Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Meaning and Purpose Behind Stories

How Christian are the Harry Potter stories? That's a question that's fueling a lot of post-Deathly Hallows discussion right now, at least among the websites and forums I visit.

D. and I were discussing this issue this past weekend. I've found myself wanting to stay away from some of the discussions, truth be told, in part because I think we can risk becoming too dogmatic in our defense of Harry as "Christian" literature. Do I believe these stories are steeped in Christian imagery and symbols? Yes. Do I think that Rowling has shaped the story around themes that are deeply and importantly Christian? Yes. Do these books, and especially this final book, personally move me on deep spiritual levels? Oh yes.

Do I think that these elements are so blatantly obvious that anyone who misses them (or sees them and tries to brush right by them out of discomfort or frustration) is just being stupid? That's where I'm drawing a line. I think we need to show a little mercy to the people who refuse to see these things in the Harry Potter stories. The fact that they have a hard time hearing and seeing them may, in fact, be testament to the underlying needs of people in our culture.

These are rich and complex stories. Our current culture is story-starved, I think, at least starved for good stories that really echo the true Story. Ms. Rowling has created stories in which people will hear more than they know, imbibe more than they realize. I'm not sure we should try hitting people over the heads by unpacking the "message" in these books, although I do love discussing and unpacking them among others who are eager to see what's there. I just wonder if we shouldn't let sleeping dragons least sometimes. That may be a more effective way to ensure that more people will read, enjoy and experience some deep formation of the heart through their experiences of these stories!

Some of the most basic things Rowling's stories show (show, not tell) are so basic that it would be easy to miss their import. One of the most important things of all might be the simple fact that there is more to this world than material reality. Spiritual reality, unseen reality, exists. We are people with souls, not just minds and bodies. And people with souls are worth loving. They're worth living for and dying for.

That may seem so basic that a lot of people will just skeptically raise their eyebrows and say "so?" But children are growing up not knowing these realities. If a fascinating and wonderful story with characters they love can help point them toward these realities, I for one want to cheer that on. And there are more explicit Christian truths to be mined in these stories as well. But I'm not going to hand a child Harry Potter (or for that matter C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which is far closer to straight allegory) and tell them to read it because it's good for them. I know it's good for them, but I'm going to give them the story knowing it will delight them as a story...and knowing that they will find instruction in the midst of the delight.

How conscious Rowling was of the Christian depth of what she had to say I don't know. It's hard to believe that some of the direction wasn't conscious, because it's so deeply engrained. On the other hand, that very depth could also point to an element of unconsciousness. Sometimes the book actually knows more than the writer, or helps lead the writer into places where they didn't at first intend to go. I think Rowling's recent comments about "struggling to believe" were very honest and also inform what was going on here. I think God was at work in Rowling's writing, not only in helping her to craft stories that will delight and instruct many people in our age, but in helping her to wrestle with and work out her own story, her own coming to terms with grief and death and love and choice and what it means to live in a fallen world between the now and not yet.

And a side note to the whole issue of how faith informed the writing. I find it interesting that some people are displaying a frustration with not knowing exactly how well-planned these books were. People seem to vaciliate between yearning to know all the details of Rowling's fictional world (with an assumption that Rowling knows all the details and can reveal them all if she so chooses) and a skepticism that she doesn't really know all the answers, didn't plan things carefully enough, and might even have contradicted herself in talking about the fictional world she's been writing for the past seventeen years. I think whatever contradictions might exist are perfectly understandable, given the length of her writing process and the complexity of the plot. In fact, months ago I remember writing here on this blog about how encouraged I was to hear that Rowling herself was surprised/saddened by writing in unexpected character deaths. Not that I wanted to see beloved characters die, but it struck me as hopeful that the writing process was still so lively for her that she could be surprised in the midst of it, even though she had repeatedly talked about how firm her ultimate direction was and how carefully she'd plotted. It gave me more confidence, not less, that we could trust the final direction and the ways in which she got there. And I don't think we were disappointed.

Sometimes I think one of the best things Rowling has done in the Harry Potter stories was to give our time and culture a Mirror of Erised, a glass into which we can look and find revealed, sometimes to our astonishment, our own heart's desires. Because I we look eagerly for answers about what happened to beloved characters (how did their lives turn out?) and ask questions about the still puzzling patterns in the less-revealed plots and the motivations of characters whose stories were not fully told, are we asking questions about our own lives as well as about the lives in these stories? Does the yearning to delve deeper into meaning, the longing for certainty that the author knew where the story was going, the hope for consistency to answers about this sub-creation, say something real about us? Might it not reveal a hunger to find meaning in our lives, a fully trustworthy Author behind the meaning, and a lovingly intentioned and crafted purpose behind the creation in which our stories play out?


Erin said...

Oooooh... Absolutely fantastic post, Beth. I think you're definitely right that Rowling has given us a story of a profundity often lacking in today's largely materialistic culture. Stories like this really do shine a light on the important things in life, help us to clear out the clutter in our minds and focus on the basics. Rowling, like Lewis and Tolkien before her, has given us a world that in many ways feels more real than reality because of the ever-present awareness of something greater. And by falling in love with these characters and empathizing with their struggles, I think it has to potential to help all of us, no matter what our background, to become better people, and to exercise that same kind of concern for the real people in our lives.

Beth said...

Thanks, Erin! I'm still wrestling with my thoughts's been good to talk with Dana, but we can only talk so much since he doesn't know the end of the book yet. (We have caved in and continued to read, although we're trying to slow the pace a bit so we can get more sleep. We're moving right along though...I just read him the Gringotts chapter.)

Anyway, as I was saying, I'm still trying to wrestle out what I mean here. I think there is real depth to these stories, and that the Christian themes and shaping are very important and very much there. But I'm not sure that arguing about it with people who persist in saying they're not there is really the way to go, and I've seen some of that happen. And I am most intrigued by what people's fascination with and love of these stories says about their needs, their longings, their story hunger.

I had a professor at seminary who used to refer to Lewis' stories as pre-evangelism. They paved the way, he thought, for the sowing of the seeds of faith later. Maybe that's partly what I'm getting at here, though Rowling has done it very differently than Lewis. These kinds of stories plow the ground of the heart.

janet said...

Absolutely beautiful, Beth. Thank you. Thank you.

....Re: stories as pre-evangelism.... I read this quote at the beginning of a class I teach to aspiring Christian screenwriters (should I say "screenwriters who are Christian) about story choice and development. It's from Eugene Peterson's translation/paraphrase "The Message":

The disciples came up and asked, "Why do you tell stories?" He replied, "You've been given insight into God's kingdom. You know how it works. Not everybody has this gift, this insight; it hasn't been given to them. Whenever someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears. That's why I tell stories: to create readiness, to nudge the people toward receptive insight. In their present state they stare till doomsday and not see it, listen till they're blue in the face and not get it." -Matt. 13:10-13

Beth said...

Oh Janet, thank you! What a wonderful paraphrase from Peterson. There are certain passages in the Message that really leap out at you, and this is definitely one. What an appropriate quote with which to begin a screenwriting class too.

I've been enjoying posts at your site and a few others, but I find I'm just needing to lurk more this time around and think through things a bit more slowly. I love the camaraderie of thinking through things together, but for some reason I'm finding it easier to do that through one-on-one connections than big forums and discussion groups this time around. Rowling has certainly given us much to ponder, both in the final book itself and as we contemplate the series as a whole, her writing process, and how all of that interacts with her faith...and ours.

Kale said...


I wonder if what you are getting at in this whole thing is what Keats calls "negative capability." He mentions it in a letter to a friend:

"....several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature which Shakespeare possessed so enormously -- I mean NEGATIVE CAPABILITY, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason -- "

The poet/writer is not an evangelist. In fact, they tend to be really bad story tellers because they don't trust the medium/story to do what stories do. Most of us Christians can't bear to operate in the midst of mystery (ironically) because we live in an Apologetical Age in which we want above all to be right. JK seems to get that the truth seems to be more mysterious, more paradoxical, less the "irritable reaching" after facts. Besides, as another poet said about his and others work: poems mean more, not less, than poets intend.

Arguing with people about the Christian meaning of HP is futile and probably counter-productive. It's there, to be sure. Let the stories do their thing. After all, every one of us struggles to believe. These stories most certainly help!


PS: hello Jan!

regina doman said...

Well said! I agree: let sleeping dragons lie. I'm already afraid about the backlash against Harry by the secular world if they start to suspect the stories are "too Christian."

Beth said...

Kale, thanks for commenting...I've been musing on your comment for a few days. I hear what you're saying, but I'm not sure it's exactly what I was getting at here. Certainly the best stories invite us into mystery, and certainly the life of faith is, in part, a willingness to live with mystery. But I'm not sure I'm willing to say that evangelists are necessarily not good poets or storytellers. John the evangelist was an amazing poet, and Jesus (the evangel himself!) invited people into the gospel often by telling stories. I wonder if it's we who have turned the notion of evangelism into something overly didactic and unrelated to story.

There's an interesting article over at Christianity Today, posted just a few days ago, that muses a bit more on the idea of how the church need to recapture people's imaginations as we share the gospel. The author ties it all into HP, and it's very well-done and thought-provoking. In case you're interested, here's the link:

Thanks again for commenting. I hadn't thought about Keats in a long time! :-)

Beth said...

Thanks, Regina. I know what you mean...part of the joy and beauty of these stories (and so many others) is how they invite readers to contemplate things gradually, as they're borne along on the tide of the story. I hope we haven't talked HP to death for this generation!