Harry Potter as “Shared Text”: Books and Meaning that will Define a Generation?


  1. I like the idea of HP being our “shared text”… but what about the possibility that it will be the movies and other “secondary sources” that are that text? Aren’t we right back to Batman then?

    Anybody have any evidence for HP being a “gateway drug” to the world of reading?

    -Helen, feeling pretty solid on the Bible and Bunyan, and all asea with Plutarch.

  2. You’ll note that book sales surge so significantly before and after movie releases that Bloomsbury and Scholastic and Barnes and Noble’s stocks all rise when movie dates approach. I think the movies are important in themselves and many people, alas, only know the story through this medium — but there are perhaps most important because they bring new audiences to the books.

    And evidence of Harry Potter being a portal or “gateway drug” to the world of reading? I wish I had a house-elf with minicam on my shoulder who recorded all the parents and young people at speaking gigs I have done who tell me this very thing. I hope friends will share their stories here so my thoughts on this aren’t dumped as anecdotal evidence. My daughter has read all of Austen and most of Dickens since finishing Harry Potter but I can only say her favorite books made her a more excited reader…

  3. Coppinger Bailey says

    I will confess to being a HP gateway drug pusher, if that counts. 😉

    Saturday I was at B&N with my 9 year old son who was hunting his next book after wrapping up Eragon (& the 4-year old one, who was inciting chaos). I grabbed “Tom Sawyer,” to which he replied, “what is that?” I said it was set in the American South in the 1830s & was about the adventures of a young boy. He wasn’t inpressed.

    Then I said, “Hey, think of it as Harry Potter, except set earlier in time & in the South – the region where you’re from, by the way – just no wizards & wands… You know, Tom has to deal with cranky & dangerous adults, wild friends, complicated social problems… GIRLS even.”

    That sold him!

    and I love this thread on the concept of “shared texts.” The only thing I really had in common with multiple people when I hit college was Star Wars (May the Force be with You).

    Also, I was just reading the latest Vanderbilt Alumni magazine. It contained a long article on the emergence of a new “first year” common experience & how VU is completely revamping residential life. They have invested about 7 years transforming part of the campus into a a House-style living & learning environment ala Oxford tradition (as they describe it, anyway.)

    There was even a comment that this design was “much like the fictional Hogwarts houses,” just more of them – with their own faculty leaders, identity etc. It struck me that the incoming 2008 1st year class will be one of the first age cohorts to have grown up with Harry as a shared text. I can only imagine how that influence will play into how they will respond to the new environment created for them, and how, in turn that will affect the success of this new campus experiment.

  4. IMournForTonks says

    My son is also a member of Generation Harry. Did this series influence his reading habits? Absolutely. Before he picked up the Sorcerer’s Stone (secretly, because he didn’t know that his Christian dad would approve), books to him were something that the teacher forced him to read (which was curious, because I did read quality literature to him when he was a little guy). After he devoured the rest of the series, books began showing up on his birthday and Christmas lists. And not just fantasy or fiction. Books on history, economics, politics, music; the idea that reading was pleasurable, instead of being just barely endurable, he first learned, I am quite certain, while reading about The Boy Who Lived.

    I have always thought that if I had a chance to say a word or two to JKR face to face, I would say: “Thanks for teaching a generation to read.”

    And speaking of challenging messages for the postmodern reader: has there ever been a more chilling, shockingly vivid portrayal of a lost soul in torment, living out the consequences of a life full of wicked choices (shall we say “weeping and gnashing of teeth?”), than the description of that whimpering piece of Voldemort flapping around on the floor of King’s Cross?

  5. Travis Prinzi says

    This is a great discussion, John. Lots of issues swirling around here.

    The concept of Harry Potter as a “shared text” is a profound and important one, especially given Dan Nexon’s research on Harry Potter as global commonplace. Harry Potter, in many ways, transcends previous cultural shared-texts because of the fact that it has transcended cultural bounds in an unprecedented way for a work of fiction. The implications of Harry Potter as a text shared across cultures are potentially staggering. (Heck, if Benjamin Barton is correct about Potter’s real libertarian bent, my candidate might even get elected!)

    In any event, much of the purpose of my forthcoming book is to address the issue of just how Harry Potter is both a product of and a present and future shaping force in our culture, so the idea of Harry Potter as a shared text not just for Western culture but across cultures lends some credence to the theses of my book.

    The one question mark I have about the post which I think needs some further explanation is the definition of “relativism.” Let me summarize what I’m reading, and you can correct me if I’m misunderstanding: Allan Bloom, you said, exposed you all as “relativists,” people who believe that truth is relative. The Great Books and now Harry Potter are remedies for this relativism, which manifests itself in a sort of cultural identity crisis, or at least cultural incongruity rooted in the fact that there are no shared texts. Tolerance and relativism are not the same thing. It looks to me like relativism is being defined, as I said above, as Truth itself being “relative,” and that this, of necessity, does away with any concept of Evil, since absolute truth can call something evil, while relativism cannot. If I’m misunderstanding so far, let me know.

    Now, several points/questions:

    1. I tend to be skeptical that there really are any such things as “relativists” who genuinely believe that all truth is relative. Certainly that phrase gets passed down through pop culture, but no one actually believes it, because everyone on the face of the planet is actually against some thing or another. So I’m not entirely clear what Prof. Bloom is arguing against.

    2. I’m equally unclear as to how the Great Books canon solves the problem of relativism, however he defines it. The Great Books are, indeed, great, but there are Pulitzer Prize winners that don’t make it into the Great Books. They are, after all, a cultural expression, it seems, however brilliant their artistry.

    3. As I said in #1, I don’t think there are really people who think that all truth is relative; I think there are people who believe that all perception of reality (and therefore truth) is affected by one’s cultural and context, and therefore the way information/reality is perceived is “relative” from one culture to the next, from one context to the next. There is no “objective” human voice, because all discourse is social and relational. The question isn’t one of whether or not there ARE good and evil; the question is, “Who gets to say?” What’s the authority?

    That’s the conundrum Plato found himself in, even if he didn’t realize it. Plato saw “text” as problematic, because the author could not always be present to give the “AUTHOR-itative” word on the meaning of the text. The text, then, could end up in the hands of people who were stupid, and therefore misused. It’s the tension between interpretive chaos (any and all interpretations are valid; hence, the text says everything and nothing at all, and is entirely pointless) and oppression (if someone or some group has to be the authoritative voice on a text, why that group and not another, and which people/groups are being silenced and forced into subjection as a result?).

    Ultimately, it’s not a tension that is easy to resolve in the least, which is why for me, the paragraph under John’s point #3 is key, because I see the tension finding profound resolution in the incarnation of Christ, the Sustainer of reality becoming one of us and communicating in a particular culture context at a particular point in history. As such, the idea that a shared text across cultures has the potential to “foster a Christian conscience into existence” is of incredible importance, and unpacking that may just be enough to keep folks like John writing for a very long time!

    Thanks, John, for an excellent starting point to this discussion.

  6. Hello everyone. I’ve been reading the articles and comments here for months and have appreciated everyone’s insights very much. I have been a Harry Potter reader for seven or eight years and I have really enjoyed and been thankful for John’s books and the connections they provide. One of the things I have become very aware of with Harry Potter as regards the idea of shared texts is that it transcends generations. In our family Harry conversations are guaranteed to involve three generations in animated discussions of plot points, character insights and up until the publication of Book Seven, speculation about what will happen next. I can’t think of very many television programs or films that are even of interest to three generations, much less discussed by them. I’m wondering what impact this phenomenon may have — how many shared texts (beyond the Bible) actually unite generations in common associations?

  7. IMournForTonks says:
    “And speaking of challenging messages for the postmodern reader: has there ever been a more chilling, shockingly vivid portrayal of a lost soul in torment, living out the consequences of a life full of wicked choices (shall we say “weeping and gnashing of teeth?”), than the description of that whimpering piece of Voldemort flapping around on the floor of King’s Cross?”

    Indeed. I’ll go even further, and say that Deathly Hallows, or even the whole Potter-tale, is a modern tale that pretty much sums up http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=matt%2016:25-26;&version=31;.

  8. Mr. Klosterman wrote a 2000 word article about how little he knows about Harry Potter and Esquire actually published it. I guess you can sell anything as long as it has “Harry Potter” in the title.

  9. Mr. Klosterman may not know much about Harry Potter but his article touched on some of the most interesting and important topics of Potter mania as a cultural phenomenon, points escaping most Potter fans and pundits alike. Would that every article with HP in its title were as thought provoking as this one in Esquire!

    To Travis’ question about relativism, as he suggests in his third point, I think Bloom was talking about a passive and methodological relativism rather than an ardent, conscious, and philosophical relativism. No, as a new undergraduate I wasn’t denying truth or asserting all truth was relative; the contradiction of that would have been apparent even to me, ardent as I was for the lady from Guam.

    As an admirer of the sociobiologist I had read in a Great Books survey (!) at Exeter, however, I was prepared to defend that truth was a function of cultural conditioning, human prejudice, and “genetic forces,” that there was no absolute truth or objective standard for knowing one. I had strong preferences and dislikes, which, if I had been confronted with them, as I was at Chicago beginning with Bloom and regularly thereafter, I would either bluster or be bludgeoned but I wouldn’t retreat from my relativist mental disposition for quite some time.

    The Great Books help dissipate this mental fog and fuzziness because reading Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Augustine, Aquinas, Scripture, Shakespeare, Swift, and Donne don’t share this view and express their disdain for thinkers so distracted by their subjective opinions. Right thinking, clear thinking, if immersed in it long enough at sufficient depth, is a remedy for wrong and sloppy thinking habits.

    I don’t understand the question about authority, consequently, and wonder why you think Plato struggled with textual interpretation. He wrote philosophical dramas, after all, and assumed he would be understood correctly by earnest adults with intellectual discernment. He wouldn’t have written them if he believed otherwise; his dialogues could have been written as letters or abstracts like Aristotle’s but he chose to make his works require interpretation.

    Ms. Rowling’s works, as MacDonald and other writers and poets have said about their own, are for readers to understand rather than for them to explain. One artist is said to have asked a reporter who had asked him what a painting meant that, if he explained it, the reporter should feel as if the writer had slept with his wife. It is the reader’s engagement and understanding that matters, not their being spoon fed an authoritative view.

    Where does that leave a Potter pundit/parasite like me? I just start the conversation and set the table for the reader’s engagement. You are less attentive than I think if you’re a HogPro All Pro and you think readers defer to my insights as they do to Ms. Rowling’s! I explain what a name means in terms of its etymology, its use in the story, and its double entendre and I am dismissed by MuggleNet mavens who know that Ms. Rowling has said a boy in her third grade class had that name… She gives answers to her fans that want her to boil roses that won’t spoil the date and conquest for those readers looking for a DMR rather than a hand shake.

    Back to the subject of this post, the fascinating and promising difference between what generational historians call the idealist (Boomer) and reactive (X) generations that precede the civic (Millenial, Harry Potter) generation arising among us is they have a common text and text-message that we lacked. It is a message of sacrifice, loyalty, tolerance, virtue, family, moral courage, and the reality of evil. They’re not all heroes, certainly, but millions of them have read this message and learned this language, taken it to heart, and won’t need the relativism enema it took years to clean me out (if indeed it has left me).

    And the pre-evangelism value of this reading? It would be easy to over and under estimate it, certainly, now, when we cannot know, but I think it will be something hard for historians of Generation Harry and the church in the coming decades to ignore. All we can do now is explore the Christian content, noting its ambivalences as does Prof. Kern in the post above this one, and its valences as we do at HogPro and Sword of Gryffindor.com.

    Thank you, Travis, for the fascinating post!

  10. I, too, am really enjoying this post. I find myself wanting to know much more about relativism and absolutism. Perhaps I need to check out Bloom. I am really curious what sorts of questions he asked you to expose the relativism.

    The power that Jo has with this series for our generation and generations to come is quite profound. We are extraordinarily fortunate that a writer as morally responsible as Mrs. Rowling was given such influence.

  11. Excellent discussion here. I’d join except that I’m working on another article about the loathesome Philip Pullman. In the meantime, may I suggest a quick look at CS Lewis’s EXPERIMENT IN CRITICISM for some wise observations on what critics can (or can’t) do.

    Can exposure to common texts make a difference if they’re not actually discussed outside of class?

    Is shared interest in HP different, will it have different impact, than LOTR, which was the great shared text of the ’60s, reborn as the recent films? The HP audience starts younger, for one thing, and it’s not connected with hippiedom.

  12. Travis Prinzi says

    John, thanks for your thoughtful reply!

    I freely admit to being someone who’s working through a lot of these issues at present, and so I thank you for your patience. Allow me a few more counterpoints:

    1. What I’m hearing you saying is that the writers of the Great Books had a certain disdain for the kind of subjective thinking that is evident in the modern-day relativistic view that truth-claims are dramatically shaped by culture and context. I think the difficulty I’m having is that I find the basic postmodern claim to be true, which perhaps numbers me among the “relativists.” One who is deliberately unaware of the subjective nature of reality-perception is capable of a lot of damage in the name of “objective truth.” I’d want to ask questions like, “What are sloppy thinking habits?” “Who defines what is a good and bad thinking habit?” “On what criteria is such a claim made?” This is where my authority question comes from. I agree entirely with your paragraph that it is our interaction with the text, and not a spoon fed interpretation, that is the shaping factor. But that brings me to point #2, Plato.

    2. I don’t pretend to be an expert on Plato – not even close. I’ve read more about Plato than I have read Plato himself, so I do welcome any correction. But of what little I know, here’s what I understand (and much of this comes from James Gee, a literacy scholar whom I hold in high regard). Plato did indeed write just as you say he did. Yet Plato was also the first person, in Gee’s words, “to attack writing in writing.” According to Gee (and he’s drawing from Derrida and other postmoderns here), in Phraedus Plato launches the following attack on writing itself:

    – Writing harms human memory by allowing text to become a crutch, preventing the internalization of that which is taught.
    – Writing presents itself as autonomous authority.
    – Writing “cannot defend itself” (Gee).

    Here is where the interpretive problem comes. Plato writes, through the voice of Socrates: “Writing does not know how to address those it should address and not those it should not.” Of course, the same was true for oral tradition passed down through generations as well. So Gee summarizes Plato’s basic concern: he is concerned with any transmission of ideas that cannot stand up to the interpretive question, “What do you mean?” This is precisely why he wrote dialogues, of course.

    But dialogues still do not answer the fundamental question – whom should writing address, and why those people and not others? Or, whom should it not address, and why are those people being excluded from the interpretation of a text? Because they’re “sloppy thinkers?” Again, what defines a “sloppy thinker”? What constitutes “intellectual discernment”?

    The ideal answer for Plato on this is that the “philosopher-kings” provide the authoritative, canonical interpretation, because the author cannot always be present with his text to enforce its correct meaning. And hence we have an authoritative structure. Plato wanted text to be able to answer the question, “What do you mean,” but he didn’t want just anyone to be able to answer that question (interpretive chaos). He wanted the right interpretation.

    I agree with Gee – there’s no easy answer to the dilemma, “interpretive chaos” vs. authoritarianism, so I don’t have a great conclusion to this part of the comment. I would submit, however, that to accept Plato’s view of writing and its interpretation is to abandon any attempt to disagree with Rowling’s recent statements about Dumbledore, claiming that we should take the story more seriously than the author.

    MacDonald seems different than Plato to me on this, because MacDonald admitted that we might find better meaning in his text than he himself intended, because the source of the literature was ultimately something beyond himself.

    Again, I am no Plato expert, and welcome your comments and corrections. But I’m coming across what appears to be a tacit assumption that the Great Books represent “intellectual discernment,” some sort of objective access to absolute truth, and I think they are just as much a product of one culture (Western) as any other work of literature that takes a different perspective.

    Thanks in advance for your response.

    Travis, fearing he’s outing himself as a postmodern “relativist”

  13. I thought the most intriguing part of Mr. Klosterman’s article was his resume of what he assumed Harry Potter was about.

    That, I think, would make an interesting discussion: which parts did he get right, or nearly right, and WHY?

  14. Travis,

    I don’t know if there is absolute consensus on what the Great Books are. But if you read Adler’s introduction to one of the lists of GBWW, he talks about the difference between the good and the great, and says that the difference lies in a book’s relevance to great ideas (the group identified 102!). Great books have relevance to more of the great ideas. Adler states that the difference between the good and the great is one of kind and not degree, but I couldn’t see this from his argument.

    There is no claim -as far as I can understand – that the great boks have an objective access to absolute truth. In fact, Adler specifically says:

    ‘In the third place, a consideration not operative in the selection process was the truth of an author’s opinions or views, or the truth to be found in a particular work. This point is generally misunderstood; many persons think that we regard the great books as a repository of mankind’s success in its ever-continuing pursuit of the truth. “That is simply not the case”. There is much more error in the great books than there is truth. By anyone’s criteria of what is true or false, the great books will be found to contain some truths, but many more mistakes and errors.’

    Pared down to basics, to me a great book sounds like a book which talks intelligently about matters which are important to human beings throughout the ages. No claim that it contains the absolute truth.

    I think Adler would say that you have to find your own absolute truths, but search wisely, and use the wisdom of the Great Books to help you discern between what is true and what is false.

  15. Arabella Figg says

    Helen, I agree. He appears to have gathered more than he claims in his nonbasket.

    I was also intrigued by his use below of [my term] The Rumsfeldian Theory of Knowledge:

    Within any complex scenario, there are three basic kinds of information:
    1) Information that you know you know.
    2) Information that you know you don’t know.
    3) Information that you don’t know you don’t know

    What is HogPro all about, if not the exploration of these in the HP books?

    Also, in terms of shared text, as an early boomer, I’ve wracked my brains trying to think of “books we all read,” that had major impact and come up short. We were the original TV generation and TV shows of that time were our “shared text.” A lot of it was cotton candy and moralistic tales (most of which, I might add, contained absolutist truth about good and evil, at least as understood in America). In the ’70s, the ambiguity began to creep in.

    But the two “shared text” TV shows that stand out to me as ones that everyone watched (especially the first) and can discuss to this day were the originals of The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits. To those not of that time, the impact of these elevated and often spooky shows filled with twists and shocks, written by the finest SF minds of the time, simply can’t be explained. The truths explored, the moral questioning, the frank outing of our degradation, hypocrisy, pettiness, selfishness and dangerousness to ourselves and others, the potential for goodness and choice…these timeless themes are echoed in the Potter books today.

    I’m sure Harry Potter Trivial Pursuit will be a bestseller for decades to come.

    All kitties want to know is that the kibble bowl is full and a warm lap and ear scratch awaits…

  16. I think that “shared text” TV shows change over generations. I doubt that younger people today would know of those original science fiction shows. I think that most people would know Star Trek, either through TV or the movies. Columbo, JR Ewing, Mary Tyler Moore and Marcus Welby MD would be recognized by those who watched in the 70s and 80s. The next generation would remember Friends and Seinfeld.

    Truths explored and morals questioned? Star Trek certainly explored that territory. The special effects were cheesy, but the lessons learned timeless. I don’t think any of the others dealt with bigger truths.

    Going to the movies, it would be hard to find someone who hasn’t seen Star Wars and doesn’t recognize the mythology of the Force and the Jedi. But the later (i.e. earlier) movies diminished the simple morality tale of good vs evil and the existence of a greater guiding force.

    Books and plays? Homer and Shakespeare are still shared cultural knowledge. Not as text – but then they were not written to be read – but who has not heard of Helen of Troy and Romeo and Juliet? Dickens is still sort of in there, again more through movies than the text, but who has not heard of Oliver Twist and Scrooge? Jane Austen – the mother of chick lit – is making a resurgence. Heathcliffe and Jane Eyre? Maybe not anymore, but Scarlett O’Hara for sure. Robert Louis Stevenson may no longer be read, but every boy who dreams of fighting pirates for buried treasure has Treasure Island buried not too deeply in his cultural awareness.

    Helen of Troy, Ulysses, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Anthony and Cleopatra, Elizabeth Bennett, Long John Silver, Oliver Twist, Scrooge, they are literary archetypes – the details may be lost, but what they stand for not only abides, it is still drawn in vivid brushstrokes in popular consciousness.

    I’m not ready to ring a death knell on shared text quite yet.

  17. Travis Prinzi,

    Those are religious discussions as much as anything. Where does truth come from? Who decides what is sloppy thinking? What is right and what is wrong? What makes them so?

    To those questions, you need to look for the author of life. Might I recommend that you start with Jesus? He seemed to be sure of his authority. JKR quotes him. You can take Him or leave him. If you move on to someone else, you will eventually have to latch on to something (which is a choice on your part) in order to find authority in moral or untestable claims. Without the authority, it is true that relativism is the most logical world view. In that case, ~you~ are the authority on what sloppy thinking is.

  18. Travis Prinzi says

    reyhan, I’m not saying that it is generally claimed that the Great Books present objective, absolute truth. I’m saying that it sounds to me like Prof. Bloom and John are saying that the Great Books provide a remedy for relativism.

    4bz, if you had read my first comment, you’d have seen this:

    “I see the tension finding profound resolution in the incarnation of Christ, the Sustainer of reality becoming one of us and communicating in a particular culture context at a particular point in history.”

  19. Travis Prinzi says

    I didn’t say that quite right – what I meant to say was, it seems to me that Prof. Bloom is saying that the Great Books do provide “an objective access to absolute truth,” or at least “an objective access to the methods through which the knowledge of absolute truth is acquired – and I’m trying to discover (a) if that’s what he’s saying, and (b) whether or not the claim is viable.

  20. Travis,

    I looked up moral relativism in Wikipedia to get a clear definition. This is what I found:

    ‘In philosophy, moral relativism is the position that moral or ethical propositions do not reflect objective and/or universal moral truths, but instead make claims relative to social, cultural, historical or personal circumstances. Moral relativists hold that no universal standard exists by which to assess an ethical proposition’s truth; moral subjectivism is thus the opposite of moral absolutism. Relativistic positions often see moral values as applicable only within certain cultural boundaries (cultural relativism) or in the context of individual preferences (moral subjectivism). ‘

    I think that Mr. Bloom’s position would be that the great books do point us to the universal standards by which we can assess the truth of an ethical proposition. So in that sense, yes, they are a remedy for relativism.

    I think that John is saying JKR is not a moral relativist. I would agree. But I’m not sure that HP provides a remedy for moral relativism. There are ethical propositions, movingly expressed, about love and fear of death, and evil, and how evil can be defeated by transcending the mortal fear of death through love. But those propositions don’t help us to determine their truth. They are artistically compelling, but how do we know they’re true?

    We’d have to look further, go back in the history of mankind and literature, to look at how others have thought about good and evil, and love and death, how to distinguish good from evil, what love looks like and what it does, and how people think and feel about death, to judge if the message JKR gives us about those things is true, or false.

    At SoG we try to understand the tale of Harry Potter by asking questions and by debating, and sometimes even referring back to the Great Authors. We discuss the nature of love (Plato, CS Lewis, Emily Bronte, ), evil (a lot of contemporary developmental psychology there, especially attachment theory, with attempts from me to talk about the role of temperament), and of course, self-sacrifice (the New Testament comes in big here, but so do Dickens and Conrad). We spend a lot of time trying to define goodness, and trying to decide, by the standards we know, what it looks like in the story. By asking these questions, we’re trying to answer the ultimate question: is there is a universal truth in this story?

  21. Travis, I am not surprised that you are a relativist. When I was reading up on absolutism versus relativism, I was reminded our Dumbledore discussions where you felt Dumbledore was justified in asking Snape to kill him and in misleading Harry because of the situation he was in and because it was for the “greater good.” It seems to me that these views could be seen as relativism. My claim, on the other hand, that it is always wrong to lie and always wrong to commit suicide seems to be an absolutist’s view.

  22. Travis,
    I’m sorry I missed that comment the first time through your first post.

    Since you don’t find Jesus a profound resolution, and the reason you gave seems to include just about every other person I’ve heard of in history, except Mirza Husayn Ali of the Baha’i faith, moral relativism seems perfectly sound for you. Of course, you may, one day, find you are objectively wrong. I may one day find out that telling you was also objectively wrong.

    I’m now interested to see what others say on the issue of what Bloom was really saying, and if it applies to someone who decided, and forgive me if this is a mischaracterization, that nobody in history seems worthy to tell us what is right or wrong.

  23. Travis Prinzi says

    Ha! There’s all KINDS of misunderstanding happening here!

    First, 4bz: please re-read my comment. I said I DO find profound resolution in Christ. I DO think the solution lies with him. Having spent the last two years defending the series as positive Christian literature, this conversation is a little strange for me…

    Second, to everyone: I think we’re mixing up terms here, which is my fault for not defining things properly. I am NOT a moral relativist. I do believe in universal morality as declared by God.

    My hesitation is not with whether or not morality is relative. My hesitation is with human ability (or non-ability) to rightly come to proper conclusions about universal morality. We often think we’re being objective, when in reality, we are profoundly influenced by our cultural setting. My questions are intended to be epistemological.

    Ginevra, I think I’ve tried to clarify what I mean when I talk about lying not always being a sin; I think there ARE times when a context defines an action and changes its meaning, though this is not the norm. I don’t think that makes me a moral relativist, but I could be wrong.

  24. I’m feeling a little (a lot!) at sea in this discussion.

    Travis, I don’t see you as a moral relativist. Quite the opposite. I think you know what is the absolute truth, and where it comes from, very clearly.

    I also think that you doubt that the great books are a remedy for moral relativism. Or you are at least questioning this. Very Socratically, it seems to me.

    Can you explain where you’re going with this?

  25. Travis,

    I posted my comment before I saw yours. You’ve answered my question, thanks.

  26. I think I get your position, Travis. There is absolute truth in Christ, but for various human, historical and cultural reasons, we can’t be confident (and shouldn’t) of being able to grasp it in its entirety. Which could perhaps be better characterized as “humility” rather than “relativism.”

    That’s why I find the concept of Christianity as relational a very comforting one. I know a PERSON who is the truth. There may be many facts or concepts I’m wrong on, but as long as He considers me His own, I’ll be all right in the end.

  27. Travis,
    I’m sorry. Forgive me for my posts. After rereading, you were right about what you said both times.

    I feel like a B grade student playing in an A grade sandbox.

  28. Travis Prinzi says

    4bz, No worries, man. If I had a dollar for every time I misread someone’s comment and responded incorrectly…

    Helen, exactly! Which is why I think postmodern epistemology has some important correctives for the way theology has been done over the past 250 years.

  29. It’s not that I expect anyone will want to hear what I have to say, because I know I wouldn’t, but I’ve been thinking…

    If you don’t have a solid way of determining if an idea is true, such as the scientific method, or the constraints of logic stemming from a solid base of common agreements, it really does seem like a whim whether you take what an author has to say as true or not. It reminds me of what DD said, “It is our choices, far more than our abilities, that make us who we really are.”

    There is truth about everything, be it pro, con, or neutral. The real problem is in trying to predict what we will eventually find the state of that truth to be. I hear people speak of moral ambiguity. It seems like that phrase is pointing at the wrong thing. What is relative is what we believe to be right and wrong and not what IS right and wrong.

    So, what we find to be fuzzy logic is really just the evaluation of an obviously flawed creature. (I speak from experience here!) We would be better off saying that it seems false to us. In other cultures, it is false when applied in this culture. Like Ginevra said with the apparent ambiguity, there are times to lie and times to kill. Although it was either absolutely right for Snape to kill DD, or absolutely wrong, the culture may very well play into whether it was — as well as the facts that he was already dying, he was helping a kid, he was asked to do it, etc.

    The great authors (or those we deem to be great and not the ones that are actually great) help us to find more clarity, or in some cases, make us reevaluate what clarity we believed we had. I don’t believe (m)any of them really have a solid base in their claims, at least not any more solid than mine.

    I agree with Travis in some ways. We cannot know for a fact, without some solid evidence, who is right. We have to make the choices ourselves.

    As for me, it seems like the HP series has been a great unifying moral center.

  30. Looks like you’ve pretty much resolved this particular line of discussion…. (and to be honest, I have only glanced through some of the above)…but I’d figure I’d throw in a small bit about relativism, etc…

    As a Christian, I am an absolutist.
    Here’s where I derive that from:

    1.) Love the Lord your God with all your Heart, Mind, and Soul.

    2.) Love your neighbor as yourself.

    I really don’t think there is anything tricky in that. No grey area.
    If you are doing those things, your moral choices become crystal clear.
    I hate to make it sound so simplistic… but I truly don’t believe God intended us to agonize over trying to decide what may be right and what may be wrong.

    Am I alone in thinking this?

  31. Well, depends on why you think God gave us the ability to inquire and the option to choose.

  32. Wow. Coming late to this very interesting discussion, and not sure I should jump in on the deep end.

    So let me paddle around in the shallows for a moment. Getting back to the thought of “shared texts” for a generation, and even across generations, one thing I’m wondering is how much our relatively new environments for sharing and discussion will (and do) affect the depth and kind of sharing that goes on.

    I loved a lot of books as a child and a young adult. There may have been a lot of other people out there who loved them too (and I even found a few of them in college). But it wasn’t until recent years, with the advancement of the internet, that I’ve found whole “communities” of people with whom I can think, wrestle, share and speculate. Communities that encompass a huge diversity of people from all walks of life.

    I see this as both a very good thing and a sort of scary one. The positives are obvious. Internet discussion groups have become our “common rooms” or our campfires or our library book clubs or whatever you want to call them. The negatives, or at least challenges, involve the limitations of online discussion — not least of which is the fact that it’s not “embodied” communication.

    I think John’s post about the importance of shared texts is highly thought-provoking, and I agree that it’s exciting to contemplate that the Harry Potter stories are shaping a generation in some very positive ways. But I will be curious to see exactly how these stories continue to be shared.

    Perhaps the most important sharing will always be the real passing on of books to our children, reading them aloud in families and small groups around the table. But another part of the sharing of common texts is going to happen right here, in “virtual community.”

  33. Not sure if I quite get the question….

    But, God did not wish us to be a race of Automotons(sp?).
    He desires for us to choose to do the right thing… but, there again, “the right thing” is always clear (when the Two Greatest Commandments are applied).

  34. I am not as convinced that knowing what is the right thing is always clear, even with the guidance of the commandments.

    As a small example, think of the debate about the actions of the good guys in Deathly Hallows: was it right for Harry to use the cruciatus on Amycus? was his self-sacrifice actually an act of suicide, which is a sin? did Molly Weasley commit murder when she killed Bellatrix? Was Dumbledore right to deceive Snape all those years about Harry’s destiny? Was he right to deceive Harry? Did Snape commit a sin in killing Dumbledore?

    And now think of the greater world: when is war justified? abortion? euthanasia? suicide? killling someone? And on a smaller scale: lying and deception? stealing? adultery?

    I don’t mean to open a debate on any of these issues. Mankind has spent 25 centuries trying to come up with some answers, or at least some guidelines to follow. My point is, it’s not always easy to know. Religion, religious texts, the writings of great authors, the rules of logic, and our God given ability to reason, these are all tools we have to try to make those decisions.

  35. I don’t know if people are still interested in thinking about “absolute truth” and “relativism” but it’s an important issue for me, because these terms have influenced a LOT of my growth as a Christian, and I think it’s a key issue for Western Christians to grapple with nowadays. So here goes:
    I understand why many Christians like to use terms like “absolute truth” to describe what they believe in. They want to clearly set their understanding of reality apart from the “relativists.” Relativists are those people who argue that human beings are the ultimate definers of reality and are the ultimate deciders of what is good and what is bad. We believers in the God of the Scriptures cannot agree to this. Therefore (and here’s where the problem comes in), we must believe in the opposite of relativism, and that means we must be absolutists.
    But there are some troubles with this common line of reason. First of all, terms like “absolute truth” and “relativism” are a couple of those tricky terms which signify different things to different people. Second of all, and far more troubling, is the fact that Christians are not supposed to be EITHER relativists or absolutists. Relativism and absolutism apply to the existence or lack of existence of universal principles (or laws) that define reality and morality. The attempt to try to define truth or understand reality in this kind of objective, scientific way doesn’t come from Scripture, but from Plato, and from the ideals of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment thinkers were keen to identify laws that govern everything – not only the motion of objects, but the presence and application of morals. Furthermore, according to Enlightenment thinkers, we understand those moral laws scientifically – that is, through our objective observations and capacity for rationality.
    However, there are NOT laws that govern morality. There is a God who governs morality, and this makes ALL the difference. He is a God who has made himself known in the context of relationship with us, especially through the One who is God with us. We make Him known not by adhering or advancing a set of universal moral laws, but in the context of our relationship to Him, our relationship to one another, and our relationship with the world.
    Christians should not place their faith in nonpersonal “absolute truth.” They should place their faith in the Person who declared that He is the truth. And I don’t think this difference between believing in Jesus and believing in absolute truth is just a semantic twist. It’s a vital difference that affects how we think about everything. Believe me, I love critical thinking and logic just as much as the next nerd. I even wrote up a list of all the logical fallacies I detected in all the Anti-Harry Potter videos, articles, and books I’ve read just for a lark. I’d feel nice and cozy with those Ravenclaws. But the sort of dependence on Enlightenment “universal law” thinking that even Christians have somewhat carelessly absorbed, that makes us divert our attention (and nonbelievers’ attention) from the person Jesus to the nonpersonal absolute truth is an unprofitable diversion.
    I think Rowling had a good sense of this, and that’s why so much of Harry’s growth depended not on adhering to a set of moral principles primarily, but adhering to people in love, faith, and fidelity. This talk about relationship and love and trust, instead of talk of right and wrong, makes some Christians a little nervous because it seems morally squishy. But this is how God speaks to us about Himself, and this is how the Scriptures admonish us to think and act. Living a life where “good” and “right” is always a relational thing requires moment to moment trust in Christ, rather than trust in a set of nonpersonal, guiding principles.

  36. Hey, I just found this interesting article on HP, the US Constitution, authorial intent and interpretation…


    An interesting viewpoint and applicability to a shared text implications.

  37. You are correct that most of our modern thought is derived from the Enlightenment. Almost all of it, in fact. Enlightenment thought can be broken down to two schools: Egalitarian and Liberal. The Egalitarians are today’s liberals and the Liberals are today’s conservatives. (This highlights a huge problem in labels…seeing as how meaning shifts…but that’s another issue)

    But while Christian ethics should be “relational” in the sense that you speak….what they are not is “situational”.

    I don’t think that concepts of an absolute Right and Wrong are Enlightenment (or Platonic) amendments to Christianity.

    The idea that God is a Righteous God implies that there exists a (universal, if you will) principle of Right.

    We know that sin is anything which separates us from God. This separation occurs because the Righteousness of God cannot abide sin (or “wrong”, if you will).

    So far, so good?

    So… sin enters the world and separates Man from God, both in the temporal and in the eternal sense.

    God, as Christ, fills that gap with love and self-sacrifice.

    Christ sends the Holy Spirit into all who believe to act as Comforter and guide.

    Now that Christ has paid the penalty for all of our “wrong”, we are meant to spend our time doing what’s “right”.

    And what is “right”?

    1.) Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, mind and soul.
    2.) Love your neighbor as yourself.

    We no longer need to worry about what’s “wrong”, so in that sense, Christ changes the focus. Whereas, pre-Christ, we had the Law of Moses and a lot of moral hand-wringing, post-Christ we have been freed from the bonds of our sin (and that includes worrying about it).

    That being said, we aren’t meant to simply go on living as before. We are called to be transformed by the renewing of our mind (the verse goes on to say: “so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”)

    We know what is “right” through the two greatest commandments.

    Conversely, we know what is “wrong” through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

    But what is “right” and what is “wrong” does not change from situation to situation, person to person—and in that sense, are indeed “absolute”.

    I apologize if I’ve rambled and been convoluted. 😉 Just trying to express my personal take on things (like any good armchair philosopher/theologian).

  38. It’s true that truth doesn’t change based on the situation or culture, but the situations and culture certainly do play a role in determining what the truth is.

    If my brother hates the smell of fish, and I pass it by his nose to annoy him, the first time it may be ok. He’ll take it with a smile and be more pleased with life at that point than if I hadn’t passed it by him. It was morally right to bother him in that way. If I am asked to stop, that does change the formula. The truth hasn’t changed, but the situation has.

    If it is disrespectful to look at someone in the eyes in a particular culture, and you go ahead and do it, thinking the whole time that it is a morally neutral issue, you’ll be doing a morally wrong thing, because you will be offending people in that culture, and that is not what love would have you do.

    Seeing this as a relational thing vs. a set of rules may be helpful to some, and others may not find it so. If it’s rules, it’s the same reaction every time. If it’s relational, it’s based on whatever we happen to be feeling, which changes constantly. It seems like it should be some mix of the two.

    I believe we need to consider everything when determining morals. You make the best decision you can given the constraints. Obviously we are flawed in this, and we don’t know everything, so we do wrong.

    When a thing is obvious, nobody is really interested in hearing the verdict. It’s when the lines are fuzzy and we’re having a very difficult time in determining the truth that people really get excited about the issues. I think that is why stories are so powerful in showing things you might not otherwise see in the same situations. Thus the value of shared texts. Thus the value of HP.

  39. From what I understand, absolutists don’t believe that acting the same way in different situations is necessarily right, nor do they believe that one should not adapt to his environment. To ignore everything else would be ignorant.

    From what I understand, absolutists simply believe that some absolute standards or absolute truths exist by which every action, no matter what the environment, should be governed. For example, we should always love our God above all else, no matter what the situation entails. Nothing on this earth could ever justify not loving God.

    Similarly, I believe that it is always wrong to lie and always wrong to kill yourself or someone else who is not deliberately placing others in imminent danger. I know that some would disagree with me here, but I see these as absolute standards or absolute truths.

    I believe Travis disagreed with my interpretation of absolutism and relativism. I got most of my ideas from Wikipedia, which defines absolutism as follows:

    “Moral absolutism is the belief that there are absolute standards against which moral questions can be judged, and that certain actions are right or wrong, devoid of the context of the act.”

    Note that this does not say that all standards are absolute – rather, it says that some absolute standards exist. This statement does not say that all actions are right or wrong devoid of context, only certain acts.

    Loving God is always right, devoid of context. Lying is always wrong, devoid of context. And killing an innocent person (someone who isn’t placing other lives in imminent danger) is always wrong, devoid of context. My three standards seem very much in keeping with Wikipedia’s portrayal of absolutism.

    A different person could have a different set of standards that he considers absolute, and his views would still fall under absolutism.

    Conversely, “moral relativists hold that no universal standard exists by which to assess an ethical proposition’s truth,” according to Wikipedia. Thus, there is not one single standard in existence which would always hold true to every situation. Ergo, according to relativists, loving God might be appropriate in some contexts but not others.

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