Every January 3, I celebrate the birthday of two of my favorite professors, J.R.R. Tolkien and Dr. Rod Rosenbladt. Is it a mere historical coincidence that these two professors share a birthday? Like C.S. Lewis, I do not believe in coincidences.
The fact that these powerhouses of intellect and imagination share a birthday only adds to the day’s delight and joy. And I praise and thank God for it every year, and perhaps with the year that has just passed, now, more than ever. After all, good teachers do more than influence their students; in their unique vocation, they can inoculate us with the antidote of truth, goodness, and beauty. Rod Rosenbladt certainly was and is that kind of teacher for me, as he is for many others, pointing without fail to Christ crucified for you, no matter what subject he happened to be teaching or lecturing on. So too, with J.R.R. Tolkien, a professor of literature, who in many ways used his God-given gifts of imagination and storytelling to invite his readers to join him on a journey through his sub-created world of Middle-earth and onward to Christ.
I realize that for some, this might sound like a rather odd pairing at first. What does Dr. Rosenblat, a faithful, Lutheran professor, and pastor, have in common with J.R.R. Tolkien, a devout Roman Catholic?
Odd though it may sound at first, Rod Rosenbladt and J.R.R. Tolkien have far more in common with each other than a date on a calendar. This tale of two professors has a common theme, plot, and denouement - the good news of the one true story, Jesus Christ crucified for you.
Good teachers do more than influence their students; in their unique vocation, they can inoculate us with the antidote of truth, goodness, and beauty.
Many have come to know Rod Rosenbladt through his work on the White Horse Inn; a rich, engaging theological radio show focused on Reformation theology from several corners of the Protestant Reformation. Rod, along with his co-hosts, introduced countless atheists, frustrated evangelicals, and wandering Christians to the good news that the Christian faith was not only defensible; it was dependable. He recounted that the story of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is both historically accurate and meaningful, true, and comforting. And that the Christian faith is founded on facts, and those facts are as wonderful and beautiful as they are true.
Others have come to know Dr. Rosenbladt through his essays and lectures, including my favorite, “The Gospel for Those Broken by the Church.” By grace, through his humble servants like Rod, God has drawn exiled Christians back into a church where the Reformation’s quintessential theology is at the center: you are justified by grace through faith in Christ. Or, as Rod is fond of saying, “Christ died for sinners, and you qualify.”
Still, many others, especially in recent years, have come to know Dr. Rod Rosenbladt, and many of his students and friends, through the blogs, podcasts, conferences, and resources that are a part of the 1517 family which he was integral in founding.
My own introduction to Dr. Rosenbladt was like many others, as a student sitting in a freshmen year theology course at Concordia University Irvine, where Rod taught classes on the Lutheran Confessions, Reformation theology, and, of course, Christian apologetics for over thirty years.
It was there, in Rod’s classroom, that I was re-introduced to my other favorite professor, J.R.R. Tolkien. Instead of finding my thoughts drifting off to the sunny California skies outside the window, I found myself captivated by the truth of Reformation theology, the veracity of the Christian faith, and the beauty of a well-told story that soaked the imagination in Christ’s redemption. In a section of a course on Christian Apologetics, Rod took us on a journey through “tender-minded” apologetics: the joyous reality that the Christian faith is meaningful as well as true, beautiful as well as historical, imaginative as well as intellectual. Professor Rosenbladt taught us that Professor Tolkien - like his Inklings colleagues and many other authors - wrote great stories, and that sometimes the best stories pointed us to the true story of the gospel. I learned that Tolkien’s stories were full of more than adventure, fantasy, hobbits, elves, and orcs. They were also filled with Christian themes of redemption and rescue, good triumphing over evil, death and resurrection, and Christ-figures like Gandalf, Frodo, Samwise, and Aragorn.
I have never read a book the same way again. Rod’s teaching had more than influenced me; my time in his classroom forged me. After graduating college from Concordia Irvine, I went to seminary, got married and started a family, served, and still serve as a pastor. But I still consider myself a student of Dr. Rosenbladt. To me, and I know I am not alone in this, Rod will always be my professor, friend, brother in Christ, and father in the faith once and for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).
And as I thought about and celebrated the birthdays of my two favorite professors this year, I stopped to think about some of the remarkable things I have learned from them.
From Professor Rosenbladt, I learned to see the grace of God in Christ crucified on every page of Scripture. From Professor Tolkien, I learned to see Christ crucified in some of the best stories that are told.
From Professor Rosenbladt, I learned the importance of declaring and defending the gospel as we give anyone who asks a reason for the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15). From Professor Tolkien, I learned that the gospel of Christ crucified can also be declared and defended through a well-told, beautiful story, that the heroes of Middle-earth point us to the Savior who came to this earth.
From Professor Rosenbladt, I learned that good theology is the most practical thing you can have as a Christian. From Professor Tolkien, I learned that good theology and the joy of Christ crucified is found in some of our favorite stories. And that the Christian story is both true and beautiful. It is made all the more sublime because this story really happened.
From Professor Rosenbladt, I learned that God’s gift of the intellect and the imagination are not contradictory but complementary. From Professor Tolkien, I learned that one could profess their Christian faith in rich, imaginative ways.