Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Paul's Abraham and Tolkien's Sam

Paul believes that God fulfilled promises made to Abraham (Rom 4:13,16), though not covenant promises. Despite what scholars like Tom Wright tell us, there is no "climax of the covenant" in Paul's thought, which would imply continuity between the times of Abraham and Christ. Rom 4 (especially Rom 4:18-25) implies the opposite. During the period between Abraham and Christ the promise was not fulfilled by anyone, because no one had the faith-righteousness of Abraham (so Esler, Conflict and Identity in Romans, pp 192-194, 286). Such righteousness was anticipated by figures like David and Moses -- it was "spoken of" by David (Rom 4:6), and "written about" by Moses (Rom 10:5) -- but nowhere does Paul imply that David or Moses, or anyone other than Abraham, actually attained such faith-righteousness. Abraham alone was so righteoused for the precise benefit of later Christ-believers (Rom 4:23-25). There is no "build-up" to a climax in Christ, far less any salvation-history to speak of here. Abraham is an exception proving the rule in a faithless era.

Tolkien uses the character of Sam Gamgee much as Paul uses Abraham. For Paul the Judaic era was faithless; for Tolkien the pagan era was hopeless. In Lord of the Rings, evil is expected to be ultimately victorious. Frodo's wisdom speaks: "It’s like things are in the world; hopes fail." (The Field of Cormallen) Likewise, Sam "never had any hope in the quest from the beginning, but being a cheerful hobbit he had not needed hope." (The Black Gate is Closed) (I have written much about the theme of hopelessness in Tolkien's classic, for instance here.) Yet in Mordor, when Frodo and Sam are at their lowest, Sam succumbs to that vice which pagans know to be foolish:
"Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach." (The Land of Shadow)
Hope is seen here, exceptionally, as a virtue: evil is but "a passing thing"; and good can be counted on to prevail in the end. Perhaps being overcome by a sign of beauty in the worst place on earth is what it takes to bring about desperate optimism against the conventions of ordinary wisdom. But I think we can be stronger here. Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings as a pre-history to our own, and he may have intended Sam's "epiphany" as a pious anticipation of the future. If this is true, then Sam's hope in the Morgai Vale isn't so much for Frodo's quest, but for a radical change which would someday break the cycle of the world's suffering. It anticipates, however obliquely, the Judeo-Christian victory. Sam thus serves as an exception to the rule of his time. Like Abraham in Rom 4, he anticipates "something better" in a distant future.

Of course, there are as many differences between Paul and Tolkien as there are similarities. Paul was a convert, and a hostile witness to his parent faith. He had actually experienced plenty of faith and righteousness as a Jew, despite what Rom 7 tells us. He had been blameless by the law (Philip 4:4b-6). He'd had a robust conscience, faithfully fulfilled the law, and knew that nothing could be more glorious than the Israelite covenant. But from his hostile hindsight perspective (Philip 3:7-11, cf. II Cor 3:7-11), he now understands this to have been a pseudo-righteousness -- faithless, in fact, without the benefit of the messianic redeemer.

Tolkien had never been a pagan; he was Catholic to the core, a faith he always took for granted. Because of this, he is able to depict the pagan world-view more on its own terms. Far from "hostile hindsight", Tolkien writes from the perspective of "outsider emulation". He loved the ancient sagas of the north which evoked courage for its own sake, against all the odds. Unlike the apostle, Tolkien doesn't promote something new over and against an inferior past. The superiority of the present is taken for granted, which allows him, ironically, to appreciate the nobility of the pagans despite themselves. He well understood how the northern pagan tradition demanded more of people than the Christian: to resist and combat evil, not because there is any hope in doing so -- after all, evil will be triumphant in apocalypses like Ragnarok -- but simply because it is the right thing to do.

Paul the apocalyptic convert looked back on the era of the Jewish covenant as a dark age, and at Abraham as a lone faith-figure who anticipated better things to come. He used Abraham to bash a faithless past and glorify the present/future. Tolkien the more secure Catholic looked upon the pagan era as grim but inherently noble at the same time, emulating pagan virtues even knowing they were vices. He used the character of Sam only subtly to hint at greater things to come. Both Abraham and Sam, in any case, show their authors' need for something greater than what was offered by the traditions they adored.


Blogger Chris Petersen said...

"Despite what scholars like Tom Wright tell us, there is no "climax of the covenant" in Paul's thought"



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