The Lord of the Rings – A short comment on Allegory

The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien; narrated by Rob Inglis
Anyone who cares knows what Lord of the Rings is about, so I’ll skip the summary here. What I will say is that among my favorite narrations of audiobooks, Inglis’ narrations of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are among my favorites. He not only reads the book perfectly, but he sings all the songs! I would listen to these books over and over again. 

Lord of the Rings is a difficult book to write about because so many have already written so much. Some critics hate it as cult literature which has few (and flat) women characters and a too-black-and-white contrast between good and evil; worst of all, it’s escapist literature. Others praise his allegories – attributing themes such as nuclear war, the Passion of Jesus, and anything in between. 

Tolkien’s strong religious beliefs – and his own admission that The Lord of the Rings was a deeply spiritual work – support the Savior allegory. And there is no question that Tolkien was strongly impacted by his experience in WWII – enough that his writings would most certainly reflect his thoughts on war. But I think it’s also important to remember what Tolkien himself thought about allegory: 

“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”

I think this is a beautiful quote. Although I grew up believing that all good books are allegories, I appreciate what Tolkien is trying to say. Allegories, in his mind, are very specific messages that the author is trying to convey. They can often be stuffed down the readers’ throats. When the reader is left with the freedom of interpretation, then the book is so much more alive and meaningful. And that meaningfulness is what is so special about The Lord of the Rings

I propose to call The Lord of the Rings a parable – a story that has meaning and applicability, but is left open for interpretation. 

Jesus, the Middle Eastern Storyteller, by Gary M. Burge

Jesus, the Middle Eastern Storyteller, by Gary M. Burge

Genre: Ancient History / Bible Studies

Reason for reading: This year, I’m studying Jesus and the New Testament. This book was loaned to me by Elizabeth, a friend from work. It was given to her by a friend because the author was her professor.

Synopsis: In this short book, Burge guides the reader to interpret Jesus as a storyteller – a teacher who uses allegory and hyperbole to make important points within his own social context. The book is filled with beautiful pictures and several examples of Jesus’ use of hyperbole to teach an important point. Burge provides historical and cultural insight into what Jesus may have been talking about when telling his parables. 

My thoughts: I was surprised at how fun this book was. Although it’s quite short, and half of it was pictures, it made me look at Jesus from a interesting new perspective. Of course, I already knew that Jesus used parables and hyperbole to make points, but it was really interesting to read Burge’s cultural analysis of those parables. 

The story I found most enlightening was Burge’s interpretation of the fig tree incident. For those of you who don’t recall, the story is related in Mark 11:12-14, 11:20-25; and in Matthew 21:18-22. In my unromantic version, Jesus is hungry, and he sees a fig tree by the road. It’s not fig season, so the tree isn’t bearing any fruit. Jesus curses the poor tree and it withers. I’ve always disliked that story. Despite my cousin Steve’s insistence that fig trees don’t have feelings, and I shouldn’t take the story so literally, I always felt sorry for the tree. Why’d Jesus curse a tree just because it wasn’t bearing fruit in the off-season? (And, yes, Mark clearly states that it wasn’t the season for figs.) 

Burge pointed out that the fig tree represented the Jewish state and religion. Throughout the New Testament Jesus repeatedly pointed out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, who made a public spectacle of themselves fasting, praying, and giving alms; but who did not keep the spirit of religion in their hearts. They prayed for the approval of the people, not for the approval of God. Thus, they were not “bearing fruit.” 

Of course, I realize that this insight about the fig tree and the Pharisees is not uniquely Burge’s – in fact I found some interesting articles on the subject after reading Burge’s book (here’s a good one). What’s important is that Jesus, the Middle Eastern Storyteller introduced me to some interesting interpretations that I could look into in more detail later. In that way, this book was a valuable resource for me.