In his biography of J.R.R. Tolkien, author Mark Horne briefly examines Tolkien’s writing style. It seems Tolkien adamantly denied his work had any intentional Christian symbolism. Rather, Tolkien preferred his reader decipher for himself any hidden meanings being his work. This approach sets Tolkien slightly apart from his friend, and equally talented writer, C.S. Lewis. The symbolism in Lewis’ work is more obvious and represents what is surely an intentional approach on the part of the writer, however, it is still subtly and skillfully executed. The long-lived popularity of both authors attests to the fact both approaches can work.
Of course, there are authors on the opposite end of the spectrum. Take Jenkins’ and LeHaye’s approach to the enormously popular Left Behind series. There is nothing subtle about their work. Their work represents a theological assertion wrapped in fiction (namely Dispensational Premillenialism). The success of the Left Behind books prove that there is an audience for such a heavy-handed approach … however, I would argue the approaches of Tolkien and Lewis are somewhat more noble.
Why? Perhaps it is because LeHaye and Jenkins are preaching to the choir somewhat. Their books appeal to Christians who already subscribe to their theology. Don’t get me wrong, I am dispensational theologically speaking and there is something cool about entertaining notions of how such end times may play out … but I must wonder, how many non-Christians are reading the Left Behind Books. Heck, even Christians these days seems to be mocking dispensationalism.
On the other hand, Tolkien and Lewis have reached a much wider audience. Christians and non-Christians alike enjoy reading their work. Certainly, this means Tolkien and Lewis are spreading the gospel (albeit in a subtle way) to more people who are in need of it. To me, this seems like a far noble cause than advancing one’s particular theology (even if Tolkien would deny a cause to begin with). Of course, I suppose it could be argued that The Left Behind books serve to edify and encourage fellow Christians (and perhaps have scared a few people into the Kingdom who dared read them). It just seems to me that Tolkien and Lewis accomplish their objectives in a manner that is more respectful of the reader. Not to mention that Tolkien and Lewis are just better at their craft.
Tolkien and Lewis have the ability to prepare a heart to receive Christ. They cause readers to appreciate the virtues of Christ without beating them with a club. While I’ll never be able to replicate their skill or success, their respective approaches represent methods I hope to someday mimic in my own writing. I’m not there yet. My recent short story The Backwoods Witch is far too heavy handed. I think I could have written a scarier story with a more subtle Christian message if I had displayed more patience. I’m trying my best to get there … but I’ll be honest – it isn’t easy!
In all fairness, C.S. Lewis could pull out his club every so often. His Screwtape Letters delivers an obvious message yet does so with unparallelled style. I am hoping that as I write more, I’ll learn when to pull out the club and when to hold back and trust the reader to form appropriate conclusions.
I may never get there, but I’m going to give it my best shot!