Ents, Hobbits, and Salvation in the Shadow of Charlottesville: David Roberts on "The God Who Saves"

By David Roberts

There is a scene in the film adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s The Two Towers (it plays out a little differently in the book) where Treebeard – an Ent – shares an exchange with Merry – one of the Hobbits (if you don’t know what Ents and Hobbits are then you are beyond my sympathy).

Treebeard, having decided along with the other Ents to forgo the ongoing war of the ring, tells Merry:

Treebeard: “We Ents cannot hold back this storm. We must weather such things as we have always done.”

Merry: “How can that be your decision?”

Treebeard: “This is not our war.”

The sort of detachment latent in Treebeard’s response reminds me, a white, cis-het male, of the same sort of privilege that I am afforded in relation to the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, and much more so the centuries of systemic oppression that preceded those vile demonstrations. As someone born into an advantageous position in relation to western culture’s pre-existing power structures, my response to this legacy of hate must be intentional if it is to be anything but passively – if not actively – complicit. To mix my fantasy metaphors a bit here, those privileged like me are confronted with, in the words of Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore himself, the choice between “what is right and what is easy.”

I, and those similarly privileged, can show solidarity with the oppressed, and not in a white/self-centering, messianic way, but rather according to the kenotic being-for-others of the crucified Christ. Or we can weather this storm as we have historically done, hiding behind the cheap veneer of individual culpability and the white-washing of history.

But this post is not a meditation on the Lord of the Rings, nor is it, at least not primarily, a reflection on the ongoing need for intersectional justice in our country. Rather the purpose of my writing is to appreciatively consider David Congdon’s most recent book-length work, The God Who Saves. We will, however, return to both Charlottesville and Treebeard in due time.

I want to focus on a practical outworking of Congdon’s reimagined soteriology – the space of salvation, if you will – that gives me both the greatest pause and the most excitement.

Congdon’s rendering of soteriology is framed as an existential de-centering of self, wherein we are interrupted in our attempts to secure our identities and thus made free to be entirely secure in God. He describes this as co-crucifixion, the Spirit-mediated, existential repetition of Christ’s own death-in-God-abandonment. In Congdon’s own words, “God eschatologically interrupts our existence and places us outside ourselves, thus making us wholly insecure in ourselves but wholly secure in God” (83).

I want to consider further the observation that if, as Congdon argues, God’s revelation of Godself in the event of death-in-God-abandonment thus reveals God as ever with and for the oppressed and marginalized (and it does), then any salvific, existential de-centering we may experience – wherein we are made paradoxically secure in God – is simultaneously a move towards the marginalized, not in messianic triumphalism, but in kenotic solidarity.

This has profound implications. First, implicit in this rendering is the eschatological privileging of the oppressed, the taking for granted that the marginalized are united with Christ in a saving way. It follows then that the powerful are saved only when they are de-centered alongside the oppressed neighbor. This move is anticipated in Congdon’s prior work The Mission of Demythologizing when he reorients the Christian missionary identity around solidarity with and for the sake of the other. There he writes,

For both Christ and his followers, mission is always a journey 'into the far country,' a journey towards the stranger. It is crucial to see that it is the transgression into the unknown itself that constitutes a missionary existence. There is no aim to convert the foreign into the familiar…. For this reason the missionary task, as redefined within an intercultural framework, is always a conversion of oneself to the other, and not in the least a conversion of the other to oneself. (823)

Congdon spends much of The God Who Saves explaining how this account of salvation can be understood in a universalistic way while still valuing the historical particularity of all people.

As Congdon himself notes in chapter five of The God Who Saves, we also have to rethink what we mean by the Church/apostolate. The simultaneous salvific turn of existentially saving us from ourselves that we might be secure in God and, therefore, postured in openness towards the downtrodden neighbor among us, allows us to “see the apostolate especially in the many black lives suffering under mass incarceration and systemic violence, as well as in those protesting this injustice and fighting for black liberation” (194). Back to Charlottesville.

I find it difficult to take seriously a contemporary account of soteriology and ecclesiology that does not, in ways and means appropriate to our present world-picture, center the narrative of salvation upon those most weighed down by the oppressive systems, powers, and structures of our world and society. What excites me about the soteriology articulated in The God Who Saves is the means by which Congdon retains the transcendent, extra-nos character of salvation while, in the same move, revealing the presence of God precisely in our own move towards the other.

I am reminded of something Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his prison letters, as part of an outline for a future book. Bonhoeffer suggests that Christ’s being for others,

is the experience of transcendence…. Faith is participation in this being of Jesus (incarnation, cross, resurrection). Our relation to God is not a ‘religious’ relationship to the highest, most powerful, and best Being imaginable – that is not authentic transcendence – but our relation to God is a new life in "existence for others," through participation in the being of Jesus. The transcendental is not infinite and unattainable tasks, but the neighbor who is within reach in any given situation. (DeJonge & Green, Bonhoeffer Reader, 813)

While Bonhoeffer tragically never had a chance to write that book, I have a suspicion that such a project may have shared a kinship with the gift that Congdon has given us in The God Who Saves.

What form, then, does a such informed church assume in our present situation? I can speak only as a person of privilege in this space. But, in light of Congdon’s proposal, a few suggestions: A practiced, visible presence in the places where systemic injustice is most prevalent, such as witnessed in the life and death of Heather Heyer; a privileging of silenced voices, such as Rev. Traci Blackmon, who stood boldly in the face of open hatred; and a resistance to the privileging of a particular institution or modality as “the Church” properly defined, but rather an openness to witnessing Christ-being-for-others in places where the name of Jesus is but whispered, if it is even spoken at all.

Turning, in conclusion, back to the film adaptation of The Two Towers, the hobbits convince Treebeard to follow a path through the forest that takes the party past the destruction that the evil wizard Saruman has wrought on the surrounding countryside. Per the framework laid out in this post, Treebeard experiences something of a co-crucifixion in this moment. His security shattered, he rallies his fellow Ents to war, knowing full well that their march may be one unto death—the last march of the Ents.

For those of us with eyes to see and ears to hear, and especially for those with the privilege to demur, let our words echo those of Treebeard. In the face of such gross injustice, let us say as one, “our business is in Charlottesville tonight, with the rock and stone. It is likely that we go to our doom.” And in that doom, may we find our salvation.

[Ed. note: David Roberts is a (currently free agent) pastor and a graduate student at Fuller Theological Seminary's School of Intercultural Studies. David misses snowboarding, enjoys the occasional video game, appreciates sci-fi/fantasy, drinks craft beer, and studies the intersection of theology and culture (David is sort of basic). He and his family live in Charlotte, North Carolina. You can find him on Twitter @DRob87 or at his blog.]


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Thanks very much for this, David. The Tolkien connection is quite rich. There are a number of scenes in that story that have long borne theological meaning for me, but this one had not broken through to the same extent. I appreciate the nudge. :-)
David Roberts said…
A few others could have certainly substituted. But I still remember how moved I was, as a teenager, when I first saw this scene. I've used it as a preaching illustration more than a few times and it immediately sprung to mind when I read parts of TGWS. Glad David finally gave me profound theological language for what might be my favorite movie scene of all time.
As a teenager?

Hey, we were 18 when the first one came out. :) But yeah, I feel old too.

Thanks, David, for this great post. I'm really honored by it. By connecting it to pop culture and our present sociopolitical situation, you've enriched and expanded my work. Thank you for that.
David Roberts said…
If I can find the time to rewatch a bunch of movies, applying TGWS to cinema would be a fun side project. We've already talked about a few movies (Donnie Darko, Tree of Life, a few others). I also think a TGWS influenced meditation on the whole of Twin Peaks would be wonderful.
As someone who would love to spend all his time discussing theology and film, I like this idea very much. I've already done something like this for the movie Magnolia (http://www.dwcongdon.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Congdon_2012_Apocalyptic-Magnolia-JRPC.pdf), but there are so many other possibilities. Other really good film candidates include Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Wild Strawberries, Diary of a Country Priest, Amores Perros, Andrei Rublev, Winter Light, Three Colors Trilogy, and All About My Mother.
Michal Anne said…
My memory of this scene in the book is that it is substantially different from that of the movie. When asked what side he was on by the hobbits, Treebeard said: "I am on nobodies side, because nobody is on my side". As a young queer woman, this resonated strongly with me.

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