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Monday, February 16, 2015

You read Harry Potter?!

How Christians can read books like Harry Potter in a smart way

Image result for free picture of lily potter's graveWhen the Harry Potter books first came out, I was cautioned by many well-intentioned Christian friends not to have anything to do with them because they promoted witchcraft, which is strictly forbidden in the Bible. They claimed that the books were training manuals for witches and wizards, that they blurred the lines between good and evil, hence confusing children and their ability to decide between right and wrong.  So, naturally, I was skeptical.
But I wanted to see for myself. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting much from a no name author writing about witches and wizards! Though the books were not of same caliber as the Chronicles of Narnia or The Lord of the Rings, they cannot be dismissed offhand. I was surprised by the deep themes J.K Rowling treated. They are the age-old themes of God’s story: the nature of the universe, good and evil, love, death, sacrifice and resurrection. There are few books written today that engage any of these themes quite so powerfully and are simultaneously so popular amongst our children and young people. I have always believed that we can read just about anything with our kids as long as we are talking about the content, the worldview the book represents and how the topics affect us. Obviously, the age of the children is a factor, as well as their maturity level. But if my kids can read Harry Potter, understand the themes in them and talk to their friends about them from within the framework of a Christian worldview, it is a win-win situation.
We all, atheist and religious alike, long for stories of love and sacrifice, victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. Stories where all evil is banned and justice prevails. It is a longing at the center of every human heart, revealing both a recognition of our limited abilities to make things right and desire for things to be right. It is the deeper magic that goes beyond all common sense, the power of love over death, that draws hearts universally. Harry Potter does this on multiple levels. Here are some of the themes we can discuss with our children and their friends: 

The nature of Good and Evil

“Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy” says Dumbledore to Harry in the Goblet of Fire. This is a great quote!  It is an ethical statement that presupposes the existence of discernable right and wrong. And how on earth is one to know the difference? This can get us started in a discussion about moral standards. Where do we get them? Why do people naturally know that there is good and evil and that good is better than evil? Is there a standard outside of ourselves? Can we stand up to evil once we’ve identified it? What makes someone a hero?
Lord Voldemort, the incarnation of evil itself, claims that “there is no good and evil, only power and those too weak to seek it” (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone). Ultimate evil is to say there is no good and evil. Evil power is found in blurring all the moral lines. The Bible, too, affirms this truth: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness” (Isaiah 5:20). We can ask, Where does our culture blur the lines between good and evil? Is might really right? How does one stand up to such evil?

The power of love and self-sacrifice

Harry was saved from Voldemort by his mother’s sacrificing her life for him. Dumbledore explains this to Harry: "Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn't realise that love as powerful as your mother's for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign... to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever" (Sorcere’s Stone).
Dumbledore again mentioned that Lily’s blood, shed in self-sacrifice, was a powerful protection against evil in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, “Your mother’s sacrifice made the bond of blood the strongest shield I could give you.”
"But I knew too where Voldemort was weak. And so I made my decision. You would be protected by an ancient magic of which he knows, which he despises, and which he has always, therefore, underestimated — to his cost. I am speaking, of course, of the fact that your mother died to save you. She gave you a lingering protection he never expected, a protection that flows in your veins to this day."
Harry is both the recipient of sacrificial love and the sacrifice. He ends up sacrificing his life for his friends at the end of the story. Of course, this is the central theme of the Gospels too. Jesus’ blood shed for his beloved is a shield for us. He took the deadly blow that was intended for us and his blood now covers us as a shield when Satan wants to attack us. We can ponder questions like: How do people deal with their sin? How is one saved from it? In what way is Harry's sacrifice different from Jesus'? Why is the cross central to a Christian’s worldview? Why is it good news? Why is death at the center of love?

Life, death and resurrection

Harry visits his parents’ graves in Chapter 16 of “Deathly Hallows,” On his parents’ tombstone he reads the quote “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death,” while on another tombstone (that of Dumbledore’s mother and sister) he reads, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
In an interview here, J.K Rowling says, “They’re very British books, so on a very practical note Harry was going to find biblical quotations on tombstones,” Rowling explained. “[But] I think those two particular quotations he finds on the tombstones at Godric’s Hollow, they sum up — they almost epitomize the whole series.” The second is a direct quote of Jesus from Matthew 6:19, the first from 1 Corinthians 15:26. For death to be put to death is a deep longing of the human heart and this is what the Bible says has happened in Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection. "Death has been swallowed up in victory." "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" (1Co 15:54-55)
This is not a topic that is discussed often where I live (post Christian, atheistic Germany). People pretend death doesn’t affect them because it is a natural part of life. But they cannot explain the anger and sorrow they feel when they lose a loved one. It doesn’t make sense to have these feelings in a materialistic world. But we can prod…Why does death feel like such an intruder? Is there really anything after death? Is there any certainty we can have that death is not the end? Is there any power that can overcome death?
There are many other interesting themes in Harry Potter, such as truth, identity, belonging, friendship and courage about which one could ask similar questions. 

Tim Keller has been fascinated by story and how story is the fabric into which God weaves and speaks. He reviews Stuart Barton Babbage book entitled The Mark of Cain here. “He showed how these authors’ stories and fiction bore witness to important aspects of the Bible’s account of the human condition. In successive chapters he showed modern literature’s witness to the inveteracy of evil, the impotence of the human will, the horror of alienation, the indelibility of guilt, the gift of pardon, the longing for immortality, the joy of grace, and the mystery of love. In short, he showed the fragments of the Christian story even in the stories told by the great artists of the modern era. Or, put another way, Babbage showed how the Christian master narrative made sense of all these other dark, gripping, and moving narratives.” At the end of it Keller writes: “And, in the end, learning this discipline—of seeing God’s story in the stories we tell today—will be a way for us to deepen our own understanding of and joy in the gospel we believe.”

I understand parents who want to distance themselves and their children from books like Harry Potter. Some might find other books to be far better literature. But we can also read them critically, finding the threads of God's story in them and using them to point others to the metanarrative of all time. I think we can say that all good stories are Gospel stories. If Christians disengage themselves totally from the world around them, they miss out on many opportunities for discussion with their unbelieving friends. Let us use the stories of our day to help our children understand their world, their own hearts, the gospel and how it is good news for them and their friends. Let’s not shield them from controversial topics in the hope of protecting them. Let’s talk to them about how God's big picture of redemption provides reason for hope and a relationship with the living God who can make sense of our personal stories and help us see how they fit into his grand narrative.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Is baptism a passport to heaven?

The world’s most powerful passportsA few months ago, I applied for British passports for myself and the kids. I was already British on two counts: I was born in Liverpool and my father is English. But all my life, I had the same US passport as my mother. Now, living in the EU, I felt it was time to try for a UK passport as the benefits to me and the kids would be many. The process of collecting the necessary paperwork seemed daunting. Sending in stacks of original important documents also seemed a bit scary. Would they arrive? Would I get them back? After months of prepping all the paperwork, I was finally ready to send everything in.
A mere 2 weeks (!) later, I received a bundle of 6 passports in the mail. Stunned, I held my precious little burgundy booklet in my hand for a moment then opened  it to the first page to check all the details. My eyes fell on the text in the front page:
Her Britannic Majesty's Secretary of State Requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance, and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.
Included was also a leaflet with the following words:
Citizenship is the exclusive privilege given to a member, also known as ‘citizen,’ of a particular state to exercise civil and political rights. Otherwise referred to as ‘nationality,’ the term vests rights and responsibilities to members under the laws of that country and entitles them to participate in its public life and affairs. Citizenship is both viewed as a privilege and an obligation since citizens are afforded rights relative only to their class and are obliged to render obedience to the laws of that particular state.
Something strange happened to me all at once. I was overcome with a special mix of emotions that I would describe as joy and awe mixed with fear. The joy came from the culmination of a long process that ended in validation, the awe and fear came from the realization that I now belonged to a Kingdom with rights and responsibilities and that I am now subject to the laws of the land. Right away, my mind wandered over to a spiritual reality, as it often does. For me, pictures and object lessons in the mundane really help me grasp spiritual concepts. The mixed emotions I had about my new passport were transferred to the reality of my baptism. Let me explain why.

1.     Baptism, like getting my new passport, indicates identity and belonging

My new passport grants me freedom, assistance and protection in the Name of Her Majesty. Though I was already, by right, English, I now have this assurance because of the Queen’s name in the passport in my hand! I can now say I’m officially a UK citizen. When I was baptized, though I was already a child of God’s covenant, the name of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit was officially placed on me. I was Christ-ened. This is now my identity. It’s as if, in baptism, God was speaking “she’s mine!” Therefore I belong to God and my life is to be lived out with this awareness of my identity. What a comfort to know whose I am! Within that identity, there is freedom, assistance and protection in His name.

2.     Baptism, like getting my new passport, is based on a higher authority, stamping me with approval, not my own merit

I did nothing to deserve my passport. Sure, I had to prove my documents were in order, but there is nothing that I could do to myself, to improve myself in order to be worthy of receiving a passport. It was granted to me, based on nature not merit. And so it is with baptism. This is especially evident in the baptism of infants. They did not even apply for it, it was given to them without their volition. Baptism, is, in the end, not at about we can do for God, but much more about what God, in his goodness, has already done for us. The washing of the water that indicates the forgiveness of sins is something we cannot do to ourselves. Imagine an infant trying to give himself a bath! Someone else had to wash us. But there is a way in which baptism is based on merit, but just not mine. It is based on the finished work of Christ on the cross that is imputed to me. Baptism is God’s stamp of approval on his son, transferred to me by pure grace.

3.    Baptism, like getting my new passport, has benefits for my husband and children

Since I have my new passport, my children also get one and my husband gets special status here in Europe because I am an EU citizen. There are real benefits to being a citizen of a Kingdom and they are also for the family. The same is true of baptism. Because I am a member of this Kingdom, so are my kids. There are special benefits for children of believers and even unbelieving spouses (1Cor 7:14). They are called “holy” or set apart, meaning, they have a special status in God’s eyes. Blessing is contagious!

4.     Baptism, like getting my new passport, reminds me of my rights and responsibilities in this new united Kingdom

Though my passport was freely given to me (well, for a modest fee!), this does not mean I can behave just any way I please. My life has to be lived out in a way that is consistent with this identity. I have freedom and rights, but also responsibilities in obedience to the law. If I were to blatantly go around breaking all the laws of the land through acts of terrorism,  I would have to ask myself whether I truly appreciated the gift I was given and living according to my identity. If I were to break enough laws, I would end up in jail and be judged for my actions. It is even worse for a citizen of the UK to turn against his or her country in such a way because it feels like high treason. Being a law-abiding citizen has to be a thing of the heart, not just a begrudging duty. Baptism, as a sign and seal of God’s covenant is also a reminder that we have both rights and responsibilities in this new Kingdom. God has standards because he is the King of this realm. We don’t lose our passport when we sin against God and others in this Kingdom, but we may be called to account for our wrongdoings. Being baptized is no 100% guarantee that a person will be saved, merely a sign that affords them both the blessings and the consequences of living in God’s Kingdom. But there is such grace on the way, even in the sins and failures.

In the end, human passports are just a reminder that our citizenship is in heaven. There is no earthly country that we will ever be able to really call home because our hearts long for the place we were made for, living in God’s presence, enjoying the freedom from evil and bondage to sin and basking in His love, acceptance and the company of all the other children of God whom we love and have gone before. So is baptism a passport to this place? The answer has to be yes and no...Yes, in the sense that it identifies me as belonging to Christ, and, confessing this truth, it carries me til the day I die. No, in the sense that is it a magical pass into paradise. Holding such a passport as a betrayer of the King is a liability, not an asset. I cling in faith to the promise that God will finish the good work he started in me, in spite of my many shortcomings and I look forward to the day I can enter that heavenly country with a valid passport in hand. In the meantime, I will enjoy the ability to flash one or the other of my passports to avoid long waits in airport immigration lines!

For a good Scripturally-based overview of infant baptism, check this out by Michael Horton.