J. K. Rowling: In Praise of Imagination
Written in collaboration with David Baggett.
Scribblers in the blogosphere were abuzz with talk of Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling’s most recent revelation. Hold on to your broomsticks: in what she admits likely qualifies as apostasy and a clear departure from the canon, she laments pairing Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger! The polyjuice-potioned Daily Prophet (devilishly resembling the internet) leaked portions of a new interview with the popular author, setting in motion all manner of bubbling–cauldron heads, whose collective commentary rivaled the blast of a Howler.
Faster than a Knight Bus, more efficient than the Sorting Hat, Rowling’s heretical disclosure transformed garden-variety Muggles into rabid partisans: “Ron’s a dork!” “Ron’s loyal, funny, and a good friend!” “Harry’s perfect for Hermione!” “Harry’s a brat!”
“Did Dumbledore really wear so suspiciously floral a bonnet?” (Oh wait, that was a different debate.)
Pleasure and truth, enjoyment and substance, work and play, need not be at odds.Before this animated dialogue took on Twilight-esque proportions, release of the full interview provided context. Charming and disarming, Rowling’s interview with Emma Watson (who plays Hermione in the films) taps into all there is to love about the literary phenomenon of the Potter series: the realistic, likeable characters, the fully-developed fantastical world, the author’s almost maternal concern for her characters and fans, the portrayal of friendship and love and courage and sacrifice, and the universal relevance of the central coming-of-age story.
The interview served as a time turner, taking us back and reminding us of how special the Potter series was, how exciting it was for this generation to watch it all unfold. It wasn’t anything like the best literature ever, but so what? And it was certainly better than plenty. The series was able to cast its spell by drawing us in and engaging our imagination on a scale much broader than the question of who got the girl. The books have their share of romances, awkward first dates, and even misguided, manipulative flirtations with love potions, but these are seamlessly woven into the much broader mosaic of an unforgettable world carefully and exquisitely wrought by Rowling. Trips to Hogsmeade, a revolving cast of Defense against the Dark Arts teachers, the whomping willow, Quidditch, Ollivanders, the Forbidden Forest, flying cars, Platform 9¾, Gringotts Wizarding Bank, butter beer, house elves, chocolate frogs, invisibility cloaks: all of these and more create a rich world emanating from Rowling’s lush imagination—a world many of us loved to visit, and may again, and should do so without guilt.
We’re called to serious business as Christians, it’s true, but God wants us to delight in Him and His world. In “Words of Delight” (an essay collected in The Christian Imagination) Leland Ryken builds a case for the pure enjoyment of literature for its own sake. Drawing on Ecclesiastes 12:9-10 that declares the Preacher’s desire to use “words of delight” in communicating truth, Ryken argues that “[l]iterary style and technique call attention to themselves and are experienced as something gratuitous, going beyond the functional needs of communication, possessing a refreshment or entertaining value that is self-rewarding.” Sometimes things aren’t just delightful because they delight, but delight us because they’re delightful.
Such is the case with Rowling’s series, and through delightful engagement with it, readers are pointed to the ultimate reality, as C. S. Lewis explains in The Screwtape Letters (Chapter 13). Through the voice of Screwtape, Lewis argues that simple pleasure in reading can draw people to God because “[t]he deepest likings and impulses of any man are the raw material, the starting-point” that gets people in touch with reality and directs them toward a homecoming, toward self-recovery—because, as Screwtape acknowledges, that pleasure is “unmistakably real.”
Pleasure and truth, enjoyment and substance, work and play, need not be at odds. If the good, the true, and the beautiful ultimately cohere and form an integrated whole—and they do if the Christian story is true—then that which charms and enchants us, mesmerizes our attention, enthralls and delights us, may well do so because contained within it are seeds of truth. The big narrative of which we’re a part as Christians is that we serve a God at work redeeming the entirety of the created order—not just atomized selves. So whenever anything captures the imagination of a generation on so grand a scale as Harry Potter did, Christians have an opportunity. They can lament and cast aspersions, dismiss as frivolous, or they can be intentional to look for signals of transcendence and intimations of truth. Rowling’s work contains plenty. We live in a world infused with hints of the redemptive all around us, and we shouldn’t miss the opportunity to point them out. This includes valuing stories like Rowling’s that, however imperfectly, point us to The Story.
David Baggett is Professor of Philosophy at Liberty University. He has edited or co-edited half a dozen books in philosophy and pop culture including Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle Ran Hogwarts. He has co-written (with Jerry Walls) Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality, which won the 2012 Christianity Today best book in apologetics/evangelism.
I love finding The Story in good stories. Good read, thanks!
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