Along with reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time when I was 13, I also joined the choir that year, both events coming at the instigation of Jeff Wingert and Jim Lauer. These two events quite literally "changed my life." I was rather smitten with the hard sciences, especially astronomy, until then, and gifted in that direction. But the rich fictional history of Tolkien's world, and the beauty revealed in music, particularly in the American folk and spiritual tradition that our exceptional vocal music program emphasized, together conspired to nudge me irrevocably over into the humanities, particularly into the study of history. Most of my family had an interest in history, but it had never been presented to me as a way of life. This novel and that music have lead me on the strange path that ended with becoming a theologian, of all things.
The two threads combined in my reading of The Lord of the Rings. Many people notice – and are often thrown or even repelled by – the characters' tendencies to break into song or poetry. It seems today to be rather strange or unrealistic, but Tolkien preserves there the role that music and verse have had in most human cultures, and particularly the northern European ones which he knew and loved so earnestly. It is our culture and loves that are comparatively odd and impoverished, having ceded our musical lives to "professional musicians" and recorded music. We now listen to music, perhaps even with some attention, instead of making it. When I read The Lord of the Rings, however, I found myself singing the songs as I came to them: my simultaneous choral experiences affecting me, and giving me the first taste of what would later become my songwriting, as melodies sprang instantly to mind as I read the verses of Tolkien's songs. But it was one borrowed melody that struck that deepest vein of memory and raw experience of which I wrote above. In the choir, a number of students were preparing the spiritual "The Holy City," a song that is usually destroyed by schmaltz and gooey sentimentalism. Stripped down, with a sole voice and piano, it could become a mystical text when sung correctly, and I heard it first in that way, and its melody wove itself into my reading of the Elven hymn to Elbereth that you encounter near the opening and close of the novel. This was all some time before I really became a Christian in any conscious way, but the novel had given me my first aesthetic experience, what C. S. Lewis – who we must thank for dragging the novel out of the easily-discouraged Tolkien – called "Joy." Now I was having, unknown to myself, my first meditations on a mystical text. In later years, I would come to recognize such aesthetic experience or flashes of Joy, like Lewis, as an experience of God in the Person of the Holy Spirit. But like most other people (if this Christianity thing is true) I didn't recognize this as a personal encounter, but instead only identified it as a personal experience, meaning an experience solely within, or having to do with, myself.
It is what this combination of moments and perspectives means to me that I can never convey. I can sketch out the narrative as I do here. I can describe and even reproduce the circumstances of the experience. But I can never transmit what I feel while being taken up in such a moment of beauty to another person. And I also cannot describe how much that inability broke my heart as I thought about it Saturday morning, having tasted again from some of those first fruits of Joy.
A lot of people from the outside of Christianity think that it is the promise of "Heaven" – whatever that is – that motivates many people into the faith: the promise of eternal life, insurance against a fear of death. Honestly, it rarely crossed my mind for a number of years. I would be a Christian without any such, simply because I think it's true. It's the same reasoning as behind why I trust Newton's physics over and against the science of the Babylonians: I think he more correctly describes reality. But I find that that idea of "eternal life" offers a kind of comfort here, after all: the idea that I might be so completely known by God, that the very power behind the universe understands (or is) the beauty I mean and feel and see in these moments of Joy, and that somehow, in Christ, that will not be lost. I then can take a kind of rest in faith, with this thought that all that I've been given to see won't be lost. And, what's more, that this just might be true for all those facets of God – revealed in Truth, Goodness and Beauty – that everyone else sees as well.