Thursday, July 26, 2007

Harry Potter and the Last Crusade

-- by Sara

Dave's Harry Potter piece below led to a lively comments discussion on why fundamentalists are so bothered by myth-and-magic stories. There are several things going on all at once here -- but all of them, in the end, touch back to one thread at the deepest core of their theology.

The first thing to bear in mind about fundamentalists is that, in the darkest depths of their minds, almost all of them harbor deep, unspoken doubts about their belief system. In fact, for all their protestations about truth and certainty, doubt is perhaps the main wellspring of their zeal: only people who live in a perpetual state of guilty unbelief can be strung along for a lifetime in such a desperate, grasping quest for assurance that their faith is sufficient for a God who offers grace, but demands constant efforts at perfection in return.

My ex-fundie friends all acknowledge that they never felt good enough, pure enough, "saved" enough to be true Christians. Always, deep down, there was the feeling that if everybody really knew who they were, they'd be shunned by God and the church. Much of their passionate prayer and seeking was driven by this secret dread. Manipulative pastors foster these doubts deliberately, precisely to ignite that passion and keep their flock insecure, ever dependent on them for guidance and that elusive assurance of salvation.

So doubt is a standard feature of the fundamentalist package. And it's also why they're so defensive about their own mythos. We reality-based folk don't need to feel terribly defensive about our worldview. We can verify truth with our own eyes. If our beliefs are questioned, we'll debate the observable facts, and perhaps either change the other person's mind or our own accordingly (and, either way, feel richer for the exchange). Acknowledging reality can't shake our mythos, since we don't have a mythos to shake.

But once you've rejected the reality-based world in favor of a mythic worldview, you are -- by definition -- building your life on an epistemology that has no verifiable support structure. Which means there are always going to be moments when faith dissipates just long enough to admit a quiet, nagging doubt about the foundations of your reality. It also means that you're going to regard any and all competing myth systems -- no matter how fantastic -- as a serious existential threat that stands in direct competition to your own (equally fantastic) myth system. They have to be treated as equivalent, because they're all made of the same flimsy stuff.

In this no-reality-allowed zone, no rational exchange of ideas is possible, and logic and reasoned debate have no power to cool the resulting conflicts. The battle can only be won by stirring up people's emotions until they're high, hot, and loud enough to drown out those nagging fears -- at least for a while. And, like an addict, you need frequent and increasing doses of that emotional juice to keep the doubts at bay, because they're never really gone for good.

Voltaire concisely summarized the potential dangers that lurk in this willful and escalating abandonment of reason when he said: "Anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities." Left to run, the endless rush to quench doubt does end up, often enough, in atrocity.

The second thing (which several commenters touched on) is the observation that fundamentalists reject almost anything that takes people's mindshare off God, bible, and church. They're not fond of popular culture in any of its forms; and many live in carefully-constructed personal bubble zones within which everything they read, hear, see, touch, buy, and use is Christian-oriented. Anything secular is "of the Devil," and therefor unfit for someone seeking to live a godly life. It was easy enough to predict that they'd reject Harry Potter on these grounds alone.

But that, on its own, doesn't explain the extreme hysteria we see in the video Dave linked to. Harry Potter, like Dungeons & Dragons (disclaimer: Mr. R worked on several D&D games as an employee of the game's original publisher), Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sabrina, Magic: The Gathering, Kiki's Delivery Service (which also got its share of this) or Pokemon pushes some extra buttons that can't be rationalized by a mere desire to avoid all things secular. So, what's that about?

The common thread that runs through all of these is magic. And that, I think, is the real burr that gets under fundamentalist saddles. In fundieland, magic is the most frightening and legitimate of all the competing myth systems -- the Devil's own preferred alternative to prayer and submission. Other belief systems (Buddhism, Hinduism, the Greek myths) are viewed as sad and rather pathetically delusional; but anything that smacks of magic is feared as actively Satanic.

Why is magic such a hot button? The reasons go to the heart of fundamentalist theology. At their core, fundamentalists believe that humans are wretched creatures who aren't really even human unless touched by God's grace. (And, yes, this does mean that those of us who are unsaved can rightly be considered subhuman.) We cannot do anything right; we do not deserve to have control over our own affairs; and any notion that we have intrinsic power to achieve good in the world (or even the authority to define "good" or "bad" on our own terms) is a diabolical delusion. Left to our own devices, we will not only screw it up for ourselves; we will ultimately ensure the Devil his victory over the world -- including them -- as well.

Implicit in this is the idea that all authority is necessarily, rightfully external. The fate of the entire world depends on how completely we can give up our desire to control our destinies, and submit to God and his appointed earthly overseers. This obsession with the need for external authority is, in a nutshell, is why fundamentalism is a form of religious authoritarianism.

Stories about magic openly defy this whole belief system. Magic-using characters like Harry usurp the supernatural power and prerogatives of God -- a sufficient heresy in its own right. But it's worse than that: they're also exercising their own internal authority, and acting out of their own agency. And that's the last thing fundamentalists want their children -- or anyone else -- learning how to do.

That's why we're hearing all the shrieking hysterics from the fundie side. Stories and games like Buffy and Harry and D&D put us in the shoes of heroes who take charge of their power and use it to shape their own realities -- and worse, to defy overweening, intrusive authority. They contain messages that undermine the power of external leaders, and encourage people to believe in their own limitless power to create change. They show us protagonists who overcome doubt, take risks, and gain confidence; and who make their world better without waiting around for God to act.

If everyone thought that way, where would we be then? We wouldn't follow our leaders. We'd try to rule ourselves. We might get the idea that our destinies were in our own hands. We might even entertain the delusion that we're somehow "free" people who don't have to answer to anyone but ourselves. And then where would God's designated regents -- the would-be dictators, oligarchs, and theocrats -- be?

Dave has promised his thoughts on the deeper implications of Harry Potter's final volume. My point here is that the fundamentalist panic over these books is not something we can just laugh off as more deranged weirdness from people who don't understand the world they live in. They do understand, perhaps better than we do, that the stories we tell ourselves ultimately create the reality we'll be living in at some point in the future. And they also know that stories like these have the power to raise our awareness, focus our intention, and steel our resistance against the unholy authoritarian plans they have laid for our obedient "salvation."

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