Christians can celebrate The Rings of Power series
Our society needs Tolkien’s critique of unrestrained desire
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The culture wars are raging over Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, specifically its “woke” casting of “elves of color,” but these detractors have missed the forest for the trees. We live in a tragically and dangerously misguided post-Christian world, and yet the world’s second wealthiest man, Jeff Bezos, chose to shovel the world’s largest cinematic budget into adapting the deeply Christian world of The Lord of the Rings for television. This is cause for celebration.
Poised to cost around $1 billion in total, The Rings of Power is shattering records with its massive price tag. For the rights alone, Amazon forked over $250 million dollars to Tolkien’s estate, and the cost per episode is shaping up to be somewhere north of $50 million, blowing away the competition. For comparison, HBO’s massively popular Game of Thrones cost around $10 million an episode, and reports are that its new prequel series, House of the Dragon, is still running under $20 million.
If our society is going to throw unspeakable fortunes at entertainment, then we should thank God that first prize goes to the world created by J.R.R. Tolkien and not the sadistic, materialistic, and pornographic world of George R.R. Martin. If Martin’s Game of Thrones is the series our post-Christian culture deserves, The Rings of Power could offer some of the medicine our sick society needs.
Our cultural rot is rooted in society’s unqualified embrace of all desires as natural and good. Call it what you will—liberal individualism or, as John Calvin did, the idol factory of the human heart—the post-Christian world lacks the resources to critique its love of love and its obsession with its own desires. As a result, even earnest Christians living in the ruins of Christendom struggle to mount any sort of compelling argument against the various ways human desires run haywire—like the celebration of debauchery on screen in almost every episode of Game of Thrones. The general response seems limited to asking: Who are we to judge if no one is physically hurt, or if everyone consented to it?
Christianity’s decline has turned our moral judgment on its head, and what John Calvin once called idolatry of the heart, the Supreme Court of the United States re-baptized as “the heart of liberty,” celebrating the individualistic “right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
On other hand, throughout Tolkien’s universe we find a constant rejoinder against this idolatrous individualism. Tragedy stalks all who follow the longings of their heart rather than the call of duty and the law of nature. From The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings, we see gold and selfish ambition bring down both heroes and villains. The wretched character of Smeagol (Gollum) is emblematic of this. His desire for the One Ring leads him to murder his best friend and his possession of it turns him into a monstrous hunchbacked recluse.
In a powerful illustration of the consequences of idolatry, Smeagol is enslaved to his sinful desires, no longer able to distinguish himself from the object of his desire (“he always called himself ‘my precious,’” Tolkien tells us in The Hobbit). Would the Supreme Court really have us believe that Smeagol is enjoying the so-called “heart of liberty” in defining his “own concept of existence?”
In the Second Age, the setting of Tolkien’s universe depicted in The Rings of Power, the characters are new but the refrain is the same: idolatrous desire leads to destruction. The Numenoreans (mortal man in Tolkien’s retelling of the biblical Fall narrative) are living in an unspoiled paradise. Like Adam and Eve, they are bound by a single prohibition—in this case, they are forbidden from sailing to the west, the “Undying Lands.” But, eventually, they grow envious of the elves who live there in immortal bliss and disobey the creators’ command, losing everything in the process.
Current controversies aside, The Rings of Power will ultimately be about Numenorean man’s idolatrous desire to be like the elves in immortality; rather than submitting to the divine will, to instead become like gods and live forever. No level of woke revisioning (and there is some) can get away from this essential plot point (especially not under the watchful eyes and binding legal contracts of Tolkien’s estate).
When so much of television and film represents what is wrong with our world, we should rejoice that Amazon put a $1 billion investment into Tolkien’s retelling of Genesis 3. The series may find other ways to disappoint, as most series do, but in a society that so regularly attempts to refashion God’s creation into its own fallen likeness, we can be thankful that Tolkien’s stories critiquing unrestrained desire still interest a post-Christian world. We should see this interest as a sign of hope.
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