The Hobbit: An Unexpected Story

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800px-HMCoSecondEdHobbitsI am a Tolkien addict. I love anything that starts with J.R.R. Ever since I first read The Hobbit in 7th grade, I fell in love with the world of Tolkien. Between reading and imagination, I probably spent more of my adolescent years in Middle Earth than I did in the real world. Something about Tolkien’s intense love for beauty and simplicity spoke to me a in a profound way.

So in high school, when I heard the books were finally becoming movies, I politely lost my mind. To be able to see Tolkien’s world portrayed on the big screen was something for which I could hardly wait. And to be honest, I was not disappointed. The look and feel of Peter Jackson’s depiction of Middle Earth was nothing short of breath-taking. Of course, like most big fans of Tolkien, I struggled with some of the story choices made by Jackson, but overall, I thought the films did enough to preserve the original story.

Then I saw The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

Okay, to be fair, my struggle began with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, but it wasn’t until the second film that I realized how much Jackson had deviated from the original book. I was nothing short of mortified. Without going into much detail (spoilers!), the choices made my Jackson from plot line to character development had, in my opinion, old John Ronald Ruel turning over in his grave. This wasn’t a retelling of a classic story, it was a new story except the ONLY things that had not been changed were the names and places. Sort of a bizzaro world Dragnet.

This post is not about all the differences between the book and movie, so don’t’ worry. I am not going to go on a prolonged tirade as only the most avid fans can muster (not that I’m tempted, of course). What I am really interested here is the asking the question of what responsibility does a filmmaker have when retelling an existing story?

It happens all the time. We Americans love our movies and many of us would rather spend a couple of hours in a movie theater than read a book cover to cover. My own fingers weep as they typed the former sentence, but it is true. So that means a lot of books have been and will be made into movies. And, as in any case of going from one medium to another, changes need to be made to fit the medium. I think most of us can agree with that.

But how far does one go? Where is the line from massaging the story for the big screen to changing the purpose and meaning behind the story? Here are my thoughts. The line exists when the moral of the story changes. All stories have morals, or in other words, what is being taught by the story?  It may be that there is nothing to learn. That can be a moral in itself. Or it may be very overt. For instance, the story of King Midas teaches us about the dangers of greed. However, I believe every fictionalized story has some sort of moral and when one retells the same story, in all the massaging and changing from page to picture, that moral should translate, otherwise it is not the same story.

In my opinion, the retelling of  the Hobbit loses the intended moral. Tolkien’s original story is about a young Hobbit who doesn’t know his own potential and ends up finding it the most unlikely of places. First, it is found in the dangerous goblin caves. Then it is found in the eerie Mirkwood, fending off giant spiders. Finally, it is found deep in the dragon’s lair. This climaxes in a beautiful prose by Tolkien, in which he describes Bilbo, about to take the first step down into the unknown dark leading to Smaug’s residence, as being the most difficult he had ever done. Tolkien teaches us that courage is not about being a hardened warrior or brave champion. True courage is found in the simple, yet terrifying task of taking the first step into the unknown.

This moment, what I would  argue is the moral of whole story, is simply glossed over in the film. Jackson seems too excited to get to the “exciting” stuff: The dragon, the gold, the fighting, and the fire. But in doing so, the point is missed in my opinion. 

Movies are not books. Profound, I know. I get that changes need to be implemented when going from the written word to the silver screen. Sometimes these changes are subtle, other times they are huge. However, when the all the changes leave out the moral, I argue then the story’s identity has been changed. It is like switching out the engine of a muscle car. If you take the V8 out of a Mustang and replace with a 4 cylinder, is really still a mustang? 

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Why I Don’t Support Phil Robertson

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When I heard the news that A & E had suspended Duck Dynasty, my reaction was not one of shock, but rather I thought “So it finally happened!”  The men of Duck Dynasty have never been subtle about their beliefs, and I am really surprised it took this long for something like this to happen. In case you haven’t heard about this, you can read the story here.

What has surprised me is the response in support of Phil and his family. Recently, this picture has been popping up all over the internet:

After reading this, my initial thought was, “So do I! What does this have to do with suspending his show on A&E?” I am in full support of free speech and protecting that right. However, as far I understand it, free speech is a political right. In no way do I see A&E’s suspension as something that is restricting this right. A&E is not the government, and in no way is Robertson being restricted to express his beliefs.  A&E, as a company with a large LGBT viewing audience, wanted to protect their interests, so they suspended the show based on what Phil said in GQ.

If I were to make comments about the restaurant that I worked that were bad for business, don’t they have a right to suspend or fire me? Whether people like it not, A&E made a perfectly fair choice and no one’s rights are being infringed in the slightest.

However, what should have surprised me, but didn’t, is how quickly Christians run to protect someone that does not need protection. Phil Robertson is a wealthy man with all the privileges most people around the world only dream about. Should he feel guilty about this? Not in my opinion. However, nor does he need to be painted as a victim. This is a disagreement with valid and legal arguments.

So why are Christians running so fast to protect someone that doesn’t need protection?

I wish I knew.

In the CBS article listed above, it says Robertson’s states his mission is to teach men and women to be together. The biggest issue here for me is that Phil Robertson’s statements do not sound like Jesus. Take the words of Phil Robertson and try and place them in the mouth of Jesus. For me, it’s a round peg and a square hole. There is no way that sounds like the mission of Christ. Christ’s mission is one of acceptance and love, not division and hate. Christ’s mission is one of speaking truth, living honestly, and acting humbly. Christ’s mission is about forgiveness and understanding, not condemnation and division. It is to the abandoned, the poor, the shunned, the marginalized, and the despised. Christ’s mission, as he states in the gospel, is about loving God and loving others. In my opinion, as Christ imitators, this is the only mission to which we are called.

Did You Hear What I Hear?

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I was recently at work in my office. To get in the Christmas mood, I decided to start up the good ol’ Pandora Christmas station on my computer.  This station is about a bland as bland can be when it comes to Christmas songs, but at this time of year, I think it is okay to be a little cliché.

As I was busy working, humming along to the tunes about Old St. Nick, a baby in a manger, and Good King Whats-his-name, I suddenly hear a few lyrics that made me do the audible equivalent of a double take. The lyrics that made me pause were from the classic Gene Autry song, Here Comes Santa Claus. Most of the song is innocent enough when you sing the first few lines, but as the song continues one notices the rather strange mix of religious thoughts interwoven in a song about Santa Claus.

This confusing mix comes to a climax in the last verse:

“Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus,

Right down Santa Claus lane

He’ll come around when the chimes ring out

That it’s Christmas morn again

Peace on earth will come to all

If we just follow the light

So let’s give thanks to the Lord above

That Santa Claus comes tonight!”

I have heard this song dozens of times over my years, but never once do I remember hearing these lyrics! When I mentioned this song to my wife, she decided to a little investigating. She informed me that when this song came it, it was an instant hit. Apparently, no one seemed to notice, or at least have issue with, those confusing lines at the end of what seemingly is a sweet little song about a fictional character (That is right, fictional. Don’t tell Megyn Kelly).

Why Was Hebrews Written?

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When studying the book of Hebrews, there are a lot of questions concerning the details of the book: Who wrote it? Who is the audience? Where was it written? Many theologians have argued over these things through the years. Some of these issues matter more than others. However, I believe one question that needs to be answered to have a mature and useful understanding of the book is the question of why was it written. Only when we understand the purpose of the book can we read and interpret it correctly. Imagine reading the Declaration of Independence without knowing the story of the Boston Tea Party, King George’s taxes, and the English rule of the colonies. When read in context, the line “All men are created equal” jumps off the page when you think of the oppressive English rule that existed during that time.

The same goes for our reading of Scripture and the book of Hebrews. If we do not know what the author is responding to or writing about, it makes little sense to us. So, with that said, the question remains: Why was the book of Hebrews written?

The answer, I believe, lies in what is called the “warning passages.” Throughout the book, the author (of whom I will refer to as A for the continuation of this post) issues warnings to the readers. These warnings seem to summarize and finalize the issues he is talking about. For instance, in Hebrews 1, A quotes from the Psalms, 2 Samuel, Deuteronomy, and 1 Chronicles, suggesting that the audience has a strong familiarity with the Torah, which is referred to as the “message of the angels” in this passage. A claims that the Torah was binding and that Christ is superior to the angles, the delivers of the message. A then warns the readers in 2:1-4 of the danger of drifting away from the salvation of Christ. The argument goes this way: The Torah (message of the angels) was biding; Christ is superior to the angels; Therefore, if one does not follow the salvation of Christ, then punishment is due just as if one disobeyed the Torah.  This is the first warning.

We see a couple things in this warning to help us understand why this book was written. First, we see evidence of a largely Jewish audience. To refer to the Torah as the “message of the angels” would speak strongly to the Jews.  Second, A is responding to some sort of sin or disobedience (2:2-3).  Third, we see that A is encouraging perseverance as a response.

Let us move on. The next warning is found in 3:7-4:16.  Leading up to this warning, A makes a strong argument for the humanity of the Messiah.  A, again, starts off by quoting from the Torah, this time Psalms (2:6-8) and later Isaiah (2:13). Then, we see a clear reasoning for the incarnation: humanity needed someone from its ranks to present them before God. Just as a High Priest was chosen from the people of Israel, so Jesus was from the people.  Then in 3:1-6, A argues that Jesus was greater than Moses. The Priesthood began under the leadership of Moses, whose own brother was the first High Priest. Jesus, being greater than Moses, establishes a superiority similar to one we saw in the previous warning.

Now we get into the warning itself.  Moses was faithful.  If Jesus is greater than Moses, so then Jesus must be faithful as well. Those who are in Christ must hold strong to this belief. Just as Moses was trusted, so can then the readers trust Jesus.  If they don’t, their hearts will be hardened by deceitfulness (3:13).  Just as those who didn’t trust Moses were not able to enter the Holy Land, so will be the fate of those who don’t have faith in Christ (3:16-19).  If they want to experience the rest represented by the Holy Land, they must persevere (4:11).

So what does this warning tell us about the purpose of Hebrews? First, again we see a Jewish audience because of the quoting of the Torah and the appeal to Jesus’ superiority over Moses.  Second, we get a bit clearer idea of the sin that was talked about in the first warning: turning away from the Living God (3:12).  Third, again we see a call of perseverance as a response to this sin (3:13, 4:11).  Fourth, we begin to see a clear consequence of turning away: being left out of the Eternal Rest (3:18).

The third warning comes in 5:11-6:20.  Again, we see a call to the priesthood of Jesus.  5:1-10 talks about how high priests are selected from among the people. The way they are selected is by being called by God, just as Aaron was called. If Jesus is the greatest of priests, then we was called by God as well (5:5).  We also see the first reference to Melchizedek here.  Melchizedek is a mysterious figure mentioned in Genesis. Abraham encounters him and submits to him, recognizing his authority from God.  This is important, for if Jesus is in the order of Melchizedek (5:6), then we see that Jesus is then superior to even Abraham himself, father of Israel.  This is basically the trump card.  Jesus is the highest of High priests.

Now we get into the warning.  Since Jesus is the High Priest in the most absolute sense, he empathizes since all high priests are selected from among the people.  Using beautiful language, A challenges the readers to follow in Christ’s footsteps.  We also see words of hope here, especially in 6:9-10.  A concludes the warning with a reminder of God’s reliability.

What can we gather form this warning about the purpose of Hebrews? First, again we see an audience familiar with Jewish ideas and beliefs.  Second, we can affirm that sin that is being approached is one of falling away. Although, here is seems to emphasize that this falling away is a gradual process (6:12).  Third, the response is one of perseverance. Fourth, the consequence of not is one of being “left out (6:4-6).

We then come to the fourth warning, which is found in 10:19-39. Again, we see a strong call for perseverance. From 7:1 through 10:18, A gives a very detailed agreement for Christ’s high priesthood status. Going back and forth, A offers examples from Jewish priesthood, then compares Christ to that aspect, demonstrating His superiority over the priesthood of Aaron and the old covenant.  Then the warning, which includes some of the most beautiful language found in Scripture. It is a warning laced with encouragement and hope.  Starting in 10:19, it states:

19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

It goes on in the same way.  This warning seems to be the culmination of the other warnings, laying out plainly what was less stated earlier.  We must persevere (10:19-25) for if we don’t, we will be “left out” and suffer the consequences (10:25-31.

What conclusions do we draw form this warning? Again, we see a Jewish-familiar audience with the references to the Most Holy Place (10:19). Next, we hear a clear call to perseverance to avoid the sin of falling away so that we don’t suffer the consequences of being left out. This warning seems to affirm the conclusions made in the other warnings.

So why was Hebrews written? Based on the presented evidence, It seems that it was written to a largely Jewish or Jewish-familiar audience, who were at risk of falling away from the faith.  The solution to this is perseverance in a moral and contrite life, focused on Christ. If not, the consequence is eternal expulsion from the Kingdom of God.