All around the world Christmas is a time where hope is renewed. It celebrates the birth of the one who came to save us. It is about God incarnate, our saviour. That is the real meaning of Christmas, and it is a story that deserves telling and retelling in these very dark days.
The Christian has hope because of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. No matter how hard life may be, no matter how much suffering and opposition, the believer knows there is hope for a better world to come. And that hope has sparked heroism in dark times.
Let me tie three things together in this meditation. The first is from my daily reading of today – from 1 Peter. In the very first chapter we see some of these themes being mentioned. In verses 3-9 we read this:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
The other two items I want to bring into this discussion are works of fiction. One is a trilogy of books written by a Christian turned into a successful film trilogy. The second is a series of films celebrating heroism and good over evil. You may know which ones I am referring to here.
Indeed, 25 years ago I wrote a book review of a helpful volume on both these series called Return of the Heroes: The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Contemporary Culture by an Australian writer Hal Colebatch: billmuehlenberg.com/1991/11/10/431/
So let me speak to each. The first is indeed the superlative Lord of the Rings trilogy by Tolkien. This epic work of literature celebrating the defeat of evil and the triumph of goodness features plenty of heroism – often exemplified by very ordinary characters. I have written about this many times before. See for example here: billmuehlenberg.com/2008/12/04/now-is-not-the-time-for-cowardice/
I mention Tolkien and the LOTR now because it is a bit of an anniversary – at least for the films, and a brand new article is worth calling your attention to here. The Fellowship of the Ring film version came out 15 years ago, just at a time when the world was reeling from 9/11.
Says G. Shane Morris:
“The Fellowship of the Ring” soared to box office success and critical acclaim. Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Weta Workshops, Howard Shore, and a small nation of cast and crew opened up Tolkien’s masterpiece to the world in an unprecedented way. The novels on which Jackson’s films were based quickly moved from paperback fantasy and sci-fi sections to shelf-ends or kiosks in bookstores. The merchandising machine ground into action like the wheels of Isengard. And this 2001 blockbuster kicked off a trilogy of films that would culminate in record ticket sales worldwide and one of the biggest Oscar hauls in history.
But of course, for true fans—especially those who shared Tolkien’s Christian faith—none of that was very important. Fifteen years ago, what really mattered was that the story they loved, the epic that shaped their lives, thought, and spirituality, had been discovered by millions for the first time. And for our culture, New Line Cinema’s interpretation of “The Fellowship of the Ring” became a guidepost of morality and meaning in a time when evil had reasserted itself in our world in a terrifying way.
“The Fellowship” and its successors told the essential story of Frodo, the One Ring, and the quest to save Middle-Earth from a fallen angel, with fidelity and deference to Tolkien’s work. Ultra-purist Bombadil devotees notwithstanding, it was a breathtaking movie. Along with its sequels, it drew us in with a sense of wonder and imminence of the supernatural that had gone missing from cinemas, or was at least relegated to the impersonal mysticism of “Star Wars” or “The Matrix.” “The Fellowship” really did change the landscape of filmmaking, and touched hearts in a way few products of the entertainment industry have in my lifetime. And it came not a moment too soon.
Tolkien hated allegory as a literary form, but he admitted that if his work could be described as allegory in any sense, it was an “allegory of power.” The central lesson of his saga is that even the smallest person can shape the course of history. Humility and mercy, not brute force, undo the power of evil. And the hope of fools wins out in the end. For a nation and a world reeling in the aftermath of September 11, it was just what the doctor ordered.
Not that a movie or even a peerless work of literature like “The Lord of the Rings” could heal the wounds inflicted by the terrorist attacks of that day, but they played the vital role that stories often play in binding up broken hearts and renewing spent courage. “The Fellowship” reasserted moral categories that had gone out of vogue, reminding us that cosmic evil really does exist, and more importantly, that cosmic good has the power to counter it, often in unexpected ways.
The second work of fiction I want to discuss is the Star Wars films. The brand new stand-alone Rogue One is now in cinemas and doing very well both at the box office and with the critics. Of course this series is not a Christian series, but it does again feature good winning over evil, often at great odds, and it does celebrate heroes and heroism.
I cannot say too much here about the new film, which I just saw yesterday, for fear of being a spoiler to those who have not yet seen it. But I can mention a few things. As always, we have the rebel alliance working against the evil empire.
They always seem to be outgunned and outnumbered, but the rebels are heroes who live for something greater than themselves. So here we again have a small ragtag team of heroes who valiantly fight the empire. And again, it seems like a lost cause – it seems hopeless.
But as the heroine Jyn Erso says to her wavering colleagues, “Rebellions are built on hope”. And it is hope that sustains them and drives them, with victory eventually attained. But as I say, I will not give away too many more details here.
The point is, there are plenty of Christian themes one can draw from such films. Indeed, we get Christmas themes here as well. The gospel message is all about a rebel fightback in very dark times. God’s good world has been usurped by the enemy, Satan, and all those now who fight against him are part of the rebellion.
Planet earth is under the power of an evil empire, and that is why Christ came: to break this power and set the earth’s captives free. Satanic bondage was broken when Christ died for us on the cross, and those who come to new life via repentance and faith become part of the resistance.
With Christ’s help we are now fighting evil and seeking to free as many other prisoners as we can. All this calls for heroism, courage, sacrifice and bravery. In our own strength we can do nothing, but with God’s help and the Spirit’s enabling, we can do great exploits for the King.
In these very dark times the world is in desperate need of real heroes, those who have hope to do great exploits as they fight against evil and stand for what is right. Christmas made all this possible. The Incarnation is one of the greatest things to have happened on planet earth.
It is because of Christ coming to live among us, and then die and rise again, that we have hope. We know the enemy’s days are now numbered, and because of Calvary we are assured of final victory. We are now simply in a mopping up operation. Sure, the war is still very real, and there are plenty of casualties along the way.
But we need heroic men and women who will follow Christ as we take on Satan’s strongholds and shine a light in this dark and needy world. Praise God for the Incarnation. May it inspire many more of us to become heroes, to rest in hope, and to do great things for Christ and the Kingdom.