Magic and Technology in Harry Potter

02 Feb Andrew Byers
February 2, 2014

I just finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Let me add a decade-late “amen” to all my friends who avidly read the Harry Potter books while I was busy reading Dostoyevsky and New Testament commentaries (though I have no regrets about time spent in Dostoyevsky… and in at least some of the commentaries).

The HP series was better than I had expected. Honestly: I am blown away. J.K. Rowling totally had me. A hunk of my heart will probably always be in a place called Hogwarts (though a slightly bigger hunk lingers in Middle Earth).

Along with adding much belated hurrahs, I will add a few belated comments on one of the negative aspects of HP’s reception among Christians: the dangers and allure of MAGIC.

I was personally untroubled by Rowling’s treatment of magic (I find HP as an exemplar in the genre Tolkien has called “Faerie,” but more on that anon). I do recognize, however, that in certain cultural contexts (like some settings in nearby Scotland) interest in magic has gotten quite out of hand.

What I want to point out here is that the use of magic in Harry Potter entailed a commentary likely unintended, and perhaps more influential than the discourse on occultic dabbling. I am referring to a commentary on what Jacques Ellul called la technique.

“Magical” is “Technical”

The magic of HP works largely because of technique. To be sure, Harry himself is endowed with special talents, and his wand can seem to have a mind of its own. But for the most part, magic must be mastered and utilized through a rigorous degree of study and applied techniques. The wand must be waved just so, the ingredients for the potion must be measured out then stirred with precision, incantations must be enunciated properly.

Magical is technical.

I really like how Rowling removed industrial era technology from the magical world. Arthur Weasley remains intrigued by Muggle technology, but when it is time for cooking or washing up in his own kitchen, his wife places utensils under a spell. Rather than sending a text to alert the wedding guests of a Death Eater assault, Kingsley Shacklebolt (what an awesome name!) relays the news via his “patronus.”

In spite of the absence of post-industrial and digital technology, HP-magic is in many respects highly technical. Futurologist and Scifi writer Arthur C. Clarke famously quipped that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

His point is that technology can be so advanced that it mystifies us as much as the supernatural power of a love potion or a violent curse. And today, for most of us, the technology at our fingertips (literally) is mesmerizing, awe-inspiring, and, well, magical. The purveyors of technology are quite pleased for this to be the case. (Anyone scrolling through this post with Apple’s “Magic Trackpad”?)

The Magical-Technical Society

When Jacques Ellul used the term “technique,” he was referring to a cultural mindset imperceptible to most of us because it is so all-encompassing. This paradigm tends to view people, raw material, creation, etc. as means to an end; often unconsciously, it tends to elevate productivity over relationality. The acquisition of power through a variety of instrumentation—this is often the result of “the technological society.”

Ellul also reminds us that magic itself, as unscientific and un-technological as it seems, is nonetheless an expression of technique: “Magic developed along with other techniques as an expression of man’s will to obtain certain results of a spiritual order. To attain them, man made use of an aggregate of rites, formulas, and procedures…”[1].

My point here is that magic and technology can be quite comparable in functionality and disposition. And what many Christian critics of HP may have missed is that “technique” may be a more dangerous threat to our world today than occultic dabbling.

“Horcuxes, not Hallows”

Yet through her portrayal of magic, I think Rowling has providing a rather forceful critique of technology and the ethos of Ellul’s la technique. That critique can be summed up in this powerful slogan: “HORCRUXES, NOT HALLOWS.”

Harry and Ron—though not the more sensible Hermione—were tempted by the prospect of wielding the Hallows, those instruments of magical power capable of rendering their possessor “Master of Death.” Their task, however, was to destroy other instruments—the material objects in which Voldemort had embedded fragments of his soul. Rather than lustfully seeking the most powerful technical instrument of the non-technological magical world, the Elder Wand, Harry opted to destroy the objects invested with evil power.

In this respect, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are comrades with Sam Gamgee and Frodo Baggins. This is because Tolkien’s Ring of Power is what Rowling calls a “Horcrux.” Resisting the allure of power, these heroes and heroine destroyed the evil works of our hands.

The task is technical… and magical.

Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (tr. John Wilkinson; New York: Vintage Books, 1964), 24.

“I learned Scripture better by playing in a band.” A conversation with Evan Way from Deeper Well

14 Jan Chris Breslin
January 14, 2014

I first came across their music on a lark, one of those “fortunate falls” of internet browsing and music streaming that yielded a font of good tastes and great content that hasn’t let up since.  You see Deeper Well, a recording arm of Door of Hope Church, fashions themselves as a “Gospel Collective.”  They manage to heard some or most of the creative cats in their care to produce startlingly original, well perhaps not original at all, but at least refreshing, music from, by, and for the Church (and anyone else who’s listening).  Led by pastor/musician Josh White (formerly of the Christian Anglo-invasion-philic pop outfit, Telecast, and Evan Way (currently fronting the sunny vintage pop act The Parson Red Heads) this motley crew has been busy, diverse, prolific, and generous in its mere two or so years of existence.  The result is a wild panoply of scripturally rich, aesthetically integral tunes.  Songs about mystical experience with the living God that beget Spiritual experience.

WHMy entry point into their ever-expanding catalogue came by means of the outrageous cover art for Wounded Healer, a sort of coming out party for this self-styled collective.  Many of the songs formed congregationally and became fixtures in their corporate worship gatherings.  One listen and you get the sense that you’re hearing imminent throwback music, what hippies hoped for before they were tamed by age or hormones or the eighties.  They pulse and throb with immediacy and playfulness.

EaderJust when your ears begin to adjust to the textures, intricacies, and excesses of Wounded Healer, they put out Wesley Randolph Eader’s record, another favorite, but for completely different reasons.  If Wounded Healer takes us back to a Jesus People commune, Eader’s record rewinds the tape all the way back to the Dustbowl.  With the precision of Charles Wesley and grit and ease of Woody Guthrie, Of Old It Was Recorded takes some pretty familiar forms and incarnates them, indeed overflows them, with nothing short of the story of the Good News.

Josh WhiteAll this brings us to their two newest releases, all of which are offered as free downloads, a grace-gift to the public.  In December 2013, they posted an album of reworked, stripped down in most cases, Josh White-Telecast tunes.  Listening to these next to their predecessors really shows the original strength of their writing and how they were built.  In some cases, the songs reveal a superior beauty not unlike a lady without her makeup.  Fresh, innocent, and perfect not despite but often because of their blemishes.

Liz ViceWhat’s even more impressive is when one of these gems gets recorded a third way, given to someone else’s facilities, surrendered to their minor variances, and phrasing decisions.  Take Liz Vice’s shot at “Enclosed by You” on There’s a Light (released TODAY 1/14/14!).  Originally a Telecast tune, then stripped to its bones on Josh’s record, it might actually sound best out of Liz’s soulful mouth.  The rest of the record effortlessly shape-shifts, like trying on clothes at a thrift shop or spinning warped LPs (mostly Shirley Ann Lee, Roberta Flack, the Staples Singers, and Nina Simone).  You want to go back there, wherever then and there was.

I had the chance to chat with Evan Way, Pastor of Worship and Arts at Door of Hope about their approach and some of their hopes.  When I spoke to him in November, I caught him in the middle of an odd stretch where he’d just returned from a trip to Manhattan to perform children’s music in a band at a church, and was about to go on the Portland NPR affiliate to promote his band, The Parson Red Head’s album release.  Music.  Faith.  Bicoastal.  Bipolar.  This mash-up seems to characterize the church’s approach to music, and an offhand comment revealed something of the power of art’s ability and relation to the life of faith, “I learned Scripture better by playing in a band.”  I asked him about some of those bands and some of that intersection.

Hopeful Realism: What are some of your greatest hopes in making this kind of art?

Evan Way: We just want to see music that is good, quality music that is theologically sound, Christ-centered, and scripture-formed.  I don’t think we’re necessarily trying to just react to Christian culture, because even the lousiest Christian music can do good things.  My desire is to see really quality music that can actually transcend boundaries of “Christian music” that someone normally might not give the time of day.

We’re created in God’s image, part of what that means is that we’re creative people who are naturally bent to need to create things and hopefully they’re things that reflect Jesus.  As much as I’d love this music to be great for us to sing together in the church or for the people of the congregation, my heart is for those outside the congregation to hopefully hear it and have it speak to them in a surprising way.

HR: Making something that is musically excellent, that sounds good and has integrity, is pretty tricky.  It seems to me that a lot of Christian producers and musicians don’t know what to do with the imperfections in music that, despite their technical error, actually give a song, or album or moment “soul.”  Frustratingly, it seems like excellence, in Christian music circles, is usually equated with “perfect,” impossible, or fake sounds.

EW: Yeah, you really start getting down to defining what one person means by “perfect sounds.”  Do I think those sounds are perfect sounds?  No, I’d much rather hear a gritty guitar played through a crappy tube amp.  To me that is a more real, more perfect sound.  It’s really been important to us to not try to make these records into something that they’re not.

I know that there has to be more quality Christian music out there.  I haven’t quite solved the mystery of why you can’t find it.  Rather than solve the mystery, we just thought we’d try to make the kind of records we’re interested in and make them available.

HR: Why has giving away your music for free been so important?

EW: I never wanted to do it if we were going to be selling the albums.  The idea is to be generous with the things and the talents we’ve been given…to say “this music is our gift to you.” Our business model has been to create music focused on Jesus and to give it away because it’s never been about us.  It’s very dangerous, the moment you start making money.  You start to think about a bottom line, and not what you’re making.  Giving our music away puts your goals in the right place.

In this we’ve learned a lot from Josh Garrels and his music.  He always gives his newest album away for a year.  After a year, he “retires” it.  This came about because he was making a record and having a hard time, going through a dark season with his career, and he said one day God told him, “if you love me and you’re doing this for me, then give it away for free.”  He did it.  And when he did he had more success than he ever did before.

HR: As a touring musician and as a worship leader, what do you find in common with those two roles?  What’s different?  What do you find you have to unlearn?

EW: When I first started leading, I had to keep reminding myself that leading worship was not like playing a concert.  It’s tempting to forget that you shouldn’t be getting the same sort of attention or glory from putting on a show.  There are a lot of similarities between the two roles, but in many ways they’re totally different.

It’s been interesting how leading worship has affected my playing with the Parsons.  I’ve been focusing more and more about making that band about giving God control and allowing Him to do whatever he wants with it, even though its not a worship band.  Everything we have we have because God’s blessed us.  I view both as  ministry.

HR: Is the music you’re putting out in these albums only possible in Portland?

EW: Maybe more than just being in the city, it’s the part of the city.  Here in the Southeast part there are so many creative artists.  There seems to be a real revival of faith and people really trying to live their faith out.  I don’t think we’d be doing what we are without these people, not only musicians and songwriters, but visual artists, photographers, and filmmakers trying to use their gifts for Christ regardless of how the money works out.  I can’t say that this could only happen in Portland, but I also can’t say that I’ve ever been around something like this before, anywhere else.  A lot of things have come together and God has really brought people together.

Review of ‘TheoMedia’ at Christianity Today (And Notes on Reviewing Books)

10 Jan Andrew Byers
January 10, 2014

As a writer, there is little else more rewarding—or unnerving!—than realizing that someone has given your work close attention. I am just so thrilled that Christianity Today has been willing to give some space to discussing my book TheoMedia; and I am so thankful to Jeff Haanen for his careful review.

Some Notes on Reviewing Books
It is a funny thing, reviewing someone’s book. On the same day Haanen’s review of TheoMedia was published at CT, my own review was published of Craig Detweiler’s iGods: How Technology Shapes our Spiritual and Social Lives. Having just written on media technology, I understand how painstaking the writing process can be. You hope reviewers will be gracious.

But you certainly hope they will be honest as well.

The professional book review is when one’s work gets tested with fire (to draw on Paul’s metaphor of ministry as construction work in 1 Cor 3:10–15). If the labor of writing was shoddy and the final product unstable, then it is actually the job of the reviewer to expose the weak and irresponsible workmanship. This enterprise of reviewing books should not be understood as the snarky privilege of elitist critics but as the critical task of the church’s thinkers. There is a lot of shoddy workmanship built on false premises. Just as the Christian prophets were to evaluate the public messages of fellow prophets in the Corinthian worship service, so fellow thinkers need to prod and tap on these public offerings made in the form of books. There is too much to read already. Reviewers help us sift. They help us separate the wheat from the chaff—not only by helping us identify which books are good or bad, but also by helping us sift through the wheat and chaff within individual books.

The Christian book review is therefore an expression of the ancient disciplines of discernment.

I am pleased that TheoMedia passed muster at CT, and hopeful that it will be of service to the church as we negotiate digital culture as the people of God.

(And when you find some of the chaff, let me know!).

Favorites of 2013

31 Dec Chris Breslin
December 31, 2013

As 2013 winds to a close and Auld Land Syne and college football fill our ears and eyes, I (Chris) have always found it a profoundly beneficial and thanks-generating exercise to think back on the year and compile some lists.  Don’t construe our lists as necessarily “best ofs,” there are plenty of those to be had around the internet, rather as favorites- moments or events or artifacts- where each of us has savored something of the goodness of the Lord.  Without further ado…

Andy’s Favorite Hikes of 2013

Catbells, Lake District (England)
CatbellsFor our 15-yr anniversary, Miranda and I spent a few days in the Lake District. it may well be our favorite place on earth. We had a number of good hikes while there, but one that stands out is the hike up Catbells. Though not very high (500 metres or so), the summit affords a dramatic 360 degree view, with Derwent Water to the East, Skiddaw and Keswick to the North, and the Derwent Fells stretching up to Buttermere to the West. At the end of the hike we sat in our Vauxhall Zafire and listened to The Lumineers, a new find at that point. Later that day we ended up in a pub in Ambleside where we played Scrabble over a pint.
It does not get more romantic than that, folks (of course, at 15 years of marriage with 4 kids, just having an uninterrupted conversation is quite a romantic venture).

 

Loch Morar, West Highlands (Scotland)
Loch MorarSomeone graciously gave us the use of their holiday home on the West Coast of Scotland over the summer. One of our favorite moments of our lives was hiking around the northern shore of Loch Morar. The vistas were of dark green, rugged mountains crowning the water… which is one of Europe’s deepest lakes. And legend tells that it is haunted by the aquatic monster “Morag” (though we escaped his clutches that day).

 

Camasunary Beach, Cuillin Hills, Isle of Skye (Scotland)
Camasunary BeachPossibly my favorite family hike of all time with my wife and kids was on the Isle of Skye during the same holiday trip. We took a ferry to this rugged, massive Isle and parked the car on the side of a narrow strip of road from Broadford to Elgol just after a downpour. We took a path over some gentle slopes and ended up on a ridge granting us views of what ma be the most jagged, rock-splintered skyline I have ever scene, that of the Cuillin Hills. These are not very high by the standards of the North American Rockies or the European Alps, but they are dramatic to behold and apparently quite difficult even for professional climbers. We took a sharp descent down into a valley where we found the abandoned Camasunary Beach. Yes, in blasting wind and 55 degrees F, my kids wanted to wade in the sea. And yes, I had to go with them. But it was glorious, ya know?
We ended the day at a hostel adjacent to The Old Inn in Carbost. Miranda and I were surrounded by our 4 healthy kids who had just skirted the Cuillins on a 5-mile hike. We were sitting at a darkwood table drinking pints of stuff brewed with water straight from the same hills, having just placed an order for fish and chips. It was one of those unforgettable Moments.

Chris’ Favorite Music of 2013

This Side of Jordan- Mandolin Orange

imageI first listened to this record in the car on the way to Black Mountain, NC for a very special trip before Titus was born.  I’m not sure I could pick a better soundtrack for Piedmont road tripping than these delicate Southern sounds. Knowing Andrew and Emily, who make up the band’s core, and Jeff Crawford, who produced it (as well as plenty other of the album’s  fine players), I couldn’t be more proud of them or pleased with such a gorgeous label (Yep Roc records) debut.  I especially appreciate the third track, “There Was a Time,” (maybe a bit of a Neil echo?) with its lovely piano solo and crushing lyrics (“there’s no gold on either side of the Mississippi/no silver in this world left to find/precious metals and precious memories/slip away, slip away from your fingers and your mind”).  In the midst of loss and sorrow, whiskey waltzes, and clovers, TSoJ is a redemption-haunted album, looking for and occasionally even finding hope on Jordan’s banks.

Haw- Hiss Golden Messenger

imageTrue story: a few months ago I sold Mike Taylor (HGM frontman) a bike.  I’m thankful he paid me, but I’m also a bit gratified just to get to imagine him weaving apocalyptic tales as he navigates our fair Bull City on that single-speed.  Haw expands on Taylor’s previous offerings of Southern transplanted Laurel Canyon psychedelic folk.  With a voice like Van and kaleidoscopic writing like John of Patmos, HGM has become an office listening staple.  Maybe, just maybe, Taylor’s bike commuting signals something the record also communicates, a love and a tie to a certain place (the album title shares a name with a river that snakes just south of town). I found and enjoyed in this album the unique merging of some pretty lofty ideas and concepts with mostly grounded, gritty, specific people and places.

Debris- Roman Candle

imageRoman Candle was one of the first “local bands” I got into when I moved to NC. Little did I know then, when I saw them en-trance the packed Cat’s Cradle crowd in support of Wee Hours Revue, that they’d grow into an outfit (now in Nashville, considerably less local) that would follow so closely alongside my own interests and forays into the intersection of theology and the arts. Skip and Timshel breathe the kind of subtle explorations into beauty’s fleeting power and revelation’s mystery that folks like Rilke, Eliot, and Ms. O’Conner articulate most artfully. Logan’s musicianship and production on songs like “Small Time” and “Not Strangers Anymore” doesn’t just prop up those lovely lyrics, but at times actually takes over the storytelling altogether. I can’t recommend this album more. Get lost in the title-track dream and perhaps you’ll find out you knew where you were all along.

Joel’s Favorite Books of 2013

Due to parenting a toddler, remodeling a new home, supporting an entrepreneur wife and some other personal craziness, my reading suffered quantitatively, but I don’t believe it suffered qualitatively. Here are some of my favorite reads.

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson

GileadI picked up this brilliant novel at the turn of 2012 to 2013, with a subsequent re-reading in the summer of 2013. Man oh man. I loved it for at least 3 reasons.

First, it is beautifully written. I found myself reading, and re-reading aloud just to hear the words roll off my tongue. I know that sounds weird, but trust me. I could easily fill an entire post of Robinson’s beautiful one-sentence masterpieces of language.

Second, Gilead is one of the most profound resources of pastoral theology I’ve come across. Robinson’s main character’s reflections on the work of the pastor were profound, moving, sobering and inspiring simultaneously.

Third, Gilead alludes to John Calvin often. I think this book presents a way of being theologically Reformed that I find to be beautiful, under-appreciated, subversive and right. Much more needs to be said about this. Stay tuned.

Unapologetic, Francis Spufford

unapologeticI’ll join the bandwagon and add my accolades for this fascinating book. Spufford gives an “a defense of Christian emotions.” In and of itself, I find this approach refreshing and interesting.

Though I certainly don’t agree with every nuance, Unapologetic is funny, challenging, unsettling, moving, passionate, and witty. His re-telling of the Jesus story in the “Yeshua” chapter alone would be worth the price of the book. The refrain “more can be mended than you know” will reverberate in my mind’s ears for a long, long time.

 TheoMedia: The Media of God and the Digital Age, Andrew Byers

TheoMedia Pic 3Humor me for a second while I play for the home team. Andy Byers is a co-blogger at Hopeful Realism, a very close personal friend, and a mentor in ministry.  In Andy Byers, I think the church has been given an absolute gift of a thinker/scholar and shepherd/pastor. I’m completely biased here.

 

Chris’ Favorite Moments of 2013

TITUS ELIOT BRESLIN

imageThis year has undoubtably been (confirmed by Instagram!) the “Year of the Titus” for us. Since we found out we were pregnant in early 2013, through a hot summer pregnancy, to an early September arrival, and the last few challenging and precious months, we’ve truly known and experienced God’s love, generosity and grace in new ways.  For this reason, the ‘Titus Event’ seemed too big to even belong on a list.

Mako & the Four Quartets (January)

imageThrough some happy circumstances, the Gathering Church was blessed to host internationally renowned artist Makoto Fujimura in January.  Mako was in Durham for the Four Qu4rtets exhibit at Duke and did us the pleasure of speaking to our congregation and sharing lunch with some of our artists. I cannot stress how inspirational his work with IAM, his humility and gentleness, and his imagination for creativity and generativity has been for me and our congregation.

Chickens Lay Eggs (April)

imageLast November Rach surprised me with a very special gift for my thirtieth birthday: three day-old chicken hatchlings. I thus began my illustrious career as a (sub)urban chicken farmer, by naming those three little ladies, born on All Saints Day, after saints (Ambrose, Augustine, & Basil…Brosey, Augie, & Baz respectively). After a tragic hawk incident (RIP Baz & Augie), and the addition of two new pullets (Jackie Joyner Kersey & FloJo!), we moved into spring expectant to hardboil our own Easter eggs. The amount of care, expectation, delight, and learning that took place over that time was really special to our family. It oddly put me and my one year -old girl Noa on similar footing as we went out to the coop day after day looking for the first egg, only finally (in April, pretty late for layers) to discover a lovely brown orb in the laying box that had been so empty for so long. Since, I’ve learned how to cook eggs about 10 different ways and we’ve enjoyed being able to gift eggs to neighbors. These hens have truly blessed our family and taught about everything from grieving to waiting to eating.

2 Funerals and a Wedding (Summer, November)

NoaFlowerGirl

This year was a bittersweet year of firsts in my ministerial career. In the summertime, I was honored to officiate the wedding of my sister-in-law and now brother-in-law Ruth and Luke Taylor. What a joy to do their distance premarital counseling through Google hangout, and what an honor for them to entrust me with such a task as a newbie! I look forward to seeing God’s Love through their love continue to blossom and flourish in the years to come.  Later in the year I was also honored to lead my first two funerals, the first for someone I never knew when she was alive, the second in November for my dear uncle Danny. Danny’s service truly encapsulated a remarkable and eclectic life of faith, hope and love.  Following a packed church  service with more eulogies than we had time for, we walked across A1A to the beach for a flyover (fitting for a career air traffic controller) and a paddle out (even more fitting for a salty lifelong surfer). The process of and preparation for these funerals has certainly been a source of God’s mercy and a reminder and vision of the sort of Hopeful Realism possible only by means of Christ’s Spirit and Resurrection.

Joel’s Favorite Parenting Moments of 2013

2013 was my first full-year as a parent. Here are some favorite snapshots.These aren’t so much flash-in-the-pan moments, but recurring moments. Sweet and beautiful in their own right.

Vaccinations

photo-2My little boy looks at me, shocked, that I would allow such a thing. How often is it necessary to bring discomfort into your child’s life in order to do an ultimate good for them?

 

Playing chase

photo-3I chase Henry all around our house. There usually comes a point in which he realizes that he cannot run from me, that he will be caught. At that point, Henry stops and starts running toward me instead. There is a metaphor here.

Being loved by him

photoHenry is at the age where he desires to show love to us. Giving not just receiving. It’s been a difficult month (long story) and my wife Mandy was recently overcome with emotion. Henry stopped his playing, walked from another room, approached her, said, “hey” and gave her a hug and a kiss.

I’m learning a lot and enjoying a lot in this parenting journey.

Andy’s Favorite Fiction Moments of 2013

3) Thinking about the critique of media culture in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games Trilogy.

 

HP2) Realizing the Triwizard Cup was a portkey while readying Harry Potter for the first time.
1) Revisiting Middle Earth after my wife bought me a hardback version of The Hobbit.
 

Here

25 Dec Joel Busby
December 25, 2013

He came and he comes. He is here. This is good news of great joy. It’s the story of Christmas. It happens to be all our hope.

May I remind you?

If he is here, then he is also there.

There in the places you need him most. There in the real stuff. There in your failures and fatigue. There in the darkness and loss and grief and sadness. There where you’ve run out of ideas or energy, where you are finding you don’t have what it takes. There in the worry and the stress and the guilt. There when you are stressing about money, about future, about direction. There when you realize you aren’t really stressing about money or future or direction per se, but about your worth as a person. There in those things you wish no one to know. There in the crazy-anxious-sleepless-night-mind-racing thoughts. There where you keep running up against your limitations. There where you are swearing that this time will be different. There in feelings of emptiness and purposelessness. There where you realize your tendency to be awkward. There in your insecurity, pain, doubt, loneliness. There where you find yourself afraid and unsure and weak and needy.

He is here. He is there. Doing his best work. Filling it all, making it new.

Here. There. With us.

Reading Harry Potter… in England

20 Dec Andrew Byers
December 20, 2013

I just finished reading Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire. (The Triwizard Cup was a portkey… what?!?! Never saw that coming)

Yeah, I know—I am 13 or so years behind when everyone else made the discovery.

Over the past decade of university ministry work, I have curiously observed my Millennial friends pining away for the release dates of the next book or the next film. Though I claim to be a passionate lover of fiction, my “relaxation reading” over the past several years—crammed into holidays or stolen from an occasional Sunday afternoon, perhaps—was often either research for a book I was trying to write or maybe a handful of pages from more challenging fiction from the likes of Dostoevsky or Hugo.

But finally, Harry Potter has made its way into my hands.

The advantage of missing all the excitement is that I now get to read Rowling’s books in England.

The month I picked up HP and the Philosopher’s Stone (yes, in the UK it is “Philosopher’s Stone,” not “Sorcerer’s Stone”) was the month my oldest daughter entered the local secondary school. She just turned the same age as Harry when he first saw the lights of Hogwarts Castle from those small boats led by Hagrid.

My wife bought the UK version of the series. She did not want any British turns of phrase to be lost from the reading experience. My kids are now more savvy with British lingo than American, anyway, since they spend every schoolday with their British mates and British teachers. They will understand when the magical tents set up for the World Quidditch Tournament come equipped with water kettles (no livable domicile—permanent or temporary—is British-grade without one). And when Ron starts regurgitating slugs, my daughter is appropriately prepared for repulsion by daily experience with slugs. The British slug is perhaps the most common “minibeast” (small animal life-form) that we see over here—of course Ron has slugs coming out of his mouth… we have them regularly coming out of the grass into our garage.

Studying at a British university has helped me understand the idea of “houses” like Gryffindor and Slytherin. And when I attend “formal dinners” at the college I serve as chaplain, I sit at “high table” (sort of like where the Hogwarts staff are positioned beneath that enchanted ceiling). And the very subtle—yet nonetheless present—sense of social status within British society is quite palpably felt while reading about Mudbloods, Muggles, and Purebloods.

And to assure my Millennial friends—those who compassionately lamented my inexperience with the young wizard with the lightning-scar—to assure them that I am getting the fullest experience possible, let me just relate this one anecdote: while watching the first film with my daughter on holiday in Scotland, the actual Hogwarts Express (aka the Jacobite Steam Train on the West Coast Railway) twice passed by our window puffing its cloud of vapor into the air.

So although I missed all the fun and buzz of HP several years ago, I suppose I am happy to have waited.

Another advantage, of course, is that I do not have to wait for a release date….

[Coming: Magic, Christian readings of HP, the occult, and the genre of Faërie]

The Spiritual Life and Divine Assault (When God Hurts Us)

18 Dec Andrew Byers
December 18, 2013

“God sometimes hurts us.”

I said this as I sank with a sigh, exhausted and burdened, into a chair in our living room. Wisely, my wife posed the most appropriate question: “Well, does this happen in Scripture?”

The answer, we agreed, is YES.

God hurts us.

And Christians need a spirituality capacious enough for divine assault. Devotional literature that cannot accommodate a God who at times afflicts his people is inadequate for the biblical vision of the spiritual life.

I am not bitter as I write this—a bit broken, perhaps… but not really bitter. There have certainly been moments over the past several months, though, when I have hammered an ironclad sky with “why, O God?” or “how long, O Lord?”

With such prayers I find myself in good biblical company—spluttering laments are a central part of Scripture’s vision of spirituality. I have written about this sort of spirituality in Faith Without Illusions, especially in what I think is my favorite chapter, “The Way of the Tragic Poet: Worshipful Lament over Cynical Complaint.” But I have had to wade into the waters of lament thicker than I had known when writing the book. As my friend Chuck Hooten said, “you should have seen this coming!”

So where in the Bible do we learn of a God who hurts us?

It is hard to avoid, actually:

“I form light and create darkness,
I make well-being and create calamity,
I am the LORD, who does all these things.”
(Isa 45:7; see also Lam 3:38; Job 2:10; Isa 54:16; Exod 4:11)

For a specific example, let’s take Jacob. He was a child of divine promise. Jacob was a son of the Abrahamic covenant. Central to his identity in Scripture is a night of combat with God himself (or at least with his angelic representative). Fisticuffs with God: this is what being chosen as a progenitor of the covenant people got Jacob. He did not escape without pain. God gave him a limp. Jacob, the beloved child of the covenant, was disabled by the God who chose him.

Jacob was renamed “Israel,” a name meaning “strives with God.” Struggle and conflict with the divine Lord is intrinsic to being God’s beloved. From Israel the person came Israel the nation. So even the namesake of God’s people implies divine conflict.

Qualifications to what I am writing are immediately required, of course. The struggle between national Israel and God is most often due in Scripture to Israel’s recalcitrance or refusal to obey.

I have also written with verve, I think (both in TheoMedia, at The Ooze, and here at the blog) to qualify that we cannot haplessly attribute atrocities and natural disasters to the divine hand. By no means is God the source of every calamity.

But with fear and trembling over the vast theological unknowns, I still think God hurts us. At least sometimes. At least it certainly feels that way.

I know, I know—this is impious God-talk. But try the latest devotional logic on the poet who cried out, “For your arrows have sunk into me, and your hand has come down on me” (Ps 38:2). Reading Lamentations 3 will split open a gentle piety that defends God’s every action.

Then again, after ascribing directly to God the worst atrocities an ancient city could suffer, the tragic poet writes,

For the Lord will not cast off forever,
but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men.(3:31–33)

In a stroke of explicit contradiction to everything penned in the previous verses, the poet ends up suggesting that God really does not hurt us, at least not “willingly.”

Such is the spirituality of those who suffer. It makes theology very confusing.

Of course, Jacob would likely disagree with “he does not willingly afflict” us. And while squirming in spiritual pain deep in the night, some of us might disagree as well.

(Now, a transition: Most laments in the Bible transition at some point from grief to hopefulness. This brief lament is no different…. )

Even so, what we hold to when blood gushes from the divine arrow wounds in our soul is that whatever our take on the source of our suffering, the divine Lord plunged himself into it headfirst and drank the razor sharp cup. The worst cup of all. And not long after the cup was emptied, so also was emptied a tomb, that cup’s inevitable consequence.

I admit that most of this blog post does not resonate very well with holiday cheer. But I think it does echo (to some degree) the dark chords of Advent angst. At the heart of this season in the church calendar is a minor key chorus of moans, those of a forlorn nation looking for a Savior who seems hurtfully absent. The cry in the night of a baby, though, has signaled a key change. And those of us limping and pierced with the blows and arrows of the Lord must check out of the cynics’ ward and peer over the edge of that manger. Even if the Child’s coming is like “a sword” that will pierce even the soul of his own mother (Luke 2:35), it is a piercing we need.

Matt Orth’s Tragic-Comedy for the Disillusioned

14 Dec Andrew Byers
December 14, 2013

My friend Matt Orth has written a book. The two of us are both a bit squeamish about squirrelling our way into the powerful marketing mechanizations that give books a prominent showcasing in our society today, but we decided we could at least review each other’s books on our respective slices of cyber real estate (that is, our blogs).

Matt’s review of TheoMedia was very gracious. My own review of his Questions of a Curious Nature: The Incredible Interviews of Annabelle Farrow (henceforth QCN) will be highly positive. This is NOT because Matt is my friend and wrote a nice review of my own book. QCN is one of the quirkiest, oddest, and uncategorizable Christian-themed books that has made its way into print. And honestly: it is also one of the best. (I think I just made up the word “uncategorizable” for the purpose of categorizing it.)

QCN is an exposé of the American Christian landscape. It is a book for those disillusioned with the church… and perhaps for those who blindly do not suffer from disillusionment but need a good dose of it. QCN is no tirade of a cynical Gen-Xer, nor is it a work vindictively typed by Millennial with an ecclesial chip on the shoulder. This book is an exposé of the American church by someone who loves his own local church as much as anyone else I know… and has struggled in the inevitable brokenness years of faithful pastoral ministry always bring.

What is interesting is HOW the book proffers its exposé. QCN is a fictional satire. I am not talking about “Christian fiction” and all that category seems to imply. I am referring to something as wildly creative as Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, but perhaps even more genre-bending.

The book is written from the first person perspective of Malachi Evans. Evans is the cameraman (and husband) of Annabelle Farrow, a rising star in journalism who embodies in her character an admirable amalgamation of sweetness, tenderness, and compassion along with bare-knuckled grit and undaunted daring. In QCN we follow these two protagonists into a series of interviews.

These are not normal interviews. Orth opens up a portal—a narrative rabbit hole, a literary wardrobe—and we follow Annabelle and her husband into a new dimension of reality. Or at least into a place from which reality can be perceived at fresh angles. Annabelle and Malachi are afforded a unique series of one-on-one face time with evil entities (Fear), dead saints (King David and John the Baptist), and a range of contemporary Christians who represent a range of contemporary trends and stereotypes thriving in the American church (like the young and hip pastor Neatrick Funhopper and worship-buzz addict Sidedoor Sally).

This is weird stuff. But what Matt does here works. It really works. By taking us down fun and exciting fictional paths, he casts brilliant light on the church’s twisted ways of thinking. QCN is eerily effective.

But part of the reason is works is because it is so laugh-out-loud hilarious. QCN resists a polemic that places us on the defensive. Instead, Matt appeals to comedy and satire for his polemical strategy and thereby lovingly allows us to start laughing at ourselves for being so silly.

Of course, there are times when I wondered if maybe I should be crying. But the graciousness abounding in QCN accounts for a God who is much larger than the foibles and failings of his Bride.

Questions of a Curious Nature is the most insightful work on pop-Christianity I have come across. And the insights are shared with love. Thanks, Matt, for all the hard work….

JUSTIN CROSS | An Artistic Project We Need to Back… Immediately

03 Dec Andrew Byers
December 3, 2013

Dear Readers:

I have a number of friends God has jammed to the brim with gifts for bringing theology, pain, beauty, darkness, and joy into musical expression. When we deal with the most poignant realities of life, we must regularly appeal to more artistic media forms to honor the complexity and depth. We need songs and poems. We need singer-songwriters.

Justin Cross is one of these freakishly gifted friends of mine. And he needs some help. A good many singer-songwriters live in this odd tension of being gifted for song, yet unable to bring their artistic labors to birth without the practical necessities of expensive studio time and costly technical equipment. Justin has an album and it needs to make an appearance. We need songs that are honest about sorrow and pain yet pulsing with hopefulness, lunging lyrically toward some distant light, however faint.

His project is “Hope Where It Lies.” As of today he is $875 shy of his budgeted target of $3000 to see this album come to life. There are nine days left of the campaign.

I am writing this post to ask you to join me in helping him. It is a plea I can make with absolute confidence in the quality of work Justin is putting out.

Here is the link at indiegogo. And this is Justin describing the album from the indiegogo webpage:

“Hope Where It Lies” is a concept album. It tells the story of a man from youth to adulthood to the deathbed (and beyond?). The songs range from personal and reflective confessionals to rollicking and rowdy protest songs. The story is simple: It’s about a life from beginning to end. It’s about brokenness, heartache, joy, redemption, and (of course) hope.

I should also say that Justin’s work in this album is really special to me personally because he was at my side wrestling with issues of cynicism and disillusionment while I was writing Faith Without Illusions and developing the main idea driving this blog, the idea of “Hopeful Realism.”

This album comprises songs for the hopeful realist, my friends.

If you like what you see at the indiegogo site, check out his page at Bandcamp. Among the offerings, there is an Advent album ready to download….

An Advent Devotional

01 Dec Joel Busby
December 1, 2013

(Throughout the season of Advent, I’ll occasionally post a brief devotional thought. This will be cross-posted from an Advent devotional in the college ministry where I serve. For some general thoughts on Advent, read here.)

Isaiah 2:1-5

1 The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

2 It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be lifted up above the hills;

3 and all the nations shall flow to it,
and many peoples shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”

For out of Zion shall go the law,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

4 He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.

5 O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the Lord.

The ancient people of Israel hung their hopes, their identity, their souls on this prophetic vision of the future.

One day, yes, one day, their God would break in and make everything right.

God’s rule and his reign would be permanently established and recognized fully and finally. All nations would participate. Pagan peoples would no longer be feared because they would recognize the God of Israel as highest and best.

Then God himself would rule in personal proximity to his people and this would bring about a true and everlasting peace. Weapons of war would turn to weapons of farming.

The only task left after this final epic act would be for the people to walk in it, and enjoy.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the full realization of this dream lies in the future still. Just as Israel had to wait, so do we. Last time I checked, false worship, sin and brokenness, violence and strife, are very much present in our world…..and in my heart.

Advent is a time for us to long and wait for the realization of this prophetic dream. To anticipate a day of fresh and final salvation. To enter into Israel’s story and to hope for God to enter into ours.

He will make things right cosmically, and personally. Just you wait.

Just you wait.

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