Bilbo, Middle Earth, and the Kingdom of God: Sanctification in the Journey of Life in The Hobbit
I have been intrigued at how some books stand the test of time in ways beyond what one might expect. It is no surprise that some books remain a foundational work in a certain genre, or that readers continue to pick up the works of Charles Dickens because of their depiction of the human condition. Yet some books transcend such boundaries. Consider Victor Hugo’s classic Les Misérables, which not only remains a well-read work, but also has become a movie, then a Broadway musical, and then a high-profile musical film.
Similarly, The Hobbit has struck me as a book that transcends boundaries. Not only has it become a box office hit, and inspired the Lord of the Rings books and movies, but it is a book read by parents to young children, a book read by young adults as their first foray into novels, a book read in high schools and colleges for literary study, and a book read by fantasy lovers, sci-fi enthusiasts, and even fiction and romance lovers. Nearly everyone, it seems, relates to The Hobbit in some form or another. I am excited that its film release has led many more to read it for two reasons. First, I think our society is sorely lacking in literacy, and any book that leads people to read, especially good literature, is a plus in my opinion. Second, and more importantly, I think there are many Christian themes that jump off the page and confront the reader with a choice, and one beyond whether or not to keep reading the book. As the novel progresses, the reader is drawn into the characters and goes through much the same journey that they do.
In this brief reflection, I want to consider the “spiritual” journey of Bilbo and how that relates to the Christian life. When we meet Bilbo at the beginning of the work, he is a hobbit comfortable in his own home, his own schedule, and his own life. One understands that he would be perfectly content to go about another hundred years in exactly the same fashion. But when Gandalf the wizard comes along and gets him caught up in an adventure, we get the idea that he involves Bilbo because it will be good for him. In fact, Gandalf does not claim that Bilbo is presently what the dwarves need to complete their quest, but he will be when the time comes. The reader immediately understands that Bilbo will change in some way on this journey; he will not return the same. We hope, a hope which is confirmed later on, that this change will be for the better.
In his book The Christian World of the Hobbit, Devin Brown makes an interesting point. He writes, “We could say that the adventure will be the making of him. And at the same time, Bilbo has been chosen, not just because the adventure will do him good, but because he has something good to do for Middle-earth. The two purposes go hand in hand. Through the action of helping to save those around him, Bilbo will himself be saved, saved from a life bounded and surrounded by—as readers are shown—an inordinate need for predictability, safety, and comfort.” Brown is exactly right. Bilbo will be better off for the journey, but so will the world with which he interacts. And this is precisely the thought that got me thinking: 1)How might this relate to the manner with which many believers live the Christian life? 2)What good might God intend for us in the present? 3)What good might God intend for us to do for the world?
Unfortunately, the first question seems all too easy to answer. Thousands and thousands of Christians are primarily focused on their own life—family, job, security, safety. They are much like Bilbo in his hobbit hole. When the world comes knocking on the door of many Christians, we decline the invitation (at least politely, I hope) to engage in the world, telling the inquirer that we simply do not like adventures. “I prefer the safety of my home and the security of my consistent schedule, thank you very much.” But then I read Scripture, and I find that Jesus did not request for people to follow him and then tell them it was all right that they wanted their security. It seems that Jesus commanded people to follow him, and told them to leave their jobs, their families, and their wealth behind for the uncertain life to which he called them. In fact, while most of this life was uncertain, Jesus promised two certainties: the first, that they would suffer for his sake; the second, that they would receive far more joy and blessing in that life of service and suffering than they ever could in their own secure lifestyle.
This point leads me to my second. God clearly intends good for us, and we certainly see the reality of this in the promise of eternity. The apostle Paul tells us that the suffering of this present time is unworthy to compare to the glory that is to be revealed to us (Romans 8:18). And yet, we see throughout Jesus, Paul, Peter, John, and James’ teaching that the life now is better as well. By our faith we have hope, and that hope brings joy, peace, blessing, and love—love of God and love of others, and a love from God and from others because we are part of the people of God through union with Christ.
Finally, Bilbo’s journey reminds me that the Christian life is not just about our good, but also about the good we are called to do for the world. In Bilbo’s case, he not only helps the dwarves return home, but The Lord of the Rings tells us that his journey, which leads to the discovery of the one ring, will be the beginning of the end of Sauron and a new day of peace in Middle-earth. As Christians, too often we have a heaven-only mindset. We treat life as if it is only about getting saved and going to heaven, but that type of view leaves us a pretty sketchy job description after we believe. Instead, the call to make disciples is more than simply showing up to church and telling a few family members about Jesus. It is a life centered on the gospel of the kingdom, a gospel that calls us to go and engage the world, to forsake safety as our highest goal, and, as much as possible, to bring about a change in the current world that reflects the kingdom to come. That means encouraging unbelievers to know and love and submit to the one true King; that means bringing about justice, righting the wrongs of the world; that means living as kingdom people whose lights shine in a dark world that they may see our good works and praise our Father, who is in heaven.
Devin Brown, The Christian World of the Hobbit (Nashville: Abingdon, 2012), 83.