Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Books that Read Us: Harry Potter (Guest Post by Amy Carlson Walker)

Today is the seventh installment of The Books that Read Us series and I am pleased to introduce you to my friend Amy Carlson Walker. Amy and I met in college and as we have talked more in recent years we realized we have been on similar faith journeys. Enjoy her story below about how Harry Potter played an important part in her spiritual life:

Although I wouldn’t realize it until many years later, two simple words had a profound impact on my spiritual life:

Harry Potter.

Perhaps that seems paradoxical or a bit cliché, but it’s true.

I was raised in a vibrant home full of love, loyalty and fundamentalist Christians. When I was five, my parents moved from the suburbs of Chicago ninety miles east to rural northern Indiana, leaving their pseudo-Lutheran roots and joining a thriving non-denominational church, the sole opportunity for socializing in a town of five hundred. In sixth grade, I was pulled from our town’s only public elementary school and enrolled in a private Baptist school thirty miles from home. For five years I attended this school of knee-length skirts, King James Only scowls, and impeding layers of judgment (I was once called a harlot by a visiting pastor because my kneecaps were visible above my skirt).

I was surrounded by cornfields and guilt trips. During those formative years, I was taught that Mother Theresa was a good person but not necessarily a Christian because she prayed to saints. Grace was for the most deserving, and perception was greater than truth; therefore, appearance dictated everything. Rock music was direct worship to Satan. Making out with my boyfriend was sinful; the mere idea of having a boyfriend was threatening to my spiritual life.

My junior year I begged my mom to transfer me to the local public high school. She conceded and pulled both my brother and me.

Although my years at the Baptist school were over, my roots in fundamentalism were deep. When I graduated high school, I attended a conservative Christian university where legalism and gossip ruled my life until the summer of my junior year when I had an existential crisis and, for the first time at the age of twenty, I began to think for myself. My eyes were opened to the false theology to which I had been succumbed during my most impressionable years, and I began to question and challenge everything I believed.

How does Harry Potter fit into this?

Since I can remember, I have had a penchant for literature. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but, from early years, fiction was my escape from the incessant recital I was forced to perform for the world. I inhaled pages of books like a chain smoker, one after another until I ran out. From the age of four when I listened to the story of Snow White, I was hooked on the transformative, redemptive power of characters. Writers who captured and transported me to other worlds were my heroes, the true patriots of my exiled existence. Protagonists were my best friends, and books were our playground.

The summer of my existential crisis, a friend asked me to go with her to the release of the latest Harry Potter book. I laughed and told her I didn’t read Harry Potter. She reached the first book off her shelf, thrust it at me and challenged, “How can you judge it when you’ve never read it? Read the first book. For me. If you still find it controversial, or if it doesn’t live up to your standards, I will accept your criticism.”

I began reading the book that night. I was hooked, not so much because of the fantastical prose which indeed transported me to another world like the heroes of my earlier years, but because morality was presented as a complex and convoluted set of rules, a notion I had been wrestling with for several years. Courage was valued above all other traits. Harry, Ron, and Hermione forsook opinions of others and acted on behalf of humanity, disregarding perception or appearance, a scary concept with grave consequences in my world. Harry continued to stand up for what was right, even when the world perceived his actions as traitorous or evil. Harry gave a whole new meaning to the word “righteous,” which was ironic, considering many people I knew considered the books heresy.

Reading Harry Potter, I realized I was not alone. My questions and concerns about the nature of the world were embedded in the hearts and minds of these characters. Harry, Ron, and Hermione struggled to understand the roles they played in a world hesitant to acknowledge and confront the looming evil that refused to surrender. The world of Harry Potter was grey and tumultuous, just like my own spiritual life. Some of the “good” characters, characters like Barty Crouch and Percy Weasley, upright citizens driven by law and order, were ultimately detrimental to the cause of conquering wickedness because they could not open their minds and understand the world in anything but black and white. I could see my Baptist school and local church in Percy Weasley—I was sure they would turn their backs on anything that went against what they perceived as truth.

At one point in the story, Harry lost trust and faith in Dumbledore because he didn’t know what was true. I, too, wasn’t sure of anything anymore; I didn’t know who God was or what he wanted from me, and I didn’t know how casualties suffered for the greater good reconciled with the overall essence of humanity. I felt lost and abandoned. Eventually, Harry realized the only way to truly save all of humanity from Voldemort was to sacrifice himself. I understood why Jesus would die for the world. It wasn’t a sense of duty or fulfillment of prophecy; love was the ultimate conqueror of evil. Pure, rare, selfless, unconditional love—not perfection—was the goal.

I had read Harry Potter through a theological lens without realizing it, and it had left an impact. Everything I knew to be true, including my faith, was clouded by bias. I knew nothing; forced to accept ambiguity as I sought God with uncertainty in the grey spaces, I learned to follow Jesus’ example of love in place of trying to be perfect.

Thank God for Harry Potter.

Amy Carlson Walker quit her job as a corporate research specialist to teach English to refugees overseas in Budapest, Hungary. Now a middle school Language Arts teacher, she blogs about her ongoing experience teaching refugees each summer in Budapest, as well as stories related to education, faith, and humanity. A proponent of peace, equality, metacognition, dry wine and sarcasm, she writes intermittently at www.peaceloveandanecdotes.wordpress.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @amyjwalker.

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