Tolkien, Eliot, and the Power of Story

Taking cues from the greats, Christians can impact culture by simply sharing great stories. 


John Stonestreet

Attempt to instruct a group of 12-year-old kids about the importance of duty, honor, perseverance, and friendship by means of a lecture, and the most likely result will be glazed eyes and tuned-out ears. If instead of a lecture, however, the lesson began with, “There once was a tiny creature called a Hobbit, whose name was Frodo. He had hairy feet and a magic ring, and whenever he put that ring on his finger, he’d disappear. But each time he put the ring on, the Ring exercised a dark power over him and attracted the attention of the Dark Lord Sauron.” 

That story, the plot of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, is more likely to capture the attention and the imagination of kids, as it has tens of millions before them. And, along the way, they’d learn about duty, honor, perseverance, and friendship. This is the power of great stories. 

The best stories are not merely well told, they also wrestle with ultimate ideas. Tolkien remains popular today because his stories stand the test of time. They stand the test of time because they engage with us at the deepest levels of the human condition. 

More than 2,000 years ago, Damon of Athens wrote, “Give me the songs of a people, and I care not who writes its laws.” Christian musician and novelist Andrew Peterson has said, “If you want someone to hear the truth, you should tell them the truth. But if you want someone to LOVE the truth, you should tell them a story.” 

The power of storytelling should come as no surprise to Christians. After all, Jesus told lots of stories. So have Christians throughout history. 

Tolkien and T.S. Eliot were two writers from the last century who exemplify the importance of stories. Because of the success of the Lord of the Rings films, Tolkien is better known today than Eliot, but Eliot stands shoulder to shoulder with Tolkien in terms of literary output and genius. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men,” concludes with these better known, haunting lines: “This is the way the world ends / not with a bang but a whimper.” Eliot’s melancholy poem “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which is still read by most college students, captures the despair of modern man facing this broken world without God. In many ways, Eliot was that modern man, isolated, spiritually lost, despairing. 

A decade or so after he wrote “Prufrock,” Eliot’s life and art was transformed when he converted to Christ. He went on to write magnificent religious poetry, such as “Ash Wednesday” and The Four Quartets. For a time, his work even crossed over into pop culture. For example, his book of whimsical verse, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, became the smash-hit Broadway musical Cats. 

Chuck Colson often said that “politics is downstream from culture.” That isn’t always the case, but it often is. This is why great storytellers and poets like Tolkien and Eliot continue to have such an impact on hearts and minds. Their work goes on to inspire. 

In fact, a simple way Christians can impact culture is by simply sharing good stories with those around us. We may not be a Tolkien or an Eliot, but we can know and recommend their works. And we can tell the real-life stories of Christian heroes like William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, of the incredible conversions of St. Augustine and Chuck Colson, and of the work of the Christian heroes of today who love God and neighbor by feeding the hungry and clothing the naked while enduring hardships and persecution.

We should share these stories because like all good stories do, they ultimately point hearts and imaginations to the Greatest Story of All. 

For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to 

This Breakpoint was originally published 1.3.17. 


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