Epilogue - Postmodern Christian?
Reading through Harry Potter I was stunned at the complexity and scope of the saga. If there is any criticism I have of the books it is that they are maybe too big, too complex. When I was studying music composition the professors would lecture us on "economy of means" and "thematic development." What artists mean by economy of means is that you should attempt to get the greatest impact with the smallest amount of material. Choose one theme, in other words, and fully explore that theme, eliminating any extraneous material that does not either express the theme or support it in some way. In part, that means to choose one form, one subject, one technique, and stick with it from beginning to end. Likewise, the artist is expected to be concise so that the theme comes through clearly, not buried among many other elements. That's what any teacher of the arts will tell the students, and what art critics are usually looking for. Economy of means applies equally to music, painting, sculpture, photography, dance, architecture, and literature.
J. K. Rowling has pretty much thrown that idea out the window. She has created a massive literary work that incorporates multiple literary archetypes and forms, and explores several major and minor themes simultaneously. There are three main characters, many secondary but very significant characters, and many more minor characters that play small but important roles. There are dozens of inventive magical devices, spells and potions that are important to remember in order to follow the plot. It is necessary to remember the invented history of Hogwarts and Harry's world in order to understand the conflicts in the story. All of that together makes it difficult to keep track of everything as you read. There is one major dramatic arc that covers the entire series, but each episode contains its own worked-out plot, with numerous sub-plots, minor conflicts and secondary themes woven in as well. The plot does hold together, however, and everything important is setup with ample foreshadowing. In terms of writing, Stephen King referred to Rowling as a writer who has "never met [an adverb] she didn't like." There are sections of dialogue broken up with flowing, highly descriptive narrative. The narrative is inventive, interesting, and builds a sense of really being in the story, but sometimes makes it difficult to keep track of the dialogue and the plot. In terms of form and genre, Rowling has taken the 19th century English schoolboy story, blended it with historical fiction, murder mystery, realistic fiction and fantasy to create something that should not work. Yet, it does work. Somehow, she makes it believable.
I don't know whether to call that insanity or genius. Well, maybe it doesn't matter. As my music composition teacher said, "It doesn't matter what you do or how you do it so long as it sounds good!" I suppose we could say the same about Harry Potter. It doesn't matter if Rowling breaks practically every "rule" of creative writing so long as the story is entertaining to read. Harry Potter is certainly entertaining to read, as the huge sales of the books prove.
This complexity is one of the reasons there is so much argument over the books. Had Rowling chosen one clear theme, one literary form, and used more concise narrative, everyone could at least come to an agreement as to what the book was about. As written, there is the possibility that each critic will pick one or two elements to concentrate on and declare those elements as the meaning and intent of the books. Another critic can choose a different part of the story and come to nearly opposite conclusions. See what I mean? This is precisely why teachers of the arts tell you to use economy of means and not write the way Rowling does. Yet, I cannot imagine the story any way other than as it was written. Even though I can objectively critique the writing and find things that are normally considered wrong, the story just seems right exactly the way it is. By the end of the story, everything falls into place and every part of the story works together to create a remarkable experience in the reader.
Every artist, no matter what the medium, the historical period or cultural context, will express the times and place he lives in. The artist lives within a society, becomes acculturated by that society, and must inevitably reflect that society and its world view. Even an artist that goes against the norms does this at some level. Consequently, we can look at Harry Potter not only as entertaining literature, but also as a reflection of the world we live in.
Artists in Western societies will often seek a new aesthetic ideal or new form of expression in order to be able to express something about the world the artist lives in. One artistic movement follows another, each rejecting the old at least in part. That is something almost unique about Western Civilization since the middle ages. For most human societies, the artist is expected to uphold tradition and avoid wild invention. The arts are considered too crucial to the stability of religion, politics, and society to allow excessive experimentation. That view of art was discarded several centuries ago in the West and since that time we have had one artistic movement after another.
When I was studying music composition during the 1970's and 1980's we had come to the end of the avant garde movement. In the preceding decades artists had become so outrageous and conceptual in an attempt to avoid traditional forms that there was nothing left to do. Once someone had burned a piano and called it music there really wasn't anything more outrageous to be done. So, we became postmodern artists, rejecting the idea of rejecting traditional forms. The aesthetic that I and others began to explore was how to revitalize what was old within a contemporary culture. Of course, I didn't know it was called postmodern at the time. I was just doing what seemed interesting to me. The postmodern ideal results in art that is eclectic, using collage, mixed media, and often paradoxical juxtaposition of forms. Popular forms are combined with serious forms, rejecting the distinction between "low art" and "high art."
This seems to be the problem of postmodern writing for many readers. It doesn't fit into preconceived analytical categories, but overlaps many. It recontextualizes the traditional, combines opposites into a paradoxical anti-metanarrative and in so doing expresses the metanarrative of the contemporary world view! We seek to include not to exclude, and to recognize the importance of the individual not demand conformity. Postmodernism is a rejection of the modernist hyper-rational rejection of tradition and superstition. However, the postmodern view is not a Hegelian synthesis, or even an antithesis to the modern, but a rejection of the need for synthesis, a view that embraces paradoxical diversity as the most accurate expression of human existence.
At first glance, Rowling's writing seems to be yet another variation of that postmodern eclectic approach to art. Then again, maybe not. Rowling's Harry Potter is possibly an example of the arts moving past postmodernism into something new. We may not have a name for it yet, and this aesthetic may develop further before it is identified as something unique, but I see it as something different than just postmodern eclecticism. It does represent the world we live in. There is a longing for stability, but not through a reactionary movement. The world is new, reinvented every few years with technology, yet there is an appreciation for the personal craftsmanship of past eras. Everything is new, yet we long for what is old. As a result, the Antiques Roadshow has become a favorite show on our new High-definition, digitally encoded TV. We want to hold the best of the past, but at the same time avoid the isolation of segments of society based on prejudicial attitudes. The contemporary western view of society is inclusionary and values diversity, not conformity. Likewise, religion has become isolated from public life and many people would like that isolation to end. The goal is not a theocracy but a return to acceptance of the importance of spirituality in man's life. The arts will reflect all of this.
Harry Potter has that oft-confusing, postmodern eclectic blend. Is it occultic or just a parody of magic? Is it secular or Christian in its themes? Is it just a fantasy story or an attempt to glamorize the occult? One possible answer is that Harry Potter presents traditional Christian themes in a contemporary secular context, but one that is expressed as an eclectic fantasy world not realistically. Since young people are fascinated with the fantastical worlds of medieval romances why not use that form of story telling to get the ideas across? I have no problem with that, at all. Harry Potter is not an explicitly Christian novel, but it does embody ideals that are clearly Christian. It is an entertaining story, but is also a moral tale. For those who still have a problem with the form of the writing, consider this: Would Rowling's story have been as well received and widely read had it been yet another pedantic, didactic Christian novel? I doubt it. As C. S. Lewis realized, "any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people's minds under cover of romance without their knowing it."
Lewis's statement was a sarcastic response to the failure of critics to see the implied Christian themes in Out of the Silent Planet, but it turns out to be a bit of prognostication as well. We have reached a strange point in Western History. Although Christianity has been the foundation of Western Civilization for 1700 years, today Christianity is identified in the minds of many people with a certain religious observance only. If you don't look like a Christian, then you must not be one is the attitude of far too many people. Likewise, many will not listen to a Christian teacher because they think of Christianity as a religious form and tradition only. If you strip the religiosity away they cannot recognize the doctrines as Christian. That's what we have in the Harry Potter debate. Non-Christians think it is just a fantasy story, while conservative evangelicals think it is a wicked attempt to influence young minds towards the occult. In both cases, however, the opinions are based only on the outward appearance and not the imbedded theology of the book. It's the same frustrating problem C. S. Lewis complained about.
It is also the ultimate irony. Because the outward form does not appear to represent traditional religion, non-Christian readers will accept, and even embrace the Christian ideas in Harry Potter, even to the point of being upset if you point out to them that the book expresses a Christian world view. The Christian anti-Potter critics reject the clearly Christian nature of the books because the Christian ideas do not have the proper outward appearance.
Religion, especially Christianity, Judaism and Islam, seen as something that demands conformity of action and appearance to a traditional norm, is considered by many to be at odds with the postmodern world view. Many people today, especially young people, accept Christianity as one possible private religion, but do not see its doctrines as an all-encompassing explanation for life. Consequently, in public affairs, Christianity is pushed aside, often treated as the crazy old Aunt in the basement that should not be spoken of publicly, much less taken seriously (e.g. The Humanist Manifesto). In other words, a Christian world-view is no longer allowed to act as a foundation for morality or public policy. When evangelicals screech and yell and condemn all non-conformed behavior, their words are ignored as out-of-date, reactionary fundamentalism. This presents a real problem for Christian teachers. How can we get across the "fundamentals" of Christianity to a world that no longer thinks universal fundamentals exist? Answer: we smuggle it in.
What I find most remarkable and exciting about Harry Potter is that it truly vindicates the Christian world view. Readers of all ages have accepted, even embraced, Harry Potter as a good book without even realizing the philosophical and theological foundation for the moral themes expressed in the books. In other words, they accept the ideal that voluntary self-sacrificing love provides protection from evil. They find that embracing death to overcome death based on the hope of a future after-life is the only solution to the paradox of life and death. They likewise recognize the character of evil as something parasitic, prideful and destructive, not a dualistic, opposite but necessary, of the good. Harry Potter may not look like traditional Christianity, but its moral themes are about as Christian as you can get. Thus the irony: when stripped of religiosity, the world-view and a priori premises of Christianity are readily accepted and embraced even by a postmodern society. And, that is vindication, not denial, of the universal, timeless nature of the Christian message.
One thing I will stand firm on. Those who want to criticize Harry Potter should at least make an honest effort to understand the books and how they are constructed. Much of the criticism is nothing more than a knee-jerk response to the superficial elements in the story. If we are going to criticize a book, we must first try to understand it. And, to understand a book, we need to read critically and in depth.
Even more important, there must be an element of compassion for the author. Compassion gives us the ability to stand in another's place, try to see the world as he sees it, and make as much of an effort as possible to understand what that person is trying to say and why he is trying to say it. An author may use a language or form of expression we don't understand or feel is inappropriate, but that is almost irrelevant. How a person speaks is often distinct from what a person has to say. A Southern Baptist evangelist, using vernacular expressions and strong local dialect, can nevertheless be teaching "high cotton" theology. A compassion for one another requires that we look past the outward appearance and seek to look into the other's heart. Many Christian critics have not done that with Harry Potter. It's ironic, since compassion for others is a core Christian value. It is also, I must add, a key theme in Harry Potter. Perhaps even the harshest critics have something to learn from the books after all.
1. Warren H. Lewis ed., Letters of C. S. Lewis . New York: Harcourt Brace & World, 1966.