Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Redeeming Phoenix...or smashing it.

I saw the new Harry Potter movie on Saturday night. It was scary. I've not read the books, not joined the arguments in Christian circles about whether Rowling's books should be read, not commented on the issue in any way whatsoever until now. Well, it's time, and the offering which follows comes with the caveat that I'm a bigger Seattle Mariner fan than a Potter fan, and I can't even name the starting lineup or pitching rotation of our red hot local team, so take it with a grain of salt.

Rowlings is masterful, like Tolkien and Lewis, at creating an alternate reality, ushering us into it, and building characters that are so marvelously layered that there's something there for everyone from children to adults. At the same time, the progression of the film's has moved in an increasingly dark direction, so that in this film there were moments that I could only describe as demonic darkness. I read a time magazine piece recently that claimed Rowling's success lies in her secularism. Rubbish. Whether her intent is to be secular or not, the films have progressed relentlessly towards a powerful battle between darkness and light, and the forces of darkness have all the marks of Satan's strategies in the Bible: There's infiltration, so that you're not quite sure who's on the side of goodness; there's the reality that the dark forces are intent on death; and in the most recent film there's clear evidence that the best antidote to the forces of death is to keep one's mind intent on all that is true and good.

Rowlings, as far as I know, makes no claim to be a Christian - but her stories, in my opinion are increasingly telling a story of redemption and triumph of good over evil (note that I've only advanced as far in the story as the recent movie release... things may change in the final two offerings). If my children were in their early teens and were fans, this recent movie would be a perfect segue to discussions about the principalities and powers we face as followers of Christ, and the role that our thought life plays in helping us overcome. If my children were younger than 10... I'd say the movie is just too scary to see. Maybe we'd go see the movie about the rat who is a chef instead (very funny movie)

But the larger question that Potter brings to us is the believer's relationship to culture. The Celtic church had a way of redeeming culture, using cultural icons to illustrate and declare eternal truths. Paul did the same thing in Acts 16. And so, I'd argue should we... most of the time. Yet there is another model in the Bible - it's the model of smashing idols, and abstaining from meat sacrificed to idols. In other words, it's the model of separation. Regarding the smashing of idols... we're still called to put away all forms of idolatry from our lives, but I hardly think going to a movie constitutes idolatry. And regarding the abstaining piece of which Paul writes, the point is that this is a matter of conscience. For one, the activity defiles, for another there is liberty (See I Corinthians 8). Maybe this is the way of the Phoenix.

When the day is done though, discernment is that piece of the Christian life that enables us to see both idols and cultural icons which point to the gospel for what they are. And in this case, the Phoenix film is both entertaining, and a reminder that 'still our ancient foe... doth seek to work us woe!"


At 18/7/07 10:38, Blogger James said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 18/7/07 10:41, Blogger James said...

I agree. Whatever one thinks about Potter as literature (and that is important)it is full of themes and symbols which have value for Christian reflection on pop culture. This is true particularly in comparison to another best selling British fatansy story and upcoming movie called His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. That series is driven by a stark Manichean contrast between good and evil. Evil is embodied by all the negative characteristics such as sexual repression and blind allegiance to authority that Pullman takes to be associated with Christianity. It will be interesting to see whether some Christians realize that Potter presented a more interesting view in retrospect.

The whole Potter episode raises a deeper problem about engaging pop-culture. I think its fair to say that for many of us grew up in Christian families this engagement was usually limited to deciding whether a film or album had too much sex, violence and crude language. While these concerns are important, especially when considering the maturity of the audience, they don't usually have the kind of lasting cultural impact that the theme or message of the work do. For example, the film The Departed wasn't a bad movie only because of its copious amounts of bloodshed and profanity, but because of its message about human nature and community. When Jack Nicholson's character says at the beginning of the movie that saying "we had the church was just another way of saying we had each other" followed by episode after episode in which we learn that we can't really trust on each other but have no where else to turn, we're getting a powerful and importantly misleading message about ourselves.
In contrast, an excellent movie released last year called the Lives of Others had several less than comfortable moments but offered message about human relationship containing much more truth.

Are wizards and witches all bad? or torture scenes, or sex? I think we need to evaluate these elements as a part of the overall artistic and cultural impact of the story.

At 18/7/07 11:17, Blogger BenMc said...

I'm a fan because I love the creativity in making a detailed "alternate world", whether it's Hogwarts or the U.S.S. Enterprise or Middle Earth or a South Pacific island with mysterious hatches underneath. There's a fundamental joy at exploring these corners of sub-creation. (I do, incidentally, think that Middle Earth is the most applicable of all of the above just because the author himself believes in an orthodox Creator!) I'm very curious about how the seventh Harry Potter book will turn out, but I have a feeling it will be similar to the previous ones: choices are all-important, friendship and love somehow save the day (against a terrible cost, no doubt). The emphasis on choosing is good from a free-will stand point, but can be taken too far into pure existentialism. The emphasis on friendship and love is human only, but that's good as far as it goes! If JK Rowling started talking about God now, in any case, she would be committing the literary sin called "Deus Ex Machina," unless she really does something surprising.

One interesting tidbit: early on in the seventh Potter book, Harry Potter responds after a stressful situation with "Thank God." I wonder if that's the first reference -- even if an entirely culturally muted one?

At 18/7/07 12:01, Blogger James said...

And here's a juicy tidbit from a recent interview J.K. Rowling did.

“Every time I’ve been asked if I believe in God, I’ve said yes, because I do, but no one ever really has gone any more deeply into than that, and I have to say that does suit me, because if I talk too freely about that I think the intelligent reader, whether 10 or 60, will be able to guess what’s coming in the books…. This [talking about religion] is so frustrating. Again, there is so much I would like to say, and come back when I’ve written book seven. But then maybe you won’t need to even say it because you’ll have found it out anyway. You’ll have read it.”

At 18/7/07 15:51, Blogger BenMc said...

Wow, that is interesting. Maybe she'll pull a "Deus Ex Machina" after all? Makes me want to finish the book all the more. As long as the ending isn't like the end of "The Dark Crystal," that is!

At 19/7/07 16:07, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a person who has often intentionally avoided such "hot topics" as Abercrombie ads, and Harry Potter, in favor of focusing on the general prinicpals of Christian living. But recently, while house-sitting I stumbled upon one of the Harry Potter movies. I was just as surprised by what only felt like Holy Spirit conviction as I am that I feel lead to respond to this posting.
That being said, I feel like we all need to go deeply into prayer about this one. When I watched the movie (only about 40 minutes) it struck me like a skillet to the head that there is no light in this story AT ALL. I am very aware that these stories are attempting to be an analogy for good vs. evil, struggle and redemption, but all I saw was a battle for the lesser of two evils (there is no such thing). I can't emphasize how much I feel that ANY magic is of darkness. (Again, let me state that this standing is just as surprising to me as it is a new conviction). Correct me if I'm wrong but I believe the only place in the bible where God allowed any of his people to display anything resembling "magic" was in Exodus 4:1-8 7:8-12 and for the very purpose "that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers. . . has appeared to you". Ex. 4:5 It's always for His Glory! As Christians we need to be absolutely aware that there is a spiritual battle in which we are all "soldiers" whether we like it or not. Ephesians 6 is very clear about this. Unlike our Harry (or any other hero in a fairy tale) our victory is always because of and for the glory of Christ. Let me also be very clear that miracles are not magic, they are a very effective display of the greatness of God's creative ability. Jesus Healed, cast out demons, raised the dead and his apostles did the same. It's all very, very real (still! the Lord never changes) and He wants us to be able to walk in the fullness just as we are His body (1 Cor. 12:4-13). I believe that the more we watch or read anything in which magic is used the more desensitized we become to God's almighty power. Eventually we get to a place where miracles are "just for fairy tales".

At 20/7/07 16:08, Blogger BenMc said...

I just finished reading the seventh book. Don't worry, I won't give anything away, but suffice it to say that it's all I hoped for, and JK Rowling draws on influences such as JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, even references to baptism, 1 Cor. 15, and the sermon on the mount. Now I see exactly where the quote James mentioned came from.

I would have liked to see her go farther, but all things considered, the seventh book changed my estimation of the entire series, from "somewhere below Narnia" to "somewhere around the same as Narnia." (Although below Middle Earth, of course, I won't get carried away!)

I was surprised and impressed. It's a lot of words and plot twists to get to the seventh book, but once there, I found it to contain a lot of truth. Not sure it's worth it in terms of just the films. But to me, the books certainly were worth it by the end.

At 24/7/07 13:08, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a person very sensitive to graphic images, I choose to stay away from any movies with these type of themes and images. Real life stuff provides plenty of experience with spiritual darkness and the principalities spoken of in Romans. We are all subject to that. Reading C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters spells it out pretty clearly.

I feel no need to debate others who choose to see the movies or read the books. However, I would want to caution followers of Christ against the absolute obsession with the Potter mania, in regards to the scriptures speaking of "where your treasure is, there is your heart."

A good way to encourage dialog with your teens about spiritual warfare may be to read missionary biographies about those who have experienced the dark side of some tribal societies, and seeing how only God transforms through His power.

Thank God for His Holy Spirit to guide us in all areas of life.....


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