Thursday, August 18, 2005

Patch the Pirate and "Reality"

Some time ago, David W. Cloud, a fundamentalist Baptist preacher and writer, offered some written criticisms of the Patch the Pirate children’s recordings. I won’t go into his criticisms here, nor will I say much about the Patch recordings in general, except this: Patch the Pirate is a bit silly at times, but some of the songs are good, and they are decent children’s entertainment for very young children (though they can be enjoyed by older children, one hopes they will have moved on to more substantive things by then).

The following was a comment one of Cloud’s readers made in response to the original article, and this is what I wanted to talk about:

"I have a very strong position that is in opposition to ‘Patch’, but for reasons not mentioned in your article. ‘Patch’ is based on Non-Reality. This is a very dangerous foundation upon which to ‘minister’ to young people. Bible-believing Christianity is REAL, not fantasy as presented by ‘Patch’. Nowhere in the Bible do you find Bible truth presented in fantasy form. This false method of ‘evangelism’ or ‘teaching’ leads young people into a fantasy world, not into the reality of true Christianity. To add to this error, the hero ‘Patch’ is a pirate. I can find no pirate in all of history that is good. Is this calling ‘good’ ‘evil’? This type of ‘ministry’ is a bane on the church. Dobson does the same thing with his ‘Odyssey’ program. I would like to see someone research this and present it through your medium. I deeply appreciate your ministry. God bless you, my dear Brother."

I actually deal more at length with this kind of criticism of fiction in my forthcoming book Talking of Dragons, but here are a few thoughts.

First, the writer asserts his opposition to Patch the Pirate on the indisputable grounds that it is “based on Non-Reality.” He asserts that this is a “dangerous foundation upon which to ‘minister’ to young people.” He supports this assertion with another assertion: “Nowhere in the Bible do you find Bible truth presented in fantasy form. This false method of ‘evangelism’ or ‘teaching’ leads young people into a fantasy world, not into the reality of true Christianity.”

Taking these statements together, then, it seems that by fantasy the writer means Non-Reality. Presumably, what he means is that the events in the Bible really happened, while the events of Patch the Pirate, Adventures in Odyssey, etc., did not, and thus should be categorized as “Non-Real.” Now to begin with, I wholeheartedly agree that the Bible is primarily a book of history. I accept without qualification the historicity of the miracles of the prophets, Christ, and the apostles, including the great miracles of the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection of Christ. In this sense, the Bible stories are “Real,” while fictional stories are “Non-Real.”

The question has to do with whether fictional stories are really, as the writer claims, “dangerous.” Since he asserts that, “Nowhere in the Bible do you find Bible truth presented in fantasy [fictional] form,” I presume he would change his mind if we could show him examples of just such “Non-Reality” in the Scriptures themselves. This I intend to do. So let’s just briefly mention a few examples of passages that the Anti-Patch writer would have to cut from his Bible to avoid such “dangerous” “Non-Reality.”

In II Samuel 12:1-7, we have the prophet Nathan’s story of the rich man stealing the poor man’s lamb. He told this story to King David after his adulterous affair with Bathsheba, and the murder of her husband, Uriah the Hittite. Nathan comes to confront David but does so obliquely (at first) by telling him a fictional story. Ultimately, the story was true, in the sense that David had done, in effect, the same thing as the man in the story. But then, the same could be said of most fictional tales. The fact remains that there really was no rich man who had stolen a poor man’s lamb. What really happened (and remember Anti-Patch’s insistence on only the “REAL”) was that a king had stolen a soldier’s wife. Why couldn’t Nathan just stick to reality? Obviously, because one benefit of fiction is that it helps us see truth and reality that we would otherwise have missed. By telling David a fictional story of a gross injustice, Nathan stirred David’s righteous anger to the point of admitting that the man in the story deserved to die. Then, the kicker: David, “thou art the man.” Can you imagine a more powerful way to turn the mirror on a man’s soul, driving him to his knees in repentance before a holy God? Such is the power that God has given to Story.

Other examples could be multiplied. In Revelation, God shows John visions of things that even the most conservative of scholars admit are often symbolic (i.e., the most die-hard literalist Baptist does not believe that the Anti-Christ has ten horns and seven heads). These symbols are true, in the sense that they point to something beyond them that is true, but the symbols themselves are, strictly speaking, imaginary, fantastical, and fictional. Yet if we live by Anti-Patch’s arbitrary insistence on only “REAL” events, we will miss nearly everything that the book of Revelation has to teach us about God’s sovereignty and triumph over His enemies, because we would not be allowed to read Revelation.

Most tellingly, we have the parables of Jesus Himself. These are short, fictional stories designed to teach truth for those who have ears to hear, and to confuse those who do not (Matthew 13:9-16). Shouldn’t Jesus just have stuck to teaching eternal truths, as in the Sermon on the Mount? Why delve into “Non-Reality”? The same reason Nathan told David a story instead of jumping right to the “Thou art the man,” as many contemporary “prophets” would have done: Story is powerful. Now, some may say that Jesus, being God, could have known of true stories in which a woman lost a coin, or an enemy sowed weeds among the wheat, or a man was robbed, ignored by his countrymen, and then helped by a foreigner. Granted. But Jesus doesn’t present them that way, as if they were AP news stories. He doesn’t tell us the names of the people involved, as the Bible usually does when recounting true history. The point of these stories is that they apply to everyone, because they could have happened to anyone.

Finally, just a word on Anti-Patch’s condemnation of Patch the Pirate on the grounds that he is a pirate. I find it hard to imagine that children will suddenly develop a desire to loot and pillage after listening to Patch. Obviously, this is not a pirate in the sense of “we extort, we pilfer, we filch and sack, drink up me hearties, Yo ho!” There are other, symbolic (there’s that nasty, Non-Real word again) ways to use the image of a pirate. Michael Card’s haunting song, Why, comes to mind: “Why did it have to be a heavy cross He was made to bear?…It was a cross, for on a cross, a thief was supposed to pay. And Jesus had come into the world to steal every heart away.” Or, more interestingly, we have another of Jesus’ fictional parables, in which He says, “how can someone enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house” (Matthew 12:29). The hero of this parable actually enters someone’s house and “plunders” it (“steals,” “loots,” “pillages,” “sacks,” are listed by Merriam-Webster as synonyms, though they forgot to add, “drink up me hearties, Yo ho!”). So, it would seem the image of a thieving marauder can be used to good purpose in fictional stories, obviating both of Anti-Patch’s criticisms in one fell swoop.

Yo ho, Yo ho, a pirate’s life for me.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Poetry - Old as Mountains

Below are the lyrics of a song I wrote a few months back. My brother Chris is a songwriter and singer living in Nashville, and I wrote this for him to perform. The music is kind of a rootsy country/bluegrass sound, and the lyrics are written in Medieval alliterative verse (though, unlike traditional alliteration, with a rhyming scheme added on), a combination only tried occasionally, by acts like Trick Pony and Tim McGraw*. The lyrics are actually a bit of a riddle, with an implied question at the end: "who am I?" Feel free to post your thoughts on who the song is talking about. Incidentally, in the interests of full disclosure, the first and last lines of the song are straight out of Tolkien; everything else is original.

*This is what philosophers of earlier eras called a joke, though they may have spelled it differently.

Old as Mountains
William Chad Newsom

Learn now the lore of living creatures
All the elders of this earth unmade
Threescore and Ten to thrive under Heaven
Passing privilege to ply our trade

But there are those whose thoughts reach further
Beyond the years, the yesterdays of all
And standing still, like stone unmoving
Won’t see the setting of the sun’s last fall

Mark the memory, immortal fountains
Of the ancient ones, old as mountains

I’m seeking signs, a sight of glory
A little lower than the lords on high
I’ll look for lore of lost Long-livers
Await the wisdom of the Wielder’s cry

And now I know, for none have perished
Of all the ancient Sires of Earth’s great stage
They walk at will, the Wielder’s heralds
Behold the Harvest of the Heav’nly Page

Mark the memory, immortal fountains
Of the ancient ones, old as mountains


Mark the memory, immortal fountains
Of the ancient ones, old as mountains

Repeat Chorus

Of the ancient ones, old as mountains
Oh, the ancient ones, old as mountains
Ent the Earthborn, old as mountains

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Thoughts on Harry Potter, Part I

In this space, I will be posting some thoughts on the Harry Potter phenomenon, a little at a time. I have recently finished reading the sixth and latest installment in the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and I am currently reading John Granger’s book, Looking for God in Harry Potter. I have also been reading sundry other writings on Harry, pro (Granger) and con (Michael O’Brien).
Thoughts on Harry Potter, Part I
Magical Distinctions

I must begin this effort with a caveat: I think that sweeping conclusions on the meaning of the Potter books both hasty and unwise, until the final book has been published. This is because J.K. Rowling, author of the series, is all about surprises, and we may find that the seventh volume is the left hand that takes away what the right hand has given. This will almost certainly be true in some ways (just whose side is Snape on, anyway?), and may be true in bigger ways than we can now guess, though one hopes the final book won’t yank all available rugs as, say, the final film in The Matrix did (reportedly: I have not seen it, having lost interest in the series during the second film). Because of this, I will be cautious about big conclusions, offering instead what I hope to be food for thought, interaction on the Potter books and the controversy swirling around them.
That said, on to our subject. Granger’s above-mentioned book is valuable for many reasons, largely because he deals with the series as a Christian, homes-schooling father who is concerned about what his children watch and read (indeed, he only read the first Potter book in order to let his kids know “why we don’t read this stuff”). But he is convinced the books are great, classic literature that will stand the test of time, and that, further, the books are actually Christian fiction, in the tradition of the Inklings, as well as older Christian writers (Shakespeare, Donne, Eliot). In addition, he answers the concerns of Christians who see in these books a glorification of the occult. It is this magical element of Harry Potter that I wish to briefly address today.
Granger distinguishes, helpfully, between two kinds of magic: invocational and incantational (wow, my spell-checker really hates those words). Invocational magic involves calling on demons to provide magical power. Incantational magic is more of an inherent ability to do wonders, and which Granger says is the literary equivalent of a belief in the supernatural existence and power of God. Put another way, the presence of incantational magic in a story is an oblique assault on the modern philosophy of naturalism, which asserts that the material universe is all there is or can be (thus denying the reality of God, angels, miracles, etc.). Incantational magic is the ability to do miracles with a word or a touch, just like the Prophets, the Apostles, and Christ Himself. Elisha touches the river with Elijah’s cloak and the waters part. Jesus speaks to the storm and it calms. “Arise and walk,” Peter says to a lame man, and he does so. Such wonders are the historical archetypes for the incantational magic of Christian literature. Invocational magic, however, is what C.S. Lewis illustrated in Prince Caspian, when Caspian fights the dwarf Nikabrik (his former ally) over his plan to engage in “Black sorcery and the calling up of an accursed ghost.” Granger notes that, in Harry Potter, absolutely no invocational magic is used. All is incantational, and no different from the magic of Tolkien’s elves.
There is some truth in this, perhaps a lot, but I still wonder if something else is being missed, here. Surely the distinction itself is a valid one, but there is another magical distinction, this one found in the writings of Tolkien himself, that narrows the field a bit further. Tolkien once said of his wizard characters that they are “utterly distinct from sorcerer or magician.” So far, this falls in line with Granger’s incantational/invocational distinction But Tolkien, in another place, made a further division between kinds of magic: the magic of Faerie (which is certainly of the incantational variety) on the one hand, and what he called “the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific, magician,” on the other. Here, I think, is where Rowling’s magic differs from that of Tolkien or Lewis. Surely the cauldron-brewing, potion-mixing, wand-waving, fortune-telling magic of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is more akin to “the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific, magician,” than to the “Elf Magic” that Frodo and Sam found in Lothlorien (the thing that amazed Sam was that, in Lothlorien, no one seemed to be doing any magic):

'It’s wonderfully quiet here. Nothing seems to be going on, and nobody seems to want it to. If there’s any magic about, it’s right down deep, where I can’t lay my hands on it, in a manner of speaking.'
‘You can see and feel it everywhere,’ said Frodo.
‘Well,’ said Sam, ‘you can’t see nobody working it…I would dearly love to see some Elf-magic, Mr. Frodo!'

Magic, for Tolkien, was actually Art, without the normal human limitations. It was anything but sorcery or witchcraft. While Granger seems to be right in his assertion that Potter magic is not sorcery, I can’t help but think that Tolkien would not have cared for the more scientific magic we find at Hogwarts. Still, as I said, the seventh book is not yet written, and Rowling now seems to be hinting that there is something greater than this laborious, scientific approach to magic. In Half-Blood Prince, Harry and his friends are beginning to learn non-verbal spells, which is perhaps a little closer to the unseen magic of Lothlorien. And Dumbledore suggests that all the accoutrements and paraphernalia of magic are only for the wizarding novices, not for those who have truly mastered their gifts at incantational power. I truly hope there are further developments like this in the final book.
The image of witches is interesting, too. In Narnia, witches are always evil, and have to be defeated. In Tolkien, the Lord of the Nazgul, chief of the servants of the Dark Lord, Sauron, is also called the Witch King of Angmar. Rowling has adapted the more fanciful, fun elements of traditional witch-images (flying on brooms, for example) and turned them into something new and different. The witches and wizards of Harry Potter are completely different from, say, Faustus or the witches in Macbeth. Certainly it would be unfair to equate Hermione with the White Witch, for example, though I can’t help but wonder about the wisdom of using witches as symbols of good, even if they are the exact opposite of the mediums of Scripture or the hags and evil queens of Narnia. I am not willing to condemn the books on these grounds, but I do wonder if maybe this was a misstep. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Edmund questions Peter’s wisdom in trusting a Robin. Peter responds that Robins are on the right side in all the stories. Such a statement assumes the reality of what Tolkien called “the True Tradition” of fairy tales, in which certain kinds of characters function as symbols of good or evil. I can’t help but think that, the more these symbols are subverted in newer books, the less power the traditional stories will have to move our children to love the good, the true, and the beautiful.