How Tolkien is helping me read the Bible

For the past three weeks or so I’ve been reading Jonathan Pennington’s incredible book, Reading the Gospels Wisely. It’s been an enveloping read – academic at times, eminently pastoral and practical at others. But it’s been a little exhausting because of how slow the book demands to be read. Pick up a book like that enough and it begins to be wearisome.

So I decided I needed a change of pace and have been in Middle-Earth for a little while. I’m still in volume one, Fellowship of the Ring. Last night I read about Frodo & co.’s journey into “The Old Forest,” an eerie place where trees sway and leaves rustle even though there’s no wind under the ominous cover of a dark night’s sky. Most of the hobbits have never been in the Old Forest. In fact not many people have at all. But Merry has. As they’re walking up out of a hidden pathway into this ominous and brooding place he tells them,

But the forest is queer… And the trees do not like strangers. They watch you. They are usually content merely to watch you, as long as daylight lasts, and don’t do much… But at night things can be most alarming, or so I am told. I have only once or twice been in here after dark, and then only near the hedge. I thought all the trees were whispering to each other, passing news and plots along in an unintelligible language; and the branches swayed and groped without any wind.

I carried that description with me the rest for the rest of the chapter. I couldn’t help it. Tolkien’s words are like a press, coming down on my imagination and stamping an image of… sinister… that doesn’t easily shake itself out or smooth over. It sticks. The image stays with you whether they reach a calm open meadow (and leaves you wondering if danger is just around the corner) or plunge headlong into an even more dangerous path (in which case you wonder how much worse it get).

And that is a good way to read anything, to see anything. Carrying an impression of a place/person/idea with you from one related situation to the next makes sense. It connects things that ought to be connected and helps us see abstract things (like a rustling tree or a hobbit’s fear or a suddenly snapping twig) in their context.

I thought the same thing about my reading in 1 Samuel in the Old Testament. The pair of books, 1 and 2 Samuel are written to describe the rise of King David. Any reader familiar with them will know that the transition from Saul to David is not exactly smooth. At one point Saul does the unthinkable: pursuing David with the intent to kill, he arrives at a town of priests where David was reported to stay, finds out that they supplied him with provisions to escape Saul’s pursuit, and then orders the mass killing of 85 priests. It’s an atrocity.

In fact, it’s such a horrendous request that his soldiers defy his orders. They refuse. And they are right to do so. These are priests, the only representatives Israel had before their holy God. They, the soldiers, know it is an unthinkable and senseless request. It shows Saul’s madness. His desire to suppress this rising and anointed King David has climaxed in ludicrous and gratuitous murder.

That is an image that presses down on my mind as hard as Tolkien’s Old Forest. As I read about David’s gracious decision (more than one actually) to spare Saul’s life, and what looks like repentance from Saul, things made more sense: Saul is mad. And his lust for power has culminated and infected his entire person. His following actions (from about 1 Sam 23 ff.) can be seen for what they actually are: the ravings of a sin-infested man hankering for approve that’s slowly but surely leaking from his tightening grasp.

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