Tolkien’s advice for preachers.
This article was originally written for Mockingbird.
I don’t pretend to be a Tolkienologist or any sort of expert in Tolkien’s literary oeuvre. I’m more like a wannabe in that regard. Don’t get me wrong, I love The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) and The Hobbit, and I’ve read through the Middle Earth quests several times. But also: Peter Jackson’s adaptation is the best and Tom Bombadil is tedious, at best. I personally don’t think those perspectives are mutually exclusive. You can cross-examine me in the comments and show me all the ways I’m wrong. But I don’t think you will ever convince me that the hiatus with Ole’ Tom is better than just having Gandalf jump-start the narrative by saying the same things (which, by the way, is what Jackson and his team of writers did). Be that as it may, I have been inspired to read more of Tolkien’s other writings and not strictly the LOTR lore. But as hard as it is to escape Middle Earth, Tolkien’s prowess as an essayist and lecturer cannot be neglected. And, in fact, I think there’s much that ministers can (and should) glean from these writings, too.
Quite remarkably and, indeed, unexpectedly, Tolkien’s best advice for preachers appears in a paper he wrote examining the merits and legacy of Beowulf. Beowulf is, of course, a work that possesses a distinct reputation. I remember being assigned to “read” Beowulf in an under-graduate English Composition class. The assignment was to wade through the poem analytically and then write an essay about it. To be quite honest with you, though, I don’t think I read more than a hundred words of the ancient epic. And no doubt, Tolkien would likely scold me for such nonchalance. But I think I got a solid B on the essay, so I’m okay with that, sir (it might’ve been a solid C). Nevertheless, in the midst of his affirmative argument of Beowulf’s legacy, Tolkien makes a startling assertion concerning the method by which a myth is transmitted. He writes:
The term “folk-tale” is misleading; its very tone of depreciation begs the question. Folk-tales in being, as told — for the “typical folk-tale,” of course, is merely an abstract conception of research nowhere existing — do often contain elements that are thin and cheap, with little even potential virtue; but they also contain much that is far more powerful, and that cannot be sharply separated from myth, being derived from it, or capable in poetic hands of turning into it: that is of becoming largely significant — as a whole, accepted unanalysed. The significance of a myth is not easily to be pinned on paper by analytical reasoning. It is at its best when it is presented by a poet who feels rather than makes explicit what his theme portends; who presents it incarnate in the world of history and geography, as our poet had done. Its defender is thus at a disadvantage: unless he is careful, and speaks in parables, he will kill what he is studying by vivisection, and he will be left with a formal or mechanical allegory, and, what is more, probably with one that will not work. For myth is alive at once and in all its parts, and dies before it can be dissected.1
By this he means to contend for the conveyance of Beowulf’s narrative through verse. As off-putting as that might be for some, Tolkien affirms that that is the precise medium by which the theme of Beowulf is properly disseminated and discerned. Accordingly, I think preachers are able to better communicate their “myth” when they feel rather than merely reason what their myth portends.
As a clergyman, I will admit that preaching can become almost second nature. It is the repeatable task you can count on week-in and week-out. There’s a routine to it. And there is great comfort in that, but also great danger, too. The processes necessary to crank out another homily can become so implanted into your brain’s muscle memory that if you’re not careful, you can preach without ever feeling or sensing the words that comprise your sermon. The danger of preaching arises when the preacher himself is unmoved by that about which he is preaching. Such is why Tolkien’s words are, for me, so affecting. The import of the sermon is unlikely to stir the churchgoers unless I, too, am deeply stirred by the significance and truth of the myth about which I am sermonizing. “Our people must realize that we are bent on serious business,” Protestant minister John Henry Jowett affirms, “that there is a deep, keen quest in our preaching, a sleepless and a deathless quest.”2
As a preacher, I see myself more as a storyteller than anything else. And the one story with which I’ve been charged to proclaim is the story God himself wrote with his own blood. It’s the story of grace. This story is woven throughout our lives through manifold occasions in which we are the recipients of unmerited favor. It is a story that is best told through personal experience. Grace is not a doctrine that can be rightly comprehended through academic parsing and scholastic “vivisection.” Grace is easily rendered impotent through swarms of seminarians hoping to memorize its tenets and dissect it into clean and tidy categories. But like any myth rightly conveyed, the storyteller “feels rather than makes explicit” what his sermon means. The wonderful part is that, as a preacher, I am in possession of the greatest myth ever uttered. It is the story of the reversal of mankind’s curse, of evil’s undoing, of Mercy’s veto over Sin’s verdict. It is the grand news of the “Myth Become Fact.”
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics: And Other Essays, edited by Christopher Tolkien (London: HarperCollins, 2006), 15–16.
John Henry Jowett, The Preacher: His Life and Work (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1912), 171.