Eighth Day Institute: Imagination and the Soul

I am just back from two days in Wichita, Kansas, where I gave two talks on ‘Imagination and the Soul,’ the Eighth Day Institute’s theme. I spoke about the Soul Triptychs, Literary Alchemy, and Ring Composition of the Hogwarts and Forks Sagas. The talks were recorded by Ancient Faith Radio, and, unbelievable to procrastinating me, both have already been posted with the lectures given by Fr. Josiah Trenham and Bryan Smith. The Potter talk was Whence Potter-Mania?: The Spiritual Content and Christian Message of the Hogwarts Saga and the Edward and Bella part Bedazzled at Twilight: What Bella and Edward Teach Us About God. If you want the Ring Composition slides I used for the Ring Composition part of the Hogwarts lecture, you can buy the book here.

Eighth Day Institute is an outgrowth of the unique and invaluable Eighth Day Books, which if you haven’t heard of it, you need to browse their web site, ask for a catalog (the only catalog in existence for which I think readers receive education and edification), and buy some books. In an age where even homogenized booksellers are struggling, Eighth Day Books is something of an icon of what Independent Book selling can be — ‘independent’ not only from corporate control but from the prevalent regime of conformity, consumerism, and conveyor belt complicity. Listen to Warren Farha’s talk Why Bother With Books? on AFR to learn more about this.

My thanks to Warren, to Erin Doom of the Institute, and to Joshua Sturgill and the Pattons for their hospitality. It was a wonderful weekend for this Potter Pundit and a rough coming back to earth in snowy, upstate New York. L. Frank Baum was born nearby which makes me think I have been through the Reverse Oz Effect, in which Kansas is paradise…


  1. Trenham and Smith both talked about classical education. I think visitors to this site would enjoy both of their talks. I have not read Twilight, but I did enjoy the lecture and recommend it even to those who haven’t read the books. Mr. Granger talked primarily about the four layers of reading. The Potter lecture covered mainly soul triptychs, literary alchemy, and ring composition.

    Mr. Granger, I think the paradisiacal weather came and went with you. Friday we broke a 1968 record by making it to 72 degrees; Saturday we tied the record high of 70. But we’ve had snow for the last two days. Currently it feels like 5 below and the high for today is supposed to be 12 degrees. (Thanks again for visiting. Since you signed my book, I will hold up my end of the bargain by no longer only eavesdropping.)

  2. Welcome, Miles365! And thank you for your helpful comments, your kindness to me in Wichita, and for joining the conversation here —

    Grateful John

  3. At the request of my presbytera (wife) I listened to all the talks on AFR, though the recording quality was not up to their usual standard. Not sure why.

    It seemed like the elephant in the room was being ignored: Do we parents and pastors really want our children and parishioners reading books filled with spells and magic (Harry Potter) or undead/vampires/lycanthropes and LDS “theology” (Twilight) even if they are constructed according to good literary principles and are fun to read and sell copies in numbers requiring scientific notation?

    It seems to me that there might be an opportunity cost here: namely, that even if we say these books are great, they might be taking up space/time better used by the best, whatever that might be, scripture perhaps, or lives of saints or learning to draw, surely a skill every educated human ought to have, and one which I might argue is on par in importance with clear writing to training the mind to really see and express reality or imagination (or learning to sing or dance).

    The effort to redeem what some consider irredeemable (i.e. Twilight/Potter or genre writing etc) reminds me of the paradox of “organic” junk food that I see in grocery stores these days. That it has an attractive wrapper and a USDA approved endorsement in no way changes that it is nutritionally deficient.

    Furthermore, perhaps there’s actual danger here of an active sort. Real life is plenty interesting if you take the time to get to know it. Why fill your head with things that are akin to demonic? Sorcerers don’t get a lot of good press in scripture that I’ve noticed anyway. Why raise so much interest or whet the appetite for things occult or magical? Where do you go after you run out of Potter books? Lovecraft? Crowley? God forbid!

    If the goal is salvation, as opposed to literary appreciation, I fail to see the compelling reason for reading Twilight or Potter books.

    Maybe you’ve addressed this elsewhere on this site and can send me the link.

  4. Father, bless.

    Thank you for listening to the talks and for joining the conversation here.

    I think what you present, based on never having read either Harry Potter or Twilight, is a combination of the ‘false dilemma’ logical fallacy and misrepresentation of the books in question.

    There is no sorcery or invocation of spirits in either series which you would know if you had read them. There is also nothing “akin to demonic” in the books. The magic in Harry Potter is incantational or a harmonizing kind that requires a ‘Word created’ Christian world view to operate and is a topos or ‘given’ of magic in traditional English literature. The werewolves of Twilight are shape-shifting guardians that protect their people against evil vampires and the principal vampires of the series are not anthropovores but creatures of light struggling with their fallen natures.

    As explained in the Touchstone magazine article ‘Mormon Vampires in the Garden of Eden,’ Twilight is largely an LDS re-telling of the fall of man. Harry Potter is the bildungsroman of a young man’s spiritual transformation and choices to die to himself for love of his friends. It is the spiritual and edifying material in both series that draw readers; the magical and monster-show elements are back-drops to what are largely morality plays within a schoolboy novel and YA romance.

    The false dilemma quality of your thoughts are your posing an either/or position as if they were exclusive positions, i.e., either read Twilight and Harry Potter or read Scripture, pray, and learn to draw. You have listened to the Eighth Day Institute talks so you are aware that what I am doing is not celebrating popular fiction as the greatest good or a sufficient means to salvation; folks in Wichita were discussing the edifying quality of good reading and why it is that so many people are drawn to this entertainment. The working hypothesis is Mircea Eliade’s thesis that in a secular culture entertainments serve a mythic or religious function.

    Rather than suggest this entertainment is a replacement or alternative to religious life, either/or, it seems that edifying challenging reading supports and fosters the kind of activities you suggest are better than reading popular fiction. Sadly, the materialist and godless culture we are in today offers few supports to prayer, fasting, and reading scripture and the lives of the saints, but rather undermines the disposition of soul necessary for these spiritually positive works.

    As you listened to my talk on Harry Potter, you know that this was the bulk of my point. Reading books in which the principal characters are soul triptychs and inner heart transparencies help turn the soul right side up, an inversion of the desire driven upside-down man of commercial-consumed America.

    Last month, my Archbishop since me this story sent to him by a monk in England. Though almost certainly apocryphal (I have heard a version with Fr. Seraphim Rose in the elder role the Athonite Monk plays) and unfortunately melodramatic, it does illustrate what I am trying to say about the value of fiction in the Orthodox spiritual life.

    Not too many years ago, a young monastic aspirant went to Mount Athos. In talking with the venerable Abbot of the monastery where he wished to stay, he told him, “Holy Father! My heart burns for the spiritual life, for asceticism, for unceasing communion with God, for obedience to an Elder. Instruct me, please, holy Father, that I may attain to spiritual advancement.”

    Going to the bookshelf, the Abbot pulled down a copy of ‘David Copperfield’ by Charles Dickens. “Read this, son,” he said.
    “But Father!” objected the disturbed aspirant. “This is heterodox Victorian sentimentality, a product of the Western captivity! This isn’t spiritual; it’s not even Orthodox! I need writings which will teach me spirituality!”

    The Abbot smiled, saying, “Unless you first develop normal, human, Christian feelings and learn to view life as little Davey did – with simplicity, kindness, warmth, and forgiveness – then all the Orthodox ‘spirituality’ and Patristic writings will not only be of no help to you – they will turn you into a ‘spiritual’ monster and destroy your soul.”

    I understand your concern about the magic and monsters of these popular books, especially in light of your not having read them, and your probable objection that “these books are not ‘David Copperfield‘.” I think C. S. Lewis’ response to objections very much like yours to the witches, goblins, and magic of his Chronicles of Narnia:

    Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for enducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spells that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years. (Weight of Glory)

    I am asked at least once a month for arguments a reader can use to convince a Harry Hating grandmother or priest that Harry is a good thing they should read and be excited about. My response is always that, if the grandmom or presbyter are reading their Bible and are prayerful people, they don’t need Harry Potter and the effort to ‘convert’ them is misguided. I think in this, I share your view.

    Where we differ is in your suggestion that life could be better spent in activities other than reading popular fiction therefore we shouldn’t celebrate edifying reading if it has traces of magic and the supernatural that can be confused with sorcery and monsters. This sounds, forgive me, like the sophistic position that, because monasticism is the straightest path to God, marriage can be and perhaps should be despised as a lesser and perhaps inadequate path offered only as an allowance to the weak.

    The more obvious contrast of alternatives, Father, and the more relevant one isn’t Potter/Scripture or Twilight/Lives of the Saints, but reading/video games and reading/web surfing and reading/listening to demeaning and spiritually corrosive music, i.e. reading versus other entertainments rather than ‘reading this’ versus ‘reading that.’ Sadly, ‘either Harry or the Bible’ just isn’t the choice millions of readers are making when they decide how they are going to spend their free time. The television, the CD and DVD players, the computer, and the text messaging device that used to be thought of as a phone are the choices on their menu, not Sts Gregory, Basil, or the Prologue from Ochrid.

    And the Potter and Twilight books are reason to celebrate not only in being better alternatives to electronic entertainments, but, as you know because you listened attentively to the St. Maximos comments in my talk, because they foster the right-side-up, heart-in-charge disposition of soul that make the activities you recommend instead desirable, even possible.

    I received this note from a Presbyterian Youth Minister in Pennsylvania who has done Harry Potter programs at her church and wants me to come to speak there. She wrote:

    We’ve got a new generation of children who are seriously into Harry. In fact, one third grader (David John) has read your “Looking for God in Harry Potter!” He gave it to the mother of one of his friends who said her child couldn’t spend the night at his Harry Potter-themed birthday party. David John’s mother told me, he was very calm and spoke to the mother about her concerns and then loaned her your book saying this would really help her understand his feelings about Harry and why Harry was not against being Christian. David John’s mother just about fell over. The other child’s mother took it and read it and thanked David John for the loan. She said it indeed helped her.

    This third grader wasn’t suggesting the mom forsake or neglect her scripture reading to read The Hogwarts Saga or move to Forks. I suspect, though, his time spent in the edifying imaginative worlds created by Ms. Rowling and Mrs. Meyer may ultimately foster his greater life in Christ.

    Thank you again for listening to the talks before joining this discussion and for sharing your thoughts.

  5. Fr. Mark:

    Sorry about the audio quality on AFR. Mr. Granger has trouble staying put while speaking, so I had to rely on the audio feed from his wireless headset mic. 🙂

  6. Father Mark and John,

    I think there is another elephant in the room… the failure of many parents (me included), priests and sunday school teachers to meet children where they are at and nurture their faith and love effectively. I have not only found the Potter books personally edifying, but they have allowed me many opportunities to discuss Christ, love, courage and other virtues with my wife and kids.

    It is unfortunate but as a child the most powerful, moving account of the crucifixion and Resurrection that I experienced was via The Lion , The Witch and the Wardrobe. The story had a significant impact on me emotionally even though I did not understand it’s relevance until I was a young adult. God willing, the Potter stories are having the same effect on children today.

  7. Doug,

    I grew up outside of Christianity for the most part and greatly loved the Narnia books. In 8th grade or so I happened to do a Boy Scout Religious award (I figured it was high time to figure out what these Christians surrounding me were all about) and discovered those books on a UCC pastor’s shelf and asked why those fantasy books were there. He pointed out to me that Aslan was a Christ figure…I was shocked! I’d be duped, etc. Eventually, I forgave C.S. Lewis. Potter may have the same effect, though I’d argue that Aslan is a better Christ figure than Harry or Dumbledore (based on a 10 years ago reading of ?2 or 3? H.P. books).

    I’ve seen the story about David Copperfield play out in real life. For all I know it was Fr. Sophrony Sakharov in Essex (formerly Athos) who set this story in motion in modern life. But, the after my seminary confessor related this story, I decided one Christmas break to read the book. We have a VERY NICE edition of it. I’d just never read this book my grandmother bequeathed to me. It took some doing to get me into the book, but I found it quite enjoyable and parts of it, themes at least, certain characters like Micawber particularly, to be quite timeless.

    If your children read as much as mine do, it is impossible to keep up with everything they read. We try to screen things but it sometimes gets away from us. We do stop DVD’s of things to get their brains back into Critical thinking mode. Recently we’ve been on a run of Jane Austen where we’ve done this.

    Christian formation for children is a huge topic. I think our 20th C factory/industrial education model turned into 35 minutes of Sunday School on the irregular occasions (or even regular occasions) is a dismal failure.

    I’m a recently ordained priest (coming up on a year) but since they were tiny my kids have had a steady diet of church school and VBS and so on, plus being in the services quite regularly throughout the year over the years. Anyway, my eldest (16) has had quite enough of the watered down lessons and reminds me of it regularly.

    If I could figure out how to implement it I think the montessori based Catechism of the Good Shepherd provides a much better start than what we’ve been subjecting our kids to.

    I wish I had more answers I knew were truly from God meanwhile, I find some comfort in a quote a monk told me at St.Tikhon’s, “Pray more, worry less.”

  8. Father Mark,

    I should listen to that monk’s advice! Thank you for your comments. I certainly agree about education and would add that, as you know, many people come to services that really have little understanding or zeal but they are immersed in popular culture be it tv, sports or Harry Potter. There is an opportunity to connect via these mediums and use them to our advantage. I think a number of saints have given us examples in this regard.

    I would have to rely on John for the expert lowdown but I do not see anyone in the HP books as a direct Christ figure, such as Aslan is. I think that Harry serves as a wonderful example of Christian behavior when the chips are down but he has many of the flaws we all carry around as well. This weakness and strength–makes him a realistic but virtuous hero. There really are some great literary examples of selfless love in the stories–and loving your enemies–in addition to many other virtues and lessons to reflect on.

  9. Doug,
    For a great analysis on the HP reprentations of Christ and of God, may I suggest Rev. Danielle Tummino’s wonderful God and Harry Potter at Yale? I reviewed it here a couple of weeks ago. It’s a treat, and very helpful for these sorts of conversations.

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