Saturday, January 17, 2015

Three Cheers for Harry (Potter, that is!)

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, November 17, 2002

In the Halloween classic, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, Linus is sitting and writing his annual letter to the Great Pumpkin when Charlie Brown comes along. “Why are you writing the Great Pumpkin?” Charlie Brown asks. “You should be writing to Santa Claus instead.” Linus disagrees, and a brief theological discussion ensues. Finally, Charlie Brown walks away, shaking his head, and saying, “We’re obviously separated by denominational differences.”
At Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, they don’t make the distinction; nor do we here in this church. We celebrate both Halloween and Christmas—and write, perhaps, to both the Great Pumpkin and Santa Clause.
At Hogwart’s, a great feast takes place every Halloween. The Great Hall is decorated for the occasion with live bats, and lit jack o’ lanterns, and real spider webs, and a bounteous feast of every kind of goodie you could imagine is served on golden platters that float through the air. At Christmas, too, there is another great feast. The hall is hung with holly and mistletoe and there are twelve sparkling, glittering Christmas trees. The golden platters reappear once again, this time filled with traditional Christmas puddings and sweets.
It seems like a pretty open-minded and inclusive way to approach things, with “denominational differences”—mere differences of theology—never allowed to get in the way of celebrating (and feasting!). It’s an approach with which most of us, I would dare say, are quite comfortable.
But not all people in this world of ours are as open minded (I’m sure that doesn’t really come as a surprise to you). There are those, no doubt, who would have Hogwart’s closed and shuttered (if not burned to the ground).
Listen to this dispatch from the British newspaper, The Guardian:
“He has bewitched 124million readers, vanquished the forces of evil and transformed his creator into Britain's highest-paid woman.
“But Harry Potter, the world's most famous schoolboy wizard, has spectacularly failed to win over the congregation of the Christ Community Church in Alamogordo, New Mexico.
“Indeed, his phenomenal powers have proved pitiful when confronted with the wrath of the churchgoers, who burned his books on Sunday night, calling them a masterpiece of satanic deception’.
“As hundreds of residents opposed to the book burning protested, several hundred worshippers listened to the church's founder, Pastor Jack Brock, denounce the fictional wizard as satanic, before filing outside to toss at least 30 Potter books into the flames.
“As they crooned ‘Amazing Grace’, other novels considered works of the devil were flung on the fire, while videos and CDs including the Disney animated movie Snow White and recordings by Eminem were consigned to a dustbin.
“But it was Harry Potter who proved the focal point. Claiming that JK Rowling's books taught children to turn to wizardry, the pastor insisted: ‘Harry Potter is the devil and he is destroying people…. Behind that innocent face is the power of satanic darkness,’ he added, pointing to the face of Harry on a book cover.”
Likewise, a little closer to home and a little more recently, in Lewiston, Maine, this past weekend, a group of local Christian ministers marked the opening of the newest Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by mounting a protest. In a recent issue of the Boston Globe, we read:
“A public ‘book-cutting’ took place at which Rev. Douglas Taylor of the Oneness Pentecostal Church and five other pastors tore a copy of the J.K. Rowling book, on which the film, is based, to shreds last night before a clapping audience of 100 people at a local hotel.
“‘It’s no secret I enjoy what I’m doing now,’ said Taylor, who added that he would have preferred to burn the book….The pastor had asked Lewiston officials if he could burn the book, but the request was rejected as a ‘toxic emission,’ Taylor says…”
The most toxic emission being spewed around in that hotel meeting room in Maine was the narrow-minded, myopic, absurd charges of Rev. Taylor and his ilk.
Harry Potter needs to be defended. And I am happy to do so this morning—especially after standing in line yesterday for almost an hour waiting to get into the newest Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets—which is absolutely enchanting—very funny in spots—much better than the first Harry Potter film, in my opinion-- beautifully filmed—and which I heartily recommend to you all.
Now, in case you have been away in Iraq or North Korea or some other far corner of the world for the past couple of years—or in case your children or grandchildren haven’t told you about Harry Potter yet, let me quickly introduce him to you.
Harry Potter is the brainchild of a Scottish author, J. (for Joanna) K. Rowling, a woman in her mid-30s, who graduated from college with a teaching degree, couldn’t find a job, worked as a French-English translator, and was married briefly (and had a child with) a Portuguese diplomat. While living as a struggling single mother on welfare (or “the dole” as the British call it) in Edinburgh, she one day came up with this idea of a boy wizard named Harry Potter. In a flash, it seemed, she had sketched out the entire Harry Potter series on napkins and scraps of paper in a local coffee shop in Edinburgh.
Rowling then went home and typed out the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone [or, in American editions, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone; American publishers decided that American kids would never buy anything that had the word “philosophy” in the title] on her typewriter, and then began the long, hard search for a publisher. Believe it or not, it wasn’t easy. Most weren’t at all interested. Several told her the book (at something around 400 pages) was too long for children in this fast-moving, video-based world. One publisher returned the manuscript to her, saying that nothing based in a British boarding school would ever sell any more. But finally, Rowling’s perseverance paid off, and in 1997 it was accepted by a London firm, Bloomsbury Children’s Publishing.
The facts and figures since then have been so stratospheric. The four books in the Harry Potter series (three more are planned) have sold. All together, more than 120 million copies in almost 40 languages. Which led the well-known humorist Dave Barry to muse:
“I am not jealous of the woman who writes the Harry Potter books. It does not bother me that her most recent book, Harry Potter and the Enormous Royalty Check, has already become the best-selling book in world history, beating out her previous book, Harry Potter Purchases Microsoft.
“It does not make me bitter to know that this woman’s books are selling like crazy, while my own books—some of which took me hours to write—become permanent nesting grounds for generations of bookstore dwelling spiders.”
(I know from whence Dave Barry speaks…)
But what is it within the covers of these four books—and in the scenes of the two Harry Potter movies—that makes some narrow-minded people twitch and harangue and holler? An even more important question, I think, is whether there are values in these books about which we should rejoice—values which we should affirm, and defend, and further.
First, why is the religious right so uncomfortable with Harry Potter?
Ostensibly, because they say it furthers witchcraft, and lures children into the ways of the occult. They point to the words of the eighteenth chapter of biblical book, Deuteronomy, which says:
“There shall not be anyone found among you who makes his son or daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who casts a spell, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For whoever does these things is detestable to the Lord.”
The Bible says it. They believe it. That settles it. That’s the way the minds of these people work.
But the fact is, of course, that the Bible in general—and the book Deuteronomy in particular—says a lot of things. It forbids a lot of things—and even permits some, too. For instance, the twenty-first chapter of Deuteronomy also gives this advice for dealing with disobedient children:
“If a man has a stubborn or rebellious son, who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they chastise him, will not give heed to them, then his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones; so you shall purge the evil from your midst.”
So, according to Deuteronomy, if your child is disobedient (or if he eats, or drinks, too much)—have him stoned to death! The Bible says it; we’re supposed to believe it. Should we follow this biblical injunction, too? Of course not!
I don’t know about you, but I think I would rather have our children reading Harry Potter than the book of Deuteronomy!
It’s supposedly all the trappings of witchcraft in these books that get the right wing so upset—all the casting of spells and spouting incantations and making potions (which encourages drug use among the young, some conservative spokesmen say; I say it’s the big pharmaceutical firms that are the real drug pushers in this country of ours).
But what these narrow-minded people really fear from Harry Potter is something deeper, I think. I think these people see Harry Potter and his friends as the enemy because the children in these books think for themselves. They make decisions—sometimes good, sometimes bad, and when they’re bad decisions the children are right there, face to face, with the consequences. Sometimes, they learn from their mistakes, and sometimes they don’t—and they get stuck in the same ruts, repeating the same unwise behaviors, over and over again (as do we all at one time or another in our lives). Oftentimes, Harry and his friends, Ron and Hermoine, are good and studious members of the Hogwart’s community. At other times, they flaunt the rules (when it serves a higher purpose) and often find themselves on the brink of expulsion.
In a word, in spite of their supernatural powers (which they have in different quantities; which sometimes work and sometimes don’t)—these are, all in all, pretty typical kids. And the thought of regular-looking kids with real power—thinking for themselves—drives the Religious Right nuts.
Harry Potter is an orphan child, whose parents (both wizards) are killed, and who then goes to live as an infant with his mother’s sister, Petunia, and his Uncle Vernon, and their slimy son, Dudley, in their typical and boring suburban home. (His relatives are Muggles, you see—not magical people.) His relatives treat Harry like scum, forcing him to live in a closet underneath the stairs, making him hide there whenever company comes, trying to isolate him completely from the outside world.
But on his eleventh birthday, Harry is visited by a kindly giant of a man named Hagrid, who takes him off to Hogwart’s, where his life is transformed by the world of magic and wizardry. At Hogwart’s Harry learns not just to hone his skills as a wizard; he learns some very important lessons about life. The values taught (and lived) at Hogwart’s are values we all could wish for our children.
First of all, the Harry Potter books are all about building character; they’re about living our values, and making good decisions based on those values. In this long journey through childhood into adolescence and beyond, Harry learns to take the adversities of his life—the loss of his parents; living with a family that doesn’t nurture him; being beset upon by jealous fellow-students and unfair teachers—and fashion from these things a life based on compassion and resilience—and not one based on rage and revenge. Harry learns that although life may hurt us, we are not doomed to be its victim—and that the surest way to live a blessed life is to join with all people of goodwill in a common cause.
Harry learns to develop good, strong values (like friendship and hard work and tenacity and courage) and he makes his decisions based upon these values. That is the ultimate test of character, after all: how we live out the values we say we affirm. “It is not our abilities which distinguish us,” the wise Headmaster Dumbledore tells him, “but our decisions.” Our decisions are our character—and when it comes to character, no one holds a candle to Harry!
Secondly, the Harry Potter books declare to us that the dark forces of our lives can be overcome. And they can be overcome by kids—by young people—by every day people who look and talk and act and react like you and I do.
In Harry’s world, there are all manner of mysterious dangers that beset him, and he attempts to defeat them by whatever means are at his disposal—whether it be making the right potion, or casting the right spell, of whether it be by good old-fashioned, this worldly moral determination and grit, and by learning to work so closely with the rational Hermoine and the altruistic Ron. He learns that diversity is a blessing and not a curse—and that whether the enemy is evil spiders or a giant snake or any other manifestation of evil (or whether the evil is racism, or AIDS, or poverty or violence or terrorism), it will take the gifts of all—the insights of all—the tenacity of all—to solve the problem, and that we can’t afford to shut the door or exclude anyone. “Differences of language or habit are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open,” Dumbledore tells his students. Or, in the words of a great old Unitarian hymn:
Gifts in differing measure/ Hearts of one accord/ Manifold the service/One the sure reward...”
When it comes to overcoming the powers of evil, no one holds a candle to Harry Potter!
Thirdly, the Harry Power books remind us to listen to the voice within and to rely upon the power within. This is blasphemy, I suppose, to those who want to create a God as small as they are, fenced off in a tiny part of celestial real estate somewhere. But we preach a God as great and large as the entire universe, a God who dwells and speaks in each and every worthwhile, dignified human soul.
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, we are told that the wand chooses the wizard and not the other way around. So it is that faith chooses us, and not we it, and faith takes us where it will. Harry Potter learns that the power he needs to overcome evil is already within his soul—waiting to be unlocked and used for the common good. The tools of his trade—charms and potions and chants and incantations—might help him to unlock his power. So, the tools of our faith—prayers and songs and symbols and rituals—rosaries and prayer rugs and incense and drums and bells and candles—can help us to unlock the power of Goodness—the power of God—the power of Love—that dwells within us.
And the greatest tool of all, perhaps, is our imagination:
For all do know a way does run
From the mind, straight to the core of the imagination,
Then to the heart and to the soul,
Till hands are moved at last to remake a world…
“Magic is a wonderful thing,” 12-year old Norah Streeter Cook told us in our reading this morning. “It is how wish and dream.” So it is with imagination…
It is often our imaginations which have kept us alive in this all-too-Mugglish world in which we live.
It was Martin Luther King’s imagination which allowed him to stand before hundreds of thousands of people in Washington, D.C. and picture that world where he saw little black children and little white children walking hand in hand.
It was Nelson Mandela’s imagination which allowed him to picture a South Africa without apartheid, which kept him alive and singing and dancing and laughing in the face of tyranny during 27 years of hard labor on Robben Island.
It was Susan B. Anthony’s imagination which allowed her to dream—and work, work, work—for a world where women were free and equal to vote, to choose, to lead their own lives, and to lead the world in which they lived.
All of us who dare to stretch our imaginations-- who dare to cast our spells of music and poetry and laughter and tears and hard work in the face of the evils of our day—are cohorts of Harry and his friends there at Hogwart’s. All of us who dare to believe that it is a good thing that “a mind stretched by new ideas can never go back to its original dimension” – who dare to say, openly, unafraid, “It is a wondrous thing when a child loves a book,” as Judy Blume said of Harry Potter.
May all of us then-- men and women and children of goodwill and sacrificial spirit-join together joyfully and say: “Three Cheers for Harry! “Three cheers for Harry Potter!” And three cheers for his author), for her daring:
To open our eyes to the powers within our own souls;
To open our hearts to our own imagination’s calling;
Praise be to J.K. Rowling for feeding us with words of truth, and quenching our spiritually-parched lips with the gladness of her refreshing vision. 

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