Around the time when I got to first wear contacts and my teeth were beginning to look normal as the braces did their job, I decided that the Lord of the Rings was cool. I don't remember why I decided that it was cool. Probably, as with most things, it was because some people I held in high esteem liked it. For instance, around the same time I had decided that playing the saxophone was cool, mostly because the barry sax player in the jazz band at school was the kind of person I wished I was.
Anyway, it was a good time to decide to become a Tolkien fan, with the hype of the release of the Fellowship of the Ring movie building. I was able to finish the first two books of LOTR before I saw the movie, and it’s for this reason that I think I can say I’m a true dedicated fan and not just someone who falls in love with the books after seeing the movies. For me, things happened pretty much simultaneously, at least for the first year. The next two years, I would re-read the Lord of the Rings in its entirety before going to see the next installment. I started this yearly tradition of reading the book and it continued for quite some time after. I was officially part of a fandom, I was a Ringer!
In those awkward adolescent years, I can honestly say that LOTR stands out as a positive force of good in my life. I fell deeply in love with the story and characters, and it gave me hope and something to live for, but it really also became an obsession bordering on idolatry. I wasted huge sums of money buying things for my collection: all of Tolkien’s books, movie books, those costly but precious extended edition gift sets, movie soundtracks, trading cards, replicas of the One Ring which I would actually wear around my neck… I even wanted a movie replica sword (thankfully I couldn’t afford one, though I did manage to acquire a miniscule letter opener version of Anduril).
But I noticed that something troubling began to happen. Because I loved the world of Middle Earth so much, I couldn’t stay away from it. And yet each time I went there again, watching the movies or re-reading the book for the 20th time, I loved it a little less – or it affected me less and less. By that time, many words, phrases and character lines were so familiar that I could quote them by heart. And I was troubled because they began to lose their meaning. My heart didn’t catch at the place where Gandalf tells Frodo that “even the very wise cannot see all ends.” I didn’t feel that swelling of love, admiration and pity when Samwise picks up Frodo and carries him up Mount Doom. I could remember feeling great things, but those feelings weren’t there anymore.
I don’t often give my heart away to a story, but when I do, I do it completely. For a while, I am utterly obsessed. Then one tragic day when the winds are howling and the sky is the color of lead, I realize that the flames have died down and I can go back to ordinary life. My current infatuation is Doctor Who, but I know that a time will come, sooner or later, when I will still love it, but will be tired of it.
Dare I say: the same thing happens with the Gospel. That is the oldest story in my life by far. Raised in the proverbial “Christian home,” I have been exposed to it since I was a small child. I went to Sunday School and had primitive Bible storybooks and was told again and again the Christmas story. Repetition has brought a certain tiredness to the words and a frustration on my part that I feel this way. I know in my head that the story of Jesus is beautiful and powerful, but it’s hard to feel it in my heart these days. I long to hear it for the first time, again. Think of how different that would be. To not know that the world was in the hands of an Almighty, holy God who was willing to become human to save us from ourselves and redeem the world. And then to hear that story for the first time, to have a great swelling of hope and joy at the thought of redemption, healing, and impossible, enduring love.
I can’t just forget that I’ve heard the Gospel thousands of times. But I can make an effort to refresh the story. The Lord of the Rings recently was refreshed for me. Why? Because the Desolation of Smaug just came out. Even though I think the new Hobbit movies are really quite terrible (besides brief moments of brilliance like Smaug himself), they reminded me what I loved about the Lord of the Rings. The other night I watched the end of Return of the King and actually cried again, touched and moved by it for the first time in several years. It’s hard to remain an infatuated fan. There are only two ways: forget about it for a while, or explore it in entirely new ways. The only way I know how is to keep the story fresh and new, to explore it in novel, far-reaching ways through art and music, to talk about it and write about it and seek out similarities between it and daily life.
So I could distance myself from the Gospel and come back years later, when I’ve somewhat forgotten it. There’s always the risk that I might not come back. Or I could seek confirmation and truth in the Gospel in things that will touch my soul, in art and music, in good discussion, in beauty.
Some Christians think that the only way they’re allowed to connect with God is through reading the Bible. Now of course I believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and I think reading it constantly through life is extremely important for maintaining a correct lens about who God is. I also think parts of the Bible are extremely beautiful and the book is certainly long enough to read it for a lifetime and still discover new or forgotten wisdoms. But if I’m to taste and see that the Lord is good, I need to not only read the Bible but experience its Word playing out in daily life, everywhere.