Wormtongue Works Both Ways

In The Two Towers the character Wormtongue makes the Lord of the Mark believe he is weaker than he is by discouraging words, by disparaging his strength, by highlighting his age. He’s a true spirit of despair. He’s a walking Slough of Despond, and the Lord of the Mark is neck deep in it until Gandalf comes and preaches him the “gospel” of truth.

This character is well-known. It’s the father whose wife or son is never good enough. The wife who always has a discouraging word for her husband and demeaning one for her daughter. It’s the employer for whom nothing is right, nothing is good enough, everything is wrong. Despairing Wormtongues are all over, but technology is a Wormtongue of a different sort.

Technology makes you think you are stronger than you are. The Call of Duty video games makes the 10-year-old or anyone else who has never sprinted with a fully loaded machine gun think it’s easy. How many kids today say, “I don’t need to know it; I just need to know where to look it up”? That’s what they say, but they act as if they do know it. They find a trenchant quote from Shakespeare, and to them they now know Shakespeare.

As long as there have been books, or at least since 1855 when Bartlett’s Famous Quotations was published there have been collections of pithy sayings, aphorisms, incites. But there was a limit to them and there was a limit to how they could be indexed. There are no limits now. In fact, you can type in the insight or point you want illustrated and bingo, you will have many to choose from. Being able to use technology is not the same as being well-read even as being able to use a scientific calculator doesn’t make you a mathematician.

Technology is the equivalent of the Wizard of Oz’s amplified voice and scary pyrotechnics. The problem is we don’t realize we’re the withered, weak old man standing behind the curtain with really no more deeper insight than he had: believe in yourself.

We are in need of the what Roman the Roman general having his Triumph supposedly had. A slave whispering, “Remember you are mortal.” Whether or not they had one (the sources contradict), we definitely need this in an age where self-esteem is thought to be absolutely critical and technology gives us the impression of inflated ability.

The Law doesn’t just whisper but shouts: “Memento homo“. It preaches to us the that all men are mortal, and the best are but dust to be blown away, flowers that whither, and grass to be burned. The Gospel is not that technology can make your life longer, better, stronger or that your consciousness can be uploaded into a mainframe. The Gospel is that the most technological sophisticated way (at the time) of torturing and killing someone was the means by which God overcame sin, death, and the devil. The Gospel is that this is available to you in your place and time.

The Gospel speaks better promises than whatever is next in technology. It speaks not like a Wormtongue making you believe you’re weaker or stronger than you are, but of the God who is Man and became a worm for crushing so His scarlet blood might turn our crimson sins white as wool. Think that’s too much? Not according to Johann Gerhard. He says that when Christ refers to Himself as a worm in Psalm 22, He uses the Hebrew word which refers to the kind of worm which when squashed squirts out “blood”. This is the blood from which purple dye was made (History of the Suffering, Gerhard, 193-194).

Because you now know this quote doesn’t mean you know the book. Wormtongue would say otherwise. Don’t listen.

About Rev. Paul R. Harris

Ordained pastor of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod
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