"In many ways the expansion of Christendom has come at the expense of the purity of the gospel and true Christian order and life. The church has become infested with pagan beliefs and practices, and is syncretistic in theology . . . . Large segments have become Christo-pagan."
—From George Peters, A Theology of Church Growth, quoted in John MacArthur’s Ashamed of the Gospel: When the Church Becomes Like the World. [bold added]
"Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives' tales; rather, train yourself to be godly (I Timothy 4:7)."
A 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 Biblical worldview.
Many 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:
Early Romanticism: 1790–1830: Johann Goethe (Germany) and Samuel Coleridge (Britain)
Revived Romanticism: Early 19th century: George MacDonald (1824-1905) and G.K. Chesterton (Britain)
Christians 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.
What is Romanticism?
How do Lewis and Tolkien fit in?
Why is understanding Romantic religion important for our age?
What is Romanticism?
Romanticism 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.
A 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.
How do Lewis and Tolkien fit in?
The 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.
The 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.
The Inklings (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 of revelation.
We 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.
Charles 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 adviser – 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...."
R.J. 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)
Owen Barfield, 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.”
J.R.R. Tolkien was clearly enamored of Icelandic-Nordic mythology and committed his whole life to consciously building a mythology for England based on those myths. His book, The Silmarillion, 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.
1. 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.
We 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.
2. 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 that book.
George 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.
"In 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)
The 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.
For 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.”)
Why is understanding Romantic Religion important for our age?
Romanticism 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.
For 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 it:
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.
Although Reilly promotes the movement, his insightful comments are nevertheless useful to reveal its immense influence upon – and through – the Inklings:
"I 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. 4) *added
"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." (p. 4)
"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)
A 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.
We 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.
One 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.”
And 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.”
Walking 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 another.
The 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."
"See 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)."
© 2006 by Richard and Linda 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
They spent 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.
 From 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]
 Quote at http://www.crossroad.to/Excerpts/books/lewis/inklings-williams.htm, quoted from Charles Williams: The Last Magician (to be published in 2008) by Grevel Lindrop http://www.grevel.co.uk/pp002.shtml. Bolding included in quote on crossroad Web site.
 Romantic Religion: A Study of Barfield, Lewis, Williams, and Tolkien by R. J. Reilly clearly talks about Romantic Religion, but he promotes it and doesn’t critique it (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1972).
 theosophy(n.) The system of beliefs and teachings of the Theosophical Society, founded in New York City in 1875, incorporating aspects of Buddhism and Brahmanism, especially the belief in reincarnation and spiritual evolution. Quoted from http://www.ask.com/web?q=Theosophy+definition.