by Karen Goltz
Idolatry. Martin Luther understood it to mean anything in which we put our trust and faith other than God. (Large Catechism) Idolatry is the reason why God instituted the first commandment in the Decalogue: I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods. All other gods are idols.
The bible is full of examples of idolatry, the most famous perhaps being Aaron’s golden calf. After the split of the kingdom of Israel into the northern kingdom of Ephraim and the southern kingdom of Judah, the leader of Ephraim molded two golden calves (idols) for the people to worship. (1 Kings 12:26-29) Jesus alluded to the Pharisees’ rigid devotion to their religious traditions as idolatrous. (Matthew 15:3-9; 23:29-33; Luke 11:42-44; 20:17-19) In the epistles, idolatry is frequently listed among the sins that followers of Christ should avoid. (Romans 1:23-31; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 5:19-21)
In western theology idolatry is often equated with people’s focus on possessions, wealth, success, or their own power and autonomy. It’s a concept with which we’re familiar and which many of us, to a certain extent, can recognize in our own lives. Yet at the same time it’s easy for idolatry to remain merely a concept, disembodied and disengaged from the practice of daily life. It’s easy to ignore the implications of idolatry, and to avoid recognizing what kind of damage can come from engaging in it. It’s so embedded in our American culture, so saturating our common experiences that we’re blinded to its effects.
Literature provides us with characters who embody aspects of our lives that help us see with clarity, because of the natural distance between reader and story. The harmful effects of idolatry can more easily be recognized in a character who takes the concept of idolatry to extremes. One such character is Gollum.
Gollum, a.k.a. Smeágol, comes from the imagination of J.R.R. Tolkien, and resides in the pages and on the screen in the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit. Commonly mistaken as either an irredeemably evil creature or an innocent victim of malevolent forces beyond his control, Gollum/Smeágol is the most recognizably human of all Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings characters. Through this character we can see the somewhat extreme yet undeniably familiar consequences of idolatry, which in turn allows us a glimpse of our own experiences and the consequences that may result from the choices we make.
Smeágol’s role in the history of Tolkien’s story begins when he first encounters the legendary Ring of Power. Not knowing what it is, he is attracted to its simple, shining beauty. He wants it. Irrationally yet irresistibly, he wants it.
An impulsive, irrational desire for attractive things is certainly not alien to the human experience. For us it may be some object we want to possess; it may be a position we want to hold, a feat we want to accomplish, or even a person we want to subject to our own power in some way. In any case, desire captures our attention so completely that nothing else matters. We become obsessed with our desire, which becomes a “need.” It supplants whatever else we may hold in high regard: money, time, responsibilities, and relationships. Without even realizing what we’re doing, we willingly sacrifice core values that we’d never give up if we took the time to think rationally about it.
Part of the lure of idols is that they tend to overwhelm us with their desirability. We lack the perspective to take a moment and think rationally about what we’re doing. So we make the necessary sacrifices in order to obtain the prize.
In Smeágol’s case, he killed for his prize. The Ring had actually been found by a friend of Smeágol, who refused to hand over his new-found treasure. Smeágol tried to take it from him by force and the two began to wrestle. The wrestling match became a fight, and the fight became a fight to the death.
Perhaps Smeágol assumed his friend would give up the Ring once the struggle began, deciding it wasn’t worth the effort. Or maybe he didn’t think at all, his mind so bedazzled by his need for the Ring that there wasn’t room for anything else. Or maybe he simply didn’t care what happened to his friend, because his friend was far less important to him at that moment than obtaining his prize. Any one of these scenarios can be found in everyday, non-literary life. The familiar saying, “It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt,” addresses what happens when people inadvertently go too far; when a simple contest of skill or agility becomes violent; when an amusing story turns into a scathing attack or crushing humiliation. The idolatry of being the strongest or “the best” blinds us to the reality of the consequences that others will face because of our actions.
Actions have consequences for ourselves as well as for others. Smeágol’s friend died and Smeágol achieved his goal, but the story doesn’t end there. Smeágol discovers that the Ring has the power to make him invisible; a bonus beyond what he’d hoped for when he first fixated on the Ring. He uses this power for his own personal gain, disregarding the consequences to others. A consequence to himself is that he is eventually ostracized by his community and disowned by his family.
How many people have lost their friends and families while in pursuit of their careers? How many have been locked in an addictive and idolatrous relationship with drugs or alcohol? How many have become dependent upon an unhealthy or destructive person? Sometimes the idol seems noble: the pastors who are so dedicated to their ministries that they neglect their families. Sometimes the idol appears salvific to a person’s lost sense of self: the people who engage in an extramarital affair because this person truly “sees” them and “appreciates” them in a way their spouses don’t.
The resulting losses we experience can serve to reorient us away from the idol, and help restore a healthier set of priorities. But this reorientation always come as a choice: either give up our idol and try to repair the damage we’ve caused, or decide for the idol and rationalize that those other influences in our lives are better off gone.
Whichever way we choose, we are forced to give up something that is important to us. Both choices have consequences. Both choices involve loss. And sometimes we, like Smeágol, are caught up in the inertia of our idolatry. We become divided against ourselves, but we remain committed to our idol because it’s easier to continue on that path than it is to make the changes and sacrifices necessary to become free.
At the point that our allegiance shifts to our idol, our idol is no longer something we possess; it is a central facet of our identity. Our idol possesses us.
The third movie in the series, “The Return of the King,” shows this shift dramatically. Smeágol’s physical appearance undergoes a grotesque transformation, while we hear his voice in the background: “We forget the taste of bread. We forget the sound of trees. We even forget our own name.” Smeágol has given up absolutely everything for the sake of his idol. Now it rules him completely. He is no longer Smeágol; he has become Gollum.
For many of us the story ends here. We live enslaved to our idols, seeing all other influences as threats to what we have, threats to who we understand ourselves to be. But for Gollum the story doesn’t end there. One of these threats, a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins, actually manages to steal Gollum’s idol, what he calls his ‘Precious.’ That loss sends Gollum into a crisis situation. Despite all his efforts to continue living as he had for all the years he’d been with his Precious, he finds he’s not able. He needs his Precious in order to live his life, and, by this point, the idea of living another kind of life without his idol apparently never crosses his mind. He leaves the safety of his cave, and goes in search of his Precious.
Once an idol takes hold of us and begins to shape all our influences to serve its own devices, it’s nearly impossible to imagine something different for ourselves. Perhaps it’s our title, our job, our possessions, our lifestyle; whatever it is, our life wouldn’t be life without it. If we were to lose it, we, too, would set out on a quest to search for it and reacquire it. We, too, would strive to make things ‘normal’ again.
After a long and arduous journey, Gollum eventually finds his Precious. But it is beyond his reach. He finds it in the possession of the nephew of the one who stole it from him; he finds it in the possession of Frodo Baggins. Yet this time Gollum is unable to take his idol by force. This time it is he who is overpowered. Out of necessity he makes a promise to help Frodo and his companion Sam on their journey by being their guide, all with the secret hope that he might somehow be able to wrest the Ring from Frodo and make his escape.
The picture of Gollum cowering on the ground before Frodo, pleading to have his life spared only moments after trying to kill Frodo and Sam, groveling to help them simply so he could be near his Precious, can only be described as pathetic.
Yet before we pass such judgment, what images might be comparable from our own lives? What might we be willing to compromise just so the thing we hold most dear about ourselves (our titles, our passions, our power, our possessions, the way we believe other people see us) won’t be denied us? How much are we willing to degrade ourselves for the sake of the one thing we think defines us?
As Gollum continues to travel with Frodo and Sam, something happens. As he encounters Frodo, he encounters someone who, to a certain extent, understands him with an insight that refuses to distort him into something grotesque. He encounters someone who accepts him as he is, weaknesses and all, yet who still sees what he could be, and provides him another chance. As he encounters Frodo, Gollum encounters grace.
What happens to us when we encounter true grace? Often it seems too good to be true. We might find ourselves wondering, “What’s the catch?” We wait with suspicion for the inevitable betrayal, as we anticipate being used in the pursuit of someone else’s quest for an idol, just as we can imagine ourselves using them.
But Frodo isn’t using Gollum. Yes, he relies on him to lead them to Mordor. But this is not in pursuit of some idol; rather, it’s in a quest to free himself and all creation from captivity to the idol.
Early on in their acquaintance, Frodo calls Gollum ‘Smeágol.’ Immediately a change comes over Gollum, a softening, perhaps even a sense of hope. When Frodo confronts him with his given name, at first he is startled. Then he repeats the name as though it brings to him a long-forgotten but not-unpleasant memory. Gollum, without his idol, is addressed as a person. He is reminded of his life before he’d obtained his Precious. He is reminded that such a life is possible, that he himself had once lived such a life, and was happy. Happy without his idol.
Such an image is powerful enough to strike both fear and hope in our hearts: fear that life without our idols is possible, and hope that life without our idols is possible. On the one hand we’re frightened by the mystery and uncertainty of an identity that isn’t based on the idol upon which we’ve grown so dependent. But on the other hand we’re hopeful that our subjection to and dependence on our idol may finally end. There’s a part of us—small, lost, forgotten—that knows how grotesque we’ve become, knows that we’ve passed the point of no return. Yet we also recognize that there is One who sees us for who we are, who we truly are, and accepts us in that state. There just might remain a chance for salvation.
Evangelical Lutheran Worship, the current service book of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) published by Augsburg Fortress (2006), recognizes this condition in the ‘Confession and Forgiveness’ that precedes the settings for Holy Communion. “[W]e confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone…” (p. 95) The ‘Confession of Sin’ in the Ash Wednesday liturgy is even more explicit: “[W]e confess to you and to one another, and before the whole company of heaven, that we have sinned by our fault, by our own fault, by our own most grievous fault…” (p. 252)
This is no cursory mea culpa that we recite once a week and then continue on as we did before. This is a profound recognition that we are enslaved to sin, to our idols, and that slavery will continue without the merciful intervention of the One who sees us in our wretched condition, with all our evil thoughts and deeds bared, the extent of our grotesque distortion revealed and named. We confess that we will continue in that state because we lack the power to free or change ourselves. We need the grace of the One who has been where we are, who has suffered, and who continues to endure his own crucifixion, despair, and death on the cross in order to free us from our despair. Were it not for the mercy of Christ, we could only continue to be owned by our idols. In Christ, however, we have One who is worthy of the worship and devotion we give so freely to idols.
The longer Gollum continues to live under grace, the more “Gollum” is forced into the background, and the more “Smeágol” emerges. Just as “Gollum,” under the enslavement of idolatry, supplanted the inner core of “Smeágol’s” identity, Smeágol, under the grace of his encounter with Frodo, reclaims his true identity. In a moving scene in the film “The Two Towers,” Smeágol and Gollum engage in a heated debate. Gollum’s goal is to kill the hobbits and take the Ring, while Smeágol wishes to remain with the hobbits and help them on their quest. One of the most poignant moments in this debate is when Gollum calls his other side ‘murderer,’ naming that as the defining element of his identity. Smeágol is clearly wounded by this and struggles with the fact that he has indeed once committed murder. The more he struggles, however, the more he realizes: yes, he has indeed committed murder, but he does not have to be defined by that single act. Gollum has called him ‘murderer,’ but Frodo has called him ‘Smeágol,’ and he chooses to be Smeágol. Smeágol tells his ‘Gollum’ side, “We don’t need you…Master [Frodo] cares for us now.” When he feels that the ‘Gollum’ influence is gone, he dances around and shouts in joyous celebration, “We’re free! We’re free!”
Such is the effect of grace. We consciously struggle with and banish our idolatrous tendencies and put our faith in the One who showed us mercy, just as Smeágol banished Gollum and put his faith in Frodo. But once again, the story doesn’t end here.
The ‘Gollum’ part that wanted the Ring was still with him, lying dormant for the moment, waiting for a more opportune time to reveal himself. In the meantime, Smeágol was struggling to discover his identity without his idol. He couldn’t simply return to the way he had been before he’d found the Ring; too many years had passed and too much had changed. He was no longer the innocent young hobbit-like creature who lived with his well-respected family and went fishing with a beloved friend on his birthday. That friend was long dead, murdered by Smeágol’s own hand. His family had ostracized and disowned him, fading from existence as the evil power of the Ring stretched Gollum’s life to an unnatural length while he served his idol as a slave.
Smeágol couldn’t go back; he could only go forward. Knowing that he didn’t want to be ‘Gollum’ only brought him a tiny step closer to knowing his own true identity. Not having anything else by which to define himself, he put his new faith entirely in the only one who seemed to care for him: Frodo.
For a while things seemed to go well. Smeágol eagerly served Frodo and Sam, sometimes going so far as to annoy them with his zeal. Sam never fully trusted Smeágol, unable to look past the heinousness of his past crimes, but Smeágol was able to withstand this distrust as long as he was near Frodo.
As eager and zealous as this new faith was, however, it was still untested. He was still feeling the euphoria of newfound freedom from his idol. His commitment to Frodo had not yet been tested. He had not yet had to suffer on account of his faith. It was still unknown whether the seed of grace had fallen on a hard-packed path to be snatched up by birds, or on rocky soil where it would sprout quickly only to be scorched by the sun, or among weeds where it would be choked, or on fertile soil where it would take firm root and flourish. Only time and testing would tell.
Such is the way with anything we worship. Is the object of our devotion worth the sacrifices we make and the losses we suffer in order to continue our faithfulness? Are the promises of God in Christ worth downgrading the importance of our own abilities, efforts, and accomplishments in ensuring our happiness and fulfillment? Are the lures of our idols worth the disintegration of our relationships and the loss of our selves and our souls? Is trust in Frodo worth some pain and confusion, or is the desire for the Ring so strong it’s worth sacrificing the only one who showed mercy, and thereby the destruction of his own self and dignity?
In “The Two Towers” Frodo and Sam are captured by Faramir and his men and taken to a secret abode. That night Smeágol (who had escaped capture) wanders into a pool located within the secret abode, an offense that carries the penalty of death. Frodo must choose between allowing Smeágol to be killed or aiding Faramir in capturing Smeágol. Wishing to spare Smeágol’s life and link his own fate to Smeágol’s, Frodo chooses the latter. He goes down to the pool and calls to Smeágol, luring him to himself and closer to his captors. The plan works, and Smeágol’s life is spared once again by the mercy of Frodo.
Unfortunately Smeágol interprets events differently. He only sees Frodo trick him and help Faramir’s men capture and interrogate him. He has no idea that Frodo was responsible for saving his life, or that he had personally vouched for Smeágol. The only lenses Smeágol has to interpret the situation are his current reality and his faith in Frodo’s kindness and mercy, based on his prior experiences with the hobbit. This is the moment of truth: is Smeágol’s faith in Frodo strong enough to withstand sacrifice and loss? Has the seed of grace fallen on rocky soil or fertile?
Motive makes the difference between an action that is faithful and an action that is idolatrous. The motive behind Frodo’s betrayal is concern for Smeágol’s wellbeing. This motive is hidden from Smeágol. In fact, Smeágol begins to realize that he has no insight into Frodo’s motives at all. He knows that Frodo wants Smeágol to lead him inside Mordor, but he doesn’t know why. Frodo’s betrayal causes Smeágol to wonder why Frodo was kind and merciful in the first place.
In this moment of doubt and confusion, Gollum reappears. He feigns pity for the wounded Smeágol and begins feeding gentle “I-told-you-so’s” into his ear. Smeágol tries to resist and defend Frodo’s actions, but his protests are weak. How can he defend the integrity of something he doesn’t understand? The struggle continues. Gollum advocates killing the hobbits and seizing the Ring; Smeágol proclaims fondness for his Master and loyalty to the promise he’d made to help him. Which was more worthy of his devotion: the Ring that had twisted and distorted him but had never betrayed him? Or the hobbit who had first shown mercy only to deliver him to his captors?
Anyone who has felt torn between two desires, each demanding sole and undivided devotion, can relate to Smeágol’s struggle. Although we have consciously let go of our idols in response to our experience of grace, our idols don’t let go of us that quickly. We know what we want to do and what we should do, yet the desire for the comfort of our idols is incredibly strong. The Apostle Paul writes, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” (Romans 7:15, 19-20)
Smeágol hated his Gollum-self, but he could not banish him. No matter how completely Smeágol embraced the grace he’d been offered and trusted in the one who had offered it, Gollum would always be there to feed his doubt and fear. What Smeágol didn’t realize was that continually trusting in grace would be enough to overcome his doubt and fear each time it surfaced. Continually trusting in grace would allow him to temporarily conquer his Gollum side, just as he had before, and live in freedom as his own self once again.
Unfortunately Smeágol does not realize this. Instead he chooses to deceive the hobbits to their death. When that fails, he physically attacks Frodo by the edge of the fire of Mordor. He literally bites off Frodo’s finger in order to take the Ring that is on it. Once he has his prize, he begins his victory dance. Gollum has been reunited with his idol. He wears a look of rapture on his face, even as he dances too close to the edge and falls off the precipice. His ecstasy continues until he reaches the fire, and even then he doesn’t struggle against his fate. Instead he tries to hold his idol up high, out of the flames that are consuming him, away from the fire that ultimately destroys them both.
Idols, no matter how seductive or appealing they may seem, are only false gods. They cannot offer peace, fulfillment, or salvation. Devotion to an idol only distracts us from devotion to God. Just as Smeágol ultimately had to choose between pursuing his idol or accepting and trusting in Frodo’s mercy and kindness, we have a similar choice. We must choose between trusting in something that will twist us, distort us, and lead us to perish in our own idolatrous desires, or trusting in the grace of God in Jesus Christ.