Rowling In the Deep

I have plans to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them later today. Before I do, though, I want to reiterate a version of something I’ve said several times before in this space: Regardless of how good Fantastic Beasts is, and how much I enjoy it (which, based on reviews from people I trust, may be quite a lot), I think its existence is, for the most part, a mistake, and something that sincere fans of J.K. Rowling’s work will regret in years to come.

Right now, American pop culture is absolutely trapped in a hyper-nostalgia. There are plenty of reasons to be concerned that this isn’t just a fad or a phase. Rather, it looks more like a philosophical shift in how culture makers produce stories, and how we as an audience consume them. As A.O. Scott has written, so much of our film, TV, and literature appeals to childlikeness–not childlike wonder, mind you, but childlike sense of identity. Critical conversations about meaning and narrative are being thrown aside in what Scott has called the “ascendancy of the fan,” the transformation of mainstream pop culture into a mere collection of constantly rebooted brands: Marvel vs DC, Star Wars vs Star Trek, Bourne vs Bond, etc etc, ad infinitum.

I’ve said all this before, and I’m not going to restate my many comments here. But I want to very briefly apply these concerns to Rowling and to the Harry Potter universe. I have two reasons. First, I love the Potter series and have an especial affection and admiration for it. Second, I think what Rowling is doing with her legacy is the most glaring example we have of the danger of the reboot nostalgia culture.

The Harry Potter series (books 1-7) will, I’m convinced, be read widely with delight centuries from now. A few days ago I drew the wrath of Twitter when I declared that the Potter books were, taken as a whole, better than Lewis’s Narnia series. I stand by that. That’s not a dig at Narnia, either; I just believe that the Potter series is that good, and that its genius will only be greater appreciated in the years to come.

Part of that genius is in the story’s ending. I won’t spoil it (if you haven’t read the series, I envy the joy you will take in reading it for the first time), but the best way I can put it is that Rowling ended her tale with a beautiful and poetic symmetry that brought her characters a genuinely satisfying closure. At the last turn of the page in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, there is an eschatological joy in seeing good triumph over evil in a final, authoritative way.

What Rowling has done in the years since Deathly Hallows is more than marketing. She has sought to open up her mythology in a way that keeps the story going eternally. This was the point of Pottermore, a website that put users into the wizarding world through interactive content–content written by Rowling (as the ads for Pottermore made a point of repeating over and over again). Rowling’s involvement in Pottermore was clearly a pitch to fans that the story hadn’t ended, that the world was still being written and that by signing up for the service, they could be part of the new stories.

Rowling’s intentions became even more clearer with the publication of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Officially, the hardback copy that was sold in Barnes and Noble was simply the published script of a stage play, based on the Potter series. *Unofficially* (and again, in marketing), it was quite obviously the 8th book of the series. I never read the book, but my wife excitedly did. She was extremely disappointed, telling me that the characters of Cursed Child spoke and acted like fan fiction creations, not the heroes of books 1-7. Several reviews I saw echoed this sentiment.

The reviews for Fantastic Beasts have been much more positive, and I fully expect to enjoy it. But the pattern that Rowling has established thus far seems clear. The world of Harry Potter has been reopened, and its mythology has broken out of its original fate and is being written, and rewritten, and written again. It is, for all practical purposes, now a piece of fan fiction.

Fan fiction exists to let fans live inside their favorite stories. But one of the defining marks of all great stories is the way they live inside of us. What I fear is happening to Harry Potter is that a wonderful, beautiful piece of literature is becoming a cultural artifact to our inability to let stories teach us about this world and this life. The lessons we can draw from Harry, Ron, and Hermione are in danger of becoming lost in the constant reinvention of their world. By not letting our favorite stories end, we turn them into tools rather than teachers–objects that authenticate our childlike desire to not let go, to not courageously follow Harry outside the safety and comfort of our magical world, and into a dangerous, wild place where we have a job to do.

I want very much for succeeding generations to know the Harry Potter series as a brilliantly told, biblically haunted epic, not as another resource for Dungeons and Dragons devotees. My fear is that even in well-made films and interesting books, Harry’s lessons are lost, and we will be entertained and distracted at the cost of something precious.

Quote of the Day

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is no such work. As other countless fans have pointed out, the writing of the work is mediocre, at best—full of clichés and halfhearted character development, with a plot that is absolutely riddled with holes. Many of the original characters (especially Hermione) are not true to their original selves, serving as two-dimensional copycats.

So what does the book do? Well, it keeps the Harry Potter series alive and in the limelight. It serves to inspire new fans to return to the original books. And it definitively makes money—lots of it. But that’s the extent of its virtues.

I caution you, because I think there’s a point at which truly excellent authors know how to say “enough.” Their fans can content themselves with the simplicity and beauty of a finite offering (be it one book or seven). Limiting the scope of a fictional creation enables it to stay mysterious, enchanting, and delightful. Limiting the scope of Harry Potter serves to inspire and foster the imagination of its fans more than coughing up another 20 volumes ever would.

-Gracy Olmstead, in an “open letter” to Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling that also doubles as a disappointed review of the published play, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”

Olmstead gets to something important here: Churning out low-quality work, merely for the sake of keeping a franchise in the news, is not just bad for the franchise, it’s bad for the reader. No matter how many superfans will wait in line at Barnes and Noble for your newest offering, there is something in this kind of hyper-nostalgic, never-say-die mentality that robs future generations of the literary richness that comes from having some of the story untold.

Good Friday and the Age of Nostalgia

We call it “Good Friday” now. But no Christian should want to relive that day.

On the day we call Good Friday, Jesus’ disciples were foolish. They volunteered to die with him, demonstrating that they neither understood his mission or their own hearts. Hours after pledging their lives, they fled at the sight of Roman soldiers. The best friends Jesus had, the men who had spent three years by his side, stood back, denying they even knew him, as he was given over to an illegal trial for his life.

Witness after witness told lie after lie, so many lies that the Scriptures tell us that the testimonies didn’t even agree. Jesus was beaten, mocked, and pronounced guilty on the authority of actors, and nobody intervened. Nothing happened to stop the farce and return Jesus his dignity. No one stood up to corruption and injustice. He was alone.

He was alone as Pilate cowered before the crowd and ordered him flogged until his flesh hung off his bones like wet parchment. He was alone as Pilate cowered again and ordered his crucifixion, declining to announce what crime was being punished. He was alone as the weight of a wooden cross smote him into the earth. He was alone as the nails were driven with ruthless efficiency. A man who had raised little girls up from the dead was stripped naked so that federal agents could play dice with his clothing. Nothing happened, no one stopped it.

Why do we call this day “good”? This is the kind of day that we learn about in history textbooks, with black and white photos of burned bodies stacked on top of each other. This is the kind of day where we watch Planned Parenthood surgeons sift through a petri dish of humanity, looking for the most valuable of the remains. This is the kind of day where armed guards open fire on peaceful protesters, or sic dogs on children. There’s nothing remotely sentimental about the cruel injustices of “Good Friday.” So why do we call it good?

We call it good because tradition and nostalgia aren’t synonyms. The past—the realities of the faith once for all delivered to the saints—is our life. Without Calvary there is no church, there is no heaven, and there is no hope. Christians don’t believe in the idea of the atonement—they believe in the history of it. Jesus really did die on a cross, in a real part of the Middle East, surrounded by real people who really did shout for a healer and a teacher to be murdered by a government they proclaimed to hate. This isn’t just theology. It’s history. It’s our history, our tradition, and our hope.

It’s not, however, our nostalgia. Tradition is about receiving from the past; nostalgia is about disfiguring it. Nostalgia is our cultural mood right now because it affords the comfort of the past while letting us Nostalgia is superficial in essence but can be tyrannically earnest; we can try to reinvent our entire lives in the image of that which reminds us that we were once young. But for the age of nostalgia, hope is to be found in the here and now. We must be nostalgic so that we can be comforted by the past without being taught by it.

We dare not be nostalgic about Easter. Only the foolish would sentimentalize the flogging, the walk to Golgotha, and the naked, shredded flesh. To make the Passion an object of our nostalgia—to see in it only the value of our grandfather’s generation, the benefit of a “Christian nation”—is to spit upon the cross itself. It is said that in the United States are millions of “Easter and Christmas” churchgoers, those who make time in their secular existence for two hours of hymnody a year. Oh, if only these Americans could see in their holidays the blood and the gore and the evil! If only they could see the gospel in its visceral reality, and not in its Thomas Kinkadian counterfeit.

If they could, if we could, we would not look at Good Friday with nostalgia. But we would look at it, and, if God is merciful, we might never look away.

“The Force Awakens” and Getting Trapped By Nostalgia

In conversations with friends about the new Star Wars movie, I’ve noticed two trends. The first is that most of the people I’ve talked to report enjoying the movie quite a bit (and that makes sense, seeing as how the film is scoring very well on the critic aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes). The second trend is that virtually no one has criticized The Force Awakens for being too much like the original Star Wars trilogy. Indeed, the opposite seems to be true: Most people who have told me how much they like Episode VII have mentioned its similarity, both in feel and in plot, to George Lucas’s first three Star Wars films as a reason why they like it so much.

For the record, I enjoyed The Force Awakens quite a bit, and J.J. Abrams’ homage to the golden moments of the original films was, I thought, well done. But many of my conversations about it have confirmed to me what I suspected when Episode VII was announced: We’re trapped in a cultural moment of nostalgia, and we can’t get out of it.

Of course, the nostalgia-entrapment begins with the existence of movies like The Force Awakens. As I’ve said before, as much as I love Star Wars, the fact that a 40 year old franchise is still dominating the box office, news cycle, and cultural attention is not something to be excited about. There comes a point when tradition becomes stagnation, and at least in American mainstream film culture, it seems like that line was crossed some time ago. Case in point: Included in my screening of Star Wars were trailers for a Harry Potter spinoff, another Captain America film, an inexplicable sequel to Independence Day, and yet *another* X-Men movie.  In other words, had an audience member in my theater just awoken from a 12 year coma, they would have seen virtually nothing that they hadn’t seen before.

Nostalgia, if unchecked, runs opposed to creativity, freshness, and imagination. Even worse, the dominance of nostalgia in American pop culture has a powerful influence in marketing, making it less likely every year that new storytellers with visions of new worlds, new characters and new adventures will get the financing they need to materialize their talents. That is a particularly disheartening fact when you consider that the storytellers whose work has spawned a generation’s worth of reboots and sequels were themselves at one point the “unknowns:” George Lucas couldn’t find a studio to finance Star Wars until an executive at 2oth Century Fox took a risk on a hunch; Steven Spielberg finished “Jaws” with much of Universal’s leadership wanting to dump both movie and director; and for much of the filming of “The Godfather,” executives of Paramount openly campaigned to fire writer/director Francis Ford Coppola. If formula and nostalgia had been such powerful cultural forces back then, there’s a good chance there’d be no Star Wars to make sequels for at all.

The trap of nostalgia is deceitful. It exaggerates the happiness of the past, then preys on our natural fear that the future will not be like that. But this illusion is easily dismantled, as anyone who has discovered the joys of a new story can attest.

There’s a freedom and a pleasure in letting stories end, in closing the book or rolling the final credits on our beloved tales. The need to resurrect our favorite characters and places through the sequel or the reboot isn’t a need based in the deepest imaginative joys. It is good that stories end rather than live on indefinitely so that we treasure them as we ought and lose ourselves in a finite universe rather than blur the lines in our mind between the truth in our stories and the truth in our lives. If we cannot allow myths to have definite beginnings and endings, it could be that we are idolatrously looking to them not for truth or grace but for a perpetual youthfulness.

Of course, there are dangers on the other side too. An insatiable craving for the new can be a sign of the weightless of our own souls. A disregard for tradition can indicate a ruthless self-centeredness. And, as C.S. Lewis reminded us, novelty is not a virtue and oldness is not a vice.

But we should be careful to distinguish between a healthy regard for those that come before us, and a nostalgia that (unwittingly) devalues tradition by ignoring how and why it exists. In the grand scheme of things, how many Star Wars films get made is probably not of paramount importance. But being trapped by nostalgia has its price. An irrational love of the past can signal a crippling fear of the future. Christians are called to lay aside the weight of fear and follow the gospel onward. If we’re not even willing to learn what life is like without a new Star Wars or Harry Potter, how can we do that?