Chesterton, Tolkien, and the Invention of Tradition

G. K. Chesterton’s fantastical works of fiction such as his extensive use of fairies, according to Alison Milbank at the University of Nottingham, had an apparently large influence on J. R. R. Tolkien and his Lord of the Rings. Alison argues that Chesterton’s attempts at using fiction to cause his readers to engage the real world in new ways resulted in Tolkien’s appropriation of a thoroughly fictional world — so fictional, in fact, it takes on a sense or reality — in order to engender a theology that is both practical and artistic. They both openly and intentionally created a fictional tradition of sorts in order to render a theological purpose more accessible, and in so doing foster relationships between people and God. She writes in Chesterton and Tolkien As Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real (London/New York: T and T Clark, 2007):

If Chesterton and Tolkien are theologians, as the title of this book claims, it is because they offer a theology of art as practice. Practical Theology as it is taught in seminaries and theological colleges in very often the taking of theological ideas and realizing them in practical activity, or reflecting upon experience with theological tools. …As a gift it likewise cements social relations and draws attention to the exchanges between people, and with the sacred. (p. 166)

Much no doubt remains to be said both in response to Milbanks’s appraisal of Chesterton and Tolkien. On the same cart of new books to be added to our library, however, was another treatment of fictional traditions: The Invention of Sacred Tradition, Lewis and Hammer, eds., Cambridge University Press, 2007. From the introduction:

In the domain of religion, we find an analogous situation, where historically verifiable traditions coexist with recent innovations whose origins are spuriously projected back into time.

Among these recent innovations which have invented traditions for themselves and which are given chapters in this book are Scientology, Castenada’s don Juan, Mormonism, Sun Myung Moon, Rosicrucianism, and Zoroastrianism. As it typical of much contemporary scholarship, however, they also attribute a false tradition to the New Testament due to supposed authorial “inauthenticities,” and thereby label most the New Testament to be forgeries (as well as the Pentateuch).

The combination of these two books in my thoughts did make for an interesting contrast, though. One looks at Chesterton’s and Tolkien’s fictional traditions as a positive source of good theology, traditions so fantastical and metaphorical that their place in both literary and theological history is certain. The other looks at the fictional traditions of Scientology, Mormonism, and the like as dubious sources which are not bases for truth. The combination raises a good discussion about how and when to appeal to tradition as a source — whether that tradition is real, fictional for instructive and artful purposes, or just plain fictional and delusive.

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