The greatest trial surrounding the One Ring of Power in Tolkien’s novels, was the temptation to use it. No one (except for Sauron himself) seemed to think that they would do anything but good with the Ring. The Ring would protect Gondor; the Ring would bring order to the world (Saruman). And though it was indeed occasionally used to escape Trolls or to get friends out of Elfin prisons, every use drew the Ring-bearer deeper into a shadow world of non-being. Tolkien certainly wrote his novels in a manner that would allow them to stand on their own: they were not allegories. Nevertheless, he embedded in them a wisdom that transcends the bounds of Middle Earth. Modernity is the One Ring of Power.
The birth of modernity (the forging of the Ring) took place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries driven by a fascination with the principles of rational science. With greater use of those principles has come greater power over many aspects of nature and our lives. This has been coupled with the myth of democratic empowerment, such that every citizen believes that a wonderful ability to change and shape the world is possessed by each. Everyman is a Ring-Lord.
The strange, even paradoxical, temptation of the Modern Project is to do good. That simple temptation becomes an irrefutable argument for taking up the Ring of Power. I was sitting in a doctor’s office recently, browsing magazines. There was an article about a young singer who was touted as “using her voice to end gun violence.” I’m sure she meant well, but the hyperbole is purely modern. No one will ever “end” gun violence. We will not “end” stick-violence, or knife-violence, or hand-balled-up-in-a-fist-violence. No doubt, many things could be done to lessen gun-violence. However, it is the nature of the Modern Project that we never seek to curb: we seek to cure.
This drive to cure (or “end”) is filled with a utopian assurance that has given rise to our many “wars.” We have a “war on drugs,” a “war on poverty,” a “war on terror,” and so on. The nature of modern war is “total.” When it is said that there is a “war” on something, there is an indication that no price is too high to pay for victory. That the war is long, even unending, is beside the point: it’s a war.
Though we can point to various changes wrought through the application of science, there is something we do not see. The power to do good has not produced good people. Those who wield the most power are the most easily corrupted. In Middle Earth terms, we are governed by wraiths.
The logic of the Ring sounds compelling. How can wielding the power to do good not be a good thing? In the context of Tolkien’s mythology, we understand the dangers. However, our modern myths fail to take account of the effect exercising power over others has on those who do so. And though many of us might argue that we have very little such power, our minds do not agree. We believe that we either do, or that we should. Our minds are rarely at rest within the context of our lives. We are all in danger of becoming wraiths, even if only from the anxiety of thinking about what should be done with all that power.
The New Testament presents the Crucified Christ as the image of God’s power. God does not act like a Supreme Ring Lord. When He acts, He yields a loving cooperation to His creation. He does not compel or force us. His power lies in His willingness to lay His life down for all. He tramples down death by death.
The mythology of modernity has created nicknames for those who would oppose its paradigm of power. Christians who choose the Cross are quickly labeled as “Quietists,” hinting that only Ring Lords are true Christians. It is worth noting that the disciples more than once wonder why Christ takes no action. They do not see that His action is a singular commitment to the Cross: He will not turn aside.
I have rarely encountered a Christian in the modern world who has renounced the Ring itself. We do not believe that our “empowerment” has corrupted us. We imagine that the right people, with the right power, exercised in the right manner will solve the problems of the world. We fail to see that none of us wielding power would be safer or more effective than the next.
The road to repentance begins with the renunciation of the world. The Lady Galadriel refuses the temptation:
“And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!”
She lifted up her hand and from the ring that she wore there issued a great light that illuminated her alone and left all else dark. She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! she was shrunken: a slender elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad.
“I pass the test”, she said. “I will diminish, and go into the West and remain Galadriel.”
The path of diminishment is the way of the Cross.
There is a “mind” of diminishment (Phil. 2:5-11). It is a willingness to be small and insignificant. I think that until we cultivate this mind within ourselves we will continue to be enthralled (literally) to the lure and lore of modernity. We will continue to imagine ourselves as the soldiers of reforming and reshaping power, the bringers of good into the world.
- Do you think of yourself as part of a contingent that is saving/preserving your Church?
- Do you worry about political/social issues and whether the right side is gaining ground?
- Do you want to make a difference in the world?
- Are you frequently provoked to anger by what you see around you?
These (and many similar things) are symptoms of a growing disease. They are mythic notions that draw us into a wraith-like existence.
Refuse the Ring. It is not ours to use or own. Throw it away.
I can already hear the many protests.