The BBC has found new Tolkien interview material, lost for decades, which they plan to broadcast for the first time this weekend. In what can only be described by Tolkien’s own phrase Eucatastrophe, this news marks a “sudden, joyous turn” for devoted fans of Tolkien. J.R.R. Tolkien, of course, wrote the enduring classics The Lord of the Rings series and its prequel, The Hobbit, along with a host of other stories and poems. He gained an immediate following both in his home country of England and in the US after the publication of Lord of the Rings, which came on the heels of World War II. In recent years, new generations have been introduced to his works through Peter Jackson’s three-part film adaptations of both stories.
I’d like to briefly reflect on what Tolkien means for leaders, whether you are a die-hard fan or know next to nothing about him, While there are numerous avenues we could use in this endeavor, I want to focus on one specific aspect of Tolkien, the idea of sub-creation, and show how leadership is a form of sub-creation.
Back in the creation account in Genesis, when God created man and woman, the Scriptures tell us that he created them in his own image. Part of the purpose of the first humans was to cultivate the garden God created, including naming all the animals that God created to populate the earth. That ability to name is a creative ability, one bestowed on humans because God created us in his own image. He is the Creator God, and we as his creation are given the ability to create as well, only our creations are not original. We cannot make raw material out of nothing like God can, but we can refashion and rename things. That’s the basic idea of what it means to be “sub-creators,” and Tolkien has been instrumental in bringing that idea to common parlance.
When we see the world this way, in the biblical vision of humans being created as image bearers, we see our natural role in responding to God in everything we do. That includes leadership. We don’t try to lead out of our own ingenuity or pride, but we try to lead by God’s own example. Leadership is then a form of sub-creation.
Tolkien saw himself as providing a gift to the world through stories. He understood that every domain of calling is ultimately about giving God glory by reflecting his attributes to a lost and broken world in need of redemption. In a famous essay he wrote entitled “On Fairy Stories” (originally delivered as an academic lecture), he discussed the elements of what makes a good story especially meaningful for a reader. One of these elements he termed “eucatastrophe,” which is what happens when a story reaches a place where all hope seems lost, where the main character(s) seems completely at wits end, only to find a “sudden, joyous turn” of events that ultimately leads to a happy conclusion.
Tolkien believed that good stories give people renewed vision and point them to higher truths. The ultimate “eucatastrophe” is Jesus’ defeat of death on the cross, and our lives, particularly the way we lead, should point to that “sudden, joyous turn.”
Leaders that submit to Jesus’ lordship over their entire lives do more than lead well. Their very life points to Jesus, much the way Paul described Christians as being the fragrance of Christ in Second Corinthians. Just as a good story does more than merely entertain or satisfy, but points beyond itself to larger truths, good leaders remind us of the ultimate leader, God.
People often criticize stories as frivolous wastes of time, distractions, or “escapes” from real world life. As Tolkien would argue, though, what these critics fail to grasp is that what we experience on earth is not actually “the real world.” It is a broken, distorted reality, plagued with sin, disease, and death. The real world is really eternity with God, where God restores and recreates earth in perfection. We as Christian leaders live with that end in mind, of a world made right through Jesus. As Tolkien’s stories give witness to that truth, so can our leadership.