Thursday 19 December 2013

The Hobbit: Faith (and Doubt) in What is Written

OK, I admit it. Blogging on The Hobbit - that's kind of what I do. I loved the new second instalment, although not with the same vigour as The Lord of the Rings cinematic adaptations. And once again a scene with Bilbo caught my eye. (To fans of the book, I can only apologise if I have butchered the narrative at any point).

Much of the purpose of the mission undertaken by Bilbo and the dwarves originates in a prophecy; more specifically, it originates in a prophecy which is written down. The company aim to take back the Misty Mountain, but their hope of entering the mountain lies upon their locating a secret door. The door will be locked but if they arrive at just the right moment then ancient moon-runes assure them that the doorway will be revealed:
Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks and the setting sun with the last light of Durin's Day will shine upon the key-hole.
Bilbo and the dwarves finally make it to the mountain and spot a staircase that leads up onto a ridge. But when they reach the ridge they are quickly disheartened. There is no doorway to be seen. They have arrived on Durin's Day itself and the sun is setting, meaning that they have little time to locate the door and use their key to open it. They try battering the stone. They try everything. Eventually the party's leader, Thorin, tells the dwarves to give up. The sun has gone down. Their whole mission has been in vain.

Is that it? Was the prophecy...wrong?

Everyone else leaves but Bilbo continues to wrestle with these questions. The instructions of the runes were precise and couldn't have been misunderstood. And yet, despite faithfully trusting in their accuracy, they don't seem to have been borne out by reality. That's when the moon comes out. Suddenly Bilbo hears a knocking sound and sees a thrush by a doorway which is given visibility by the new beams of moonlight. The dwarves return and open the door, giving them the access to the mountain that their whole quest has depended on.

This is where I fit in. My relationship with that thing called Scripture is a strange one. I'm currently taking a degree in Biblical Studies and yet, like many other Christians, I haven't always felt that comfortable with everything the Bible's got to say. Sometimes that isn't a big deal. I'm never going to understand everything, right? Sometimes it's been a process of monumental soul-searching. Did Jesus really rise from the dead? How can I know that He did? It is enough that there's a document where that's written down? Each question deserves its own process of enquiry and careful thought but I don't want to focus on any one issue in this post. All I want to do is write about the process of doubting the Bible.

It's easy to come up with a simple value-based assessment of what a Christian ought to make of doubt. Faith, good; doubt, bad. Yet I'm increasingly aware that there's a place for doubt in faith. That's not to say that doubt is necessarily helpful or healthy. Nor is it simply to acknowledge that doubt is a reality for the vast majority of believers at one point or another. Instead, I've realised that faith does not mean being 100% sure 100% of the time. Faith can seem like this intangible substance, something that's 'out there' somewhere and which some people magically find. Some people talk about it as if it were elusive: "I'd like to believe, but...". I'll be the first to believe that the Bible can be confusing at times. But my assessment of it, and especially of how trustworthy it is, is entirely up to me. Faith is my call and my decision. Doubt doesn't rob me of faith. It may be able to challenge and strain it but it can never rob me of faith because faith is my decision. God has made it that way. No matter how faith-repellent my situation may appear I give faith substance simply by making a choice.

The Bible contains people of astounding faith but it also records people who doubted. Even the accounts of the resurrection, where Jesus physically appeared to His disciples, are littered with ordinary people who struggled with faith. Jesus's final appearance is accompanied by the simple phrase, "but some doubted" (Matthew 28:17, NIV). The initial response of some of the disciples to the news of the resurrection was to dismiss it "because it sounded like nonsense" to them (Luke 24:11). And John's Gospel includes the story of Thomas, who decided that he would only believe when he put his finger in the resurrected Jesus's wounds. Jesus's response is an encouragement to those who want to believe but find it a struggle: "You [Thomas] believe because you see me. Those who believe without seeing me will be truly blessed." (John 20:29). That's us. The ones who haven't physically seen the risen Jesus but believe based on the testimony of others. Testimony that's written down.

It seems to me that in the movie Bilbo shows faith at the precise moment when everyone else doubts. And yet his faith is predominantly found in staying put and wrestling with his questions about the runes. It's not in grand declarations regarding their trustworthiness. Poignantly, if he didn't go through that process then the mission really would have failed, for no-one would have remained on the ridge to witness the revelation given through the moonlight. In other words, choosing to stay put and question the runes was in itself an act of faith. In the midst of the crisis that faith is vindicated and Bilbo finds that his faith actually makes sense. Doubt was involved but was ultimately superseded. Bilbo shows us that faith is not always straight-forwards, created in an impulsive rush. It is a decision, and one that can be made in the midst of doubt.

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