On the day after Christmas it is not uncommon for many of us to raise our heads and wonder, “What the Hell Just Happened?”
And, who the Hell is Santa Claus, really?
That’s the question we never asked as kids. We did not care. Santa brought gifts. That’s all we wanted from the dude.
Of course, the same thing goes for many great religious figures, as well. The Catholic Pope, for example, has proven to be an enigmatic symbol for the faith over the ages. Some popes are conservative. Not many are considered liberal. Yet the very ideas upon which Christianity is founded are liberal in foundation, if not practice. It can be hard to tell who to believe, and what, once religion becomes dogma.
Recently The Catholic Church has enjoyed a higher and possibly more positive profile thanks to the fresh outlook of Pope Francis, champion of the poor and provocative advocate for the disadvantaged in general.
But the Vatican has some catching up to do, and plenty of company in the indulgence of overreaching with its religious authority. Of course populist religion can be just as overbearing and at times ridiculous in its efforts to create and control the doctrinal status quo.
Beating up on Harry Potter
You may recall that when the Harry Potter book series by J.K. Rowling became popular, some Christians took offense at the notion of children reading about wizardry and witchcraft. While librarians and educators across the country celebrated the fact that so many children had returned to reading through interest generated by the Harry Potter books, a few vocal Christians called for a ban on Harry Potter material because the books contained “magic, sorcery” and other material deemed to be “anti-Christian.”
What the anti- Potter clan fails to mention is that the Harry Potter books contain no more magic, wizardry and witchcraft than a similar series of books by C.S. Lewis, the Christian apologetic writer who authored the Chronicles of Narnia The Narnia books depict a world where witches rule, animals talk and a giant lion repeatedly rescues a band of children who achieve the status of royalty––a most undemocratic result. The seven books in the series combine to form an engaging fantasy that can be read as simple adventure stories or analyzed for spiritual symbolism in the characters. But there is no escaping the fact that sorcery and magic play a major part in the plotline where talking animals, transfigurations, dragons and Deep Magic figure prominently.
Author C.S. Lewis wrote the Chronicles of Narnia in a literary form that conveyed Christian values in a fantastical manner, the better to interest children. Christian apologists might argue that even though sorcery exists in the Chronicles of Narnia stories they should be given a pass because the plotline hews closely to the Passion Story of Jesus Christ. The main character in the Chronicles of Narnia is a lion named Aslan who sacrifices himself to save the world.
Hobbits and Rings
J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, was a collegiate classmate of C. S. Lewis, who used similar standards in writing the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien’s work which features magical elves, wizards and mythical creatures throughout. There is no question sorcery plays a major role in the plot line of Rings Trilogy, yet when movies based on the Tolkien works hit theaters, Christian scholars scrambled to highlight the spiritual message, not the sorcery it took to achieve victory in the end. It seems that when secular literature plays on fantasy, magic and sorcery, it is some kind of sin. But when books with apparently Christian underpinnings do the same, they get a pass. This double standard ranks as hypocrisy.
The message that good conquers evil in the Harry Potter series matches that of the Narnia and Rings series. And since everyone in the Harry Potter series is doing magic, it cancels out the supposedly mythical advantage of being able to wave a wand to save the day. The issue of consequence may be that Harry Potter gets as much help solving problems from his associates as he does from some metaphysical force that can be equated to God. Perhaps it is the practical, humanist message of personal autonomy and self-actualization that is most offensive to Christian apologists.
There is a practical and valuable solution to these literary conundrums, and that is education. Any person who is taught the basic laws of science and physics knows that the type of magic in metaphysical trickery has been long proven to be impossible. This fact alone proves the Harry Potter books are based on fantasy. Yet the books honor a healthy and vital aspect of childhood: imagination.
Of course the religious apologist who believes strongly in miracles cannot logically explain why magic should be impossible for Harry Potter yet possible in the Bible. This is where the worldviews of literary metaphor and biblical literalism collide. The advocates for biblical literalism would just as soon murder the apparently faithless fantasies of Harry Potter than be forced to prove the validity of their own set of miracles to the culture at large. In this way the evil riddle of literalism muddles the otherwise separate worlds of fact and fantasy, undermining the natural order of rational determinism founded on common sense, discernment and logic.
And who abided by that last bit of common sense? Why, none other than Jesus Christ himself, whose parables contained organic imagery that served to illustrate spiritual truths.
As for the lyricism of Christmas itself, there is little harm in indulging a child’s fantasy, to a point. The legend of Santa Claus used to enliven the Christmas season is a case in point. Santa Claus is nothing more an overgrown magic elf with the power to fly, squeeze down chimneys and conjure Christmas presents at will. Talk about your potentially dangerous fantasies! Yet children sooner or later figure out that Santa Clause is not real, a rite of passage for many. The innocent game of charming children with the surprise of gifts that arrived in the night is a cherished tradition for many families.
But if you really analyze the Santa Claus myth, it is as goofy, fantastical and full of magic as Harry Potter. Yet the same people who willingly accept magic as harmless fantasy in association with their religious holiday somehow refuse to accept the role fantasy plays in literature and deem the Harry Potter series evil.
The propensity to project evil on the world is a hallmark of biblical and religious literalism. The most common targets happen to be competing story traditions. Meanwhile the implausible exaggerations of biblical storytelling are excused from critical scrutiny under protection of their exonerated status as “scripture.” Biblical literalism can be a pretty prejudicial worldview. Worse yet, it pretty much confuses the issue of truth no matter how you look at it.
Portions of this blog post are excerpted from The Genesis Fix: A Repair Manual for Faith in the Modern Age by Christopher Cudworth