Learning a Christian Approach to History from the Works of J. R. R. Tolkien (via George Marsden via Justin Taylor)

Justin Taylor recently drew my attention to a short piece by George Marsden (currently Professor of History at University of Notre Dame) in which he opines on a Christian perspective on history. This two-page afterword titled “History and Fundamentalism” appears at the end of Marsden’s important work Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentienth-Century Evangelicalism 1870-1925. Taylor excerpted the pertinent section regarding how a Christian should interpret the observable phenomena of historical events:

The awareness that God acts in history in ways that we can only know in the context of our culturally determined experience should be central to a Christian understanding of history. Yet the Christian must not lose sight of the premise that, just as in the Incarnation Christ’s humanity does not compromise his divinity, so the reality of God’s other work in history, going well beyond what we might explain as natural phenomena, is not compromised by the fact that it is culturally defined.

The history of Christianity reveals a perplexing mixture of divine and human factors. As Richard Lovelace has said, this history, when viewed without a proper awareness of the spiritual factors involved, “is as confusing as a football game in which half the players are invisible.” The present work, an analysis of cultural influences on religious belief, is a study of things visible. As such it must necessarily reflect more than a little sympathy with the modern mode of explanation in terms of natural historical causation. Yet it would be a mistake to assume that such sympathy is incompatible with, or even antagonistic to, a view of history in which God as revealed in Scripture is the dominant force, and in which other unseen spiritual forces are contending.

I find that a Christian view of history is clarified if one considers reality as more or less like the world portrayed in the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. We live in the midst of contests between great and mysterious spiritual forces, which we understand only imperfectly and whose true dimensions we only occasionally glimpse. Yet, frail as we are, we do play a role in this history, on the side either of the powers of light or of the powers of darkness. It is crucially important then, that, by God’s grace, we keep our wits about us and discern the vast difference between the real forces of good and the powers of darkness disguised as angels of light.

George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (Oxford University Press, 2006), 259-260.

The reference to Tolkien’s understanding of supernatural forces out work behind the scenes reminded me of the closing section of his The Hobbit:

“Then the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!” said Bilbo.

“Of course!” said Gandalf. “And why should not they prove true? Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”

“Thank goodness!” said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar.

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, The Final Stage.

As a historian, I am limited to the study of the observable data about what has happened. But, “Thank goodness!” (as Bilbo said), as a Christian I know that those historical events are a small part of a much larger plan.

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