Many notable liberties were taken in adapting the book The Hobbit into its three-part film series. Among the changes in the latest installment, The Desolation of Smaug, one slight shift caught my eye. In the book, Bilbo climbs out of a tree overlooking the dark and confusing Mirkwood Forest to find a way out for him and his dwarf company. Being at the bottom of the valley, all he sees is treetops as far as the eye can see. Dispirited, he descends back and into a den of man-eating spiders. The film keeps the scene mostly as is. The only exception is that atop the treetops, Bilbo spies the Lonely Mountain in the distance, giving him hope that the Unexpected Journey would soon reach its resolution. In this new year of 2014, Bilbo (and Director Peter Jackson) speak for many of us.
Cultural Conceptions of Time or Religious Ones?
We Americans are known to be goal-oriented; we like to find the resolution to their problems. This New Year’s Eve, many of us made resolutions for 2014. Like Peter Jackson, we have the natural human desire to see the light at the end of the tunnel and the path there. So often, like Bilbo in the book version of The Hobbit, we can’t see out of the valley we are in. Even pausing to reflect does not provide us with the path forward. In 2013, I received a great deal of wisdom in laying out a vision for the West African diaspora in Indianapolis. Yet now, at this special time of year, as I try to reflect, a great cloud of vagueness enshrouds the whole process and the future is no lonely mountain shining in the distance.
Am I too goal-oriented, too concerned with time? In West African Muslim countries, the words “Inshallah” or “If God wills it,” are often affixed to the end of sentences demanding a resolution. “Let’s meet tomorrow to discuss the project, okay?” “Yes, if God wills it.” In Peace Corps Niger, this was a source of endless frustration for myself and other Westerners. A German I met in Senegal this past summer even had a term for it: “The Inshallah Attitude.” But is there something so different to us Westerners that we so doggedly seek resolution and confirmation to our thoughts, hopes, and aspirations? Is this a religious or a cultural issue?
A Malian Christian had a response for these questions in a sermon I listened to my last Sunday in Kankan, Guinea. He explained how young men in Bamako, the capital of Mali, while away days upon days drinking tea, waiting for temporary work. He needed not specify the place, since this is a common practice in Kankan, Bamako, as well as my village in Niger. Yet the preacher noted how this practice, left unquestioned, was symptomatic of both cultural and religious misunderstanding of time. The Malian went on to quote Psalm 90:12: “So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” He spoke about stewardship; how Christians are called to use their limited time on earth to develop their talents, pursuing them for the furtherance of Christ’s kingdom. In this, he revealed the origins for Western society’s obsession about time as well as the cure for that same obsession.
We wish to see the end of our endeavors, especially this one right in front of us. We want to make it worth our time. But so often the project ends before we think it ought to end. Or it resolves itself without us doing extra work. We forget what makes our time have any worth. That is why Psalm 90 ends this way: “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!” As the pastor in my current church recently explained, this does not mean we simply pray for favor or simply row our boat, we pray and row. Climbing the forest canopy may be a wonderful interlude, but it will not accomplish the task. At some point, we must plunge forward into the murky recesses of the unknown, redeeming the time set before us. We trust our every endeavor to the One who resolves all good but as yet unresolved projects.