will do. And what could be more glorious than to challenge the Emperor himself in the great arena?

Commodus, talking to Maximus in Gladiator (2000)

Commodus talks to Maximus in the film Gladiator (2000)

I love gladiator. It’s an epic film telling an epic story full of epic quotes set to epic music (spotify link). And like so many good stories, it follows the plot of the greatest story ever told. The true story of the famous death.

It starts with a general. Someone with power. Someone who tells people what to do, and is obeyed. Someone who has a formidable army at his disposal. And the general becomes a slave. He gives up his rights, his authority, his power. He is humbled, even humiliated, and becomes a gladiator. He fights many enemies, but before too long matters come to a head. He defies the emperor.

It’s a striking story, but now we need to know how the story ends. Only a famous death will do. And what could be more glorious than to challenge the emperor in the great arena? The final showdown must take place somewhere public, where it will be seen. The emperor seems to take a quick advantage, just as Commodus stabs Maximus. The gladiator dies of the wound.

But the story is not over. We need to know what happens to the emperor. He is defeated, shown to be weaker than the gladiator slave. And the gladiator, killed in the battle, is honoured and we will see him again – but not yet.

The effect is much wider though. His people are liberated, no longer living under the rule of the tyrannical emperor. And that is why we remember his famous death. That is why we have good Friday.

Heavenly advertising

The more eagle-eyed among you will notice that it’s exactly a month since I last posted anything to this blog. The main reason for this has been that I’ve been very busy with work, as I’ve been at various Christian Union missions and training events. I wasn’t organised enough to write some posts in advance to tide me over, but I’m sure all my readers (yes, both of you!) coped admirably with my radio silence. If anyone is interested in knowing how things went with my work, get in touch and I can email you a copy of my latest prayer letter.

Talking of smooth transitions, I’ve noticed a lot of advertising recently on the theme of religion. It was on the way to Forum South East that I came across a novel use of the term ‘church’.

I don’t really care about the use of the word ‘church’, but I do like their definition of repentance, which involves doing something to the contrary of the sin. It’s interesting to see such an active meaning given to the word ‘repent’ but I think it’s very much the Biblical meaning.

Not long after I came across a somewhat stranger advert, which I must confess I still don’t really understand. However, I wholeheartedly agree with the main message. It does strike something of a chord with Acts 4:12.

I’ve also recently enjoyed a bar of divine chocolate, which claims to be “heavenly chocolate with a heart”.

I don’t really have a point to make about this sort of advertising, but it does strike me as interesting that advertisers clearly think religious language has selling power.

The holy hustle

Hustle is a brilliant TV programme about a fictional group of con artists who each week scam someone out of a large sum of money. A huge theme of the program is morality, with each episode working on the basis of the hustlers being in the right morally, if not legally.

I should warn readers that this blog post is about last night’s episode of Hustle. I won’t be revealing any details of the hustle, but there is a spoiler for another plot point so don’t read this if you’re planning to watch Hustle later. (more…)

Christians love to eat

The Royal Variety Performance is an amazing collection of entertainment acts performed just before Christmas each year. This year Michael McIntyre was tasked with hosting it, and he inadvertently said something quite profound.

About 7 minutes in, he commented that Christmas is characterised in this country by overeating, then went on to compare the celebration of holidays in different religions.

Christians love to eat to excess on their holidays. Other religions starve themselves on holidays. Jewish people have a holiday – they starve themselves. Muslims have a holiday – they starve themselves. It’s almost like Christians have had somebody look through the Bible for opportunities to eat to excess.

Along with Christmas, Michael McIntyre points out that we celebrate Christian holidays by eating pancakes, hot cross buns and Easter eggs. Obviously he was using the term Christian in the loosest sense of the term, and it is to be hoped that Christians do not overeat, but the essential point is an interesting one. Why do Christians eat rather than fast to celebrate a holiday?

Essentially it is because the holidays have a completely opposite purpose from other religions’ holidays, so it is wholly unsurprising that the method of observance is opposite. A Jew might fast to observe Yom Kippur in order to receive forgiveness, or a Muslim might fast to observe Ramadan in order to to please Allah more, but the Christian has a totally different intention when celebrating Christmas or Easter.

Christians eat because they are celebrating the past, not earning the future.

A Christian’s forgiveness is not earned by the Christian, but by Jesus. They are pleasing to God not because of their own actions, but because of Jesus’. It is Jesus’ life and death at the centre of Christianity, and it is Jesus’ life and death which give a Christian salvation despite their sin. It is Jesus who won our salvation by taking our punishment, leaving us guiltless in God’s sight. All the great blessings a Christian has from God are appropriated by Jesus. No wonder Christians look back and celebrate! In his classic book The Cross of Christ, John Stott rightly refers to Christians as ‘The community of celebration’. Christianity stands apart from other religions in that it is good news worthy of celebration. Most Christians, including myself, suffer from the problem of not celebrating it enough!

Justice and grace

Last week a trailer was released for the upcoming film ‘The Grace Card’. It seems to be a ‘Christian’ film, but many things about it leave me far from convinced that it will accurately portray the Christian gospel. The worst of all was a line in the trailer which sounded like a pivotal moment in the film.

It’s not justice we need. It’s grace!It's not justice we need. It's grace!

What a horrible false dichotomy is introduced here! Are justice and grace mutually exclusive? This seems to be the suggestion of the film. I don’t want to be too harsh, given I’ve merely seen a trailer rather than the full film, but it strikes me that this quote undermines all that is good about the God of the Bible.

God doesn’t abandon justice in favour of grace. This would be a cheap form of grace, which would reveal an arbitrary and unjust god. This is not the God of the Bible. This is not the Christian God. Quite the opposite.

God does extend grace through Jesus’ death, but not at the expense of justice. If there was no need for justice, why would Jesus have died? Why not simply forgive everyone all their sins? That would show grace; but what a terrible, grotesque, unjust grace it would be! This is not the grace referred to in Ephesians 2:8, quoted in the NIV at the end of the film trailer.

For it is by grace you have been saved.

The grace by which Christians have been saved is a grace which includes justice. Romans 3:26 speaks of God not only as the justifier (by grace) of the one with faith in Jesus, but also the one who is just. The reason for Jesus’ death was to provide a means of grace which did not contravene God’s perfect justice.

It is indeed grace we need, but we also receive justice from God. Praise the Lord!

But now we’re going to win

Roald Dahl lived a life which was, in many ways, simply fascinating. He’s known as a children’s author of course, but he also wrote many short stories for adults, many of which drew on his experience as a world war two RAF pilot. I’ve recently been reading through The Collected Short Stories of Roald Dahl and found the following passage. The character whose thoughts we see is a pilot about to enter a dogfight.

I don’t want to die. Oh God, I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die today anyway. And it isn’t the pain. Really it isn’t the pain. I don’t mind having my leg mashed or my arm burnt off; I swear to you that I don’t mind that. But I don’t want to die. Four years ago I didn’t mind. I remember distinctly not minding about it four years ago. I didn’t mind about it three years ago either. It was all fine and exciting; it always is when it looks as though you may be going to lose, as it did then. It is always fine to fight when you are going to lose everything anyway, and that was how it was four years ago. But now we’re going to win. It is so different when you are going to win. If I die now I lose fifty years of life, and I don’t want to lose that. I’ll lose anything except that because that would be all the things I want to do and all the things I want to see; all the things like going on sleeping with Joey. Like going home sometimes. Like walking through a wood. Like pouring out a drink from a bottle. Like looking forward to week ends and like being alive every hour every day every year for fifty years. If I die now I will miss all that, and I will miss everything else. I will miss the things that I don’t know about. I think those are really the things I am frightened of missing. I think the reason I do not want to die is because of the things I hope will happen. Yes, that’s right. I’m sure that’s right.

It struck me that this is an opposite attitude to death to that which Christians tend to have. The character doesn’t fear pain, but does fear death. He wants to live so that he can enjoy the benefits of winning the war he has fought in. He is afraid of missing the things he doesn’t know about.

What joy the Christian can have! There may be fear of pain, but none of death. Living may be a tough war, but after death there is guaranteed enjoyment of the benefits of Christ’s victory. We can have confidence we will not miss out on anything good. Best of all, this won’t change in three or four years when victory seems more or less certain, for the victory is already won. The fight is over, the victor declared, and the enemy publicly humiliated.

Now, as has been the case for all eternity, we’re going to win.

A big day out

Tuesday was Gareth’s big day out – a day spent in London consisting of culture, friendship, and a name worthy of a Wallace and Gromit film.

We kicked off at the British Museum with a guided tour of some of the exhibits which relate to the Bible. I was impressed by the speed at which we went round, as my parents always do museums far too slowly to keep my interest. It did strike me just how much archaeological stuff is pottery, which makes for a very monochrome museum, but it was nevertheless interesting to see some of the details of the lives of people in Biblical eras. It helped to drive home the reality of who these people were, and the world in which they lived.

After lunch it was on to the Tate Britain, where the art lover within me failed to materialise. I didn’t understand any of the art, but I did think about art for the first time. I did actually quite like one of the abstract pieces, but my artistic observations were along the lines of ‘It’s very big’ or ‘Oh, that’s green’! I’m a little confused about what art is after being told it doesn’t need to look nice and doesn’t need to require skill, but I think art is anything that’s been created by someone inside the art world. By the same (somewhat cynical) token, good art seems to be anything which has caught the eye of someone influential enough to display it somewhere.

For me, the highlight of the day was walking past the houses of parliament and looking at the security arrangements. I didn’t dare photograph them too closely for fear of being arrested, but I was fascinated. I can only imagine that having a whole bunch of new MPs must have caused chaos for the security arrangements! It’s a small thing, but seeing a van being let into nearby Downing Street was, bizarrely, a slightly special moment.

The day was my first experience of tourism in London, and the related joy of the tube (or underground tram network, as it’s been aptly described). It was a nice day, it did broaden my mind a little bit, and I got to take photos of colourful elephant statues and equally colourful sword-wielding soldiers. The only disappointment was that I expected Trafalgar Square to be a bit bigger, but considering it’s prime London land then I must admit £240 is a cracking price for it! Monopoly will never be the same again.