The Battle of the Somme, “The Lord of the Rings,” and apocalyptic theology

Friday, July 1, 2016

Today is the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, which is generally considered the most hellish battle ever fought in modern times, if not indeed in human history. The attack of the British army against the dug-in German positions along the Western Front in France resulted in the death of more than nineteen thousand British soldiers, most within the first hour of the assault. The horrors of trench warfare, and its effect on civilization, have been recovered in modern memory during the last decade, as the 100th anniversary of World War I approached. For all of those who seek to think biblically and theologically, it’s important to recall the effect of the war on Enlightenment optimism about human nature.
J. R. R. Tolkein took part in the battle of the Somme, and it changed him. The Lord of the Rings was written by a man who took no joy in combat. More to the point, Tolkien came to believe that “the power of Evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures.” At the time of the Armistice in 1918, he wrote in a letter, “The War is not over…Wars are always lost, and The War always goes on, and it is no good growing faint!” 
I feel myself “growing faint” when I contemplate the anti-torture movement, on which front I “fought” in the 2000s. I thought we had won that battle when Obama declared the end of torture by the US in 2008. That was stupid of me, and it is unfaithful now to think that we have “won” this battle. Donald Trump rallies his troops to the call of “waterboarding and worse” on a regular basis. 
I like to recall that Flannery O’Connor sometimes took delight in rereading her own stories. Once in a while I reread bits of my Battle for Middle-earth, as if someone other than myself had written it (it’s my favorite of all my books).  Here is the last paragraph of my Introduction:

In a letter, Tolkien used a haunting phrase of Galadriel’s to explain that he did not expect History to be anything other than “a long defeat.” Wars are never won, and the Shadow will always grow again. In this respect there is a profound melancholy throughout his tale. There is an unsleeping Enemy bent on our destruction, and Tolkien’s epic narrative conveys the biblical message that human nature left to itself is incapable of effective resistance. But, as the Ring saga so wonderfully shows us, we are not left to ourselves. The Writer of the Story takes an active part in history, and, as Tolkien has said, the stories, myths, and legends that are based in this knowledge and grounded in this promise are capable of offering the reader an unforgettable and transforming vision of the ultimate Victory that is yet to come. (Quotation from The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, p. 193)

The National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) was founded by my colleague Professor George Hunsinger, who organized a conference at Princeton Theological Seminary in 2006. Since then, the organization has grown to become a force to reckon with:
I was honored to preach at the opening conference. The sermon, “My Enemy, Myself,” was published in a volume of many powerful essays, Torture is a Moral Issue, George Hunsinger, ed., Eerdmans, 2006.

Two days after I posted this, a good piece about Tolkien and the Somme appeared:

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