Every couple of years I feel this tug. Typically, it’s right around this time of year. As winter stubbornly holds on while spring bides its time. I get this urge to re-enter a world I was introduced to as a child. A world full of foreign concepts such as hobbits, elves, and rings of power. I’m speaking, of course, about the Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein (LOTR). However, this is more than mere entertainment driving the desire to journey again through Middle Earth. I sense, instead, a deep longing in my soul to experience a story with themes like good versus evil. Light versus dark. What was versus what is. A story with valiant sacrifice. Don’t we all sense that longing?
God’s story of salvation is the greatest saga ever told. It contains all the ingredients we generally gravitate towards in a good story: a good beginning; tension as that good begins to crumble; a decisive moment of healing/resolving the tension; and a hoped-for future – a happily ever after.
In his book, Echoes of Eden, Jerram Barrs demonstrates that the ingredients listed above reverberate through all creation (footnote Echoes of Eden). When we encounter these ingredients in other stories (or other forms of art such as music), they speak to us deeply. This is because they echo God’s grand story of salvation. We can see this if we consider the four major movements of God’s story of salvation – four ingredients to a good story.
Creation: The Good Beginning. The beginning of God’s story is both unique from and uniform with other great stories. It is uniform in that it begins with a world that is good. As humans, we tend to value things being created good. When we purchase something new, we expect it to be in working condition. In the LOTR, we start in a good place. Bilbo Baggins is preparing for his 144th birthday party, old friends are reuniting. Life is good. Other forms of art tap into the good beginning. A heartbreak song remembers how the relationship started good. But the good beginning of God’s story is unique. It begins with a good creator who then creates good things (Genesis 1). God’s good beginning is the good beginning par excellence. It is, therefore, natural for humans to yearn for a time when things were good and not broken. This desire reverberates through all of creation, and when an author or artist taps into it, it speaks to us.
Fall: The Broken Reality. Every good story involves tension for the protagonist to navigate. We gravitate towards that tension because we know that tension. We live that tension. In the LOTR, Frodo’s world is turned upside down when Bilbo vanishes from his birthday party. The magic ring left in Frodo’s possession alters his life and sets him on a most perilous journey. “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” Frodo laments. A sentiment we all know. The grieving widow. The orphaned child. The heart-sinking diagnosis. We hurt and lament. When a story articulates this broken experience and the attending emotions, it speaks deeply to us. Why? It’s an echo of the ultimate pain. The pain of separation from God. The brokenness that occurred when sin entered the world and severed us from the good beginning. This deep pain and loss reverberates through all of creation.
Restoration: The Healing of Wounds. Yet hope does not escape. In the LOTR, there is hope despite all of the evil that abounds. If they can destroy the ring, their world will be free of the danger posed by Lord Sauron. Spoiler alert, they do destroy the ring. It involved self-sacrifice, discipline, and the triumph of good over evil. Those are the very things we, as humans, desire. This is, yet again, an echo of God’s grand story. In the midst of our sin and brokenness, Jesus Himself shows us the meaning of unconditional love. Of ultimate self-sacrifice (Philippians 2:3-11). Of good triumphing over evil. As humans we inherently desire to experience this type of love. Why? Because it’s been hard-wired into our hearts. It’s the mechanism by which the God of the universe took the broken world and restored it. When we encounter a story that highlights these themes of healing that comes from love, it speaks to us in a deep way.
Consummation: The Anticipated Ending. This is where God’s story is incomparable. “And they lived happily ever after”, the classic fairy tale ending is a nice sentiment. But we all know that in our world, it’s not true. Our experience, time and again, tells us that happily ever after isn’t a thing. In the LOTR, a great victory for the forces of good was achieved when the ring was destroyed. Yet life did not return to “normal” for the heroes. The fractured world may have found healing, but it was never the same. As humans, we have an inherent desire to be in a world that doesn’t experience pain, loss, suffering, and death. Where does this deep longing come from? Saint Augustine would say, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts remain restless until they find their rest in you” (Confessions. 1.1.1). God has written the greatest story to ever be told. It had a good beginning, a broken reality, a healing of wounds, and there is the hope of a perfect future.
I believe that approaching stories (and other works of art) this way can be fruitful in our walk with Jesus. As you listen to that song, watch that movie, read that novel, or tune into that audiobook, be mindful. What part of God’s story is this echoing? How do I resonate with the pain being dealt with here? How do I sympathize with the desire for healing? And ultimately, how is this piece of art instilling in me an eager desire for the true happily ever after? God’s story here is not yet complete. But we can live with certain hope that He will one day right every wrong and we will know His glory in eternity.
Jerram Barrs. Echoes of Eden: Reflections on Christianity, Literature, and the Arts (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishers. 2013).
Augustine of Hippo. Confessions. Edited by Roy Joseph Deferrari. Translated by Vernon J. Bourke. Vol. 21. The Fathers of the Church. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1953.