Monday, August 13, 2012

What Would Dumbledore Do?

on pop theology, philosophy, theology, culture, pop culture, christianity
by Mark Smith
Ever since I stole a battered copy of The Hobbit out of my older brother’s bedroom, I’ve been enamored with fantasy literature. There is a stigma attached to the genre, and while much of it is probably deserved, it has not stopped me from lapping up page after page of swords, dragons, wizards, thieves, and knights.
When it comes to fantasy literature, one of the most common staples is the clear definition of good and evil. The hero is righteous, possibly flawed, but equipped with a sackload of virtues that set him up against a clearly defined villain.
The Harry Potter books follow this exactly. Very early, the reader is told explicitly which wizards are good and which wizards are bad. However, one of the things I love about the Harry Potter series in this regard is that over time this simplicity fades.
While the staple of Harry Good/Voldemort Bad remains intact throughout, there is a smaller ,but much more tangible, battle of good and evil at play within the walls of Hogwarts school. Even if you have not read the books, you are probably aware that the students are sorted into one of four houses by way of a magic hat that magically knows which characteristic best defines the student using...magic psychology or something.
Anyway, the brave go to Gryffindor, the wise go to Ravenclaw, the loyal and hard-working go to Hufflepuff, and the ambitious and cunning go to Slytherin. More importantly, the reader is told, even before all the houses are introduced, that ALL bad wizards come from Slytherin.

Even as a child this bothered me. Why would they teach these students magic? Sitting on one side of the great hall is a table full of future Hitlers and we’re going to train them to blow things up for 7 years? Why not have a magic hat that sorts out the brave, wise, and loyal and tells the devil children to see themselves to the door?

In reality (okay, not reality, but you know what I mean), the idea that all bad wizards are Slytherins is just an over simplification told to a child in a story aimed at children. Over the course of the books as Harry grows older, we learn that the world isn’t quite so black and white. Harry learns that Sirius Black, a wizard wanted for the murder of 13 people, was a Gryffindor. Sure, it turns out that he is actually innocent, but the fact that a hat told everyone he is brave did nothing to stop them from locking him up without trial. Spoiler alert there, sorry.
Later, Harry’s dad, a Gryffindor lauded as a paragon of virtue for the first four books, is revealed to have been a snob and a particularly cruel bully in his younger years. Godric Gryffindor, for whom the house is named, is revealed to have been an oppressor of non-human magical creatures. Some Slytherins are revealed to be good people, like Slughorn and Snape. Oh, spoiler alert on that one, too. I should be more careful.
In church, I fear we often oversimplify the good and evil. Those of us who grew up in church were probably told bedtime stories about God and the Devil, and it all seemed so straightforward in Sunday School. If you do what is right, you are on God’s side. If you do what is wrong, you were on the Satan’s side. However, like Harry, we learn as we get older that things are not always that simple. You can’t tell if a person is good or evil by what colors the stripes on their tie are.
In moments of moral confusion, Harry follows the example of Dumbledore. Dumbledore taught him, in words and actions, that when right and wrong are complicated, love is simple.

As Christians, we follow the example of Jesus. Jesus came to this world at a time when right and wrong were unclear. God’s word had been misinterpreted, and the Pharisees had lost the message behind it. Jesus delivered that message, and the message from Rabbi to Pharisee was similar to the one from Harry’s wise headmaster. When the law is complicated, the most important thing is to love God. The second most important thing is to love each other.

I don’t need to tell anyone what the topics of moral ambiguity are in the world today, and I’m certainly not going to tell you what you should believe about any particular one. I will say that the more I try to see both sides of any issue and the more I see the motivations of the people behind them, I, like Harry, start to lose my sense of what right and wrong really mean. 

Those who followed Dumbledore often disagreed about what his intentions would have been, just like those who follow Christ disagree. The best advice I can offer is this: When life is at its peak of frustrating moral ambiguity, the best thing to do is follow Harry’s lead and make the decision that shows love.

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