Severus Snape and the dangers of sorting too soon

snapeThe eighth chapter of the Harry Potter Conference book, the Ravenclaw Reader, takes the character of Snape as its topic. The substantive paper is by Joshua C Richards, with the response by Amy Sonheim. If Google has not let me down, Richards is a professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University, and Sondheim a lecturer at Ouachita Baptist University. Given that these both appear to be relatively conservative Christian institutions (Palm Beach appears to expect faculty to sign a statement of faith) it’s an interesting comment on the now respectable status of Harry Potter in places where he might once have aroused fear and suspicion among conservative Christians.

The other surprise for me in discovering this Christian affiliation after reading the essays, is that I hadn’t particularly detected anything that would lead me to suspect it. In fact, almost the opposite. Richards explores what he calls a “pattern of paternal atonement” in the character of Snape, drawing on the work of Joseph Campbell, as that latter channels Freud and Jung. He means by this the coming to terms (reconciliation) with the reality of a father as complex, neither a mythologised ideal father, nor his opposite the “ogre-father”. He sets Snape alongside a range of other potential father-figures in Rowling’s stories, and argues that Snape too is a father-figure with whom Potter reaches reconciliation.

Since my main reaction to Campbell’s work is to want to jump up and down shouting “bollocks”, this does not exactly fill me with joy. I think Richards is absolutely right to notice how Harry’s relationships with a range of adult figures matures to include recognition of flaw and virtue, to see them as they are. Nevertheless it is also the case that Harry’s relationships with his peers grow and mature as well. In other words, he is growing up. Yes, some of the adults are father figures (but why no discussion of Lupin as potentially albeit briefly occupying this role?), but I don’t think that makes Snape one. The Freudian stuff about fathers, turned by Campbell into Jungian archetypes, rather pulls Richards’ helpful inspection of Rowling’s characterisation a bit out of shape.

Sonheim’s response likes the stuff I don’t. But she also uses the portrayal of Snape as reconciled and now heroic “ogre-father”, and Dumbledore revealed as having moral failings, to refute a Marxist critique of Rowling as commercially and culturally safe.

“I sometimes,” sighs Dumbledore, “think we Sort too soon.” (Deathly Hallows p.545) He is talking to Snape about the latter’s bravery. Character development as Rowling portrays it, gives just enough lie to Sorting to raise a critique of the way the school houses are. Mentally, sorting tends to be exactly what we do, especially in childhood, with other people. Growing up is about learning people are rarely as black and white as tabloid journalism. Indeed, one of the more pointed critiques Rowling makes is that in the world of the Daily Prophet, people always wear black or white hats to suit a political agenda, and someone who wore the white stetson of heroism yesterday can wear the black balaclava of criminality today. Rowling’s use of a fairly Chomskyan propaganda model is itself partly an answer to a Marxist critique of commercial safety.

Before summarising these contributions I noted the Christian affiliations of both authors’ institutions. What I think I find surprising then, is the lionization of Campbell’s eclectic and generic approach to world cultures, which turns them into a commercially appealing (think Star Wars and Dan Brown), vaguely spiritual, bourgeois mishmash of middle-American romantic gloop – “follow your bliss“. Walking the way of the cross, or at least entering the Forbidden Forest as a willing sacrifice is a lot harder than that. Surely there are more robust, and indeed more robustly Christian, lenses to alert us to questions of character complexity than the one selected here. The relationship of Harry to the adults in his life is a lot more complex than the Campbell-inspired polarities of Luke and Anakin Skywalker. And it is all the better for that.

Neville Longbottom and the perils of allegory

The seventh section of the Ravenclaw Reader’s conference papers on Harry Potter focuses attention on the character of Neville Longbottom. The substantive paper on “The Canonization of Neville Longbottom” is by Timothy Bartel, and the response is by Maria Nilson. Bartel is a student at St Andrew’s, Nilson is a lecturer at Linnaeus University.

While Bartel carefully traces Neville’s development over the series, I am entirely unpersuaded by the allegorical reading in which Harry is Jesus and Neville a model of Christian disciple as courageous confessor. While it is quite clear that Rowling draws on Christian themes and embeds them in the narrative, this kind of reading seems to me quite alien to the world she constructs and the way the characters develop within it.

Nilson in her brief response notes that Neville is not an archetypal hero, and suggests that as a boy who reads he disrupts the typical gender roles so readily inhabited by Harry and Ron, on the one hand and Hermione on the other.

Both essays rightly draw attention to Rowling’s development of a number of subsidiary characters as more complex in their own right than their roles in the narrative might demand. However, I can’t help avoid the suspicion that Bartel reads his own interests into the text, and that Neville as a character is about more than resisting gender stereotyping.

In particular I feel they rather miss the character of Neville as the awkward child, the picked-on and bullied one whose school experience carries a lot of discomfort and misery. He is, perhaps, a more realistic conduit of comfort for a great many of Rowling’s potential readers than the trio at the centre. I suspect Rowling has a profound sympathy for such awkward and gauche children, and wishes to give them their place in the sun.

Wrestling with our platonic past: impassibility once more

Yesterday I discussed how difficult people find it today to talk of God’s impassibility, as taught in the first of the 39 articles.

There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

By way of my final post on this first article, I want to offer a few angles on this to suggest there are some positive reasons to affirm it. The first is more generally about the tradition of apophatic theology, which is a posh way of saying that it’s easier to make negative statements about what God is not, than positive statements about what/who God is. Sometimes we need the negative statements to remind ourselves how inadequate our positive statements are to the reality we name God.

Impassibility is one aspect of the “God-ness” of God, which traditional doctrine this article so strongly affirms: his perfection in eternity (the positive statements of the article), and his being “not such a one as us” (the negative statements). God is not contingent, not in need of growth, not externally influenced. A failure truly to appreciate God’s transcendence lies behind a great many of the atheist objections to God’s “existence,” which they confuse with the existence of all other things, visible and invisible. By definition God, in this classical tradition, is the one who creates the possibility of things existing. God does not exist in the way the universe or anything in it exists. Perhaps we are too quick to make the Almighty all matey.

I suggest that whatever is involved in speaking of God, all God-talk is of necessity metaphorical or analogical. This is true of language of God’s anger, and it is true also of language of impassibility. (I suspect myself that negative statements are less metaphorical than positive statements.) I think that part of what that means is that impassibility reminds us that all talk of God’s anger is metaphor.

The vast amount of anthropomorphic metaphors in the Bible can’t simply be set aside by the language of impassibility. However, if impassibility is to be questioned by the preponderance of biblical metaphor, do some forms of that questioning risk losing, say, that distinctiveness of God’s God-ness which makes creation, incarnation and salvation acts of love, grace and free will and instead render them as some kind of divine compulsion?

The church’s theology grew in childhood in a framework of middle and neo-Platonism which is barely present in the milk of the Jewish writings on which it was weaned. Our forebears in faith saw deep problems with the language of the scriptures where we do not, and we see problems where they did not. I don’t think we can simply replace their readings with ours, because their readings have shaped the ground where we stand to question. The clash of world-views around impassibility might rather give us pause to reconsider our own cultural constructs of God, even if we end up saying something other than they did.

What is the most important thing impassibility safeguards? I think it is in part that the idea that God is not acted on by others in ways which deflect, deter or defeat God’s purposes. It is because God is transcendentally different that God’s becoming immanently like us in the incarnation is good news. This is the love that doesn’t do mood-swings, that doesn’t give up, that won’t be changed, but is implacable in its determination to seek our good. And if that is what impassibility looks like, don’t we need to keep at least a version of it as a key part of our doctrine of God.

Part of a series on the 39 Articles of Religion

God: when traditional “biblical” clashes with modern “biblical”

One result of looking at older expressions of faith which are not regularly read, like the Church of England’s 39 Articles, is that they can confront you with unfamiliar ideas. I suspect that a very large number of contemporary Christians, conservative and liberal alike, actually have (usually unrecognised) problems with the first article’s traditional doctrine of God.

There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Those problems relate especially to the phrase “without body, parts, or passions” (incorporeus, impartibilis, impassibilis). And the most problematic assertion of the trio is “without … passions”, impassibilis, impassible – a word so strange to contemporary ears that MS Word puts a squiggly red line under it.

Many people have no idea that this is the classical doctrine of God. For some, it is treated as proof of the Platonizing tendency of the early church, and thus a move away from the (presumed) “simple faith of Jesus”, or the “Hebrew mentality”. (Hebrew good, Greek bad still seems to be a popular assumption.) For others it is simply ignored in favour of literal interpretations of biblical metaphors of God’s changing his mind, or of his being angry.

For almost all modern people, “God is love” is subconsciously heard as carrying overtones of emotion, of passionate love, and therefore impassibility is held to be unbiblical / heretical / wrong / passé*. (*Delete according to theological taste in condemnatory words.)

The classic tradition this article expresses may be more at odds with contemporary understandings of faith than the obviously controversial ones. It requires considerable weight to be given to the tradition of the church as an interpretative key, and a trust that these ancient ways of reading scripture were actually rightly guided by the Spirit.

The number of verses in the canonical scriptures that suggest passion and change in God far outweighs the single clear verse that appears to affirm divine immutability (a close cousin to impassibility):

[God is]  the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. (James 1:17)

Ironically, of course, this supporting metaphor for the whole Greek philosophical superstructure of impassibility and immutability comes in the most Jewish book of the NT.

This article asserts the importance of the tradition for reading scripture. Language about God becoming angry is to be seen as metaphor and analogy. All those many references to God changing his mind are not to be read literally. Whatever else the articles will say about the privileging of scripture over tradition (and they will say a lot) they begin in a different place, with the tradition and not against it.

This offers a challenge, obviously, to any simple claim to perspicuity or literal readings of which the drafters may not have been fully aware. In their day impassibility was hardly challenged, and so the meaning of scriptures concerning God was probably more clear for them than for us. For us it is a more difficult doctrine. Most Bible readers are unaware of it, or that past generations of Christians did not read the language of God’s emotions literally.

In a subsequent post I will explore a few of the issues I think this doctrine of impassibility raises.

(This post is part of a series on the Church of England’s 39 Articles of Religion, on article 1)

Magic is Might: et in Dystopia ego

I’m moving on with my series on the Ravenclaw Reader, a collection of papers on the world of Harry Potter delivered at a St Andrew’s University conference in 2012 and now tidied up and published this month. The sixth chapter looks at the wizarding world as a dystopia. The substantive paper is by Sarah Cocita Reschan (about whom I can glean nothing certain from Google), and the response by Amy H. Sturgis. I repeat my moan that a collection of essays such as this really does need do say something about its contributors.

The main paper picks up an interesting and important theme. Reschan suggests that from the death of Cedric Diggory at the end of Goblet of Fire onwards we see the world being disclosed as a dystopia. She sets this in the context of other dystopian literature, but especially some young adult ones such as the Hunger Games series, arguing that one of the differences in Rowling’s narrative is the presence of the magical intertwined with our mundane Muggle one.

Harry’s double existence in the magical world and the ordinary one, and the crossover nature of Voldemort’s activities encourage activism in the day to day world. In brief, Harry, his friends and his allies come to define and discover themselves in opposition to the gathering gloom, and through this narrative the reader is encouraged towards activism. She concludes:

The dystopian aspects of the Harry Potter series not only help readers understand themselves in an unbalanced world, but encourage them to be actively involved in making their society better. (p.135)

Sturgis’ response draws on a wider range of young adult dystopian literature to introduce a greater complexity to the discussion. She also suggests that the near utopia Reschan suggests Harry encounters in Philosopher’s Stone is scarcely utopian at all. Both authors make some valuable observations, to which I would wish to add a couple of things.

First, I agree with Sturgis about the earlier books: the dystopian elements intrude far earlier than Reschan allows. Harry arrives at Hogwarts when the world is still in a state of fragile and fearful peace, insufficiently sure of its stability even to speak Voldemort’s name. The world cannot face and name its fears honestly. In Chamber, we see, for example, the willingness of the ministry to take Hagrid in to custody with no evidence, but merely to satisfy public opinion. The racism of magical or Mudblood becomes overt. And the power of money and corruption intrude on Hogwarts with Dumbledore’s (temporary) sacking.

In Azkaban we see not only that an innocent man has been imprisoned, but that no-one would trust the evidence of 13 year old children. We see the treatment of Lupin as a werewolf deepen the issues of blood purity. And above all we see the Dementors, and Dumbledore’s anxiety over them voices our own suspicions. All that before we reach the book whose ending Reschan identifies as a turning point.

As the story develops, we are seeing two things simultaneously, I think. One is the regrowing influence of Voldemort and / or his supporters. Th other is Harry slowly having his eyes opened to the reality of the world he now inhabits. It parallels growth through adolescence, for as well as becoming aware of the problems of the media, politics and justice in his own personal experience, he also becomes aware of the complexity of people. Dolores Umbridge complicates his view of what a corrupt person is. Severus Snape complicates his view of what a courageous person is. He also loses his adult support to the point where he must make his own decisions: not only does Sirius die, but he has eventually to come to terms with Sirius’ treatment of Kreacher. He has to lose the idealised image he had of his father, and recognise that his father’s behaviour in Snape’s memory is reprehensible. And he has to lose Dumbledore, who is the north star which guides his adventure. It is not just that Dumbledore dies, but that he is revealed to have been flawed in quite painful ways.

I think the theme that unites this, and in many respects holds the series together, and is exactly what comes to prompt and guide Harry’s determination to resist dystopia, is that he has to discover both a true vision of the world as it is, and to continue to love. He is to name He Who Must Not Be Named not only as Lord Voldemort, but as Tom Riddle. He is to see the feet of clay below Albus Dumbledore’s greatness, and the wounded heart of love beneath Severus Snape’s viciousness, and to be able not only to remake the dystopia – not into utopia which is a fool’s dream, but into normality – but to name his second son Albus Severus Potter.

No props to Propp on the popularity of Potter

The fifth section of the Ravenclaw Reader is a pair of essays attempting to explore the popularity of Harry Potter. The main essay, by Joel Hunter, is an attempt to explore the books in terms of Propp’s formalist analysis of folktales. The author, Dr Hunter, is a philosopher who’s moved out of traditional university into a community college. The response is written by Dr Gabrielle Ceraldi, who specialises in children’s literature at Western University, Canada.

I’m going to be brief here, since I’ve never been a fan of the way formalism (or structuralism for that matter) analyses texts. I think that while the noting of similarities can be mildly helpful, the really interesting analysis comes when you ask how this writer or that narrative complicates or works against common forms, functions, structures and oppositions.The danger of formalism is it puts the interest in the abstracted functions, and fails to read the complex particulars. I don’t think Hunter does that, but while I can abstractedly (see what I did there) admire his industry, I am not engaged enough to want to consult the 37 pages stretched across four appendices which accompany his paper.

He concludes, based on analysing both the stories, and readers’ responses to the stories as gathered through a simple questionnaire, that the “series of books cast (sic) its spell over readers by closely adhering to the formal organisation of folktale structure.” (p.111) According to his analysis, the books that do so most closely are those that are the most popular within the Potter canon as well.

This still leaves me with the question, is this simply noting features that tend to occur in popular stories, rather than explaining their popularity. After all, there are many other stories with similar structures which sell well, but have nowhere near the sales of Rowling’s creation. Perhaps one of the nearest comparisons (which as a reworking of classical myths will have, I suspect, just the same sort of archetypal forms and functions) is Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, written slightly later but over a comparable time-span and aimed at a similar age and audience. The main books consist of two series of five each (plus various other supplements) so more than the Potter series. As of March this year, Riordan had sold somewhere in the region of 40 million books against Rowling’s sales, which were more than ten times that amount, being upwards of 450 million.

Nor, though Ceraldi’s response suggests it as one alternative (p.115), can the coincidence of Potter’s popularity simply be attributed to the possibilities of Web 2.0 arriving in time to generate the fan phenomenon (should we neologise fanomenon?). The popularity, however, rather predates the technology. Blogger, which in many ways is the first harbinger of Web 2.0, wasn’t launched until after the third book had been published, and the fanomenon (there I go) was beginning to roll before it attained any wide use.

In short, the question of their popularity will almost certainly need complex and polyvalent answers, and not a single explanation, and as Ceraldi says, it is the questions of exploring their meaning (I dislike her expression “made meaningful” p.119 – Rowling’s already done that) which matter rather more.

Harry Potter and the remarkably natural forest

The fourth pairing of papers in the Ravenclaw Reader concern the Forbidden Forest. The main article is by Garry MacKenzie, and the response by one of the editors John Patrick Pazdziora. Both of these (if my googling has served me well) are PhD students at St Andrew’s University.

MacKenzie is working on landscapes in post WWII poetry, and his choice of the Forest clearly draws on that, as he explores its significance in fairy-tale and literature, particularly drawing parallels with the Brothers Grimm. He also explores this question in the light of A. S. Byatt’s notorious critique of Rowling’s creation, characterised (not unfairly) by Salon magazine as A.S. Byatt and the goblet of bile.

MacKenzie (p.79) finds something in Byatt’s critique: the Forbidden Forest is not a particularly dangerous place in itself, nor a numinous or magic-imbued environment. There are dangerous, mysterious and frightening things which live in it, but in and of itself it is natural. MacKenzie suggests that it functions primarily as a liminal place, sitting at the boundary of wizard society (p.82). There may be something to this, in that it is a place where the rules of society break down, but it never seems to really function as quite the a place of change that suggests. A place where things happen that advance the plot, certainly, but not, I think the degree of change that suggests liminal status.

While I think MacKenzie rightly draws attention to its place in almost all of the narratives, it is more-or-less incidental to Azkaban, and to Goblet (where its role as mysterious place of danger from magical creatures (and “liminal” boundary through which the Durmstang ship enters) is taken by the Lake. He may therefore somewhat exaggerate its narrative role.

Pazdziora’s response, which unlike the previous chapter does indeed respond, also notes other forests of the series, the Albanian forest where the disembodied Voldemort goes to hide among the snakes, and the Forest of Dean. In the latter of these he finds echoes of Rowling’s childhood experience, which he feels explains its non-threatening nature (pp.90-91). The Forest of Dean, however, is more refuge than place of danger, and its relative tameness doesn’t deal with what MacKenzie identifies as Byatt’s problem, that the Forbidden Forest is not sufficiently numinous.

I wonder, though, whether the ordinariness even of the Forbidden Forest has a point. Potterworld may contain magical creatures, and wizards may practice magic, but the world is natural. Trees are not inhabited by dryads; lakes may have mermaids and grindylows in them, but there are no naiads to preside over them. Rowling appears (whether deliberately or coincidentally) to be selective in her raiding of the classics. There are no genii loci or lares in the Potterverse. Magic is its technology, good overcoming evil is its theme, love is its abiding morality, but the world of witchcraft and wizardry portrayed by Rowling still seems to play out in a world whose mystery is not a numinous super-nature, but a wonderful nature. Perhaps we even dare say, a good creation.

Who is this God person anyway?

“Who is this God person anyway?” was the final book of Oolon Colluphid’s trilogy of philosophical blockbusters in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It can serve here as a reminder that the way one person uses the word “God” may not be the same as the use of the person they’re talking to. Conversations and (especially) arguments about God frequently consist of people talking past each other.

One of the ways in which the Church of England’s 39 Articles of Religion differ from some more or less contemporary statements of faith like the Westminster Confession is that they begin with an article on God. The Westminster Confession, like many since, begins with trying to lay a foundation, a methodology and an evidence base for talking about God. The articles jump straight in and begin talking about God.

There is but one living and true God, ever-lasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. (Article 1)

Another difference is that they aren’t providing anything like the same attempt at comprehensive and consistent logic in their exposition. They are more like a series of boundary markers. After the initial five which begin with a restatement of Nicene orthodoxy. they turn largely to varied matters where doctrine and practice are disputed among their contemporaries.

If you want to know more about what “God” means you need the Prayer Book in which they are bound up, the Scriptures whose reading they provide for, and root themselves in, and the practices they commend. You discover the meaning words like “God” have by joining a community which inherits a tradition of faith, even while it is reforming many of its inherited practices and beliefs.

There is nowhere to stand that doesn’t have a set of commitments and presuppositions. Bible – the collection of books and how they are read, interpreted and valued – is not a foundation, but a skill set and a knowledge base, a narrative world and language acquired in company with other readers.

Now they certainly had a clear view of God, and they expected everyone to join their community and accept their definition, and passed laws to enforce it. There was no intentional suck-it-and-see about the approach. Yet even if by accident, the way they begin by jumping straight in, the way they bind their doctrinal boundary markers up with the texts of a praying and listening community, makes their text very congenial to this approach.

The only way for someone to (begin to) discover what “God” means, is to join in with a community of practice, a community of discourse which uses this God-talk to make sense of their experience and reality, to seek transformation of their life and their world. There is no neutral place to stand where you can explore such a question “objectively”. (You can also belong to a community of practice which is busy explaining in its own life and discourse that this word “God” doesn’t mean anything, of course.)

In one of the older foundation stories of Jewish and Christian faith, God “names” himself to Moses in a phrase that can be translated either “I am who I am” (the majority view) or “I will be who I will be” (Ex 3:14). This is faith as inviting or demanding trust, a voyage of discovery and (dis)obedience on which Moses has to embark and not a list of six impossible things to believe before breakfast like the Queen in Alice Through the Looking-Glass.

Ezra Koenig (of Vampire Weekend) sings:

Through the fire and through the flames
You won’t even say your name
Only “I am that I am”
But who could ever live that way?
(Ya Heh – Vampires of the Modern City, Track 10)

There are a lot of people who’ve found themselves asking the same question. There are many who’ve found that they can live that way, and many who’ve found they can’t, and all sorts of compromisers in-between, as well as those who just deny the validity of the question in the first place. But it’s a reminder that the invitation to faith is an invitation to live, question and discover in a particular way, not a knock-down argument that settles things before the journey can begin. And along the way, in this God-story-telling community, faith explores what “God” means.

(This post is part of a series on the Church of England’s 39 Articles of Religion, on article 1)

A humanist (mis)reading of Harry Potter?

I confess, the third paper in the Ravenclaw Reader has made me question the wisdom of this blog project. And at the least it shows how very differently people can read the Potter books. Siddarth Pandey, who appears to be a PhD student at Homerton, Cambridge, approaches them with a copy of Deleuze in his back pocket.

Let’s start with a few observations. Pandey wants to argue that magic is fluid, and this fits Deleuze’s way of thinking about the universe.

Movement indeed determines both the being and the experience of magic, so that Rowling’s fictional world is forever embrace by shiftiness. (p.57).

To that end he evidences the changing staircases of Hogwarts, the Burrow “burst[ing] with the strange and unexpected” (Chamber p.37), the enchanted Ford Anglia that takes on a semi-wild existence of its own in the Forbidden Forest, what he suggests is a “mysterious magical pact” (p.55) between the Marauder’s Map and the Room of Requirement which means the room doesn’t appear on the map, the ways in which the dark magic objects in 12 Grimmauld Place resist attempts to clean and remove them so that it seems as if they’re actually “waging war on the house” (Phoenix p.109), teapots that go berserk and squirt tea on their Muggle user, the paintings whose occupants wander off from time to time, and so on.

marauders_mapThe problem with this list is its equally easy to go through it and point out other explanations specific to these features. The absence of the Room of Requirement from the Marauders’ Map is explained explicitly within the narrative as part of the magic of the room, and implicitly by the probability that the Marauders never found it in their time in the school.  The strange things of the Burrow are only strange to Harry, who has never been in a wizard’s house before. They are regarded explicitly in the text as “perfectly normal” (Chamber p.37). The objects of Grimmauld Place are the detritus of a dark wizarding family, who imbued the house with all the things they could think of to keep people like the Weasleys (and the Ministry) away. The teapots that go berserk have been bewitched to do so by Muggle-baiting wizards.

There are only three things on the list which might suggest some unpredictable fluidity to the world. However, of these, the changing staircases of Hogwarts are presented as part of the ingrained magic of the building, without explanation – a peculiarly magic exaggeration of the normal predicament of the child new to a secondary school: getting lost on the way to class because they’re unfamiliar with the building. The paintings are a more interesting case: their magic is never explained, but there appears to be a consistent logic to them. Whereas photos only seem to have the movement of their subjects, paintings participate in the personality – perhaps the soul – of their subject. The apotheosis of this in the narrative is the way in which Dumbledore’s portrait engages actively in events after his death.

In the end, it is only the car which proves unpredictable, given life of a kind by the charms placed on it, and presumably, the beating inflicted on it by the whomping willow. I feel that Pandey reads his “fluidity” into the text:  on closer inspection the evidence for it is blown away as chaff before the wind of narrative logic.

He is right, I think to read magic as entirely non-transcendent in terms of the Potter universe. Yet I can’t see myself that this has anything to do with the “force of magic [having] a indeterminable interiority” (p.58), it is more because it is the science and technology of the magical world. The non-transcendental nature of magic doesn’t mean there is no transcendence in Rowling’s creation, it just means the transcendence is located elsewhere, and I would say that it is love to which Rowling allocates the transcendent value that weaves through the heart of the story.

As for Pandey’s idea that the takeover of the Ministry by Voldemort’s supporters is somehow a critique of “religion in a fundamentalist sense”, and that the motto “Magic is Might” seems “closer to the hallowed tone of ‘May the Force be with you'” (p.63), well, I can only suggest he fails to see a parody of political sloganeering that almost certainly has literary echoes of 1984’s “War is Peace” and the like. There is nothing about the paraphernalia of Voldemort’s rise to power that carries any overt or even implicit religiosity; there is much that carries explicit echoes of how power operates in a fascist dictatorship. I assume Pandey has had some very extreme experiences of fundamentalist religion, which might explain – if you will excuse the politically incorrect word – this misreading of the text.

There are some very interesting observations in Pandey’s argument. His attempt to offer a (very clever) Deleuzean reading is probably beyond my limited intelligence, but it seems to me to flatten the detail of the book and impose a framework on it which doesn’t fi. He is also unusual in arguing for “magic’s humanist pull” and its “aversion towards transcendence” (p.65) This essay, more than most is crying out for a response. Unfortunately, it does;t really get it. The response is briefly complimentary to the author, and then goes off on a line of its own. I would have expected this paper to generate a lot of discussion, and a fair bit of push-back.

Stale Expressions of Faith?

39_ArticlesOne of the few things that’s clear about “Anglicanism” is that Anglicans can’t bring themselves to agree what it means. The mechanisms whereby Tudor monarch, parliament and archbishop acting together could impose any kind of doctrine on a divided church are long since gone and have never been replaced. History also proved that they were of strictly limited effectiveness, and very few contemporary Anglicans would see much biblical or theological justification for Henry’s approach to Church government.

Doctrinally, this has left the foundation documents of the Church of England somewhat stranded. The official position is this: first in Canon A5

The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures.
In particular such doctrine is to be found in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal.

Then comes the declaration of assent which each licensed minister, lay and ordained is required to make:

I … declare my belief in the faith which is revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds and to which the historic formularies of the Church of England bear witness;

These appear to agree on a gradation: Scripture is bedrock, the creeds are a distillation of that faith, and the Prayer Book, Ordinal and Articles are signposts to, or examples of, the said doctrine. That said, the phrase “historic witnesses” is generally taken read as a downgrading of those documents. One very conservative Anglican, on behalf of his equally conservative organisation, fulminates against the wording:

It ought to be plain to everyone that the Declaration has not stopped people entering the Church of England ministry who do not believe in God, nor those who do not accept the divinity of Christ, nor those who engage in or promote sodomy.

Clergy in the past were required to ascribe ex animo (from the heart) to the Articles, because they are a faithful exposition of the teaching of Scripture. But this modern wording merely says, that the Church has borne witness (past tense) to this faith in the formularies. (David Phillips, Church Society article accessed 08/10/15)

More than that, actual practice in almost every existing strand of Anglicanism rarely uses the Prayer Book for worship, very few of those who have been ordained have been ordained with Cranmer’s Ordinal, and the 39 Articles are not much used, as far as I can tell, in theological formation and education.

In what I expect to be an occasional series, I want to renew a conversation with the 39 articles, and bring contemporary readings of scripture and tradition into that conversation. I think that, like all Church tradition, they need to be treated more seriously than an historical anachronism. They are, even on their own terms, open to revision and reformation. Nobody reading them properly should be able to claim they should be excluded from semper reformanda (part of a Reformation slogan meaning “always being reformed”).

They belong also in a package with the worshipping life of the church, anchored as they are to the prayer book and ordinal. Turning to the articles alone, as though they were a complete and discrete confession of faith, seems to me unjustified both in historical and theological terms. They are much more like a series of boundary markers laid down in the disputes of the Reformation. Those disputes look different today, and many (most?) of our questions were not even on the horizon. Some of the boundary markers may need moving, some may be wrong, and some may need shoring up.

Exploring an historical root of Anglican expressions of faith, also leads into questions of renewing catechesis – that is, being serious about the teaching of the faith, and not just the sharing of faith. Catechisms have also got a little lost: as one of the Reform and Renewal papers noted at the start of this year: “The Catechism of the Church of England is an important but neglected document.” (Developing Discipleship GS1977). Neglected indeed, the present revised catechism (yes it does exist) appears nowhere, as far as I can see, on the Church of England website.

A long time ago, on a blog far, far away, I wrote a series on the 39 articles, no vanished into the ether (or possibly buried beneath the sands of Tatooine). One of the ways in which this series will, I hope, differ from that one is that I will be keeping some of those catechetical questions in mind. That seems to me one of the better reasons for engaging a particular snapshot of where Anglicans once thought both their core beliefs as well as their hot-button issues were in our formative past.

This series could take a long time: I don’t intend to post items frequently and I do intend to give each article at least one post to itself. So if you’re at all interested, stay tuned. Once I’ve got enough posts together, I’ll do an index page.

(The first in a series on the Church of England’s 39 Articles of Religion)