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National Sunday Law

Recently a local gentleman paid for most local homes to receive a little book that somewhat disturbed several members of my congregation. Here’s my response…

Dear friends

Several of you have asked me for my opinion on the little white book passed through letter-boxes over the last couple of weeks, called National Sunday Law by A. Jan Marcussen. The book says that it wants to bring our attention to the impending passing of a national law making Sunday worship compulsory in the USA. As the author points out, such a law would set the state over individual religious choices – an interference that Baptist churches have argued against for over 400 years now. Earlier generations of Baptists gave their lives for the right for all peoples to worship as their conscience dictates, and so we should oppose any such law. Ironically, the book claims that American evangelical churches (and that includes Baptists) are leading the charge to define Sunday as the day of worship, thus disadvantaging those who worship on other days. However, I note that the book was first printed in the 1980’s, that no such law has yet been passed, nor is it likely; the American constitution clearly forbids the state from interfering with religious freedoms, and that is highly unlikely to be overturned. In fact, the last (unsuccessful) proposal for a national Sunday law in the US was in 1880, around the time when the 7th Day Adventist founder, Ellen G. White, first proposed that this would be the ‘mark of the beast’. The suggestion that such a law might be proposed now is simply a means for Mr Marcussen to argue his case for Saturday (sabbath) worship. The book’s key thoughts can be summed up like this: The Roman Catholic church is the first beast, and the USA, specifically the evangelical churches of the USA, are the second beast mentioned in the book of Revelation. The ‘mark of the beast’ is Sunday worship, whereas the ‘seal of God’ is ‘Sabbath’ (Saturday) worship. The book is careful to not condemn those who worship on a Sunday unknowingly, but suggests that those who continue to worship on a Sunday after hearing that it is wrong to do so (i.e., those who have read this book), are definitely in danger of being cast into the lake of fire.

This book was distributed by local author, J.G., who while he was previously associated with the local Seventh Day Adventist church is not a member, and both he and the church leadership are clear that he was not acting on their behalf or in consultation with them in distributing it. The local Adventist pastor says that the contents (as I describe them above) may be held by some of the more ‘hard-line’ members of his congregation, but should not be read as a statement of their doctrine.

You may disagree or agree with the conclusions that the author has reached but overall the arguments of the book are supported by very poor use of the scriptures, even poorer use of logic, questionable facts, and atrocious use of external documents. Let me give you some examples:

a. Poor use of Scripture: On pages 2 & 3 he makes his central argument that the USA is the ‘second beast’, on the grounds that:

  1. it comes up out of the earth whereas the first beast comes up out of the sea, and
  2. a beast that comes up out of the sea represents a beast from a populous area, therefore,
  3. a beast from the earth must come up from a deserted area.

Quite apart from the racism implied by seeing North America as ‘deserted’ prior to the arrival of European colonists, the Biblical reasoning here is very poor. The Bible does say (Rev. 13.1) says that the first beast arose from the sea. The book (pg 2) says: “When a beast comes up out of the “sea” it is represented in prophecy as rising amid many “peoples and multitudes,” {a highly populated area} Revelation 17.15.” It then goes on to say, “To come up out of the ‘earth’ is just the opposite.” Firstly we have to note that Rev. 17.15 is not talking about the beast from the sea but the Whore of Babylon; it does not say that a beast from the sea comes from a heavily-populated area; it says that the ‘many waters’ where the Whore of Babylon is seated (Rev. 17.1) are “peoples and multitudes and nations and languages.” This indicates not so much a great population, as an extensive rule. The ‘Many waters’ of Revelation 17 do not equal the sea of Revelation 13, but are frequently used in OT poetry and prophecy to indicate ‘floods’ of enemy armies; usually the image is of a river in flood. In Biblical thought, the sea is normally an image of chaos, and the abode of the enemies of God. The image of Revelation 17 is of ‘The Whore of Babylon’ (evidently the Roman empire) as enthroned upon threatening multitudes of nations. As for the final statement, there is no evidence to say that “to come up out of the earth is just the opposite.” It is more likely that it is intended to be seen as complementary – that between them the beasts cover both earth and sea. The conclusion that Mr Marcussen reaches, that the second beast must be North America because it was a ‘deserted’ place in contrast to a heavily populated place relies upon extremely shaky links between scriptures interpreted in very odd ways, and should not be taken seriously.

Later, on page three, the two horns of the second beast are said to indicate “youth, gentleness, and represent civil and religious freedom.” Civil and religious freedoms were central to the founding ideals of the USA, this much is true, but there is no Biblical warrant sought or given for this interpretation, beyond a note that horns are described as being like those of a lamb; hence youth and gentleness. This is completely contrary to the way the bible talks about horns everywhere else, where they are the symbols of power. The natural context for this description of the beast is the extremely aggressive ram of Daniel 8. It should also be noted that the word translated ‘lamb’ can as easily be translated ‘ram’ and is not usually translated thus in the book of Revelation because the translators have made the decision to stick with ‘lamb’ as the most obvious reference to Christ (Christ is usually the one referred to as a ‘lamb’ in Revelation), and are simply being consistent in using ‘lamb’ here, though lambs have no horns, and ram might well be more appropriate. Mr Marcussen does not show any links between ‘youth and gentleness’ and the founding ideals of the USA, or between the beast as described in scripture and these ideals and qualities. He simply says that one means the other and makes no attempt to justify his interpretation, even though it is clearly contrary to basic Biblical reading.

I have to conclude that the Biblical reasoning in this book is shoddy in the highest degree, and should not be trusted but tested carefully at every point.

b. Poor Use of Logic I should say here that this book is not setting itself up as a logical treatise, but is attempting to move people through rhetoric. Nevertheless, it does rest its arguments on supposedly logical conclusions drawn from evidence.

  • One example is the statement that the Bible ‘defines’ blasphemy as “For a man to claim to be God” (pg. 9). This is a logical error on several grounds, but the most glaring is the confusion between an example and a definition. For instance, if I point to a submarine, and say “That is a vehicle,” I’m not wrong, but I’ve given an example of a vehicle, not a definition. If you were to treat my statement as a definition then every other vehicle that didn’t look like a submarine would no longer fit the word ‘vehicle’ – which is ridiculous. Marcussen takes an example of (supposed) blasphemy (Mark 2.3 – 11) and calls it a definition. It doesn’t help that the example was mistaken in any case! And not just because the Pharisees didn’t know that Christ was God, but because God has, in fact, given us the ability to forgive sins on his behalf – that is a key ministry: (See Matt. 9.8, 16.19, 18.18-35, John 20.22-23).
  • On Pg 46 the author asks ‘What is God’s seal?” and then goes on to give three features of a ‘seal’. These three features are then ‘discovered’ to be present in the 4th commandment. But where did the definition of the seal come from? Marcussen doesn’t say and as I cannot find any such definition elsewhere, I have to conclude that he drew his evidence from conclusion; that is, he decided to call the commandment a seal, then looked at the commandment to discover what a seal should look like, and then declares that the commandment is a seal because it has these features! This is called a tautology, or a circular argument.

 c. Questionable facts

  • On Pg. 3 the USA is said to have ‘sprung up quietly, peacefully, “like a lamb.” I think that the nations who were involved in the American Rebellion (France and Britain) that inaugurated the new nation might disagree with this description of its emergence, as might many of the Southern states, who suffered the most from their civil war nearly a century later, and unquestionably the few remaining native American tribes would have something to say about the ‘gentle’ beginnings of the nation.
  • On page 5 the statement is made “Crime doubles every ten years.” There is no reference given, but there has actually been a significant reduction in violent crime in the USA since 1980.

d. Use of External Documents There are two essential problems here.

  • One is that the author is primarily using ‘in-house’ documents; that is, his authorities for the opinions and facts he gives are the books and magazines of his own group (primarily the works of Ellen G. White, and other Review and Herald (Seventh Day Adventist) publications). Thus there is no evidence that he has sought or used information from outside the perspective he hopes to persuade us towards. He gives no indication of actually engaging with alternative points of view or information that might point in a different direction.
  • The second difficulty is that he doesn’t seem to have actually read or understood some of the documents he refers to, and thus uses them incorrectly. An example here is the claim that the Roman Catholic church calls the pope “Lord God the Pope” (Dominum Deum nostrum Papam) (pg. 27). This refers us to appendix 3 where we read, “see a gloss on the Extravagantes of Pope John XXII, title 14, Chapter 4, Declaramus” as if this proves the matter. For me, it raised more questions; a ‘gloss’ means a marginal note on a text, not the text itself. The ‘Extravagantes’ are collections of church law outside the main collections. A gloss on one of these laws means a comment upon that law. Surely a comment on the law is not the law itself, any more than my comments on Mr Marcussen’s writing are his words? Further-more, I discovered a website that answered these charges in detail, saying With much pain and time we found the passage you are quoting in the original manuscripts (Vaticanus latinus 2583, f. 258 v; Vat. lat. 1404, f. 22 r, both from 14th century), and in both it is clearly said “Dominum nostrum Papam”. The wrong formulation, “Dominum Deum nostrum Papam”, we found in an edition of the end of the 16th century, but these old editions cannot be philologically trusted. The original manuscripts have the correct version, and there is no word “Deum” in that sentence. In other words, a copy of the commentary made a couple of centuries later included the word “God” in the pope’s title, but it was clearly seen to be an error, and in either case, it is not part of the formal doctrine or laws of the Catholic church – it is a commentary upon them. Also in Appendix 3 he quotes another Roman Catholic document (the Decretals (laws) of the Lord Pope Gregory IX) as saying that the pope is ““the viceregent upon earth, not of a mere man, but of God;” and in a gloss on the passage it is explained that this is because he is the viceregent of Christ who is “very God and Very Man.”” Perhaps we are meant to read this as saying that the pope is describing himself as “very God”, but that is not what is said; rather it is stated that he is the viceregent (representative) of Christ who is very God. Not only would we want to endorse that fact, but we would want to say that it applies equally to every follower of Christ; we are all charged with being his representatives on earth. We do disagree with the Roman Catholic church in that they see priesthood as being for a few among the believers, whereas we see it as the privilege and responsibility of all who are called to follow Christ, but that is not what is at issue here. Appendix 3 is meant to back up the author’s assertion that the Pope claims to be God. This entire extract contributes nothing to that claim. I’ve been unable to check the authenticity or the weight of the other texts quoted in appendix three, but the way in which these two have been (ab)used doesn’t inspire me with any confidence in the references. The simple checks I have made on these references should be taken with a grain of salt as I haven’t cited the original documents or reliable copies myself, simply done some internet searches. But the results of my chicken-scratch investigations, I think, show that the references made to external documents by Mr Marcussen should be treated very suspiciously indeed.

Because of the very poor process of biblical interpretation, reasoning, regard to fact, or reference to external documents, it does seem very like Mr Marcussen has approached his subject with his mind made up, and has then sought biblical texts, references, and pseudo-facts that can be made to look as though they lead to the conclusions he has already chosen. This needs to be kept in mind when examining his conclusions.

But what about the conclusions themselves? Are the Roman Catholic Church and the American Evangelical churches ‘beastly’? Is Sabbath worship a requirement of Christians? Are we going to hell for worshipping on a Sunday? In answer to the latter, I still intend to be present this Sunday, and for several more following – and I look forward do eternity with Christ NOT because I’ve done all the right things and kept the law perfectly, but because I know my God has forgiven me my sins and I am included in Christ. Now that’s not a reason or excuse for further law-breaking, but we do need to keep before us that our salvation is by God’s righteousness given us in grace, not self-righteousness; Grace, not works.

As regards the Sabbath, there is no question that scriptural support for Sunday worship is minimal at best – and for that reason alone we should never insist that Sunday must be kept as a holy day. But what about the Sabbath (Saturday) as a day of rest and worship as per the 10 commandments? In answering this question, we have to bear in mind what happened to the 10 commandments in the New Testament. Marcussen argues that the 10 commandments are a special sort of law, and that they still apply. This is simply not the message of the New Testament. In general, Jewish laws of all sorts were seen as applying to some degree to Christian converts; thus, while there is no requirement in the 10 commandments to avoid blood or strangled meat, this was so essential to Jewish lifestyles that it was included in the decision of the Jerusalem council recorded in Acts 15, so that Gentile Christians could have table fellowship with Jewish Christians. Interestingly, in this ‘bare minimum’ of regulations for the gentile believers the only other two prohibitions are idolatry and (sexual) immorality. There is no mention of sabbath observance, and it’s easy to see why this was; the gentile church was made up largely of slaves and freemen – the lower classes of society. These people were not free to cease work or to worship of their own volition and such a commandment would have separated them from Christ. It seems that it went without saying that there should be no ‘sabbath rest’ burden put on these new believers – in fact that would have been a travesty of the sabbath; making a burden out of what should have been a delight!

We should also notice that while the Jerusalem council forbade strangled meat and blood, Paul, in addressing issues of food, doesn’t talk about these features but about the effect of eating on ones self and on others; the questions he asks are “will I be entering into idol worship by eating?” “Will I cause offense to Christians or non-Christians by eating or not eating?” “Will I compromise the Gospel through legalism or licentiousness by eating or not eating?” (See Rom 14, 1 Cor 8 and 10.14-33, Gal 2.11-14), not “Am I breaking a law or commandment – either from the 10 commandments, or from the Jerusalem council?” Underlying everything seems to be the two great commandments; to Love God and to Love our neighbours, and Christ’s New Commandment, to Love one another. He seems to see no problem in people taking the councils requirements as recommendations!

The issue of ‘special days’ also gets occasional mentions in Paul’s letters (Romans 14.5, Colossians 2.8-19 and Galatians 4.10) and while it is not certain in any case that he is talking about the sabbath, it is a likelihood, and his words certainly apply to it: to the Romans, where the Jews are a minority in the church, he writes that they should not judge one another for keeping or not keeping special days, but in all things give Glory to God. To the Galatians, who are being persuaded away from a gospel of grace towards Jewish legalism he describes the observance of special days as ‘turning back to weak and beggarly elemental spirits.” Nowhere in the New Testament are Christians commanded to keep and honour the sabbath, but we are commanded to abstain from immorality, from idols, from greed, from gossip, drunkenness, and violence. We are commanded to give generously, to love one another and to honour our leaders – Paul and the other New Testament writers weren’t shy about telling the churches what was required of them. Surely, if sabbath worship was so important to salvation, it would have received a little bit more attention in the scriptures?

In fact, when we read the gospels, we see two things; that Jesus observed the sabbath insofar as he attended synagogue worship (as did Paul) until such time as he was cast out from it, and then he would meet with people wherever and, we have to presume, whenever they gathered! Also, he was constantly accused of breaking the sabbath. Jesus was free in relation to the law, consistently subordinating the sabbath law to God’s call to preach the Good News in word, sign, and deed, and we are to do likewise.

It is good to have a sabbath; to take every 7th day out to enjoy and honour God and God’s people. I take my hat off to those who want to honour God by doing so on the 7th day, when our society expects them to do so on the Sunday if at all. I think their desire to be obedient to God as they understand his command to them is beautiful and should be respected. I will not accept, however, that we are required to conform to a law that Jesus and the apostles do not lay upon us, and I reject as modern-day phariseeism the attempt to make us all 7th-day worshippers with the threat of hell – especially when it comes with such atrocious Biblical analysis!

Are some churches beastly? Undoubtedly. There are very few Catholics, let alone Protestants, who will deny that the Roman Catholic Church has behaved abominably over the centuries – as have many Protestant denominations. RC problems are somewhat more intractable given the enormous size and centralised nature of the church, but Protestant churches are frequently no better, and have often engaged in bitter blood-shed, torture, and mass murder in the name of God.

I do not believe that the Roman Catholic church is the main target of the prophecies of Revelation, nor the USA; those prophecies usually had a very specific referent in the institutions and powers of John’s day – The book of Revelation was kept and read and passed on because it was obviously relevant and true to the first readers. Nevertheless, medieval and modern institutions and powers today should certainly be ‘read’ in the light of the bible, and especially of Revelation. To the extent that any body behaves like a beast, it should be so named, and the judgement of God pronounced. We need simply be aware that where we point elsewhere with one finger, we point back at ourselves with three.

For those who continue to be concerned about issues raised in this book or elsewhere, please feel free to talk with me, an elder, or a home group leader when you’re able. I hope this is helpful.

Your pastor

RDB

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Everyman

Yesterday I was supposed to be doing nothing but keeping my leg up, to try to force down the swelling from a spider bite.  Mostly it worked, and I used the enforced inactivity to do more than 50% of my sermon preparation for next week – so how’s that!  Halfway towards Sunday by Monday avo!  I was also supposed to be soaking the bite in hot water for 15 minutes three times a day.  I managed twice.  And given that this spider bite is on my… upper leg, I needed to be actually seated in the bath to do so.  Which sort of precludes using the lap-top to further my sermon prep.  So I had to resort to good old-fashioned books for my bath times. 

I read Everyman.

Everyman is a medieval morality play, published in English in the early 1500’s and probably translated from a Dutch play that is practically identical.  In it an ‘everyman’ figure, neither particularly rotten nor particularly good, is confronted by death and told he has to take his final journey and to give an account of his life before God.  He’s not especially thrilled by this prospect, thinking that his moral accounts are rather a long way into the red (an early instance of triple-bottom-lining?), and looks around for someone to accompany him to the Judgement Seat.  Fellowship, Family, and Wealth all refuse him in turn – in the first two cases only after promising to go with him to Hell itself – and then discovering that it might be necessary after all, and so swiftly recanting.  Wealth not only refuses, saying that Everyman is a fool if he believed that riches could ever be always his, but points out that the use Everyman has made of his goods has in fact been partially responsible for his present parlous state.

Finally Everyman turns to his Good Works – but these are moribund, able to do little but lie there and suggest that Everyman look to Knowledge instead for help.  Knowledge appears, and gives the quote that is burned into my brain from seeing it in the frontispiece of so many editions of “Everyman” classics as a boy: “Everyman I will go with thee, and be thy guide in thy most need to go by thy side.”  From this point Everyman’s fortunes turn.  Knowledge brings along Everyman’s other allies; his Strength, Discretion, Beauty, and Five senses.  These together point out to him the need for confession and penance, and so he is shriven, allowing his good works to stand up for him after all.  Finally Everyman comes to his tomb, and here, to his disappointment he is abandoned in the end by all his erstwhile allies excepting Good works.  These alone go into the grave with him, and they only by God’s grace that has removed (via confession and penance) the burden of sin that previously prevented them from being of any account at all.

It was written in Medieval English, and so wasn’t always easy to read (they tended to use ‘u’s for ‘v’s and vice versa – but not consistently) and it was dogged by Roman Catholic theology (with a very heavy emphasis upon the role of the church and the sacraments and therefore a substantially reduced role for Christ and his work of redemption) but I found the little drama deeply moving,  In a naive, simple, plain way it told the simple truth about the certainty of death and the necessity of preparing for it.  If I could preach as effectively as that Sunday by Sunday I would be very happy (and our congregation, I think, would be very different!). 

I liked, too the way in which the story arc maintained its integrity – Everyman’s journey was a hard one in the beginning, and that never changed.  Friends and familiy might desert a man in his dying, but a mans five wits will also desert him when he’s actually in the grave.  Though there was a moment of redemption, the story of abandonment didn’t simplistically stop or reverse.  Death remained implacable. 

Finally, I was intrigued by the notion of death as a journey.  The only other place I’ve come across that in a Christian work is in JRR Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle.  And Tolkien, of course, being a scholar of ancient languages, would have been more than familiar with such a recent work as Everyman.  Interestingly, Tolkien’s story really takes off at the point where Everyman ceases – the grave.  His is a thoroughly Roman Catholic (and very winsome) story about the real meaning of purgatory as the process of healing redeemed souls – and his church is practically invisible but his Christ is very audible!

Conclusion?  Today as I discussed the material for this week’s sermon with my elders and a member of our Community Ministries staff one commented that she had been struck recently by the need to keep short accounts with God.  With our recent Christchurch earthquake, and the huge quake off Japan, we’ve been reminded that death can come without warning.  Are we ready?  And while I might have theological niggles about the Catholic neglect of Christ in favour of the church, they surely had the right idea that the church has some work to do in offering God’s grace!  Let’s get out there…

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The Shack

OK.  The Shack.  Firstly, simple impressions;

As a work of literature: 3/5

As a work of theology: 3/5

As a pastoral tool: 5/5

 

At which point you may say “Huh?!?”

But that’s about where it’s at.

Young is a competent writer – but he’s not brilliant and his prose occasionally gets clunky.  Part of what I reacted to was simply the American tone – but it wasn’t just that.  Grisham also writes novels that are 100% American flavoured, but he does it effortlessly, and I have no trouble believing him.  The American taste in The Shack drew attention to itself too frequently to be native; it was the work of someone who has observed American culture from the outside and deliberately imported those flavours into his work.  It has a tinge of artificiality about it.

Also off-putting was the easy emotionalism.  I lost count of how many times the narrator simply burst into tears, leaned over and kissed somebody, or told someone that he loved them.  Now this is more likely to be a distinctively kiwi reaction to a distinctively American characteristic.  But still, it detracted.  Emotions I can cope with, and often they were presented clearly and powerfully.  Just sometimes they were put in apparently as if the plot required it, rather than their arising naturally from the character.  That was an (occasional) writing problem.

As for the theology, a 3-out-of-five rating from me for a fictional book is actually high praise!!  Young tackles the really hard questions of theodicy and the immanent versus the economic trinity (and yes, those words really are used by theologians in a completely different way to normal people – so I’m delighted Young didn’t use them!), and the nature of death and the resurrection, and justice versus judgement and a whole lot more!  He doesn’t add anything significantly new to theological debates, and he stays (for the most part) well within orthodoxy, but the simple fact that he actually gets to these issues and makes them apply to the real life issues of a person we can relate to is a fantastic achievement.

And that’s the pastoral value of this book.  Young’s brilliance is that he’s given us a person we can relate to, in a story that grips us, and made the heart of Christian faith not just relevant, but essential to the plot.  And he does so in a way that is consistent with what God has done: lovingly, surprisingly, personally, tangibly.  Despite the average writing, and the largely conventional theology, he presents personal interaction with God in a way that gets around our defences and jaded expectations, and is more often than not deeply enjoyable.  It is that imaginative experience of the enjoyment of God that does it; it awakens hope and desire in the rest of us for a similar sort of relationship with all the persons of the Trinity, now and in eternity.  It can’t but strengthen us, and whilst reading it, I found myself wanting to be more like the God shown in these pages.  That’s got to be a good thing. 

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Critiquing Wohlberg Critiquing Harry Potter

S. Wohlberg’s “Exposing Harry Potter and Witchcraft” Destiny Image Pub. PA. 2005

 

Wohlberg’s book seeks to inform Christians for their own protection about the snares of their enemy, the devil.  His starting point is scripture, specifically those prophecies that indicate that the last days shall be a ferment of witchcraft and deception.  The Harry Potter books, he says, deceptively promote witchcraft. 

A secondary aim of the book is to promote the gospel using Harry Potter analogies for Christ i.e. as the fulfilment of prophecy, as the scarred one, etc (Ch.s 15 – 17).

Unfortunately neither aim comes off.  Rather than informing Christians, he deceives them in his turn; probably not deliberately, but through poor research and argumentation; in fact through propaganda.  And any non-Christians who are reading the book and who might be willing to consider Christ because of the Harry Potter analogies would be turned away from the message because of the 14 chapters of untruths which proceed it. 

His basic argument that Rowling (or Satan through Rowling) has disguised witchcraft as entertainment is ultimately neither unprovable nor provable, as any analysis such as mine which disputes his conclusions about specific features of the text can be countered by his saying “but of course it doesn’t look like witchcraft – it’s in disguise!”  On this logic, anything that doesn’t look Satanic might be.  This is ‘finding demons under every bush’ with a vengeance. 

The books perhaps do, probably unwittingly, promote witchcraft, and for that reason the hype surrounding them is definitely a bad thing.  Nevertheless, the same thing could have been said about a great many other excellent books which, like Rowling’s, have mingled elements of British and European mythology and Christianity.  Examples include Elizabeth Goudge’s “The Little White Horse”, CS Lewis’ “Narnia” series and his “Cosmic Trilogy”, Tolkien’s entire corpus,  The Neibelungenliad, and others.  They escape attention, however, because they just haven’t been as successful. 

Wohlberg’s basic attitude is apparently shaped by a belief that the only truth that exists comes directly from the scriptures (as in the Pilgrim’s Progress, for example, which he recommends) and any other literature must be seen to be ‘lies’ and therefore Satanic.  In attacking Harry Potter he is really attacking literature in general.  Harry Potter is an apt target, because of the association with Witchcraft, but one gets the strong impression that he is uncomfortable with any other source of truth than the scriptures.  His God is too small.  He leaves no room for the Creative work of the Holy Spirit, for the Cosmic Christ or for the Father of all nations outside a very narrow range of understanding.  Underlying his analysis there seems to be a belief that every book should be no more than a biblical tract, and any book which departs from that restriction is to be banned.

The analysis which follows gives some examples of the above charges. 

 

Ch’s 1 – 5 outline the situation in a slightly biased but generally accurate fashion, reporting trends and events.

Ch. 6 argues that the books are not ‘just fiction’ but teach.  This is clear and easily demonstrated.  In asking what is taught, however, the author makes some far from certain assertions and in doing so misrepresents the text.  E.g. Pg 53 His statement that “Harry sneaks into Dumbledore’s private office to make use of one of his occult tools” “breaking into his cabinet” is untrue; Harry went into the office at the invitation of Dumbledore for a different purpose.  While there he ‘sneaked a look’ into the Pensieve which, as the text Wohlberg quotes clearly shows, was left open to view.  This illustrates the way in which the author consistently tends to enlarge upon the negative aspects of the book.  It is significant in this case because he then makes the ‘blackness’ of Harry’s actions a reason for rejecting Dumbledore’s gentleness towards Harry.  Similarly pg 57 he paints Dumbledore as being deceitful because he says “truth is generally preferable to lies.”  In fact, the phrase is intended to be a mildly humorous understatement consistent with the character of Dumbledore and the situation.  He lifts it out of context and treats it as a text on ethics.  The whole tone of the book is affected by flawed exegesis like this; it deceives those who haven’t read the book, and irritates those who have.

Wohlberg says that the book teaches, but that the context for that teaching is a school of sorcery and that we should therefore reject the teaching.  It is true that the book teaches and that it has as its context the school of sorcery, but it is also true that the setting is clearly the most fictitious part of the whole book!  While ‘lessons’ about love and choices are expected to be taken seriously, the ‘stage’ is not.  At the end of his first cosmic trilogy book, “Out of the Silent Planet” CS Lewis assumed the voice of one of his characters, apparently writing a letter to another character, and said something like, “it doesn’t matter whether or not people believe our story (about a voyage to Mars and what they found there), what matters is that people become familiar with certain ideas…”  Much the same as in the Narnian stories; he never expected or desired people to take the invented “other worlds” seriously, but the ‘ideas’ – that is the gospel – were important to him, and were what ultimately gave the stories their heart; they were poor enough in many other ways.  JK Rowling has made similar statements, saying that while she has used elements of known ‘Occult’ practices and persons, she has made up most things, she emphatically does not believe in magic or witchcraft, and she herself is certainly not a witch. 

Wohlberg says (56-7) “Is it reasonable to assume that the only values kids will learn from those witch-craft-made-funny pages are good ones?  I don’t think so.  The truth is… the Harry Potter books teach much more than what appears on the surface, such as the value of being a good witch and the importance of occult practitioners sticking together with those who are like-minded.”  This illustrates his basic attitude towards the books; while they contain some very good things, they put those good things in a context that is inimical to scripture.  In the light of the rapid growth of pagan religions and consumer witchcraft, the positive spin given the occult by Rowling is a bad thing.  I agree …partly.  I think that there is far more to the books than Wohlberg is granting.  In fact, the most important aspects of the books are the interplay of characters, the relationships and the decisions people make; these are very life-like and relevant to almost anybody.  The magic, however, is unrealistic.  While it can be seen to promote real witchcraft it is in itself clearly fictional.  It is an exercise in imagination and fun.  It is not a danger to most people because most people can clearly see that it is make-believe, whereas the human interactions are far more realistic – and are, in fact, the core of the story.  Rowling has said, and an objective analysis of the books supports this, that she has written about the way in which human beings deal with death, and about love.  This is what she is teaching about, not magic.  In fact, her books can be seen to be a significant critique of the human desire to use magic of all kinds (especially technology – which has always been the analogue of magic) to attempt to defeat death on our own terms.  She argues instead for self-sacrifice for the sake of love.

In his next chapter (7), Wohlberg points to the mixing of fact and fantasy; i.e. names of real historical people are used, actual place names (Britain, Sussex), actual artefacts (cauldrons, wands).  He pays particular attention (pg 66) to the teaching of astrology.  What he ignores is that throughout the book, astrology is held up to significant ridicule, and even when it is portrayed as, at least potentially, valid, it is accompanied by statements about the difficulty of actually getting it right, and the very limited applicability of the information, and the likelihood of it’s being wrongly interpreted anyway.  He also ignores the presence of astrology in the Christian story – the three Magi who came to worship Christ because of the star seen in the east. 

Similarly he says that the books promote magic amulets and talismans.  In fact the books on several occasions shows that these items are bogus, money-making schemes by unscrupulous con artists.  Wohlberg persistently ignores the often negative context given these elements by Rowling.

On the other hand, he is correct when he describes Trelawney’s prophecy as resembling a spirit-channelling trance.  Although the vast majority of mediums (if not all) are fakes, they often do behave in the way Rowling has Trelawney behave when she delivers her second true prophecy.  Interestingly, however, Rowling calls it a prophecy, not a ‘message from beyond’ or such-like.  For Wohlberg to say she ‘channelled Voldemort’s spirit’ (pg 107) is to unjustifiably read into the text what is not there.  Wohlberg correctly says that divination is wrong.  Rowling says that it is, if possible for humans at all, contradictory and confusing and a poor guide for action.  Prophecy is another thing, however.  Wohlberg’s repeated identification of Trelawney’s trance and altered voice as spirit channelling (as, again, on pg 144 and 170) is worrisome – but the same form of prophecy is found in the Christian classic “That Hideous Strength” by CS Lewis.  So what is happening here?  Spirit channelling or prophecy?  Rowling refers to no spirit but does use the word prophecy.

Wohlberg’s ch 14 opposes biblical prophecy to Rowling’s.  In doing so he claims (again) that Rowling’s form of prophecy is spirit channelling.  This is possible, but I think unlikely given Rowling’s insistent advice against trying to contact the dead and her complete avoidance of ‘spiritual’ beings such as demons or gods or angels. 

So what about Wohlberg’s charges of contacting the dead?  These charges fail because in each case that Wohlberg cites, the dead are not ‘summoned’ or sought or ‘contacted’.  They appear through ‘magical’ accident; i.e. they are ghosts, the shades of real people who are too timid to fully accept death.  Or they are the ‘echoes’ of the real people left by the killing curse.  They are none of them the real people themselves because, as Rowling repeatedly says, “you can’t bring back the dead!” 

But then in the last book, she does this – and in fact, has Harry deliberately do so.  She introduces a new magical technology (the ‘Ressurection Stone’) which allows the actual dead to be brought back.  However this stone comes with the clear warning that to attempt to bring back the dead is harmful for both them and the living – much as with Saul’s recall of Samuel.  This is a restatement of Dumbledore’s warning to Harry in the face of the mirror of Erised; our longing to be with our dead is illegitimate when it takes us away from life and reality.  The one exception to this rule seems to have been Harry’s use of the stone to call his dead (James, Lily, Remus and Sirius) to be with him when he was, in fact, going to join them.  There is an echo here of the appearance of Moses and Elijah who talked with Christ of his impending death, and an echo also of the ‘cloud of witnesses’ of Hebrews who cheer us on in our race.  Given the explicit Christian symbolism of what follows, I prefer my reading to one which would condemn it as evil. 

What about the discussion with Dumbledore (who is dead) after Voldemort ‘kills’ Harry?  At this point, Harry himself is standing in the doorway of death.  Are the almost-dead forbidden to talk to the dead if they just turn up gratuitously? 

The other point Wohlberg makes in Ch. 14 is that the biblical Daniel sought wisdom from God, where-as occult practitioners seek their own wisdom and sneer at ‘muggles’ (pg 175).  This is an element of ‘Gnostic’ hunger in the HP novels, the sheer delight in knowing what others don’t.  This is, however, acknowledged as an evil in itself in the books, and Harry triumphs not because of secret knowledge, but because of virtue.  As early as the first book Rowling has Hermione say to Harry that while she might ‘know’ more, he’s the greater because of his (Christian!) virtues. 

Wohlberg’s conclusions are that Rowling is disguising the promotion of real occult practices in the real world by mixing them up with silly and obviously fictional elements.  In some ways this is an unfair accusation.  If we were to be suspicious of Rowling because she uses real place names (pg 61), we’d have to throw out all fiction set in the real world.  Goodbye Dickens, Hardy, Tolstoy…  Similarly real names.  Rowling has made no secret of the sources of her names, and her use of well-known names such as Adalbert, Blavatsky and Flamel is an appropriate and light-hearted use of real-world elements for a fictional enterprise.  These individuals have all been exposed as charlatans; if she really wanted to introduce people to the occult surely she would have mentioned, for instance, Alistair Crowley.

Wohlberg repeatedly mentions Rowling’s single use of the name Llewellyn – also the name of a prolific publisher of occult books.  However, Rowling gives the character the full name ‘dangerous’ Dai Llewellyn, and probably had in mind the profligate welsh playboy, Dai Llewellyn, once engaged to three women in a single year! Rather than an internet-based American publishing house.

Her use of real ‘occult’ elements such as wands and cauldrons is firmly within the British magic story tradition.  She couldn’t have written her story and not mentioned these stock elements.  It would be like a science fiction story having robots and ignoring Isaac Asimov’s laws of robotics. 

Nevertheless, while believing Rowling to be, in all likelihood, free of insidious intent, I can agree that the impact of her books has been to give a fillip to the real world of the occult – as well as sneering at large parts of it. 

In chapter 8, Wohlberg gives himself away.  He tells us that he bought the books because he was writing this book and needed to do the basic research of reading the HP series himself.  In other words, he’d started writing about HP before he’d even read the books themselves.  He came to the series with his opinions already formed, and read it with the purposes of this book in mind.  So when he gets a few pages into the first book he says to himself “If I was an average boy and not a Christian man, after having read this, I would probably want to learn more about the secret world of witches!  Yes indeed.”  (pg 76) He went to the text with a specific question in mind and found there the answer he expected.  In the same way the Mormons find convincing evidence for the reality of reincarnation in the bible, because their other book, the book of Mormon, tells them that it is there.  No-one else can find it.  Similarly, Wohlberg has his authorities, and places them before the text itself.

Other points from ch 8 are that Rowling paints muggles as bad and witches as good.  It is true the series starts that way because the only muggles in view are the Dursley’s.  But even in the first book, the far more dangerous issue of magical contempt for muggles is raised, and this, rather than muggle fears and ignorance, becomes the key danger.  Again, Wohlberg is majoring on minors and ignoring the elephant in the sitting room.  Rowling does believe that muggle fear and aggression towards ‘magic’ is misplaced, but is far more concerned about the inappropriate use of power (magical or otherwise) and thus, to some extent, vindicates the ‘muggles’. 

He also says that Rowling taps into the common human need to belong, and makes it a core motif, as Harry longs to belong to the world of magic.  I agree that that is potentially dangerous, but it is also potentially helpful!  Christ offers a far more potent, real and accessible ‘secret world’ than modern occultism.  We just need to open the doors to all the ‘Harrys’ out there, and get them onto God’s platform 9 ¾ ! 

Ch 9 Wohlberg presents a traditional speculative angelology.   

Ch 10 presents the biblical prohibitions against witchcraft.  No arguments here.

Ch 11 talks about how the books actually do engage teenagers in witchcraft, and I agree with him here.  It was largely because of this that I initially opposed the books myself.

Ch 12 is perhaps the best chapter in the book as it analyses Wicca and advocates respectful dialogue with the aim of sharing God’s love. Especially pertinent is the analysis of Wicca as pantheism (or monism) as opposed to Christian monotheism.  His poor reading of HP, however, does give me cause for concern when it comes to his reading of Wiccan texts.  Can I trust his information here when he has shown himself to be so egregiously inaccurate in an area I know about?

Ch 13 is again a very poor reading of the HP texts; both because Wohlberg implies that Rowling glorifies Harry’s bad behaviour (when in fact she consistently shows him reaping the consequences of it – especially in terms of its impact on his relationships) and because he seems to assume that characters in fiction have to be consistently virtuous for the fiction to be worthwhile.  This is clearly not how good literature works.  The fact that Harry makes bad decisions and has moral flaws makes him a much more interesting literary character, and one much easier to relate to.  Yes, it makes him more likely to be a role model!  Much like the Pevensie children of Narnia, each of whom made major blunders and could be petty and stupid and disobedient and wilful.  Is this good or bad?  I think it is definitely good that when he does wrong in the books he is shown to be doing wrong!   The major exception to this, and one which has created a lot of debate in the HP online fan community, is when he actually performs ‘unforgivable’ curses in the last book and appears to be justified in doing so.  These exceptions do, however, prove the rule because they are just that: exceptions. 

Ch 14 is dealt with above.

Ch.s 15, 16 and 17 tell the good news in a winsome and useful way, clearly opposing Wiccan religion.  Unfortunately, no-one who has actually read the Harry Potter books will have much sympathy for anything Wohlberg has to say by this point.

 

In sum, Wohlberg deals badly with the HP books, reading them from a very skewed perspective.  His argument for treating Wiccan religion with respect needs to be extended to Rowling – especially since she is more likely to be Christian than Wiccan!  He consistently misreads the texts in order to bolster his hypotheses, and consistently treats the books as if they should be Christian tracts or even the bible, then is disappointed that they don’t live up to those standards.  They are, in fact, exceptionally well-written fairy stories and should be treated as such.  They also clearly echo Christian faith at a number of points.  Wohlberg’s core concern that they also (unintentionally?) promote and validate witchcraft in a culture that is falling rapidly into paganism is valid, and for that reason the HP books should be treated with caution.  Nevertheless, they should not be banned, nor should they be attacked as though they are missives from the mouth of Satan.  Let them be what they are, and where we disagree about the extent of the danger they represent, let us take a differing stance towards them with respect and integrity, not resorting to sloppy research or propaganda. 

 

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The end of Harry Potter

I was fascinated to come across this ‘LiveJournal’ discussion about the final chapters of the Harry Potter series.  What do you think?
 
"…Tom Riddle is the abandoned child who never knew love, and who mutilated himself rather than try to heal himself. There is no maturity there, no mastery, no confidence, no salvation, no comfort, no real learning, nothing but the raw needs and terrors of an infant, assuaged by nothing and by no one. Unending anguish and pain, unending sorrow but no real grief or remorse.
It is Hell.
People (Christians, anyway) who think hard about the concept of Hell say that it is nothing more than existence without God’s love. They say that living people who are damned are already in Hell, they just haven’t realized it yet. The physical pleasures that can distract the soul from its nakedness are persuasive, but ultimately they vanish.
JKR once said that if people understood her religious convictions then they would be able to see the ending of the series coming. No question here: Harry, finally, is the perfect Lamb of God, who offers himself up for sacrifice without putting up a fight, although fight he could. Then he rises from the dead, and his sacrifice has protected all those he loved. He died for them, and now they cannot be touched. Ultimately the damned destroys himself, by trying to destroy that which cannot be dstroyed. "
 
"Yes, the symbolism of the end is quite consonant with JKR’s stated Christian belief. But it isn’t explicitly Christian, and the idea of the hero-god who sacrifices himself so that others may live, and who is then reborn, is one that crops up in myths and tales from around the world. Which is why I predicted that we’d see just such a scene. ;-)"
 
Neither of the writers above are Christian, so it was interesting that they saw such strongly Christian imagery in a series which so many Christians have decried as evil.  Though that’s not the whole picture; see, for example, Christianity Today.  Use the ‘comments’ feature to have your say…

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Man of La Mancha vs. Lord of the Rings

Wasserman, Dale, et al. Man of La Mancha Random House, 1966

 

Wasserman’s play, Man of La Mancha, based on Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote, forms another exposition of JRR Tolkien’s thesis; that ‘romance’ or ‘fairy stories’ can be true to those who dare to believe – and that not believing is to remain trapped in a drab ‘reality.’  The test case here is the whore Aldonza, who is eventually beguiled by Quixote’s insistence that she is really a fair lady of nobility, and adopts for herself the name Dulcinea that he bestows upon her.

In telling this story, Wasserman stacks the odds against ‘faith.’  Quixote, for all his amusing ways and ironic wisdom, really is quite mad.  He is deliberately out of touch with reality – he ‘lays down’ the burden of sanity in order to take up his imagined role as knight errant.  There is no room here for romance to co-exist with reason.

The part of Sancho emphasizes this; he plays along with his master’s imagined reality, but is too concrete a thinker to really enter into the follie and Quixote must continually explain to him what it is he is seeing.  Simple reality excludes fancy.

Except that there is no evidence that Aldonza/Dulcinea is herself insane; indeed, her specific role is that of hard-nosed realist.  Surely, then, her final acceptance of the romance demonstrates the healing power of faith?  Not necessarily.  Her rejections of Quixote throughout the play become more and more aggressive because her bitter acceptance of reality is itself her best defence against the terrible conditions of her life.  She is not only the voice of harsh reality, she is its greatest victim, and is therefore most strongly motivated to escape, with Quixote, into fantasy.  Might not her acceptance of a gentler understanding of herself be an unrealistic capitulation and the beginning of her defeat by circumstances; much as Quixote himself was, ultimately, defeated? 

Aldonza comes to him, reverted back to his common-place identity of Alonso Quijana, on his death-bed.  When he hears her acceptance of the title of Dulcinea, and her frantic pleading for him to be, again, the noble knight errant, he does rise again for a final reaffirmation of his fantasy – and then collapses into death.  Here is, ultimately, no escape.  Reality constantly asserts itself against the bodies of these two main characters, in the rape of Aldonza by the muleteers, and in Quijana/Quixote’s eventual death.

True, it is after the death of Quijana that Aldonza declares herself unequivocally to be Dulcinea, indicating, perhaps, that romance is stronger even than death – but in so doing she also denies the identity between the man who died and her ‘saviour.’  “A man died,” she says, “He might have been a good man, but he was not Don Quixote.”

Finally, the setting of this tale is itself the story of Cervantes, imprisoned on charges related to his work as a tax official, and awaiting an appearance before the inquisition.  Cervantes’ tale of the mad Quijana and his softening of the heart of Aldonza persuades his fellow prisoners that his is not a hopeless case after all.  He departs the dungeon to face his trial to the strains of ‘The Impossible Dream,” head held high.

Wasserman seems to offer a choice between (harsh) reality or hopeful fantasy, and it is precisely at the limit-condition of death and suffering that we see that it is, in this presentation, an either-or choice. 

Tolkien would say, in contrast, that the deepest layer of reality is neither death nor suffering, but the disruption of these by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Wasserman remains secular.  His play does not allow us to hold together the reality of Quijana and the hopefulness of Quixote.  He requires us to neglect the death of the one in order to believe in the other.  Christianity allows us to acknowledge and accept death and still to say our ‘nevertheless.’  Reality and romance can be held together without denying either and this is the meaning of the gospel.  As Tolkien puts it, “story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfilment of creation.  The birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of mans history.  The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation[1].”

Although Cervantes and Wasserman both write in the context of a culture containing Christianity, and include something of the representatives of faith in their works, those representatives are no more than foils for the livelier ‘faith’ of Quixote’s madness.  Even in Cervantes’ original work, Quijano’s deathbed ‘conversion’ is no more than a renunciation of romance and a resignation to death.  Indeed, while Cervantes, especially in the second part of the great classic, may have come to sympathise with his unruly hero’s romanticising, he nevertheless consistently rejects it from start to finish, as incompatible with rational thinking.  He is rightly described as one of the first great ‘realists’ in literature.

Yet a truly Christian account is the only responsible means of holding together Quixotes’ romance and realism.  And Tolkien shows us how this is so.


[1] Tree and Leaf, p. 65

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The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

This article was a response to the friend who first loaned me the book, "The Sparrow".  If you haven’t yet read the book, and wish to do so, then skip this; it’s full of spoilers – ie I say what happens. 

 

Russell, Mary Doria. The Sparrow Black Swan, GB 1997

Fantastically impressive.  I don’t think I’ve ever read such a fully realised and realistic story of human faith before.  I don’t think it should be called science fiction.  The Alien Encounter and Tremendous Journey etc have far more to do with conditions here on earth than any really new technology or scientific theorising.  The science fiction base really only provided a playground within which Mary Russel played her own games.  She treated the Genre respectfully, but it wasn’t where she made her mark.  Her Sandoz character and his faith development is the real guts of it.

One major gripe with the structure.  She builds the scene in Naples up to a point of enormous tension, within which Sandoz is any moment expected to reveal some terrible experience which will explain his bitterness, his refusal to cooperate and his homicidal/suicidal leanings.  And she blows it.  Rape is revealed and practically dismissed fairly early on in the story in the context of the sufferings of other missionaries.  And when it comes down to it, Sandoz has practically no difficulty with disclosing his eating Ruanja flesh or killing Askama, but balks horrendously at saying that he was raped.  WHY?!  She was writing in the nineties when guys were disclosing rape on Oprah almost as regularly as the women.  Sandoz was supposed to have grown up in and ministered in some very rough neighbourhoods.  Yes, rape is horrific, but he would have known from many first-hand experiences that rape of women and men is a practically every-day occurance.  So, yes, he would feel shame and bitterness and fear and all those things, but it’s hardly the pinnacle of the revelation of the darkness of the human soul.  Why should that disclosure be a bigger stumbling block for him than so many of the other things he’d experienced?

In the end, the rape wasn’t the key difficulty; it was the fact that God did it, or allowed it to happen – and everything else as well.  And that fact alone really does explain Sandoz’ reaction.  She didn’t get it wrong; just misplaced the emphasis.  The diclosure should not have been that he was raped (which was very obvious from much earlier on) but that he felt raped by God.  Then it all fits.

It does make more sense of the Sci-fi setting though.  Such a denoument would be far less believable in an earthly setting.  Sandoz fell in love with God in a fools’ paradise where there was no theodicy to worry about. Had he enjoyed the same religious experience in La Perla (which was quite possible – he was there by choice, with his favourite people close to him and he excelled at being a parish priest; the condiitions for gratitude and appreciation of God’s goodness were just as possible there) he would have had to work out the theodicy in the context of everyday evil.  The apparent goodness of the VaKashin lifestyle blinded him to the reality of evil and made it all the more cruel and overwhelming when he had to face it again; when it was visited upon his person so intensly.  So he really did need to get off the planet in order to make his enormous fall from beatitude to bitterness possible eh?  Most of us just get to live out both a little bit at a time and in doses we more or less cope with.

I’m delighted to see there’s a sequel.  The final pages have Sandoz almost completely healed following his catharsis – going for morning runs and making sincere apologies the very next day.  Totally unbelievable.  He should have been numb as a bum on a concrete seat for the better part of a week at least, and then very depressed for another month.  I guess she had to wrap the book up, and that’s fine, but I’m looking forward to more of the reality of human journey in the next chapter.

 

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