One of those cultural icons of the post-modern era is Gary Larson’s cartoon series, The Far Side. Larson retired the series in 1995 after only 15 years, but the cartoons remain very popular. Their irreverent, bizarre depictions of people and circumstances continue to amuse, but more importantly, cause people to think about things we consider “normal”. Such is the case of Larson’s cartoon, “God at His computer”. The picture shows the Almighty sitting at a computer, with an image on the screen of a hapless victim walking under a piano suspended by a rope. God’s finger hovers over the keyboard, about to press a button labelled “Smite”.
There is no question that this particular cartoon is irreverent. Some might call it blasphemous. But why is it that humor is the most common reaction to this cartoon? Is it because we have this innate tendency to laugh at the misfortunes of other people – perhaps glad that the misfortune is not our own? Probably; comics and sadists have played on that tendency for centuries, all too frequently with tragic results. What strikes the chord in this particular cartoon, though, is that Gary Larson points to God as the cause of misfortune. In this case he is merely highlighting something we would rather not admit: our perception that God really does cause evil in the world, regardless how we might try to avoid it. This perception is rooted much deeper than we may be aware. Why, for instance, do contracts and insurance policies make allowances relieving the contracting parties from responsibility in the case of “acts of God”? Something like a tornado, earthquake, or other natural disaster, is an unforeseen event that no one can predict or prepare for, and thus no one can be held responsible for its effects. No one, that is, except God, the self-proclaimed Creator and Almighty Power of the universe. God, therefore, gets the blame.
But why? How did this all get started? What established our tendency to think of the Creator as a capricious being ready to press the “Smite” button? And is it fair or right to blame God for misfortune? To find the answers we must travel far back in time, to the beginning of humanity’s existence. No doubt our earliest ancestors began blaming God for their problems soon after He expelled them from the Garden of Eden. However, what most likely caused us to think collectively about God in this way was His judgment on Egypt.
No one remembers the kings of Arnor. Why should they? After all, they existed only in the imagination of J.R.R. Tolkien. Yet if they had never existed there, the world would never have become acquainted with Aragorn, or with the Hobbits who helped him reestablish his kingdom. The great drama of Middle Earth is now etched in popular culture thanks to the cinematic artistry of Peter Jackson. It is a great credit to Jackson and his team that they drew from the deep wells of Tolkien’s works to portray the indispensable back-story of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but that story probably escaped the notice of most of the audience.
In Tolkien’s world, the noblest people among the Men of Middle Earth were the Númenóreans, a people whose kingdom in the midst of the sea was destroyed by a great flood like that which inundated the legendary Atlantis. Under the leadership of Elendil and his sons Isildur and Anárion, the survivors of Númenor established a new kingdom in the western part of Middle Earth. Elendil divided his realm, placing Anárion on the throne of the Southern Kingdom of Gondor, and retaining for himself the title of High King as he ruled over the Northern Kingdom, Arnor. When Elendil died, Isildur took his place as High King, ruling from Arnor. Over time Arnor declined and failed, but the line of Isildur continued through the Dúnedain, or Men of the West, a diminished and scattered people known more popularly as Rangers. Gondor continued on in great strength, but the line of kings descended from Anárion ceased when the last king, Eärnur, died childless. Tolkien thus created a great irony in his literary world: a king with no kingdom, and a kingdom with no king.
This is the setting for The Lord of the Rings. Those who have seen the movies know that Aragorn the Ranger eventually became king of Gondor, but few realize that his coronation was the culmination of the long-awaited rebirth of the Númenorean realm and reunification of the Northern and Southern kingdoms. Those events could never have happened if the Dúnedain had ceased to exist. According to Tolkien’s work, they remained few in number after the destruction of Arnor, but their vigilant watch ensured a measure of peace in the lands of the North. Although all but forgotten by the people of Gondor, the Dúnedain worked quietly behind the scenes to strengthen the Southern Kingdom’s stand against the growing evil of Sauron. Then, when all hope seemed lost, the heir of Elendil appeared in the greatest hour of need, bringing new life to long-dead hopes and dreams.
A major component of Tolkien’s works is identity: as long as the Dúnedain and the people of Gondor remember who they are, no enemy can defeat them. They may be overwhelmed and diminished, but a remnant will remain and will in time prosper anew. And whether Professor Tolkien realized it or not, his literary works depict something very real in the works of God: the identity, redemption, and restoration of all Israel.