Saturday, 13 August 2011

From The Church Times Vault: Harry Potter & cultural theology

Theological college had many highlights: the chance to be formed in a creative way, the opportunity to test out wild ideas, and the experience of training in a lively and vibrant setting. However, the real highlight – for a film nut like me – was the opportunity, one Saturday, to turn the college common room into a cinema and watch all three ‘Lord of the Rings’ films back to back. It was fun, intense and emotionally draining. Now I am about to do something equally ridiculous and wonderful in a parish setting: on the weekend of the final film’s release, I shall be having a Harry Potter ‘octothon’: seven films back-to-back followed by an immediate trip to the cinema to watch the final adaptation.

There is no doubt that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has been a true international phenomenon. Whatever one feels about its literary merits, it has become a compelling series for children and adults alike. This was achieved on such a grand scale that books were marketed with both children’s and adult’s covers. The film adaptations – whilst of varying quality – have been so successful that they rank among the world’s biggest grossing films.

The series’ impact fascinates me. For its success with both kids and adults goes beyond literary or cinematic merit: In literary terms, Harry Potter might reasonably be called ‘Mallory Towers with Magic’ –  that is, a bunch of kids go off to boarding school and get to do exciting things with magic. And yet, as the critic Lev Grossman notes, its world has ‘... a freestanding internal integrity that makes you feel as if you should be able to buy real estate there’.

It is easy to dismiss Harry Potter’s appeal to adults as nostalgia fodder – nostalgia for the lost magic of childhood. And there is truth in this. Nostalgia for lost youth is an abiding motif of many adults’ lives. Equally, as the spiritual writer, Alan Jones, notes, there is, in the modern world, ‘an underlying and constant anxiety about the future’. In this context, it is unsurprising that adults might take flight into comforting fantasy and images of a lost, and fantastical, childhood.

However, something spiritually more significant is going on. In an age when, in the UK and Europe at least, most adults don’t go to church and most children aren’t significantly initiated into faith, Potter and its ilk act as both reminders of and initiators into big spiritual and moral ideas. For example, Harry Potter is famously both an orphan and the victim of child abuse at the hands of his horrific cousins, the Dursleys. His school, Hogwarts, becomes his home and his friends his family. For Harry, the magical world represents a kind of ‘homecoming’. We are invited to participate in and identify with this sense of ‘homecoming’ and ‘emergent identity’ as we read.

In a world which is genuinely fast-moving and complex – a world which many of us feel utterly caught up in and alienated from at the same time – the story arc of Harry Potter provides a kind of calm port. We want to climb in and live there. Clearly the Potter universe is imaginative fantasy and yet it feeds our alienated, orphaned minds with a vision of homecoming and belonging that, post-faith, many feel they have lost.

Understandably many will say that, if this is even half-true, it is desperately sad: if a children’s fantasy story is giving adults a sense of place and connection to something greater than themselves, we are very lost indeed. Once, religion fulfilled that role and any person of faith, including me, will want to open people’s hearts to the Christian reality.

Yet we – as people of faith - are dismissive at our peril. The imaginative power of Rowling’s work says something revealing about what our everyday religion can lack. And that, of course, is wonder and, in a very real sense, ‘magic’. This is not about childish fireworks (great as they are) but about a sense of living in a world thoroughly alive with the power of God’s Spirit – a world of possibilities in which our imaginations are dazzled and fed. Church life, with its over emphasis on keeping the show on the road, can so readily be stripped of imagination and wonder. If we are to offer folk a genuine sense of homecoming it needs to be one based not on getting folk to maintain the organisation, but on feeding their sense of possibility.

Equally, we risk losing sight of the imaginative complexity of Rowling’s world. Harry and his friends are presented with genuine and real decisions – decisions which are personally costly, risky and sometimes questionable. Harry’s friendship with his best friends is tested again and again, especially in the later books as adolescent hormones kick in and he deals with adult questions about exactly who he can trust. In other words, Rowling’s universe, fantastic as it may be, is very like our own. Clearly the author has a very real sense of good versus evil, but these are characters who are not acting out according to a set moral menu. They make real decisions which have difficult consequences. By the end of the Potter novels, several key characters lie dead, others are brought face to face with the dreadful consequences of their actions and Harry and his friends witness the effects of standing up to hatred and violence – death and pain.

When we combine that costliness with the work’s mythic sense of belonging and homecoming, it is not hard to see why adults and children alike find this a potent and easily accessible re-presentation of ethical and spiritual truths – sometimes more potent than those offered in our culture’s truly great book, The Bible. So, for example, the defining spiritual truth of the Bible is the transforming and saving power of sacrificial love. Yet Rowling’s story restates this truth in a way that is both moving and readily understandable and, for many, more comprehensible than the Bible: Harry’s very survival, as a baby, is due to his mother’s willingness to sacrifice herself for his sake. Indeed, it is constantly reiterated throughout the series that it is Harry’s capacity for love, and nothing else that will enable him to defeat the embodiment of evil, Voldemort.

And, ultimately, inscribed in the heart of the Potter books is the single greatest myth of Western culture: the willing sacrifice of the one for the salvation of the many. Given how potent the Christ story is, it is hardly surprising that Rowling found it unavoidable. Her writing gifts – sometimes simple, sometimes delightful and winsome (and occasionally long-winded) – bring that myth alive in ways which people who may never darken the door of a church can comprehend. Indeed, perhaps it is the very artlessness of her writing that makes her so successful. She is, in terms of craft, no match for the likes of Phillip Pullman, but skill is rarely a measure of impact. The simplicity of her sentence structure makes her novels accessible across a huge variety of age ranges and makes the novels a delight for adults to read to kids. Equally, her tendency to spell everything out in minute detail appeals to many children and adults who prefer not to have too much imaginative work to do. Crucially, her work has an ‘ageless’ quality: in an age when children’s fiction is carefully categorized into age groups, the Harry Potter series transcends easy categorization. The combination of this with a compelling story arc is seriously potent.

When the lights finally come up at the end of my Potter ‘octothon’, I know there will be tears in my eyes: not only because I will be saying goodbye to characters who have become part of my own story like friends, but because the myth of the one who dies and lives again will have been beautifully and simply re-presented once again.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

The Lost Boys: Some Post-Riot Thoughts

The notion of 'The Lost Boys' is one of the most familiar tropes in our culture. Many  - including myself - will connect the idea with the '80s vampire film of that name which depicted a gang of vampires as teenaged rebels, lost to ordinary society. Of course, the phrase has its modern origin in JM Barrie's Peter Pan. The Lost Boys are children, led by Peter Pan, who through residing in Never Never Land never have to grow up and take on responsibility, the rules of conventional society and all that goes with it. Our tabloid media has occasionally made use of the phrase to 'brand' teenagers (primarily from  the inner cities) who have fallen outside the conventional run of society's expectations. Perhaps it has been replaced, in the light of the recent riots, by the less poetic 'feral youth', but the notion of a group of youths, primarily boys, falling outside ordinary social convention and expectation is a key modern trope.

In the late '90s, when I lived and worked in Salford, I spent a considerable amount of time in the company of so-called Lost Boys (& Girls). I helped run youth groups aimed at kids as young as seven or eight and as old as eighteen. I'll be honest with you: when I started I was absolutely shocked and stunned. Some of the kids we worked with were deeply troubled, neglected and, frankly, almost unmanageable. They had very little sense of boundaries. I feel slightly ashamed that I often thought that, for any number of the young lads I worked with, there was really nothing down for them. Some were already stealing at eight and, whether through bravado or truth, would offer you drugs for sale. It haunts me that I could already see the future of these little kids bleakly drawn out at the age of eight: petty criminality, drug dealing, prison sentences, boys becoming hardened tough guys. I sometimes hear about kids I knew back them - now in their late teens or twenties - and so many have spent time inside.

Of course not all were heading that way. And one of the things I want to emphasize is that even for those that had lost their way, there were some really special moments. Moments of immense warmth and humour in which the lads and lasses displayed real Northern/Salfordian charm. These were the moments when the masks of toughness (usually forced upon them by vile home lives) dropped and the child - still wanting to be hopeful and to dare to dream - would shine through. That was what would break my heart the most: knowing that these kids, even some of the older tougher ones, were still really kids. That if they were lost, they were still hoping against hope to be found. It was always harder to break through that carapace of toughness when the lads ganged together. But even then sometimes there were times of smiling and possibility.

It's easy both to condemn and to apologise for the behaviour of (what have been primarily) young people over recent days. I have been as angry as most and, believing we should priotize our best qualities (our compassion, our vision, our hope), I have also wanted to understand the causes of the behaviour. But most of all, I remember back to those scary, insane, often appalling but sometimes inspiring days in Salford. I remember the kids before they were utterly broken and lost. I remember the lad who - at eight - was forced out of his home everyday by a mum who needed the house to earn her living as a prostitute and how he'd roam the streets and be both charming and a little shit. I pray that he has found his way out of the cycle of violence and prison I know he fell into. I remember the lost boys and girls and how many seemed to have nothing down for them from such an early age.

There is a mystery here of course. Why do some, sharing in almost the same set of circumstances as another, escape these patterns of brutalization and others find it unable to resist? The Ancient Greeks were very honest, noting that we are all subject to the vagaries of moral luck, that even those who seek to cultivate the inner life of excellence can sometimes fall. The circumstances of our nurture really do have a massive impact upon who we become, even as some find the inner resources to carve out a different path. I know that those who have perpetrated the riots in the past few days need to come to a sense of responsibility for their actions; but I am also unsurprised that many share the common experience of exclusion, poverty, poor schooling and difficult home lives. I have had the advantages of moral luck in my background and many of those who perpetrated the violence did not. This simple fact prevents me from judging them as harshly as many feel they are entitled to.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Violence, hatred and hope

There is simply no doubt that the recent events in London and Birmingham have been vile, cruel and destructive. As someone who remembers only too well the 1981 & 1985 riots which ripped through our inner cities, I have been sickened by the images splashed across news media, Twitter and the internet. Indeed, the second by second, minute by minute coverage has only amplified people's anger and ire. This anger - which I share - has reached a crescendo and, given the opinionated nature of the net, has pumped up both people's language (de facto suggesting that the perpetrators are less than human) and calls for a very strong-armed police response.

I genuinely 'get' these responses: there is a huge part of me that wants to rip the gonads off the scrotes who have decided that this is the moment to help themselves to a lorry load of Nike Air Maxes and that burning down the livelihoods of committed, hard-working and often small scale businesses (including the stock of the marvellous Basick Records) is de rigeur urban behaviour. Nonetheless, I want to try to look beyond some ofthe responses and dig for something deeper. And no - this is no apologetic for angry, unrreasoned and stupid behaviour. I am a sufficiently sophisticated liberal to understand the sociological and economic analyses and explanations for the rioting. I 'get' the post-Marxist, Liberation Theology critique of consumerism and what this turns people into (even though, in truth, I often think it may be a little crude). Others have commented on this dimension I want to explore another: who is part of our community?

My anxiety is this: that the immoderate, but understandable, way in which many of us (including myself) are inclined to talk about the perpetrators of the recent violence suggests that they are no longer part of our society; that their behaviour has revealed them as 'sub-human' and, as such, not worthy of anything more than having their legs broken or innards removed with a rusty halberd. 'They behave like animals so treat them like animals'. The behaviour of a small section of society has made me extremely angry and tempted as I am to condemn them to the 'outer beyond' as a bunch of chavs, gangstas, hoods, whatever, they are still part of us.

Margaret Thatcher famously suggested that there is no such thing as society. for her there were only individuals and collections of individuals who band together for a common cause, good or ill. This kind of mentality has been almost impossible to resist in a culture which has emphasized the priority of individual desires (focussed primarily on buying and brands). On this picture, the rioters become simply an association of individuals ganging together for vile ends. And at one level that is true; but it also enables people to wash their hands of the situation or reduce the riot merely to a public order matter that needs to be quashed by any possible means. This picture is inadequate precisely because it lacks any sense of the patterns of wider society and the national community in which we all - in varying and differing ways - participate. A community which still seeks to value the damaged, lost and, yes, even the depraved enough to want to not only punish wrong doing but seek to reform individuals and redeem communities; to not simply take individuals who are seen as a canker and turn them into sausage meat. (That is the behaviour of totalitarian regimes and thank god we are very far from living under such conditions.)

So, once this situation has been brought under control - and yes, we should be supporting our police (who despite unresolved issues of institutional racism remain one of the world's most restrained law enforcement agencies) and those seeking to stand up to thugs - there will be an extraordinary number of issues unresolved. Certainly, those who have looted and destroyed must be punished; but this must be proportional and dispassionate. But I remain concerned that punishment does not foster compassion and human empathy. One of the failures of our society, in certain contexts, is its regular inability to foster a vision of 'the Other' as fully human and therefore not to be abused, brutalized and treated as dog shit. How we can help each other become less aggressive, less driven by desire for things and so on is a great enigma.

Concerning the rioters and looters my instinct is not to punish with 'extreme prejudice', but to suggest that - alongside custodial sentences - they be exposed to the reality of living in monastic settings - Buddhist, Benedictine, whatever, I don't mind. Absurd as this may sound, there is no doubt that the world of the monastery is a world where folk have to learn to get along with each despite vast difference and simmering anger and in which 'what we own' is much less significant than 'who we are'. Take the piss out of me if you like, but given thirty years of failed government schemes and rampant consumerism, I suspect that in many cases it may yet be worth a try.