Monday, July 30, 2007

Harry Potter and the Cultural Imagination (No Spoilers!)

On the evening of Friday, July 20, I went to the Party That Must Not Be Named in our local suburb’s downtown area. A street had been blocked off, store names had been changed to reflect those found in Diagon Alley or Hogsmeade, and several thousand Muggles (many in wizarding garb) gathered in celebrative anticipation of the biggest book release in history. I had not seen such an enthusiastic crowd since opening day of the last Lord of the Rings movie.

I had reserved a copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows at a different local independent bookstore that wasn’t having a midnight release party, and because I was at a conference, I wasn’t able to pick it up until Sunday. I finished reading it late Tuesday night. Wednesday morning I gathered with several of my coworkers who had also finished the book and we debriefed and discussed for some time. One friend mentioned that she had reread all previous six books in anticipation of the final release, and that after finishing it, she would wake up in the mornings still thinking about all that had transpired.

I wasted several more hours in the following days reading online reviews and commentary about the book. I also happened to win a pack of movie tickets from dropping my business card in a jar, so Thursday night we used them to see Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Then this weekend I kept the kids occupied so Ellen could finish reading book 7, and we got together with friends after church to process the book and series. It’s fun to be part of a larger community of millions of readers and fans who are likewise enthralled with these stories.

The New York Times review said that "J.K. Rowling has created a world as fully detailed as L. Frank Baum’s Oz or J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, a world so minutely imagined in terms of its history and rituals and rules that it qualifies as an alternate universe – which may be one of the reasons the Potter books have spawned such a passionate following."

I think it’s significant that one aspect of the Potterverse is fan fiction where readers write their own alternate stories beyond the published canon and further explore what might be going on with their favorite characters. This seems to be the case of any well-developed imaginative universe, like Star Trek or Buffy. There’s so much more to explore. And the result is that consumers can become creators. We don’t just read the books or watch the movies and TV shows; we can enter into the stories and become participants in the act of cultural creation. It’s been a long-standing tradition in the comic book world that the best comic book writers and artists started out as comic book readers and fans.

All this reminds us that Christians shouldn’t be just consuming cultural narratives. We should be creating them. I recently read Tolkien’s The Children of Hurin, which reminded me again of Tolkien’s genius in creating an entire world of epic narrative, history and “true myth.” Ditto with C. S. Lewis’s Christian imagination applied to fantasy, science fiction and other writings. Ellen just read The Restorer, a Christian fantasy novel of a soccer mom pulled into a Lord-of-the-Rings-type world, where "keepers of the verses" are musicians who preserve their scriptures in song. Kudos to the author, Sharon Hinck, for creating such a universe.

We need more Christians engaged in culture-making enterprises, writing stories and weaving narratives that show (and not just tell) Christianity’s themes of redemption, incarnation and new creation. Several of our friends said that they wish they could have written the Harry Potter books. Well, why not? Perhaps someday some Harry Potter fan, inspired by Rowling’s example and also compelled by the Christian story, will weave a tale that will become an even greater cultural phenomenon than Harry Potter.


Anonymous said...

We're "celebrating" the 7th book at my house by reading it out loud. Since my kids are too young for Potter, that means my wife and I are reading it out loud to each other. Needless to say, we still have a ways to go.

Glad to see that your wife is reading The Restorer. I'd be curious what she thought of it.

And I love what you say about the opportunity to participate in a cultural event of shared reading. How often does that happen? For me, that's the real magic of Harry Potter. It makes people want to participate. And it reminds them of the joy they find in being creative.

Al Hsu said...

Mark - Ellen just blogged about The Restorer over at Team Hsu, and I just linked to it in this post. Click through "keepers of the verses."

Anonymous said...

Al -- I've been following Harry Potter vicariously through my sister and nephew who are up to speed and now into book 7. I'm still back on book 5 and in need of a kick in the pants for motivation. I like so much the things you have said here about joining the engaging in culture-making enterprises. I have been feeling the urge for my writing to be something more than telling. This is good food for thought.