Feast of St Pappias the Martyr
THE SUMMER of 1984 held three momentous events for me.
First, I attended Vacation Bible School with relatives, and for an entire week listened to vivid descriptions of hell from a very authoritative sounding, very loud, and very sweaty preacher. I learned that I was going to hell for a whole host of things, including listening to Michael Jackson. By the end of that week, I was absolutely terrified.
The second momentous event came as a direct result of the first. I came home from VBS an absolute spiritual nervous wreck. To escape hell, I requested baptism. So, a few weeks later, in mid-August, my father baptized me in the baptistery of Thayer Christian Church during the church service.
I was still terrified of God. I wondered if my baptism counted. I was panicky regarding sin. It made sense to me that God was surely waiting to catch me in my sins so that He could smite me with a runaway tractor or rat poison that had somehow accidentally spilled into the Cheerios, and finally send my soul to the hell that I so justly deserved. Most of the exposure I had to religion as a young child treated salvation as a problem to be solved rather than an experience to be relished.
Thank God that He had a third, corrective momentous event waiting for me that summer.
For some reason, during that same summer of 1984, an aunt of mine decided that I might enjoy J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and so she loaned it to me. I devoured it, and so she passed along The Lord of the Rings, as well. Tolkien’s work was a grace-filled time bomb that would ultimately help rescue me from my miserable perceptions of what the Gospel is.
I am thinking about this oft-cited passage, from The Return of the King, in particular:
There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.
Much of my anxiety-ridden childhood was miserable. There was something I could identify with in this story about small people desperately making their way through an ugly, choking wasteland of rock and ash that drained away their very life. But there were grace-filled moments, too, when beauty smote my heart, and many of those were brought to me by way of Tolkien.
Years later, when I was in high school, Tolkien helped me reassess the Scriptures, and cherish them even more than I had LOTR. In The Tolkien Reader, there is an essay on fairy stories that, in my opinion, may be one of the most important things that Tolkien ever wrote. Towards the end of the essay, Tolkien builds up into a rare moment of evangelistic bravado:
The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. . . . But this story has entered History and the primary world; . . . It has pre-eminently the "inner consistency of reality." There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. . . . this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.
The moment I read that, several things happened. First, I was overjoyed to discover that my favorite author was in fact a committed Christian. It was probably also the first time that I had ever heard anyone describe the Scriptures as works of art. This is quite possibly the only reason that I came to love the Bible so much, and went on to become a Scripture scholar. But most importantly, and most suddenly, beauty became an important aspect of my personal faith, and everything since has followed like a chain reaction. Tolkien’s ticking grace-bomb finally went off, and the miserable seven year-old was released from a cell of spiritual terror into a world of divine beauty.
Matthew Umbarger is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Newman University who specializes in Old Testament Interpretation.