On this special BONUS edition of the White Horse Inn Michael Horton and David Zahl explore many of the rich themes found in Victor Hugo’s classic novel, Les Miserables. This discussion is especially relevant in light of the highly anticipated release of a film adaptation of Boublil and Schönberg’s musical of the same title which will appear in theaters on Christmas Day. In particular Horton and Zahl discuss the themes of grace and redemption as it unfolds throughout the story, and the way in which the two characters, Javert and Jean Valjean, end up personifying both the unbending nature of the law, and the incredible liberation of the gospel of grace.
Isaiah’s mission was to pronounce both law and gospel. As God’ prosecuting attorney, he was called to pronounce the covenant curses on unfaithful and disobedient Israel. Yet in the midst of all these “woes,” we continue to discover more and more about God’s messianic promise. In the days of this coming redeemer, Jerusalem will become a “herald of good news” and God will “tend his flock like a shepherd.” On this program the hosts will walk through chapters 26 through 40 of Isaiah’s amazing prophecy.
Reviewing literature can be a daunting task—the interplay of author, characters, plot, motifs, and my own thoughts is a complex thing. And when the book under review is The Hobbit, a work both popular and well-studied, the tension is ratcheted up.
Nevertheless, in what follows, I give a brief overview of J. R. R. Tolkien’s first published entry into Middle-Earth and Bilbo Baggins—in case you’ve only just begun to read in anticipation of the cinematic experience later this week or have never ventured into a land flowing with hobbits and dragons. What you’ll encounter is not only the bare plotline of strange whimsy, but the conjunction of this present age and an age long past: the old and the new collide in the titular hobbit, Bilbo Baggins.
While many have enjoyed The Lord of the Rings, a slightly different fantasy appears in The Hobbit. Written with an eye to children, it presents a tale of Bilbo, hobbit ordinaire. Pressed into service with a band of dwarves and the wizard Gandalf, Bilbo embarks on a quest for lost treasure whose twists and turns have enthralled for decades.
I could go on about Smaug the dragon, Beorn, trolls, and wood-elves, but I trust that you will read or see them soon enough. Instead, I’d like to talk about a couple of subtle elements that lurk beneath and behind the scenes of Tolkien’s Hobbit.
First is the element of history. The world of The Hobbit, this Middle-Earth, is not quite the filled-out world with lurid and detailed maps that it will become when Frodo Baggins appears on the scene. Bilbo’s home is called “The Hill”, not Hobbiton; there is a noticeable lack of any description of Gondor or Mordor; the great evil Sauron is merely the “Necromancer”. Tolkien, in other words, is writing here for children, not adults—the rush and flood of names would bog down most young readers.
Despite this comparative lack of detail, there is still the inescapable sense that the history and world of The Hobbit is not simply window-dressing, not merely an artificial stage concocted for a one-off story. Middle-Earth pulses with history—the aura of the ancient is palpable. Tolkien’s world is not like so much of the fantasy literature you and I see nowadays—filled with names compiled by pushing consonants through a random-number generator—it has coherence and substance outside of The Hobbit. The world Bilbo inhabits, so we gather as we read, can exist without him: indeed, Middle-Earth is different from him. He (as the English are wont to do) may enjoy tea-time, butchers, and an efficient post office. Elves, dwarves, and dragons know little of such things.
So just like us readers, Bilbo begins the tale as a modern hobbit living in an ancient world—the second element. He hears noises that sound like the rumble of steam engines—an anachronistic touch in fantasy, but perfectly normal in 20th century England. Whereas the Harry Potter series (for instance) solves the ancient-modern conundrum by positioning its wizarding world upon 21st century “Muggle” England, Tolkien takes a different tack. He places modern tastes, values, and phrases in the character of Bilbo, forcing an interaction and clash between the ‘old world’ of Middle-Earth and the new world of industry and individuality.
Yet as the story advances, the aura and enchantments of Middle-Earth begin to worm and work their ways into Bilbo’s modern soul. By the time he encounters the “small slimy creature Gollum”, Bilbo’s perception has changed:
“…his hand came upon the hilt of his little sword…somehow he was comforted. It was rather splendid to be wearing a blade made in Gondolin for the goblin-wars of which so many songs had sung…”
The young hobbit, originally pictured as a middle-class English type—a love of clocks, precision, and technology uppermost in his mind—is thus slowly transformed into a man with one (hairy) foot in both worlds. Look at, for instance, the “bravest thing” Bilbo does: it is not the clash of weapons or the fire of dragons he must ultimately conquer, but himself. The real battle, according to Tolkien, is braving the warren of dark tunnels close to the snoring dragon Smaug. This internal conflict between bravery and fear is not prominent in ancient literature, but pervades modern, angst-driven literature. Bilbo does not lose his modernity, he rather adds to it the positive qualities of Middle-Earth. Chief among these old-world characteristics are dignity in the face of crisis and loyalty to one’s friends (as seen through the interactions of the dwarves with each other).
Whether this theme of ancient pasture transmuting modern piston is a thinly veiled attempt to critique mid-20th century modernity is not my concern: Bilbo bridges the gap between the age of today and the age of yesterday, yet the seeming contradictions of old and new are not fully resolved in Bilbo’s life.
For you and me, though, does The Hobbit offer a similar experience? Can we read it and be shaped by its world or values, or is this fantasy literature merely a decent bedtime story for children? In a word, yes—Tolkien’s fictional and fantastical elements, though marketed widely today, should not obscure the richness of his characters nor the interplay between the two ages of Middle-Earth and our Earth. The emotional depth present in the short-temper of Gandalf or the animalistic ferocity of Beorn are not for children only, but are reminiscent of the unique peccadillos of your friends, neighbors, and even your very self. Seeing these emotions and these dual ages writ fantastic on the pages of The Hobbit should whet your appetite—not just for the movie or for more Tolkien, but for a quest which, ultimately, resolves.
John Stovall is a M. Div candidate (2013) at Westminster Seminary California and a licentiate in the Presbyterian Church in America.
I’d like to add a couple of chapters to C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. Not to say that I’m up to it, but some thoughts spring to mind. Here’s a go at one of the new letters from the senior demon to his nephew-apprentice Wormwood, counseling the junior tempter as to how he can more effectively seduce “the Patient”:
You can’t do it all at once and you can’t do it one by one. You’ll have to work very hard to change the whole framework of a generation’s assumed convictions. The way you should do this won’t make sense at first, but I assure you that it works. You have to shift their habits of thinking from the more serious to the more trivial (without blowing your cover and provoking the opposite reaction). Affirm the second-best thing against the first-best, then the third-best against the second-best, and so on. Here’s what I mean.
First, encourage them to take their faith for granted, by relying on what others believe. Distract them from explicit concern to a foggy memory of slogans and phrases they learned in their nurseries. This shouldn’t be difficult. They’ve grown up in it, after all. The Enemy uses that to his benefit, so we should too. It doesn’t really matter if they assent to beliefs about the Trinity, the Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection, and all, as long as they don’t know why they believe it or why it matters. Get them somehow to think that the Enemy is either too far away to really care about them or so near that he’s a harmless pet—even better, their own inner voice. But the important thing here is to dissuade them from reflecting on what happened—you know, the stuff you’ve heard about “Immanuel: God with us.”
Second, now that they have begun to take it all for granted and wear it lightly, affirm the importance of spirituality, feeling, and doing good to others. That’s already there in the Enemy’s speeches, of course, but separate all of this from the question of truth. If possible (and it is, I assure you), use these very “virtues” celebrated by the Enemy as weapons against the doctrine. As long as they keep him in their private experience, but don’t really think of the Enemy entering history and bringing “salvation” to “sinners,” we should have less trouble with them spreading their nonsense. Help them to shift the burden of their religion from public truth to personal experience and happiness. Then, once they run into some rough patches they’ll realize it doesn’t work. The key: just keep it all light and superficial. There should be plenty of good resources already available for that sort of thing. Soon, they’ll forget it altogether.
Third, now they’ll be ripe for an outright offensive strategy on your part. Now that the “weightiness” of the Enemy’s speeches have been drained from their daily routines, and they think, feel, and live more like us, attack the beliefs straight-on. They already wear them lightly, so, with a little sophistry, they shouldn’t be likely to hold onto them too dearly. At this point, though, while you’re doing this, be careful to assure them of the good that religion can do in the world. I know that it works against your grain, but it does work in the end. For example, make them deeply concerned to celebrate Christmas and Easter as cultural holidays. They really love Christmas. Puff the holiday, but add in all sort of other things that make it sentimental rather than serious. They can still have the trappings; the important thing at this stage is that they let go of what it meant. Maybe they’ll start thinking of the Enemy’s so-called “achievements” no longer as an announcement but as a philosophy for living, cultural values, and that sort of thing. Just get it out of the sphere of “Good News,” as some of them still call it. Again, there should be plenty of resources near at hand for you to use—especially look for ones that they produce themselves!
In chapter 11 of his prophecy, Isaiah writes that, “[t]he wolf shall dwell with the lamb.” Many interpret this literally as referring to some utopian period way off in the distant future. But is this really what Isaiah’s imagery is pointing to? What does he mean when he says that a shoot shall come forth “from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit”? On this program the hosts will discuss these questions and more as they interact with chapters 10 through 25 of the book of Isaiah.
Recently Dr. Horton responded to Bill O’Reilly’s statements about Christianity not being a religion but a philosophy (see A Dangerous Christmas). This past Monday it almost seemed as if Jon Stewart of The Daily Show had read Dr. Horton’s post because he correctly understands the truth claims of Christianity that need to be believed concerning Christ being true God as well as the fact that Christ rose from the dead, ascended to the right hand of the Father, and is coming again to judge the living and the dead. Stewart even admits that though he knows these central doctrines of the Christian Faith and could “pass the philosophy test,” he does not trust in Christ and therefore, “doesn’t get to go to the afterparty.”
Many of the folks who come to White Horse Inn are on a journey of sorts. Some are happy in their present churches, but are digging more deeply into the rich resources of the Reformation as they serve their church, their family, and neighbors. Others of you have left the churches of your youth and feel like you are in the middle of a journey to…somewhere! And finally, some of you have found your way to a new home and church identity. If you are a “former evangelical” who has found their way into the Lutheran tradition, one of our friends would like to speak with you.
Pastor Matt Richard, a Lutheran minister, is working toward a doctor of ministry degree at Concordia Theological Seminary and is engaged in a research project that focuses on the journey of American evangelicals into Lutheranism. He’s looking for participants who would be willing to answer questions as part of his research. We can vouch for Matt. He and his wife spent some time with us earlier in the year during our Conference at Sea.
If you are interested in helping, please contact Matt today. If you’d like to read more about the project, you can check out his blog, PM Notes.
In this section of the book of Isaiah, we see the beginning of Isaiah’s prophetic call. Though he has already pronounced the covenantal “woes” against unfaithful Israel, here we see him exclaim, “Woe is me!” when confronted with God’s infinite holiness and majesty. The hosts evaluate the significance of this event along with numerous messianic prophecies that begin to appear in chapters 5 through 9 on this edition of White Horse Inn.
It is a fact that Christianity is not a religion. It is a philosophy,” according to Bill O’Reilly. As part of his “war on Christmas” focus, the talk-show host faced off with the head of an Atheist organization in a recent interview. (For a different take, see this article from the Washington Post.) According to his guest, government-supported celebrations of Christmas constitute the state’s privileging of one religion. If I understand him correctly (and I don’t take that for granted), Mr. O’Reilly counters the argument by suggesting that while particular denominations are “religions,” Christianity itself is not a religion but a philosophy. In fact, he takes this as a settled consensus. Oddly, he includes Judaism along with Methodism and Roman Catholicism as “religions,” although Judaism is arguably distinct from Christianity.
I confess that I am not a regular Fox News viewer and only catch Bill O’Reilly when friends shamelessly forward clips like these. Although the political aspect of the debate is important, my concern here is the religious aspect.
How far will some go to protect the vestiges of cultural Christianity in our increasingly secular society? Is this civil religion so deeply ingrained that we are willing to redefine the very nature and message of Christianity in the name of Christendom? Perhaps Mr. O’Reilly has given us that answer.
Could it be, ironically, that the atheist had a better idea about the nature of Christianity? To be sure, the danger of Christmas for him is mainly political, as its benefit seems to be for Mr. O’Reilly. But at least he gets that it’s about a specific religion and its central claim.
For many today, Christianity is indeed a philosophy—an ideology, a culture, and a set of ethical principles. It may come with different specifics, depending on whether it hails from the left or the right side of the aisle. However, if I may so bold, those who take this view should probably not celebrate Christmas at all.
Christianity is first and foremost an announcement that God our Creator is also our Redeemer; that “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him will never perish but have everlasting life” (Jn 3:16). This announcement is proclaimed in the gospel and sealed by baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It is explained in the ecumenical creeds, especially the Nicene, and shapes our common as well as private prayer, devotion, and life in the world. Christ did not come to be the world’s greatest philosopher or social reformer, but to “save his people from their sins” (Mat 1:21).
In the historic practice of many churches, the Sundays of Advent move from the prophecies to the nativity, culminating in the anticipation of Christ’s second advent. In this way, the point is underscored that the one whose gentle birth we celebrate is also the one who will return at the end of the age to judge the living and the dead and reign forever.
Even members of my extended family, many of them now unchurched, are not offended to celebrate Christmas. I think they should be. Christmas is a dangerous holiday. It’s not a question as to whether I think everyone has a right to celebrate Christmas in their own fashion. I won’t be pulling down decorations at the mall. However, I do question whether we know what we’re getting ourselves in to when we presume to celebrate Christ’s birth.
To be sure, we shouldn’t forget that Christmas, like every Lord’s Day, is first and foremost about announcing good news to all people: sins forgiven and the inheritance of everlasting life. The comfort of “God With Us,” rescuing us, the Light shining in the darkness: this is at the heart of our faith and our celebration of Christ’s birth. And yet, apart from meditation on his return in glory, the Good News become reduced to sentimental banality about mothers and babies; children being our future, roasting chestnuts and blinking lights.
When the Apostle Paul was invited to address the philosophers in Athens, he proclaimed this gospel. Already he had been busy in the synagogue as he “reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead.” “‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,’ he said” (Acts 17:2-3). Then in the marketplace he reasoned with Greeks about Christ and his resurrection. That’s how he received the invitation to the big stage. He arrives at the climax of his argument: “For he [God] has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” (v 31).
The baby in the manger is God, who reigns over all together with the Father and the Holy Spirit. He infuriated the religious leaders by identifying them as outcasts, condemned to destruction, while welcoming sinners into his fellowship. He claimed equality with God the Father, provoking charges of blasphemy. He bore our guilt because there is no forgiveness apart from justice and every human being is under the curse of sin and death. He rose again on the third day for our justification and as the firstfruits of the new creation. He sent his Spirit to unite us to him for reconciliation and renewal. And one day he will return to judge the world, welcoming his elect into everlasting glory and banishing forever those who have not placed their trust in him.
The baby grew up. He is the conquering warrior of Isaiah 59 and before there can be an unending wedding feast in Revelation 19, there is the “wrath of the Lamb” in chapters 14-18. In those gruesome battle-scenes, the earthly city—represented collectively as “Babylon the Great”—is not confirmed in its cultural identity and civic pride, but is reduced to rubble. Instead of celebrating the shopping season with shareholders, the CEOs mourn that advent. The rulers of the earth beg that rocks fall on them to hide them from the wrath of Bethlehem’s child. If we do not recognize the holy child as the Lamb who died, was raised, and is coming again in judgment and everlasting blessing, then Christmas isn’t our holiday, but a dreadful anticipation of the final reckoning.
So Christmas is a wonderfully comforting holiday. In this era between his two advents, Christ is restraining Satan by his Word and Spirit, drawing sinners into the safety and joy of his banquet hall. Yet it is also a dangerous holiday, especially for those who defend it only by using it, “having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Tim 3:5-7). Are we really sure that we want to celebrate this birth? Are we glad when pass by the nativity scene on the city lawn, defended as an American “philosophy”?
Better to gather together in churches—even under conditions of persecution around the world—where (one hopes) Christ is proclaimed as the Judge and the Justifier of the ungodly this Christmas. And there, with faith in the holy Lamb, we can hear the angel say also to us, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord” (Lk 2:10).
White Horse Inn is pleased to announce a new member of our team! Mark Green (above left with Mike Horton) was named by our board of directors as the new President and Chief Operating Officer in August. Over the last several months, Mark has been settling in at the world wide headquarters of White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation. He keeps mumbling about “a herd of cats,” but otherwise we think he’s fitting in just fine!
Mark comes to us with years of executive experience in the for-profit sector. He’s lived and worked all over the world, literally! While working on various projects in other parts of the world, Mark was able to see first-hand how Christianity fared both under persecution in the Middle East and surrounded by apathy and materialism in Europe. He brings a global mindset with him to his work at White Horse Inn at just the right time: God seems to be opening up doors to take our materials to some of the more than 150 countries that regularly access our website every week.
Recently Mark sat down with Mike Horton to talk about how he sees his role in supporting our efforts toward a modern reformation. We hope that you are as encouraged as we are by Mark’s passion for the Gospel and his desire to see the influence of White Horse Inn continue to grow and spread. Along with Mike Horton, the other hosts of the White Horse Inn, and the staff, please welcome Mark Green!