Reflections presented by the Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on Sunday, August 27th, 2017. (Readings for the 12thSunday after Pentecost: 16:A: Isaiah 51:16, Psalm 124, Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20)
(At the beginning of the reflection time Sam Clark sang and played: “All Along the Watch Tower,”by Bob Dylan, as adapted by Jimi Hendrix. Below are the words).
“There must be some kind of way outta here,” said the joker to the thief. “There’s too much confusion; I can’t get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,
none of them along the line know what any of it is worth.
“No reason to get excited,” the thief he kindly spoke.
“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.
But, you and I, we’ve been through that and this is not our fate,
so let us not talk falsely now. The hour’s getting late.”
All along the watchtower, princes kept the view,
while all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.
Outside in the cold distance, a wildcat did growl, two riders were approaching and the wind began to howl, all along the watchtower, all along the watchtower.
In Isaiah 21: 6-7 we hear: “For thus the Lord said to me: Go, post a lookout, let him announce what he sees. When he sees riders, horsemen in pairs, riders on donkeys, riders on camels, let him listen diligently, very diligently.”
Who’s standing on the watchtower? Who’s sounding the warning? Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” is just such a prophetic warning. Everyone seems to be drinking the Jokester’s wine, the wine of foolishness. From business leaders to working people, everyone has forgotten what life is really worth. It is time to stop talking falsely, for the hour is getting late. Jimi Hendrix’s haunting guitar solo lets us know what’s at stake: war, isolation, desolation.
Many confuse prophecy with predicting the future. Prophecy is not some kind of magic that allows you to predict the future; it is about revealing where things are and where things are headed unless there is change. It’s about helping people understand causes and consequences. Jesus compares it to reading the weather: you read the skies to know what kind of weather is coming, so why can’t you read the times? Why can’t you see what is happening in our world and what is going to happen as a result?
Prophecy is about speaking the God word, the Living word, the word that reconnects us to reality and to ultimate reality. It enables us to speak to our reality and to transform it. We see, know, and experience the world through our words so when our words become dead, when they become disconnected from reality, we become unable to know the reality of our lives and world, we become unable to speak to our condition. That’s why we’re so dependent on the prophets and prophecy because the heart of prophecy is living words: words that are alive, vibrant, transformative. That’s why prophecy has so often been spoken in the form of poetry or sung to music. When you read the Hebrew prophets more than 2,000 years later, they still sing out with original, uncompromised language and vision.
In today’s gospel we hear Jesus challenge his disciples. “But who do you say I am?” Every generation is challenged with discovering who “I AM” is for them. Every generation of Christians needs to define who Jesus is for them. If the gates of hell are not going to prevail against us, then we must define the nature of the evil we are facing in our time and how it can be overcome.
Today I want to talk about the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling as prophecy, as an attempt to speak a new living word, as an attempt to clear the junk out of our eyes and hearts and minds so we can see and feel and think again, so that we can have a new understanding of the world we are living in and what we must be about if we are going to save our world and our humanity and live good lives—that is lives lived as soul-filled free people, true, faithful, and loving, and not as slaves to fear, delusion, cowardice, ego, and hatred.
After having been rejected by eight publishers, Harry Potter and the
Philosopher’s Stone was first published just over twenty years ago on June 26, 1997. The last volume of this seven-volume series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, was published ten years later in 2007, ten years ago this summer. To give you a sense of the impact of this series, that volume sold eleven million copies within twenty-four hours of its release in the United States. As of May 2013, this series had already sold more than 500 million copies, making it the best-selling book series of all time. (1) It has already been translated into seventy-three languages. I suspect that for a generation of young people it may well prove to have the kind of lasting impact that the Beatles had on my generation, and I say that as someone who believes the Beatles played an incredibly important role in helping to open up the consciousness of a generation.
Why do I speak of the Harry Potter series in terms of prophecy?
First, we should be clear.J. K. Rowling is speaking to us through writing about a kind of parallel universe, a world which looks a lot like ours, but alongside of which is a world where there are wizards and witches, goblins and ghosts, werewolves and giants, mermaids and mermen, and all sorts of other wild fantastic creatures. Some of these creatures we know through ancient mythology and literature and some J. K. Rowling invented, such as the dementors, creatures who inspire fear in people because they feed on our fears and can suck your soul right out of you.
When the series begins, our protagonist, Harry Potter, knows almost nothing of this other world because he’s been brought up cut off from and lied to about the nature of his world and his past. It is only on Harry’s 11th birthday that the delusional materialist world of suburbia that he’s been taught to believe in comes crashing down when he learns he is really a wizard, that his parents didn’t die in a car crash but were killed by an evil wizard, and that he is to attend Hogwarts, a school for wizards. Each volume represents another year of Harry’s life until the last volume, when he decides that after his 17th birthday he will not to go back to Hogwarts so he can focus on trying to kill the evil wizard who is on the verge of ruling our world.
In raising our children, baby boomers have tended to do all we could to protect them from the kinds of risks that so many of us willingly pursued when we were young. To try to ensure that our children got the best education possible many of us sent our kids to private schools, contributing to the virtual collapse of public schools in many parts of the country. To see that our children advanced in every way possible and to protect them from the dangers of the world, we filled our kids’ days and nights with all kinds of classes and activities to the point that it is rare to find communities with the sense of neighborhood that many of us grew up with. All kinds of specialized activities meant to help you develop yourself (and perhaps your marketability) have contributed to the decline of what Peter Linebaugh has called the commons, those public spaces and forums in which all are welcomed and profit.
But if parents of my generation have seemed to have wanted to protect our children from all kinds of harm and evil, J. K. Rowling has revealed their desire to know the world as it is, as the Harry Potter series is a descent into the excitement and freedom of a world not controlled by adults, but also of the heartbreak, horror, and death we encounter in our world.
Writing about a parallel world, J. K. Rowling helps us to see and experience our world and our lives in a new way.
It is a world in which there is a battle going on between good and evil. Evil is the attempt to dominate, control, and exploit others. Yet the institutions and bureaucracies of Harry’s world are largely oblivious to this war, instead thinking that all that needs to be done is to develop good standards and guidelines and that if everyone follows the rules everything will run smoothly. Sound familiar? When those in power do come to realize the world is being threatened with real evil, their response is to attempt to control and dominate others in ways that only makes things worse.
This whole world of evil and domination is significantly defined by racism—one race or species trying to dominate and control and exploit the others. Lord Voldemort, the evil wizard, is all about blood purity, wizards who have not intermarried with muggles (humans without magical powers). The history of this world has been defined by the conflicts of non-magical humans versus wizards versus all these other kinds of creatures. One of the reasons that Voldemort is able to gain the allegiance of various types of creatures that he despises is that many of these creatures have been so badly treated by society in the past that they wrongly believe they will do better allying with him, and thus they rally around him and his worship of pure and brutal power.
In a Harvard Commencement speech, which J. K. Rowling published under the title Very Good Lives, she speaks of how working for Amnesty International in her early 20’s immersed her in the world of good and evil. There she read many, many “handwritten, eye-witness accounts of summary trials, executions, kidnappings, and rapes.” She met those whose torture had left them permanently mentally ill. She says that one day she heard a “terrible scream of pain and horror such as I never heard before. It was the cry of a young man upon learning the news that in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his country’s regime, his mother had been seized and executed.”(2)
She says: “Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I began to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I saw, heard, and read. And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before.”
She goes on to say:
Amnesty mobilizes thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.
Working at Amnesty International was part of what taught Rowling “the importance of imagination,” and here she is speaking of imagination not simply as “the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation.” But even more importantly in “its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”
Rowling goes on to say that those who don’t exercise this capacity “enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.”
Still, she says, many “prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.”
Strikingly, she concludes, “I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces leads to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the willfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.”(3)
So this Harry Potter stuff is not just the stuff of fantasy. It’s our lives, our world, written in fantasy. The power of its imagery came back to me again and again over these past two weeks.
Determined not to be ruled by death, Lord Voldemort’s followers are known as death-eaters. It is an evocative title. When the Dark Lord murders someone, his followers put his sign in the sky as a way to terrify their enemies and rally the death-eaters. Those images spoke to me when I recently saw the footage of hundreds of people chanting hateful slogans and marching with torches during the night, bearing swastikas and symbols of the KKK, and then learned of the murder of Heather Heyer. I don’t think we have any clearer symbols of evil than the swastika and the letters KKK. Those images and the president’s response to them left me imagining that the Dark Lord has indeed arisen over our county—calling together other hate-eaters — and the events since then have seemed to bear this out.
The march on Charlottesville happened on Saturday. The Monday before that, the home of Nikki Joly and Chris Moore in Jackson, Michigan, was burned down, killing their five pets and destroying all their belongings. This was done apparently in retaliation for their leading their city to adopt a non-discrimination ordinance this past April, and for their leading Jackson’s first Pride celebration two days earlier.
About this Pride celebration, the Jackson Area Landlord Association’s President, Robert Tulloch, sent an e-mail warning to the members of the city council saying: “I saw something on a site about marching to Blackman Park and raising a flag? I hope they are not planning to raise a gay flag. That is an in-your-face declaration of war and will be met with a violent response. This IS the queer agenda.”
Here in Ann Arbor, just in this past week, the Jewish Community Center received a bomb threat, the Ann Arbor skateboard park and the track at Concordia Lutheran College were covered with racist and Nazi graffiti, and the Common Language (LGBT) bookstore was vandalized. Clearly, some people are hearing and responding to the call to hatred.
So—we don’t have to look too far to find the kinds of struggles between good and evil that Harry Potter is all about, but part of the power of Harry Potter is that is not simplistic, it is not dualistic. It challenges us to know the stories of how people got where they are, because only then will we have any hope of struggling with them effectively. Though our country’s problems are far greater than those who are currently rallying around the KKK or Nazi flag, we must understand how low-income whites continue to be demonized in ways that surely foster hatred for liberal society.
It was only a month ago that the Ann Arbor News, and I suspect its chain of newspapers throughout Michigan, carried an infotainment article entitled “The Top Ten Most White Trash Cities in Michigan.” Meant to be funny, it names the top ten places in Michigan with “the most drug-addicted, violent, welfare-receiving white populations.” Its jokes reek of contempt. About Jackson it says: “If you live here there is a good chance you’re makin’ meth.” About Bay City: “when it comes to fighting over that week’s favorite meth slut, you better believe it will be handled bare knuckle to bare knuckle in your trailer’s front yard. Please, please, watch out for the car on cinder blocks and the crapper, and the broken-down mower.” Or Coldwater: “where they fight over what beer is better (Busch or Natural Light) and over who has more teeth.”
That contempt for poor and working people in terms of how they dress, look, live, and their morals is the kind of contempt that will leave people blindly hating others—and yet there still seems little consciousness of this kind of classism in liberal society.
The Inner and the Outer
In her commencement speech, Rowling quotes Plutarch: “What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.” Part of the power of Harry Potter is that it upholds a vision of how what we do inwardly connects to what we can do and achieve in the world. Thus Harry Potter’s overcoming Lord Voldemort and his army is not just about fighting; it is about values and it is about learning to be a good human being. Harry will ultimately be able to conquer Voldemort, not because of magical powers, but because he has been loved and he has learned to love.
And Harry’s love is not just sentiment; he pursues it with the kind of discipline so many baby-boomers resisted—learning how to work really hard, learning to be excellent at things, learning to really care for others, learning to be the best self he can be. For a generation whose parents did everything possible for them, Harry Potter is the image of the opposite of being spoiled. He knows the humility that is born of failure. (4)Part of the result of his humility and caring for others is that Harry learns not to value a gift, or a talent, or power for its own sake or because he possesses it, but only for what it can do for others. Ultimately, this means that while Lord Voldemort has spent his life trying to figure out how never to die, Harry Potter learns how to die, to give up his life so that others can live.
The Prophetic Community
You have perhaps heard the Margaret Mead quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” According to her daughter Mary Bateson, this actually defined how her mother understood human evolution to happen. That is, each advance in human evolution happens when an individual comes up with a new idea about how to do something, and then a small group begins to practice that new idea, and then over time that idea spreads to others.This means that our evolution as a species depends on small communities of people committed to learning from each other and to learning to live new ideas.
As examples, she points to the community that gathered around Jesus and the community that sparked the American Revolution. In this way, new ideas are dependent on prophetic communities to take root. We see the power of such a community in Harry’s motley, radically diverse community that is not only opposed to the Lord Voldemort and his followers but also rejects the hierarchy of worth that has defined the life and culture of so much of the wizarding community and embraces a vision of a society in which all are valued. Ultimately, that vision of inclusion and their practice of honoring others will have everything to do with why they are ultimately successful in overcoming the evil that is on the verge of destroying their world.
But this new community is not just about core values such as equality, fairness, justice, compassion; at the heart of this new community is also a vision of the mysterious nature of friendship. The series is all about the transformative effect of friendship; how it is the heart of community, how vital is it to having a good life, how central it is to becoming a good human being.(5)
While telling a story about the struggle between good and evil and about how those who wish to be moral agents need to learn to embrace who they are, with all their radical imperfections, and yet still strive to be their best selves, part of the power of this series is that through it Rowling also presents a kind of guide for the soul as she allows her readers to reflect on the whole experience of being human, its joys and sorrows, its incredible pleasures and the kind of pain that leaves you wanting not to be human, how confusing it is to come of age and live in a world where so much of what is outside of you and within you is unknown and changing, and how difficult it is to know what’s important and what is not, what is real and what is a delusion.
I read Moby Dick when I was twelve years old because it was described as, “a fun-filled adventure story for boys.” Reading it that way, I totally missed Melville’s profound meditation on the insanity of racism and where it was leading our country. My hope is that we will wake up to the vision J. K. Rowling has put before us, for she seems to have been able to imagine the world we are now living in, a world where cynicism, fear, and despair are leading people to turn back to worshipping the strong and powerful, the bullies, as their best hope of survival, a world where people are encouraged to turn their backs on and even despise the weak and vulnerable, including their own humanity, a world where the lack of imagination keeps us from seeing and knowing how much we have in common despite and across all our profound differences. As Dumbledore says at one point:”we are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided. “(6)
Not only was J. K. Rowling able to envision and portray the world we are now living in, but she has also given us a wealth of wisdom about what it means to live a good life and be a good human being in the midst of such a world, and a vision of human agency that is both exciting and encouraging. It’s a vision we need to really be listening to, for it has captured the hearts and minds of a generation in a way that our current political and religious movements have so far failed to do. The question remains, however, whether it will remain simply fantasy literature or become a vision of how we can live in our world, which appears to be approaching the same kind of climactic struggle between good and evil that it portrays.
I would hope we could hear in Harry Potter the call of prophetic community and see in it a vision of what a church community can be:
- A unified community in which we discover common ground and
- A community of truth that doesn’t hide from any reality.
- A community of healing, where we can recover from the wounds
life has left us with.
- A community that welcomes all, including our many and profound differences.
an imaginative community that does not let what is, or what has been,
define what we believe is really possible.
- A courageous community that does not let fear determine our actions,
or the scope of our understanding of what we need to be about.
- A community that embraces death and dying as something that helps us to realize and celebrate our impermanence so that we can use it to make a difference.
- A community of love, with the kinds of friendships at its center
that call us into who we can become.
J. K. Rowling concluded her speech to the new graduates by saying: “We do not need magic to change the world; we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.” She encourages them/us to “use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice;”. . . “to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless;” . . . “to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages,”to help change the realities of “thousands and millions” of people.
That this is possible is the good news of Harry Potter. May it be so! For if we are willing, God is able, and if we are ready, God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us.(7 & 8)
1) These statistics came fromWikipedia.
2) The quotes from J. K. Rowling’s commencement speech came from the internet, and have been republished in J. K. Rowling’s wonderful short book Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination, published in 2015 by Little, Brown, and Co.
3) I also love these other quotes on the power of imagination from Rowling’s commencement speech:
Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places.
Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathize.
4) Within the Harry Potter series you find a profound meditation on death, not only the death of loved ones but also the death of failure, the death of dreams, illusions, and desires. In her commencement speech J. K Rowling s holds up how important the experience of failure has been for her:
Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.
So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.
The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.
So given a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.
5) At the end of her commencement speech, Rowling wishes the new graduates the kind of friendships that have been so important in her life. She then concludes:
I hope that even if you remember not a single word of mine, you remember those of Seneca, another of those old Romans I met when I fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders, in search of ancient wisdom: As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters. I wish you all very good lives.
6) p.723, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
7) Donald Trump has cut Stephen King and JK Rowling off from his Twitter feeds, as they would frequently comment on his tweets. In response to Trump’s tweet insulting Morning Joe co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mike Brzezinki, Rowling sent out the following tweet: ” ‘Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.’ Abraham Lincoln June 29th, 2017. ” However, my favorite tweet of hers was the one she sent out even before the U.S. presidential election when on Oct. 7, 2016 we wrote: “If we all hit ctrl-alt-del simultaneously and pray, perhaps we can force 2016 to reboot.”
8) Because of the length of these reflections I did not focus on the scriptures for the day except for the gospel, but each of them helped inspire these reflections.
*Isaiah 51:1-6 holds up a vision of the essence of God as being salvation and deliverance so that even when heaven and earth pass away “My salvation and deliverance will never end.” Thus Isaiah’s word of encouragement–therefore “look to the rock from which you were hewn.” In other words, that salvation and deliverance lives in us.
*Psalm 124 presents a vision of the God who enables our souls to live and who saves us from the enemies who would swallow us up alive.
*Romans 12:1-8: seems to have so many interconnections with Harry Potter as Paul speaks of the renewal of the mind as key to not being conformed to the corrupt world of domination and then goes on to speak of how “we are members of one another” and in that context we need to be humble as we exercise the gifts we have each been given for the common good.
**Watchtower photo courtesy Mateo Russo via Flickr. Harry Potter book cover image courtesy KitAy via Flickr.