Monday, September 17, 2007

The Potter's Hand

It’s been two whole months since the Harry Potter saga came to a dramatic close, and since I ended my last post with a reference to a meaningful quote from the Potter series, I wanted to jot down a few thoughts, post-Hallows.

I just read that the Harry Potter movies have surpassed James Bond as the highest grossing movie franchise in history (when not adjusted for inflation). I continue to be amazed at the staggering numbers that Mr. Potter has wracked up. For example, Book 6 sold more copies in its first 24 hours than The DaVinci Code sold in a year (and you remember what a big deal that book was when it hit the stands).

All number crunching aside, what makes Harry Potter so profound for me is that Book 7 ratified the underlying theme for the whole series – that it is ultimately a reflection on death. Underneath the lovable characters and memorable moments and a most engaging writing style, is a very deep and thought-provoking mediation on life and death.

From the opening chapter of Book 1, “The Boy Who Lived”, the whole Potterverse is moved and shaken by one man’s pathological fear of death and his willingness to go to any means to avoid it (that would be Voldemort), and one boy’s life shattered by death and healed by love (that would be Harry).

At the heart of the life-death dynamic is the power of love. Not namby-pamby, fairy tale or even classic romantic love, but sacrificial love. This kind of love is what Harry learns about and acts upon, and of what Voldemort has no knowledge whatsoever. Sacrificial love is the agent which defeats death, and while this truth comes up throughout the series, Book 7 abolishes any doubt to Rowling’s intentions otherwise.

HP is hardly the first fiction to wrestle with the subject of death, or even to name sacrificial love as the counter to death, but what made the whole series ring true was the way death was addressed in Book 7. Prior to the release of Deathly Hallows, one literary critic I read (whose name and article reference I’ve tried to find but so far have been unable) notes that what essentially dies in the HP books is God. The world of Potter, he observers, is utterly devoid of faith, prayer, or even mention of church or God. While this is actually an accurate observation, the deeper issue implied is not so much that ‘God’ dies in HP, but rather that the Christian God dies. And, really, up to the close of Book 6, there would be little to refute this position.

Then Deathly Hallows arrived. Interestingly, I had read the aforementioned (and so far elusive) article just prior to July 21st, and so this ‘absence of God’ was very much on my mind as I began reading Book 7. That is also why I was struck early on when, after George Weasley is seriously injured (he loses an ear) Mrs. Weasley tells Harry that George is going to be alright, and Harry says, “Thank God” (pg 74), which might be the first time “God” is specifically mentioned in the whole series. That is fairly innocuous, but as the book goes on, when Harry and Hermione go to Godric’s Hollow and visit the graveyard, two quotes from Scripture are found on gravestones. One quote on Kendra Dumbledore’s grave is from Jesus himself, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matthew 6:21). The other on James & Lily Potter’s grave is from 1 Corinthians 15:26, “And the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” 1 Corinthians 15 is one of the most profound passages on the bodily resurrection in all of Scripture.

Perhaps this may be construed as mining for nuggets of “Jesus under every rock,” perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but I don’t think I am. Granted, the verses of Scripture are never explicitly identified as such in the text, but Rowling is subtly telling us that the love which defeats death is in fact love in the Christian sense – that is “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay his life down for his friends” (John 15:13). After all, she very well could have used other verses, or none at all.

This type of love empties the self and pours out for the sake of the other, even to the point of death (Philippians 2:8). This concept of love (agape in the New Testament) is distinctly Christian. Not that Rowling’s characters are Christian, nor are the stories themselves “Christian”, but the themes and concepts of love and life and death and the way she resolves them are very much Christian. If this is so, was it intended, or is this all just a radical coincidence? I don’t think so.

While Harry is hardly a Christ-figure, nor is he intended to be, the sacrificial love he demonstrates is. Does this make HP a Christian series (much to the dismay of the angry fundamentalists who condemned it from very early on)? No. HP is “Christian” as much as Lord of the Rings is “Christian,” in that, while the stories and characters themselves are non-Christian, the themes and concepts that they deal with are (for example Gandalf’s resurrection as Gandalf the White, and Aragorn being the true returning King, whose hands are healing hands).

And so, the greatest books of this present day and age (despite what Harold Bloom and company may think, they are) end with a resoundingly subtle Gospel message. Not just that love defeats death, but it is love that drives one to take the place of anther in death which is at the heart of the HP stories. From the fateful substitution of Lily, Harry’s mother, to Harry’s own journey to the forest (Harry’s Gethsemane) to give his life that others may live, these stories convey a Christian understanding of sacrificial love. And note, it is not “I love these people so much that I will die,” but rather, “I love these people so much that I will die in their place so they might live.” There’s a big difference between the two. Changing gears to a more theological bent, the former basically attributes to the Cross a moral example atonement, whereas the latter ascribes the classic understanding of substitutionary atonement – that Jesus Christ died for our sins, that is, in our place for the just judgment against our evil hearts and deeds.

I look forward to re-re-reading the whole series again sometime in the near future, after I have finished my latest enterprise of taking on, once again, the Lord of the Rings.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Another 2 Worlds

Since my last posting regarding "between 2 worlds", I came across an article in TIME magazine called "Second Life's Real World Problems" - see the article for yourself:,9171,1651500,00.html
and i thought it would be a fitting sequence to write about Second Life, having just written about living between two worlds, even if the two subjects are completely different.
If you don't know Second Life, it is an online virutal world where people create computer characters (called avatars) who can open businesses, travel the "world", drink, party, have sex, and shop for shoes in this enormous, highly interactive virtual world. Admittedly, having never personally signed up for it, I've been following articles on Second Life for a while now, and finally have decided to reflect on it. What promted such reflection was this TIME article. A major development recently has been that real businesses in the real world are opening virtual businesses in Second Life and selling virtual products (like Nike shoes for your avatar) but for real money. Apparently its becoming quite a big deal and lots of real money is being exchagned, a veritable virtual economy.
When i first read about Second Life, my first inclination was not suprise, but rather, 'well, it was bound to happen sooner or later.' And of course shortly thereafter stories appeared about folks who spend more time on Second Life than they do at their jobs in real life, which they probably have consequently lost. Initially my concern was, and to some extent still is, the Matrix factor. In all seriousness, we are only one step away from plugging our brains in to interface with this technology, rather than use our hands. And every sci-fi movie ever made on the subject seems to think that jacking in is a bad idea. Nonetheless, my point is not to throw rocks at Second Life, but rather to see it and the many other products, novelties, and technologies out there like it, in terms of what is revealed about human nature in them.
People are hard wired for relationships. We seek them out no matter what. 'Any relationship is better than no relationship' is the mentality, conscious or subconsious, that often leads to co-dependent abusive situations. In "Cast Away", tom hank's character forms a relationship with a volleyball while trapped on his deserted island. When relationships in the real world become to difficult or painful or just not there, we still seek them out online. What struck me in the above article, is that people are now getting significantly malcontent online.
This is quoted from the article: "some devotees are so upset by increasing commercialization that a group called the Second Life Liberation Army last year gunned down virtual shoppers at American Apparel. So-called griefing, or on-site harassment, is on the rise. Says Gartner research chief Steve Prentice: "Second Life is moving into a phase of disillusionment." Wow, even VR can't escape it.Now we have avatar shooting rampages happening - the world, it seems, is an ugly place, and you can't hide from that fact, even in a virtual world.
So where does all this lead me? Being a bit of a Potter-phile, I re-read the whole series before Deathly Hallows was released, and there is a remarkable line by Dumbledore in Book1. He says to Harry, who has been spending a lot of time looking into a magical mirror (which has been showing him images of his long dead parents), that the mirror gives us neither knowledge nor truth, and that "It does not do to dwell on dreams, and forget to live in the real world." Perhaps an ironic truth to be told by a wizard in a world famous fantasy novel series, but the point is taken. There is no substitute for real relationships, however appealing and fun, and even deeply connective virtual ones may be. Even if this is all true, it is still only diagnostic. How do people deal with the ugliness of the world and the problems of relating to other people?