Thursday, July 31, 2008

Happy Birthday, Harry! (And JKR too...)

Yes, it's Harry Potter's birthday today! It's not often that I find myself celebrating the birthdays of literary characters (how often do we even know when a certain character's birthday is?) and yet it's easy to remember Harry's. Not only because it's the same birthday as his famous author, J.K. Rowling, but because Harry's birthdays play such a central role in the opening chapters of the books. In fact, last night I was up late, and as it neared midnight, I found myself wondering if Harry was lying awake somewhere thinking about all of his birthdays, especially that very memorable eleventh one...

In honor of Harry's birthday, I thought I would post a reflection that I first wrote and posted exactly one year ago today. I posted it then on "Re-Reading Harry," a blog that my friend Erin and I had put together in the months leading up to release of Deathly Hallows. It was our place to reflect on and enjoy the books together.

Here's what I was thinking about this time last year, having finished my first read-through of DH. I was working on a second read-through (aloud, with my hubby) when I wrote this. It sums up at least some of the ways that I see Christian imagery and themes permeating the novel.

Harry's Walk Toward Death

My favorite image of Harry, and one that I’ve repeated over and over, is that he has been, all along "a beloved son worth dying for." That idea really colored my reading of Deathly Hallows.

It would be so easy to see Harry as the Christ figure of DH, and in many ways, with his sacrificial, surrendered walk toward death (with all the evil figures jeering and taunting him, so reminiscent of Aslan padding to the stone table) I think we are supposed to view him in that light. But it’s not a neat one-to-one kind of comparison. Harry is a type or symbol of Christ here, much in the way that each of us as Christians ("little Christs") is supposed to be. I think the deeper way to read this scene is to realize that Harry is still what he’s always been most deeply throughout the books: Every Man.

The verse that kept coming to mind for me is this one: "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live..." I also thought of Bonhoeffer’s quote "When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die."

Harry is bid to "come and die," to give up his life. That he is ready to do so, and willingly puts himself in the place of sacrifice for those he loves, shows us how much he has learned from his mother. He has her eyes, and all along I’ve wondered, as I know so many others have too, if that did not mean he also had her willingness to die for others. It turns out he does. He sees that parallel too. When he’s talking to Riddle as they circle each other in the great hall, he tells Riddle that he’s just done for all of his loved ones what his mother did for him. He sees his sacrifice in that mold, that light.

What fascinates me and makes me realize that Harry is still "Every Man," a picture of a soul that is growing in holiness and sanctification (there’s that alchemical nod) is that it’s not Harry’s willingness to die that *saves Harry.* He is able to walk up to death (with the help and encouragement of his cloud of witnesses, the loved ones who have gone before him) and he is able to take death and essentially go through it and come out on the other side, because the ancient magic, the grace, the power of his mother’s blood refuge is STILL operating. I know we’re told that protection ceases when he comes of age and leaves his aunt’s house. But because that blood still runs in Voldemort’s veins (life running in the midst of death! darkness not being able to overcome it!) that protection is still kept alive. And so Harry lives. Dumbledore tells him that Voldemort's use of that blood tethers Harry to life. What a fascinating phrase. He is still dependent on someone else’s sacrifice (and it strikes me this makes Lily, not Harry or Dumbledore, the key Christ figure in the books).

Harry is healed by what he goes through there in the forest and in King’s Cross, especially when Voldemort’s curse seems to cast out/kill the evil bit of Voldemort that had attached itself to Harry all those years before. Or am I reading that aright? (I'm not sure if the twisted baby in King's Cross is supposed to be that bit of Voldemort that had lived in Harry, or is a picture of what Voldemort will be left as for eternity because of the choices he's made. Hard to know.) It's hard to understand fully what happened there, but it certainly seems as though evil/sin has been cast out of Harry, or that he has been, in a sense, healed of what almost amounts to demonic possession or at least oppression. That too seems to point to Harry as an every man figure.

I love that it was King’s Cross where he has the final big talk with Dumbledore: a train station, a journeying place, and the one that Harry has always known as a "liminal" place (a door between the muggle world and the wizarding world, and now a door into an even more real world than either of the other two). I suspect a lot of us had Lewis on our minds as Harry walked through the forest to meet his death, and King’s Cross reminded me of Lewis too – both the "Wood Between the Worlds" and also the train station in Prince Caspian where the kids are called back to Narnia.

I don’t think we’re to miss the sacrificial almost crucifixion like aspect of what Harry has just gone through. When he comes back to life and wakes on the forest floor, Narcissa’s nails pierce him. If I’m not mistaken, her nails were even described as blood red in an earlier book.

And I love how he emerges from the forest almost re-born, a new man, a new creature. When Hagrid carries him, weeping, in his arms, I think we’re supposed to think about the first time Hagrid carried Harry out of the wreckage of his parents’ house when he was just a baby. Unbeknownst to Hagrid, Harry has survived yet another killing curse. And he is still as dependent as a baby on outside help and grace. I think that’s one reason I love Harry’s character so much. He is a "savior" figure, a hero, but he is enabled to do what he does, to respond to his call, only because he himself is saved by a love deeper and more ancient than his own. His own sacrifice, his own ability to love, his own overcoming of temptations...all of them are born as a response to the love that is first shown to him.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Belated Literary Birthday: Beatrix Potter (July 28)

If you saw Google's homepage on Monday, you likely noticed it was decorated with a clever rendition of Mr. McGregor and Peter Rabbit. That's because Monday, July 28, marked the birthday of Beatrix Potter. She was born in 1866 and died in 1943. And among other remarkable achievements, she gave the world "a bunny book to conjure with."

That last is one of my favorite quotes from the lovely 2006 film Miss Potter. Part biography and part romance, it's the story of Beatrix's life and art. It gives special attention to the publication of her first book Peter Rabbit, the "bunny book" that publisher Norman Warne realized contained such wonderful promise and beauty. I love that at the same time he was falling in love with the book, he was recognizing similar things about the promise and beauty of the woman who had written and illustrated it.

Peter Rabbit is, of course, a true classic. Not just a children's classic, but a classic book in the English language period. I loved Peter when I was little, and am delighted that my daughter does too.

We celebrated on Monday by spending some time doing an online Peter Rabbit puzzle here. The puzzle is actually from a very fun website called jigzone. Whatever pizzle you choose, you can also choose the level of difficulty and "re-shuffle" the pieces of a new puzzle cut at any time. The sweet girl worked on the 6 piece "classic cut" and the 12-piece zig-zag, while I attempted the (harder than it looks) 16-piece block cut and the more relaxing 20-piece classic cut.

And also has a terrific page of fun and games related to Peter Rabbit. Coloring pages, dot to dots, word searches, e-cards and other fun activities, related to Peter and other Beatrix Potter characters (Jeremy Fisher, Jemima Puddleduck, Benjamin Bunny...) can be found there.

We're in a bit of a summer doldrum here: summer heat, no trip to grandparents in sight, arts camp over and Vacation Bible School still three weeks away (though since D is in charge of that, we've lots to do for it!) and me struggling with not feeling particularly well. Having a day to celebrate Beatrix Potter and her books was a great thing for us. I keep meaning to establish a literary celebration calendar so I can remember these dates from year to year. Next year, I'd love to celebrate with a homemade carrot cake...this year all we managed was some fresh carrots!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

I Wonder If They Have High-Speed Access...

Last night we were reading Anne Rockwell's Becoming Butterflies as a bedtime story. The sweet girl has been loving this book, which contains a very clear description of metamorphosis.

I confess I was zoning a bit toward the end. It had been a long day and I was tired. I've been battling a sore throat, a recurring ear problem, and somehow strained my ankle yesterday and had to strap it so I could walk around with major limping.

There's a long "author's note" at the back of the book, which of course we're not allowed to skip. :-) I was reading through it on automatic pilot, especially the paragraphs that talk about where you can go to find out more information about monarch butterflies. Picture me reading along, trying to keep my voice bright and energetic:

"The California Monarch, however, doesn't migrate to Mexico, because the weather doesn't turn too cold for it to survive. A Web site that tells a great deal more about Monarchs is: or you can E-Mail them at --"

The sweet girl suddenly perked up, like a puppy cocking her head.

"How," she said with wonder, "do you E-MAIL MONARCHS?"

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

More Evenings Like This

This is the sight that greeted us last Friday evening, right at the start of our long weekend in Erie. Our mini-vacation felt like it passed all too quickly, but I'm so grateful we had it -- it was most needed.

We didn't feel ready to leave the slow and steady rhythms of wind and waves. I think we would have all relished many more days of rest and beauty.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Planet Narnia Review

I don't usually rush to put up links to my own review, but I loved Michael Ward's book Planet Narnia. And rather repeat all the whys and wherefores here (though I may yet still reflect further or provide a few tantalizing quotes) I thought I would just go ahead and post the link here to my review at Epinions.

Any thoughts and comments appreciated...I'm eager to discuss this book!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

First Journal

I used to be a prolific journal-keeper. In the past several years, although I do still keep a journal, I write in it much more sporadically.

But I've been missing private journal keeping. It's always been a soul-nourishing activity for me, and this summer I decided to try to get back to making it a regular habit. A few weeks ago I purchased a brand new notebook and I've been delighting in writing in it more often.

It hadn't dawned on me how closely my daughter was watching, both when I purchased the journal and as she began to see me tote it around each day. When I bought it, we had a conversation about what a journal is, and I more or less explained that it was a place where you could write about your thoughts and feelings and the things you do each day. She seemed intrigued.

Several days ago she began making casual comments about "her journal." Things like: "I stayed up till 2 in the morning writing in my journal!" (hmmm...where did she get that one, I wonder?) and "I need to remember what we did today so I can write it in my journal." Always after these comments, she would look somewhat self-conscious and add "I'm only teasing" or "I'm just kidding...I don't really have a journal," or sometimes "Maybe one day when I'm older and can write better I can keep a journal."

And then it dawned on me how foolish it was not to seize this lovely creative and reflective moment. Who cares that her letters are sometimes still tipsy and she sometimes writes them backwards? Who ever said that you have years of writing practice behind you to keep a journal? I remembered that in my own more creative years of journal-keeping, I would sketch, jot words I liked, paste pictures from magazines, and slide snipped quotes inside the pages. Couldn't the sweet girl begin to keep her own kind of journal?

So I asked her if she wanted one. I explained what I just a journal could be a creative place for her, even if she didn't write much in it yet, though of course she could use it for writing too. I called it a "special notebook."

And when we went to the store this past weekend, we headed down the notebook aisle and stood in front of a vast array and she chose one. I found myself guiding her toward smaller notebooks (she liked that) but the first one or two I picked up and suggested she didn't take much interest in. Her eyes lit up when she saw a little notebook with a purple spiral and colorful dots on the cover. It even had a little cardboard pocket on the inside cover. "I like this one!" she said, and I knew right away that it was her first journal. I should have remembered how important it feels for me to choose my own notebook, and how certain notebooks for certain seasons of my life just "feel right."

So that's the one we got. And yesterday, she asked me to please write down the day and date so she could copy those words onto the first page of her journal. I suggested she put her name on the front inside flap. She did all that, and then spent half an hour happily drawing pictures with colored pencils inside her own special little notebook. She wants to keep her journal near mine.

What a lovely unexpected summer gift: my little girl has become a journal-keeper!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Icky Bugs

A few weeks ago we were at a library story hour. The group of kids just happened to consist of all girls that day. When the librarian asked, "who likes insects?" there were some squeals and "ewws!" and "not me's!" And then of course my daughter piped up with an enthusiastic "I do!"

Having a little girl who loves creepy crawly insects is, I think, a direct result of God's gentle sense of humor. He seems to delight in reminding me of the goodness of his creation, even the parts of his creation that have made my skin crawl for years. I went through a period of time (when I was much older than the sweet girl is now) where I took some active, academic interest in learning more about "bugs" -- and certainly I found some insects fascinating when I was younger and spending hours in my backyard. But I've never been too enamored of them overall and I've had a real phobia about spiders since I was about six (just ask my sisters).

But my kid is insect crazy. Maybe because she DOESN'T have a yard, and we have to do on insect watching when and where we can (I almost said "on the fly" -- ouch!) or maybe because we've tried to cultivate a love of carefully looking at things. Who knows why. Maybe it really is just part of who God made her to be. She's always loved tiny things.

Her favorite book at present, the one she's begging for repeated readings of, is Jerry Pallotta's The Icky Bug Counting Book. The only part of it she didn't really understand or like at first was the title. Why did they call these cool bugs icky? She's finally come around to the concession that some of them may be a little "icky" -- like the stinkbugs and the blister beetles, for instance.

Last night's dinnertime conversation was punctuated by her frequent forays into facts she's learned from this book. "What have YOU learned from the Icky Bug Counting Book?" she kept asking me and her Daddy too. I thought about making insect-talk off-limits at the table, but it's difficult because we encourage family talk about the things we really enjoy or have been doing/thinking about during the day. If she was really try to bring up gross topics, that would be one thing, but it's hard to nip joy in the bud when it's clear that she finds this stuff utterly fascinating and not at all gross. "I think they use parts of blister beetles to make medicines for people," she said earnestly last night. So last night we decided to grin and bear it and joined in with her enthusiasm, sharing about things we'd all learned from the book. (Did YOU know that pillbugs are actually crustaceans, not insects?)

Of course, when bedtime rolled around with its nightly "what shall we read?" question, there she was, all hopeful, Icky Bug book in tow. I've borne the brunt of the re-readings lately, so I pulled her Daddy aside in the hallway outside her room and asked him, in a low voice, if he'd mind pulling Icky Bug duty tonight. "Sure," he replied cheerfully. At which point I hugged him and exclaimed "Have I told you how much I love you lately?" "How much?" he teased. "I love you more than all the army ants in all the world."

That's a lot of love. And not at all icky!

Monday, July 07, 2008

Planet Narnia and Radical Orthodoxy

I'm two chapters from the end of Michael Ward's groundbreaking Planet Narnia, alternately wishing to gobble up the remaining pages and turning them extra slowly to try to make the enjoyment last just a little bit longer. But I can't turn them too slowly...I've got less than two weeks left before it's due back on inter-library-loan!

Reading a book like Ward's makes me wish I was a lot smarter than I am so I could say beautiful and erudite things about his thesis. I don't pretend to understand every fine point of his scholarly argument -- that would mean I understood medieval cosmology (not to mention Spenser, Milton, Shakespeare, and Donne) a lot better than I actually do. The fact that I have grasped as much of it as I have is, I think, a testament to the beauty and cohesiveness of his argument, much more than to any of my feeble attempts to unpack it fully. It's also probably due to the fact that I've inhabited the Narnia stories as long as I have.

I use the word "inhabited" consciously. I've begun to realize that there have been certain books and authors in my life whom I’ve read so often (usually though not always beginning in childhood) that I’ve absorbed their fictional worlds as a sponge soaks in water. You can’t tell where such stories begin and your own stories end, or vice versa, they’re just a part of who you are and they affect the way you see and process the world. Inhabiting such stories is a great joy. They become part of the inner landscape of your heart.

And since Narnia has been part of my inner landscape since I was about ten, I think there’s a good reason why I feel like I can drink deeply from a beautiful book like Ward’s, even though I’m not a trained literary scholar or critic. I’m grateful for the chance to breathe in the delicious and beautiful parts of Ward’s book that I do understand on a deep heart level, and the parts that challenge me are just that – parts that challenge me to go deeper. Among other things, he has almost convinced me that I am ready to tackle Lewis’ book The Discarded Image.

I hope to write more another time about why I feel his argument is so pervasive (and it has to do, in part, with its beauty and cohesiveness) but for now wanted to mention a subsidiary path my mind has taken while reading this book. By happy “coincidence,” I’m also reading the book Heresies and How to Avoid Them: Why It Matters What Christians Believe. This is a collection of essays (which mostly began life as sermons) which happens to be edited by Ben Quash and Michael Ward. I actually stumbled upon the book while doing a library catalog search on Planet Narnia.

Since Ward is one of the editors of the collection, perhaps it’s not surprising that I’m finding some synchronicity in the two books, although they’d appear to have very little in common other than his name on the cover. What struck me anew the other day, as I was going back and forth between them, is just how radical orthodoxy is.

That may sound strange, but I don’t often think about it. The orthodox (classical, historic, creedal) Christian vision is such a deep, deep part of my inner landscape (“by it I see everything else” as Lewis once wrote of Christianity) that I don’t often spend much time reflecting on what it “looks like” or “feels like.” But it is radical, usually far more so than any of the alternative visions we try to come up with on our own, even or especially those that are somehow a watered down or distorted version of the real thing.

As Ben Quash says, charitably and clearly, in the prologue to the Heresies book:

"...just as what we call dirt is often something capable of being useful except for the unfortunate fact that it has turned up in the wrong place – and just as what a mother calls mud on her child’s sports kit while reaching for the washing powder is something a gardener would call soil and grow things in – so heresies often had some good points to make. The problem is they didn’t always do so in the right way or in an appropriate context. Or in a good number of fascinating cases…they just didn’t go far enough. Heretics have often been shy of the full radicalness of orthodox Christianity...all of the first three authors in the book use words like ‘radical,’ ‘amazing’ and ‘shocking’ – and use them of orthodoxy not of heresy. This puts paid to any idea that orthodox belief is some sort of easy way out of intellectual hard work; heresy is more often the easier option."

This rings true. Why are we so surprised, I wonder, at the delightful radicalness of God? And why do we ever think we can “out-wild” the One who made the wild, who called his people through a wilderness?

These thoughts all meshed together for me as I continued to read Planet Narnia. One of the things Ward does so well is to show how many of the supposedly "controversial" issues in Lewis (such as death and sexuality, just to name two) cease to look all that problematic if one is viewing the Chronicles through the lens he proffers. If Lewis really did seek, as Ward persuasively argues he did, to soak each Chronicle in the atmosphere, characteristics and virtues assigned respectively to the seven planets in medieval and renaissance literature – well then, some of the creative and imagistic choices he makes in each book become much clearer and look far more purposeful. This is a relief to all of us who have responded intuitively for years to what feels like a radical, beautiful, cohesive Christian vision in these books, despite the fact that some through the years have charged Lewis with “haphazard” or sloppy creative process. Small wonder that the books continue to speak to so many minds and hearts, preparing people on all sorts of levels to understand (recognize/desire/long for) a God-soaked and God-loved world.

And small wonder that some critics like Pullman, steeped in a worldview diametrically opposed to the Christian worldview, cannot see the forest for the trees when he tries to make his way through Narnia. He hammers away at the parts of Lewis that he sees as anti-life or anti-sexuality, and then Ward comes along and shows the depths and layers of symbolic and imaginative richness that open those scenes up anew and show that they actually pulsate with a far deeper, and yes far more radical embrace of life, and a far more radical rejoicing in embodiment, fruitfulness, and love than a materialistic anti-gospel could ever account for or possibly embrace.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Reading Round-Up: Beginning of Summer Edition

I'm reading some really good books that I hope to post about in the coming week or two, but I thought the official beginning of summer (well, okay, that was a couple of weeks ago...) seemed like a good time to post another reading round-up.

So here's what I've read in the past few months. I'll try to categorize like I did last time. Any links are to my reviews at Epinions.

Church "History"

Anglican Communion in Crisis: How Episcopal Dissidents and Their African Allies are Reshaping Anglicanism, by Miranda K. Hassett

This excellent book will need to be revised and expanded soon, given the current state of flux and all the changes happening in the Communion. As one of the so-called "Episcopal Dissidents" she names in the title, I was very interested to read this book. Ms. Hassett is an anthropologist, and though theologically a self-confessed liberal-leaning Episcopalian, her book is a remarkably evenhanded look at the past decade as Anglicanism has begun to consciously identify itself as a global movement. So much I could say about this book: I especially found her reflections on globalization insightful (she very helpfully differentiates between the two global visions of conservative and progressive Anglicans: accountability globalism and diversity globalism). How have global relationships changed the way we look at one another, and how do those relationships continue to play out and challenge us on all sorts of levels? The only really major missing "chunk" for me in this otherwise terrific book was a deeper level of theological reflection. It's hard to see how one can discuss complex relationships within the church and across cultural divides and not spend time reflecting on the Biblical vision of unity and the church as "one body with many members."


A Walk With Jane Austen: A Journey Into Adventure, Love and Faith, by Lori Smith

I think my expectations for this book were just too high. It didn't engage me on the heart level I thought it would. Nonetheless, worth reading if you're a Christian woman who loves Austen's work.

Home: A Memoir of My Early Years, by Julie Andrews

I don't often read "celebrity" biography, but this autobiography of one of my favorite actress/singers caught my eye at the library. I checked it out thinking I'd enjoy the pictures if nothing else, then started reading and could hardly put it down. Andrews writes the way she speaks: elegantly, intelligently, and with a gentle sense of humor. Especially interesting for the picture she paints about her war-time childhood, though her anecdotes about working with Rex Harrison are also great!


Old Friends and New Fancies: An Imaginary Sequel to the Novels of Jane Austen, by Sybil G. Brinton

The grandmother of all Austen sequels! Published in 1913, a mere one hundred years after Austen published Pride and Prejudice, it's also the only book that author Sybil Brinton apparently ever wrote (or at least saw published). She was clearly way ahead of the trend on this one. And it was surprisingly good read: she "got Austen" far better than most of the current-day sequel-izers.

The Joys of Love, by Madeleine L'Engle

What a joy to hold a "new" L'Engle novel in my hand. She actually wrote it early in her career but it was never published. Not terrifically strong on its own, but a delight for long-time fans and an interesting addition to the canon of her early work. Especially poignant to read it in light of her recent passing; it drew so deeply on her youth in the 1940s theater.

Carrot Cake Murder, by Joanne Fluke

10th in the series. This is the kind of fluff that makes me long for the beach even more than I already am. Fluke is completely a formula writer, but what a fun formula! And I think I gained weight just reading the recipes.

Children's Classics
By "classics" here I really mean "old" (though some will have achieved classic status, or at least beloved author status). I'm attempting to catch up on some children's books I've been meaning to read for a while.

Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
The Racketty-Packetty House by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (The sweet girl and I did this one together as a read-aloud...I think I read it years ago, but had forgotten much of it. Liked it better than we expected!)

Mid-Grade/Young Adult Fiction
I seem to have "sequelitis" at present...

The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, by Jeanne Birdsall

What fun to visit the Penderwicks again. I hope Birdsall plans many more books about this delightful family!

The Calder Game, by Blue Balliett

Balliett's quirky juvenile mystery series continues...always fascinating to see how she approaches the interplay of language, life and art.