Generally, I'm not a fan of posts that use some artifact from current pop culture as a source upon which to reflect. But here I go anyway.
I saw an early screening of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" (one of the benefits of being an under-employed MDiv grad working at a movie theater) and read the book quickly in preparation for the film. Peter Jackson has pulled the first 102 pages of a 271 page (according to my edition) children's book into a two hour and fifty minute epic – the first of three. This is an exercise I disagree with on principle, but the movie was fine. I saw it in 48 frames per second (as opposed to the traditional 24) which was stunning. But I don't mean to write a film review.
It is common wisdom among church folk that discipleship ought to be taken on step-wise. Beginning with giving a little money in the collection plate, soon one might buy a few socks, toiletries, hats and gloves and bring them to the church to be donated to the needy. Then, a person could serve a night or two at a local shelter or meal program – maybe just on Thanksgiving and Christmas to start. Perhaps regular service in a community organization follows. Then a mission trip to some less well-to-do country – but not one too violent. And on, and on.
I have found that often this progression has implicitly in mind the privileged, affluent suburbanite. The logic goes that one must be eased into service among the homeless, the poor, the margins of society, places where the Gospels tell us Jesus dwelt and dwells still. I usually find myself nodding along with this logic. But in the past few days, reading The Hobbit and viewing the film, I have not found myself convinced by the common wisdom.
J.R.R. Tolkien was a profoundly Christian man. Indeed, he acted as midwife in C.S. Lewis' conversion to Christianity. If one is reading for it, and not just for escapist fantasy, one finds much in Tolkien's tale that lends itself to the life of Christian discipleship.
Bilbo Baggins, as the protagonist of The Hobbit, is an affluent Halfling. He lives in a beautiful, warm, well-stocked Hobbit hole. He has plenty to eat, plenty of friends, and his good health. He is happy. He loves food, books, his antiques, a good story, and his peace and quiet. He has never been on an adventure, and indeed, the idea of going on one is baffling to him.
When a wizard named Gandalf and twelve homeless Dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield come to his home one night and call him on such an adventure, he stubbornly refuses. And yet, even after such a refusal, something about the call moves him to action. Bilbo lies behind the veil of ignorance before his adventure begins. He remains there when he sets off on a path guided by Thorin and the Grey Pilgrim, Gandalf.
It is no mistake that Gandalf's call to Bilbo parallels Christ's call to his disciples as portrayed by the Gospels. Christ calls and the disciples follow. They do not know where he goes. Christ does not lead them to safety but to death, and to new life. And yet they follow. Neither Bilbo nor the disciples tread their new path with foreknowledge of what awaits them. They have no experience with the road they travel. But they are compelled to follow, not by coercion but by something within.
Common wisdom calls this vision of discipleship foolishness. And so it is. But it is the call the Gospel makes to each of us, whoever hears it. We are not called into a step-wise progression into discipleship, but into discipleship wherever we are, in whatever we do, and whenever we can. We are called to leap, Soren Kierkegaard would say, and not to leap into a logical stepwise progression, but into relationship with Christ. And where is Christ? He is among the poor, with the alien, the stranger, the addicted, and the prisoner. This is the clearest thing in the world but common wisdom cannot see it. The Gospel message claims us but our lives often make us blind to it.
Making this call less foolish, perhaps, is the expectation that in answering the call we enter into a community of others. Our society, in its worship of the individual, discounts the power of community. Lincoln, Gandhi, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King Jr., for example, are valorized as individual heroes, as if their accomplishments were possible without the help and work of others. Yes, they were brave. But to illustrate them as lone heroes, when it is not a nefarious re-writing of history, simply misses the mark. The Christian call to discipleship is a communal call, a fellowship call. As Christians, the individuals who make up the party we join may be equally foolish as we. But each member of the newly formed body is called together to do remarkable work, as Bilbo, Gandalf, and the Dwarves do. We bear each other up to that end and encourage each other in times of trial. One member may face their own challenges, but they meet such challenges with the courage learned as part of a wider body. The leap remains the leap of an individual, but we take heart at leaping into relationship.
The church could do worse than to emulate that foolish group of homeless wanderers made up by the Dwarves and Gandalf. They represent hope, fellowship, love, and the brazen desire to see some good come out of a desperate situation. They do so not out of a need to provide marketable and achievable goals, but out of a Dwarven fire in the belly for a life they hardly know. Yes, there are practical concerns. There always are. But the Dwarves face a dragon. In so many ways we face one too, if we could only open our eyes to see it. The Dwarves offer Bilbo the chance to face this dragon, and Bilbo takes it. More of our churches should be so foolish.
In both the book and the movie, Bilbo runs—he does not walk—to catch the company of homeless Dwarves for fear they will depart before he can join them. The movie does a lovely job of illustrating Bilbo's foolishness in the eyes of his neighbors. Anyone who has heard the call is challenged to follow Bilbo's lead.