Author: Mildred Rhodes

The Maker of the Maker of Middle-earth

There’s something missing from Oxford’s splendid new Tolkien exhibit.

Who was J. R. R. Tolkien? Nearly everyone knows him as the author of two of the most beloved books of the 20th century: The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Many also know him as a member of the Inklings and a close friend of fellow writer and scholar C. S. Lewis. Fewer know Tolkien’s work as a literary critic, a world-class academic in medieval literature, a linguist, an inventor of languages, and a visual artist or realize that he was also a devoted husband and father.

Much of this is captured this year in a nearly comprehensive exhibit at Oxford University’s Bodleian Libraries on Tolkien’s life and legacy. “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth” has been billed as the exhibit of a generation, and it is indeed that. But there’s a glaring omission: any mention of the author’s devout, lifelong Christian faith. Without that piece, we cannot have a true picture of Tolkien.

The Missing Piece

The exhibit is certainly the most well-rounded portrayal of Tolkien to date. We see his imaginative capacity expressed in nearly overwhelming abundance, and we see a tender glimpse of his childhood and of his family life with his wife, Edith, and their four children.

The aim of the exhibit, as expressed in the catalog book, is “bringing to the public’s attention the fullest picture possible not just of the life and work of a remarkable literary imagination, but of a son, husband, father, friend, scholar and artist.”

To that end, it comes close but misses the mark. The exhibit downplays Tolkien’s religious commitment so completely that it is well-nigh invisible. Yet Christianity was a constant presence throughout his life, and not just in a nominal or cultural sense: Tolkien really believed, …

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Job’s Most Beloved Verse May Be Different Than You Think

Job 13:15 is more anguished—and encouraging—in its original wording.

“Oh, Job is so powerful!” said a man I had just met. We had found common ground discussing the congregations where we worshiped. After sharing what we did for work, I told him I had written a book on Job, and he was excited to talk to me about Job’s importance to him: “After all he suffered, Job says, ‘Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.’ ”

Others have quoted those well-beloved words to me to demonstrate that, in spite of severe losses, Job continues to trust God. A longtime friend and professional colleague once told me that what he loved about Job was that very statement. Unfortunately the common translation of that verse, Job 13:15, misrepresents Job.

I did not consider it appropriate to challenge these men in either situation, but I cringe when people cite those words from Job. They reflect a mistranslation of Job’s words that has led some to misunderstand the entire book.

Challenging long-held ideas about a well-beloved verse can make believers feel uneasy or like Scripture itself is under attack. But every Christian should want to know the truth of Scripture. Even if it disturbs us, knowing what Job says should engage us all. A careful look at the wording will show why this is important, how various Bible versions translate the text, and how this text fits into its context to give a new appreciation for the full message of Job.

Job’s Protest

Contrary to how many people remember the Book of Job, throughout most of the book, Job articulates a strong protest to God against his undeserved suffering. In chapter 3, for example, in defiance of God’s gift of life and in deep depression, Job seeks the peace of death over the suffering of his life. His speech triggers …

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Jonathan Merritt Wants to Reboot Religious Language for the 21st Century

But his method of restoring “sacred words” to our common vocabulary runs the risk of redefining them.

When was the last time you had a spiritual conversation?

If recent research is any indication, it’s been a while. Only seven percent of Americans report talking about spiritual matters weekly. One-fifth of respondents had not had a spiritual conversation all year. Surely, self-identified Christians regularly engage in spiritual discussions with friends, coworkers, and family. Right? Sadly, only 13 percent of “practicing” Christians talk about spirituality once a week. As a result, sacred conversations and words such as grace, gospel, God, salvation, faith, sin, and creed are much less common in our day-to-day experience.

Unnerving data like these form the backdrop for a new book from religion writer Jonathan Merritt, Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words are Vanishing—and How We can Revive Them, a blend of cultural analysis, linguistic inquiry, theology, church history, and autobiography.

Breaking Down and Building Up

The first half of the book builds a comprehensive case for why we need to start over. Utilizing current data, Merritt asserts that for all our proclaimed religiosity, Americans in general—and self-identified Christians in particular—seldom engage in spiritual conversations. He identifies three reasons. First, many Christians are anxious not to give offense. For them, says Merritt, words like “sin and hell have become so negative they lodge in [their] throats.” Second, Christians who are in the regular habit of spiritual conversation develop a kind of insider shorthand bred of familiarity. Thus, certain words get “uttered so often we don’t know what they mean anymore,” and we forget how they sound to those outside of our religious circles. …

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