Small Groups and Beowulf
This week, I encountered a spiritual truth about small groups in an unlikely place: Beowulf.
If you’ve forgotten the poem since middle school English class, here’s a recap: Beowulf is an Old English epic poem about a Scandinavian hero named Beowulf who fights a troll, a woman, and a dragon in defense of the mead hall of his neighbor Hrothgar, king of the Danes. It was written some time between the 8th and 11th centuries, but just last year, HarperCollins published a new translation and commentary on the poem by J.R.R. Tolkien. Yes, that J.R.R. Tolkien.
Mead, a precursor to beer, was possibly the first fermented drink. So Hrothgar’s mead hall is a community tavern where Hrothgar, as a good king, shared his wealth and administered justice: sort of an ancient mash-up of pub and court. Tolkien calls the mead hall a “circle of light,” and the troll who attacks this place, Grendel, does so precisely because it is a place of light and warmth. Here’s an excerpt from a lecture I heard about Tolkien’s book.
Tolkien is a lot less interested in Beowulf’s fights with neighboring tribes than he is those against the monsters — against a troll, a sea woman, and a dragon, all of which, Tolkien says, come from deep within Norse and Germanic mythology. They’re associated with cold and darkness and wilderness. They are enemies of human values and achievements. And they’re reflections of the really, really hostile places in which these people had lived for centuries.
In Tolkien’s vision, humans create little tiny circles of light. Hrothgar’s mead hall is one of those circles of light. Inside each one of those circles, there is laughter, there is music, there is fellowship. But just outside those little circles are all of the forces that want to destroy it.
And so in some ways building a mead hall like the one that Hrothgar builds, actually calls Grendel into existence. Create something human and the hostile universe will try to destroy it.
And there is where I saw the glimmer of Biblical truth in this ancient poem. “Create something human and the hostile universe will try to destroy it.” In our spiritual context we might put it this way: “Create something that reflects the Kingdom of God and the evil one will try to destroy it.”
The Apostle Peter put it this way: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.”
Every time our small groups gather around good food, warm friendships, and the holy scriptures, we call forth opposition. Every time we create little circles of shalom in a sin-cursed world, we invite an attack from darkness. This is a universal truth understood by Peter and Tolkien and the Beowulf Poet and millions of Christ-followers in between. We are called to community, and our community has an enemy.
I hope such a daunting and epic truth doesn’t dissuade you from attending this week’s “circle of light” with your small group. In fact, I hope it has the opposite effect. I hope it helps you remember that what you’re doing matters. You aren’t just attending a meeting, you’re dispelling darkness. You aren’t only discussing a sermon, you’re proclaiming the reign of the King of Light.
And you don’t even have to fight any dragons.