burgeoning movement is occurring in Evangelical literature today in connection
with the vast popularity of works by such writers as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.
Countless Christians are being influenced by this movement, which in many places
is nearly akin to a paradigm shift, yet almost no Christian literature seems available
that both sets it within its true historical context and compares it with the
Christians are unaware that this movement is part of the contemporary resurgence
of a larger historical movement called Romanticism. Romanticism was popular
in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Europe, especially in Germany,
France, and England, and it never really died. Today it is rapidly increasing
in Western culture in a variety of ways. The following short timeline reveals
some key figures:
seldom discuss Romanticism at all or recognize or discuss it in connection with
the works of Tolkien, Lewis, and their literary group, the Inklings. However,
strong characteristics within this current literary movement in the Evangelical
church connect it to Romanticism. Let's look at Romanticism so we can better understand
what's happening in the Church.
do Lewis and Tolkien fit in?
is understanding Romantic religion important for our age?
reacted against the Enlightenment's emphasis on the primacy of reason by emphasizing
imagination and feeling, and seeking knowledge through intuition. Its prominent
figures during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries included Johann Goethe
in Germany and Samuel Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and George MacDonald
(who studied in Germany for some time) in Britain. The literary aspects of Romanticism
involved certain philosophical writings and lifestyles along with occultism and
occult practice. Their main themes included:
An embrace of paganism, especially in artistic and
imaginative ways. This is sometimes called a mythopoeic approach
(related to the making of myths)
A marriage to certain philosophical movements, especially
the thinking of George
Hegel, an extremely influential 19th century German philosopher/theologian.
Like many philosophers at the time, Hegel was trying to build a philosophy and
religion that was mystical and spiritual but that denied the Biblical God and
Christianity. Sometimes though it took on an outward Christian appearance. For
example, he often used the word "spirit," but he really meant the soul
of the universe not the Holy Spirit of the Bible. In essence, Hegel believed
that God was the universe (monism). His thinking became foundational to Marxism,
Nazism, and Liberalism. The situation was even more complex because some people
held some Christian doctrines while also holding Hegelian ideas and loving pagan
mythology. In this movement, mythology became equal to or superior to or even
absolutely replacing the written Word of God. Out of this strange mixture
sprang Friedrick Schleiermacher, who elevated experience to the highest realm
of revelation and became known as the Father of Liberalism.
powerful unifying theme in Romantic literature is the elevation of imagination
to equality with the written Word of God, and even-- and this is no exaggeration--
to the worship of imagination. Such a view holds that humans create like God,
or that God creates anew through human imagination.
do Lewis and Tolkien fit in?
Romantic Movement, Anglo-Catholicism, and the Inklings. The Church of England
has had many different spiritual streams throughout its history, and one prominent
movement, Anglo-Catholicism, arose at the same time the Romantic Movement was
expanding in the 1800s. Anglo-Catholicism involved turning to the Middle Ages
as a model for Christianity, and it fits very well with the manifestations of
the Romantic Movement within Christianity.
Middle Ages were a time of great religious syncretism whose mixtures included
many pagan ideas, images, and practices that had accumulated over time, sometimes
blended with orthodox Christian doctrines. Anglo-Catholicism is very open to such
mixtures, and it definitely moved away from the Word-centered, Calvinistic aspects
of the Church of England into the realms of imagination, visions, the irrational,
and the elevation of the arts.
(C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams) all drank heavily from
this stream and manifest it in their writings. Lewis, Barfield, and Williams were
Anglicans, and Tolkien was Roman Catholic. They also all drank heavily from the
stream of occult paganism, and all share in elevating imagination to the level
can only touch on the tip of the iceberg concerning Romanticism and the Inklings
here, but one example of the interconnection is the way Roman Catholicism has
elevated the Virgin Mary to the status of goddess and intercessor between God
and man. This theme of the magical mystical woman that is both desired and worshiped
appears frequently in Anglo-Catholicism and fills the Inklings' modern mythologies.
Many powerful witchcraft-queen-goddess figures appear in Tolkien's novels--
Galadriel, Goldberry, the white witches-- as well as in George MacDonald's novels.
Williams, whom many people claim is very orthodox
and who talked about Christian doctrines, was for a while actually a member of
the Society of the Golden Dawn in England. This society was dedicated to witchcraft
and headed at one time by Aleister Crowley, one of the most notoriously demonic
figures in all of history. Williams was steeped in the occult....
"Williams, a devout Anglican as well as a former member
of the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross and a specialist in Tarot and Kabbala,
was a close friend of Tolkien during the years of the Second World War, and an
even closer friend-- almost, indeed, a spiritual advise-- to C. S. Lewis....
He is 'the last magician' both as the last of the magically creative 'Inklings'
to receive due attention, and as the last major writer to emerge, as Yeats
did before him, from the Western Occult tradition...."
Reilly has some important passages regarding the roots of the ideas of the four
men in his book, Romantic Religion.
In his discussion of the influences upon
Charles Williams, he mentions Wordsworth, Dante, and pseudo-Dionysus, the Arthurian
legends, Milton, Evelyn Underhill, medieval mysticism, and the Church Fathers.
He says, "Like Coleridge he was for ever aiming at synthesis." (p. 10)
Lewis's lifelong friend, his financial advisor, and eventually the executor of
his estate, was a lifelong Anthroposophist. This occult belief system is closely
related to Theosophy.
Barfield held incredibly bizarre ideas
about Christianity, Jesus Christ, and Scripture, yet Lewis called Barfield "the
best and wisest of my unofficial teachers."
clearly enamored of Icelandic-Nordic mythology and committed his whole life to
consciously building a mythology for England based on those myths. His book,
which is the grand mythology behind his famous Ring stories, does not reveal
one Creator God of Heaven and Earth, but pagan myth with one father god who creates
sub gods who even create other sub gods who then create the heavens and the earth
and occupy them as gods (i.e., Neptune; the male gods had female consorts; the
savior-god that he refers to is connected with the bad god that is supposed to
be Satan). This is far closer to Mormonism than Christianity.
On Scripture. C.S. Lewis manifests the greatest mixtures of them all because
he definitely holds some orthodox Christian doctrines very strongly. However,
he rejects others. For instance, he holds to the Trinity and the Incarnation
but rejects justification and the Atonement.
see one example in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which promotes
a ransom theory of atonement that is not Biblical but that was popular in the
early Middle Ages. This version states that Jesus' death was a ransom paid to
Satan to set people free, the way you would ransom a captive from an enemy. So
Jesus' life was a ransom for a debt owed to Satan not God. To the surprise of
Satan, however, Jesus rose from the dead and won. This is definitely not the Biblical
doctrine of substitutionary atonement, yet in Lewis's story Aslan sacrifices himself
to the witch for the life of one boy, and there is no mention of sin or of God's
wrath on sinners. In addition, Lewis's Mere Christianity openly denigrates
the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.
On mythology. Not only is Lewis's view of Scripture very mixed, he actually
claims that mythology and Scripture are both revelations of God. His last
book, Till We Have Faces, which he calls his most important, really retold
the myth of Psyche and Cupid. He claims that God gave this myth to the original
pagan writer for the purpose of revelation. He refers not to God but to gods throughout
MacDonald�s influence. Lewis
also claims that before he became a Christian, his imagination was "baptized"
by George MacDonald. MacDonald was a pastor in a Scotch Calvinist church who was
removed from the pulpit for holding unorthodox doctrines, such as Satan's eventual
salvation. MacDonald then became a writer and created stories and mythologies.
Lewis said that MacDonald's mythologies weren't just his creation; they were given
to him for revelation. We see here the elevation of imagination to the level of
revelation. J.R. Reilly says:
"In Lewis there is, first of all, the obvious influence
of George Macdonald. In dozens of places Lewis has praised MacDonald, and even
spoken of himself as a kind of disciple. His debt to Macdonald's Unspoken Sermon,
he has said, "is almost as great as one man can owe another..."* In
the Great Divorce the hero, venturing into the afterlife, meets
Macdonald, as Dante met Virgil; and it is Macdonald who explains to him the nature
of heaven and hell. In the latter discussion of Lewis we shall see that
he credits Macdonald's books with bringing about his reconversion to Christianity."
(Reilly, p. 10) *C.S.
Lewis, ed., George Macdonald, An Anthology.
trying to describe the influence one is finally driven to the paraphrasing of
Lewis's description of it, and to concluding that each man takes something different
to the books he reads. I believe the nature of the influence is best understood
by seeing MacDonald as an early advocate of Romantic religion, which can exist
as a corollary to a man's professed formal religion. And this is also true of
the other man on whom Lewis greatly depends, Chesterton. Like Lewis, Chesterton
had high praise for Macdonald, and a strong case could be made for a line of
inheritance running from Macdonald to Chesterton to Lewis and Tolkien. All these
men meet on that middle ground between faerie and formal religion which
is the subject of this study." (Reilly,
p. 11) (italics added)
occult influence. The occult influence in Lewis is strongly visible in the
Narnia stories. What does he call revelation of the Law? Deep magic. His
battles are battles between white magic and black magic. It's true that some analogies
to Biblical Christianity are present, but they are well mixed in with pagan mythology.
instance, a dance in one Narnia story reveals a blatantly pagan example
of Lewis's syncretism. In this particular dance, a large number of pagan figures
are dancing around, including Bacchus, fauns, and satyrs. Now, Bacchus is the
pagan god of wine and orgies, and fauns and satyrs are very sexual, pagan creatures.
Goat legs represent the idea that goats are highly sexually charged and promiscuous.
Yet Lewis used this image to represent goodness. (Lewis often calls the high mystical
sense of Christianity a "great dance.")
is understanding Romantic Religion
important for our age?
and the Emergent Church. Today the resurgence of the Romantic Movement is
shaping modern Evangelicalism in powerful and often little understood ways. The
writings of the Inklings both fit in and encourage-- and perhaps even have shaped--
the Emergent movement. Many of these same problematic themes that are becoming
powerfully prominent are visible in Emergent Church conversations.
instance, the foreword by John Franke to Brian
MacLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy draws upon a mythological image from
Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Franke quotes one of the goddess-witches,
Galadriel, in order to illustrate his point that great shifts are taking place
in Christianity, shifts that are bringing about a union between what had been
diverse sections of the Body. A little later in the same foreword, Franke talks
about how this unity goes beyond the church to include other religions:
"Second, the centrality of Christ is combined
with openness appropriate for generous orthodoxy. For instance, the biblical witness
to Jesus Christ as the unique Savior and hope of the world does not demand a restrictive
posture concerning salvation for those who have never heard the gospel or those
in other religious traditions." (p.
17, A Generous Orthodoxy, foreword)
The Christian response to Romanticism. Richard
Nathan received his M.A. in Religion in Church History at Trinity Episcopal School
for Ministry (TESM) in Ambridge, PA in 1987. TESM is an Episcopal/Anglican seminary
that has been steeped in Lewisian Romanticism in similar ways to Regent College
in Vancouver, B.C. Over the past twenty years, Richard has been studying syncretism
and teaching Christians to discern it. During the past year, he has intensified
his focus upon the Emergent church movement and Christian Romanticism. In all
that time, he has never encountered any books that critique-- and very few that
even understand-- this movement. Two books stand out, neither of which critiques
Romantic Religion: A Study of Barfield, Lewis,
Williams, and Tolkien by R. J. Reilly clearly talks about it, but it promotes
it and doesn't critique it (Athens, GA:
University of Georgia Press, 1972).
Christian Mythmakers by Roland Hein, professor
emeritus of English at Wheaton (Cornerstone Press Chicago, 1998), promotes Romantic
Christianity although it doesn't use that term. Hein also wrote a number of books
praising George MacDonald.
Reilly promotes the movement, his insightful comments are nevertheless useful
to reveal its immense influence upon-- and through-- the Inklings:
do not mean by the term [romanticism]* only that the four men are romantic writers
who have an interest in some sort of religion; I mean (as I have said) that their
romanticism is hardly separable from their religion." (p.
"I wish to show that the work of these four men reveals
itself, on analysis, as a deliberate and conscious attempt to revive certain well-known
doctrines and attitudes of romanticism and to justify these doctrines and attitudes
by showing that they have not merely literary but religious validity."
"And I will show that Lewis, Williams, and Tolkien
in various ways affirm that the experiences which we generally call romantic--
Sehnsucht, sexual love, faerie-- are also, or can be, religious
experiences." (p. 5)
personal trip into Romantic Religion. Romanticism is not just an intellectual
pursuit, although intellectuals are often among its main proponents. Through its
connection with the occult and paganism, and its denigration of the Word of God,
it can have devastating personal effects.
ourselves were involved in Romantic religion during the Sixties (though no one
called it that then-- we called it the occult) when a Romantic revival exploded
in a place called the Haight-Ashbury District in San Francisco. Romanticism often
reacts to the exaltation of reason over imagination and of mechanical, industrial
lifelessness over nature and poetry. And that is exactly what happened in the
Haight. Romanticism re-emerged through the medium of psychedelic drugs such as
LSD, occult techniques such as Tarot cards, and-- interestingly enough -- Tolkien's
Lord of the Rings series.
incident remains forever engraved in our minds. We had just returned from Europe
when Richard walked into a head shop in the Haight (that sold drug paraphernalia)
and spotted a popular poster hanging on the wall that said: "Gandalf lives!"
It vividly personified the way wizardry, fantasy and imagination, and psychedelic
drugs all weave together in this magical (and terribly destructive) world. We
dived into Tolkien's work, which quickly became an adjunct to our LSD trips as
it provided a hyper-stimulation of the imagination and an open door for the false
"angel of light."
we were not alone. What began as a mystical pagan movement in 1960s' San Francisco
has now become mainstream in 21st century America. The Church sits
between Heaven and Earth, within a culture inebriated with Harry Potter, occult
fantasy movies and literature, the pervasive use of mind-altering drugs, and countless
other growing pagan influences. The video documentary Ringers: Lord of the
Fans reveals some of the powerful effects of contemporary Romanticism occurring
today through the influence of The Ring Trilogy alone. Just in
our personal lives, we see this influence continually growing. For instance, we
know an Evangelical minister who unknowingly gave his daughter a name meaning
"witch" from the vocabulary of The Silmarillion. And good Christian
friends claim the elf witches are really "angels."
through a book display at a large Christian conference recently, we found an entire
large table devoted to the Inklings that exalted all of their works. This is the
"cutting edge" the display seemed to say of Evangelicals finally "embracing
culture." It's really "all right" to undiscerningly engage in fantasy.
Well, telling a bedtime story is one thing, but shaping your theology by it is
amazing aspect of the whole movement is the apparent lack of attempts at discernment,
to judge by the Word of God, the sword of the Spirit, and the lack of a historical
perspective that examines the roots of these kinds of teachings. Once one looks
into it, it's obvious they really come from the world. It's a monumental example
of what Francis Schaeffer calls "The Great Evangelical Disaster," that
is, compromising with the truth and embracing the spirit of the age instead of
standing solidly on Biblical Evangelical foundations.
"Where is the clear voice speaking to the crucial
issues of the day with distinctly biblical, Christian answers? With tears we must
say it is not there and that a large segment of the evangelical world has become
seduced by the world spirit of this present age."
to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which
depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than
on Christ (Colossians 2:8)."
copyright 2006 by Richard and Linda Nathan
Richard Nathan holds a Master of Arts in Religion
in Church History and has been a Bible and church history teacher for over twenty
years. He wrote his thesis on the debate over the inerrancy of Scripture in a
historical analysis. Since 1992, Linda Nathan has been president of Logos Word
Designs, Inc., a Christian writing and editing service at
fourteen years together in occult paganism before becoming Christians in 1976
and have taught numerous seminars and classes to Christians on discerning the
subject. See Richard's blog at
www.gloriousriches.blogspot.com for ongoing discussion about such trends in
Christianity as Romantic Christianity and the Emergent Church movement.
George Peters, A Theology of Church Growth (Zondervan, 1981), quoted in
John MacArthur's Ashamed of the Gospel: When the Church Becomes Like the World
(Crossway, 1993), pp. 23-24. [bold added]