Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Structure of No Line on the Horizon

Much of my Amazon review of U2's new album centers around the structure of the album:

Additional thoughts on the album will come later here.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

"Stay Close to Me": Marian Imagery in Deathly Hallows (Warning: Spoilers Aplenty)

Blogger's note: This is the first of several spoiler-filled posts on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I'll write a few on the wonderful eucatastrophic and Christian themes in the book before I get to the elements that troubled me. If you either haven't read or haven't finished the book, do not read this post now. Feel free, however, to read the spoiler-free post below this one.


One of the more pleasant surprises for me when I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was Rowling's Marian imagery expressed through the character of Lily. Lily, as readers of the series know, has protected Harry through her blood and her love for him. In some ways, she has provided a picture of Christ in the series, though there is no one-to-one correspondence. But in Chapter 34 of Deathly Hallows, "The Forest Again," Rowling provides a picture of Mary in just a few sure strokes of her pen.

We finally come to the point where Harry, knowing that he is about to die, opens the snitch, thus activating the Resurrection Stone. For Christians, the very name of this object provides much food for thought. Resurrection is, of course, the lynchpin of the Christian faith: Christ's resurrection is the event in human history without which, according to St. Paul, Christians' faith is in vain. Christ's resurrection has made it possible for human beings to live eternally with God once they are reconciled to Him.

The fact that the object is a stone is also significant. In the Old Testament scriptures, the forthcoming messiah is described as a "stone." In the New Testament, those Old Testament passages are seen as applying to Jesus. Now I'm not saying that Rowling necessarily equates the Resurrection Stone with Christ (Rowling avoids one-to-one correspondences throughout the Harry Potter series), but it does point to the Christian faith of which she has proven more open lately.

And when the Resurrection Stone is activated, four people appear: James, Sirius, Lupin, and Lily. Of the four in question, only Lupin's presence surprised me. I didn't expect to see him without Tonks, and another character who I expected to appear is absent. (That's the topic of another forthcoming post.)

But of the four, it's Lily with whom Harry (and Rowling) is most concerned. She has the biggest smile and, to Harry's comfort, looks "as though she would never be able to look at him enough." (He experiences the same feelings concerning her.) She is the first to speak, commending Harry for his bravery with obvious wonder and pride in her voice.

Yes, a mother's love is important to a 17-year old who has never known her. But there's more happening here than just on that very real and important level.

Lily is the only one to whom Harry utters four very important words: "'Stay close to me.'" Oh, he asks the group members whether they will stay with him. But she is the only one to whom he utters a plea.

Here I found the words of the "Hail Mary" echoing in my mind: "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death."

Harry knows that he is about to die. The snitch has "opened at the close" of his life. He is also in some ways a Christ figure at this point, willing to die in order to save the world from the evil Voldemort's rule. And he gathers most of his strength and comfort now from his mother, who in some ways is reminiscent at this point of Jesus' mother Mary standing vigil under the cross where her son was crucified.

Whether she alludes to Mary consciously or unconsciously, Rowling, an Anglican, is not the first fantasy writer to do so. J.R.R. Tolkien, a Roman Catholic, provided a much more detailed image in The Lord of the Rings through the character of the Lady Galadrial. By Tolkien's own account, his faith initially unconsciously influenced his writing, but when he revised the novel before publication, he made some religious elements more explicit. He himself noted the connection between Galadrial and Mary.

It's also true that other Christian allusions can be read into Rowling's scene here. Recalling that there are some parallels of Lily with Christ, one can connect the disciples on the road to Emmaus' words to the risen Christ to "[s]tay with us" (Luke 24:29) with Harry's plea to his mother. And Harry's words also evoke a well-known hymn by Anglican cleric Henry Francis Lyte, "Abide with Me."

The end result is this: with the resurrection imagery, the obvious depiction of the communion of saints in the group of four walking with Harry, and Harry's words to his Mary-like mother, we have some strong Christian imagery here relating to Christ's death on the cross and subsequent bodily resurrection. Those events, for Tolkien, pointed to the ultimate eucatastrophe, the ultimate "good news": that Christ's death on the cross for our sins had made it possible for every human being to be reconciled with God. In her own way, and with an incredible economy of words, Rowling also points to that truth.

Monday, August 6, 2007

First Deathly Hallows Thoughts (No Spoilers)

I finally finished it somewhere around 10 PM this evening, just a few hours ago. And, not surprisingly, I find myself unable to sleep, still pondering the book in my mind. How could it be otherwise? J.K. Rowling has done now for a younger generation, and willing adults (even fortysomethings such as myself), what George Lucas did in the late 1970s and early 1980s: provide a generation with its very own mythology. I didn't come to Harry Potter until 2004; nonetheless, the series quickly became a part of the fabric of my being. And I took this book more slowly than I could have, because I quite simply didn't want it to end; heck, I only teasingly murmured complaints when my wonderful wife hijacked the book for the first half-week or so after its release, since I didn't know if I wanted to start down the last journey! Then when I was not even 150 pages into the book, I paused for a day or two to skim reread Half-Blood Prince. And at times I had to put the book down for hours due to the enormity of the events contained therein; I simply was not ready to continue.

For this book inspires a lot of emotion for those of us invested in the story: joy and tears are there in abundance. Those who like to scour the books for literary and other pop culture references will have fun: beyond the expected Inklings influences, there are also moments that seemed to me to be inspired partially by the Matrix and Star Wars film series.

But now it's over, and my first reaction comes from a fantasy saga that I read when a teenager (alas, I cannot remember which one): "Go in peace, for I have seen (or, in this case, read) a marvelous tale." It's epic. It's stunning. It's deeply moving. At the same time, it's not perfect. There's enough in this tome for two books, and at times things aren't developed as well as they should be -- particularly since a good bit of the novel is made up of well-written and thrilling, but (alas) page-consuming, action set pieces. Less of concern are several minor items with which to quibble. But most dismaying from my point of view, two of the character arcs (they are interrelated) do not convince me and leave me unsettled from a Christian point-of-view.

Fortunately, my lesser disappointments fell by the wayside when I read the last chapter. It's easily the best chapter of the entire seven books, even if it was one of the earliest composed in draft form -- and that's saying a lot, considering the last 150 pages or so of Order of the Phoenix and several chapters in this book. Rowling's tip of the hat to Julian of Norwich at the very end is a treasure.

And what we're left with -- those of us who have made Harry's quest our own -- is a wonderful myth with some significant Christian, and eucatastrophic, overtones. There's much to discuss, to ponder, and for which to be grateful. I plan to write more later; this is just a quick reaction, and time will permit more detailed analyses later, I hope.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Shameless Conformity: My Thoughts on Harry Potter, Dumbledore, Snape, and What It Means to Be "Dumbledore's Man"

With everyone making Harry Potter predictions, and since there's only a short amount of time left to do so before book seven arrives, I thought I'd add my voice to the multitudes throwing their thoughts around left and right. My opinion is no better than anyone else's, and I am not a dedicated student of Rowling's like the remarkable and Potter-prolific Baby Blue. While I love the series to death, I have only read the first five books twice and book six once. I still have problems keeping the minor characters straight and have no interest in exploring every mystery out there. But here's yet another take another take on Harry, Dumbledore, Snape, and what it means for Harry to become "Dumbledore's man."

In book 6, once we get past the opening chapter (which I wager Rowling added late in the composition of the book, since even if you cut the chapter, you still feel like you're reading the opening lines of a book in the early paragraphs of chapter 2), we get Rowling's most concise commentary on the character of Snape that we've seen in any of the books. The commentary is only two words long, and it's the chapter title: "Spinner's End." Who's the "spinner"? Snape. What is happening? He's going to stop his spinning. When does he do so? When he submits to the unbreakable vow.

This is so simple that it almost seems as if it should be rejected offhand. But Rowling's titles are always significant, and, surprisingly, I've met a good number of readers who haven't thought about that chapter title.

What does this tell us about Snape? He's been tacking back and forth for ages -- probably throughout all six books -- about which side he's on. Now, thanks to the unbreakable vow, he has decided for Voldemort. But what would have caused him to make this choice?

Here, I think, too many readers -- whatever they believe about Snape -- look too much to this chapter for the answer of why he submits to the vow. Others construct a scenario from looking at what happens near the end of the novel and then working backwards in their theorizing. Both approaches, I believe, are mistaken.

For the answer, I think we must go back to book 5. Remember that Rowling has said before that a major theme in the books is tolerance. Personally, I believe that tolerance is Rowling's second most important theme. The first is death -- or, more specifically, the idea that death is just the beginning of a new adventure (as Dumbledore says to Harry near the beginning of book 1 in what I take to be the thesis statement of the whole series). Still, tolerance is right up there.

And in book 5, we read a striking story of intolerance: of the shameful treatment that Snape received at the hands of James Potter et al. Even by bullying standards, what Snape undergoes is awful. Any incident like that can deeply wound a person for life. Such a person tends to keep such memories private, being overcome by shame. The revelation of such an incident may well anger a person. And in book 5, that incident is revealed to the son of the bully primarily responsible for Snape's shame. Snape is furious with Harry for having seen the would-be-defense-against-dark-arts-instructor's pain. And why should he not be?

Snape's woundedness, then, turns out to be the lynchpin on which the events of the plot of book 6 turns. I can only compare Snape's fury at finding out that his past has been revealed to Harry to one other scene in classic fantasy literature: the scene when Smeagol, petting Frodo, is called "a sneak" by Sam in The Lord of the Rings. It is that accusation that submerges Smeagol and allows Gollum to come to dominate the tortured creature leading Frodo and Sam into Mordor. That's when Gollum decides to take the hobbits to Shelob's lair -- an act of treachery.

Did I just make a comparison with The Lord of the Rings? There's another one in chapter 2 of book 6. At one point, Snape calls for Pettigrew, who is seen to be listening in to the conversation between Snape and his guests. For those who have read Tolkien, it's hard not to associate Pettigrew at this point -- and even earlier in the series -- with Wormtongue in The Lord of the Rings. Wormtongue served the evil wizard Saruman and was compared with a snake by the good wizard Gandalf. Similarly, Rowling portrays Pettigrew as a rat, beginning as far back as book 3. Now we see him as an unwilling servant to someone stronger than he is: Snape. And that means Snape is a type of Saruman. (Yes, Snape can be compared with both Saruman and Gollum. Rowling's correspondences -- or are they homages? -- are not one-to-one.)

So accepting for now the idea that Snape has, indeed, chosen evil over good (don't worry, protesters, I'll return to objections later), let's take a look at Dumbledore and the circumstances that lead up to his death. (Yes, friends, he really is dead.)

We know that Dumbledore is gravely wounded -- and arguably his death is assured -- by drinking the potion in the goblet on the island in the lake. Here comes into play much Christian symbolism. Dumbledore's drinking of the bitter, death-enhancing liquid is nothing less than an allusion to Christ drinking of the cup in the garden of Gethsemane. It is an incredibly painful ordeal that Dumbledore must pass through in order to complete his mission. And his mission, at this time in life, is to go on that next great adventure, and pass through death.

And so he arrives back at Hogwarts lame and undoubtedly dying. So when Snape sees the shockingly frail headmaster of Hogwarts, the now-defense-against-the-dark-arts teacher is looking on something ugly to behold. Dumbledore in the past had a certain regality about him most of the time, and when necessary he could be a fierce, fearsome warrior. But now he's someone undoubtedly who most people would turn away from at the sight of his marred visage. And this detail in itself echoes biblical descriptions of the messiah, Jesus Christ, who at his crucifixion, it was prophesied centuries earlier, was someone hideous to behold.

Now catch the irony here: Snape himself is someone who has been rejected by people, and who himself has not been easy to look at from time to time (as when he was the recipient of bullying). Snape had a horrible childhood, one that could have made him ineffective for life. And yet, all his life, he has been shown mercy by Dumbledore. And because of that mercy, his life has been better than what it could have been. Oh, it hasn't been easy. Our deepest wounds may take decades to heal or may not be healed in this lifetime. But certainly Dumbledore's employment of, and confidence in, him have made Snape's life easier. That confidence eventually led Dumbledore to give Snape his life dream: the defense-against-the-dark-arts position -- although at a much later time than Snape wanted.

Let's stop and remember here that all of our woundedness never eliminates our need to choose good over evil. Someone who has been abused, as Snape truly was, may garner some of our sympathy, but that sympathy never excuses (or at least never should excuse) evil actions. Snape is still responsible for the choices that he makes.

And now, on the ramparts of Hogwarts, Snape is faced with a huge choice. Dumbledore croaks, "Snape, please." What will Snape do with this moment? Will he help his employer, or harm him? There's no doubt that once part of Snape recognized and appreciated Dumbledore's mercy as much as Smeagol appreciated Frodo's mercy. But that part was buried when Snape submitted to the unbreakable vow, and now only a Gollum who wants to take revenge is left. From Gollum/Snape's point of view, Dumbledore hindered him from getting career advancement. Why didn't Dumbledore give him the position years earlier? Instead, he kept giving the job to people who couldn't stay more than a year! Surely, our Gollum/Snape thinks, he would have done a better job, and stayed to boot!

Some think that Dumbledore here is asking Snape to kill him, or that Dumbledore essentially is already dead from the potion and is asking Snape for a mercy killing. Both ideas are totally out-of-sync with the moral universe that Rowling has constructed for her characters. Death may be a great adventure, but that's not the same as saying that killing is right. Rowling never has given us any indication that killing is ever good; it's always evil. In fact, Harry's character growth at the end of book 5 involves accepting death after Sirius, the only person who has ever been like family to Harry at a heart level, has been murdered.

No, this is one time in life when the formerly strong, powerful Dumbledore is weak. The wizard who continually has shown Snape mercy is now the one asking for mercy. This is the ultimate test of Snape's character, and he fails the test. Why? Because Harry's knowledge of Snape's past drove Snape over the edge and influenced him later to take the unbreakable vow. We must assume that Dumbledore could potentially be saved from the ultimate effects of the potion, but Snape instead chooses to murder Dumbledore.

Harry, of course, is horrified and enraged, a silent and invisible witness to this crime. And so he pursues Snape as far as he can, hoping to kill Snape. But Snape gets away, though not before angrily throwing verbal missives -- and spells -- at Harry.

This is where many readers will object to my thesis. Isn't Snape essentially throwing clues at Harry as to how to defeat the dark lord? And doesn't he keep missing Harry when he easily could have killed his former student?

Maybe, but not for the reasons that others think. Yes, Snape may well have unintentionally given Harry information on how to defeat the dark lord. And he may even hold back his true firepower from Harry intentionally. But if he does do this, he does it not because he's still serving Dumbledore. Rather, he is operating out of pain -- hatred for Harry (for the reasons previously discussed) tempered by something within him that still is sensitive to the evil that he's committed. Snape is not repentant of his actions, but his conscience nonetheless is tortured by what he's done. It's instructive here to note that his strongest words to Harry are "Don't call me coward!" Snape cannot bear the thought of ever being considered such -- it is too painful for him, even though he was not courageous enough to rise above the hatred that he chose in the end.

Many readers undoubtedly will protest that this makes mincemeat of Dumbledore's confidence in Snape. But I fear that too many readers want Dumbledore to be omnipotent, always wise, etc. Rowling never intended him to be so. Instead, we see that Dumbledore has risked all on love and mercy -- and has died for it. To a limited degree, then, Dumbledore is a "Christ figure"; the details do not exactly match, but that has been true of "Christ figures" throughout literary history.

And even Snape's murder of Dumbledore does not mean that the headmaster's confidence was misplaced. In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf foresaw that Gollum would have "some part to play in the end" (rough paraphrase from memory). I fully expect that Snape will, in the end, return to the good, unquestionably dying in one heroic act that will cause readers everywhere to cry. Maybe Snape will even save Harry's life.

Now we're left with one question, and the most important one of all: What does it mean, then, for Harry to be "Dumbledore's man"?

Quite simply, it means that even though he has every human reason in the world to take revenge on Snape, Harry must show mercy to the one who murdered Dumbledore. It will be the most difficult challenge that Harry has faced in his life. But if he does not show mercy, he will not be Dumbledore's man. Mercy will be the hallmark of a mature Harry Potter, and the capstone of his character development.

Let's remember here that Harry has not exactly been loving and merciful in the past. He never apologized to Snape for invading Snape's thoughts (and his apology may have moved Snape to the good side). He has run roughshod over many characters, although not to the degree that his father did. He has been arrogant and self-centered many times over. Love and mercy are not easy for Harry. He has upheld his family honor even when one family member's (his father's) sins clearly required reparations.

And just as the ring could only be thrown into Mount Doom once Sam showed mercy to Gollum, so our story cannot end for the good (and it will end for the good) until Harry shows mercy to Snape.

Some say that Harry must die in order to be Dumbledore's man, but I don't think so. Harry certainly will be faced with death, and to a greater degree than in the past. But the story will hinge on a question of mercy. That's what I expect to see in book 7. And if I'm right, we'll have more than a few eucastastrophic themes courtesy of Rowling's pen.

Friday, June 29, 2007

A Plea to U2

Please dump the Mexico City videos for the Popmart DVD and replace them with Santiago. Or, since that's undoubtedly impossible by now, release a second Popmart DVD of Santiago. Enough of your loyal fans will buy it.

The Santiago show is close to the best U2 performance I've ever seen from any tour! I wish I could have seen it in person instead of the May 26, 1997, Washington DC show. If you were all the way back on the ground in the far left section of RFK stadium, soundboard squaks made understanding Bono impossible most of the time (meaning that you never heard him well enough to understand about the "tele" issues), and you couldn't make out the images on the tele when they were there at all. (There's a reason why far-back images of the tele on the professional Popmart videos are either taken from the right-hand side or the center. You simply could not make out what half of the images were from the left-hand side.)

In any case, I think we see almost Elevation tour-style joy from Bono in the Santiago show(s).

A Message for Orthodox Anglicans...

... who have lost hope in the renewal of the Episcopal Church, or other Christians (or anyone else, for that matter) who are discouraged. You may find the song "Born" by Over the Rhine comforting.

Here's the video of a tremendous live performance, and here's the lyrics.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Life's Adventure

"How wonderful this world of Thine!
A fragment of a fiery sun
How lovely and how small
Where all things serve Thy great design ...
Where life's adventure is begun
In Thee the Lamb"

Frederick Pratt Green