by John Ellis
Okay. Hear me out. Well, don’t so much hear me out as prepare to interrupt me and provide counterpoints, because I’m not stating a thesis supported by well-crafted arguments. I’m sneaking a (possible) future thesis inside of a question. So, hear me out in the context that this article is like the beginning of an interesting debate that springs up in a lively yet jovial conversation amongst friends sharing a beer or two. Hear me out and then chime in. Because while I may not be making an argument just yet, I do believe I’m on to something.
Here’s my question/thesis: Is it possible that the almost cultic fascination with The Lord of the Rings within American evangelical circles has helped feed the rise of the neo-Paganism embraced by theobros and Christian nationalists?
There’s a bunch of things tangled up in that question, I get that, but before unraveling it – or likely tangling it up even more – I want to defend my Lord of the Rings bona fides.
When I was in middle school, my brother introduced me to the wonderful world created by J.R.R. Tolkien. From that point on, I read the series at least once a year until I was in my late twenties when Peter Jackson released The Fellowship of the Ring. I was disappointed in the movies, but I’m not sure that’s why I stopped reading the books. I don’t really know why I stopped reading the books, but I haven’t read them in two decades. Having read them over a dozen times, though, I still remember them very well. And since I last read them, I’ve learned a thing or two about history, philosophy, literature, and theology and can more clearly see the many influences, motifs, and objectives in Tolkien’s writing. Adding another piece of evidence to my Tolkien bona fides, I should’ve written “since I last read it” because Tolkien never intended for his masterpiece to be divided into three parts. I’ve also read The Silmarillion multiple times, so I’m quite versed in the mythology and histories of the Ea universe (for some reason, my laptop isn’t allowing me to type accents using the alt codes, hence the lack of an umlaut in Ea).
Back to my question/thesis, though, and I first started thinking about it while listening to my favorite podcast The Rest is History hosted by historians Tom Holland (the author of Dominion) and Dominic Sandbrook (who has a book on the Vikings coming out this November that I can’t wait to read). This week, they’ve released two episodes about The Lord of the Rings. To be clear, while the episodes are great (I’ve embedded them below for those interested), they don’t speak to my question/thesis. But being reminded of Tolkien’s fascination and admiration of the stoical honor culture of the Norse and Germanic pagan societies and how he incorporated it into his mythical world caused me to put two and two together. Tolkien’s syncretism of Christianity and paganism in The Lord of the Rings may be an unexplored source of the rise of a neo-paganism increasingly embraced by white evangelicals being swept up in the fervor of Christian nationalism. Not the only source, mind you, but a source.
One of the many sad ironies of the Christian nationalist movement is how lacking in self-awareness its adherents are. Their stubborn refusal to see the syncretism that’s dragging their faith into the pits of hell is sad and consequential. That syncretism is remaking many American evangelical churches into temples of the Nietzschean Ubermensch (again with the lack of the umlaut) robed in the honor culture of neo-Paganism that embraces oppressive hierarchies. Another irony is that they’ve also embraced Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man while simultaneously denouncing Marcuse. The sovereignty of the individual is best protected by a staunch nationalism that jealously defends national sovereignty, in their view. That’s a lot of sovereignties for professing Christians, though. Christian nationalists have adopted critical theory and repurposed it as a self-serving tool to consolidate and protect power instead of (one of) critical theory’s intended purpose(s) of uncovering flaws in the system in the hopes of promoting flourishing and equity among increasingly larger population sets.
Starting with my bit about Marcuse, that’s a little off topic, I get that, but maybe not as off topic as it may first appear.
Critics of historical presentism are likely going to accuse me of chronological snobbery, but it’s not a secret that Tolkien was notoriously and vehemently opposed to globalization. While Middle-earth was multicultural, that multiculturalism came with a healthy dose of hierarchism. In other words, not only is Tolkien’s nationalism on full display (as well as his disdain for democracy) in The Lord of the Rings but also his belief that certain cultures are superior to others. So, no, my critical theory tangent above wasn’t really a tangent after all. Christian nationalists, many who love The Lord of the Rings and have been influenced by it, are catechized by a Christian story of good versus evil that is imbued with pagan ethics/ideals and that underscores their nationalist beliefs that their culture is morally superior to all others and is in a power struggle with lesser and morally inferior (if not downright evil) cultures.
Those are thick threads that deserve being pulled on, I believe. Not just because it would make for an interesting and lively conversation, but because it’s important that we (Christians in America, specifically) do the hard and sometimes painful work of deconstructing how we’ve been unwittingly influenced to erect idols and turn our eyes from Jesus. And I believe that there is a good chance that The Lord of the Rings has been and remains a source of much of what’s incorrect and frightening about the current trajectory of evangelicalism in America.