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Did Gandalf Rescue Evangelicals?

Yesterday afternoon I was watching the live stream of the 2016 ERLC National Conference. Specifically, I tuned into a panel that discussed how evangelicals could engage with art in a gospel-centered way. In the course of the conversation, one of the panelists, Alissa Wilkinson (a film critic that you should read), remarked that, in her view, evangelical attitude toward art has notably improved over the last 10 years.

I agree with that. Having grown up in conservative evangelical culture my entire life, I absolutely have noticed a change in how many pastors, theologians, and those in Christian circles have talked about film, literature, TV, etc. There just seems to be a greater interest right now in talking about art from a Christian perspective than there was when, say, I was in junior high, and buying the “kids versions” of the Left Behind books and the albums of rock bands that were openly marketed as “mainstream alternatives.”

But Wilkinson’s comment got me thinking: What changed? What happened with evangelicals roughly 10 years ago that set these trends in motion? Here’s a theory: Peter Jackson happened. The Lord of the Rings film trilogy is, I believe, the most influential factor in the renewal of American evangelicalism’s interest in art.

The Fellowship of the Ring premiered in December of 2001. The timing of that release is important, because just a few weeks before FOTR, the first film version of the Harry Potter novels also premiered. Up to this point, Harry Potter was the most significant literary event in the world, and evangelicals had spent most of their time and energy debating whether it was even permissible to read/watch. There was precious little “engagement” with the biggest book of the century; it just fell, like so many other things did, into trenches of evangelical “Do or Don’t” war.

But when Fellowship debuted, evangelicals were flummoxed. Here was a PG-13 adaptation of a novel written by a traditional Catholic in the latter half of the 20th century. I had never heard of J.R.R. Tolkien when I saw the movie in December 2001, and neither had most of my family or friends. But enough Christians knew about the books to herald the coming of the movies as a significant moment for believers and Hollywood.

There was, of course, an irony here. Many of the influential evangelical publications that had urged believers to avoid the wizardry of Harry Potter took a starkly different approach to Gandalf. The dissonance was unmistakeable. World Magazine, which had studiously criticized the Potter books, preemptively advertised Fellowship as a “family-friendly blockbuster” that Christians should be interested in (and so too with the next two Lord of the Rings movies). Plugged In (Focus on the Family’s media review publication) threw red flags all over Hogwarts, but saw Tolkien’s “Christian themes at work” in Jackson’s films. The difference was, of course, that Tolkien spoke openly about his Catholic faith, while in the evangelical world, you could occupy your day reading chain emails with conspiracy theories about J.K. Rowling’s intentions. Unlike the Potter phenomenon, a lot of believers saw in the Lord of the Rings movies an opportunity to see their “values” on the screen.

The effects were immediate. Lord of the Rings was an enormous financial success, of course, fomenting new trends in cinema and a wave of religiously tinged “prestige pictures.” But more than that, the movies started something in evangelicals. Suddenly it seemed that Reformed Christians everywhere were putting fantasy books on their favorite lists. Shortly after the Lord of the Rings movies my own Bible college made the books required reading. Even Hogwarts started to fare better, with later installments of the film series getting positive reviews in many evangelical outposts. It wasn’t that evangelicals’ convictions had changed, necessarily; it was that Jackson’s movies had broken down barriers between faith and imagination that many American evangelicals didn’t even realize had gone up.

Just a theory, but this does seem to match my own experience as far as when I noticed a new evangelical engagement with popular art. It’s just not possible for me to imagine a round of Christian think pieces on something like Netflix’s “Stranger Things” 15 years ago. Now, it seems so inevitable that it’s actually good parody. Something had to happen for that to be the case.

In my view, Gandalf happened.

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books What I'm Reading

What I’m Reading

I thought I’d share some of my current reads. Right now I have a list about 6-7 books deep that I hope to get through before my wife’s due date of August 1. We’ll see about that, I suppose.

Keep in mind that none of these blurbs are necessarily recommendations, for the simple reason that I’m currently reading them and haven’t finished yet.

One note: Please consider buying these books and using the links on this blog post to do so. I’ve recently become a partner in the Amazon associates program for bloggers. If any of these titles appeal to you, I’d be grateful if you use these links to make your purchase.

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski

This one is #1 on my summer priority list. The Zaleskis set out to do something of a 4-way intellectual biography of the most important members of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles WIlliams, and Owen Barfield. I’ve loved the legacy of the Inklings for years and have always read about them in individual biographical volumes of the writers. This work looks like a treasure trove for anyone interested in these incredible minds and how they intersected with one another.

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam
Robert Putnam is one of the most well-known and influential social scientists of our time. Bowling Alone is an older work, published in 2000, but it is frequently referenced as a seminal study on the disintegration of close social bonds in America.

A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness, John Piper

This is John Piper’s new book, which looks like a brief theology of Scripture and the Christian use of it. Piper is one of the few authors on my “Read no matter what” list (a list everyone should have, by the way).

The Moviegoer, Walker Percy

I haven’t read anything by Walker Percy, and from what I’ve heard this is the best place to start. I decided to jump into this one after constantly seeing references to Percy in some of my favorite non-fiction writing.

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, Erik Larson

Erik Larson is quickly becoming one of the most celebrated history writers in the country. This book tells the true story of the Chicago Worlds Fair and the serial killer who stalked it. I’m very early onto this one, and already Larson’s rich prose and keen historical eye have me hooked.

Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey, Roger Scruton
Roger Scruton is one of my favorite living philosophers. I’ve read his books How to Be a Conservative and The Soul of the World. Modern Philosophy looks to be an introduction to contemporary issues in philosophical writing. Scruton has a gift for incisive scholarship, a crucial talent for any philosopher.