Wizards, Dust, and Faith

Wizards, Dust, and Faith
1-27-08
Rev. Douglas Taylor

Back in the fall of ’02, Rev. Douglas Taylor made the news when he publicly shredded a copy of “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.”  He wanted to burn the book, but sadly the city would not issue him a permit.   So, with scissors in hand, surrounded by faithful members of his church, Rev Douglas Taylor told the newspapers, “I feel like I’m in a cutting mood tonight.”  I hope it is no surprise to you that I am speaking about another Rev. Douglas Taylor, one from a conservative Christian church that condemned the Harry Potter books for their glorification of “witchcraft and pagan religion.”  “If you get involved in this,” our other Rev. Douglas Taylor told the people, gesturing to toward the Harry Potter book, “It’s gonna make you dirty.”

Me, I’m not interested in cutting up or burning books.  I don’t doubt that I could be involved with a blatant publicity stunt.  While I would hope to be involved with more tasteful displays, I can’t make any promises.  But you could tell I was referring to a different Rev. Douglas Taylor, right?  I only wish the people who sent me hate letters by e-mail could tell the difference.  It was somewhat heartening to have the people chastising me for cutting up Potter outweighed my supporters 2 to 1, even if I wasn’t the one involved.

There is a long and proud history among conservative and evangelical Christians of railing against culture and ‘un-Christian’ influences surrounding their children.  Of course liberal and mainline people of faith do it too. We tend to complain about different influences, but we all complain about the negative influence of culture.  I remember, for example, a TV show from the late 80’s and early 90’s called Murphy Brown.  One season, the main character decides to have a baby but not to get married or have a man involved directly in the project.  During the 1992 presidential campaign, then Vice President Dan Quayle criticized the Murphy Brown character for ignoring the importance of fathers and bearing a child alone.  One response was, “Oh, come on Dan; it’s just a TV show.”  But that is not a fair response.  Whether we agree or disagree with Dan Quayle’s target, his concern about the power and influence of Television was fair.

And while conservative Christians get worked up about everything from Barney and Tinkie Winkie to Murphy Brown and Dan Brown’s De Vinci Code, they hold a special place for fantasy books and movies especially when they portray magic.  Of late there are several movies that fit this category: fantasy films that feature witchcraft and magic; the Harry Potter series, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Chronicles of Narnia, and most recently, The Golden Compass.  I have found these films to be entertaining and each in their own ways to offer a positive message to encourage people in their faith.

All of these films began as successful books.  While all four movies have come out recently, two of them are from an earlier generation and seem to have worked under a different set of rules if you will in terms of their acceptability among Christians.  One theory I bumped into on the internet (and sadly could not find again to give proper credit) suggested that there were rules for how magic could be portrayed that Narnia and Lord of the Rings followed, but the other two have not, which is why you hear a lot of fuss about Harry Potter and The Golden Compass.  Or, another way to put it, Christians came to terms with the ways magic was used in the previous generation’s great fantasy series but those terms were not met in the new batch of make-believe.  The main problem for the Christians seems to be around magic use.

The first rule seems to be something like: the magic needs to take place in an obviously non-real world.  When the children go through the wardrobe and past the lamppost, they have left the real world behind and entered a completely new place.  It is so different that time does not even pass in the real world while hours and days and even years go by in Narnia.  C. S. Lewis’ world of Narnia could in no way be mistaken for earth.  Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is also not earth.  So full with its own history and culture it could not possibly be mistaken for our earth with our history and culture.  Again and again, critics say that one of the hallmarks of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books is that the author created a whole and internally-consistent world.  That is the old-school.  Harry Potter takes place in the midst of our real world.  The young people can attend a school for Witchcraft and Wizardry that is undetectable by the regular people (which they call muggles.)  The author, J. K. Rowling, intends for you to feel like this is all happening in our world, not in some make believe place.  The Harry Potter series crossed the line that Narnia and Lord of the Rings abided by, and this is a key reason why people hated Harry Potter so much.  It suggested that magic was a part of our real world!  It went so far in its fantasy structure to suggest that lucky people could go to school and learn to use magic.

The Golden Compass is a variation on the theme.  The world of young Lyra is built on the post-modern thought-experiment that if I flip a coin it will come down either heads or tails.  While the coin is in the air the result could be either.  In a way, both futures wait to unfold.  As the coin lands and we find it to be, for example, ‘heads’- what would it be like if there were a parallel universe where the coin landed as ‘tails’ and life goes on from there?  The world Philip Pullman creates in The Golden Compass is very similar to the one we live in except there are rebel witches, talking polar bears, magic compasses, and every person’s soul is externalized as a creature.  I would be willing to argue that the parallel universe concept is almost an out for Pullman in terms of that first rule: the magic has to occur in a completely different world.  It’s a different world, but I suppose not completely different enough – and then only in the first book.  And, as a meaningless critique I will add that Philip does not have cool first initials like J. K. and C. S. and J. R. R. which is really too bad.

The second rule that the earlier generation of books centered on who gets to use the magic in the other world.  When religious people saw that humans didn’t use the magic, that the main characters did not use the magic, then it became easier for them to come to a truce with those books.  In the Narnia tales, the humans are set apart from the mythical and magic using inhabitants of the land in part because they don’t use magic; (unless we start talking about the “deep magic” and the “deeper magic” which is allegorical ways of talking about the power of Christian love.)  The most obvious person to use magic in the movie is the witch, who is evil.

In Lord of the Ring again it is the evil characters that use magic, but there are also good characters that use a good version of magic as well.  The elves have certain abilities, particularly the royalty.  And of course the wizards use magic.  But it is noted that the wizards are not ‘men.’ They are immortals like the elves.  I would also add that while the movie showed a good deal of waving magic staffs around and talking to wild animals, Gandalf’s primary magic was found in knowledge and a certain power with light.  Yet he was neither a main character nor a human character.  This kept him safely within the bounds that Christianity had come to accept from its fantasy stories.

The other two movies clearly break this little rule.  All of the significant characters use magic in Harry Potter, and the main character stands out for being particularly adept with certain kinds of magic such as flying on a broomstick.  In The Golden Compass, Lyra uses a device, the alethiometer or ‘golden compass’ to tell the truth.  Alethi is Greek for ‘truth’.  The device works for normal people but only with years of study and a stack of reference books, reminiscent of the resource books needed to read a sextant at sea.  The main character, however, does not need the years of training or the pile of books to read the device, she just understands it somehow.

So, Narnia and Lord of the Rings are OK, Harry Potter and The Colden Compass are bad because the former show magic occurring in wholly unique worlds that don’t connect to our worlds and the human characters and main characters don’t use magic, while the later do – on both counts.  This seems to me to be a flawed set of criteria to judge the fitness of a film for our children’s consumption.

Another criterion might be: do these books turned movies have Christian themes, or at least positive themes that are broadly religious if not specifically Christian.  Certainly Narnia would come out well with this way of judging them.  Narnia is an allegory of the Christian message: Aslan the great lion is Christ who sacrificed himself for another’s transgressions – yet rose up from death, breaking the table and so freeing anyone from future punishment for misdeeds.  When that level of the story is pointed out most people find it to be quite obvious.  Yet over and over children are delighted and entertained by the story without clueing in to the deeper theology that isn’t exactly hidden all that deep.  I think that is a mark of a fine story.  By this way of judging, Harry Potter carries many of the same symbolic meanings, especially in the last book.  I won’t spoil it in case you haven’t read it yet.  However, the Christians who rail against the Potter books will often cite not only the awful witchcraft problem but also the way Harry and his friends don’t follow the rules and ignore authority figures right and left.  I would cautiously point out that Jesus did that too.  Self-sacrifice and the ultimate power of love are regular themes in the Harry Potter books.  Again, this is a great story and it is not necessary to even notice all the Christian imagery to enjoy the books and be moved by them.  Although, one wonders at the way Rowling draws herself closer to hardcore Christians by using bible quotes on tombstones as major plot clues in her last book, and then she distances herself from then by announcing that the Professor Dumbledore, much-beloved Headmaster of the wizard school, is gay.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy is full of Christ-like figures: Frodo, The innocent who willingly takes up the burden of the Ring, carrying it through pain and suffering to save the world.  Gandalf also fits the bill for many things, but especially for dying and being reborn in a garment of white.  And we could also look to Aragorn who is the King, (as all kings in such stories seem to be Christ-like figures) but he is the King with healing in his hands.  We could also look to the over all message of the struggle between good and evil – that is a common theme in this sort of fantasy story.  Indeed all four of these movies I’m considering here have this over-arching theme of good triumphing over evil.  Yet with Lord of the Rings is worth noting that victory is won not through magic or military might or dramatic heroism.  It is won by two small hobbits, two insignificant beings, the meek of the earth.

Earlier I stated that each of these movies, in their own ways, offers a positive message to encourage people in their faith.  This idea that some of the basic messages of the Christian story are at the underneath many themes in the three movies so far makes my point.  The last movie is a little harder.  The Golden Compass also carries the broad them of good struggling to win over evil.  In this case, however, the church is the bad guy under the title of the Magisterium and the Authority.  The main character is regularly lying.  The movie pulled back from some of the overt material in the book, but the really complaint-worthy material all comes in the third book anyway.  The much hyped moments are in the death scene of God, the Authority, and in the scene where Lyra and Will (a boy introduced in the second book) reenact the Garden of Eden Scene with the opposite effect: instead of causing Original Sin, they rediscover their Original Blessing.  At least that is what Pullman is aiming for.  And if that is not enough to make the Evangelical and Conservative Christians jumpy, Pullman has said in interviews, “My books are about killing God.” He is also on record for saying “I am trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief.”

If you only watched the movie and not read the books, you would probably wonder what the fuss was all about.  In the movie the evil Magisterium has a ‘church-y’ name and is seen trying to take control of everything.  A few characters make reference to Original Sin that is somehow connected to Dust.  Other than that, there isn’t much in the movie itself for Christians to get upset about.  I think, however, the Christians are right to protest.  Pullman seems to have started with a premise that he will write a children’s story that will attack Christianity – or at least certain aspects, certain theologies of Christian faith.

Characters in Pullman’s book each had a creature that moves with them that is an outward manifestation of their soul. It might be a bird or a big cat, a monkey or an armadillo.  These are called Daemons, (spelled D A E M O N – which is an old variation on ‘Demon’.)  Children’s daemons can change form as they wish.  When they reach puberty the daemon settles into one shape which it keeps for life.  Dust, which is the central concept of the quest: discover where Dust is coming from, the main character (and the reader) is always trying to sort out just what Dust is.  The Magisterium, the evil institution who wants to control everything, claims that Dust is the physical evidence for Original Sin.  In the same way the soul is externally visible, Original Sin is also somehow visible.  Dust doesn’t really stick to children so long as their daemons have not settled – which happens at puberty.  And puberty is the onset of sexuality.  In the later books this becomes the central theological issue.

The good guys, and for that matter – the author, suggest that Dust is not what the Magisterium claim.  Instead they say Dust is the elemental force of consciousness.  Thinking back to the passage I read for the reading, Pullman uses the Garden of Eden myth as a backdrop for his argument.  He would be claiming that what the church calls “the fall” was really a step toward consciousness and full personhood.  Taking the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was not disobedience, (the classic understanding of original sin.)  Instead it was liberation into self-control, into being able to know and choose for yourself what is ultimately good and evil.  I think Pullman’s story is a fine example of what we Unitarians and Universalists did over a hundred years ago.  An example of what Liberal Christians and Liberation Christians have been doing for generations.  If Pullman’s goal was to undermine Christian beliefs I think we must admit he fails – but if it is to boldly critique certain literalist beliefs and authority-based traditions, then perhaps we can say this author has done quite well.

Will any of this deeper level of theology with its message against religious authorities and in favor of free will reach the young reader or movie goer?  Will the positive messages from any of these movies reach the audience?  Perhaps.  Most people will go to the movies to be entertained.  Occasionally a character or a scene will stick in your memory as a fine example of faithful living.  That critical piece is in self-reflection.  I encourage you to be aware of the influences that are offered to you through your entertainment!  Perhaps with critical self-reflection these fantasy films can enhance your faith.  And perhaps the literalists and Magisterium-like structures of religion in our world today will one day be broken of their destructive habits, thus freeing them to honor and serve life rather than yesterday’s set of rules.

In a world without end

May it be so