Tell Me a Story

Reflection by Rev. Diane Rollert, 23 September 2018

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I remember once taking a very wet camping trip with our kids. It rained heavily all week. It rained so much that giant mushrooms started to take over our campsite, and we were forced to live under a canopy of blue tarps that we had strung up to protect our tent and our gear. With little to do, I sat with my daughter in our tent for hours, reading one of the Harry Potter books out loud. I don’t remember which book it was, but its magic saved our vacation.

When my kids entered their teen years and decided they were too sophisticated for children’s books, I was still anxiously looking forward to the release of the next book in the Harry Potter series. I couldn’t wait to find out what would happen to Harry and his friends as they grew up, and I needed to know that someday the evil He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named (Voldemort) would be vanquished.

You may think I’m weird, but there was a study a few years ago that found that adults make up more than 50% of the readers of young adult novels. These are not adults who are reading to children, but adults who are reading for their own pleasure. I discovered this, and a lot of the information that I’m going to share today, while listening to a program called The Ministry of Ideas, which is part of the Harvard Divinity School Religious Literacy Project. (https://www.ministryofideas.org/) This program was one of the inspirations for choosing to focus on the theme of story this month.

There are literary critics who say that adults who read young adult fiction should be embarrassed and ashamed for seeking mindless escapism. But is it mindless to love Mary Poppins, or fantasy books like the Lord of the Rings, Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, or Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone?

Long ago, there wasn’t such a thing as children’s literature. Children were given abbreviated versions of adult books. Later, in the 17th century, at least in the world of English literature, a tradition of writing books specifically for children began to develop. By the 19th century, it was common for English novels to be written so that they would be appropriate for the entire family, a kind of G-rated standard for fiction.

It was then that the American author Henry James complained that family literature was strangling the novel. Fiction for adults needed to be real, he argued. It needed to deal with the complexity of life in a way that wasn’t appropriate for children. That spawned a whole new generation of writers who wrote from an entirely adult perspective.

But some would say that the pendulum swung too far in the other direction. Today, critically acclaimed fiction for adults is increasingly focused on form and style. It can be hard to find a narrative thread. I’m sure you can think of examples in English or in French.

The popular British children’s author Philip Pullman puts it this way: “In adult literary fiction, stories are there on sufferance. Other things are felt to be more important. Technique, style, literary knowingness. Present-day novelists are embarrassed by stories. If they could write novels without stories in them, they would. Sometimes they do. But what characterizes the best in children’s novels is that they are not embarrassed to tell stories….There’s a hunger for stories in all of us. Adults too.”

Jusqu’ici j’ai parlé uniquement des livres en anglais, mais je pense qu’il y a la même tendance en français. Nous, les adultes comme les enfants, nous avons soif pour un bon récit, une bonne histoire. Des livres comme Harry Potter et l’école des sorciers ou Le seigneur des anneaux ont vécu beaucoup de succès dans beaucoup de langues autour du monde.

It’s been twenty-one years since J. K. Rowling published her debut novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (published as Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone in the US a year later). The Harry Potter books became so popular that they consistently topped the New York Times Best Seller List. Authors and publishers complained that Rowling’s books were crowding out more literary books. So the Times created a new category of children’s literature for its best seller list. From then on, there would be adult best sellers and children’s best sellers. All because of Harry Potter.

There are those who say that Rowling’s books changed the world. But not everyone has been impressed. Some critics have been especially harsh. As one critic put it, Rowling’s books were “pure slop that feeds a vast hunger for unreality.” But you can’t deny the fact that children and adults all over the world love Harry Potter, perhaps because we crave something that adult literature doesn’t provide.

Philip Pullman suggests that there are some subjects that are too large for adult fiction. Too often, he says, successful adult books only deal with the trivial. Will my football team win? Oh no, my girlfriend’s left me, now what do I do? “But children’s books deal with ultimate questions — where do we come from, what’s the nature of being a human being, what must I do to be good?”

I think that’s what I love about the Harry Potter books. Rowling says her books are about the reality of evil and death. She says she felt that she had a duty to show the real evil of taking human life, and that much of Harry’s journey is about dealing with death in its many forms. What does death do to the living? What does it mean to die? What is left behind after death?

These are deeply spiritual questions, questions that both children and adults seek to answer.

When I was in seminary, we were required to take courses in the Hebrew and Christian Bible. We learned the tradition of reading and rereading Biblical stories for deeper understanding. We learned critical methods for exploring sacred texts. The idea was that you would go back again and again over the years to know the text more intimately, to try to understand what God was calling you to do.

It’s a deeply moving process that I sometimes return to, though I think we Unitarian Universalist ministers find that we often refrain from talking about God or the Bible in empathy for some of our members who have felt wounded by certain interpretations of these texts.

So I was fascinated to learn that a couple of years ago two students at Harvard Divinity School decided to start a podcast series called Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. http://www.harrypottersacredtext.com/ Like me, the co-hosts for the series, Casper ter Kuile and Vanessa Zoltan, had gone through their required Bible courses in seminary. But the Bible, they said, just wasn’t a text that spoke to them. Then they had this brilliant idea. Why not treat the Harry Potter books as a sacred text? After all, these were the books that they grew up with, that had served as their moral compass, that had given them comfort during difficult times when they were young, and as they grew up and faced adulthood.

Beginning with the first book, they decided to explore each chapter through the lens of a different theme: commitment, loneliness, fear, generosity, vulnerability, love and so on. Each week they both offer a 30-second recap of the current chapter. Here’s Vanessa’s 30-second recap of the entire first book:

“There’s an orphan child named Harry Potter who lives with his mean aunt and uncle, and then it turns out that he’s a wizard and so he goes to this wizard boarding school and makes some friends for the first time, and then he’s super nosy, so he gets pulled into a big adventure and then it turns out that the big adventure is about the most evil man in the entire world, Voldemort, who killed Harry’s parents, and so Harry has to struggle with Voldemort at the end of the school year and he beats him or at least holds him off for a little while.”

Each week, Casper and Vanessa talk about the teaching they glean from each chapter as it applies to their own lives. They offer spiritual practices to more fully engage with the text. They always end each episode with blessings for some of the characters in the book. Casper says, “Today I’d like to bless Severus Snape for protecting Harry not out of love, but out of complicated feelings, showing us that something true and beautiful can come out of something bitter and painful.”

It’s not that they have built a cult around Harry Potter. Like all the characters, Harry has flaws. He doesn’t always do the right thing. In fact, Casper and Vanessa are interested in what all the characters have to offer as life lessons. How does the text begin to answer life’s big questions? Where is it calling you to take action?

I recently listened to the entire first season. I admit that at first I was sceptical. The whole project seemed a bit contrived, but as the story developed in the book, so did the co-hosts’ and their listeners’ engagement with the text. Within weeks, people started recording messages and sending them to Casper and Vanessa. The series had hit a nerve. The project was starting to resonate with people all over North America.

Here’s an example of a voice message from one listener:

“There’ve been many times in my life,” the listener says, “and I think times in the books as well, where I or the characters choose to be pessimistic to alleviate the chance of losing or or being let down. I think we see it all the time with Harry when he wants to do things by himself… But what I’ve recently realized in my life is that hoping for the best and practicing reckless optimism actualizes positive results. Not 100% of the time, but I’m just as happy when things go positively when I’m expecting them as when I don’t. It’s a deliberate choice to be positive and hopeful and to be vulnerable to whatever arrives.”

Someone else calls with this question:

“This week I ended up using the book as a means of escaping the current world because the shades of evil seemed more manageable in the book than in real life. Does that undermine the project of reading this as a sacred text?”

Vanessa responds that escapism relies on imagination, on the ability to imagine a better world than the one we live in. That’s something we need now more than ever.

What’s the point of taking secular writing and turning it into a sacred text? You can find beauty and the sacred in anything, if you give yourself time to really engage with it.

Beyond the podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, there is also an organization called the Harry Potter Alliance (https://www.thehpalliance.org/. Here’s an article about the alliance, edited by one of our members, Shoshanna Green: https://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/305/259). This is an organization that says its mission is to turn fans into heroes.“We’re changing the world by making activism accessible through the power of story. Since 2005, we’ve engaged millions of fans through our work for equality, human rights, and literacy.”

“What would Dumbledore do?” they ask.

When the teens of Parkland, Florida, lived through a mass shooting at their high school, they chose to take political action for gun control in the US. Emma Gonzalez, one of their young leaders, said the student protestors were like “Dumbledore’s army — a group of young people who rose up to fight when no one else would.”

J. K. Rowling once said, during a speech to a group of university students, “We do not need magic to transform the world. We carry all the power we need already inside us. We have the power to imagine better.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wHGqp8lz36c

Maybe now is the time to go back to the treasured texts of your own childhood. They may be more sacred than you realize.

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