Sunday, January 20, 2008

Harry Potter and Ministry Where the Music Doesn't Matter

S. M. Hutchens has a provocative post on Touchstone's blog "Mere Comments." In his essay, "The Helpful Discovery of Dirt in Potter's Field," he reflects on the recent Christian criticism of the Harry Potter novels. He writes:

I recently read yet another Christian complaint about Harry Potter. The critic's thesis was that Joanna Rowling is a "contemporary transgressive artist par excellence," who holds lightly to the canons of Judeo-Christian morality and of traditional children's literature in the west, the Potter tales being a catalog of rule-breaking, disobedience, lying, vengeance-taking, and whatnot, its final installation containing the revelation of the Snape-Dumbledore murder-suicide pact that insinuates euthanasia into the minds of children--not to mention that all of this is done in a pagan context by witches and wizards, no less.

My reaction was--yes--but did he miss something? Like the Point of it All?

One wonders just what kind of literature a person like this can read. Must everything be reduced to black and white, not only with unwelcome details smoothed over, but with tools that, by neutralizing elements the critic prefers not to see in his desire to define the work by the ones he finds obnoxious, guts it and renders invisible the message of the whole?

He observes that, whatever might be the moral flaws we see in Harry Potter, he is certainly a type of Christ and "Christian children who are old enough to read Harry Potter are old enough to understand the imperfections of heroes, and judge the flaws of literary characters." But for this to happen children must be "given the standards by which to render the judgments." He continues:

Shall we train their instincts to flee imperfect human beings rather than love and embrace them--not for the imperfection, but in spite of it--in hope of redemption, both of their imperfect selves and those they embrace? If we train them to flee, those who castigate our faith for making people who hate first themselves, and then by extension, others, are quite correct about our faith, but wrong in thinking it Christian.

Hutchens then turns his attention to Jesus Christ. He writes:

Given what we are shown of our Lord in the Gospels, I strongly suspect if he were accurately depicted by friendly and sympathetic eyes in accounts that did not have the status of holy scripture, and without the overlay of piety, we would see a good, but flawed, perhaps deeply and fatally flawed, man. He would not in fact have the imperfections we would lay to his account, but he would be far from measuring up to our expectations for a perfect man. He would not be prudent enough, respectful enough, humble enough, patient enough, pious enough, obedient enough, considerate enough, or kind enough to be God Incarnate (and only rarely are we visited by the capacity to admit that we secretly attribute the same flaws to God himself).

Even though we would notice prodigies of all these virtues in him, we would also see evidence of their lack in certain instances--of inconsistency. We would see his tragic end on the cross as heroic, perhaps, but it would not surprise us, given certain qualities we had observed--connected, perhaps, with persisting questions about the moral uprightness of his parentage. It is for this reason he can be represented to us, while imperfectly, in stories of imperfect heroes; it is why these stories lead back to him. It is because we are what we are, and Almighty God has regarded our low estate.

Thinking on this, I realize that the problem that many have with Harry Potter, and which many more of us have with those in positions of authority in the Church, or with humanity more generally, is really a Christological problem. It is not Harry Potter, or the bishop or the priest or the parish council or the people I met at church on Sunday that is my problem, but the with the uncomfortable truth that Jesus entrusts the Gospel to "imperfect heroes, or heroes we may easily assume share our imperfections, handsome princes though they may be."

During Liturgy this morning, I was blessed to have the presence of Deacon James Gresh (he and his family recently returned to the States after 5 years in China for the Deacon's job) and so had a bit more time to reflect during the service. I found myself lamenting my inability to get Orthodox liturgical music into my head. For whatever reason, I just can't quite ever learn the music that I've heard week after week for the last 15 years.

As I thought about this I began to realize that maybe, just maybe, I can't learn the Church's music because God has not called me to serve in those situation in which the Church's music is most important.

Thinking on this a bit more I began to wonder, how often do we limit our service to those situations where the "Church's music" is important? How often do we, do I, close my heart to the voice of Christ because I do not want to go to those place were the "music matters"? When I go place where the wealth of the Christian doesn't matter, I have to go without the security of my position in the Church and the concealing cloak of Tradition. When that cloak is taken away, what else is there to see but that Christ has called an "imperfect hero" or a "handsome," if flawed prince?

Certainly the Tradition of the Church, her music, her theology, her liturgy, is a great blessing. Too easily though we assume that Christ calls us to serve only in those areas where the Tradition is important, where, if you will, it is the music that matters, that is to say, where we are important.

But isn't this simply preaching to the choir? What do we read in the Gospel:

Then He went out again by the sea; and all the multitude came to Him, and He taught them. As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, "Follow Me." So he arose and followed Him. Now it happened, as He was dining in Levi's house, that many tax collectors and sinners also sat together with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many, and they followed Him. And when the scribes and Pharisees saw Him eating with the tax collectors and sinners, they said to His disciples, "How is it that He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?" When Jesus heard it, He said to them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance." (Mark 2.13-17)

If Jesus followed what seems to be the mindset of many Orthodox Christians, it is doubtful that Matthew (or any of us) would be His disciple(s). Unlike us, Jesus did not limit Himself to where the "music matters" and so we have been admitted to the Heavenly Choir along with our Jewish brothers and sisters.

Failing to understand that I cannot limit the Gospel to those times and places where the "music matters" is to repeat the mistake of many in Israel at the time of Jesus. The Apostle Paul in Romans warns us of this. He writes:

I say then, have they stumbled that they should fall? Certainly not! But through their fall, to provoke them to jealousy, salvation has come to the Gentiles. Now if their fall is riches for the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more their fullness! For I speak to you Gentiles; inasmuch as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, if by any means I may provoke to jealousy those who are my flesh and save some of them. For if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? For if the first fruit is holy, the lump is also holy; and if the root is holy, so are the branches. And if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them, and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree, do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, "Branches were broken off that I might be grafted in." Well said. Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either. Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off. And they also, if they do not continue in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. For if you were cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, who are natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree? (11:11-24)

Harry Potter evokes such harsh responses from Christian critics for much the same reason we want to only go to those places where the "music matters."

We have lost sight of the fact that the mission of the Gentiles is a mission to the wild olive branches, to those people and places where the music simply doesn't matter, at least yet. And it is a mission that has been entrusted by Christ to us who are imperfect heroes and handsome, if flawed, princes and princesses.

"It is no coincidence the keys to the Kingdom," Hutchens writes, "were delivered to the most robustly flawed of all Christ's disciples." When I limit my service to those places where the "music matters," I perform a bit of sleight of hand. I trick myself in to believing that, maybe, just maybe, in my case at least, Christ has not called a "robustly flawed" man to be His disciple. And maybe, just maybe, in my case, I can be that perfect hero, that handsome prince without flaws.

But, and again as Hutchens's astutely observes, when I do this I "sanitized" the Gospel according "to [my own] standards" and so will "never look like the Lord."

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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