You may remember (dimly by now), that in this series about religion and near-death experience I have been prowling through layers of human interpretation, in search of whatever may amount to bedrock understandings.
A few days back, something came along that stopped me in my prowling tracks like a bird dog on point. I’ll give you some context so you can understand the impact.
Back two posts, I had suggested that descriptive systems—theologies, ideologies, disciplines, paradigms—provide us with cognitive grab bars: ways of ordering information to give a sense of stability in a deeply mysterious universe. The grab bars say, here, this is the way this place works; hold on to these to keep your balance so you do not fall into a chaos of disordered observations.
I have recently been responding to a number of messages from people struggling to make sense of their distressing NDEs, people whose lives are being eaten up by a terrible fear; so I have been thinking consciously about meaning-making. And then I came upon this line:
…while we perceive reality through both creative and analytical means, our truest understanding comes through the process of imaginative remaking.
The writing is from Greg Garrett, an English professor at Baylor University and a blogger in the Progressive Christianity stream at Patheos.com. It is from his review of a new book about the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, The Christian World of the Hobbit, by Devin Brown. But before some of you go off in a fluff, consider my point here. Although Tolkien described The Hobbit as fundamentally religious, it is not religious in the usual knee-jerk sense. It is religious in the same way in which people make meaning of their NDEs. What brought me to point was the sheer elegance of Garrett’s wording as a description of what a person does in interpreting a near-death or other numinous experience, entering “the process of imaginative remaking,” in which grab bars become building materials.
Tolkien’s storytelling is never explicit about religion. But—a big ‘but’—as another professor and blogger, James F. McGrath, notes, “Precisely through its avoidance of explicit religion – cults, rituals, and blatant references to one or more deities – his books manage to highlight implicit religion with themes … such as morality, values, and providence.”
Those themes are Tolkien’s grab bars. Here is how Garrett puts it (grab bars in bold):
For Tolkien, storytelling and mythmaking were a part of what we humans were called to do to understand creation…
It is in this spirit of imagination teaching deep truth that Devin Brown shows us how Tolkien teaches through the process of imagining a story. He notes three primary spiritual truths growing out of Tolkien’s “fundamentally religious” tale. First, Tolkien suggests that there is a Providence that guides events, both in the novel and in the larger world. Things do not simply happen; they happen as part of a larger plan, as the wizard Gandalf reveals to Bilbo the hobbit at the close of the novel. In Tolkien’s world—as, we believe, in our own—”Providence is able to take right and just choices and reward them.”
Secondly, Professor Brown sees Tolkien writing about the idea of purpose—that we are given the chance to find out who and what we are called to be in this life. Bilbo begins the story as a hobbit who loves his personal comfort and a life of ease, and is sent off on an adventure that will change him and make him of service to the world. So all of us are called to set aside our personal comforts and to learn to give, to serve, and to work for the good of others.
Finally, Professor Brown posits that Middle-earth is an imaginative world of virtue, in which Tolkien’s characters are faced with moral choices and move in the direction of good—the good ones, and sometimes, even the bad ones. The moral problem of greed…is played out dramatically in the lives of hobbits, dwarves, trolls, dragons, and one lurking dark-dweller named Gollum. Those who hold too tightly to wealth lose it and everything else; those who learn its proper value are rewarded. Smaug the Dragon, sitting on his horde, may be the embodiment of this fatal flaw in The Hobbit, but all of Tolkien’s characters must wrestle with it.
…Professor Brown tells us that one of Tolkien’s favorite themes was the ennobling of the ignoble—the recognition that those who seem small and unimportant can nonetheless accomplish great things. The hobbits represent this theologically-sound teaching in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and their stories remind us that what we do matters. If even hobbits can be a part of the saving of the world, then why can’t we?
To paraphrase Tolkien, what is important in this life is what we do with the times we are given. A great work of great imagination like The Hobbit and its forthcoming film adaptations can entertain us, but thankfully, it can also remind us that we are on an adventure, and that everything we do matters.
Meaning and imagination are inseparable in explaining our experiences, for the pairing is how we tell our stories. In hindsight, I see how doctrine, my early grab bars, shaped my first explanation of my NDE, and how I have moved, over time, to a wider and deeper comprehension; in short, while still within the same overall cognitive system, still Christian, I am holding different supports. What are your grab bars? If you are needing to understand a numinous experience, to grasp your story in a congruent way, are they helpful or keeping you prisoner?
I can’t recommend strongly enough that if this concept puts you on point, also, you follow the links above to those two reviews.
Linda Seay-Skaggs says
After reading this, I am considering the idea of when asked what religion I am, to reply, “I’m a Hobbit.”
It was religion that caused me confusion and the affect was my death.
The first 10 years of my life I was religion free yet had a sense of right, wrong and fair. And knew God loved me for being me.
People cause others so much pain and heartache through religion. I apologize for sounding negative but I come from an extended family of preachers. So glad they live in a different State. Seems they are ego driven to see who can win the most souls. Gads! They scare people!
I’m a Hobbit. ; )
Nan Bush says
Oh, I love this! We’re all Hobbits! Thanks.
This may be a stupid question, but would you say that NDEs prove the falseness of religious exclusivism?
Nan Bush says
I don’t think NDEs–or anything else–can PROVE the truth or falseness of anything religious. I do think that NDEs strongly indicate that there is more than one meaningful way of interpreting spiritual experience. That’s as close to “proof” as I can get! There’s a new experience up at NHNE.org that makes that point. I’m going to be writing about it at some point– http://ndestories.org/alon-anava/. I suggest reading the transcript first.
wow. What an amazing testimony. Beautiful and wonderful. It really scared me though when he talked about “going back”. That if he screwed up during this second round, I got the feeling he was saying that He’d be lost forever. literally for eternity. not for 5 trillion years like before, but for the real kind of eternity. That’s scary. I’m not sure how to feel about it. Would it never end?
And here we are just hoping against hope that we’ll all be there in the end. 🙁
Most of my ‘grab bars’ center around finding purpose, direction and meaning in life. Sometimes it gets so bad I even look for design in nature. It’s just a matter of looking around at my surroundings, and asking myself “What happened”?…”Why“?
But seeing design in nature, and purpose, direction and meaning in life can be so frustrating.
It’s glaringly obvious on one hand, but in this reductionist/materialist-drenched Western culture we live in, I can’t seem to rid myself of that Richard Dawkin-escue voice that keeps saying “Naw…don’t be stupid! You’re just reading into it”.
All the while missing the point that “reading into it” is the point.
Nan Bush says
Yes! You’re so good at the “reading into it”!
How DO you respond to “people whose lives are being eaten up by a terrible fear”?
Nan Bush says
How do I respond? Very carefully. There is no single or simple response; always individual, always based on years and years of input from personal experience, input from others, as much scholarship as I have been able to stuff in, reading, more reading, discernment, meditation, prayer. Sometimes Providence. As you’ve seen on this blog, sending people to other writers, other ideas that seem to me to be potentially helpful. In general, hoping to encourage people to look at the reasons behind their fear and trying to help them find resources for deconstructing those reasons and finding others. Existential fear can’t be deconstructed, but there are ways of approaching the issue. It’s helpful that I have some 30 grad credits in counseling in addition to the MA in pastoral ministry and spirituality. Thanks for a good question.
Could you clarify what you mean by “Existential fear can’t be deconstructed, but there are ways of approaching the issue”?
Nan Bush says
I mean that existential fear–our anxiety about emptiness, about non-being–is a given; it goes with being alive and having an ego and being designed the way we are psychologically and perhaps spiritually. I don’t think it can be eliminated. But one can learn to deal with it.