Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Harry, Severus, & David: The Danger of a Single Narrative

by Laura Brekke

WARNING: this post contains Harry Potter spoilers!

Recently, I had an epic weekend of re-watching all the Harry Potter films (okay, it was more than a weekend, because: sleep). I’ve read all the books, and have, at times, reflected on the fact that the relationship I began with the characters when I was about 12 years old constitutes one of the longest relationships of my life (I’m a bit of a commitment-phobe).

One of the many twists and turns I love about the Harry Potter series is the unfolding development of the character of Severus Snape. Ah yes, the wicked potions master who picks on poor Harry from the beginning; who seems to be out to get Harry and his meddlesome gang of Gryffindor’s at every turn. Snape, who we later discover is a spy for the Order of the Pheonix. Snape, who is the self-described Half-Blood Prince. Snape, who in the most brilliant, heart-wrenching revelation is actually nursing a broken heart.

Severus Snape is the perfect example of the dangers of listening to only one narrative. Despite insistence to the contrary by Professors Dumbledore and McGonagall, Harry remains convinced of Snape's villainany, and is incapable of trusting him. Harry cannot hear the alternative narrative, one in which Snape is a complex, complicated man who has earned the trust of Harry’s own much-admired mentor. Only after Severus’ death is Harry able to hear – or see, rather – the alternative narrative, as Snape’s memories reveal a deep and unwavering love for Lily Potter and a steadfast commitment to protect her only son which resulted from that love.

But the beauty of the Harry Potter series is that, while Harry and gang only accept the single narrative about the nature of Severus Snape, other characters are constantly offering another (albeit ignored) story. And in the end, that other story confronts us, unraveling the suspicions and convictions that we, too, carried against Snape. Such a single narrative is dangerous because it narrowly assumes that our experience is the only experience, and that there can be no other way of interpreting the same series of events.

Scripture knows that a single narrative is a dangerous thing1. Take the King David cycle in 1 and 2 Samuel. Most of us learned in Sunday School classrooms that David was the greatest of Israel’s kings; a man after God’s own heart. But he is a complicated figure, a man who becomes a rapist and murderer. He is a monarch whose son later leads a revolt against him to avenge his sister’s honor. These stories demonstrate skepticism about monarchy, and give clear indications that while David may have been a beloved king, he was much less universally loved that we often think.

However, 1 Chronicles 11-29 retells the story with a drastically different angle. The less-than-savory bits of King David’s sordid personal life are scrubbed clean. In fact, the only negative report about David’s reign concerns his taking of a census. The Chronicler makes it clear that David was tempted by Satan to take a census (1 Chronicles 21:1) – in direct opposition to God’s command – and the resulting plague could be traced by to this first transgression. This is the only instance from the Chronicler that seems to call into question what seems like a relatively peaceful, well-administered reign.

Regardless of the accuracy of either cycle of stories, what is most important is that there is more than one angle on this King David character. Neither story is allowed to supplant the other; they are asked to dwell in the tension, side by side. The pro-monarchy telling, in which he is a flawless monarch caring for his kingdom and living an upright and righteous life, is not the only picture painted. Nor is the story of David’s blunders and abuses of power the only presentation of the ancient king. Rather, there are multiple, competing narratives about the man and the king which give us perspective and remind us that, depending upon one’s position, our narratives may be wildly divergent2.

In Harry Potter, as in life, it’s dangerous to assume that our perspective on things is the only one which is valid. The story we tell ourselves about who is “good” and who is “bad” is always filtered through our perspective. How? Simple examples: are the police there to protect you or bully you? Or, is Kanye an entertainment genius or a self-absorbed uber narcissist? It is our own life narratives that will inform how we understand law enforcement and Kanye West (and everything in between).

Right now, a war rages in Gaza. As of writing this post, upwards of 1,200 Palestinians have died as a result of Israeli bombing. In the same conflict, 43 Israelis have died. One narrative would say that Israel, remembering the violence of the bus bombings of civilians, is doing everything in their power to crush a terrorist cell that is sending rockets across the Gaza border into Israeli lands. But, another narrative would say that the use of excessive force, and the targeted bombing of civilians in hospitals and schools reveal that Israel intends to decimate Gaza in a show of force. Both of these perspectives inform the larger narrative. History defies simplicity; there is no single way to understand what is happening in Gaza; rather, there are many – often competing – narratives, all which must be heard in order to work toward resolution.

The danger of a single narrative is that we begin to devalue the people who hold those other narratives, whether it’s refusing to acknowledge the complexity of a sardonic and sour-faced potions master, or ignoring that there are two (or more) valid experiences of the current conflict in Gaza. Only after the death of Severus Snape did Harry Potter learn another narrative of the events he himself experienced; let us learn from Harry’s blindness – let us remember that there is never just a single story, but the myriad and complex stories of human experience. 

1. There are 4 Gospels after all; Jesus brings a single message of Good News, but it is told from 4 different perspectives which emphasize different things. Our understanding of Jesus would be lessened without each of these narratives.  
2. John Green does an excellent job of looking at how the current crisis in Crimea has two wildly different (actually, opposing) narratives which can come from the same historical experience. Watch that video here.  

Laura Brekke is a woman of many names and many interests. When she is being a grown up, she directs Religious Diversity as a Catholic university in California. When she is being an academic, she ponders theological anthropology and popular culture. When she’s being a pastor, she writes a blog musing about faith, spirituality, and our reluctance to be vulnerable. And when she is just being herself, she proudly embraced her inner Whovian fangirl.

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