The Christian Liberal Arts as Tolkienesque Quest

How’s this for a college recruitment slogan?

“Bethel University: you might not come back, but you will not be the same”

No? What if we had Sir Ian McKellen intone it, as in the first part of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy, when Martin Freeman’s Bilbo is being encouraged by McKellen’s wizard Gandalf to go on a dangerous quest:

Bilbo: Can you promise that I will come back?

Gandalf: No. And if you do, you will not be the same.

As far as I can tell, that exchange is the screenwriters’ condensation of this speech from J.R.R. Tolkien’s original story:

“…I should like it all plain and clear,” said [Bilbo] obstinately, putting on his business manner (usually reserved for people who tried to borrow money off him), and doing his best to appear wise and prudent and professional and live up to Gandalf’s recommendation. “Also I should like to know about risks, out-of-pocket expenses, time required and remuneration, and so forth”—by which he mean: “What am I going to get out of it? and am I going to come back alive?”

Now that sounds like a question you might hear nowadays in the admissions office of a liberal arts college: “What am I going to get out of it?”

As I continue to think about metaphors that might help us think anew about (and communicate to others) what’s valuable about the Christian liberal arts, I like the notion of our model of education as a Tolkienesque quest. Because if we were to be completely honest with our prospective students and their nervous parents, we would tell them that we can’t guarantee they’ll get anything tangible, fungible, or salable out of the education we offer. Or even that they’ll come out of it spiritually unscathed.

But they will not be the same. That we can promise.

* * * * *

This has been kicking around in my mind for about a month now, but kept getting stuck in the execution. But yesterday was a bad enough day for many of us at Bethel that rather than wait for the kinks to iron themselves out, I’ll go with a work-in-progress in hopes that it encourages, inspires, or at least irritates. Caveat lector.

* * * * *

Tolkien, The HobbitI should say off the bat that I am no Tolkien scholar — do not expect sophisticated exegesis of The Hobbit or the Ring trilogy, and I’ve read no more of The Silmarillion than its cover — but I know enough not to read it like a Christian allegory. Nevertheless, darkness is such an active, ominous force in Tolkien that it’s hard not to start by considering that if a Christian liberal arts education is anything like the quests of Bilbo, Frodo, or the others, then we should start with the ways in which it takes us to dark places — in ourselves most of all.

There were no clouds overhead yet, but a heaviness was in the air; it was hot for the season of the year. The rising sun was hazy, and behind it, following it slowly up the sky, there was a growing darkness, as of a great storm moving out of the East. And away in the North-west there seemed to be another darkness brooding about the feet of the Misty Mountains, a shadow that crept down slowly from the Wizard’s Vale. (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers)

The liberal arts cover an enormous diversity of terrain, taking us from the study of things as quietly reassuring as the Shire to those as densely mysterious as Fangorn. But from that diversity, we are reminded again and again of the same unifying truths: that God has created and declared it good, and is even now redeeming and restoring it.

But in between those two truths, that our earth, our age lies in the shadow of the Fall. I need only look over the syllabus for the modern European history survey I’ll be teaching this afternoon to remember that a Christian liberal arts education plunges us into the reality of evil: from the “dark Satanic mills” of the merciless industrialization that inspired Tolkien’s imaginings of a defiled Isengard to the corpse-coated fields of the Western Front, which haunted the Great War veteran as he conjured the Dead Marshes.

Even before our studies take us to whatever is the most barren wasteland of human experience that we can examine or imagine (Mordor, for Tolkien; the Holocaust, for me), some will not have (figuratively) survived the journey. If the Christian liberal arts liberate us to respond to God’s grace and follow Christ, then they must also free us to choose the opposite response. All will doubt; some will lose hope.

But for those who can press on believing in a God whose Son shares our suffering (even if they can’t fully comprehend why He permits evil in the first place), the quest will reveal that the darkness was not something to observe at a distance, to remark upon in others from the safe perch of objectivity. Like Frodo (and Bilbo before him), we start out thinking ourselves able to manage the temptations that destroy others, but we learn better.

See my meditations on how studying the past provokes moral reflection. Or one asking how we understand Paul’s claim to be the “worst” of sinners in light of studying the Holocaust…

River baptism ca. 1900
River baptism at the turn of the 20th century in North Carolina – Wikimedia

This wouldn’t be much of a Christian series on metaphor without one sacramental reference, but rather than go with the Eucharist (e.g., Covenant historian and educator Karl Olsson, in a 1964 address: “The sacrament of communion is a daring and sacred analogue of all learning. The student metaphorically swallows his teacher”), I’d contemplate another rite:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Rom 6:3-4, NRSV)

One may think of this kind of education as an extended asking and answering of the classic baptismal questions: “Do you renounce Satan… the evil powers of this world… all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God? Do you turn to Jesus Christ?”

But that’s probably another post… In any case, like any Tolkien quest, we end at a mountain.

(In 1961 Olsson argued that “no student ever matures who has not felt the earth shaking beneath his feet”; the following year he titled his faculty address, “The Volcanic Campus.”)

But here the literary metaphor ought to give way to a biblical one, from the Epistle to the Hebrews. Specifically, from a chapter whose first lines I’ve read on the first day of our Christianity and Western Culture class for over twenty semesters now (“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…”), but the rest of which I’d neglected until a sermon mere weeks ago:

You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them,because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”

But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Heb 12:18-24, NIV)

As our pastor pointed out about this passage:

There really is only one God, and there really is only one mountain. But depending on how you approach that mountain, approach that God, your experience will be very different…

You can approach education as a contractual agreement, with costs to be sized up against benefits and risks to be managed. Like Bilbo, you can ask of a college, “What am I going to get out of it? and am I going to come back alive?” You can come to the mountain in fear, hoping not to hear another word.

Or you can approach it as a quest that ends not with the possession of riches or fame, but with knowledge of the living God, and of yourself. You can come to the mountain, passing through sorrow into joy, and you can know far more fully who you are, and whose.

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