Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Thoughts on the Atrocity in Norway

We have all been shocked by the terrible crime committed in Norway last week. Anders Behring Breivik, previously an unknown man holding extreme and murderous political views, planted a bomb in Oslo before traveling to an island retreat where the youth wing of the governing party was holding a camp. The details are well-known as to what he did next.

It is quite plain what Christians are to think of such actions. The Bible is abundantly clear that "You shall not commit murder." Yet a word is perhaps necessary since Breivik claims to be a Christian.

That profession is quite false, he claims to be a disciple of Jesus, but Jesus "went around doing good". Jesus did not come to destroy, but to save, and in John 18:36 Jesus says, "My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight." So, then, it is clear that a man who seeks to kill people is not a Christian, and cannot be. No murderer can inherit eternal life unless he first repents and believes in Jesus. Breivik is unrepentant, he is therefore still lost and in the gall of bitterness.

He is described by the press as "a right-wing Christian extremist." He is not a Christian, whatever he may claim, because he ignores the law of God. He is said to believe he is in a war. I have my suspicions that Breivik may be insane, but the reality of the matter is that he is not in a war. He is not a soldier except in his own imagination, and he has no warrant for committing the crime that he has committed.

Christians follow the Prince of Peace. No man does God a service by murder, whatever he may think, and the man who kills in Jesus' name is committing an act of blasphemy as he does so. "You shall do no murder" still stands in the Law of God, and the man who says, "I love God" but does not love his neighbour is a liar.

The message of Christianity is the Gospel, the word means Good News. Breivik's twisted ideology is one of hate, and is good news to none. I sincerely doubt whether he even knows the meaning of the word grace, or the meaning of love. For God's love is self-sacrificial, it is the love of Jesus dying on the cross to take away sin. And there is grace even for Anders Behring Breivik if he repents of his sins and trusts in the Lord Jesus Christ.

He is no Christian who commits murder. But we follow a Christ who was murdered, and who prayed for his killers, "Father, forgive them."

Friday, July 22, 2011

Why Harry Potter is not a Danger

Well, here it is, the final film in the popular Harry Potter series is out. And with it comes the final flourish of anti-Potter hysteria among Christians. Let it be said that it is not everyone's cup of tea - this is a story of good versus evil, and the evil is seriously evil. Characters die in this film, there is fighting in it.

But the claims that Harry Potter is a danger to children, and the books and films are somehow teaching the occult are frankly fallacious. Yes, the stories are set in a fantasy world where magic as depicted in English folk-traditions is real. But that's just it, to J.K. Rowling, author of the series, those stories are not real, they are fantasy. The world of Potter does not exist - and no-one in their right mind would say that it does. Yes, in the novels that world exists alongside of ours, but in reality it does not - any more than any other parallel-world fantasy does.

The novels cleverly merge two genres, the genre of fantasy literature and the old British genre of the boarding-school novel. They aim to do one thing - to tell a good story. They chart the journey to adulthood of Harry Potter, the central character, and his friends. In the stories he overcomes the opposition of various evil characters, and finally has to face Lord Voldemort, the most evil wizard of all time. And Voldemort is satisfyingly evil as well, a man who has de-humanised even his own appearance.

What about the magic? Simply put, it is mechanical, and magic powers are something a person is either born with or is not born with - one cannot acquire magic abilities. Thus Hogwarts, the boarding school in the books, is a school where those with magic powers learn to use the powers they have, not a school where people learn to do magic. We might indeed say that magic in Harry Potter is like mutant abilities in X-Men - you're born with it. Hogwarts is like Xavier's Institute, a place where those with powers learn how to use those abilities.

The fictional magic of Harry Potter is a matter of those magic people saying the right words, often in just the right tone with the right accentuation. It is not the invoking of demons or spirits to do one's bidding, something that is a constant feature of genuine occultism. In fact the magic of Harry Potter is not religious at all - it may surprise some to learn that the only genuinely religious imagery in the books is Christian. Neopaganism, the New Age movement, and Wicca, are religious bodies, and practice a form of nature-religion, often with a feminist slant. There is no sign of that at all in Harry Potter. Magic is a tool in these books, not a religion, the Wizards and witches of Harry Potter are a race of people, not a religious body.

It is true that some Neopagan groups have used Harry Potter as a recruiting tool, but then Mormonism tries to use the Narnia books of C.S. Lewis for the same ends, even putting out a book arguing that Lewis unknowingly taught Mormonism. The abuse of a book for propaganda purposes tells us far more about the one abusing it than it does about the book itself.

There are those who argue against fantasy literature using Genesis 6:5, which reads in the KJV:

"And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually."

But this is to misuse the King James Bible. The word 'Imagination' in 1611 did not have the same restricted meaning as it has today. Thus the New King James translates the same passage as:

Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

The word 'Intent' has taken the place of 'Imagination', and that with good reason. The text is not simply saying that the ante-diluvians were taken up with fantasy about wickedness, but they were taken up with thoughts of wickedness. It is certainly not saying that the faculty of imagination is more depraved than any other - if it were, then the text would either imply that all fiction is full of wickedness, which is demonstrably wrong, or it would be warning us against all fiction simply because it is fiction, which makes no sense at all. The faculty of imagination is one we all possess, and may be used for good (as in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress) or evil. Simply quoting Genesis 6:5 out of context does not accomplish anything. One must prove that a book really is evil, and that is what the anti-Potter writers have failed to do. They have shown that Necromancy is evil, and that neopaganism is false religion, but that is beside the point.

So what needs to be proven? That Harry Potter teaches wickedness. So another track is to say that the lead characters often show disrespect for authority figures and disobey them. That is true, but needs to be qualified. First of all, the Bible records men's sins without praising them, so why would someone insist that a work of fiction present perfect characters who never do anything wrong? That is calling for all fiction to be utterly fantastic in another way. Secondly, there are times when the authority figure is abusing his or her power - are we truly saying that authority should be obeyed even when it is abused? Finally, the highest authority in the school, the headmaster Dumbledore, is always respected and usually obeyed. He too is shown as flawed, but he is good. So there are both good and bad authority figures. Harry discovers (as all children do as they grow up) that even those he respects the most are not perfect and have feet of clay. But he still respects them.

And finally, in these stories good is good, and evil is evil. The quote that someone maliciously lifted from the first book and presented without context, "There is no good or evil, only power", comes from the mouth of Lord Voldemort, the villain, and is intended to show how evil justifies itself. But the stories show plainly that there is a difference between good and evil, and evil must be fought.

In the end, to read or not to read is for the conscience of the Christian, and personal preference. It ought to be left there and not lifted to a matter of principle. No-one can read every book in English, and no-one should be made to feel guilty for having read or not read. What is to be deplored is the misrepresentation of these books by certain Christians, and the conflation of all fiction depicting magic as if it were all identical.

Fantasy literature is set in a world that is not ours, a world where there are dragons and magic, a world it is really rather easy to tell is not ours. The real danger is the subtle teaching of an ungodly worldview in books, films and TV shows that purport to be set in the real world, where godliness is mocked and ungodliness promoted. It is in shows that claim to be reflecting reality when they must be a distorting mirror (real life is not worth watching on TV). My fear is that Christians are so concerned about the occult that they forget that a godless worldview is just as dangerous as a worldview in which all is thought of as divine.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

It's not about Big Names

The celebrity is the phenomenon of our age. People were once famous for doing something important and/or heroic. Today the famous people are mostly famous for being famous. We have the distinctly unedifying spectacle of people who are famous for having appeared on a vacuous reality TV show, or having been part of a manufactured band. These are the famous - the celebs.

Now, while I find the whole thing nauseous, I find it all the more irritating in the Church. It is no accident that the most famous writers whose books load my shelves are dead, and have been for a while. They are also diverse. I do not buy into the idea of the Christian celebrity, it's all about Jesus, after all.

There are basically a couple of problems with the Christian celebrity. The first is that people tend to follow the celebrity uncritically. I am reminded of our most rebellious tutor at seminary, who set an essay on a passage that was designed to test this. The seminary was founded in part by a noted preacher of the last century, one who has a couple of multiple-volume sermon series' on New Testament epistles. This preacher had written on this text, but it was the opinion of our tutor that the famous man was in error. Fair enough - I think he was too. But the essay wasn't about that - it was about proving that we did exegesis of the text and did not just follow the famous man - or any other famous man - uncritically. Those students who failed dismally in the essay were those who said in effect, "The famous man said it, it must be true." The celebrity culture tends to lead to people uncritically accepting the famous man's views without actually examining it.

Related to this is the presentation of the celebrity as a modern saint. I have two biographies of the famous evangelist Billy Sunday. One is a whitewash, to be blunt. It covers up all his faults, and presents a very flat view of a great man. The other is honest without being a hatchet-job. We have faults - we all do. We are all sinners, and we need to be honest about that. The best of men are but men at best.

Jesus is not a celebrity. He is our Lord and Saviour, and the eternal Son of God. There is no room for a celebrity in the Church. And that means that you and I, dear reader, have to avoid making celebrities. "For all are yours, and you are Christ's."