Whenever I’m asked what I’m reading, my answer is always the same: TLC on repeat. At any given time, I will be reading something by J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, or G.K. Chesterton. Or, I’m reading something about them or their works. Recently, I completed The Good News of the Return of the King: The Gospel in Middle-earth by Michael Jahosky, which, as the title states, reflects on the gospel message within Tolkien’s created world. But more importantly, it also illustrates why imaginative works are so important to sharing the good news.
While J.R.R. Tolkien was a devout Catholic, there seems to be nothing overtly Christian about The Lord of the Rings. The characters have no religion and there is no mention of God. Tolkien’s work seems even less Christian when compared to Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, which is intentionally a Christian allegory. The main thesis of Jahosky’s book, however, is that LotR is not a Christian allegory but a parable, meaning it is about the same thing that Jesus’ parables are about: the good news about the return of the king.
The obvious question at this point is Why? Why would a Christian author create a gospel-eque work when we can just read the actual gospel in the Bible? I think Christians, especially apologists, have grossly undervalued the importance of the imagination in the life of the believer. Now, this statement may conjure an image of an online atheist troll proclaiming, “Hahaha u admit ur god is imaginary!!!” But by imagination I don’t mean imaginary, as in fake or make-believe. I simply mean the mental faculty that allows us to “see” beyond this world. And it is this act of “seeing” which can be a powerful tool to introduce someone to the gospel.
Throughout his life and ministry, Jesus could have just lectured about theology or given collections of rules to follow. But he often taught in parables, fictional stories used to convey truth about the Kingdom of God. Instead of simply saying that God is loving and merciful, he provided stories that illustrated what God’s love and mercy are like. Jesus’ parables enable us to see truth in action, which is much more impactful than straightforward propositional statements.
This is why the imagination is so important, not just to Christians, but also to unbelievers. Our culture has become increasingly post-Christian, and many people simply do not understand concepts such as sin and salvation. The gospel is like a foreign language. Thus, we need a way to translate the good news into something our culture can understand. If you’ve followed FreeThinking Ministries for a while, you know we often do this with TV and movies. We use Star Wars and superheroes to illustrate truths about the Christian worldview. Every good story can provide some point of connection to the one True Story, the gospel. We use our imaginations to “see” the gospel, which prepares people to hear the gospel.
But more than just showing people the truth of Christianity, we must also convey its goodness and beauty. This is why we need more tools than just syllogisms in our apologetics—we need good stories. Tolkien does not preach to us in Lord of the Rings; he presents a world bathed in goodness and beauty. This awakens a desire within us to find the source of all that is good and beautiful: God. And while we may not be master storytellers like J.R.R. Tolkien, we can still find imaginative ways of illustrating the good news. We must show people how Christianity answers our mind’s deepest questions and satisfies our heart’s greatest desires.
God created our rational minds and he created our imaginations. Apologists tend to focus on the first while neglecting the second. Arguments and syllogisms will take us only so far, targeting just one aspect of the soul. We need to find creative ways to engage the whole person, to show not just the truth of Christianity, but also its goodness and beauty. Perhaps a stroll through Middle-earth can be the first step towards an encounter with the one true King.