God is ________
June 23, 2019 Harry Potter #2 …. The Nature of God
There’s an Indian parable I’m pretty sure we’ve all heard before. But I’d like to begin today reading a poem version written by John Godfrey Saxe in the 1800’s. For the kids listening, I want you to imagine 6 blind people going up to an elephant and trying to figure out what an elephant looks like just based on what they’re feeling. Do you think they’d all come up with the same description? (Scroll down to see poem printed below)
I love this story and certainly this fable has often been used as a wonderful allegory for our limited understandings of God. I’m leading a book study on, Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle as a beginning devotional time with the deacons each month. And the very first chapter in the book is about our images for God. Boyle opens the book with these words. “God can get tiny, if we’re not careful. I’m certain we all have an image of God that becomes the touchstone, the controlling principle, to which we return when we stray.”
I was curious, sitting around the table that evening at our meeting, discussing chapter 1, how we all saw God. And so we shared with one another some of the primary images for God that we have found meaningful. And as you would expect, the images varied according to the individuals.
Images for God, images for Christ, abound. Maybe when you think of Jesus the first word that comes to mind is Friend. Or Teacher. Or Savior, the one who saves us from the fallenness of this world, who saves us from ourselves. Or maybe it’s God we connect to most intimately through the image of Healer. Or Creator. Or Judge, the being that’s always looking over our shoulder, keeping track when we put a toe out of line. Often a powerful image is of God as a parent, but our own parents tend to shape how we experience God’s parenting presence – if our parents were abusive or cold or neglectful we might experience God as a distant, powerless, or absent parental figure. If our earthly parents were or are supportive, nurturing…healthy, then our parental image of God is usually healthier too.
Last week I talked with the children about just a few of the ancient images of Christ we used to find in the church – the phoenix and unicorn among others. Animals have long been seen as symbols for, or aspects of the divine nature of God or Christ. And even maybe today when you see a deer or an eagle you think of God. The Narnia books, pulling on the book of Revelation, brought to life the image of lion as God in the form of Aslan.
Images are important. For many they are essential in the living out of our faith. There is often a need to have the more concrete, tangible picture of God in order to be able to connect in a way that feels more real. But here’s the thing about images. They are also necessarily incomplete. Each image reveals truth, yes. But reveals only a sliver of an infinitely larger whole. No image can even come close to capturing the essence of God. Boyle closes chapter 1 writing, “God, I guess, is more expansive than every image we think rhymes with God. How much greater is the God we have than the one we think we have.” In that way, the best we can do is to put all our rich diversity of images together and know that in this dizzying profuseness, we come a little bit closer in our understanding of who God is then when we stand on our own small handful of careworn and comfortable images.
Alright…Harry Potter. I’ve called this entire series, “Finding God at Hogwarts”. And so now we need to ask, who exactly is God in these books? Who represents Jesus in Harry Potter? In the Chronicles of Narnia, this question has a very easy answer. Aslan, the lion, represents Christ. It isn’t quite so straightforward in Rowling’s books. Instead Rowling has chosen to go the route of the blind men and the elephant, revealing many aspects of Yahweh, the Great I Am.
What we find in Harry Potter are multiple characters and groups that function as images, as aspects of Christ that reflect light back in the direction of God. I can’t cover all the different examples of how this works so I’m just going to confine my comments to three examples and will also acknowledge that I am pulling here from the book, God and Harry Potter at Yale by the Reverend Danielle Tumminio (Chapter 7) to help me explain.
Most often, when people look for a God image in these books, the character who comes first to mind is Dumbledore, the beloved Headmaster at Hogwarts and Harry’s mentor. Dumbledore, particularly in the first several books, is presented as this amazingly wise and loving sage. He is the only wizard that Voldemort, the evil villain of the series, actually fears because Dumbledore is also supremely powerful. But as the series progresses, the reader begins to learn that Dumbledore is all too fallible. He makes mistakes. He has his blind spots. He is mortal. Dumbledore, in other words, is not supposed to be understood as God. The most important role he plays in the books is to serve as a teacher, and in particular, as Harry’s teacher. In this way he reflects one aspect of Christ and the essence of what Dumbledore teaches is remarkably in tune with Jesus’ upside-down Kingdom teachings as well.
The next most likely candidate for a Christ figure is Harry Potter himself. Jesus was born on this earth a baby and because he was fully human, he went through all the stages of growth and maturation just like Harry does. And Harry, just like Jesus, exhibits phenomenal understanding, strength, power. But no, Harry is not Jesus. Harry is our hero, but he is a very flawed hero. He struggles with jealousy and anger. He can be petty and self-righteous. He is fully and completely human and represents every person and our struggle to make the right choices even in the face of temptation and danger. However, Harry also reflects an aspect of Christ and we see this in the way he sacrifices himself for the sake of others in the final of book of the series. So just as the sacrificial lamb is an image of Christ, in the same way Harry reflects Christ’s sacrificial love.
The Bible is a book about a cosmic battle between good and evil and in this battle, Jesus, through the power of the crucifixion and the resurrection defeats the powers of sin, death and darkness and He reigns victorious forevermore. And so another cherished aspect of Christ in the church is this image of Christ as the Victor, as the perfect hero, as our liberator. The Harry Potter books are also about a cosmic battle between good and evil, but something I really appreciate about these books is that there is, fittingly, no one character that can step into the image of the victorious Christ. Rather we have a whole group of students, friends and classmates of Harry, that band together to form Dumbledore’s Army and despite great odds against them, they unite as one and fight courageously and loyally to defeat the forces of darkness.
Okay, so I’ve given three examples of how characters illumine a certain aspect or image of Christ. But who is God in these books?
What is the absolute best way we’ve ever come up with to describe who and what God is in one word? Anyone? Love. Jesus says all the law (and there was a lot of law) and all the prophets, hang on the commandments to love – to love God, to love neighbor. In I Corinthians, Paul devotes an entire chapter to the primary importance of love and concludes the chapter saying that the greatest of all things is love. I John 4:7-8 sums it all up perfectly. “Beloved, let us love one another. For love is of God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God for God is love.” I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again. In scripture, all roads lead to love. What is the most classic children’s Sunday School song, the one most parents want to make sure their child knows? “Jesus Loves Me This I Know”. The song that accompanied this one when I was growing up was, “Jesus Loves the Little Children”. There are so many different things Christians can and do disagree with each other about – theological and otherwise. But this idea that love best sums up and represents the nature and totality of God needs to be something we can all rally around, needs to be our common ground, the place from which we start. God is love.
And in the Harry Potter books, Love almost functions like a character. The books get their starting point in an event that happens 11 years before the first book begins. Harry is a baby and Voldemort is convinced that because of an obscure prophecy, Harry must die in order for Voldemort to achieve ultimate immortality. And so he goes to the home of James and Lily Potter. He kills Harry’s father, James, at the door. Then he goes to the bedroom where Harry is in his crib. Lily, Harry’s mother, rushes to place herself between Harry and Voldemort. Voldemort tells her to move, that her death would be a waste. But she refuses to budge and instead begs Voldemort to spare the life of her baby son. And so, Voldemort kills Lily as well and then attempts to kill little Harry. But in some mysterious way, revisited and explained multiple times in the series, Voldemort’s killing curse rebounds back upon him and he enters into an 11 year period of hovering near death, near non-existence before he makes his return. Harry is left unharmed except for a lightning scar upon his forehead and is known from that point on as “The Boy Who Lived”.
After Harry survives his second encounter with Voldemort at the close of book 1, Dumbledore offers this explanation for why Harry was literally untouchable. He says, “Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no not a visible sign…to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. Quirrell, full of hatred, greed and ambition, sharing his soul with Voldemort, could not touch you for this reason. It was agony to touch a person marked by something so good (SS, 299).”
This begins the regular appearance of the character, Love, in these books. And this isn’t a mushy, sentimental or secular version of love. Love as portrayed in the Harry Potter books is given shape by all the different aspects of Christ that radiate within the story. This is a love that is fierce, is all-powerful, is kind and compassionate, is scary at times, is sacrificial and salvific – saving. One of the final scenes in the movie version of “The Order of the Phoenix”, is literally very dark and we find Voldemort briefly attempting to take over control of Harry’s mind and Harry must fight with all his might to resist the fear and evil attempting to invade his soul. What ultimately saves him is when he imagines all the different manifestations of Love he has known in his short life and you see these intermittent flashes of light along with the memories. And then he says to this evil being wrestling within his mind, “You’re the one who is weak. You will never know love or friendship. And I feel sorry for you.” And with those words, Voldemort is gone.
This scene immediately calls to mind so many different scripture verses – John 1:5 – “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Ephesians 6:12 – “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” And back to I John 4:16-18 – “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
Who is God? God is love. But love is tricky. It’s a Force. It’s a Presence. It’s the Ground of our Being. But it’s not a thing. It’s not tangible. How do you pray to Love? And so we use images – concrete ideas, aspects, pictures that point us in the direction of God. And while these images are valuable and critically important, it’s also always important to keep in mind that they are limited. Just like the six blind men couldn’t begin to grasp, to see the truth of the elephant in all its totality standing before them. So too, we cannot begin to grasp the totality of the nature of God. And that’s a good thing. Love though, that brings us as close in our understanding as we can hope to be. And just as we learn in the Bible and rediscover, much to our delight within the world of Harry Potter, Love, as personified in Jesus, is our great teacher. Love, who came down and lived among us and died for our sake on the cross, is the ultimate sacrifice. Love, who conquered sin, death and darkness through the glory of the resurrection, is the Victor Supreme. Indeed, love always wins.
Blind Men and the Elephant – A Poem by John Godfrey Saxe
It was six men of Indostan,
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approach’d the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”
The Second, feeling of the tusk, Cried, –
“Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear,
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”
The Third approach’d the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” -quoth he- “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”
The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee:
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” -quoth he,-
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said- “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” -quoth he,- “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
MORAL, So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean;
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
Scripture Litany: Images of God and Christ
Psalm 78:35 – And they remembered that God was their rock, and the most high God their Redeemer.
Revelation 5:5 – Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.’
Isaiah 64:8 – Yet, O LORD, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.
Isaiah 66:13 – As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.
Deuteronomy 32:10-11 – In a desert land he found him, in a barren and howling waste. He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye, like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them aloft.
John 1:36 – And looking at Jesus as He walked, he said, ‘Behold the Lamb of God!’
Psalm 23:1 – The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
Psalm 29:10 – The LORD sits enthroned over the flood; the LORD is enthroned as King forever.