Friday, October 28, 2005

So Long for Now, Harry

I recently finished the audio version of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, the most recent book in the Harry Potter series, Now I, like millions of other HP fans around the world, will have to wait expectantly for the next and possibly final book in the series. J. K. Rowling has said in interviews that she plans to stop the series at seven but she has also left the door open to the possibility of more books if she really feels motivated to do them. My brother Bill remarked that she's probably getting considerable pressure from her publishers for more books, and that might be sufficient motivation. We'll see, won't we? I wonder what she's going to do afterwards. She's probably made enough money that if she never wrote another word after Book 7, she could live quite comfortably on royalties, tie-ins, endorsements, and the like, but I can't see her doing that. She's obviously a highly talented and creative person who's only just turned 40, I believe. I know from my own limited experience as a fiction writer that really creative people aren't content to simply rest on their laurels. We always want to move on to the next project.

As for Book 6 itself, the violence and bloodshed that was foreshadowed at the end of Book 5 did indeed occur. This time, Lord Voldemort's followers, the Death Eaters, came to Hogwarts itself, and the battle cost the life of Harry's beloved mentor and headmaster, Professor Dumbledore. Harry's old nemesis, Draco Malfoy, was responsible for letting the Death Eaters into Hogwarts but couldn't bring himself to kill Dumbledore when he had the chance. That villainous task was left to Professor Snape, the other bane of Harry's existence, whose reputation as a reformed or repentant Death Eater was revealed to be a sham. With Dumbledore dead and the future of Hogwarts in doubt, Harry has resolved to set off alone in search of the four horcruxes, or pieces of Voldemort's soul that are hidden throughout the world, and may be the only means of defeating the evil wizard. Ron and Hermione, Harry's two best friends, are resolved to go with him, however. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Magic, under the direction of a new Minister, is still trying to manipulate Harry for its own reasons.

By way ofAmy Wellborn's blog, I found an interesting article in The American Spectator Online that questioned whether Harry is such a splendid moral example for young people because of his lust for revenge and his frequent tendency to lie and bully others when it suits his purposes. I can't quite make up my mind about this. On the one hand, while Harry's behavior is not always morally admirable, it is realistic and sympathetic. I dare say most of us could imagine ourselves behaving in a similar way under similar circumstances. If Harry lies and bullies occasionally, Rowling seems to be saying, it is in part because he is the victim of lying and bullying himself--at the hands of Dudley, Draco, Snape, or Umbrage, for example--and at some primitive level, it is awfully satisfying to see these obnoxious characters get what they deserve. Because of our sinful nature, Christ's command to turn the other cheek doesn't come easily. We're much more comfortable with an eye for an eye. We want revenge, but we often confuse it with justice.

On the other hand, The Spectator article does, however, point out what I think is the chief flaw in the Harry Potter books. I think the whole Harry Potter series, as enjoyable as it is, falls short of say, The Lord of The Rings, precisely because the Harry Potter series is essentially a giant revenge story. Voldemort killed Harry's parents, his godfather, and his mentor. Harry wants to kill Voldemort. Draco and Snape torment Harry. Harry wants to torment them. We're told that Voldemort wants to take over the whole wizarding world, that this would a bad thing, and that this would affect even the "muggle" (non-magical, ordinary, everyday) world, but we don't have a clear sense of what's at stake if Voldemort takes over.

Frodo, by contrast with Harry, has never been personally wronged by Sauron. He wants nothing more than to live the peaceful, quiet comfortable life of a wealthy, middle-aged gentlehobbit at Bag End, but Fate (Destiny, Providence) in the person of Gandalf seems to have other ideas. Gandalf makes it clear to Frodo from the very beginning of the quest that if Sauron finds the ring it will be the end of everything and everyone Frodo loves--the hobbits of the Shire, the elves of Rivendell and Lothlorien, the dwarves of the mountains, the men of Gondor--all of Middle Earth is at risk. Frodo is fighting for something beyond his own narrow self-interest, but he's willing to take on the fight because he knows it's the right thing to do.

Furthermore, as Frodo himself points out, he's not a wizard or a warrior or a powerful person. He's literally and figuratively a tiny person from an obscure corner of Middle Earth who has to rely on the magical abilities of others--Gandalf and the elves, to be precise--rather than any abilities he himself possesses. I've always thought it was a brilliant stroke of Tolkien's to portray the hobbits as "halflings," well under five feet tall. It's an excellent way of symbolizing just how ordinary, how small, how inadequate humans can feel in the face of some huge, terrible, seemingly overwhelming crisis. Yet Frodo faces his crisis with his wits and his courage, aided at key moments by the supernatural power of magical objects--elven waybread or lembas and Galadriel's star glass, for example.

In a similar way, I'm sure Tolkien the Catholic would argue that we humans have to face crises with courage and wit aided by grace available in and through the sacraments. Even though Tolkien insisted he hated allegory, it doesn't take a genius to see lembas as a symbol for the Eucharist. Galadriel's star glass could be a symbol for anything from the light of faith to the chrism that's used at baptism and confirmation. Tolkien's world is in the end deeper and richer than Rowling's. I like Harry, but I love Frodo.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

"What Heaven We're In"

Oh, yes, let them begin the beguine, make them play,
'Til the stars that were there before return above you,
'Til you whisper to me once more, "Darling, I love you,"
And we suddenly know what heaven we're in
When they begin the beguine.

--Cole Porter

Ah, technology is wonderful. Ever have one of those moments when a song keeps running through your head and you don't know all the words? Well, I'm here to tell you that with the right technology, you needn't have that problem ever again. Recently, my iMac G3 began showing its age and not doing some of the things I wish it could do. I spoke to my brother Bill, our family technology guy, because I knew Bill had given my Dad a new computer about a year before Dad's passing. Bill explained that yes, he had Dad's computer, but he also had an iMac G4 sitting around largely unused. Would I like it?

Is the Pope Catholic? Am I Catholic? On a recent visit, Bill bestowed this slightly used but still magnificent machine on me. I now have two computers, and sooner or later, I'm going to have to get my dining room table back, but that's another story. Among the many goodies installed on this new behemoth are LimeWire, a file sharing application, and iTunes, Apple's mp3 player. Partly because I heard it in the movie "The Rocketeer," and partly because it makes me think of Dad, the tune "Begin the Beguine" had been running through my head. Armed with my new software, I went searching the internet, found the song and promptly fell in love with the music of Cole Porter. My success in finding that song led me to search out other music of Mom and Dad's generation: Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, and Hoagie Carmichael, to name a few.

When I was younger, I considered that sort of thing hopelessly dorky old fogey music. Now, however, as I am considerably closer to hopelessly dorky old fogeydom than I used to be, that stuff sounds pretty darn good--especially when compared to such abominations as gangsta rap and heavy metal. My middle initial is R. Perhaps it should stand for retro. It's ironic, I suppose, that I'm using today's latest computer technology to retrieve the best of yesterday's music. It's also interesting to note that iTunes has a feature called the Visualizer that generates random color patterns on the screen as the music plays. It's fascinating to watch these multicolored, psychedelic, almost hallucinogenic images on the screen--something so '60s--emerge while Ella Fitzgerald belts out "Anything Goes." Like wow, man. Far out!

I've heard it said that the only websites these days that are actually generating profits are those dealing in pornography. How sad. God gives human beings the intelligence to create something like the internet--a means of sharing information, opinion, music, and art with people around the world in seconds--and so many people use it to send dirty pictures back and forth to each other.

Yet there is hope. There are plenty of people who deal in internet pornography, but there are also plenty more who are disgusted by it and want to do something about it. They put up good and decent websites and blogs full of interesting and entertaining stuff. The barbarians can't come into the city if we don't let them into the gate.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Wild About Harry (More or Less)

Harry Potter has taken over my life.

Or, I should say, I've allowed him to take over my life. For the past several weeks, I've been listening to the Harry Potter books on tape as read by Jim Dale. I just finished Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Book 5) and am taking a breather before starting Book 6, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, the most recent book in the series. I read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone several years ago and found it clever, well-written, and enjoyable, but I didn't catch the fever that's gripped so many kids and adults around the world. However, I work as a librarian in a small public library in South Carolina, and at our children's librarian's urging, I began listening to Dale's audio dramatizations.

I must say, he is indeed a phenomenal reader who can create individual voices and personalities for the characters and really bring the stories to life. He makes me think of the late great Mel Blanc who singlehandedly voiced all those classic Warner Brothers cartoons without any technological help.

The stories, too, are much more sophisticated than I originally gave them credit for, blending comedy, drama, magic, mystery, and a dash of mysticism. With each book, the magical challenges Harry has to face get successively nastier, the supporting cast of friends and enemies around Harry grows, and their motivations become increasingly complex. J. K. Rowling has an almost Dickensian talent for creating vivid characters and giving them names that provide keys to their personalities.

One thing is clear, however. The evil wizard Voldemort is out to get Harry, although it's taken until Book 5 to explain why. Weeks before Harry was born, the woman who later became his divination teacher at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry prophesied that Harry would be the one to defeat Voldemort. Voldemort killed Harry's parents and tried to kill the infant Harry to prevent this from happening, but Harry survived. The curse Voldemort used to try to kill Harry backfired, leaving Voldemort a shapeless, bodyless wraith-like creature.

With each book, and each encounter with Harry, however, Voldemort has been regaining strength, becoming more corporeal and more determined to regain his old power in the wizarding world. The Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, who heretofore has been portrayed simply as a pompous bureaucrat in pinstriped robes, now takes on an authoritarian aspect when he absolutely refuses to believe Harry's evidence that Voldemort is back and begins making veiled and not so veiled threats against Harry and Harry's mentor, Professor Dumbledore.

Harry becomes paranoid when he believes that the Ministry of Magic, the agency that was supposed to be protecting him, is now out to ruin him. Harry learns that during the bad old days, the Ministry conducted McCarthy-like show trials of those accused of being Voldemort's supporters. Fudge likewise becomes paranoid when he believes Dumbledore is out to discredit and unseat him. Fudge sends his personal representative, the truly loathsome passive-aggressive Dolores Umbrage, to assume the post of Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher and "High Inquisitor" at Hogwarts. Umbrage gets her comeuppance however, and even Fudge is forced to face facts when open warfare breaks out between Dumbledore's supporters, the Order of the Phoenix and Voldemort's followers, the Death Eaters, in the very corridors of the Ministry of Magic itself. The battle costs the life of Sirius Black, Harry's godfather, and Book 5 ends with the promise of more bloodshed to come.

Somehow, the introduction of these all-too-human vices--paranoia, self-delusion, the arrogance of power, and the finality of death--are far more disturbing to me than any magical or occult elements that some Christians have complained about. It seems the darkness and uncertainty of much of modern life have entered into the realm of what is ostensibly a children's book. Furthermore, Rowling doesn't seem to be able to offer much of an antidote to the darkness. After Sirius dies, Harry, desperate for comfort, seeks out Nearly Headless Nick, the Gryffindor House ghost, wanting some assurance that Sirius still exists in some form and has not simply been obliterated. "I know nothing of death," Nick says sadly. The school calendar at Hogwarts follows the Christian year, with holidays at Christmas and Easter, but do the students think in Christian terms of death and resurrection?

To be fair to Harry, thinking in terms of resurrection can be hard to do when someone you love has just died. I know from the experience of my own father's death, that the feelings of grief, loss, and pain can be so overwhelming that they cause you to question what you had previously believed without a doubt. For myself, I have to believe that Dad is still alive in a way that I cannot fully comprehend, that his life is merely changed and not ended. Harry, apparently, does not have the comfort of that faith, having to take solace in his friends alone.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Hurricane Katrina

Good grief! I write about Job, and the next thing I know, something very Job-like happens to the people of the Gulf Coast.

I felt I should say something about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. I've been watching and listening to news reports sporadically. I'm ashamed to say I didn't realize how bad the damage was at first. I don't watch much television, finding most of it a colossal waste of time. In my blissful ignorance, I was vaguely aware that a hurricane was bearing down on New Orleans, but when I did watch and see--my God! The Gulf Coast, or what's left of it, looks like Bangladesh or Afghanistan or some other third world country that Americans can usually conveniently ignore because it's on the other side of the world. It's hard to ignore tonight. All the broadcast networks are airing a benefit concert to raise money for the survivors.

For awhile, I was back to asking God that angry, accusing "Why? How could you allow this to happen?" An answer came to me. I don't know how orthodox it is, strictly speaking, but it seems to make sense to me.

Perhaps God allows crises and disasters like hurricanes as tests--not necessarily of the person directly suffering from the disaster, but as tests of the people AROUND the person suffering. It seems as if God is saying to Christians, "OK, you people who are always talking about love and compassion and service, you people are you going to show love and compassion and give service when the need for these things is so obvious?" Christians are supposed to show practical charity (e.g., Matt. 25:31-46, Lk. 10:25-37, James 2:14-17), and we're judged on how well we respond to another's need.

I spent most of last weekend getting my personal finances in order so I can figure out how much of a donation I can give to the Red Cross or Catholic Charities or SOMEBODY. It's a small response but I felt I had to do something.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

From Job to Jesus

I've been meditating further on my return to faith from the brink of nonbelief, and it seems to me there's one crucial step I left out. I suppose I took the same crucial step of faith the early Christians did. I went from acknowledging the awesome, mysterious transcendent God of the Book of Job to acknowledging the Jesus of the Gospels and the New Testament--a God who is just as awesome and mysterious and transcendent as the God of the Book of Job but who is made human and approachable through the Incarnation. The God of the Book of Job is willing to "bet "on human beings in their cosmic contest with the forces of evil, but the God revealed in the Gospels is willing to BECOME a human being. Jesus preaches with authority, casts out demons, forgives sins, heals the sick, commands the forces of nature, and feeds the hungry by supernatural means--things that only God could do--yet at various times in his ministry is hungry, thirsty, angry, scared, and lonely. Jesus experiences everything human beings experience (except sin), INCLUDING an apparently complete failure of everything he'd worked for, public humiliation, and an excruciatingly painful death. Christians have a God who knows what it is to suffer.

Of course, however, the Gospels don't end with the suffering and death of Jesus. They end with the Resurrection. The message of the Gospels is that the power of God revealed in Jesus can overcome ANYTHING, even death itself. That is a God I want to believe in. That is a God I NEED to believe in.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Carrying The Cross

"Then Jesus said to his disciples, 'Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.'" (Mt. 16:24).

"Beloved, do not be surprised that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as if something strange were happening to you." (1 Pet. 4:12)

I've been meditating on these two scriptures a lot lately. The first was part of Sunday's Gospel reading at Mass. The second has stuck in my head ever since I heard a pastor friend of mine quote it in a sermon he put on tape for me once. I think we've all heard the first passage so many times we tend to forget it--or ignore it because it promises pain. I think most of us secretly believe we'll be exempted from the requirement of carrying our crosses. I know I did. "How could God ask me to endure anything difficult or painful? I love Him so much! Yes, sir, we're just boppin' along, me and Jesus," I thought. Not consciously, of course; but pride and self-satisfaction, like most human sins and the other wiles of the Evil One can be insidious things.

Then, along came, more or less at the same time:

  • my Dad's death from cancer
  • my own fairly serious health problems--a bladder infection that could have killed me, resulting in a week in the hospital including three days in ICU
  • a catheter that looks like it'll be a fairly permanent part of my wardrobe
  • the failure of a relationship that was very precious to me, and on which I'd pinned a lot of hopes.
  • the death of John Paul II. It was almost too much to bear. I'd just lost my earthly father. Now I'd lost a spiritual father too.
  • A fairly complete mental and emotional breakdown because of all the foregoing. I checked myself into a mental hospital for a week of rest and therapy.

    By then, as per the second quotation, I was not only surprised, I was outraged. Something strange was definitely happening to me! How could God allow these terrible things to happen to me? For a long time God and I weren't on speaking terms. I doubted the goodness and even the existence of God.

    Slowly, ever so slowly, however, things began to improve. I went through a series of steps to recovery, just like I'd gone through a series of steps to crisis:

    • I began praying the Rosary again, comforted by the ritual and familiar prayers and decided that yes, maybe there was somebody on the other end listening
    • Benedict XVI was elected Pope. Life went on for the Church. Maybe it could for me too.
    • My doctor approved some changes that make it easier for me to deal with the catheter myself, and I got some outside help where needed. Life no longer seemed like the crushing burden it once did.
    • I heard a gospel song in which the singer praises God for bringing him through adversity and recognized myself: "I've had my share of trouble but I'm still here."
    • I saw the kindness of people from my church, realized that their faith in Christ made that goodness possible, and decided that was still something I wanted to be part of.
    • I reread the book of Job with its important lessons:

    Important lessons from the Book of Job

    • We cannot worship God because of what we expect to get from Him if we do.

    • God is a lot bigger and a lot more mysterious than human beings give him credit for. Job accuses God of being unjust. Job's three friends think they can explain God to Job. God's reply to both of them is essentially, "You just don't understand."

    • Because God is so much more than human beings, a relationship between God and human beings is NOT a relationship between equals.

    • Suffering is a mystery and not necessarily an indicator of our own sin or God's displeasure with us.

    • Even when we suffer and God seems unjust, it seems God would rather have us cry out to Him with all our questions and complaints than piously and falsely murmuring about God's will.

    • We should worship God only because he is God, the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of the universe.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

What's In a Name?

Hi! Welcome to my brand new blog. I'm a Catholic, a librarian, a Star Trek fan, a singer, and a person with a disability. I hope to discourse intelligently on all these things and more in the days to come, and I hope you good people of World Wide Web Land and the Blogsphere will find my thoughts on these subjects interesting.

So why did I choose the name "It's All Straw? There's a story about St. Thomas Aquinas, possibly the greatest intellect the Catholic Church ever had at its disposal. His greatest work was called the Summa Theologica, a synthesis of the Christian revelation with the pre-Christian wisdom of Aristotle, another intellect so tremendous that people in the Middle Ages just called him "The Philosopher," as if there weren't anyone else. The Catholic Encyclopedia calls the Summa, "a complete scientifically arranged exposition of theology and at the same time a summary of Christian philosophy." Yet the Summa is unfinished. Towards the end of his life, Thomas had a series of mystical experiences, visions, and revelations of God that made him realize all his philosophical and theological speculation counted for very little when faced with the mystery and majesty of the One Who Is. "Everything I have written is straw," he said.

It took Thomas nearly all his life to come to this humbling realization. I figure if I can remember it when I'm just starting my humble blog, I'll be in good shape--and good company. I want to write about my life, my faith, and my world, but always with a healthy dose of humility. I don't know everything. The world is bigger than I am. God is bigger than both of us.