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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Gollum's Idolatry: Paradigm of the Human Condition

Idolatry.  Martin Luther understood it to mean anything in which we put our trust and faith other than God.  (Large Catechism)  Idolatry is the reason why God instituted the first commandment in the Decalogue: I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods.  All other gods are idols.

The bible is full of examples of idolatry, the most famous perhaps being Aaron’s golden calf.  After the split of the kingdom of Israel into the northern kingdom of Ephraim and the southern kingdom of Judah, the leader of Ephraim molded two golden calves (idols) for the people to worship.  (1 Kings 12:26-29)  Jesus alluded to the Pharisees’ rigid devotion to their religious traditions as idolatrous.  (Matthew 15:3-9; 23:29-33; Luke 11:42-44; 20:17-19)  In the epistles, idolatry is frequently listed among the sins that followers of Christ should avoid.  (Romans 1:23-31; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 5:19-21)

In western theology idolatry is often equated with people’s focus on possessions, wealth, success, or their own power and autonomy.  It’s a concept with which we’re familiar and which many of us, to a certain extent, can recognize in our own lives.  Yet at the same time it’s easy for idolatry to remain merely a concept, disembodied and disengaged from the practice of daily life.  It’s easy to ignore the implications of idolatry, and to avoid recognizing what kind of damage can come from engaging in it.  It’s so embedded in our American culture, so saturating our common experiences that we’re blinded to its effects.

Literature provides us with characters who embody aspects of our lives that help us see with clarity, because of the natural distance between reader and story.  The harmful effects of idolatry can more easily be recognized in a character who takes the concept of idolatry to extremes.  One such fascinating character is Gollum.

Gollum, a.k.a. Smeágol, comes from the imagination of J.R.R. Tolkien, and resides in the pages and on the screen in the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit.  Commonly mistaken as either an irredeemably evil creature or an innocent victim of malevolent forces beyond his control, Gollum/Smeágol is the most recognizably human of all Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings characters.  Through this character we can see the somewhat extreme yet undeniably familiar consequences of idolatry, which in turn allows us a glimpse of our own experiences and the consequences that may result from the choices we make.  Continue reading

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