Friedrich Nietzsche famously said of the church: “They would have to sing better songs to make me believe in their Redeemer.” Although wrong about much, Nietzsche is right about framing belief and salvation as contest of songs. J.R.R. Tolkien also understood this truth and embedded it in his stories. In The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s cosmology, all of creation is sung into existence. Even the evil song of Melkor that challenges the song of Iluvatar is blended into the over-powering song of creation. God, the creator, has a stronger song.
The contest of songs appears again in the story of Tom Bombadil. Tom was excluded from the movies, so many may not remember this story from The Lord of the Rings. Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry had fled the Black Riders by heading into the Old Forest where they were soon lost. They came under the spell and song of the rotten-hearted Old Man Willow. Tom Bombadil, by accident or providence, came to the rescue.
Everything about Tom, his bright blue jacket, his yellow boots, and his singing, are filled with joy. Desperately, Frodo explains that the Willow has trapped his friends. Tom replies, “That can soon be mended. I know the tune for him.” Tom sings his song into the Willow until the tree releases Frodo’s friends. Tom leads the hobbits out of the woods to his house.
The house of Tom Bombadil and his wife Goldberry is full of light, song, joy, and good food. Singing becomes the common language. The hobbits “became suddenly aware that they were singing merrily, as if it was easier and more natural than talking.” The tired hobbits are refreshed and strengthened, their ponies fed. Before they leave, Tom gives them a song to sing if they face any danger:
Ho! Tom Bombadil, Tom Bombadillo!
By water, wood and hill , by the reed and the willow,
By fire, son and moon, harken now and hear us!
Come, Tom Bombadil, for our need is near us!
Before they go to bed, the hobbits all sing through the song after Tom. The next day they leave Tom and head off along the edge of the barrow-downs. The weather is warm and sunny, so they eat lunch in the shade of a standing stone where they fall asleep. When they awake, fog presses in on every side. They become separated from each other in the fog. Soon Frodo finds himself and his friends captured by a barrow-wight.
The barrow-wight sings a terrible song over them: “Strings of words would now and again shape themselves: grim, hard, cold words, heartless and miserable.” Frodo summons all his courage and with his sword hacks at the hand of the wight. Then in the darkness of the barrow, Frodo remembers and sings the song of deliverance Tom had taught them. Frodo soon hears the song of Tom Bombadil as though it were coming from far away:
Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow,
Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow,
None has ever caught him yet, for Tom, he is the master;
His songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster.
Shrivel like the cold mist, like the winds go wailing,
Out into the barren lands far beyond the mountains!
Come never here again! Leave your barrow empty!
The barrow in which the hobbits are trapped falls open and stones roll away. The light of day breaks in. Tom then sings a song of exorcism:
Get out, you old Wight! Vanish in the sunlight!
Lost and forgotten be, darker than darkness,
Where gates stand for ever shut, till the world is mended.
The wight leaves with a long trailing shriek. Tom’s song was stronger.
Nietzsche has sung a sad and empty song that has influenced a lot of modern thought. He is, of course, famous for announcing the death of God in the modern area. Nietzsche was not declaring a literal death of God or even making a statement about God’s existence or non-existence. It was more a claim that God had become culturally and philosophically irrelevant. To some extent, this has become the case for the secularized West. However, in much of the developing world the Church is seeing extraordinary growth. God’s song is proving stronger.
Tolkien heartily disliked allegory, so you will find none here. However, he did allow that good stories can be applicable in many ways. We are all, I think, caught between two songs: the song of death and the song of life. We must make certain that we are listening to the song God sings over our life. In this story Tom Bombadil is not a Christ figure. However, Jesus, like Tom, sings a stronger song: one of love and adoption.
Like Tom, we are called to be singers and overflow with joy. Paul expresses this idea in his letter to the Ephesians: “But be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another, in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord.” Historically, every moving of God’s Spirit in revival has resulted in new hymns and stronger songs than those sung by the world. Songs have been both fuel and the fruit of revival. Prayer for revival is prayer for God to give the church a stronger song—one that transforms our communities and our nation.
But the song of death is powerful. A few years ago one of my students killed himself. He had made several attempts before but supposedly was getting help and getting better. He wrote an essay about it for my class but presented his struggle as something he had overcome. Then one day when I called his name, there was silence. After I marked him absent, a student quietly told me he had killed himself the night before. I know it is common for people to blame themselves when someone they know commits suicide. I have tried to avoid this, but I can’t help asking how I might have done or said more to help.
I do know this. I want to be more like Tom—full of joy and a stronger song. I want my words to affirm the value of my students and the goodness of life. I know death is singing its merciless song of despair, so I need to hear and learn to sing God’s song of hope. But our song must be more than good words; it is a life lived in the power of the Spirit. It is irrepressible joy that sings the kingdom of light into the darkened world. Through us we must let the Spirit sing Christ’s victory over sin, Satan, and death.