Monthly Archives: June 2010

The Tales of Beedle the Bard: JK Rowling

tales-of-beedle-the-bard-cover

The Tales of Beedle the Bard, by JK Rowling

Children’s High Level Group, 2008

JK Rowling

I don’t know if JK Rowling is a Christian or not. There’s a part of me that really doesn’t care if she is or not. Neither would prevent me from reading her books. But, no, it’s not like that. Of course I hope she knows the wonders of salvation and the grace of Jesus, but, well, whatever. There’s not really a way I can explain what I mean by that without being proverbially damned if I do and damned if I do not. How about I say it this way: I am one Christian man who is overjoyed that JK Rowling wrote the Harry Potter books and and even more overjoyed at the lesser acclaimed The Tales of Beedle the Bard.

I know some people who would have never hired me to preach at their church if they had known about my cache of Harry Potter volumes that I so prominently displayed—after reading—on the bookshelves in my study or if they knew that I attended not one but two midnight release parties! It could be, perhaps, that it was those same volumes that caused some in my former church to cast a suspicious eye my way and, eventually, call for, and receive, my termination. I doubt it. I know what was in their houses too. (*Smile*)

Many who belong to the uber-conservative christian caste of the church are terribly critical of anything Harry Potter. The bible writer called James wrote that, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing” (James 3:9-10). And so, to paraphrase: “Out of the same mouth comes praise for Narnia and cursing for Hogwarts.” Eh. That’s all it is. No one likes magic if it comes from the pen of someone who hasn’t stood up on an altar and declared their allegiance to Jesus.

Frankly, I think that some were simply unhappy that children were actually, gasp, reading. Or maybe they were jealous that JK Rowling sold more books with hidden christian ideas than did Max Lucado with blatantly obvious christian ideas. After all, Rowling dared to talk about things like love, friendship, self-sacrifice, justice, righteousness, and, well, you get the idea. And kids ate it up by the book-ful as did many, many adults.

But this has all been hashed and rehashed a million times over on blogs and in books. This short post is about Beedle and the short collection of wizard fairy tales ascribed to his pen and in this particular volume translated by the esteemed Hermione Granger. The book contains five such tales and is a scant 107 pages and can literally be read in under an hour. The five tales are wonderfully written in Rowling’s ironic and cheerful voice, but they are not her voice either. They are told in the voice of Beedle the Bard. Interspersed between each tale is commentary written by Albus Dumbledore. Rowling herself has written some footnotes explaining to us Muggles some of the more complex wizarding history and practices.

It was in the introduction to the stories that I came across the point of the whole book, if, in fact, the ‘whole’ book (a collection of five tales) has ‘a’ point. There Rowling wrote:

Beedle’s stories resemble our fairy tales in many respects; for instance, virtue is usually rewarded, and wickedness punished. However, there is one very obvious difference. In Muggle fairy tales, magic tends to lie at the root of the hero’s or heroine’s troubles—the wicked witch has poisoned the apple, or put the princess into a hundred-year’s sleep, or turn the prince into a hideous beast. In The Tales of Beedle the Bard, on the other hand, we meet heroes and heroines who can perform magic themselves, and yet find it just as hard to solve their problems as we do. Beedle’s stories have helped generations of Wizarding parents to explain this painful fact of life to their children: that magic causes as much trouble as it cures (vii-viii).

Isn’t this the truth? I know that I have personally been the victim of many a magic spell gone wrong. And, too, have I learned that there is no secret spell I can cast that will make this problem disappear or that blessing appear—as if magic spells and charms exist merely to serve my ends and means. There are plenty of times when we certainly wish that magic worked that way. I wish sometimes I could conjure of an invisibility charm and vanish from the world, but it has yet to happen.

In Dumbledore’s commentary on the fifth story The Tale of the Three Brothers he writes this:

But which of us would have shown the wisdom of the third brother, if offered the pick of Death’s gifts? Wizards and Muggles alike are imbued with a lust for power; how many would resist the “Wand of Destiny”? Which human being, having lost someone they loved, could withstand the temptation of the Resurrection Stone? Even I, Albus Dumbledore, would find it easiest to refuse the Invisibility Cloak; which only goes to show that, clever as I am, I remain just as big a fool as anyone else (107).

Sadly, while there may well be a Resurrection Stone and a Wand of Power, there is no such thing as the Invisibility Cloak. The one thing all of us would desire, to be hidden from Death and from others, is the one thing we cannot have in this life. It is a troubling fact of life that we cannot hide from anything. The Psalmist knew this: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139) For some reason God takes particular delight in forcing us to face all those people, place, and things that we would rather not face. He forces us to be seen and prevents us from being invisible. Oh, unhappiness!

I think it is easy to want to be invisible, to want to hide from everything. Sometimes, we don’t even want to hide from Death (recall Job who, so unhappy about his so publicly displayed suffering, wished he’d never even been born.) Sometimes we just want to hide from people for a while. What I truly admire about these stories and the stories of Harry Potter is that it’s often not magic that solves the problems or brings the blessings we seek in life. Often, more often than not, it is wisdom that is required, and this wisdom is only acquired by seeing and being seen in and by this world, by facing death a thousand times a day, and by continuing to live day in, day out, in all the strength that comes from being utterly helpless.

I recommend that you read this book because it is helpful for gaining some wisdom that will benefit you long before and after you reach the point in life where you realize that being invisible is simply not an option. Such wisdom is beneficial for those of us humans who realize that being seen is not only a privilege, but a responsibility.

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Sinning Like a Christian: William Willimon

Sinning Like  a Christian, by William Willimon

Abingdon Press, 2005

A Peculiar Prophet (Willimon’s Blog)

I wish I had the courage to sin like William Willimon, but I know that if I did, people might looksinning willimon at me funny. After all, I’m not William Willimon.  The problem with Willimon is not his theology. I think he is a fine theologian. His problem is not his preaching: he is thought provoking, at times his tongue is sharp, his wit is acerbic, and his sense of irony and sarcasm is astounding. I can take him in tempered doses which is why it takes me a month to read a  150 page book like Sinning Like a Christian. I read Willimon like I read Anne Lamott: slowly, cautiously, and with a small glass of sipping whiskey.

The problem with Willimon is that, for all his intelligence, he really doesn’t know when to quit, and when he keeps going he comes off as terribly judgmental, arrogant, and ungracious.  So, Willimon, true to form, published a Postscript at the end of this book wherein he waxes eloquently about grace and love and happy-happy-joy-joy but manages to take swipes at former president George W. Bush and an unnamed ‘conservative, evangelical, Bible-thumping pastor.’ It’s at this point that Willimon tends to lose me: for as much as he talks about grace, he seems to reserve not the tiniest bit for those who are on the opposite side of the political aisle from him. I find this to be true of a lot of theological liberals.

However…

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Sinning Like a Christian is Willimon’s exploration of the so-called seven deadly sins. Overall, I think this book is worth the read if, and I say if, you can read with a light-heart and laughter. For example, take this quote, “Jesus was crucified for the very best of human good reasons such as peace, justice, doctrinal fidelity, national security, and on an on. We are rarely more murderous than when we are defending some noble ideal like freedom or democracy” (29). Frankly, it is this sort of statement that makes me want to vomit on the book. It is so painfully obvious what he is saying (and thank God and the warmongering conservatives he can say it!) It really gets old when one’s person political agenda manages to makes its way into a book that is not about politics. This is not the only time it happens in Willimon’s book, and it never, ever gets new.

It is difficult to continue reading Willimon after he makes such a blatant political statement. But, then, he will keep typing and come up with something like this:

The most moving moment in Sunday worship for me is when my people come forward at Holy Communion, streaming down the altar, and there they hold out empty hands like little children, like the famished folk they really are, empty, needing a gift in the worst sort of way…What’s strange, from the world’s point of view, is the empty-handed, needy, empty request for grace. (47)

That is beautiful. I wonder if Willimon is confident enough in God’s grace to serve communion to President George W. Bush? The true test of grace, it seems to me, is not how you treat your friends, but how you treat your enemies—especially your enemies who are your brothers in Christ. I’m not sure if Willimon is attempting to appeal to the more liberal folks among his readers or if he is just trying to irritate the more conservative folks among his readers. Anne Lamott is at least wise enough to realize that someday she will have to share a table with the former president (see her book Plan B, Further Thoughts on Faith). Sometimes I wonder if Willimon realizes that?

So what I’m trying to do here is write a short review that a) talks to the strengths and weaknesses of what is written on the pages of the book I am reviewing and b) gives you enough reason to actually want to read it. I’ve read enough Willimon books to know that he is, frankly, difficult to pin down theologically. Sometimes he is profoundly gracious and other times he is profoundly stupid. I say that lovingly, of course; he’s probably said the same thing about most of the people he reads. That’s why I say that Willimon is hard to read: sometimes you love him, other times not. I know, you need a reason to read him so I’ll go back to what I said at the start.

Don’t read him for his political views (I don’t happen to think that his theological or political liberalism is any better an option than another’s theological and political conservatism.) Don’t read this particular book because you hope to find something particularly insightful, or new, or interesting about sin. Don’t read this book because you hope to find something that cures what ails you because I don’t think the book is chock-full of the sort of answers you might be looking for. But if you want, and if you dare, read the book because no matter how much Willimon appears to withhold grace from his political enemies (i.e., those who are ‘conservative, evangelical, [and] Bible-thumping’), I believe Willimon actually understands grace all too well—and perhaps that is what frightens (motivates?) him to write in the first place.

This is who we are, says Jesus, not big, self-sufficient adults, but rather little children, naked, frail, empty, and hungry, needing a gracious God in the worst sort of way. You can’t get into this Kingdom if you are all grown up and big and important. You can only come in through a very small door as an inept, bumbling, ignorant, and empty little child” (47)

And this is exactly the reason why I keep coming back to Willimon. No matter how distasteful he finds conservative politicians and haughty academics, he always comes back to grace. He cannot stay away from it. He circles it, swoops in, hints at its borders, dabbles here and there, and then in one final blow he unleashes a barrage of grace missiles (I couldn’t resist using a warfare metaphor to describe the tactics of a pacifist writing about grace; it’s my own bit of irony)—even he cannot stay away from it! It’s like he is writing along, happily minding his own business, and wham! out of nowhere—grace.

I’m a big fan of grace and my reason for reading Willimon is that he is too and he has found a way, amidst all the hoopla that is America, academics, politics, church and church-folk to articulate it in such a way that I actually find myself loving Jesus more and despising those who disagree with me less.

That, my friends, is the worth of a good writer.

By the grace of God, a good-enough church, and lots of practice, it is possible even for ordinary folk like us to become saints” (146).

Amen.

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