boon-dog-gle: (noun) work of little or no value done merely to keep or look busy.
free: (adjective) provided without, or not subject to, a charge or payment.



gotta be quick about it though...

I believe in sin and that people are sinners. I even believe in 'total depravity', which doesn't mean I believe people are as evil as they possibly could be, but rather that they (and I) are affected by a propensity for sin and selfishness in every aspect of our lives--our thinking, emotions, actions, motivations, etc. This is obviously a philosophical or theological viewpoint. Yet, I think it is perhaps the most impirically verifiable 'metaphysical' claim that one could make. Not only can we point to a whole human history worth of war, atrocity, prejudice, class-warfare, oppression, and the insurance industry. But just think about your own life (as I do mine) and the one person or few people you love the most--maybe your spouse, parent, child, friend, sibling--and think how many times a day you act selfishly toward them, or hold a grudge against them when you perceive you've been slighted. And, of course, if you consider the standard Jesus affirmed as the test of goodness--loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength--probably none of could say we even approach such a goal for a full minute out of the year.

With all that said, it's weird how when I go to my favorite coffee shop or the St. Louis Bread Co. (today's choice) to work/study, I feel free to leave my computer on the table when I need to go take care of personal business. I see other people do the same. And I've never had anything stolen yet. My theology says I will regret this habit one day. But for now, I'm grateful that human nature and 'nature calling' have not combined forces to rob me of my computer.


a Harry Potter dialogue...

For this post I've simply cut-and-pasted a dialogue from my friend Willy's blog about Harry Potter. My (very long) comments are at the end. I'd suggest reading Willy and Jon's comments first, and even reading Willy's original post from some months ago (there's a link in his first paragraph). Though I end up in significant disagreement with my two friends, I think they have valid perspectives, and between the three of us I'd guess we represent a fair percentage of the people who give much of a thought to the topic. If YOU have any thoughts, post a comment either here or on Willy's blog (there's a link on the sidebar).

Thursday, January 19, 2006
WIR -- Looking for God in Harry Potter

Looking for God in Harry Potter, by John Granger.
Read it last night. If my article on Harry Potter interests you at all, pick up this book. Same stuff, tons more references, explanations, symbols, etc. Well done, though perhaps overdone. I enjoyed it -- quick read. Might be hard if you haven't read Harry Potter, yet. If you have read it, this book will open your eyes and you'll want to go back and read it again.

Rowling is not a great writer. Her books have become very long and loose. They could easily be tightened up. However, she is a brilliant story writer. I'm convinced that those who oppose Harry must be quite uneducated. Granger points out allusions to Dickens, Shakespeare, Austen and many others. I am not very familiar with these classics, though I probably should be. Anyway, I feel like I'm just rambling because most of what I want to say about the issue is in my article, which, in some ways, is like a condensation of Granger's book (though I wrote my article before I read the book).
posted by W Sofield


jonponder said...
I have a hard time getting into Harry Potter. Mediocre writing, repetitive plotlines (voldemort again?! didnt see that coming).

Have you ever read the "dark materials" trilogy by Philip Pullman. They're an excellent example of what i WISH the harry potter series was. Thoughtful, well written, and full of beautiful imagery.

The only problem is that Pullman is kind of an anti-C.S. Lewis. I think he's trying to disprove or attack Christianity and support secular humanism through allegory. You should look them up, and tell me what you think.

W Sofield said...
I agree with you that Harry Potter is not the best writing. You’re right, “voldemort again?” You’re right on target. What got me excited about Harry Potter was the amazing imagery she uses. The story is almost irrelevant. Actually, HP reminds me of the book of revelation, which is also very repetitive. Similar kinds of layers of meaning.

In HP Rowling alludes to Jane Austin, C.S. Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Virginia Woolf, many medieval authors, the Greek and Roman mythologies, and of course the Bible. She makes use of these images in the same way that the Apostle John used the books of the Old Testament throughout Revelation. I began to enjoy Harry much more when I began to understand that the story is not the main point, and that the characters are not meant to be people, but representations of ideals and concepts.

The more I read HP and about Rowling’s work, I see more and more dimensions and layers to the meaning. Not everybody is into that sort of thing, and taken of the surface level, HP is mediocre at best, but why are so many people connecting with it? Is it because HP is such bad writing? Or good writing? I would argue it is good writing if you use non-traditional standards for good and bad.

However, the writing is tedious at times, and could be easily condensed. I would guess that publishers and editors are afraid to touch her work or put any limits on her because of her great success. This, however, is unfortunate. I think her genius is in the master plan, the characters, the broad stories and images, but the actual writing is not so good.

Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials, huh? I’ll have to check it out. Looks interesting. It looks like something I’d like. Thanks.

jonponder said...
i think one of my problems with HP is that it's representative of the vast ocean of mediocre literature. HP is probably on the better end of the curve, but in my mind is a little too bland. It just doesnt stand up to the timeless quality of Lewis, Tolkien, or Dickens. But almost every kid i know has read one of the harry potter books, but I know very few kids these days who can even follow C.S. Lewis' Narnia. It's too rich for their palettes. (and keep in mind that Narnia is VERY simple to read.

i think people look too far into HP for meaning and subliminal virtues. If i watched Beavis and Butthead long enough, i could probably write a great article on how they represented humility, courage, and loyalty... but that doesnt make it a 'deep' or moral cartoon.

The thing i find interesting about Pullman is that it's well-written, and remains unpopular. Perhaps it's too rich for the palatte of most young readers. And i dont think it's anti-christian message is keeping him from the popularity. If anything, i would guess his books would be MORE popular for their controversy. Just look at the popularity of "the davinci code".

nickg said...
Fellas...fellas...I'm going to have to take issue with your assessment of Ms Rowling's writing. And Jon, I'm glad you mentioned "The Davinci Code" because that serves as a good basis of comparison. That book by Dan Brown would be a much better "representative of the vast ocean of mediocre literature". In comparing the writing of DC and HP, one might say there is a vast ocean of ability between them. The writing of Brown is trite, gimicky, and obvious. Rowling's writing might be described as simple. But that is not a drawback; remember whom she's writing for: pre- and early teens. Her intended readership is not expected to be grappling with the kinds of intricate prose and idiosyncratic style that folks like Dostoyevsky and Toni Morrison and Shakespeare write with. What is more, Rowling is not only writing to young people but she is writing more or less from their perspective. Much of the stories are mediated through young Harry's perspective on the world--of course it is not as mature, complete, and complex a perspective as an adult's. Thus I think it is a testimony to Rowling's ability that she is able to engage so many adults in her tale for children. One gift she shares with Lewis is the ability to refrain from dealing with tough issues in a patronizing manner toward her young audience. And, heresy though this may be, as I'm re-reading through the Narnia books agian, I'm forced to admit that Rowling's world is far more complete and developed and intricate than Lewis's. I honestly believe HP will go down as one of the greatest achievements in children's literature for all time (not just commercially, which it already is, but literarily) even surpassing Narnia, in fact (again, I'm ready for charges of heresy) HP has already outstripped Narnia in a number of ways in my view.

Thus I don't think the writing is tedious at all. It is simply aimed at an audience that we don't happen to fit into. So comparing HP to other pieces of writing that might be considered "great", can only be done if you are comparing apples to apples. Compare Rowling to other children's writing like Lewis and Carrol, rather than to Tolkien (even though they are both fantasy) and Dostoyevsky and Steinbeck. One side note though: to say that Rowling is mediocre because it's not as good as Tolkien or Shakespeare is like saying Albert Pujols is a mediocre baseball player because he is not as good as Babe Ruth. If a once-in-world-history achievement can be our only standard, nothing will ever again be acceptable.

Finally, regarding the plotlines and stories of the books and their alleged repetitiveness. If you think about it, there aren't that many plots available to an author who wants to write a tale that will engage readers. It will basically consist of: introduction, conflict, escalation, climax, resolution, conclusion. The reason people will engage with that plot is that it is the plot of life--both individual lives and the metanarrative of Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation. So, while we might say: "Voldemort again?!" we could look at Tolkien and say, "Sauron again?!" or look at the Bible or our lives and say, "Sin again?!" The wonderful thing about Rowling, like all great writers (yes, I said "great") is that she uses this master-plot framework along with the same characters in each installment to communicate about different themes in every story, and even multiple themes in each story. A lot of children's authors just harp on one idea like: "obey your parents" or "be yourself and everything will be o.k.". But Rowling is covering topics that truly relate to the struggle to live a life of virtue: friendship, loyalty, sacrifice, love, trust, creativity, maturity, integrity, and even (Willy, I'm sure you like these) social status, economic class, and oppression. Though I'm interested to read some of the Granger work on HP, I don't believe it is necessary to discover every use of symbolism in order to find Rowling's writing thoughtful, engaging, and significant. It reminds me of my interaction with Shakespeare in college. I was an English major and I took every Shakespeare class I could. After I became a Christian during my senior year, I wrote a 30-page senior thesis on Shakespeare's use of the biblical allusion. In studying that, I found so much more depth and careful craft in Shakespeare than I had before. But, I could not deny that I found so much of value in S. before I knew about all the biblical allusion he used and its significance. Discovering how careful Rowling has been in applying her craft may help my appreciation of her work, but I would still argue that a careful and fair reader should be able to admit the value and quality of her work without a complete awareness of her use of imagery and allusion.

Wow! That was rather long-winded! On a final note: I have heard of the "dark materials" series, Jon, but I haven't read them. Sounds like I should put them on my list.


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thorns and thistles...

The overriding depressing thought of my life right now is that I have to continue working at the job I'm in until at least July. I left an hourly worker position for a supervisory position a few months ago. I now dread going to work every day (well, every night), not because of what I actually do, but because there's about a 2 in 5 chance I'm going to be yelled at. It's a very stressful situation in a job that really shouldn't be that stressful. I mean, I'm committed to doing a good job in whatever job I have, but it's not like we're defusing bombs or performing emergency surgery. It's weird: when I worked as an hourly, I worked much harder for significantly less pay, but I was much more satisfied with my work.

I believe work is good. When people work they are being more human than when they are not--I mean as a general lifestyle, not from moment to moment. I believe God has created us for work and given work to us. Yet, I do think something happened when sin entered the world in that the possibility arose of a disconnect between our work and our sense of fulfillment from it. Scholars disagree whether God's curse of the "ground" indicates a curse associated with all work or just with the earth. But, experience tells me work in general is not the way it's supposed to be. I've have many very diverse jobs. Some I've enjoyed immensely, some I've tolerated, and some I've loathed. I don't think eternity will be like that. When Christ returns and sets the world aright, all His people will live out eternity in this renewed Earth and I believe we will all have work to do, because, as I said, work is good and we were made to do it. And, I don't even think we'll necessarily have never-ending success. Failure is not a sin. (For instance, to take an example from recreation instead of work, when I play Scrabble with Jeremy in the new Earth, I won't be angry or disappointed or jealous when he plays a bingo with his last 7 letters to pull out a come-from-behind victory. I'll be something else. I'm not sure exactly what--content maybe, happy for him maybe--because any feelings I have now and any anticipation of feelings I'll have then are too mixed up with sin.) But, I do believe we'll have never-ending fulfillment, and joy, and peace about whatever work we will do. I can't wait. Well, by God's grace I can.

In fact, in His grace, He has provided one silver lining to my work situations. Since my job is so so stressful, I can't sleep right away when I get home at about 3:30 a.m. Now, that may not sound good. But, it allows me to blogsurf and check my e-mail while watching the late night rerun of the Conan O'Brien show. I haven't been able to watch it regularly since starting my night job. But now I can. If you're not a regular watcher, I highly recommend it. One of the hilarious things he's been doing lately is campaigning for the re-election of the president of Finland. The reason for his support is about as sound as any I've heard for supporting a political candidate. He's been doing it for a few weeks, but I could only find one clip of it online. For your enjoyment, I've posted it below. Have fun.


Surprise random link of the week...

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And seriously, this week's is the best one since this early classic.


hopes dashed...

My wife is sighing in the kitchen as she chops vegetables for our dinner soup. We've been trying to buy a house for several months now. Originally, we were looking into a program where the county was helping to subsidize some new home building in a city neighborhood here in St. Louis. But, that program turned out to be different than advertised so we had to abandon it for financial reasons. For the past two weeks, we've been looking around with our agent at a few different neighborhoods. Yesterday, when we were looking at houses in South St. Louis city, we knew that would be the neighborhood we'll call home. It is old, diverse, and city-ish. The specific neighborhood we're focusing on (Bevo Mill) has a high population of Bosnian immigrants, so that would be neat.

To make a long story less so, we found a house we loved. Loved. It was a 75-year old house, rehabbed into beautiful condition, with two bedrooms on the main floor and another one in the partially finished basement. We thought that was going to be our home for the foreseeable future. We took the night to think it over, and then decided to make an offer today. Alas!--about 2 hours before we were scheduled to meet our agent for the signing of many papers, she called and broke the news to us that the house went under contract last night. It's sad, and so are we. Maybe it's wrong to get so attached to material possessions (especially possessions that we don't own yet), but that's the way of things. So, we'll be sighing for a while.


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slow to learn...

My new year's resolution this year (and as my wife pointed out, for about the last seven years) was to become more organized, diligent, and responsible with my time. I'm pretty slow to learn the lesson that procrastination eventually makes me pay a heavy price. And, I too easily get started on way too many projects at once. Then I get so overwhelmed, I just end up watching t.v., or playing online Scrabble, or blogging because I can't make a decision about where to get started. I refuse to endure the little bit of suffering now, in favor of the diversions that are set before me, but I just end up reaping greater suffering later--like bad grades, or stressful sleepless nights, or disappointed people who were counting on me.

To help me with my time management, I've created a detailed weekly schedule that accounts for the time I want to spend studying, doing housework, working at my job(s), and even playing online Scrabble (among other things). It is now early morning, a week after the new year began; I haven't been within the framework of the schedule yet. But, to be fair--or really, to justify myself--this has been a crazy kind of a week.

For one, we've been looking for houses. A few months ago, I mentioned that we were looking to buy a house and we even got our loan pre-approval letter. Unfortunately, the opportunity we were trying to get in on fell through, but we've decided to move ahead and move out, as soon as we can find a satisfactory place. We want to live closer to the city than we are now, in a diverse neighborhood, with at least a decent public school system, and in a house where our family can have room to grow and even have room to host visitors. Yes, we want all that and we're flat broke (more or less). We found at least one possibility this week, but I don't know that we're satisfied yet, so we're going to keep looking.

Another unusual aspect of the week was my acceptance of a fourth job (yes, fourth). Besides UPS, I have two part-time positions with Covenant Seminary, where I went to graduate school. O.k., to be honest, school is on break so I'm not working much there. My fourth job, however, is also with the school. One of my former professors e-mailed me around Christmas and asked if I'd like to serve as a temporary T.A. for him and grade a bunch of his term papers (it turned out to be 31). I thought that sounded like fun, so of course I said yes. Originally, they were supposed to be done by Jan. 5 (Thursday)--so when do you think I got started? Let it suffice to say, I graded the bulk of thirty-one, 8-12 page papers this week. In the end, I actually returned the last 3 to Dr. _____ on Friday, but he didn't seem to mind.

I was pretty excited because, since I want to be a professor myself one day, I thought this would give me a chance to see what one aspect of that life is like. I was not only to read the papers, but also make comments and assign grades. Though, the professor looked at all of my comments, and the grade and he obviously had the final say. It was an interesting and--I think--rewarding experience. One thing that was not so rewarding, however, was experiencing 31 people, all writing on a similar topic, make the same few mistakes time after time. After a while, I even wondered if I was mistaken, thinking maybe I misunderstood the assignment or one aspect of it myself. But, after checking with the Prof., it turned out I was right. Now, most of these papers weren't completely off base or thoroughly miserable experiences in reading. But, as I made the same comments on papers over and over again, I felt like I was bumping my brain against a brick wall. I don't know exactly how to explain it, but it was like my subconscious expected each new paper to have learned from the mistakes of the last one. And when it didn't, I felt like I wasn't getting anywhere.

Now after being done with that experience for about a day and reflecting on it, I've come to realize something about my relationship with God a little better. I realize that I'm not just slow to learn from my propensity to procrastinate; I'm slow to learn anything that would challenge me to grow in character. I may have been frustrated that 31 people all made the same two or three mistakes. But how must God feel when I--who am one person--make the same 31 mistakes over and over again? (Well, of course it's more like 31,000 mistakes, but I was aiming for some balance in the literary aesthetic.) Fortunately, God is not a man like me. No matter how many times I mess up, He is ready to forgive. No matter how many times I procrastinate, or act irresponsibly, or downright abuse His grace, He has never, and He has promised to never, withhold that grace from me. I am slow to learn, but God is slow to anger and quick to forgive because His Son Jesus did not put off 'till later the mission He had to do. When the time was fully right (and just then), Christ came into the world to save sinners. He endured the suffering that was before Him in light of the joy that was to follow--the delight of His Father and the redemption of His people whom He loves. I hope that as He continues to save me, He will ever more help me and enable me to endure the suffering that I might face in light of the joy of fulfilling the calling and mission He has given to me.


Surprise random link of the week...

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Bowl Game Day...

For a while, I've thought that the civil religion of America, and much of the world, is sports. I take that idea from my fuzzy memory of Plato's Republic. Plato says he doesn't believe in the gods as they are portrayed in the traditional pantheon since they often act immorally. But, he still thinks the traditional religion is good because it promotes community and patriotism and charity. Or something like that--I could have it all wrong.

Anyway, in my head the parallel is that almost all sports fans would admit that, considered objectively, sports and their outcomes have little to no lasting significance, and besides, both professional and college leagues are full of corruption. At the same time, we sports fans all care deeply about teams and players and games and scores. Sports cause us to be happy or sad, satisfied or angry, proud or drunk. And it often provides people a sense of brotherhood or community among those who would otherwise have little in common or little desire to associate with one another. Sports is also a source of funding to the "public good" through donations and subsidies to charities and educational institutions.

I'm not saying it's good that sports fills this role in our society; I'm just making an observation. I wish people were drawn to the Church and the Gospel the way they are drawn to the NFL and fantasy baseball. Heck, I wish I was. Since my wife hates (HATES) sports, I've had to think about why I like them so much. In large part, it's because I don't really believe that my identity, security, and significance are to be found in Jesus Christ. My life indicates that I find those things in how much I know about who will win the Super Bowl and whether a bunch of strangers who play baseball in San Francisco will move around the bases more times than their opponents. I turn to sports for a diversion from my experience of this broken world, rather than turning to God and His unfailing promises. Let me add, though, that I'm not saying sports are all bad either. Like many things, they can be viewed and received as a good gift--until they are used as an idol, put in a place of devotion that should be reserved for God alone.

Well, for our country's civil religion, today was a holy day of obligation. There are several of these each year: day of the Super Bowl; the first two and last two days of the NCAA basketball tourney; the final day of the Master's and U.S. Open golf tournaments; and the opening day of the Major League Baseball season--among others. Today was college Bowl Game Day. This used to be a higher, holier day back when there were about 10 or 12 games all on New Year's Day, including all the big ones: the Cotton, Sugar, Orange, Fiesta, and Rose Bowls. As it is now, there were a good 6 games stretching from about 10 a.m. until about 11 p.m. But the "national championship" game in the Rose Bowl won't be until Wednesday.

From my perspective, this was a tough year for the pantheon. Sure, the greatest of them all, the Nebraska Cornhuskers, triumphed over Michigan in a truly outstanding game. But it was in the Alamo Bowl, one of lesser prestige and held all the way back on Dec. 28. For the most part, few of the teams I was rooting for (to be more precise, the teams I picked in a pool) lived up to my expectations. I was especially disappointed by my boyhood-favorite Notre Dame's performance in the Fiesta Bowl. They were clobbered by The Ohio State University. And all that is the bad thing about idols. They let you down more often than not. And they don't offer you much comfort after they do. And more importantly, they don't offer you forgiveness when you let them, yourself, or someone more important to you down. Fortunately, the True God is exactly opposite of all idols. He is never-failing, always-present, and ever-gracious. And when you find you've more or less ignored Him for a day in favor of devoting yourself to a substitute. He doesn't leave you feeling cold, but speaks words of comfort and promise to you--as He always does (even when you think you've done well). In the end, I think I'll choose Him over sports, and even over the Huskers. Not because I have enough love for Him in me, but because He loves me enough to be ever drawing me away from foolish things and unto Himself.

G.K. Chesterton...

"The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people."