The Gospel According to The Lord of the Rings: Week 4, Neither Strength Nor Good Purpose Will Last

The reason I've been dwelling on themes of providence and anthropology in The Lord of the Rings over the last two weeks is that these inform the central theological predicament of the story.

Specifically, the power of the Ring cannot be overcome by moral heroism, by an act of will. All who try to wield the Ring, even Gandalf, will eventually succumb to its power. To be sure, the Hobbits, due to their innate goodness, can resist the corrupting power of the Ring longer than most. But even Hobbits will succumb over time. As Gandalf says to Frodo early in the story:
A mortal, Frodo, who keeps one of the Great Rings, does not die, but he does not grow or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is a weariness. And if he often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he fades: he becomes in the end invisible permanently, and walks in the twilight under the eye of the dark power that rules the Rings. Yes, sooner or later — later, if he is strong or well-meaning to begin with, but neither strength nor good purpose will last — sooner or later the dark power will devour him. 
"Neither strength nor good purpose will last...sooner or later the dark power will devour..."

This is a part of the more pessimistic anthropology we find informing The Lord of the Rings. Yes, great heroism is on display in the story and required to accomplish the defeat of Sauron. But in the final analysis, moral heroism cannot defeat the power of evil. Frodo is strong and good, but by himself he would have failed in the end and all would have ended in disaster. At the final moment, the Ring overtook him. 

For Rutledge, what we find illustrated here in The Lord of the Rings is Paul's apocalyptic vision, how human persons are enslaved to dark spiritual powers. For Paul, Sin is a power that corrupts, weakens, and enslaves the human will. And the corrupting power of the Ring in the The Lord of the Rings is a profound meditation upon this bondage.

This theological predicament, for Rutledge, sets up the deep theological narrative of the story, how God fits in as the "something else at work" weaving its way through the story. Specifically, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, help must come to us "from the outside." This is the Christus Victor notion that humans are trapped and require divine rescue.

To be sure, the rescue operation we find dramatized in The Lord of the Rings is deeply participatory. The Fellowship of the Ring and their allies are not passive, they must act and resist. But something more, something "from the outside," is required to defeat the evil facing Middle Earth. Because when we stand all alone, by our own power, neither strength nor good purpose will last.

Sooner or later, the dark power will devour.

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