It's the film that everyone and their dog are going to see. Nine years after the concluding part of The Lord of the Rings trilogy was released, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has hit the screens. It's a film of orc armies, hobbits, wargs, gorging dwarves and a goblin king with a really, really big chin. What could such a mainstream blockbuster have to tell us about God?
One of the pleasures of the film, for me, was witnessing the acting-out of a moment that Frodo and Gandalf discuss in The Fellowship of the Ring, where Bilbo is trying to escape from Gollum's lair. Gollum is in a furious rage because Bilbo has taken the One Ring. However, Bilbo is wearing the Ring, which (if you didn't know) makes him invisible. This gives Bilbo the perfect chance to sneak out of the cave. But he also has an opportunity - to blot out this murderous creature once and for all. Gollum, who has no idea where Bilbo is, is completely in his hands. Bilbo takes out his sword and holds it to Gollum's throat.
Here we're presented with this long, long shot where Gollum, utterly defenceless and vulnerable, stares into the camera. Bilbo makes a call...and saves his life.*
I see myself in Gollum. I think any one of us can recognise ourselves in him. He's desperately attracted to something that's bad for him, something that he needs so much that it consumes his existence. Take it away and he feels empty. Give it to him and he's entranced, detaching himself from the world around him. The Ring stands for our selfishness. For that which consumes us. For our struggle to find meaning in this life. To give it a technical term, the Ring stands for our sin. Our Precious. Gollum teaches us that, even as we recognise that the brokenness in ourselves is negative, somehow we're still attracted to it. We just won't let it go.
Frodo looks at Gollum and condemns him. Here's how that conversation from Fellowship goes:
GANDALF: He hates and loves the Ring, as he hates and loves himself. He will never be rid of his need for it.
FRODO: It's a pity Bilbo didn't kill him when he had the chance.
GANDALF: Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo's hand...
Bilbo sees something different. He finds himself in the position where he can kill Gollum and yet he shows him mercy. It isn't that Gollum deserves this mercy. Those big puppy eyes don't change who he is or the fact that he deserves to die. Yet Bilbo foregoes any concept of total justice in order to give Gollum a future.
If we can see ourselves in the face of Gollum then in Bilbo we can see the face of God. The narrative in our heads is constantly telling us that God's out to get us. That He's desperately searching for some by-clause by which to condemn us. Or that, if He does show us mercy, then it's begrudgingly: 'Go on, then, if you must'. But God's mercy far outstretches Bilbo's. God doesn't just feel sorry for us; He actively desires to shower mercy on us that we don't deserve. We think God's the lawyer for the prosecution. Much to our surprise, we find that He's actually the barrister for the defence, who fights our corner and then pops round to the judge's platform and proclaims us as innocent. All purely out of the depths of His mercy.
When you see The Hobbit (I'm sure you will), look out for this moment. And remember that God is the Father "who is full of mercy and all comfort" (2 Corinthians 1:3).
* If you know almost anything about The Lord of the Rings, this isn't a spoiler.