Archives For The Arts & Culture

Thank God for J. K. Rowling

Mark Beuving —  January 27, 2014

“Christians should thank God for J. K. Rowling and for her clear presentation of the central values that are at the core of Christian faith and practice.”

That’s not my statement, though as I’ll explain I agree with it enthusiastically. That statement comes from Jerram Barrs, in his excellent book Echoes of Eden. Barrs is not an immature culture junkie. He’s not a hipster twenty-something trying to convince teens that Jesus is cool and so is he. No, Jerram Barrs is an older gentlemen. A scholar. He’s the Resident Scholar at the Francis Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Theological Seminary, where he teaches apologetics and outreach. So one might ask how a serious scholar can honestly thank God for books that many Christians have denounced as satanic.

I’ll address the concerns about occultism in a moment. First let me explain why I love these books so much, and why a scholar like Jerram Barrs is equally enthusiastic. I read the whole Harry Potter series twice in 2013. They were good for my soul. They were entertaining, yes, and millions of children and adults lugging these lengthy volumes around and becoming passionate about reading for the first time proves this fact. But these books are deeply touching and inspiring.

I have been asked if I can honestly say that I love Jesus more after having read these books, and I don’t hesitate to answer: absolutely! The books don’t use Jesus’ name, but by living within these stories I am a better person and a greater lover of Jesus Christ.

Jerram Barrs read the last book six times in the six months following its release and says:

“I found myself weeping with joy many, many times as I read and reread this wonderful reflection on the work of Christ.”

Here’s a brief rundown of the storyline that will show why this book is more overtly Christian, in my opinion, than The Lord of the Rings series and more powerfully Christian, in my opinion, than the Narnia series. [And by the way, serious spoiler alert!]

The Dark Lord, Voldemort, rises to power, himself consumed with evil and spreading evil throughout the world, turning the wizarding world from the good use of magic to the evil abuse of it. Intriguingly, Voldemort is connected with the image of a serpent. Then a prophecy is made, declaring that a child would be born who would be Voldemort’s demise. Voldemort tries to kill this child, Harry Potter, in infancy, and in trying to destroy the child he loses his own powers.

Voldemort eventually regains his power and tries repeatedly to kill Harry, only to find that Harry is powerfully protected by the self-sacrificing love of his parents, his friends, and even the lowly and marginalized toward whom Harry directs his own self-sacrifical love.

Harry eventually discovers that the only way to destroy the Dark Lord is to willingly offer himself as a sacrifice for the sake of his friends. When Voldemort kills Harry, Harry finds (in a chapter that is entitled, remarkably, “King’s Cross”) that he can now return to put the nail in Voldemort’s coffin. He returns and defeats Voldemort—not by issuing the deadly killing curse, but with the use of a disarming spell that causes Voldemort’s own killing curse to rebound upon himself and thereby rid the world of his evil presence.

The Christian parallels are unmistakable. And this shouldn’t be a surprise: J. K. Rowling has acknowledged that she is a Christian, and she worships at the Church of Scotland. If Christians could only come to terms with their suspicions regarding the fictional presence of magic, they could find themselves greatly enriched by these wonderful stories.

I am sympathetic towards those who choose not to allow their children to read these books out of concern over the use of magic. But J. K. Rowling insists that she is not interested in the occult and had no intention of promoting it through Harry Potter. I think we should take her seriously, and I do not think these books promote the use of magic in the real world. I encourage you to take a look at my thoughts on the matter.

But here’s the point. Fiction is powerful stuff. Everyone is eating up these powerful stories. Seriously. The last of the Harry Potter books sold 11 million copies within 24 hours of its release, making it the fastest selling book of all time. The books have reportedly sold over 400 million copies. The last of the Harry Potter films also became one of the highest grossing films in box office history.

People can’t get enough of these stories. They may not know why they find Harry Potter so compelling, but we as Christians know a powerful part of the answer: at their core these stories relate integrally to the greatest story ever told. Do not violate your conscience, but if you find yourself compelled, I encourage you warmly to pick up book 1, read it eagerly and with discernment, and see if you find the Christian nature of these books as compelling as Jerram Barrs and I do.

email

My girls loved Frozen. I loved Frozen. It was a great story that carried great lessons. It was also funny and entertaining. Ultimately, I loved it because it conveys a powerful message about personal growth and fighting for love. And perhaps the best part is that the type of love most exalted in the movie was that between two sisters, rather than romantic love, which triumphs in most Disney movies but actually gets ridiculed a bit in this film.

But Frozen also carries a warning about the importance of stories. Of whole stories. Of individual pieces of stories being set in their proper context.

My daughters love the song “Let It Go,” which is the most compelling song in the film. So we downloaded the song and have been listening to it. On repeat.

Here’s the trouble. The song features these words:

“It’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrongNo rules for me
I’m free!”

Before you stress out too much, let me assure you that Disney is not denying absolute truth here. Nor are they trying to teach our kids to disregard rules. But this song illustrates the need for stories and context.

In the context of the overall story, this song fits in perfectly. The character (Elsa) has been repressed, she’s had to live a lie, and at this point in the film, she “lets go” and finally owns up to who she is. It’s actually a freeing point in the story, and in some ways a truly healthy development. But as the phrase “no right, no wrong, no rules for me” illustrates, she carries her authenticity too far and her desire to stop restraining herself ends up hurting herself and many others.

So in the movie, the naïve folly in these lyrics gets exposed, and she learns to be herself within the context of right and wrong. The film sorts all of this out in a powerful way.

The problem is created by the fact that this song is too good. It’s the standout single. So people (like my family) are going to buy this one song and listen to it apart from its story, apart from its context. And as a stand alone single, it’s implying that freedom comes from shirking rules and denying the distinction between right and wrong.

To be clear, Disney isn’t implying this, because they created that song for its context in the story. But listeners will infer it because they’ll be listening to the song without regard to its context.

There’s no villain here. It doesn’t upset me at all. But it struck me as a good reminder. Now, my oldest daughter is 4 years old, so we’ve haven’t been able to have a deep talk about relativism and how one might mistakenly infer this worldview from the song she loves. If you have older kids, you may want to have a conversation like that. But for me, it stood as a reminder of how important stories are.

It’s not the individual elements that make a story good or bad, it’s the relation of the characters and events to the overall plot. This is as true of stories in the Bible (like David and Bathsheba) as it is of Disney films. So go ahead and enjoy your favorite scenes and singles, but make sure you pay attention to the whole story.

As I parked my car for our early morning pre-service band rehearsal and pulled my guitar out of the trunk, I realized that I had already been worshiping. No, Chris Tomlin had not been on my car stereo, nor was I listening to sermon podcasts. I hadn’t meant to worship (that sounds lame), but I had my eyes and ears open, and it just happened. Here’s how.

As I began driving to our church building, the sun was just preparing to rise. Everything was partially lit with the blue light that precedes sunrise. I drove West, and my rearview mirror displayed a gradually lightening sky with varying shades of deep blue as the sun reflected off of the Eastern clouds. Looking ahead, the moon was sitting low and shining brightly in the even deeper blue sky, shining through some wispy blue clouds. It was the kind of predawn that almost makes early mornings sound like a good idea.

All this I saw with my eyes, but my ears were busy too. I was listening to “Miasma Sky” by Baths (see the video below), a song I am only just becoming acquainted with, and it was killing me. The instrumentation and arrangement are so beautiful, so reflective. It’s nothing like a worship song, but the few and simple lyrics are about being swallowed up (in a foreboding way) by the grandeur of nature. This, too, was incredibly moving.

As I drove, I felt myself drawn into worship.

Then my former semi-fundy self questioned the validity of this experience. There have been times in my not-so-distant-past when I would have considered it fluffy, mystic, or “emergent” (my past self not understanding any of those terms) to be led to worship by a sunset and a “secular” song. So in the final moments of my drive I asked myself, “Is there a biblical basis for what I’m experiencing right now?” And I answered myself, “Yes, I think so.” (Apparently I have a very active and formal inner dialogue.)

Both aspects of my experience (being led to worship by non-religious sights and sounds) are easily explained both biblically and theologically. Psalm 19 insists that “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” Romans 1 says that God, from the moment of creation, has been revealing himself through the things he has made.

So I saw beauty, and I saw God. He’s the God of beauty. He’s the God in beauty. Ann Voskamp says it insightfully: “See beauty and we know it in the marrow, even if we have no words for it: Someone is behind it, in it.” His lights and colors were streaming through the universe on my short drive, and I beheld his manifold grace.

Likewise, I heard beauty, and I heard God. His name wasn’t spoken, but the sounds that he designed and made possible were being pushed into the air from my speakers. Those sounds travelled in waves through the cab of my car, obediently following the laws of physics that God instituted. They struck my eardrums, which resonated accorded to God’s design. And my brain, following God’s impossibly complex instructions, interpreted those fleshy vibrations as beauty.

It goes even beyond that, actually. Those sounds found their way onto my iPod because God ingrained human beings with the ability and inclination to experiment and create. He carefully chose the musical gifts he would give to the musicians in the band Baths. He formed a musical universe that through the creativity of his human beings would eventually yield guitars and drums and a host of beauty creating instruments. And the eventual result was “Miasma Sky” flowing through my speakers in the early dawn, filling my ears as the color filled my eyes, and drawing my heart to the beauty of the Creator.

So I say to my former semi-fundy self: “Yes, I was right to worship.” As the old hymn says:

“This is my Father’s world
He shines in all that’s fair
In the rustling grass I hear him pass
He speaks to me everywhere.”

Here’s to impromptu worship sessions. May we find them often and everywhere.

When Katy Perry’s song “Roar” released in October 2013, I almost wrote a blog post about it. As much as I like the song (and my young daughters are constantly requesting it), I was going to point out what I saw as naïveté in the lyrics.

Perry sings about how life used to be, how she used to be insignificant, a zero. But now she’s dominating life. Why? Because she has the eye of the tiger. She’s a champion, and we’re gonna hear her roar.

What struck me as naïve is that simply calling yourself a champion does not make you a champion. I thought of the people who love that song. People who are feeling broken, oppressed, overwhelmed. These people would be singing “Roar” at the top of their lungs, thinking that declaring themselves champions and threatening to roar (and what would that actually mean in anyone’s real life situation?) would help them conquer their circumstances.

I almost wrote that blog post. But then I came across a handful of videos on Youtube that changed my mind. These were videos of cancer patients singing “Roar” with frail voices and absolute sincerity. Videos of down-syndrome teenagers singing “Roar” while footage rolled of them trying out and making the cheerleading squad. Real tearjerkers. (Scroll to the bottom of the post for a couple of examples—grab your kleenex.)

On the one hand, these people have debilitating and/or life-threatening diseases. Is declaring themselves champions and threatening to roar going to relinquish the strangle-hold of cancer or reverse the pervasive effects of a genetic disorder?

But on the other hand. On the other hand, these are champions. These are fighters. Whatever the eye of the tiger is, they’ve got it. These are boys and girls whose souls have withstood the crushing blows of cancer, even if their bodies are crumbling. These are teenagers with a zeal for life who refuse to sit in the background, even though society has not offered them any alternatives. They have spent their precious little lives roaring louder than lions, even if their vocal chords can’t produce more than whispers.

This stopped my original blog post in its tracks. It’s true that declaring oneself a champion is not going to reverse the oppressive and debilitating forces in a person’s life. But music has a power to express what lies beneath the surface of our thought lives. It names that which we feel but haven’t had the inclination, ability, or opportunity to explore.

So a weakened woman in an abusive relationship might listen to “Roar” and be reminded that she is more than her manipulative spouse declares her to be. A dying patient might hear this song and exult in the declaration that he will not go down without a fight, and that even if the illness steals his body, his soul will not be defeated.

What can a song do? Indeed. What can a song do other than inspire the resilient spirit of those who have a hidden reserve of strength in their bones? What can a song do other than rally those who have forgotten that in this world are things worth fighting for? What can a song do other than remind us of what we’ve always known but never expressed?

Music is powerful stuff. So I’m glad I procrastinated on my lame blog post. I’m glad that Katy Perry roared, and thereby inspired many others to do the same.

Christ-Myth Angels

Joey Dodson —  December 23, 2013

I watched the “Nativity” movie with my family the other night. Afterwards I concluded: “Aside from some minor inaccuracies, the film wasn’t bad.” To which my clever daughter quipped:  “Well, the Book’s a lot better.”

Similarly, I’d have to say that when I look around at most of the modern renditions of Christmas: the Book’s indeed a whole lot better. One conspicuous example is Christmas angels. During this holiday season, it seems there is an angel around every corner. We recognize them by their wings. But in the Bible, angels don’t really have wings. I guess they could have wings if we equated them with the likes of the cherubim in Ezekiel or the seraphim in Isaiah. Cherubim, however, have four faces and their bodies are covered with eyes. And seraphim have—not two wings—but six. I admit it would be fun to replace the Christmas angels in our manger scenes with creatures such as these. Can you imagine the fright it would cause if we redecorated the angel costumes in our pageants as these figures? (Add some Revelation 12 to the mix and we got the makings of a Peter Jackson movie.) But alas, I doubt that the angels who proclaim “In Excelsis Deo” to the Shepherds in Luke represent the same heavenly creatures in Isaiah who cry “Holy, Holy, Holy…”  (Unless they are shape-shifters! How cool would that be?)

Now that I have ruined nativity scenes for some of you, allow me to tackle one more possible angelic misconception: the guardian angel. John Calvin argues that to say whether or not each believer has a single guardian angel assigned to her goes beyond what Scripture says. Or better: it does not go far enough.

Sure when Jesus says that the angels of children always behold the face of the Father, the Lord insinuates that there are certain angels to whom the kids’ safety has been entrusted. But perhaps it is a stretch to infer from this that each believer has her very own angel. Rather than being protected merely by one single angel, the Bible suggests that all of the angels watch for our safety. Why do we want a single special guardian, when we have an entire heavenly host watching out for us? According to Calvin, when we limit God’s care to a single angel, we do “great injury to ourselves and to all the members of the Church.” We do so by denying the value in God’s promises of auxiliary troops, who encircle and defend us so that we are emboldened to fight with all our might. Calvin goes on to apply this point to believers. Since the Lord has provided us with protection (not of one angel, but of myriads of them), “let us not be terrified at the multitude of our enemies, as if they could prevail.” Rather, let us adopt the sentiment of Elisha: “There are more for us than against us!”

As I was typing in haste one day, I made an embarrassing typo. Instead of Angel of the Lord, I typed, ‘Angle’ of the Lord. In the delirium that comes at the end of a semester for professors, I began to mock myself. Was he a “right” angle or an “acute” one? Although some Christ-myth mistakes make us laugh, there are some that are very dangerous. One that stems back to the early church and remains a clear and present danger is for us to be more fascinated with the angels of the Lord than we are with His presence. With or without his angels, whom shall we fear when the Lord of Hosts is on our side? We are confident that nothing-nothing-nothing can separate us from the love of God through his Son. Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael are great and all, but at the end of the day and in the thick of the fray, it is through Christ that we are more than conquerors.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...