Tolkien’s Christian Detractors

[NOTE: This short essay assumes as important context the several introductory articles for this section of the site, most especially The Imagination: Pitfalls and Prospects.]

In my experience as a long-time reader of Tolkien, objections to his work come in two basic varieties.

The “Bible Only” Objection

Usually attacks not just on Tolkien and his good friend C.S. Lewis, but on all fictional products, come from the quarters of “Bible Only” Christians, believers whose thoughts about everything are (they think) totally controlled by their personal mastery of a handful of “clear” Bible verses that interpreted in a “face value” manner unanswerably support whatever objection they feel led to come up with to anything fictional. 

So mythology of any type is off-limits because it features “gods” but The Bible says that there’s only One God. Stories that use words like “witch” and “sorcery” are off limits because The Bible has many verses that condemningly use those words. Angelic-like characters purporting to be servants of the One True God but who don’t look and act exactly like the very few appearances of angels in The Bible must be avoided. For the really extreme advocates, just the very notion of any beings not mentioned in The Bible (Elves, Orcs, Hobbits, dwarves, aliens, etc.) might as well be blasphemy.

Another important angle for this type of critique is that it is almost always wedded to a militant variety of Young Earth Creationism which isn’t conceptually able to consider any other options for how God created the world and governs it. I make no assertions here about whether Young Earth Creationism is true or false, but one thing I have noticed is that as a literary interpretation it is almost always articulated in an extremely weak and question-begging manner.

Basically, as it is commonly articulated, YEC amounts to the sort of wooden interpretation that would require a consistent thinker to say that Jesus is a vine and is a door and is a shepherd, that God Himself is a bird having feathers (Ps. 95), and that Revelation 6:13 really does mean that physical stars will fall down from the sky and, presumably, totally burn up the earth. Thankfully this sort of believer really isn’t ever consistent – but contrary to his piety, that’s not a virtue.

These things said, I don’t wish to hang too much on the YEC angle. For it is possible, of course, to distinguish one’s well-grounded belief in Young Earth Creationism from a strictly literary appreciation for and advocacy of Tolkien. It is quite possible to hold YEC as being the hermeneutically proper (≠ “literal” as I’ve been using it), to not be wooden literalist, and to be a serious enthusiast of Tolkien and other imaginative works.

Nevertheless, the YEC angle remains important as a species of “Bible Only” critique because its highly restrictive understanding of chronology and history really do stand in serious contradiction to the eschatologically practical literary implications of Tolkien’s system of “Ages of the World.” (But this will have to be covered elsewhere.)

My conclusion is that the “Bible Only” criticism of Tolkien (and other such imaginative works) is an intellectual, literary, and spiritual dead end.

The “Light of Nature” Objection

Whatever else may need to be said about the “Bible Only” type of objection to Tolkien and similar works of Christian imagination, there exist an altogether different sort of Christian critique of such. This is a critique emanating not from the Bible, which theologians call special revelation because it was given specially to Israel and to the church in a special way. The new critique emanates rather from what theologians call general revelation because it was given to all human beings in general. 

This newer critical claim, in short, is that imaginative writing of the type we see in Christians such as Tolkien and Lewis is, on the criteria of general revelation, blameworthy in most or all of the same ways that all Christians should blame merely pagan and idolatrous imaginations. 

As I write this (Dec. 2021), I should acknowledge that I’ve only recently become aware of this mode of critique, so I am myself in the process of reading up on it and digesting it so as to more adequately respond. Consequently, I can here only give the barest of outlines of how I’ve thusfar seen it presented – and I have to restrict it to the single issue of Tolkien’s idea of subcreation. So here goes:

This newer critique, just as Scripture says the pagans ought to have known better because general revelation is clear, rendering them culpable before God, so too ought Christians like Tolkien and Lewis have known better, rendering them culpable before God for leading unbelievers and believers alike astray. In particular, the very idea of subcreation upon which the coherence and literary purposes and effects of these imaginative works totally depends, appears to have a few major problems. 

One angle of the criticism is that subcreation is repugnant to reason. Since there is only one God, only one Creator, it must follow that any other acts by creatures of God can’t be called “creative.” Behind this objection there appears to be a (for lack of a better term) puristic definition of “Monotheism” such that the quality divinity can only be ascribed to the Self-Existent, Eternal, Immutable One from Whom all else derives its finite being.

Moreover, there are types of of Christian theology that are animated by a very jealous regard for the sole glory of God and so which see the notion of creatures “helping” God do creative works as a gross elevation of creatures at God’s expense.

Consequently, Tolkien comes under fire because his Silmarillion prominently features what seem to be angel-like beings whom God created and to whom he then sort of “farmed out” the duties of actually physically shaping and governing the created world. Critics of this literary representation sometimes seize upon phraes of Tolkien’s such as in the early sentences of the Valaquenta describing the Ainur, “The Great among these spirits the Elves name the Valar, the Powers of Arda, and Men have often called them gods.” (emphasis mine).

This whole conceptual apparatus seems to evoke Israel’s long history with chasing after idols instead of after God, and so not only the zeal of the Old Testament prophets against everything from Ba’al to Nehushtan may be called to witness against Tolkien’s stories of the Valar, but also the Apostle Paul’s charged polemic in Romans 1 and his less scathing, but still firm, rebuke of idolatry in Acts 17.

Yet, as I have tried to show near the end of my essay Genesis 1 Compared with the Ainulindalë and Valaquenta, this mode of attack is hardly obvious, let alone inherently persuasive. A great deal of substantive argument has to be made in defense of all the items of this critique, and for many of us, at the last some critical pieces of it may be beyond our ability to prove or disprove apart from gaining expertise in the Hebrew language so as to thoroughly analyze its terms that get translated, as context seems to require, as “God” or “gods.” Again, a topic for much further elaboration elsewhere.

A second angle of the general revelation-based criticism – though it may be more of an addendum to or elaboration of the first rather than a distinct second point – is that subcreation is inconsistent with the main principles of Christian theology and philosophy. For there are no lack of historic, venerable Christian theologians whose writings may be marshalled in defense of what I earlier called the “purist” view of Monotheism, the necessity of stamping out idolatry, and the pious duty of defending the glory of God. Only rash enthusiasts of Tolkien would simply dismiss any such historic Christian witnesses, so these will have to be interacted with at appropriate points.

A third angle of the general revelation-based criticism as I’ve seen it articulated is that subcreation is almost certainly productive not of legitimate piety but of a corrosive downward slide into an entirely counterfeit mode of religion. What is to keep the Christian who, say, accepts as a legitimate theological and philosophical possibility the existence of angelic “subcreators” of the world from the sorts of dualistic or naturalistic falsehood found in pagan religions such as Zoroastrianism or the Babylonian Enuma Elish?

Essentially this assertion flows from the first two, for if the Valar are simply detractory of God’s sole glory as Creator and simply inconsistent with Christian theology and philosophy, it should follow that believers who enjoy and defend Tolkien’s work are skating on thin ice on a slippery slope to bowing to golden calves or of “offering strange fire” (improper, sinful modes of worship) before the Lord.

Admittedly, this sort of criticism ought not to be dismissed out of hand. For we have it as the ipsissima verba (“the very words of God”) that we are to have no other gods before Him, nor make any images of anything He has created so as to offer it worship. When it comes to idolatry, the human heart is, as the Reformer John Calvin said, “an idol factory.”

As I outlined in my opening essay The Imagination: Pitfalls and Prospects, there exists an enormous danger of ourselves as image-bearers of God possessing signficant (sub)creative powers of making verbal and conceptual images of an idolatrous nature. All I can say here is that Tolkien himself was quite aware of this problem, for in explaining his idea of subcreation he wrote, “Great harm can be done, of course, by this potent mode of ‘myth’—especially wilfully.The right to ‘freedom’ of the sub-creator is no guarantee among fallen men that it will not be used as wickedly as is Free Will.” (Letters, p. 194)

If Tolkien was aware of this danger, any Christian who highly values his work ought to be as well. I will close this essay with an appropriate quote from Tolkien which, to me, opens up important theological and conceptual “room to maneuver” for the imaginative Christian. Again speaking of the Valar as more or less a sort of subordinate type of “god,” he wrote:

“On the side of mere narrative device, this is, of course, meant to provide beings of the same order of beauty, power, and majesty as the ‘gods’ of higher mythology, which can yet be accepted—well, shall we say baldly, by a mind that believes in the Blessed Trinity.” (Letters, p. 146)

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