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Chiasms on the Brain?

I was recently asked some questions about chiasms: Are biblical scholars just bored and seeing things? Would ancient audiences have picked up on them? Is this a widely attested ancient Near Eastern device? Do lay Bible readers have any hope of seeing them or must they consult commentaries?

These are good questions. There are biblical scholars who are very suspicious of chiasms, especially of larger proposals that stretch over whole sections of texts or even whole books. I come down with those who see chiasms as a key structuring device in ancient literature. I would add that it’s not just ancient literature. I think it was a prof I had in college, Skip Hays, who suggested that The Great Gatsby has a paneled structure that is basically chiastic. There are plenty of examples of balanced structures in the world’s literature. Think of the Divine Comedy . . .

Anyway, in a world that didn’t use chapters, chapter titles (the chapter and verse numbers in the Bible were added later–they don’t come from the biblical authors), bold subheadings, and italics, authors seem to have employed chiastic structures, inclusios, and other devices that rely on the repetition of key words, phrases, or thematic concepts to structure their material.

There is evidence that early on the biblical texts were widely memorized, as well as evidence that they were regularly read aloud. I think it plausible that authors expected their audiences to recognize chiastic structures and inclusios formed by the repetition of key words, phrases, and concepts, and if they weren’t caught on first hearing (those accustomed to listening closely to texts being read aloud probably had more facility for hearing such things–I notice that my sons, who have heard us read aloud to them a lot, seem to catch more from a first reading than my wife and I sometimes do) they could be noticed in the memorization/meditation/recitation process.

This is not limited to the ANE, though, because chiasms are also widely attested in the NT. I see a chiastic structure in the whole book of Revelation.

A proposed chiasm is either convincing or unconvincing, isn’t it? We’re dealing with those points on the scale from impossible to unlikely to implausible to possible to plausible to likely to certain . . . Sometimes chiasms are more apparent if the texts are read in the original Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic, though if you’re reading a more literal translation you might still pick it up if you’re paying close attention and thinking hard about how the text hangs together. I think if you were to study a text really closely or memorize it in something like the NASB or ESV or NKJV, you might notice a chiastic structure . . . so commentaries are not the layperson’s only hope of seeing the structure that is there.

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God Bless Andrew Peterson

Today at our house we are officially inducting Andrew Peterson into the Hamilton Hall of Fame for his sheer awesomeness. If you’re a regular here at For His Renown, you know that we have taken great delight in Andrew’s music (song) and writings (word), and now he has topped it off with a gift of line (form). The T.H.A.G.s, the Three Honored and Great Subjects, of music, writing, and drawing, are crafts this brother cultivates, and he has blessed us with all three.

We were introduced to his work several years ago when a dear friend gave us his Christmas album Behold the Lamb of God, which may be the best thing to happen to Christmas music since Handel’s Messiah. We loved Resurrection Letters Vol. 2, then Counting Stars, and we eagerly await Light for the Lost Boy. You won’t regret buying these albums. They will enrich your life, open your eyes, deepen your soul, and tell you of the hope that holds through the night.

Then we learned that he wrote books in addition to songs, and we had to have a look. What we saw was startling, intriguing, joy-giving, yea, beautiful. One night as we were reading On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, it got so late I had to put the kids to bed, but I was in storygrip so after I put them to bed I kept reading right on to the end.

Hit that link above and go get your copy. Read and enjoy, then move on to North! Or Be Eaten, whose adventure and sacrifice and resurrection are topped off by the joy of the reunion of a long separated family in The Monster in the Hollows, a joy that rises from the ashes of sorrow and must plunge into the uncertainty of the future. What that future holds awaits the writing of The Warden and the Wolf King.

If you get the books and start now, you can live through the experience of reading them as the story is being written–how often does the chance to do that come along? Books one, two, and three are waiting for you at Amazon or the Rabbit Room. I read them aloud to our kids, and now the ones old enough to read regularly revisit them.

All this brings me to the point of this post. We entered a book review contest, won second place, and the creative generosity of Andrew Peterson resulted in our prize arriving today!

Andrew is in our Hamilton Hall of Fame for this drawing of The Great Library at Ban Rona, replete with a note from the author telling the thrilling tale of the perilous adventure that overtook him as he created the masterpiece.

Praise God for Andrew Peterson, today’s inductee into the Hamilton Hall of Fame, may the Lord bless his every endeavor, and may each of you visit the links to the works of art above, click the Like button, click the Add to Cart button, then enjoy the music and the stories, the lyrics and the love.

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The Big Story of the Bible in Three Minutes

Nice piece of biblical theology here:

Trevin Wax describes it like this:

At the SBC yesterday, we presented a video on The Gospel Project that summarizes the biblical storyline in 3 minutes using famous art.

I don’t use the description “must-see” very often, but this is one of those rare occasions when I think you should take a few minutes to watch (and then share). The video team did an outstanding job putting this together, and I’m excited to see a compelling, artistic account of the Bible’s grand storyline and our mission as gospel story-tellers.

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Do You “Get” Flannery O’Connor? She Writes Like a Biblical Author

Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood left me scratching my head. I think that was part of her technique, honestly. The “meaning” of her stories isn’t right there on the surface as it is in a Dickens novel. Her works really have to be pondered, and you’re best off pondering from the perspective of the biblical authors (by the way, learning the perspective of the biblical authors is the point of biblical theology).

I think the technique of writers like Flannery O’Connor and James Joyce is actually closer to that of the biblical authors than what we find from the likes of Dostoevsky, Dickens, Tolstoy, etc (writers who are easier to enjoy). What I mean is that as in biblical narratives, the plot isn’t always there on the surface, and you have to read carefully for the perspective from which the narrator presents the story. Once you understand the narrator’s perspective, you can tell whether his presentation is meant to be taken positively or negatively (note: if Miss Flannery can use the generic “he” when talking about what authors do, and she does, so I can).

Consider this example: suppose a hard-left abortion-activist is describing the activities of a pro-life person trying to persuade women not to have abortions. If the abortionist says the words: “He was standing outside that clinic distributing literature,” we know that statement is meant as an indictment.

But consider the statement.

It’s only an indictment because we know the abortionist’s opinion of such activity.

The same words could be spoken by a pro-life attorney defending such behavior: “He was standing outside that clinic distributing literature.” When the pro-life attorney says the words, they are a declaration of innocence rather than an indictment.

My point here is that this is how the biblical authors often operate. The authors of Kings and Samuel expect their audience to know Deuteronomy, and they expect their audience to understand that their accounts are written with the Torah as the standard of evaluation. The meta-narrative in which they have couched their plot has also been articulated by Moses in passages like Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy 4:25–31, and Deuteronomy 28–32, and this meta-narrative is assumed rather than directly invoked in a passage like Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple in 1 Kings 8.

So to understand these texts, we have to know the perspective of the biblical authors. That is, we have to understand biblical theology. (Want some help?).

All this to say, I think that writers like James Joyce and Flannery O’Connor are imitating the artistry they have seen in the Bible, and I’m grateful for people who have studied the writings of Joyce and O’Connor with the kind of rigor a biblical theologian applies to the Bible.

Which brings me to the point of this post. I’m really grateful that Jonathan Rogers has started The Flannery O’Connor Summer Reading Club, and I think you should get Flannery’s Collected Works, read along with Mr. Rogers, and with his help, let Miss Flannery shock you into sensibility. It will not be like a sweater clad visit to a safe neighborhood. It will be a different kind of beautiful day in the neighborhood.

The first post on “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is up, along with a discussion of the Misfit’s moral clarity, and you can listen to Miss Flannery herself read the story here.

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“The Rolling English Road,” by G. K. Chesterton

The Rolling English Road

by Gilbert Keith Chesterton

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.

I knew no harm of Bonaparte and plenty of the Squire,
And for to fight the Frenchman I did not much desire;
But I did bash their baggonets because they came arrayed
To straighten out the crooked road an English drunkard made,
Where you and I went down the lane with ale-mugs in our hands,
The night we went to Glastonbury by way of Goodwin Sands.

His sins they were forgiven him; or why do flowers run
Behind him; and the hedges all strengthening in the sun?
The wild thing went from left to right and knew not which was which,
But the wild rose was above him when they found him in the ditch.
God pardon us, nor harden us; we did not see so clear
The night we went to Bannockburn by way of Brighton Pier.

My friends, we will not go again or ape an ancient rage,
Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age,
But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth,
And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death;
For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.

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A Really Cool Math Fact About the Squares

My kids are in Classical Conversations (CC), which we love. This year they learned the squares (a number times itself) to 15, and they learned them to a song. The information in CC is wonderful. I wish I knew all this stuff. But apparently when I was in elementary school the “educational experts” had decided that it was cruel to kids (or something) to make them memorize “useless information.” Harumph!

Anyway, I mentioned to my wife that I wish I could learn this stuff, so she asked me at dinner what I wanted to learn. I said, “the squares.” So they taught me the song. You can get it here, and here are the numbers:

1, 4, 9, 16, 25, 36, 49, 64, 81, 100, 121, 144, 169, 196, 225

As I was thinking about these numbers and trying to learn the song, I remembered something I read in a Princeton Review book when I was studying for the GRE (this is one of the things that makes me grateful that I had to take the GRE, by the way, and one of the reasons I encourage students to study for it and really try to learn!).

Look at those numbers. Do you notice the space between them?

Between 1 and 4 are 3 points on the number line, then between 4 and 9 there are 5, between 9 and 16 there are 7, and it continues up by odd numbers as follows:

3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, 17, 19, 21, 23, 25, 27, 29

That is cool. God made the world in an orderly fashion, and he built elegance and beauty into it, as though he expected people to come along and search out all his wisdom to marvel at his glory.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1).

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The Life We Long for Is the Life We Have: Some Thoughts On Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

I mentioned that I was hoping to post a reflection on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and the piece I was referring to has appeared on The Gospel Coalition site.

I argue that McCarthy is trying to help us enjoy our lives as we have them in his novel The Road. This understanding of the book is substantiated (especially around the 7 minute mark) by what McCarthy said about the book in what may be the only TV interview he has ever done.

I’m embedding this Oprah interview with Cormac McCarthy below (I disagree with the title that whoever uploaded the video gave it, but I have no control over that. I don’t think he bombed!). There’s a better quality version of the video of  on Oprah’s site.


Cormac McCarthy on ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’

You won’t want to miss The Road.

And at TGC: The Life We Long For

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Brad Mann Sings the National Anthem

When I was a PhD student here at SBTS from 2000–2003, we were members at Clifton Baptist Church. It was a joy to sit under Tom Schreiner’s preaching and be led in worship by Chip Stam. One of my favorite things was to interact with Brad Mann and hear him sing. There were times when I would watch Brad sing in the choir in worship, and I would rejoice that one day he will see the Lord Jesus face to face.

My friend Brad Mann is blind, but that brother can sing. He recently had the opportunity to sing the National Anthem before a UofL basketball game at the KFC Yum Center, and he brought down the house. Watch it here:

http://youtu.be/aYyWgVeV4p8

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Some Great Statements in Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD

At some point I hope to post a longer reflection on Cormac McCarthy’s pulitzer prize winning novel The Road. The book’s beautiful prose takes us to an ugly world, ugly but not without hope.

One of the joys of great literature is the opportunity to savor the well spoken word. The great writers model for us how to communicate in fresh, piercing ways. This post is a selection of some stellar statements.

describing the man and son on the road, McCarthy refers to them as “each the other’s world entire” (6).

the bombed landscape is “like a charcoal drawing sketched across the waste” (8).

the man and boy discuss the way that “the things you put into your head are there forever” (12).

the weather is “Cold to crack the stones. To take your life” (14).

the landscape is an “ashen scabland” (16).

people are “creedless shells of men tottering down the causeways like migrants in a feverland. The frailty of everything revealed at last” (29).

beholding beauty, McCarthy writes of the man and his impulse to worship: “The color of it moved something in him long forgotten. Make a list. Recite a litany. Remember” (31).

a question is posed: “How does the never to be differ from what never was?” (32).

the sad state of the darkened world: “By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp” (32).

the man has taught his son: “if you break little promises you’ll break big ones” (34).

a waterfall is encountered, and “They walked out along the rocks to where the river seemed to end in space . . . . The river went sucking over the rim and fell straight down into the pool below. The entire river” (39).

Read the whole thing.

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A Book Trailer for Revelation (Almost)

A trailer for my book, Revelation: The Spirit Speaks to the Churches didn’t come together, but this video for RevelationApp basically does the job:

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The Authorial Agony of Charles Dickens

My friend Scott Corbin sent me this poignant excert from Clair Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life, 113-114:

“These were all distractions from the central business of the year, which was the story that had started as a few episodes and was being made into a novel, week by week, The Old Curiosity Shop. Against all the odds, it became the second-highest seller of all his books, surpassed only by the The Pickwick Papers, another improvised tale. What sort of a story was it? A very odd one, a picaresque tale of a child who tries and fails to escape from her fate, with a supposed protector, her grandfather, addicted to gambling, and a grotesquely wicked pursuer, the dwarf Quilp, both putting her at risk and driving her towards her death. Nell herself has no character beyond sweetness, goodness and innocence, which endeared her to male readers; and Lord Jeffrey, the great Scottish judge, critic and sometime editor of the Edinburgh Review, even likened her to Cordelia, although the only resemblance is in their untimely deaths. At the age of thirteen, Nell effectively has to look after her grandfather, who has been corrupted by his fascination with money, rather as Dickens’s maternal grandfather had been corrupted by money, and his father also, overspending, borrowing and failing to settle his debts; so this aspect of the story was quite close to home. And while there is very much more in the book than Nell, it is her death that made its fame. It was Forster who suggested that Dickens should kill her off: he seized the idea, and the slowly approaching death of Little Nell held readers in a state of excited anxiety on both sides of the Atlantic for many weeks. Letters came to Dickens imploring him to save her, and grave and normally equable men sobbed uncontrollably when they read that she was dead.

Dickens himself suffered as he wrote of Nell’s decline, and shared his sufferings with his friends through November and December 1840. He told Forster, ‘You can’t imagine how exhausted I am today with yesterday’s labours… All night I have been pursued by the child; and this morning I am unrefreshed and miserable. I don’t know what to do with myself… I think the close of the story will be great.’ Then, a few days later, ‘The difficulty has been tremendous — the anguish unspeakable.’ To his illustrator, Cattermole, he wrote, ‘I am breaking my heart over this story, and cannot bear to finish it.’ In January, Macready was told, ‘I am slowly murdering that poor child, and grow wretched over it. It wrings my heart. Yet it must be.’ A few days later it was Maclise who heard, ‘If you knew what I have been suffering in the death of that child!’

Another letter to Forster shows how Dickens used his suffering, deliberately summoning up painful feelings, in the cause of telling a better story: ‘I shan’t recover it for a long time. Nobody will miss her like I shall. It is such a very painful thing to me, that I really cannot express my sorrow… I have refused several invitations for this week and next, determining to go nowhere til I had done. I am afraid of disturbing the state I have been trying to get into, and having to fetch it all back again.’

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The Best Essay I’ve Ever Read on the Book of Ruth

Peter Leithart, “When Gentile Meets Jew: A Christian Reading of Ruth and the Hebrew Scriptures,” Touchstone, May 2009, 20–24.

Some highlights:

Christological reading that integrates the detailed studies of Jewish scholars has the potential to address some of the complaints against the historical practice of typology. Taking cues from Luke 24​, typological interpretation has traditionally plundered the Old Testament for shadowy types of Jesus.

This is consistent with the New Testament’s Christological use of the Old: Jesus is the Seed of Abraham​, Melchizedek, Moses, David, the sage-king Solomon, Elisha, a prophet like Jeremiah, and, above all, the Last Adam. What traditional typology has often missed, however, is the complexity of these Old Testament types. Each type is itself a rich tapestry of antitypes.

Jesus is David, but David himself is Adam, Jacob, Moses, and Israel. According to the Davidic covenant (2 Sam. 7), for example, David’s sons are sons of Yahweh; but Yahweh already has a son, Israel. Thus, David’s sons personify Israel, and a Davidic Christology is at the same time an Israel Christology.

To say that Jesus is the Son of David​ seems to give us only a skeletal royal Christology, but once we see that the figure of David is elaborated by overt or implicit typological links with earlier figures, we begin to put flesh on the bones. Jesus is not the “second Adam,” as if history skipped from Eden to Golgotha without anything intervening. Jesus is the Last Adam, the last of a series of increasingly complex Adam figures, and as such He embodies, and surpasses, them all.

——–

At first, Ruth seems unpromising territory for a Christian interpreter. Ruth herself is mentioned exactly once in the New Testament, on page 1, in the genealogy that begins Matthew’s Gospel (1:5). After that, she’s ignored. Boaz gets (slightly) more exposure, gaining a place in Luke’s genealogy as well as Matthew’s (3:32). Beyond that, there are no explicit references to Ruth, nor does the New Testament contain any obvious allusions to Ruth’s story.

——–

Moab is triply disqualified from association with Israel. Moab himself was the son of the incestuous daughter of Lot (Gen. 19); at Baal-Peor, Balaam unleashed the daughters of Moab into the camp of Israel to seduce Israelite men to fornication and idolatry, provoking Yahweh to bring down a plague that stopped only when Phinehas impaled a fornicating couple with his spear (Num. 25); and when Israel first passed through Moabite territory, the Moabites refused to offer bread and water (Num. 22:1–6; Deut. 23:4), but instead hired Balaam to spout imprecations.

——–

Ruth the Anti-Type

Her redemption of the Moabite reputation has a double twist. When she sneaks onto the threshing floor the night after the harvest festival to find Boaz—a man old enough to call her “my daughter” (Ruth 3:10)—she is every inch the Moabitess. Like Lot’s daughters, she appears to be approaching a wine-filled “father” seeking a son; like the Moabite women who seduced Israel, she seems to be preying on an unsuspecting Israelite man, and we almost expect a Phinehas to loom up, spear poised.

Yet this Moabitess has already pledged herself to the Israelite widow, and all her Moabitish actions are acts of hesed (cf. 3:10). She does want a son from Boaz, but she acts out of loyalty to Naomi. Unlike her Moabite forebears who refused to bring food to Israel, Ruth is an inexhaustible source of bread for Naomi. Every time she leaves the city, she returns with baskets full of grain (2:17–18; 3:15, 17). This Gentile woman fills the empty Naomi (2:18).

Ruth is the antitype of Lot’s daughters and of the Moabite women at Baal Peor— anti-type because she plays against type, fulfilling the earlier history of Moab by reversing it. In a more straightforward sense, she is an antitype of Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah who dressed herself as a prostitute and seduced her father-in-law in order to gain a son for her dead husband (Gen. 38).

Both Tamar and Ruth dress up and seductively approach a father figure to get a son, and, as the mother of Perez and Zerah, Tamar is in the same Davidic genealogy as Ruth. Judah had other sons, but Perez and Zerah, sons of incest, are the ones that figure in all the royal genealogies, all the way to Jesus. Tamar is the savior of Judah’s seed, and so is Ruth.

——–

On Boaz “The Prototype”:

As he provides food for the hungry, and permanent land for Elimelech’s widow, he plays the part of Moses and Joshua. Reversing the inverted exodus at the beginning of Ruth, Boaz leads Ruth, and through her Naomi, out of the wasteland into a land of barley, wheat, and wine.

In this respect, Boaz also serves as a prototype of the future kings of Israel, who, according to Psalm 72, render justice to the poor and satisfy the needy. Boaz is Moses-shaped, and David, Solomon, and every faithful king of Judah is a Boaz. More fundamentally, Boaz is an Adam.

This is most striking in the threshing-floor scene in Ruth 3, when Boaz awakes from a deep sleep astonished to find a woman at his feet. He is an improved Adam, who feeds Ruth without seizing forbidden fruit, who protects his bride from want, who fathers the seed that produce the seed who will crush the serpent’s head.

Boaz is Adam, Moses, and Joshua. By conforming to the pattern of Boaz, David also becomes a composite of these types, and as Son of David, Jesus is all this and more. To say that Jesus is a greater Boaz doesn’t strike a note; it strikes a chord.

——–

The typological redemption of Ruth follows this pattern: Naomi, the Jewish widow, is bereft; the Gentile daughter Ruth joins her; Naomi gets a redeemer when Boaz attaches himself to Ruth. The pattern is not “salvation, then incorporation of Gentiles” but “incorporation of Gentiles, then salvation.”

——–

Leithart closes with this quote from de Lubac:

Scripture is like the world: “undecipherable in its fullness and in the multiplicity of its meanings.” [It is] a deep forest, with innumerable branches, “an infinite forest of meanings”: the more involved one gets in it, the more one discovers that it is impossible to explore it right to its end. It is a table arranged by Wisdom, laden with food, where the unfathomable divinity of the Savior is itself offered as nourishment to all. Treasure of the Holy Spirit, whose riches are as infinite as himself. True labyrinth. Deep heavens, unfathomable abyss. Vast sea, where there is endless voyaging “with all sails set.” Ocean of mystery.

Read the whole thing.

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Tolkein’s Own Drawings for the Hobbit

The Guardian has 6 drawings with a bit of commentary. Here’s one:

HT: Malcolm Yarnell

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Video for “There Is No Sin That I Have Done” by Schumacher and Ward

Eric Schumacher and David L. Ward of Reformed Praise have released an official video for their song, There Is No Sin That I Have Done.

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N. D. Wilson on Magic

On the Desiring God blog today N. D. Wilson was kind enough to address some of the comments on a recent post here (obviously I’m kidding – his post is unrelated to the comments here – but his post does address the issues being discussed).

Wilson has this to say about magic:

Bible-believing Christians frequently have a deep mistrust of fiction. In particular, they have a deep mistrust of, ahem, magic. This is impossible for me to understand, partly because I was weaned on C. S. Lewis and Tolkien, but more profoundly because I was marinated in Scripture at a very young age (by my parents). And Scripture is full of . . . stories. More than that, Scripture is full of the miraculous and the amazing. “Throw water on the altar,” Elijah says. “Fire will still fall from Heaven.” A famous shepherd boy takes down an infamous six-fingered giant. Don’t let the long-haired man near a jawbone. Collect the animals and build a boat. Whatever you do, don’t listen to that serpent.

Bible pop-quiz: Did Pharaoh’s magicians really turn staffs into snakes? (Hint: yes.)

Christians serve the Man who walked on water. We serve the Man who could not be kept in the belly of the great fish, the Man who shattered the grave, and all alone, ripped the city gates off a place called Death.

Read the whole thing.

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Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone: Why Do These Books Bother (Some) Christians?

Do you remember the concern some Christians voiced (loudly) over the Harry Potter books a few years back?

I do. I remember some discussing the difference between the moral universe in the Harry Potter books and that depicted in The Lord of the Rings. If I recall correctly, one of the complaints was that while both sets of books depict magical realms, with the Lord of the Rings you have a clear line between good and evil, whereas with the Harry Potter books, the suggestion seemed to be that J. K. Rowling was not presenting a world where good is good and evil is bad.

I didn’t read the books at that time. Too busy. I asked a friend who had read one, and he told me that he thought the books were subversive because they present the adults bumbling along getting things wrong, while the kids come along and save the world, even if they have to break the rules to do it.

See: subversion of good and evil. No right and wrong.

I’m grateful for the partial spoilers in the reviews I saw of the seventh movie (see this one in particular), which prompted me to give these books a chance. Having now listened to the audio books of the first three, and having read the first one, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, aloud to my sons, I am mystified as to why these books would bother Christians.

Caveat: I’ve only heard the first three, and only read the first one. So this is admittedly a partial judgment. But I felt no qualms about reading the first one aloud to my 7 and 5 year olds, so if you need it, you’ve got a green light from me on the first three.

Here are my thoughts, hopefully spoiler free, on the profound Christianity of book one, with a few nods to its points of contact with “Literature,” pronounced, slowly, preferably with a British accent, and with great dignity and solemnity (i.e., the great tradition of western word art).

Harry Potter and Jesus of Nazareth

The great evil power tried to kill the baby boy. His inability to destroy the child at birth was in itself a defeat, in response to which he turned on the mother.

Did I just describe Revelation 12, where the birth of Jesus is presented in symbol? Or was that a description of the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, “The Boy Who Lived”? Both. When I read this to my boys, I asked them: “which came first?” Obviously Jesus came first, and Revelation was written long before Harry Potter. “So where do you think J. K. Rowling got the idea?” They got it.

At several points Harry breaks rules. I asked my sons about this, inviting them to tell me about the rules Harry broke and reasons he broke them. They told me in greater detail than I remembered. I asked them what was constant, what was (almost) always the case when Harry broke a rule? They told me that every time Harry got into trouble he was trying to help someone else, and often he had been set up by a bad guy, so that if all the facts were known Harry wouldn’t have been in trouble.

Don’t get me wrong here. Harry’s not perfect. Sometimes he does the wrong thing. But on the whole, he’s on the side of the angels (in Potter-speak – he’s against the Dark Arts). At one point he resists the temptation to make himself great, insisting that he does not want to go that way, preferring to align himself with the brave, chivalrous, and honorable. Again and again he and his friends live out the words of Jesus: “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

“But what about the rules?” Some rules are moral. Some are just rules. What’s interesting is that in the cases that stick out to me, Harry is just breaking rules not doing immoral things. And when he breaks the rules, he does so because he’s recognizing that trying to keep the bad guy from taking over the world is more important than not breaking curfew.

“But he’s just a kid and the adults make the rules!” Ah, but in this story, Harry Potter is the boy who lived. He’s the hero. He’s the one who is laying down his life for his friends, showing them that some things are more precious than life. And there are adults who are helping him and adults whose petty concerns keep them from loving truth, goodness, and beauty. Isn’t that the way life is?

“But what about this charge that the books subvert morality, that they don’t portray a clear line between good and evil?” This charge convinces me that some of the critics of this series just haven’t read the books, while others have failed to read them well. Near the end of book one, the antagonist says to Harry,

“A foolish young man I was then, full of ridiculous ideas about good and evil. Lord Voldemort showed me how wrong I was. There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it”

The bad guy says these words. Harry clearly rejects this line of thinking, and so do his friends and the adults who help him. When I read this passage to my sons, we stopped and talked about it. We talked about how some people think that power is more important than good and evil. I asked them if they thought that was right. They didn’t side with the villain. J. K. Rowling clearly doesn’t either.

“But Harry doesn’t always tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth! That’s not just a rule; it’s immoral when he doesn’t give straight answers, or when he even lies.” First, Harry isn’t perfect; that’s clear. He’s not altogether sinless. Who but Jesus is? Second, though, have you noticed that in the gospels Jesus doesn’t always give straight answers? Go look at how he answers the question of where his authority comes from in Mark 11:27–33. At many points, Harry is put in positions where he knows that he won’t be believed if he tells the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so he has difficult ethical waters to navigate as he seeks to oppose the aims of the evil one. Doesn’t Jesus do the same thing? Didn’t Samuel do the same thing–at the LORD’s instruction–when he went to anoint David king instead of Saul (1 Sam 16)? Shouldn’t missionaries to closed countries do the same thing?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not defending those who tell lies. I am saying that life is complicated, that Psalm 18:25–26 is true, and that the Harry Potter stories are true to life on this point. If we’re not going to read the Harry Potter stories because of things like this (or if we’re going to say they’re too morally complicated for children), are we going to stop reading the Bible because the LORD told Moses to tell Pharaoh to let Israel go three days into the wilderness to worship when all along the LORD’s intention was to bring Israel permanently out of Egypt?

More could be said, but I’ll close this section with these claims: the Harry Potter books are set in a moral universe where Harry is contending for the good, and the good (laying down your life for others, opposing evil, standing up for what’s right, living in a way that honors father and mother, etc.) is a Christian kind of good. What’s more, there are many ways that Harry is like Jesus.

One more related thought: the non-magical people in the stories are called “Muggles.” Muggles don’t do magic, don’t see magic, and in general scoff at magic. Their explanations of the world and what happens in it are entirely free of magic. They live for the world. Every time I encounter Muggles, I wonder if this is Rowling’s veiled way of describing worldly people who deny the existence of anything supernatural. I think Muggles are worldlings, secularists, atheists, etc.

Harry Potter and Great Literature

This first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for Americans, was titled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in Rowling’s British. I happened to be listening to an audio version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales right before I started listening to Harry Potter, so I was struck by the fact that one of Chaucer’s last tales has to do with a “philosopher’s (a.k.a. sorcerer’s) stone.” Wonder where Rowling got the idea? This book is rife with references to great literature. There’s a lot, no doubt, that could be pointed out here (for instance, old Cerberus makes an appearance as “Fluffy”), but for space considerations (this post is already too long) I note only this: one of the characters is named “Seamus Finnegan,” which seems to me to be a tip of the hat to Seamus Heaney and Finnegan’s Wake.

I think Rowling is brilliant. There were moments of Sorcerer’s Stone that brought tears to my eyes, moments when I marveled at her ability to bring a complicated logic test into a concise poem, and moments when, the second time through, I smiled at the way she set the plot up for its lurches and twists.

I’ve read and heard people say things like, “I don’t think these books are well written.” My reply may not stand a logical test, but it’s simple: let’s see you write something better.  When you’ve written something that prompts the Scottish Arts Council to give you an award that will enable you to finish the first book, when that book sells a gazillion copies, when the details from that first book become bulls eye hits for details in second and third books (and I assume this will keep happening through books four, five, and six), when kids everywhere can’t put your seven book series down, so that even adults start reading them (the teenage girl who lives next door to us has read the seventh book nine times!), when all seven of your books are made into movies, you can tell me you don’t think the Harry Potter books are well written.

Something has captured imaginations and kept the pages turning. And it’s fun to turn them as they delight, cause laughter, and present a picture of the power of love overcoming evil and all its fury.

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R. C. Sproul and T. Lively Fluharty, The Barber Who Wanted to Pray

If you’re needing a little encouragement to do family devotions, or if you’re looking to spur someone in that direction, you’ll want to get your hands on The Barber Who Wanted to Pray by R. C. Sproul and T. Lively Fluharty. This book is a great encouragement to be reading the Bible, singing the Bible, and especially praying the Bible with our families. And it’s beautiful.

The message of the book is simple: pray the ideas in the Lord’s prayer, the ten commandments, and the Apostle’s Creed. This point is made through a poignant account of an encounter between Martin Luther and his barber, into whose hands Luther put his life. It’s only gradually revealed that Luther is the outlaw with the price on his head who sits down in the barber’s chair.

I read this book aloud to my older two sons, who have learned a little about Luther and are a little familiar with the reformation. When the moment of revelation came, they gasped aloud, exclaiming, “Martin Luther!” That reaction, for me, was the best part of us reading this book.

What will keep me coming back to this book, and what has me even now marveling at it, turning its pages slowly, are the works of art it contains. Don’t get me wrong: I believe in the importance of praying Scripture, and I love stories about Martin Luther. But the paintings by T. Lively Fluharty deserve more contemplation and consideration than can be given as a parent reads this book aloud to children who want to hear how things turn out.

R. C. Sproul has told a great story here, and T. Lively Fluharty brings it alive with lasting beauty.

If you’re looking for a good gift as we near the Christmas season, this would be a good book to put in the hands of anyone who has children, anyone who wants to pray, or anyone who might be drawn by great art to the God who works for those who wait for him.

If you like this one, don’t miss Fool Moon Rising by Kristi and T. Lively Fluharty (what a name that guy has!).

I don’t know if Fluharty has captured the historical circumstances, or if he just has a thing for cats, but judging from his paintings, Luther’s town was over-run by them. [There’s a mouse in the last painting, and that little guy is glad that these are Muggle paintings. If they were housed in Hogwarts, the cats from previous pages would be on the chase.]

Crossway is committed to truth, goodness, and beauty. You can see it in projects like this one. Praise God for Sproul and Fluharty, and praise God he has given us his own word to pray back to him.

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Related: Biblical Theology for Kids!

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Alexander Pushkin’s “The Prophet”

Alexander PushkinThe Prophet

With fainting soul athirst for Grace,
I wandered in a desert place,
And at the crossing of the ways
I saw a sixfold Seraph blaze;

He touched mine eyes with fingers light
As sleep that cometh in the night:
And like a frightened eagle’s eyes,
They opened wide with prophecies.

He touched mine ears, and they were drowned
With tumult and a roaring sound:
I heard convulsion in the sky,
And flight of angel hosts on high,

And beasts that move beneath the sea,
And the sap creeping in the tree.
And bending to my mouth he wrung
From out of it my sinful tongue,

And all its lies and idle rust,
And ‘twixt my lips a-perishing
A subtle serpent’s forkèd sting
With right hand wet with blood he thrust.

And with his sword my breast he cleft,
My quaking heart thereout he reft,
And in the yawning of my breast
A coal of living fire he pressed.

Then in the desert I lay dead,
And God called unto me and said:

“Arise, and let My voice be heard,
Charged with My will go forth and span
The land and sea, and let My word
Lay waste with fire the heart of man.”

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HT: Peter Leithart, Fyodor Dostoevsky

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