What Our Stories Tell Us…

If you have a high nerd/intellectual quotient this is a thought provoking article. Or if you have three kids, pre-read most of their books, and wonder just what we are teaching them. The first paragraph…

The myths, folk tales, and fiction of every culture are part of a feedback loop that both reflects and also shapes cultural values. Such tales provide their listeners with heroes to be imitated and enemies to be despised, with dreams to be chased and errors to be avoided, and, above all, with a sense of what is normal in the world. Through stories comes a sense of shared culture and a shared way of interpreting life. Youths of ancient Greece and Rome were immersed in the hierarchic, heroic culture of The Iliad. Uncle Tom’s Cabin magnified nineteenth-century disapproval of slavery. The Andy Griffith Show upheld trust in the wisdom and authority of sensible, masculine American virtue. These stories all helped to shape the social outlook of young people and to prepare them for entrance into the adult world. In the last forty years, the stories that our culture provides for our youth have acquired a strangely regressive message. It is a change that both reveals and contributes to the tribalism and generational isolation of our era.

The author, Mrs. Mussmann, eventually gets around to The Hunger Games and some others that are on my daughter’s reading list. Personally, I loved the Hunger Games, but then I would. It has taken me 42 years to get as cynical about power and our own ability to fight the “principalities and powers of this dark age” as I am. The Hunger Games portrays power and its struggles exactly as I would expect it. President Snow has it, knows it and can use it to his liking. The technocrats of district 13 are the “1984/Brave New World” version of the same power. Give me Snow any day simply for style and core honesty towards those “in the know”. The (un?)righteous power of the technocrats, and their ability to deny what Snow is honest about, is more dangerous. Snow kills 23 kids a year. You know that the technocrats wouldn’t blink at killing 100,000 if it “made society better” and was attached to a spreadsheet proving the claim. But the core of the story is Katniss. Katniss who starts out fighting for home and hearth. She gets caught up and used by the powers. She almost buys into the alternative power’s story, but in the end finds it just as false. The only truth to be found is home and hearth. All she wants is a quiet life. Which is the one thing neither will give her, because you will be made to care. The soul that sees truly is most to be troubled. But, do I want my 10 year-old to drink deeply of my cynicism? Or don’t call it cynicism, but instead do I want a 10 year old with sense instead of sensibility?

I think Mrs. Mussmann has an argument, but it isn’t quite as strong as it might be. She wants to attack the single age clique, the cult of “my generation”. That is a worthy battle, but the Hunger Games is not a recruit there because Katniss isn’t fighting for her friends. She might be fighting for her tribe, but her tribe is simply those who want to be left alone. That is a great many people of all ages. And, Mrs. Mussmann can only forward the argument by ignoring one set of youth books, Harry Potter. Harry has many of the elements of the story of Katniss. The ministry (of Magic) representing the mass of “old people” is corrupt or useless when it is not actively wrecking things. But the point Mrs. Mussmann finds lacking, “one is never dependent only on one’s peers, because powerful and benevolent forces exist and will come to one’s aid”, is found in the Potter Series. In fact, as the books progress, you become aware that the single generation school environment is a small protective part of the real story. Love protects and saves spiritually, even unrequited love (Snape), especially unrequited love. It is possible to use power responsibly if not without blemish, thinking of Dumbledore, who hides things from Harry and often uses him just as District 13 would use Katniss. Even the Dursleys, comic relief or small people who don’t get it, are acting with the wisdom given them. Magic killed her sister, maybe her husband Vernon has a point in trying to keep it away from Harry. Denial is not good wisdom, and Harry can’t see it at the time, but the Dursleys do come to his aid.

Given the endemic nature of divorce which is itself becoming a quaint notion as the child of divorce is one step ahead of the child of the never married, such cynicism of adults is justified. One can see the power of such flights of fancy as Percy Jackson discovering his “dad” is Poseidon. At least a “god” has some excuse compared to the reality that so many are faced with that “dad just didn’t care enough (or at all)”. (And “he” at least left Percy something powerful.) The truth hidden in these stories is a good one. To me they are ultimately two-kingdom tales. This dark and fallen world is as a whole un-reformable. Use of power ranges from Dumbledore to district 13 – gray to black. Dumbledore who means well, but who uses Harry as a means to an end, and who ultimately is about fulfilling your vocation instead of your desires, to District 13 where you are but a number. After following the pied-piper of Obama (thinking he was Dumbledore instead of the head of District 13) they will more quickly glimpse the truth, the other half of the two-kingdoms truth. This world might be un-reformable, but we also are called to live in another kingdom, a Kingdom coming in its fulness. And we live in that Kingdom when we take responsibility for how we then live, when we live according the things that need no law: love, joy, peace, patience, self-control (Galatians 5:22). That second kingdom has freed us for those things, not for hopeless societal progress defined by the gray and the black.

The Sorting Hat

Hogwarts crestHarry Potter explains it all. Ok, maybe not everything, but Harry Potter is on continuous loop around the parson’s house. And, sadly, having read the Sorcerer’s Stone about as many times as my namesake gospel, you start to get a feel for the deep reasons why. Ms. Rowling tapped into a simple but nuanced way to understand the universe. Returning to the books is like returning to the catechism. You find again all the simple truth of why you feel, think or believe what you do. This might strike a note of foreboding for a people with a catechism already, but I’m not sure that panic is in order. First because much of the explanatory power is not really metaphysical or religious in nature. Second, because the magic really comes in two forms, comic relief and tragic. Magic is either funny and easily seen as the outcome of a world with a crack running through it, or it is the cause of that crack. The things that win in the end are available to wizard and muggle alike, namely love, especially in its self-sacrificial form. (And if you can’t follow that Christ haunting, well, can’t do anything for you.)

We like to divide things into binaries – good and evil, republican and democrat, law and gospel. As much explanatory power as binaries often have, they usually reduce the world too much. That is when we sometimes admit things in threes like: the good, the bad and the ugly or like kings, priests and labor or every presentation list ever (like this one!). That uber-three the Trinity stands as ground for threes, but using three to define the earthly things isn’t very biblical. JK decides to divide the world of people into 4 corners: Ravenclaw, Gryffindor, Hufflepuff and Slytherin. And this has incredible power.

Ravenclaw gets short-shift in the books. I can’t remember any except Harry’s comic relief first girlfriend. Ms. Rowling must not have run across this type much, but she knows they exist, and the group is recognizable. You could say egg-heads, but it is deeper than that. If your first commitment in to THE TRUTH then you are a Ravenclaw. Thomas Aquinas is the patron saint of Ravenclaw. Ravenclaw has a negative image in Slytherin. For Slytherin the only important thing is ideology. In the books the ideology is purity of wizard blood, but that is really just a prop. The real ideology is POWER. Why I say this is a negative image of Ravenclaw is because THE TRUTH is an ideology as well. You don’t know if you are a Ravenclaw or a Slytherin until THE TRUTH causes you to lose POWER. Constantine would be the icon of Slytherin. Hufflepuff is really just the great mass of people who muddle through. Sometimes we produce great muddlers (aka Cedric Diggory), but mostly Hufflepuffs just go along. This might be a stretch, but Augustine is a Hufflepuff. Yes, the world is falling to pieces around me, my mother won’t stop bugging me, the people want me to be bishop, how do you get through? You muddle through the city of man on the way to the City of God. The last house, Gryffindor, is somewhat tougher, partly because JK stuffs all her real characters here. She fairly obviously has a moral point to make, we should all emulate Gryffindor, but what do we emulate. Hermione would seem to be a Ravenclaw. Harry himself comes awfully close to Slytherin. And Ron is a born Hufflepuff. What makes them Gryffindors? Ultimately it is the cultivation of a virtue – courage. That Ravenclaw Aquinas would list it uniquely among the cardinal virtues because while the other virtues restrain our human nature, it takes courage to begin to modify it. The sanctified life requires courage. Interestingly Aquinas is the official patron saint of courage (all those Ravenclaws who write get all the good spots), but Thomas More might be a good one. And if you are Protestant (and Lutheran) I might suggest Luther especially approaching Reformation Day.

And I’d suggest that is a deep way of understanding people. All four, even Slytherin, have noble attributes. (And if you think I’m wrong about that, think about how much we owe to people who correctly pursue and use power. There is a case to be made that General Washington (with aide-de-camp Hamilton) would be a Slytherin to Jefferson’s Ravenclaw. I’ll take that Slytherin any day.) And I’m not sure it really leaves anyone out. Yes there is a catch-all group, but that seems like life. If you are a 10 year old reading Harry, that 4-up way of looking at people might strike me a putting the best construction on everyone.

So why am I thinking about Harry Potter instead of my namesake gospel? Well, it struck me that the 4 corners view does more justice to our political situation, and it helps to understand that we’ve come under the unfortunate sway of a bunch of Slytherins. I say that of both parties because it is pretty clear that the guiding ideology is power. When you have the hubris to take over 1/6th of the economy, that takeover throws many people out of their current insurance arrangements, and your replacement breaks everything you promised, this is not about Truth or Courage or Muddling Through. This is about power. Likewise when you are willing to shutdown the government basically because you can, this is about power. Under R’s and under D’s the federal system sucks in more power. That is Slytherin, and George Washingtons seem to be in short supply. Regardless of your party, the better questions to ask would be those that might expose a devotion to power alone. I’d rather be ruled by the first 300 Hufflepuffs than the best and brightest Slytherins.

Christ the King – one rule, not multiple


Full Text

Text: Luke 23:27-43

Christ the King is the last Sunday of the church year. This coming Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent or the church’s new year. The emphasis of Christ the King is the pretty simple – the ascended Christ is Lord of All – hidden now, revealed at times, revealed for all times on the last day. The lectionary specified the crucifixion reading from Luke, which is different. The Matthew (Year A) and Mark (Year B) readings are the sheep and the goats and the the lesson of the fig tree. Year C with Luke focuses on the thief on the cross. Do you see the world aligned with the priests, and soldiers and skeptical thief? Or do you see it from the position of the other thief? Is the cross just a scandalous death, or is it a coronation. Is the one on it, The King of the Jews?

If you side with the thief in paradise – it has all kinds of implications. The world today really wants us to separate ourselves into separate little fiefdoms – this is my private life, this is my public life, this is my work life, this is my life life, this is my financial life, and this is my spiritual life. And the world wants us to act differently in each – to act as if they are all disconnected, as if we could isolate things in one life from things in another. That path just leads to broken selves. Harry Potter’s Voldemort is a great example. He divides himself into multiple horcruxes. It allows him to go on living, but he misses the entire point of being human, in fact in that very act he gives up his humanity.

Instead, God made us Body and Spirit. He made us whole and wants us healed and restored. Restored under the one rule of Christ the King – coronated on a cross. If Christ is King over the heights of heaven and the depths of the pit, then there is nothing mundane or secular. Whether that is money or holiday celebrations or the clothes we wear, it has all been redeemed by the divine. And how we use it, how we live, reflects our king. Do we live as if we have split ourselves – barely human? Or do we live as if Jesus, true man also true God is one Christ – King?