Monday, May 6, 2013

Story and Wonder: What Harry Potter taught me about heaven

Warning: This post contains spoilers from, of all things, Harry Potter.

In my posts on the Fall, I mentioned that the eschatological hope (that is, "Heaven") for Christians is much more than playing a harp or singing "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come" for all eternity. But what is it, then? Peter says to "set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming." (1 Peter 1:13) For me, at least, this is impossible if "grace" in the culminated sense Peter uses it remains an abstract quantity that we have some of now but will have more of later--or if it's expressed in painfully simple ways like "doing nothing but praising God for eternity". These images of grace do little to inspire hope in me--yet the Bible doesn't take the time to go into much detail on what, exactly, we're supposed to be hoping for. I think some imagination is called for.

C.S. Lewis' picture of eternity as not static but continually-increasing joy, wonder, and fullness hits me much more deeply and powerfully, and therefore I think it's closer to the truth. But even aware of this picture, for years another doubt nagged at me. I had trouble imagining how eternity could be anything other than terribly dull without any conflict. After all, what good story today is without some kind of conflict, whether it be person-against-person, human-against-nature, or good-against-evil? The Lord of the Rings with no conflict would just be a series of fantastical travel observations. Many stories would have even less left than this. The central storyline of the Bible is a sort of conflict (one-sided though it may be) between God and sin. Yet part of what the Bible does say about heaven is that all these conflicts will be done away with, along with suffering, crying, pain, etc. (Revelation 21:4) This sounds great, but what could be left to spice up this dull, conflict-less existence?

But I've realized there is something else that can captivate us in a story, to say nothing of real life, at least as much as conflict: wonder. That is, the kind of awe-infused, starry-eyed, joyful apprehension of something whose grandness makes us feel very small. I felt glimmers of it it last week on my trip to England when I was hiking in the picturesque Cotswalds, walking through Christchurch great hall (which served as the inspiration for the great hall in the silver-screen Hogwarts), or stepping into the cavernous St. Paul's Cathedral in London.

It's funny I should mention Hogwarts, because I was about to tie this line of thinking in with Harry Potter anyway. As I have mentioned to many of my friends, I don't like the Harry Potter books--but that's only part of the story. I don't like books four through seven--but I did, and still do, enjoy the first three. The reason for this is the near-total change in tone that takes place throughout the series. In the beginning of the series, there is a continual sense of wonder pervading the story as Harry, raised among muggles, becomes resituated in a world literally pervaded with magic. Rowling does an excellent job of allowing us to share in this wonder along with Harry. Yes, there is conflict even in The Sorcerer's Stone--but this conflict only really takes over the plot from wonder toward the end, to tie everything in the first book up in a satisfying conclusion. (It's been years since I've read the books, so I'm probably generalizing)

But later, an especially in book four and beyond, the tone shifts completely. The central focus shifts from wonder to conflict--it's no longer about Harry making his way through the wizarding world, but about defending it from Voldemort. As the stories grew darker to increasingly resemble the kind of action movie they were later made into, as beloved characters started dying left and right, the part of me that so enjoyed the first few books was increasingly frustrated and, at the end of book six with the death of Albus Dumbledore, gave up all hope, heartbroken.

You could argue that J.K. Rowling simply wanted the stories to grow up with their readers (tell that to an 11-year-old whose parents just got him a set of all seven books to read at once), but I grew right up along with everyone else and still vastly prefer the first three books over the last three. Apparently I still prefer wonder over conflict for telling a good story--and I don't think I'm alone, even among adults.

My experience teaching preschoolers in Sunday School gives another perspective on this. Kids have much lower standards for things worthy of their attention. My kids can endlessly entertain themselves with markers and blank construction paper, some blocks, or a bin full of dress-up clothes. When I read to them, the books in our room can have some extremely simplistic conflict to them, or not; it doesn't make a huge difference to them.

Obviously I'm not a developmental psychologist, nor have I received any education on how to work with kids, and I can only guess at what's going on in their little heads, but it seems safe to say that kids see the world in a very different way than we do. When the idea of operating a dump truck (even a toy one) is exotic and exciting enough to grab your attention week after week, life doesn't need conflict to be exciting.

We have become accustomed to the world around us in a way that kids haven't, yet, and often this can mean  we cease to be driven by wonder as they are. Let me offer the hypothesis that this will change in heaven. By knowing Christ and through the paradigm shift that occurs, we begin to get glimpses of a vast spiritual reality (that is, the "face of God", 1 Corinthians 13:12) that was previously obscured by the blindness of sin--a landscape worthy of literally endless wonder even for a cynical adult like myself. This was especially evident to me as I was rereading the ending of The Last Battle and tying it in with Romans 8. What if it really is that good?

The idea of eternity as continual wonder with increasing knowing of God makes no sense if we think of "knowing God" in a propositional sense; that is, simply knowing He is perfectly good, loving, just, &c. and having this knowledge confirmed beyond all doubt. In fact, I've never found mere propositional knowledge of God to be the least bit useful in a devotional or worship sense. Psalm 46:10 says, "Be still and know that I am God", but somehow meditating on a tautology doesn't do it for me. (Maybe I'm not "knowing" hard enough, or doing it wrong) I think it means something else. Maybe we shouldn't expect thinking about spiritual truths disconnected from our everyday reality to change our lives. Theology was never meant to be lofty and abstract, but concrete and firmly rooted in a particular context.

Just before Psalm 46:10, verse 8 says to "come behold the works of the Lord". We come closer to the face and knowledge of God not primarily by philosophical meditations (though these can also help in putting things together) but by seeing Him at work in and through our own experiences, the people around us, even ourselves--portraying God in mighty actions first, descriptive words second. In the Old Testament this is often done by celebrating the story of the Exodus or military victories as God's doing (the premodern worldview of the Ancient Near East saw everything that happened as the will of God/the gods). In the New Testament people know God primarily by way of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Maybe the purpose of the Bible is to allow future generations of Christians to have that same experience of the cross on which all of history turns.

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