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On evangelizing the culture and why hobbits (really) need the Shire

We, as “Christian hobbits”, need to understand that the real imperative and challenge of evangelization takes place well before we can even think of doing anything “out there.”

(Image: Andres Iga @andresiga | Unsplash.com)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Catholics today will argue about the best way to evangelize the culture.

One of the more typical approaches puts a high premium on what you might call a “go get ’em” style of evangelization, one that prioritizes the outward-looking character of evangelical activity. As Bishop Robert Barron recently put it, it means leaving the idyllic “domesticity” of the Shire with a faith “that goes out.” The contemplative and mystical aspects symbolized by the Shire are acknowledged, but the gold standard of evangelization ends up being what happens once we leave our hobbit holes and face the culture “head-on.” Bilbo and Frodo truly find themselves only after they leave the comforts of the Shire.

There is great truth in this. The “going out” dimension of missionary activity is quite obviously implied in the Great Commission itself: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19).

And yet I wonder if all going-out has a good deal more to do with “staying in” than we might think. I suppose a lot turns on how exactly the Shire is understood, especially in relation to the hobbits’ adventures. If the Shire only represents “merrie old England” in that romantic pipe-in-hand-by-fire-toasting-the-queen way then yes, leaving it behind is in certain respects necessary.

But I think the Shire as Tolkien intended it means a lot more than that. At a deeper level, I see it as a culture embodying the hope of an eternal order of peace, or “leisure,” as Josef Pieper might put it. It stands out from other cultures because it’s so unmotivated by the acquisition of worldly goods such as wealth, power, strength, success, fame, and even honor and nobility. Instead, it prizes home, filial fellowship, simplicity, silence, smallness, and yes, merriment. It’s precisely the kind of culture generated by a sacramental and liturgical ethos, where existence is perceived at a deeper level according to contemplation and worship.

Humanly (or perhaps“Hobbitly”) speaking, of course, the Shire’s like all temporal projects of imperfect creatures: a mix of the good and the bad. It’s a world of quaint and homely virtues and vices. And its deeper dimension is probably unbeknownst to most of its inhabitants, perhaps illustrating just how easily the memory of origins is forgotten and therefore just how vulnerable any culture always is to decay and death. And when evil does strike, there are always those within it ready to collaborate. It’s all very like the Church–surprise, surprise!

But beyond its inevitable imperfections the Shire is different precisely because it embodies a unique peace, a way of faith, hope, and love that does not use conventional power or force. And because these marks are embodied—because they’re not just ideals or theories, but are actually embedded in a functioning culture and practices—they’re imprinted not just in the “brains” of the Shire’s inhabitants but in their very bone-marrow, as it were. They go deep. Though he may not know it, the hobbit raised in the Shire therefore possesses a certain capital making him capable of truly great things, as both Gandalf and Elrond recognize.

It’s for this reason that I read the success of Sam and Frodo’s quest as having a lot more to do with the virtues acquired precisely by “staying in” than might appear at first glance. Moreover, I believe that the very mode of the hobbits’ engagement “out there” is one thoroughly shaped and sustained by the virtues of the Shire. First, notice how throughout their quest Sam and Frodo are constantly sustained by memories of the Shire. Upon setting out, Frodo observes that “I feel that as long as the Shire lies behind, safe and comfortable, I shall find wandering more bearable: I shall know that somewhere there is a firm foothold, even if my feet cannot stand there again.” Amidst the worst trials, Sam and Frodo cling to their shared memories of life in the Shire and by this find continued hope and motivation for their impossible quest.

Second, at every point of the hobbits’ adventure it’s precisely by being hobbits of the Shire, not men or elves or dwarves, that their action becomes efficacious. That is, the hobbits don’t win the day by dint of sword or diplomacy, but by an absurd mode of action that is at heart contemplative and mystical, we might say, one that manifests as a silent, stubborn, and unobserved setting of their face to the task of abiding in the truth and bearing witness to it with their flesh.

In this, the “going out” of the hobbits’ is deeply paradoxical. What they “preach” has less to do with the dialectics of speech as it does to an incarnate mode of bearing witness, one produced and sustained by the virtues formed by “staying in” the Shire. Their method of “evangelization” has more to do with the Cross than the Aeropagus.

Yes, it’s true that by their “going out” Sam and Frodo find a deeper part of themselves. But what is awakened and evoked by the trials and dangers of their quest is in fact a deeper revelation of the Shire. And, crucially, without the basic cultural capital of the Shire already in their possession, the deeper discovery of its power likely could not have survived the first encounter with the Black Riders.

What I think this means for us “Christian hobbits” is that the real imperative and challenge of evangelization takes place well before we can even think of doing anything “out there.” Sam and Frodo could be sustained in their quest by the rich cultural capital of the Shire; the problem is that I don’t think we can expect the same from our Shire. Christian faith, not as a theory or idea but as a culture—as an economy of daily, lived liturgical and sacramental practices and communio that form and shape the heart and body as much as the head, as in the culture of the Shire—is broken. But if this is true, then our “going out” in today’s incredibly hostile world is more likely to end up like the cautionary tales of Saruman, Boromir, or Denethor.

Of course there’s the risk of running from the world and hiding in our hobbit holes; indeed, every culture in Middle Earth has its own version of an inward focus that becomes destructive of genuine action. But I think it’s a universal truth that every “going out” must first pass the test of “staying in.” The hardest battles are always close to home. The dichotomy of retreat versus engagement is a false one. Christ’s public ministry took up only a small part of his life, after a long period of silence. The first generations of Christians evangelized in large part by the intensity of their culture of belief and worship and by a certain “playing hard to get.” They weren’t exactly “culture warriors” in the conventional sense.

The bottom line for me is that all of our evangelizing efforts must pass through and take up and embody the distinctively liturgical and sacramental form of lived Christian existence, existential abiding in Christ; not simply as a cognitive act, but as a bodily and cultural one. The first act of evangelization is immersion in the font, coming to share in Christ’s relation to the Father as Son. In a Shire in need of a good scouring, an integrated and affective discovery of one’s sonship is a big ask. But this is precisely the real mission territory: evangelizing the evangelizers, as I put it, sharing with them a baptismal vision of abiding with Christ in his culture and his practices.

How exactly we do this, well, that’s a much discussed question in itself. But you can be sure that the Shire and every individual hobbit hole of faith will have something critical to do with it.


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About Conor Sweeney 2 Articles
Dr. Conor Sweeney teaches at John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family (Melbourne), where he lectures in sacramental theology and continental philosophy. He has a licentiate and doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Roman session of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family. He is the author of Sacramental Presence after Heidegger: Onto-Theology, Sacraments, and the Mother’s Smile (Cascade, 2015) and Abiding the Long Defeat: How to Evangelize Like a Hobbit in a Disenchanted Age (Angelico Press, 2018).

3 Comments

  1. Yes, and before there can be effective evangelization, Christians must have something of their own lives to show non-Christians that is a witness to why one should be Christian. This is manifest in the life of the parish, both in liturgical prayer and in how Christians live with one another. So if parish life must be revitalized first, with the creation of authentic community, can this be done in large-sized Roman Catholic parishes? And without addressing the issue of the lack of a common ethos/set of customs regarding the secondary goods of life?

  2. Neat analogies! Yes, we should ourselves first repent and return to Christian principals.

    How do we scour our “shire” when “orcs” have perhaps infiltrated or subverted it?
    – Is there anything we can learn from the methods Pope Pius V employed to handle the enemies of Christianity?
    – Could the concept of “Sicut Judaeis Non” be applicable, more broadly speaking, to our current situation?

    Merry Christmas!

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