Year Three Done With

Finished Azkaban today. Another great book, entertaining read. I ordered the next two, along with A Charmed Life, from Amazon the other day. I didn’t realize I’d finish the third book so fast. (I got a lot of reading in since someone didn’t bother calling me last night…)

lghp.jpgI found another book about the Potter books called Looking for God in Harry Potter. Both the title and the fact that the author homeschools his seven children really gave me pause, but apparently he’s pretty bright and, according to the Publishers Weekly review on Amazon, he “transcends the responses of some other Christian writers.” And y’all know I’m all about transcending!

Harry Potter To-Read List

Well, I’m deep into Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, a great read so far, of course. I went to Amazon to purchase the remaining two books (a lot cheaper than my beloved local bookstore, Ventura’s very own Barnes & Noble) and ended up buying, along with them, a companion book I thought looked interesting. If any of you have ever been insane enough to even try to look through my Amazon wishlist (it has 712 items in it, as of this afternoon), you may have seen that I’ve had several books about the Potter series on it for a while. Some of them might actually be worth looking at. I probably won’t read any of them until I’ve read all of the Harry Potter books currently available. Anyway, I thought it’d be cool to make a little list here. So, here it is:

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The Wisdom of Harry Potter: What Our Favorite Hero Teaches Us About Moral Choices

This looks to be one of the more interesting books. From the description, it appears that Kern identifies Harry and his handling of moral issues with the Stoic tradition. I could see that… Of course, Christianity has much in common with Stoicism, but also many differences. This is one I’ll definitely be getting at some point.

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The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter: Perspectives on a Literary Phenomenon

An anthology of essays by literary critics. Some of the reviewers didn’t like it as much, citing misconceptions or inaccuracies about the stories in some of the essays.

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Reading Harry Potter : Critical Essays (Contributions to the Study of Popular Culture)

Now this book I almost bought today, but then I saw the price. Yikes! I definitely want to get this book, though. Looks like it’s pretty good. Another collection of literary criticism. From what I can gather from the various reviews, many of the questions I have had are discussed in the essays in this book.

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The Irresistible Rise of Harry Potter

Now this book looks interesting. It seems to be focused on why Rowling’s books have been so successful, and seems to come up with some kind of politico-socio-economic explanation, having to do with an angst-ridden electorate. I don’t know, seems a little crass and whoever wrote the review was actually a little insulting. Here’s the first line though; a little doomsdayish, but it gets you thinking: “As the British state begins to unravel, and journalists compete to pronounce on the death of Britain, a schoolboy from suburban Surrey who lives for most of the year in a semi-parallel universe becomes the most popular figure in contemporary world literature.”

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The Gospel According to Harry Potter: Spirituality in the Stories of the World’s Most Famous Seeker

This one, I don’t know… It’s a response, it seems, to the conservative Christian attacks on the books and their author. The impression I get though, is that Neal might be playing to that group too much. Some of the examples of parallels in the books to Christianity given in the review seemed pretty weak. And some of the reviewers indicated there were more like it in the book. We’ll see, maybe…

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A Charmed Life: The Spirituality of Potterworld

Now this book seems to be more to my liking. Bridger is a pastor and a theologian at Trinity College. I’m guessing he’s an Anglican, because an Anglican pastor would seem to me to be one to write a book defending Rowling’s books for some reason. So, depending on what kind of Anglican he is, this book could be really good or really bad. Most of the reviews are positive and very well written, except for one. It reflects both an ignorant and malevolent view of religion, but also a dullard’s view of literature. Here it is; go vote and say it wasn’t helpful (haha):

Once again Religion pokes its nose into places that it does not belong.

Who cares if these books have the blessing of anything or anyone. They are entertaining and fictional. They are nothing more words on paper.

It’s very sad to see that there are folks out there that must label everything.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Two Years Down

Well, I’ve just finished Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and I’ll post a few thoughts so far. My plan is to have something more thorough once I’ve read all five of the books published thus far (uh oh… starting to write like Rowling! can’t… stop… repeating… things!). After reading the first two, my initial impressions about the stories have pretty much been confirmed. I’m not surprised at this, because the movies seem to follow the books pretty closely.

First of all, the books are pretty well-written and the stories entertaining. They’re the kind of books you don’t like to put down and can’t wait for the next opportunity to pick up again. This feeling, for me was even more pronounced as I read the second one, as opposed to the first. What’s funny about this is that I pretty much knew what was going to happen, as I had already seen the movies. It just goes to show that a good author can keep his or her reader entertained, simply by telling the story.

In our society today, there seem to be too few legends or stories that we just enjoy encountering, again and again. I think those kinds of stories are so engrossing and enduring because they communicate things about us, and the Harry Potter stories definitely have some of that as well.

The reason why literature is so important is that it preserves and communicates information about us, regardless of it being fact or fiction. This transmission of humanity’s self-image is so fundamental, so low-level, that it is often not even noticed on the conscious level of an average receiver of this knowledge.

hpss.jpgLiterature is not only important, however. It is also very powerful. The power of the story and the power of the one who tells it cannot be understated. Just think about it. How do we know anything about anything? In order to have any knowledge, we are communicated information about everything we do not directly experience (even our own experiences can be manipulated without our knowledge, but I won’t get into that). Everything we think we know about who we are, as humans, as members of whatever nation to which we belong, of members of our community, of brothers or sisters or mothers or fathers or lovers, even as individuals, is highly affected by the stories we are given.

This power is not existent in only the stories having explicitly to do with ourselves or our own communities. All stories we encounter have the potential to add to our own story, and I’d wager that the more we resonate with a story for whatever reason, the greater the potential there is for that story to affect us.

I will talk more about this once I’ve finished the reading, because this is where all of my questions begin. Because the books are probably aimed primarily at an audience around the same age as their protagonists, the messages they convey, I believe, should be closely scrutinized. Harry, Ron, and Hermione are not adults, even by the fifth book. Yes, of course this is obvious, we say, and yet we don’t mind children of the same age reading many things that perhaps we should be a little more careful with, as if their minds are able to handle ideas critically, like an adult mind should.

I stress “should” because most people, regardless of their age, are not critical handlers of the data that enters their brains. As I have said to many people, modern first-world society has become a consumer society. That’s not a new idea, but something I think is a relatively new development is that that consumerism has spread from the traditional realm of physical objects to that of information. With so many advanced forms of communication, the internet chief among them, people have become information gluttons, consuming, often indiscriminately, any and all information they can “get their hands on.”

The point of my bringing this up is that many do not handle information with care, do not look at what the molder of their information might be communicating in reality. Children do not do this because they have not learned to. That is why it is important that those who watch over children (parents, teachers, relatives, etc…) are providing that critical thinking in their stead. As I have said, stories are powerful; children will be most affected of all by stories because they don’t have much of that “critical lens.”

With all that said, and having touched on the good points of Rowling’s books, and again acknowledging my own fandom of the Potter oeuvre, there are remaining naggings in my mind about what is actually being communicated to the children who read these books and to others who have not bothered to read them critically. There are what I call “meta-messages” in every story, messages not explicitly declared, but conveyed nonetheless. Some of those in the Harry Potter books I find suspect.

One meta-message that sticks out to me is the message that authority figures are not on your side, unless of course you have broken a rule and they decide that you were right or justified in doing so. Again and again, in fact so many times that the book almost seems self-aware of the fact by the time we reach Chamber of Secrets, Harry and his crew break rule after rule. Most of the broken rules are not insubstantial, either. The rules are often imposed upon the students of Hogwarts in order to protect them from the latest danger, but of course, these rules often get in the way of Harry taking out the bad guy (or going out to visit his friend Hagrid, depending on the day). There is, of course, a very significant reason the author has her protagonists break so many darn rules — it’s so fun to read about! Especially if you are in school yourself!

I don’t want to say that there isn’t a place for rule-breaking heroes in literature, there is of course, but I wonder about the messages we are sending to kids, especially after several stories about successful rule-breaking. What got me thinking about this most recently, and what I mentioned to Isaac, was the scene in the movie rendition of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban where Harry makes his way to the Leaky Cauldron and must meet with a minister of magic. Harry, of course, is frightened because he has used magic outside of school. (This is classic Rowling, I might add. The character breaks a major rule, is called into the office of an authority figure, is scared out of his or her wits that he or she will be punished, and then…) Nothing happens. The minister is simply glad Harry is safe. Of course, Harry must not break that rule again, but it’s not like he’s going to be sent to Azkaban for doing so! Don’t be silly!

hpcs.jpgContinuing and reinforcing this message are a couple characters I want to briefly mention: Severus Snape and Gilderoy Lockhart, both professors at Hogwarts. Snape gives Harry, right from the get-go, the impression that he dislikes him very much. He is apparently very unfair to Harry, watching closely for any little mistake he might make so that he can punish him. One thing I loved about Sorcerer’s Stone was that this impression that Snape was out to get him was somewhat repudiated when the protagonists discover that Snape had not been the one who was trying to knock Harry of his broom in the middle of a Quidditch match with a curse, but was actually trying to protect him with a counter-curse. I really liked that, because it beautifully illustrated that appearances and initial judgments about people are sometimes way off the mark. I was disappointed to find, a few pages later, that Snape does indeed hate Harry, but he would never want to kill him. Snape is a character I am intrigued to follow further, though. He seems so mean and scary, but every once in a while there is an aspect of him that surprises both Harry and the reader.

Lockhart, however, is another story. He is a total fake who manages to land a teaching job at Hogwarts, and of course Harry and Ron see right through him immediately. Hermione, coincidentally the one who is concerned with keeping the rules and doing well in school, is of course totally hoodwinked by this charlatan and seems to even have a crush on him. He ends up being a total liar and even a bit of a bad guy at the end of Chamber of Secrets. One disturbing thing about him is that he does seem to try to be friendly or helpful to Harry, but of course Harry and the reader know that Harry is probably a better wizard and Lockhart is just bullshitting anyway.

What we come away with from this is that most authority figures cannot be trusted, even if they say they want to help you, and they have their own agendas they are trying to see to anyway. The other two authority figures worth looking at are Albus Dumbledor and Minerva McGonagall. They are, for the most part, positive authority figures (at least so far…), but might still be contributing to the problems I have already mentioned. I will leave them for later, though.

Another issue worth looking at is lying. There’s a lot of it! And it’s so automatic and often necessary. Why is there so much?

The last one I want to mention here is actually not one I had really picked up watching the movies, but one that is very apparent in the books. It is the goodness of the main character, Harry Potter. The author often portrays him as having admirable feelings, thoughts, or intentions. These, however, are often not actualized. The example that struck me the most was when Harry was accompanied by the Weasleys (Ron’s very large and financially strained family sending yet another child to school) to Diagon Alley in Chamber of Secrets. They go to the Weasley’s vault at Gringotts, in which, to Harry’s utter unease, they find a small pile of silver coins and one gold one. All of this must be withdrawn in order to get all the kids (including Ginny, the newest of the siblings to Hogwarts) their needed books and supplies. Why is Harry so uncomfortable? Because they must go to his vault next, which is filled with gold left to him by his parents. Harry feels very bad for the family, and very embarrassed that they should see how much money he has. He obviously isn’t one who would flaunt his wealth. But is that enough? Why not have Harry buy all of the children their Hogwarts matériel? He does buy his two friends ice cream cones later on in the chapter, but why? I know this might be nitpicking a little bit, but why do we make our hero one who cannot act on his charitable compulsions? There are other noble or wise thoughts that enter Harry’s mind and are similarly neglected. Are we telling children that they are good people if they merely feel bad for someone less fortunate than they? That’s not what the poor or oppressed need. We all know what the road to hell is paved with… or do we anymore??

A Quest to Hogwarts Embarked Upon

hpss.gifAn interesting conversation with my good pal, Isaac Hsieh, the other night has inspired me to actually, and finally, pick up the first of Rowling’s Harry Potter books, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

I’ve been meaning to read the books for some time for several reasons. First, because it has become a cultural phenomenon that anyone who keeps up on such things could ill afford to ignore.

Second, because of its cultural power, it has become something the Church has had to address, in my view, as a matter of relevance. What does the Church do with this story? There have been several differing answers, and now I am going to try to give my own.

Third, I’ve seen the three movie adaptations thus far released and have enjoyed them, so I do find the stories entertaining and intriguing.

And fourth, which is what my conversation with Isaac ended up centering on, I sense things about this book at which I want to look more closely. Some of the meta-messages, if you will, of the movies (which I hear, for the most part, are pretty faithful to the essence of the books) strike me as messages of which Christians in particular should be aware, especially if they are going to allow their children to watch them or to read the books.

And here I am not necessarily referring to the use of occultist ideas, etc. (I will of course be looking at those, too.) The main thing that has stricken me is the consistent undermining of traditional authority, even when it is attempting to look out for the best interests of the protagonists. I just wonder if this is something a writer should repeatedly present to children.

I’m not getting too detailed about what I think about these books. I have merely begun my investigation. Isaac accuses me of thinking too much about these stories, or reading into them too much. What I am wanting to do, though, is not just try to figure out what the story is all about. I am trying to understand a major cultural force at work today, especially among the youth, but of course not just among them. People, especially Christians, should be very aware, very conscious or awake, when it comes to those forces that shape culture.

To dismiss Rowling’s works as evil without a second thought or to embrace them blindly as God’s literary gift to this generation and salvation from the video mindset (and therefore, to be utterly accepted and promoted) is to go too far either way. I want to find where that middle is. If any of you readers have something to say about these things, post away. I’m reading…