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On feminism, Harry Potter, and spiritual warfare…

September 18, 2007

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I took a class on Women Writers during my junior year at Eastern Mennonite University.  As an English major, I was obliged to take a number of literature electives.  This one fit the bill and, meeting once a week on Monday evenings, it also fit into my schedule that semester (although it did mean I missed the first part of Monday Night Football—an unfortunate scheduling quirk).

I went into the course with a healthy sense of curiosity and a definite bias.  My point of you at that point in my life had been significantly shaped by the thought world of mainstream evangelical/charismatic Christianity.  had a certain curiosity about the course.  I assumed that the course would represent a feminist orientation.   While not totally opposed to the feminist discourse, my guard was raised.

My images of femism centered on certain charicatures–epitomized by the bra-burning, male-bashing edge of the liberation movement.  I didn’t have a problem with women seeking equal footing in the professional workplace, in economics, and in politics.  However, I didn’t like how the militant version of feminism  patronized women who “accepted” more traditional roles of motherhood and homemaker.  I was mildly put off by the PC movement and push to use inclusive language.  In college, I didn’t see the importance of changing exclusive language in the Bible and hymns.  Hyphenated last names seemed a bit over the top.  That was then.

My views have changed over the years.  I would like to think I am more tolerant, more able to listen to diverse views.  But it was with my evangelical/charismatic adrenaline running high that  I entered the Women Writers course. As a balanced, fair-minded male, I was going to prove that feminist ideology was incompatible with Christian truth  I would dismantle the great myth that sought to remake the God I knew.

We followed the typical script for a university lit course—reading books, discussing plot, character and theme.  We explored the background and perspective of the author.  We read books such as Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood), O Pioneers (Willa Cather), and Beloved (Toni Morrison) among others.  The common thread in all that we read was that the voices and experiences were those of women.

The major theme in Handmaid’s Tale was the subjugation of women.  The novel is set in Gilead, where women are stripped of their independence.  They are no longer allowed to hold property, arrange their own affairs, make reproductive choices, read, wear make-up, control money, or choose their clothes. Women are segregated into categories, and dressed according to their social functions. Seven legitimate categories (Wives, Daughters, Widows, Aunts, Marthas, Handmaids and Econowives), and two illegitimate functional categories (Unwomen and, secretly, prostitutes), are mentioned in the novel.  The handmaids are women modeled after Zilpah and Bilhah in the Old Testament, the slaves of the patriarch Jacob’s wives Rachel and Leah. When the wives could not conceive, they had their handmaids lay with their husband to have children on their behalf.

O Pioneers! is the story of the Bergsons, a family of Swedish immigrants in the farm country near Hanover, Nebraska, around the turn of the 20th century. The main character, Alexandra Bergson, inherits the family farmland when her father dies, and she devotes her life to making the farm a viable enterprise at a time when other immigrant families are giving up and leaving the prairie.  The novel is about pioneer life, love and marriage.  It also challenges conventional thinking (at the time period of the novel—1800s—and perhaps even now) regarding female roles.  Alexandra, despite having made money, is dismissed by her brothers as unfit for business because she is a woman.  Yet, she is a strong-willed and intelligent woman and after 16 years turned the farm she was given by her grandfather into a very prosperous enterprise.

Beloved follows in the tradition of slave narratives, but also confronts the more painful and taboo aspects of slavery, such as sexual abuse and violence. Morrison feels these issues were avoided in the traditional slave narratives. In the novel, she explores the effects on the characters, Paul D and Sethe, of trying to repress – and then come to terms with – the painful memories of their past.

When I was in Youth Evangelism Service, we heard teachings about spiritual warfare given by a YWAM teacher, Dean Sherman.  I also had read This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness, by Frank Peretti.  These fictional novels portrayed a certain way of conceiving of spiritual warfare.  The spiritual battle was one in which the real engagement took place in the  “spiritual realm” which we access or impact primarily through intercessory prayer and worship.  The Hollywood-like clash of unseen evil forces personified in the Peretti novels, while dramatic created a false dichotomy between the spiritual realm and the physical. I look back and see how that in that paradigm hope for spiritual victory and transformation rested upon the right move being executed in the spiritual realm.  Spiritual warfare was more about strategic activity and direct confrontation with evil in social structures, systems…my own heart.

Applying this rubric to the Women Writers course, I found what I was looking for—literature that one-sidedly represented the “evil agenda” of radical feminism.  My strategy for confronting these principalities and powers at the time was to take a number of the books from this course and burn them behind my parent’s house at the end of the semester.  In some symbolic way, this may have accomplished some purpose in my life at the time.  But in other ways, I missed the point of what it means to confront evil.

I missed the opportunity to hear the voices and experiences of the women represented in the characters and stories we read.  Voices that represented the broken realities of our world.  The pain that was a part of female characters was real—not a fabrication of the feminist agenda.  In the dualist way of looking at good and evil—I separated evil as some force in the spiritual realm.  Evil became a faceless force somehow disconnected from the voices of women who had experienced particular situations such as rape or being objectified and used merely for their sexual function, or for economic benefit.  I was not able to see this because I had pre-emptively decided that the course was either good or evil.  So, I found what I was looking for.

Fast forward seventeen years to this summer when the final book in the Harry Potter series hit the bookstores.  I have been intrigued by the far-reaching appeal of these books by J. K. Rowling.  Deciding that it was time to fin to find out for myself what the phenomenon was all about, I went to the local library and checked out the first two books.

Years after my course at EMU, my views on the nature of the unseen warfare have changed.  A hermeneutic of suspicion has allowed me to engage with texts and ideas without fear of losing my soul or sliding down a slope.  Perhaps it is the conversation with Orthodoxy and the monastic tradition that has led me to see spiritual warfare not so much as something external to my own ways of being human in the world.  Spiritual warfare has to do with the daily task of being human in ways that bring life rather than death.  It has to do with how I love my neighbor as myself.  It has to do with loving my enemy and doing good to those who persecute me.  It has to do with parenting, planting gardens, sharing food with those who are hungry.

True spiritual discernment happens in the broader context of Community.  It is never private.  So, I sought out the response of other Christians.  I read one book by John Granger who writes about the series in Looking for God in Harry Potter.  Granger considers himself a “traditional Christian” who moved in his views from “Harry-resistant” to Harry-embracing.”   Granger says this about Harry Potter:

· The Harry Potter books are excellent vehicles for parents wanting to share the Christian message of love’s victory over death, of our relationship to God the Father through Christ, even of Christ’s two natures and singular essence.  Based on our reading of Harry Potter, I have had conversations with my children about heaven and hell, the work of the devil in the world, and our hope in Christ.

· I am convinced that the fundamental reason for the astonishing popularity of the Harry Potter novels is their ability to meet a spiritual longing for some experience of the truths of life, love, and death taught by Christianity but denied by secular culture.

· Despite initially having forbidden my children to read the Rowling books, reading them myself has convinced me that the magic in Harry Potter is no more likely to encourage real-life witchcraft than time travel in science fiction novels encourages readers to seek passage to previous centuries.  Loving families have much to celebrate in these stories and little, if anything, to fear.  I say this without hesitation because the magic in Harry Potter is not “sorcery” or invocational magic.  In keeping with a long tradition of English fantasy, the magic practiced in the Potter books, by hero and villain alike, is incantational magic, a magic that shows–in story form–our human thirst for reality beyond the physical world around us. 

What is my point?  My point is that the way we conceive of the spiritual battle between God’s kingdom and the kingdom of darkness will have a lot to do with how we engage in  it.   Ultimately the cross is the victory of God.  The word from the cross also orients the way we deal with sin and subvert the strongholds of sin in our lives and in the world.

Literature is merely a reflection of culture which is both sinful and bears the image of God.  Is it possible that we miss opportunities to uncover the reality of God at work in the world when we too quickly label things as good or evil?  How can we, without fear, shine the light of Jesus into every area of culture?  May we  grow in wisdom as we seek to know what is good and pleasing to God.  May we walk with grace as we are salt and light.

The Fathers used to say:  “If temptation befalls you in the place you inhabit, desert not the place in the time of temptation; for if you do, wheresoever you will go, you shall find there what you fled from in the first place before you.”            —A Desert Father

 I wrote this essay for the September/October issue of Missional Compass, the newsletter of Sunnyside Mennonite Church

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