Sunday sermon from September 28, 2014
Texts: Exodus 7:8-14, Mark 1:21-28
Given by the Rev. Matt Gaventa
Big news in the world of Harry Potter Fan Fiction.
Last week news outlets got word of chapter-by-chapter rewriting of J.K. Rowling’s multi-platinum series, rewritten to remove all of the wizarding and the witchcraft. I hope that sound strange. I mean, Harry Potter IS wizards and witchcraft, the story of a young boy who discovers that he is more than what he seems and in fact that there is a whole world of magic-doing happening under our very noses. There is an argument to be made that removing all of the magic-doing from Harry Potter is akin to removing all the parts of Star Trek where they go into space. But of course ever since Rowling’s series began to explode across the best-seller lists, there has been this particular kind of Christian counter-argument, arguing that anything that so glamorizes the practice of wizardry or witchcraft must be inherently bad. There’s been this suspicion — maybe even from some of you in this room — worrying that books who trade so heavily in magic must be corrupting the youth who read them. And so finally, this week, fifteen years later, we have Harry Potter rewritten without all that magic mumbo-jumbo.
The author writes, “I’m new to this whole fanfiction thing; but recently, I've encountered a problem that I believe this is the solution to. My little ones have been asking to read the Harry Potter books; and of course I'm happy for them to be reading; but I don't want them turning into witches! So I thought….. why not make some slight changes so these books are family friendly?” And I’m not going to exhaustively detail her story, which essentially starts from scratch using only the vaguest names and concepts from the Harry Potter universe. Suffice to say that the major change here is that the orphan Harry is no longer whisked away from his unmagical relatives to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry. In this version, he’s taken away from his atheistic, rationalistic parents and dispatched to the Hogwarts School of Prayer and Miracles, presided over by the Reverend Albus Dumbledore.
The presumption here of course is that magic as a literary devices is inherently unChristian, and I have to admit up front this morning that I find that presumption really difficult to wrap my head around. Not only would I argue on one hand that the Harry Potter series actually does a remarkable job of talking about some fairly significant Christian themes — whether Rowling has any intention to do so I can’t say — but the way in which she champions courage and self-sacrifice in the particular face of death I find to thoroughly outline the sort of disciple I would like to be when I grow up. But that’s a different sermon. We could do a whole series. Rather my concern today about dismissing magic as an unChristian literary device is that magic itself shows up throughout our own Christian literature. The Bible does not believe itself to describe a perfectly naturalistic world whose existence is occasionally punctuated by the invasion of the Christian God. It’s a more complicated place than that, and as example, you need look no further than today’s Scripture readings.
In our Gospel lesson, Mark, always with a flair for the supernatural, Mark, pits Jesus early in his ministry against an unclean spirit that has taken possession of a man in the synagogue. And before you dismiss the spirit as simply the premodern interpretation of an epileptic fit, note that Mark gives it dialog: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God!,” at which point Jesus rebukes this spirit and commands him flee and it is this supernatural moment – this magical battle – that establishes Jesus in Mark’s Gospel as a force to be reckoned with. And we could say the same and more for this moment in our Exodus story, the story we have now been following for several weeks. We have come to this critical sequence of events in which Moses and Aaron show off the power of God to the Egyptian Pharaoh in some vein home of convincing him willingly to free the people of Israel. In total they comprise the narrative we know as the plagues of Egypt, but this morning we read simply the very first scene, in which Pharaoh goads Aaron into performing some wonder to show off the power of God, and Aaron does so, and throws his staff down on the ground and, voila, it transforms into a snake. Behold the power of God rendered as literary magic.
Perhaps you are bothered by these magical literary moments. Perhaps you are bothered by the suggestion that these are anything more than words in a book and that they might represent an actual supernatural reality and not just some mythical understanding of what we could certainly explain away if only we had more data. But that’s not actually the part that bothers me. What bothers me in this story is what comes next: that after Aaron throws down his staff, and after it turns into a snake, that Pharaoh summons all of his sorcerers, and they do exactly the same thing. They throw down their staffs, and, as the text says, “by the power of their secret arts,” now we’ve got a whole nest of snakes, and yes, Aaron’s snake devours the other snakes, and God’s power wins out, but does it bother anybody else that Pharaoh gets to have sorcerers, too? I tell you, for me, it’s one thing to understand the supernatural elements of this book to be those occasional punctuation marks where God shows up. It’s quite another to recognize that even Pharaoh gets to have magical powers. That the God of Exodus has no monopoly on the supernatural. That the story Israel tells us not a story of being saved from the dreary reality of slavery by a supernatural force; rather, it is the story of being caught in battle between two supernatural entities, between the power of God on one hand and the power of Pharoah’s secret arts on the other. In that regard Israel could very much identify with the man in Mark’s Gospel whose body is occupied by demons and whose liberation is accomplished only by the superior firepower of Jesus Christ. So much, here in Scripture, for the so-called natural world.
To me, this is what makes the Harry Potter rewrite so ironically un-Biblical: not because it Christianizes the good guys, but because it naturalizes the bad ones. In some ways the rewrite maintains the basic duality of the original books: there’s a natural world where most people live, and a supernatural world where those fortunate few learn to channel their powers. But whereas the supernatural world of the original books contains both the forces of good and evil – the big plot here is good magicians versus evil magicians – in the rewrite there’s no such thing as supernatural evil. Harry’s nemesis, Voldemort is no dark minister. He has no such supernatural power. Of all things, he’s just a politician, working in the background. So I would argue that this rewrite hasn’t really stripped out all of the magic from Harry Potter — after all, in the second chapter, Hagrid drops to his knees in prayer and he and Harry are suddenly transported through the ether to Hogwarts, and surely in that moment magic and divine intervention are just two sides of the same coin. What the rewrite has done is strip away all the magic from the forces of evil. In the original books, the natural world isn’t a bad place. It’s just a bit boring. But from the perspective of the Hogwarts School of Prayer and Miracles, Pharaoh doesn’t get to have magicians. Just lobbyists.
And I have to admit that I’m a little surprised to find what seems to be a rather conservative rewrite of Harry Potter that has gone out of its way to remove the idea of supernatural evil when it seems to me that it is more often on the conservative end of the religious spectrum where you will hear reference to something like Satan or the Devil in the first place. For centuries, this has been how Christians have talked about something like a supernatural power to combat and rival God the Almighty. And on one hand I do want to at least observe that the character of Satan is at best a composite of Biblical fragments and that Scripture doesn’t give us the sustained narrative of one singular evil cosmic force the way that it does with the cosmic force of God. On the other hand, it’s undeniable that both Israel, in its telling of the Exodus, and the early church, in its telling of the first stories of Jesus the Messiah, it’s undeniable that both of these early communities found meaning and solace in understanding the human situation in decidedly un-natural terms. Whoever Pharaoh was, it made sense for Israel to cast him with a league of evil magicians. Whatever possessed that man in the synagogue, it made sense for the first Christians to understand his condition as an invasion of wicked spirits. And regardless of whether or not we want to dress it up in a red satin coat with a forked tail, I wonder if it makes sense for us to consider the evils of this world to have just a hint of the supernatural. Unlike the Voldemort of this piece of fan fiction, you can’t just vote them out of office.
Now, those of you here today who have struggled with your own demons may know this already. Why else do we call them demons, except to recognize and understand the things in our lives over which we have so little authority? You know friends and family, strangers and friends, who have struggled with mental illness, with depression, anxiety, and worse, with addictions both diagnosable and not. You know those stories walk up and down the street of this community every single day, and they sit in these pews on Sunday morning. I have a friend who’s an alcoholic because his father was an alcoholic because his father was an alcoholic and so on, you get the point, and I have no idea how you break that cycle, I have no idea how you fight the stuff that is genetically hard-wired into your very being except at some point you surrender to a higher power. Addictions, mental illnesses, chemical dependencies; that’s how they operate, they burrow into the places in our body chemistry over which we have little or no control. You can’t get up in the morning and decide not to be depressed. You can’t get up in the morning and decide not to be an addict. You can decide not to have a drink. That’s about as far as it goes. But the next morning, the demons will still be there. Satan doesn’t go away just because you wish he would. That’s the whole point.
And it’s not just in our private stories. It’s in our public ones. This past week has seen a revival of protest and unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting death of black teenager Michael Brown a month back. Of course we just kind of waited for this to go away. The news cycle doesn’t know what to do with a story that keeps happening. But at this point America’s legacy of systematic racism is so hard-wired into our genetic fabric that these stories have no possibility of going away. Even if the protesters went home. Even if the talking heads went quiet. Even if the authorities played nice. It keeps happening, again and again; in Ohio, black teenager John Crawford shot by authorities while picking up a BB gun in a Wal-Mart. It keeps happening, because our racism is pathological, and because we are addicted to the institutions that profit from it, and because fear and distrust have so burrowed into our body chemistry … You can’t get up in the morning and decide not to be a racist. I just hope you can decide not to pull the trigger. Either way, the next morning, the demons will still be there. That’s the whole point. That’s the whole reality of the brokenness we experience in the world and in ourselves, day in and day out, that sin and addiction both hold us firmly in their grasp. The mass of supernatural evil is not measured by scientific equipment but with the weight of human experience. There are things we just can’t get out of.
Which means that the question isn’t really whether this evil is literal or just literary. Both the Israelites and the early Christians lived in highly polytheistic times. The nations and religions around them took it as a matter of objective fact that the cosmos was inhabited by any number of supernatural forces. Mark’s Gospel emerges in a culture that has no trouble believing in all manner of magical powers. The scandal is surely not that one of them might possess a man. The scandal is that Jesus Christ commands him, and with authority. Likewise for Pharaoh: the Book of Exodus came of age in a world believed to be commonly populated with the supernatural. So what if it says Pharaoh has his hands on some magicians? The point isn’t what Pharaoh can do; the point is what God can do; and, when Aaron’s snake stands triumphant, there and then is Israel’s testimony to the ultimate power of God. The common claim of this morning’s Gospel is therefore this: no matter our futility before the forces of sin and death; no matter our cowardice before the powers of death and despair; no matter even the intractable brokenness of the world itself; no matter all the things we can’t get out of: we worship a God more powerful than any of our demons, with grace more powerful than our sinfulness, with love more powerful than our addiction, with liberation more powerful than our captivity. We worship a God bigger than any of it, so have hope. Have courage. Be unafraid.
Despite my best wishes, we don’t actually live in a world of wizards and witchcraft — at least as far as I can tell. But nonetheless there is something true about a world where evil is given such supernatural power. In Harry Potter it is personified these dark creatures called Dementors, who terrify their victims by casting upon them a pall of fear and despair. Paralyzed by sadness and grief, the victim is rendered defenseless to the Dementor’s attack, unless he or she can cast what is my favorite magical spell, the Patronus spell. A Patronus is a kind of silver-white creature that only the most advanced magicians can summon; they emerge from the end of the wand in the form of animals unique to each: a phoenix, to Dumbledore; a dog, to Ron; a stag, to Harry. These creatures are the personification of courage and hope; and they love nothing more than to fight Dementors. The magician who can summon a Patronus therefore has no fear of fear. She has no despair from despair. She has courage, and hope, because the power of her enemies has already been overcome. We don’t actually live in a world of wizards and witchcraft, and yet, when Aaron summons from his staff a snake more powerful than all of Pharaoh’s darkest magic, Israel has their Patronus. And with such a magician on our side, what fear have we of fear? What despair from despair? Yes, the world overruns with brokenness and sin. Yes, Pharaoh gets to have magicians. But we get God who made Heaven and Earth. We get God who writes the last page of the book.
And I for one am glad that our God has a little flair for the magical.