Peter Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth has come to an end. From the release of the first “Lord of the Rings” movies (Fellowship of the Ring in December 2001) to the last of “The Hobbit” movies (The Battle of the Five Armies in December 2014), this sextet of films is now complete. I watched the last movie rather wistfully, knowing that there would not be any more offerings to come. The Billy Boyd (Pippin the Hobbit) end-credits song only punctuated it for me, rather poignantly.
Unfortunately I felt that Peter Jackson pulled a George Lucas: the original trilogy was a masterpiece; the latter prequel trilogy, though full of shiny CGI, was somehow lacking in the magic that made the original trilogy great. Nonetheless, Jackson’s “Hobbit” series did get progressively better with each film, and I thought The Battle of the Five Armies (though I am upset that they changed it from the original There and Back Again which was Tolkien’s subtitle for his novel) was the best of the trilogy.
This blog post is not a review of the movie but a discussion about mythology and its place in Christian missions.
For the first three years at Biola, I taught in the Torrey Honors Institute which is a Western “Great Books” program. The curriculum included books by C.S. Lewis, Plato, Shakespeare, Homer, etc. Then for my next three years at Biola, I switched over to teaching missions in the School of Intercultural Studies. Some people have asked me what, if anything, the two have to do with each other. “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” as Tertullian famously queried. Or in my situation, what does the Western canon have to do with non-Western missions?
First of all, this presupposes a falsehood: that Christianity is indigenous to the West, and missions is always toward the non-Western world. I teach a class on the book of Acts and I point out to my students that Christianity started in Asia: specifically, Israel and Asia Minor (what is today Turkey). Then it spread to Africa in Acts 8 via the Ethiopian eunuch. Christianity did not reach Europe until Acts 16 when Paul received the Macedonian Call—therefore Europe was the last of these three continents to receive the faith! So, this means that, contrary to popular modern opinion where people have no sense of history and perennially accuse Christian missions of being Western imperialism, Christian missions originally went from Asia and Africa to Europe! The first missionaries in Paul’s band were Asians and Africans. Christianity is not indigenous to the West. The West was a recipient of Christianity.
Three questions I always ask my students, as a sort of pop quiz: what countries (three different answers) do these three foods originally come from: coffee; the potato; the orange (fruit).
Many people will say coffee comes from either Latin America (Brazil or Colombia) or perhaps Java in Indonesia. For the potato, people often guess Idaho or Ireland. And for the orange, people surmise Spain or Florida, or even California! The answers often surprise people: coffee is from Ethiopia; the potato is from Peru; and the orange is from China (the German word for orange is Apfelsine which literally means Chinese apple; and don’t forget there are Mandarin oranges)!
The point is, sometimes something is associated with a country for so long that people actually think that country originated it: like British tea. Tea is as British as the Queen, but think about it: tea is a tropical plant. It grows in warm weather, and Britain has anything but. You can’t grow tea in Britain. The British appropriated tea from their colonies in India and China. And now it’s inextricably linked to the culture.
In a similar manner, the West has become so associated with Christianity that G.K. Chesterton’s friend, author Hilaire Belloc, infamously stated, “the faith is Europe and Europe is the faith.” How far from the historical truth! Nevertheless, we must study how the West appropriated the faith and how people arrived at such conclusions.
Most cultures around the world have similar origin stories—for example, almost all have a flood narrative, though they differ in the details. What does this prove? Simply put, there actually was a real flood, but the tale of that has been passed down in various iterations. But this begs the question: which iteration is the truth? Which was the original one, the mother of them all? My contention is: the Biblical account.
So what does this have to do with missions? Don Richardson in Eternity in Their Hearts calls this the Principle of Redemptive Analogy. Every culture in the world has kernels of truth in them, for two reasons: 1) all cultures derive from an original Mother Culture when humanity was one, and 2) we are all created by the same God. The similarities, therefore, are not coincidental. The task of the missionary, then, is not to give truth that is imported and foreign, but rather to uncover truth that already exists in native cultures.
For example, this was true in China when the missionaries Matteo Ricci (Italy), James Legge (Scotland), and William Boone (USA), all argued over the proper translation for the name of God (which, incidentally, is the hardest word to translate in the Bible). Ricci argued for Tianzhu, Legge contended that Shangdi was the right word, and Boone wanted shen. Each of these words was problematic, as they had linguistic and cultural baggage (much as what would arise from using Allah for the name of the Christian God while talking to a Muslim). But, despite the differing opinions of these three missionaries, they all agreed that using Yehehua (the transliteration of Yahweh) was the wrong word to use, because the Chinese would never accept an imported word; it had to be indigenous. You see this in Acts 17 when Paul preaches to the men of Athens on the Areopagus and claims that their worship of an “Unknown God” proves they were unwittingly worshiping Jesus this whole time, they just had to have someone uncover it for them, and provide some correction for some of their theological errors regarding this God; nevertheless this does not detract from the fact that they were on the right track all along.
Biola professor J.P. Moreland contends that Plato was 70% Christian—without ever having Scripture or having anyone evangelize him. He somehow just “knew,” and came so close to the Truth, because of the Principle of Redemptive Analogy. In fact he was so “Christian” that Augustine, the greatest theologian in the history of the Church outside of the Bible, built much of his theology on Plato. This means that Plato, despite being a pagan Greek philosopher, somehow was embedded with the Truth unknowingly, and it came out in his writings. I would argue the same with Buddha or Confucius, that they are 60% Christian—so if Augustine can build on Plato, then an Eastern Christian theologian can build on Buddha or Confucius as foundations for Truth. There is much overlap between these two Eastern philosophers and the teachings of Jesus. Natural Law imprinted on them something very close to the Divine Reality, even if it does require some course correction.
In fact, biblical examples abound: Abraham, Melchizedek, the Magi, and Cornelius were all pagans who received theophanies (visions of God) and that’s how they came to know the True God; not because of Bible or evangelism. The men of Athens and the Ethiopian eunuch were also on the right track, and just needed someone to slightly correct their theology, and reveal to them the True Name of Jesus.
C.S. Lewis recognized this when he wrote his Chronicles of Narnia and the Space trilogy. Consider the following examples:
In The Last Battle, there is a character named Emeth (which, incidentally, is the Hebrew word for “Truth”). But he is not a Narnian, he is of the race of the pagan Calormenes. Yet Lewis writes the words of Aslan speaking to Emeth:
‘Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me.’ Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, ‘Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one?’ The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, ‘It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he had truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child?’ I said, ‘Lord, thou knowest how much I understand.’ But I said also (for the truth constrained me), ‘Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days.’ ‘Beloved,’ said the Glorious One, ‘unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.’
And in That Hideous Strength, the Director (a sort of Christ figure) talks to Jane about Maleldil (the name for God in the trilogy):
‘Do you place yourself in the obedience,’ said the Director, ‘in obedience to Maleldil?’ ‘Sir,’ said Jane, ‘I know nothing of Maleldil. But I place myself in obedience to you.’ ‘It is enough for the present,’ said the Director. ‘This is the courtesy of Deep Heaven: that when you mean well, He always takes you to have meant better than you knew. It will not be enough for always. He is very jealous. He will have you for no one but Himself in the end. But for tonight, it is enough.’
This inclusivism is definitely not universalism; it is not suggesting that all religions lead to Heaven, nor is it saying that a halfway knowledge of God is sufficient. The men of Athens and the Ethiopian eunuch both needed someone to lead them all the way after they had gotten halfway there already without human assistance—this is why missions is still necessary. Plato and Confucius and Buddha also needed someone to take their hand and lead them the rest of the way; I would never presume to call them Christians. But they had some great semblance of the Truth and we cannot deny that.
Now back to The Hobbit: like Augustine building on Plato, Tolkien built on Anglo-Saxon and Norse mythology in order to tell his Christian story. So what is the point of myth? C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien debated this, to the conclusion that myth is not a fabrication but rather a way of telling truth. Watch this video for an excellent recounting of Lewis & Tolkien’s conversation. If the West needs myth to point to the truth of Christianity, then so does every other culture in the world. Whenever we do missions in other cultures, whether it be the West or the non-Western world, we need to look for indigenous footholds to explain the Gospel in their own cultural idioms and paradigms. Missions is not Christians telling non-Christians 100% of what they don’t know. It is using what they already know, but perhaps only see dimly as in a glass darkly, and building on that to show them the Light. It is saying, “You already have half the Truth; let me show you the other half.” So it becomes an equal partnership and not paternalism. This is why myths, and stories, and culture, are all so important.
P.S. Don’t believe that the West received an acculturated view of the faith? Here are some proofs that Western Christianity is baptized paganism:
-The word “God” is as pagan as the Chinese using the word Shangdi (which implies the Supreme God in a pantheon). “God” derives from the Goths who believed themselves to be divine.
-You might say, “Well what about the Greek word Theos that is used in the Bible? Surely that is a pure Christian name! Actually it’s not: Theos is totally pagan. It and its corresponding word Deus in Latin are derived from the Greek Zeus, which is like Shangdi because it implies the Supreme God in a pantheon. Another Greek word used in the Bible is kurios which means “Lord” but was a shockingly pagan word to be applied to Jesus at the time because it originally was used for the divinity of the Emperor, Caesar.
-Other pagan Greek words that Christianity has baptized and used in the New Testament: ekklesia (church—but it originally meant a pagan assembly); oikumene (the whole household of God—but it originally meant the Roman Empire); logos (the Word—but it originally was used for pagan reason and philosophy); baptize (baptize—but originally it was an economic term, meaning to immerse or soak something, like a ship sinking or cloth being dyed); Hades (the word Jesus uses for “hell” is obviously from Greek mythology).
-Our calendar: like Thursday which is Thor’s Day, and July and August which are named for Julius and Augustus Caesar. Even us switching our Sabbath to Sunday instead of the Jewish Sabbath of Saturday was a departure from the Bible.
-Christmas: it was originally a pagan holiday, and corresponded very nearly with the Winter Solstice, the darkest day of the year. The peoples of northern Europe made Jesus their own, coming to celebrate his unknown birthday (which historians say likely was in April) when the sun was just beginning its long slow climb in the sky every day toward spring, toward new light and new growth. They lit candles in balsam and burned a Yule log to help the cosmos along. Yet these were their pre-Christian, “pagan” celebrations, the time when they recognized the rebirth of the life-giving god of the sun, of the twelve dark days seen as “the nights of spirits,” when spirits seemed especially present and branches of mistletoe and winterberry were hung to appease them. It was also traditionally a time to reach out to Freyr, the god of fertility for whom the “Friday” is named, through the sacrifice of a pig (his favored animal) and feasting on ham.
-Easter: just as Christmas was on the Winter Solstice, Easter was on the Vernal Equinox, when day and night were of equal length. Though it does have its roots in the Passover of the Old Testament, it derived its name from the Babylonian fertility goddess Ishtar. We have basically overlaid our Christian holiday on this pagan one, which is why we have symbols of fertility like bunnies and eggs.
-For more, read Frank Viola and George Barna’s book pagan Christianity: everything from our church building to the order of worship, and even the sermon, pastor, and sacraments, had pagan origins.
But I wouldn’t worry that our Western Christianity is baptized paganism. There’s nothing wrong with that—because that’s what all Christians are: baptized pagans! But the awareness of our own pagan roots means that we Westerners should not try to expunge all indigenous culture from non-Westerners as incompatible with Christianity, but rather see it as a great potential supporter of the faith to make it truly acculturated, because God is the Father of every culture in the world, and it all belongs to him. Our own myths and legends are not lies or opponents to Christianity but can point to the ultimate Truth, because all truth is God’s truth.