Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Harry Potter and the Fire Breathing Fundamentalists

I am delighted to have a guest article by American writer and broadcaster Jerry Bowyer. This article was first published a few years ago upon publication of the final instalment of Harry Potter. With the release of the first part of the final movie, it seemed the right the time to give it a fresh airing ...

Warning this article contains spoilers.

KKLA is the largest Christian talk radio station in America. I hold a dubious record there – I am responsible for causing the largest number of complaint calls the station had ever gotten in a single day. The topic? Harry Potter.

The Bowyers love Harry Potter: the novels, the movies, the video games, the midnight bookseller parties, we’re game for any of it. It didn’t start that way; ten years ago my mother wanted to give Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to one of my girls as a Christmas gift. “No way,” I said. “We don’t do witches and wizards here.”

A couple of years later my mother-in-law asked the same question. By then I’d become a little less rock-ribbed and quite a bit more disillusioned with the religious right wing of the conservative movement. Gracie loved the books and started sharing the story with me. As I noticed more and more references to classical and medieval literature my guard started to fall.

Eventually I went to see the movie version with my whole family. When I left the theatre, I knew two things: first, that I had been an ignorant blow-hard. This wasn’t Wiccan propaganda: it was standard-issue fairy tale magic like Cinderella and The Wizard of Oz. Second, that Joanne Rowling had spent a great deal of time immersed in The Greats – the long line of literary masterpieces that range from The Lord of the Rings and Narnia back through Dickens, Austen, Shakespeare, the Arthurian Legends, the Church Fathers, the Scriptures themselves, and into the best of the pre-Christian Greek classics. In other words, Rowling was one of us.

Not long after that, I got to know John Granger and his book, The Key to Harry Potter, and I knew that I was not alone.

So I shared what I had learned with the radio audience. Harry is a lot of things. He’s a little bit Prince Harry forced to grow into the great warrior Henry V. He’s a lot more of the young Arthur, taken from his family at a young age, forced to live under the neglectful care of an inferior family, kept in the shadows of a bullying older adopted brother and unaware of his great origins. Eventually he is mentored by a great wizard (for young Wart, that’s Merlin; for Harry, it’s Dumbledore – a member of the Order of Merlin). Both lead quests to find a cup. Both (spoiler alert here- and from now on) end up procuring a great sword out of a lake in order to proceed with the quest.

I’m afraid the Arthur stuff doesn’t do much for many American evangelicals, though. It’s a little too British for Americans, plus it smells suspiciously Roman Catholic to a lot of Evangelicals. While I got lots of appreciative remarks, I didn’t make much headway with the fire breathers.

Next I tried the more recognizable Christian material. In Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets, Harry confronts Voldemort (whose name means “will to death”) by traveling down into a great cavern where he slays a serpent to win an (eventual) bride. He fatally wounds the serpent in the head. He’s rescued by a bird who descends upon him and the bride, a kind of bird whose “tears have healing powers, and who are able to bear immense loads.” The bird bears them up out of the cavern. “There, how’s that?” I thought. The problem is that very few Christians seem to be aware of descendit ad infernum, the descent into hell. Don’t the schools teach Dante? Don’t the Churches teach the Apostle’s Creed? Well, as a matter of fact, no, they generally do not. The Proto Evangelium, the first gospel in which God told Adam and Eve that He would send Someone who would rescue their descendents by crushing the head of the serpent doesn’t seem to get a lot of play either.

I could go on for page after page: snippets from ancient hymns and creeds for instance. The most powerful spell in Harry’s world is the Patronus, in which the wizard forcefully says “Expecto Patronum”. That’s Christian Latin for “I look for the Savior”. Expecto is used in the Nicene Creed, and Patronum is used in the medieval Dies Irae as the Savior that we look for in the day of judgment. Harry uses the spell when ghastly evil spiritual beings called DEMENtors (caps mine) attack him and another innocent man near a lake. A stag (which just happens to function as a common Christ figure in medieval art) walks across the water dispelling the vile soul-destroying creatures. What’s it take, a 2 by 4 across the forehead? This is Christian stuff!

Well, the 2 by 4 has arrived and it’s called Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. In it, Harry learns that the evil Voldemort has broken his soul into shards and used those shards to possess certain objects. These are called Horcruxes. One of them is a ring (Lord of the Rings fans should find this a little familiar) and as long as the object is not destroyed the ‘Dark Lord’ cannot be destroyed either. Well it turns out that one of those soul shards in imbedded in a scar in Harry’s forehead and Harry comes to understand that the only way the evil can be destroyed is for Harry to willingly give up his life. In order to save his friends at Hogwarts School (which we learn in book 7 reminds Harry of a church) and particularly his friend Hagrid (whose name is suspiciously similar to Hagioi, which is Greek for Saints) he must allow himself to be killed by the dark lord. He makes a long walk through a wood in which he stumbles (Via Dolorosa, anyone?) all the while being encouraged by a vision of his deceased mother Lily.

This might be a good time to tell you that the Lily is often used as a symbol for Mary, the mother of Jesus, in medieval literature. I have an album in my musical collection of exceptionally beautiful hymns about Jesus and Mary, called The Lily and the Lamb. Harry goes ‘as a sheep to the shearer’ to Voldemort, where he is killed. There he meets his old mentor Dumbledore (old English for bumblebee, a medieval symbol for wisdom based on Psalm 119). While Dumbledore explains it all, the great white cloud in which Harry finds himself begins to take the shape of a familiar train station. The station’s name is King’s Cross, which is also the title of that particular chapter of the book. Harry is given the choice of going ‘on’ or going back to save his people. Harry goes back and finds that since he willingly gave his life for the people of Hogwarts, Voldemort’s curses no longer bind them. Voldemort, then, is destroyed (by his own hand in an attempt to kill Harry again) and the various races and houses of Hogwarts celebrate in a great feast, in which they ignore the walls and divisions which had theretofore separated them.

Since this book has been published I have not seen a single apology to JK Rowling from any of the various fundamentalist bashers. She’d been accused of atheism (she’s an Anglican) and of being a witch (she knows nothing at all about the occult or Wicca).

Why no apologies to the lady? First, it’s always tough to say you’re sorry. But deeper than that, I think the problem is that so much of the religious right failed to see the Christianity in the Potter novels because it knows so little Christianity itself. Yes, there are a few ‘memory verses’ from Saint Paul, and various evangelical habits like the ‘sinner’s prayer’ and the alter call. However the gospel stories themselves, the various metaphors and figures of the Law and the Prophets, and their echoes down through the past two millennia of Christian literature and art are largely unknown to vast swaths of American Christendom, including its leaders.

Seven years ago, Joanne Rowling was asked whether she is a Christian. Her answer:

“Yes I am. Which seems to offend the religious right far worse than if I said I thought there was no God. Every time I’ve been asked if I believe in God, I’ve said yes, because I do, but no one ever really has gone any more deeply into it than that, and I have to say that does suit me, because if I talk too freely about that I think the intelligent reader, whether 10 or 60, will be able to guess what’s coming in the books.”

For once, I disagree with her: I don’t think they would have guessed the ending. Most of them can’t recognize the ending of the story even after it’s been told.

Oh, I almost forgot the radio station. Terry Fahy, the General Manager of KKLA, told me that he’d like to have me on the station again. So, you see, there are signs of hope after all.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

New business website

Bit of a boring post, but I thought you might be interested in my new business website for Matthews & Owen (the trading name for my consultancy). It was pretty simply done with iWeb and hosted on MobileMe: www.matthewsandowen.com.

I am going to be running a blog on there looking at issues around publishing, media, films and communications (especially new and digital media). Please feel free to add it to your RSS reader (such as Google Reader). Matthews & Owen Blog. Here is the latest post:

Friday, 20 August 2010

Will screens rather than page be the way we read in the future. Kevin Kelly from the Smithsonian magazine thinks so.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Raising dazed out, stupefied kids

I have been thinking a lot about why we made the decision to home educate recently. My wife and I have been reviewing our family mission statement and vision, I had a good and very provoking conversation with an old friend about this subject, and one of my current roles is the national media spokesperson for Education Otherwise.

We are both convinced that, in the end, the educational decision a family make for their kids is their own decision, and that it isn't right for anyone - an individual, a church, pressure groups or the state - to compel educational conformity upon people (the problem of neglect, abuse or similar problems notwithstanding). Actually, I think the ideal would be small, community-based educational cooperatives run through a blend of parental involvement and employed teachers, where parents are intimately involved in the philosophy and overall direction, as well as the pastoral things.

However, one of the books that came up when my wife and I were discussing these things was the excellent Colossians Remixed by Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat. In that they discuss their decision to home education in a question and answer format. Here are some of their thoughts:

Q: So what's the alternative? Are you saying that we all have to send out children to Christian schools?

A: Actually, we believe we need to rethink the whole notion of schooling - Christian or otherwise. Our question is this: if it is true that schooling is an institution of the modernist progress myth and is preoccupied with quantification, testing, standardization, passivity, docility and consumption resulting in a dazed, numbed-out, stupefied, disinterested, disempowered and unmotivated population of unthinking consumers, then why are Christians playing this educational game of schooling at all?


And insofar as Christian schools are applauded in our society for producing fine, middle class, hardworking and hard-consuming citizens, we are not sure they are providing much of an alternative.

Q: Won't they end up being social misfits?

A: We hope so. Yes, social misfits, that's what we long for. May it be that we raise up a generation of social misfits, because to "fit into" this culture, to find your place of comfort in it, is to be accommodated to the empire. we have argued that this is precisely what this subversive little tract called Colossians is arguing against.

But no, it is not a matter of isolationism. The issue here is not to isolate our children from the world, but to expose them to the world through the liberating vision of a biblical worldview. Precisely where the powers that be don't want children to make connections, don't want them to really see, we want our children's eyes to be opened. We want our kids to see through the targeted advertising of McDonalds toys, games and playlands and recognize the manipulative come-ons that they are. We want them to see through the packaging and grease in order to see that the stuff being served is not food. We want our little girls to be offended, not enamoured, by Barbie's figure. We want them to know that while the news of war that they are constantly hearing on the radio and on the street makes them worry, there are other little girls in places like Palestine, Israel, Iraq, Colombia, Guatemala, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe who have to live with the daily fear of war in their neighbourhoods. We want them to think about the little girls who work in the fields producing cash crops or who slave in sweatshops producing cute clothes for little girls.

Provoking stuff.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

iPad review

I have the good fortune of being in possession of one the first iPads in the UK, courtesy of EGM Films, with whom I am working (check out the new film due out in September - Little Town of Bethlehem). A great opportunity - I'm not sure I could have justified paying the £499 myself if it wasn't for this.

So - my device is the 32gb Wifi version and I will be mainly using it for email, productivity, some surfing but mainly as a presentation device in meetings. Setting it up in iTunes is a simple process, and I liked the fact that it DOESN'T automatically sync all the music, videos and pictures, but allows you to choose. Even with 32gb, this would fill it up before I even get chance to use it.

Setting up email accounts was incredibly simple, and I was able to set up an exchange account, two IMAP email accounts and my Mobile Me account, which immediately synchronized my calendar and contacts onto the iPad.

I have had the chance to use the device on the road and in the office over the last two weeks, and wanted to divide up how I have used it:

On the Road

I spent most of last week travelling around the UK and Ireland - at an exhibition, in meetings and in hotel rooms. I have all the trailers and various other photos and videos related to my work with EGM, and was delighted how easy it was to pop the iPad on a stand and play the video, slideshow or presentation and talk through it. One of the days I left my laptop in the hotel to see if I could cope with just the iPad and had no problems. Answering emails was simple - the on-screen keyboard was clean and responsive, and taking notes during the meeting on there was great - this was later sync'd through iTunes and I could access them on my MacBook.

Battery life was impressive - I can get two full days of working through one charge and yet it only took a few hours to charge up through the USB cable to the MacBook.

In the office and home

This week is a week at home, and I spent some time looking at productivity tools on the iPad. I have decided to implement some of the principles in Getting things Done, and decided to use the Taska app to help with this. I can link tasks not only by project, but by using tags they can be linked across projects. For example, all of my different proposals or events can be viewed at the same time even though they are listed under different projects.

I found myself working on the MacBook but using the iPad as an extension, with notes and tasks available to refer to quickly which I found helpful. When I went out, I took the iPad - I had a church meeting and a coffee with someone - made notes on it and kept up with email - which is much easier to carry.

I also downloaded the Kindle app which gives access to the whole Amazon Kindle list. I downloaded a few samples to look at and it seems a good way to read reference and non-fiction stuff, but I wouldn't use it for novels or extended reading of several hours - except perhaps when travelling.

I was expecting to be annoyed by the lack of multi-tasking - you can only have one programme open at a time. However, things such as the web browser and mail keep running in the background and you can quickly switch between them.


Great size and weight
Wonderful battery time
Efficient productivity tool
Clean interface
Good addition to a laptop
Useful Apps (recommend the iWork suite, Taska, Kindle as starters)


Expensive - the edition I have is £499 on release
Not many apps provided 'out of the box'
Not all apps available in the UK app store (I assume this will change upon UK release)
Is it just more stuff?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A plague on all their houses?

With moat cleaning, ex-ministers for sale, playing politics with the constitution and various other dirty activities this last parliament has to be one of the most disreputable in living memory. It is no wonder that there is an increasing tendency to write off politics and politicians as corrupt, useless and that 'they're all as bad as each other'. However, I see voting as a hard won right, and a privilege, and I take seriously the decision at every local and general election.

So - who to vote for this time. Rather than look at the personalities of both the local and national politicians, and rather than follow a party line, I wanted to make a decision based on the policies offered. Here are my thoughts so far:

The foundational issue for me is one of liberty - do the parties accept that that personal liberty - the freedom to choose how one should live within reasonable limits - is an essential value. This is the principle that was fought over from the Bill of Rights onwards, and forms an essential part of the British culture. Our constitutional arrangement is such that we are free to do whatever we like unless it is restricted for the greater good.

The consequence of this is that religious, political, social and moral beliefs should be beyond the scope of the state to interfere in, unless something brings harm to someone else.

That doesn't mean that I am an economic libertarian in the way that conservatives are - the economic dominance of global corporations is not something that should go unchecked. Rather, liberty is something that starts with the individual, progresses to families and communities, then to towns, cities and regions and then nationally. Power is granted upwards for the greater good, not dispensed downwards by an all-powerful state.


This is a dominant issue for my wife and I as we home educate. The travesty that was the Badman report, and the heavy-handed state interference of the Children, Schools and Families Bill, was a perfect picture of a statist government - and I am thankful that the Tories and Lib Dems opposed that part of the bill during the 'wash up' last week.

I am impressed by the commitment of the Conservatives commitment to increasing innovation and localisation in education - the idea of educational cooperatives, locally run schools etc all very much appeal to me, although I am concerned that large organisations will dominate the academy bid process, especially for secondary education. However - this movement to local empowerment is definitely a step in the right direction.

Social Justice & families

I don't think any party is offering much that is revolutionary in the way of social justice this time - all parties seem to see putting kids into child-care (sure start) and getting everyone working full-time as the best way to increase social inclusion. I'm not so sure - structuring things so that more job-shares are possible, and using tax credits to enable those whose kids are most likely to fall victim to their social environment to have a parent at home post of the time would surely be better. For single parents this is a bigger issue than economics (although the need to work there is a given), and it isn't a simple issue. But surely government compelling parents to abandon their kids to day-care at 12 months old or lose their benefits is short-sighted and lacking the kind of imaginative thinking I thought Labour were going to give us when they appointed Frank Field in 1997, but sacked him pretty soon afterwards.

Global issues are barely featuring in this election - although I think all parties are committed to preserving the international development funding.


Both Labour and the Conservatives are committed to maintaining our nuclear weapons, so here I would support the Lib Dem position - that money can be much better spent.


After Labour's false promises of 'no more return to boom and bust', the promise that we would weather the economic storm well, their poor handling of city regulation, their slight of hand in using PFI to keep public debt off the balance sheet and their refusal to deal with spiralling public sector borrowing have all proved Gordon Brown's inability to deal with the economy in a responsible manner.

However, I have to admit that as all parties are fundamentally committed to global free-market capitalism as an absolute value I'm not sure there is much to choose here. The Tories will probably make some painful decision that may be the right ones (and as they are not financially beholden to unions can probably tackle public sector militancy better).

The Lib Dem position on personal taxation is one I support in helping people on low-paid jobs. Raising the the tax allowance to £10K is a great idea, and the most radical of the three parties. But, the influence of Philip Blond, and his Red Tory ideas of local economy, on David Cameron are the most attractive to me as they have the potential to change the very economic fabric of the country along the lines laid out by Belloc and Chesterton back last century.

On a local level, I think that, after a stuttering start, Daniel Kawczynski has done an excellent job regardless of his political allegiances. John Tandy, the Labour candidate is a bit too 'union' for me. The Lib Dem candidate, Charles West, looks like a good bloke, but is he good enough to unseat a good incumbent (and is it telling that he is the only one I had to google to remember his name)?

These are all the hot issues for me. I don't have any particular party affiliation, and I was determined to try and make a decision based firmly on policies this year. It still isn't easy, and I will be listening hard over the next few weeks to what the candidates say and do.

What are we here for?