Rector's Letter - September 2003

 My dear friends,

 September 2nd 1973, thirty years ago this month, saw the death of JRR Tolkien.  I can't claim to be a devoted fan, despite several attempts I never made it past page 100 of the Hobbit, but at the cinema I have enjoyed Peter Jackson's outstanding Lord of the Rings films enormously.  The second instalment in the trilogy, the Two Towers, was released on DVD & video just a few days ago on August 26th, and was eagerly anticipated in our own household.  Quite frankly, anything capable of inspiring my son to pick up a real book and read something more challenging than his beloved Beano comic I must hold in the highest regard!

 If perchance you are not familiar, Tolkien's literally epic Lord of the Rings saga is set in the fantasy world of Middle Earth.  This mythic realm becomes the setting for a grand tale of evil, hope, pilgrimage and redemption.  At times its language is glorious, even biblical (Tolkien was an Oxford Professor in English Literature and an advisor for the English translation of the Jerusalem Bible).  Naturally, Tolkien's works have invited many comparisons with the Christian allegories of CS Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, notably that perennial children's favourite the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

 Lewis and Tolkien were in fact close friends and members of a small elite literary circle who called themselves "the Inklings".  In the 1930s and 40s this massively influential group of like-minded men, all Christians, met together midweek in a local pub and on Thursday nights in Lewis' sitting room in Magdalene College, Oxford.  In a scene reminiscent of the cosy hole-in-the-ground homes of Hobbiton itself, "at 9pm tea would be served and pipes lit", and the early drafts of these great stories were read out loud to each other around the fire.

 Despite his close association with Lewis and the Inklings, Tolkien himself always fought against any portrayal of his work as an allegory of the Christian faith.  Even in his very last interview for BBC Radio 4 in 1971, he denied his stories had "any inner meaning or message" at all.  He did, however, in an earlier letter to a Jesuit Priest from the 1950s admit that the Lord of the Rings was "perhaps a religious work" insofar as his own deeply Christian faith was "unconsciously absorbed into the story".

 Sometimes with great boldness and to great effect we write the Christian faith we follow in large letters into the stories of our lives.  We wave it around as the flag we follow, the creed we declaim.  Perhaps, however, there is also a more subtle dimension to the influence of the Christian faith upon us, as Tolkien demonstrated.  Maybe the truest power of Christianity is that the story shapes us.

 If we allow it, the Christian faith will form our minds, our perceptions, our actions and reactions, and yes, even the stories we tell.   If you pray and read the bible and offer your heart when you worship, you won't merely decide to live differently, your life will become different.  God works from the inside out, not the outside in.

 Jeff Cuttell.

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