Monday, January 4, 2016

Truth, Mystery, the Bible, and... Harry Potter?

          Happy New Year! I wasn't planning on writing this week, but I had a bit of time and thought I'd write something before I get off the grid for awhile. I've been doing some thinking lately about the concept of the truth of Scripture and how best to approach that topic. As I mentioned last week, there is a difference between Truth and fact, particularly when it comes to the Bible. This can be a tricky concept for our post-modern, western minds to wrap around. In fact, many of the questions I receive about the Scriptures directly or indirectly pertain to this topic. In light of this, I couldn't help but muse about literature in general, and specifically (because I was watching some of the movies over the holidays) the Harry Potter novels. Given this theme, today's post probably won't be the most scholarly, but that's also because I didn't have time to do a lot of research through commentaries and textbooks either. But why not start off the new year with a lighter fare anyway?

            Whenever we think about something we know to be true, we usually think of that which can be measured and proven. For example, we know it's true that the earth revolves around the sun. We can observe that, measure it, and prove it scientifically. But other kinds of truth cannot be measured. I believe it is true that every single human person has innate dignity. Yet we can't measure this, and we can't prove it, because dignity is not something we can necessarily observe and evaluate with our five senses. Likewise, things such as goodness, love, beauty, suffering, evil, and salvation, are not quantifiable, but that doesn't mean we deny their existence. God himself is not measurable (or gendered, so forgive my use of the masculine pronoun), and frankly, I wouldn't want much to do with a god who could be scientifically proven anyway. That is where faith steps in, because ultimately it takes a leap of faith to have belief in and a relationship with some reality that is so beyond conclusive evidence.
            All of these kinds of realities – God, love, goodness, evil, suffering, etc. – are mysteries, which isn't to say they are mysteriously unknowable but that they are infinitely knowable. We can never exhaust our exploration and knowledge of mysteries and the ultimate truths of the universe. No matter how much we come to discover about them we will always find ourselves digging for more. (For the record, I cannot take credit for the concept that a mystery is something that is infinitely knowable. I heard it at a retreat from a woman who was quoting a deceased friar, Howard Hansen, and I don't know whether it was original to him or if he got it from somewhere else. Either way, he made an excellent point.)

            Now, just because God and love, and goodness, and suffering, and all the like are not measurable, provable categories, that does not mean that they aren't communicated and revealed to us. Love is not something we can look at under a microscope, but we can experience physical signs and manifestations of love: a warm embrace, a kiss, generous giving, actions of self-sacrifice. Similarly, the word of God in Scripture – and ultimately the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ – makes known to us the mystery of who God is. Just as an aside, this is also the way sacraments function. They are visible signs that point to and make manifest God's invisible grace. Even beyond the seven sacraments of the Church there are many other ways in which we experience God's grace in signs and symbols. But I digress. The point is that mysteries may not be quantifiable, yet even still, we can never exhaust our knowledge of them. Furthermore, they are revealed to us, communicated in signs, deeds, the person of Jesus Christ, Sacred Scripture and even literature, art, and music... but today we're just going to focus on literature.

            I've heard from friars and professors alike that the quickest way to the truth is through a story. Obviously this does not refer to the kind of stories your children might tell you in order to cover up the truth, because the only thing those stories are the quickest way to is a time-out... or a wooden spoon... or more chores. (I don't know; I clearly don't parent children). Regardless, this is a motto I can enthusiastically get behind, because I love a good story. I have a mild – though some might say exorbitant – obsession with Sondheim & Lapine's Into the Woods (the play, not the movie). I even wrote my term paper in moral theology on this show, and with that being said, I could go on and on about the musical. Instead, I'll just reference one of the more poignant lines sung by the Witch in the Finale: "Careful the tale you tell," she cautions the audience, "that is the spell." And ain't that the truth!

            Fairytales, fables, myths, parables, and all other kinds of stories are our teachers, and so we should be careful of the stories we tell. Hopefully the stories we hear as children or as adults teach us truth and not lies, for the latter can have disastrous effects! Where would we be, though, without the wisdom of stories? Little Red Ridinghood teaches us not to talk to strangers, and the Three Little Pigs urges us to make practical, well-thought-out decisions. Many of the Greek myths have so artfully depicted the realities of the human condition that we still make allusions to them in our everyday lives (Achilles' heel, Sisyphus' boulder, Cupid's arrow, Pandora's box, etc.). And frequently, Greek mythology warns us against a critical human weakness: arrogance (or hubris). Jesus himself used stories, and his parables reveal to us the mysteries of the Kingdom, of God's love, justice, and mercy, and how we are to relate with one another as human beings. All of these examples are merely stories, but they are more than mere fiction. They cannot easily be cast aside as irrelevant simply because they are not grounded in historical or scientific fact... which finally brings me to Harry Potter.

            As I said, over the holidays I was watching some of the movies because they were on television... and because Harry Potter is awesome. Point blank. If you are ever looking for a contemporary example of literature that is imbued with the kind of truth that I'm referring to – the truth that has to do with the mystery of love and suffering and of goodness and death (maybe not about God though) – then look no further than Harry Potter. I could have suggested The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia, I suppose, since they are more explicitly Christian in origin and influence, but I have not read those books (though I highly recommend them). Either way, Truth is not bound by those things which are directly connected with the Judeo-Christian tradition, which means it can even be found within other religious beliefs. After all, as stated in the Vatican II document, Nostra Aetate "the Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions," including Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. (Nostra Aetate, paragraph 2).

            Now obviously, Harry Potter is not a religion (according to most people), and it is not my intention to put the kind of truth that can be gleaned from its voluminous pages on par with the truth and goodness found in our world's religions. All I'm trying to illustrate is that the Truth, the wisdom of God, has a way of being conveyed in and through mediums that are both secular and religious and in cultures and religions that may or may not be directly associated with the Judeo-Christian tradition. The fullness of Truth might not exist within them, but we can still learn something valuable from the arts, and other religions and cultures. Okay, off my soapbox. Now back to Harry Potter.

            As I was watching bits from films Six and Seven (parts I & II), I couldn't help but think of a few themes that certainly harmonize with some of the truths I have come to understand through the Scriptures. If you haven't read the books or at the very least seen the movies, I am very sorry. No. Siriusly, my heart aches for you, and be warned that I'll be throwing out spoilers. If you have, then you might agree with me when I say that J.K. Rowling definitely has her finger on the pulse of some universal truths. Take for instance the message we get from Lilly Potter's self-sacrificing love for her son. Because of her love, Harry is saved, and the forces of evil are defeated. I'm not saying that Lilly Potter is a metaphor for Jesus. I'm not even suggesting that J.K. Rowling was influenced by the Gospel tradition. All I'm saying is that the message we get from Rowling's masterful story-telling taps into a universal truth about the power of love, especially self-sacrificing love. It just so happens that this Truth is divinely revealed to us in Scripture and in the person of Jesus Christ, who is the Incarnate Word of God, "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). We also know from Scripture that even among the three theological virtues (faith, hope, and love) that "the greatest of these is love" (1 Corinthians 13:13). For a great explanation of love, by the way, read all of 1 Corinthians 13.

            Another example of the utterance of Truth in the Harry Potter series is in the way Rowling approaches death in these novels. The villain, Voldemort, has this inordinate fear of death – so much so that he literally tears apart his soul in order to avoid it. Harry, on the other hand, eventually comes to embrace death, and in doing so, is able to defeat his enemy. It's a hard pill to swallow – this notion of life through the willing acceptance of death – because I know that many of us prefer not to think of death too much, but Rowling is on to something, something I know to be True because of the Good News that is Jesus Christ. In accepting death Christ has conquered the grave and has given us new life. "He humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name..." (Philippians 2:8-9). The whole mystery of Christ's death and resurrection has a proper name in the Christian tradition, by the way. It is called the Paschal Mystery, and it is that mystery which permeates the whole of the Christian life, celebration, and story. It is not the theme of today's posts, and no length of writing or depth of contemplation will ever fully plumb the depths of its ineffable profundity, but I will say this: the paschal mystery changes everything. More about that in another post, I hope.

            Again, I'm not saying Harry Potter is a metaphor for Jesus or that Rowling intentionally wrote Harry's character to reflect the Paschal Mystery. Many differences appear between the two anyway. However, I think that the message of life through death, of victory through dying, is transcendent. It is obviously part of the Gospel message because it is of the wisdom of God, and God reveals this to us in Jesus and in the sacred texts. But because it is so transcendent and because the Holy Spirit is so irrepressible, this kind of Truth just naturally spills out into the universe – in literature, music, art, culture, and religions of all kinds.

            Interestingly enough, J.K. Rowling even includes in her seventh Harry Potter novel an original, wizarding fairytale that articulates this very theme of embracing death. If you recall from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Hermione reads "The Tale of the Three Brothers." You can click on the title yourself to hear Emma Watson as Hermione read the whole story with graceful and haunting narration, but note the very last line: "He then greeted death as an old friend, and went with him gladly, departing this life as equals." I love what Rowling does here for two reasons. 1.) It reflects a truth that, as we can see, is found within the biblical and Christian spiritual tradition. St. Francis of Assisi, for example, embraced death as a "sister" at the end of his life as depicted in his Canticle of the Creatures. And 2.) Rowling has demonstrated the power of myth and storytelling through the brilliant literary device of a story-within-a-story. Even her fictional characters come to a deeper appreciation of the mystery of death by means of what? A fairytale.

            And so I return to my point. This is one of the things I mean when I say that the Scriptures are concerned with the Truth, though not necessarily with historical or scientific fact. Its concern, rather, is the truth about those things which cannot be measured, those moral wisdoms, those mysteries that are infinitely knowable yet never fully known (at least not in this life): God, love, goodness, suffering, mercy, death, evil, salvation, sin, justice, resurrection, the Paschal Mystery, etc. I use literature as an example because what we find in things like fairytales, myths, fables, and, yes, even Harry Potter are narratives that speak the truth even though they are completely fictional. I don't know whether or not J.K. Rowling purposefully intended for her story to have such Christ-like themes. Personally, I'm hoping that she did not intend it, for that just goes to show that there is a universality to the Christian message of love, self-sacrifice, and life through death. It demonstrates my point that Truth and the wisdom of God is transcendent and will find a way to speak to us. In my opinion, western society simply needs to recover an appreciation for narrative, mythology, symbols, and poetry in order to perceive the truth that is in its midst.
            In drawing upon stories, like Harry Potter, I'm not trying to say that the Bible is pure fiction. But the Bible is literature – albeit, sacred literature , some of which is even rooted in history. I am also not insinuating that just because different kinds of literary works can bear witness to the truth of various mysteries of life that Sacred Scripture should therefore be ignored or dismissed. That would be absurd. Sacred Scripture reveals the Truth of the mystery of God. It is God's self-revelation. The Church holds both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition as a source of revealed truth, as the Vatican II document on Divine Revelation says, they "together form a single deposit of the Word of God" (Dei Verbum, paragraph 10). The fullness of Truth and God's self-communication, I believe, can be found within these means, though perhaps not exhausted by them. Even Scripture and Tradition are mediated by human language, and the mystery of God inevitably exceeds even that and will ultimately leave us speechless. Nevertheless, Sacred Scripture remains for us one of the ways in which God communicates God's self.

            I hope that some of this helps as a kind of introduction to interpreting the Bible. Humanity is inspired so much by movies, books, songs and poetry and, through them, drawn deeper into the mysteries of life. They touch our souls and tickle our brains, and sometimes they even move us to tears. So it is with Scripture, only more so! For it isn't just any narrative or poem or oracle that we encounter in these sacred texts, but God's very self-revelation.

            With regard to reading the Bible, I quote Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr: "Read more poetry, literature, and mythology, would be my advice. Then we can trust you with the Scriptures..."[1] His tone is a little demanding in my estimation, but he makes a valid point. We should strive to seek the Truth where it can be found, for as surely as it is there in Grimm's Fairytales, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Hafez, Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, J.K. Rowling, Elizabeth Gilbert, and countless others throughout history, it is there and infinitely more so in the Word of God.

            As far as scriptural recommendations go this week, I suggest reading 1 Corinthians 13 and Philippians 2:5-11, which were mentioned previously, but also find one of Jesus' parables and read that too if you have some time. Luke 10:25-37 (the good Samaritan), Luke 16:19-31 (Lazarus and the rich man), and Luke 15:11-32 (the prodigal son) are all good options. In whatever parable you read, ask yourself what God is saying to you. What truth about God's kingdom do you hear reflected in the story? How does it apply to your life? What challenges you? What gives you joy? What have you learned about love, mercy, justice, goodness?

            The next entry might take some extra time for me to post, as I will be traveling this week. In the meantime, however, I would like to draw your attention to the right side bar in which there are links to the Vatican II documents on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) and on the Church's relation to religions other than Christianity (Nostra Aetate). Both are valuable documents, and I highly recommend those to you. There are also links to Bible Odyssey and Catholic Bible Student which are great resources for more information about the Scriptures. And as always, I encourage questions and comments via Facebook, e-mail, or this site here. And, if you haven't already done it, don't forget to subscribe by typing your e-mail address in the "Follow the Codega" box.

            Blessings to you in this new year!
            Happy reading!


[1] Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi, (Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2014), 261.

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