Sunday, July 3, 2011

Harry Potter: The Four Hogwarts Houses

All students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are sorted into one of four houses before they begin their first year of study. The house sorting is done by the Sorting Hat, an old conical hat that is set upon the head of each student in turn and that shouts out the name of the student's house. Below are the four houses.

  • Founder: Godric Gryffindor
  • Head: Professor Minerva McGonagall
  • Ghost: Nearly Headless Nick (Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington)
  • Colors: Red and gold
  • Animal: Lion
  • Characteristic: Courage

  • Founder: Salazar Slytherin
  • Head: Professor Severus Snape / Professor Horace Slughorn
  • Ghost: The Bloody Baron
  • Colors: Green and silver
  • Animal: Serpent
  • Characteristic: Ambition

  • Founder: Rowena Ravenclaw
  • Head: Professor Filius Flitwick
  • Ghost: The Grey Lady (Helena Ravenclaw)
  • Colors: Blue and bronze
  • Animal: Eagle
  • Characteristic: Intelligence

  • Founder: Helga Hufflepuff
  • Head: Professor Pomona Sprout
  • Ghost: The Fat Friar
  • Colors: Yellow and black
  • Animal: Badger
  • Characteristic: Loyalty

The main characters of the Harry Potter novels are Gryffindors. These include Harry Potter, Ron Weasley and the entire Weasley family, Hermione Granger, Neville Longbottom, James Potter, Lily Evans Potter, Sirius Black, Remus Lupin, and Peter Pettigrew.

The house to which I most gravitate is Ravenclaw. I would love to be in a house that values intelligence and learning. My favorite color is blue, and I love Professor Flitwick. The Ravenclaw common room is in one of the Hogwarts towers, possesses a light and airy atmosphere, and overlooks a gorgeous mountain view.

Harry Potter: The Magic of House-Elves

House-elves are non-human, intelligent, sentient, magical beings who appear in the Harry Potter novels. House-elves appear to be lowly creatures. They serve witches and wizards and seem perfectly content to do so. A house-elf's highest purpose is to obey his or her master's or mistress' command. Lowly as they are, house-elves have magic peculiar to themselves and unavailable to witches and wizards. The magic of house-elves is wonderfully illustrated in this story of Kreacher, as told by Kreacher to Harry, Ron, and Hermione in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Kreacher is a house-elf in the Black family household. The Black family, except for Sirius Black, Harry Potter's god-father, are all enamored of the Dark Arts and of Lord Voldemort. Sirius' younger brother, Regulus, has become one of Voldemort's Death Eaters. Regulus is also very fond of Kreacher.

One day, Regulus tells Kreacher that Lord Voldemort requires a house-elf for some particular task and that Regulus has volunteered Kreacher. Regulus explains to Kreacher what an honor this is, for both Regulus and Kreacher, to be chosen for special service to the Dark Lord. Regulus tells Kreacher to go with Lord Voldemort, to do all that Voldemort requires, and then to come home. Kreacher obeys.

Lord Voldemort takes Kreacher by boat out to an island in the middle of a lake deep within a cave. Voldemort intends to hide one of his horcruxes there, surrounded by spells and curses that will prevent anyone getting to it. This horcrux contains a piece of Voldemort's soul within a gold locket. Voldemort plans to place the locket at the bottom of a basin filled with cursed liquid and to place a powerful spell upon the locket so that it will not budge unless someone drinks the cursed liquid first. Kreacher's role is to insure that the cursed liquid works.

Once they reach the island, Voldemort commands Kreacher to drink the cursed liquid within the basin. The liquid causes the drinker to experience mental horror and tremendous thirst. Kreacher drinks the liquid and experiences these tortures before the cold eyes of Voldemort, whose only concern is to ascertain if the liquid works as it should. When Voldemort sees that the liquid works as expected, he departs the cave in the boat, leaving Kreacher in agony on the island.

Voldemort knows that the horrible thirst will eventually drive Kreacher to drink from the waters of the lake. This will trigger the Inferi. The Inferi are bodies of dead people who are buried underwater and who will drag down anyone who enters the lake. The Inferi will drag Kreacher to his death, and there will be no living witness to the hiding place of Voldemort's horcrux.

However, Kreacher comes home. Harry, Ron, and Hermione simply cannot understand how Kreacher can possibly have escaped the Inferi. Kreacher, for his part, cannot understand why Harry, Ron, and Hermione are astonished. Master Regulus had told Kreacher to do the Dark Lord's bidding and then to come home. Master Regulus had said, Come home. Kreacher obeyed his master. Kreacher came home, as Master Regulus had told him to do.

Clearly, Kreacher had used magic peculiar to house-elves. The house-elf's highest purpose is to obey his or her master's or mistress' command. Master Regulus had said, Come home. Kreacher's purpose was to obey his master, and this activated powerful magic that allowed Kreacher somehow to escape the Inferi and to come home. Kreacher doesn't seem able to explain this. It seems self-evident to him: my master told me to come home, so of course I came home.

This cold-hearted use of Kreacher is what turns Regulus against Voldemort. Regulus procures another gold locket and asks Kreacher to take him to the island in the cave. Kreacher does so. Regulus then tells Kreacher to wait until the basin is empty, to remove the gold locket horcrux and replace it with the fake gold locket, and finally to return home and destroy the gold locket. Regulus drinks the cursed liquid, knowing it will bring about his death, but willing to sacrifice his life to destroy Voldemort's evil horcrux.

Kreacher sees Regulus suffer from the mental torture of the cursed liquid and finally succomb to the horrible thirst by trying to drink from the lake, which triggers the Inferi, who drag Regulus down under the water to his death. Overcome with horror and sadness, Kreacher nonetheless obeys Master Regulus, exchanges the lockets, and goes home. However, try as he might, Kreacher is unable to destroy the gold locket because a horcrux cannot be destroyed by ordinary means. (Much later, Ron is able to destroy the locket, using the Sword of Gryffindor.)

This story shows that non-human creatures have powerful magic of their own and that love can lead to incredible acts of heroism.

Harry Potter: Lord Voldemort and the Death Eaters

The Death Eaters in the Harry Potter novels are followers of the evil Lord Voldemort.

Lord Voldemort was born Tom Marvolo Riddle. (The letters in the name "Tom Marvolo Riddle," when rearranged, also spell "I am Lord Voldemort.") Tom's father was a Muggle (a non-magical person) who abandoned Tom's mother while she was pregnant with Tom. Tom's mother, a witch, died shortly after giving birth to Tom, who was raised in an orphanage. Tom never felt at home until he began attending Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (a boarding school) at age eleven.

Tom made it his business to learn all he could about the Dark Arts. He wanted power. He wanted to be the most powerful wizard who ever lived. In fact, he wanted to overcome death and live forever. He kept pushing the boundaries of magic, achieving more magical power than had ever been achieved and then pushing for even more.

Voldemort's followers, the Death Eaters, seem to me to fall into three types.

FULLY COMMITTED. A few Death Eaters are fully committed to Lord Voldemort and his evil ways. When Voldemort loses his power after trying to kill the one-year-old Harry Potter, these Death Eaters remain faithful. They are ever alert for a sign of Voldemort's return to power and are always ready to help and support him. Two such Death Eaters are Bartemius Crouch (son) and Bellatrix Lestrange.

WISHY-WASHY. Most Death Eaters are of this type. They are attracted to the power and evil of Voldemort, but they will support Voldemort only as long as he remains powerful. When Voldemort loses his power, this type of Death Eater "repents" of having followed him so as to be in the good graces of the kinder and saner wizards now in charge at the Ministry of Magic. When Voldemort regains his power, these Death Eaters "repent" of having defected and return to Voldemort's side. These Death Eaters would like to follow Lord Voldemort, but their main concern is to stay in the good graces of whoever is in power at the moment.

DISILLUSIONED. A few Death Eaters follow Lord Voldemort because they are attracted to power and to the excitement of pushing the boundaries to see how far magic can go, but they retain a core of goodness within themselves that causes them to turn away from Voldemort's evil in the end. For a while, this third type of Death Eater is able to deny or excuse the evil in Voldemort. When Voldemort ruthlessly punishes one of his followers for a mistake, this third type of Death Eater initially justifies the cruelty by telling him- or herself, Of course Lord Voldemort had to punish So-and-So. The Dark Lord cannot allow such mistakes to hamper the quest for power, which, after all, is for the greater good of all.

Eventually, though, Lord Voldemort's cruelty reaches someone whom this third type of Death Eater loves. That is what makes the difference: this type of Death Eater can still love. Voldemort knows nothing of love. This happens with Severus Snape, when Severus sees that Voldemort has killed the woman whom Severus truly loves--Lily Evans Potter, Harry Potter's mother. It also happens with Regulus Arcturus Black, when Regulus sees that Voldemort has callously used Regulus' beloved house-elf, Kreacher, as a guinea pig and left Kreacher for dead. Both Severus and Regulus are suddenly and completely disillusioned with Voldemort and break away from him. In both cases, this eventually results in their deaths.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Frohnmayer Appreciation Weekend - Response

My previous post describes a wonderful event this past weekend (June 3-5) at Loyola University New Orleans--Frohnmayer Appreciation Weekend--held to honor Phil and Ellen Frohnmayer, beloved voice professors in Loyola's College of Music & Fine Arts. This post will discuss how I responded to this inspiring weekend and what I learned from it.

My main response to this weekend is JOY! I found myself filled with joy in honoring Phil and Ellen for their nearly thirty-year career of teaching and singing--a career which is ongoing. It was a joy to celebrate with music, food, friends, prayer, and gratitude. It was a joy to see so many lives that have blossomed because of excellent teaching and excellent mentorship. It was a joy to contribute with my presence and with a small contribution to the Frohnmayer Legacy Fund.

Below are some of the thoughts I am left with as a result of Frohnmayer Appreciation Weekend.

MUSIC AND ART IN LIFE. How poor is a life without music and art. How rich is a life surrounded by music and art. Music and art raise the vibrations of joy in our lives.

MUSIC AND ART IN EDUCATION. How stupid, or should I say cruel, to remove music and art from our children's education. Music and art make life worth living. What good is it to make an excellent living if one cannot make an excellent life? What good is to increase one's financial profits if one cannot deepen one's joy? Every child should graduate from high school knowing how to read music, to sing a melody on pitch, to harmonize, and to play at least one instrument both in solo and ensemble performance. Every child should graduate from high school knowing how to draw. These things should be part of a basic education for every student in elementary and high school.

LEVELS OF PARTICIPATION IN MUSIC AND ART. Anne Marie Frohnmayer commented, during a conversation this weekend, that we can participate in music at all sorts of levels. She herself was enjoying seeing how her parents' former students were using their music now in their lives. They are doing so in all sorts of ways and at many levels. As Anne Marie said, "You don't have to be Pavarotti!"

What can one do with one's singing? Well, one can take major, minor, or chorus roles in opera performances; one can take major, minor, or chorus roles in musicals; one can be a soloist or chorus/choir member in a community chorus or church choir; one can perform at one's local nightclub; one can perform at one's local coffeehouse; one can be a street musician; one can have evenings of song for friends in one's home; one can sing lullabies to one's children; one can sing for people in hospitals or nursing homes.

These levels are also true for instrumentalists and for music teachers. Instrumentalists, especially pianists, also have the option of accompanying. Music teachers are so important, opening the world of music, not only for the gifted, but also for the average, for example, the piano student of average ability who wants to play for the sheer joy of it. And we shouldn't forget the level of audience--the audience is an essential part of a musical performance.

Everyone can participate in music, art, poetry.

WHOLE-PERSON TEACHING. It is clear that the Frohnmayers teach the whole student and teach from their whole selves. Learning is not simply concerned with the subject matter, particularly when learning involves a skill such as singing or playing an instrument, drawing or painting or sculpting, writing, learning a language. Learning involves a student's body, mind, soul, and spirit. Learning is affected by joy, sorrow, success, failure, gain, loss, health, illness, encouragement, criticism, liking the teacher, not liking the teacher. The Frohnmayers are concerned about all aspects of a student's life, always in an appropriate, not a nosy, way.

Also, it is well to teach as a whole person. Some teachers bring only their teacher selves into the classroom. Other teachers bring their whole selves and draw upon the various aspects of themselves as appropriate in their teaching. The Frohnmayers teach from their whole selves.

APPRECIATION. It is joyful to show appreciation! This is a great benefit of writing! When one writes, one falls in love with the subject of one's writing. It is not possible to write well without closely studying the subject that one is writing about. This close study leads to appreciation and love. I may have appreciated what I am writing about before starting to write, but writing allows me to appreciate and love my subject so much more specifically and fully and deeply.

Well, that was a digression on writing. Just simply expressing gratitude, I find, raises the vibrations of joy.

CELEBRATION. It is joyful to celebrate! We should celebrate as much as possible! It is joyful to celebrate accomplishments--even "small" ones! Celebrating and honoring were such a joy this weekend.

GIVING. It was such a joy to contribute to the Frohnmayer Legacy Fund. It is joyful to give in ways that make a difference in areas that one believes in. I believe in the arts for all, and that is where I want to give.

Frohnmayer Appreciation Weekend - Description

This past weekend (June 3-5) was Frohnmayer Appreciation Weekend at Loyola University New Orleans. It was a glorious time!

Phil and Ellen Frohnmayer have taught voice in the College of Music & Fine Arts at Loyola University New Orleans since 1982. They came to Loyola after a seven- or eight-year career of singing opera in Germany. They are wonderful teachers and wonderful singers, and they have kept a full schedule doing both--teaching and performing--for nearly thirty years. In the last several years, Phil has had two bouts with cancer, requiring surgery and chemotherapy each time. He is clear of cancer at present and continues his teaching, as does Ellen. Phil and Ellen have a daughter, Anne Marie, who is also a singer and lives in Pennsylvania.

Several of the Frohnmayers' former students decided to have a reunion and appreciation weekend for the Frohnmayers, who truly are beloved voice professors. The Frohnmayers are very involved with their students, helping them not only with their singing but also with life issues and with launching their careers. So--a committee of former students arranged for a truly magnificent weekend of appreciation, music, and legacy building. This last means that a Frohnmayer Legacy Fund has been established to support the teaching and performing of opera at Loyola University New Orleans. I am proud to say that I have made a contribution to this fund.

I have to say that I have NEVER seen anything like this done for any professor at Loyola (or anywhere)! Well, I would like to give a description of the weekend.

GALA RECEPTION & MUSIC EVENING--NEW ORLEANS OPERA GUILD HOME--FRIDAY EVENING. This was an evening of visiting with friends, old and new, all connected with the Frohnmayers. It was an evening of delicious food served buffet style. It was an evening of appreciation, as letters were read by former students who could not be present. It was also an evening of music, performed in an intimate, living-room setting. Here are some of the pieces that were performed:

  • "Papageno-Papagena" from The Magic Flute by Mozart--Anne Marie Frohnmayer sang the role of Papagena in a very animated way!
  • "Mi Chiamano Mimi" from La Boheme by Puccini
  • "La Ci Darem La Mano" from The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart
  • "I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General" from The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert & Sullivan

PRAYER SERVICE--IGNATIUS CHAPEL AT LOYOLA--SATURDAY MORNING. This included prayers, readings, and music. Each person lit two candles, representing something to be healed and something to be thankful for.

MASTER CHAT WITH PHIL--NUNEMAKER AUDITORIUM AT LOYOLA--SATURDAY MORNING. This was a master class in which several of Phil's current and former students each sang a piece and Phil provided a critique and worked with the student on breathing, posture, vowel quality, dynamics, and many other aspects in order to achieve an effective musical and emotional production. I was sitting with people who had never before seen a master class and who were absolutely fascinated at all that goes into perfecting a piece of music. We really were watching a true master at work with his students. Among the pieces performed were an aria from Billy Budd by Benjamin Britten and "Un Bel Di" from Madame Butterfly by Puccini.

GALA PERFORMANCE & CHAMPAGNE RECEPTION--ROUSSEL AUDITIORIUM AT LOYOLA--SATURDAY EVENING. This was a wonderful musical evening. These are some of the musical highlights:

  • "Walking" by William Horne (a Loyola music professor), sung by Patrick Jocobs and accompanied on piano by Logan Skelton. This piece consists of an email by Phil Frohnmayer set to music by William Horne! Phil had written about the walks he took through New Orleans neighborhoods while being treated for cancer.
  • Two poems by Emily Dickenson ("The Moon Is Distant from the Sea" and "'Hope' Is the Thing with Feathers") set to music by Logan Skelton, sung by Suzanne DuPlantis and accompanied on piano by Logan Skelton. Logan told us that "The Moon Is Distant from the Sea" suggested to him the relationship between Ellen and Phil as Phil was being treated for cancer--Ellen reaching out to Phil and influencing him with her love and care and Phil responding.
  • "Gluck Dass Mir Verblieb" from Die Tote Stadt by Erich Korngold, sung by Tyler Smith and Betsy Uschkrat and accompanied on piano by Carol Rausch. This was special because I often sit at the same lunch table with Tyler and Betsy (who are married and who both teach voice at Loyola) in the faculty dining room. This weekend was my first time to hear them sing--and they are wonderful, alone and together! I also learned that Tyler and Betsy will be giving a full recital on Saturday evening, September 17! I absolutely plan to attend this concert!
  • "Sola, Perduta, Abbandonata" from Manon Lascaut by Puccini, sung by Melody Moore and accompanied on piano by Carol Rausch
  • "Madamina, Il Catalogo E Questo" from The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart, sung by Kenneth Weber and accompanied on piano by Carol Rausch
  • 'E Strano . . . Ah, Fors'e Lui . . . Sempre Libera" from La Traviata by Verdi, sung by Rachel Elizabeth De Trejo and accompanied on piano by Carol Rausch. Gorgeous!
  • "Aprite Un Po' Quegli Occhi" from The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart, sung by Alfred Walker and accompanied on piano by Carol Rausch
  • "The Promise of Living" from The Tender Land by Aaron Copeland, sung by everyone who had performed and accompanied on piano by Carmen Leerstang

Also, Donald Boomgaarden, Dean of the College of Music & Fine Arts, gave a beautiful explanation of the Frohnmayer Legacy Fund, and Tony Decuir, Associate Dean of the College of Music & Fine Arts, read several letters from former students who could not be present and gave his own reminiscences of the Frohnmayers' arrival at Loyola in 1982.

It was an inspiring and gorgeous evening!

This post has described Frohnmayer Appreciation Weekend. My next post will describe what the event meant to me.

Harry Potter: The Phoenix's Song of Lament

When the beloved Professor Albus Dumbledore dies toward the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore's phoenix, named Fawkes, sings a beautiful lament, described on pages 614-615:

Somewhere out in the darkness, a phoenix was singing in a way Harry had never heard before: a stricken lament of terrible beauty. And Harry felt, as he had felt about phoenix song before, that the music was inside him, not without: It was his own grief turned magically to song that echoed across the grounds and through the castle windows.

How long they all stood there, listening, he did not know, nor why it seemed to ease their pain a little to listen to the sound of their mourning, but it felt like a long time later that the hospital door opened again and Professor McGonagall entered the ward.

This is the power of beautiful music of deep feeling. Such music seems to be not only outside the listener but also within the listener's soul. Such music expresses the listener's feelings in a beautiful way--turns the listener's feelings, even if those feelings are very painful, into something of beauty. And in so doing, such music heals.

If one's soul has been damaged, one way to heal the soul is through music and other types of art. Art heals the soul. Music heals the soul.

I would say that anyone whose soul has been damaged by being abused or traumatized, or by abusing or traumatizing self or others, would do well to make music and other forms of art an important part of his or her healing. Such a person would do well to surround himself or herself with beauty. Prisons and half-way houses would do well to take note of this. So would hospitals, rehabilitation centers, nursing homes--any place that focuses on rehabilitation and healing.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Harry Potter: Prophecy

In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Professor Albus Dumbledore expresses a very sensible view on prophecy. Dumbledore says that prophecies are not automatically fulfilled. Rather, a prophecy is fulfilled only when people act on the prophecy.

A prophecy was made at Harry Potter's birth. We read the prophecy on page 841 of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix:


The Dark Lord, Lord Voldemort, is aware of the first half of the prophecy: that the one with the power to vanquish him will be born to parents who have defied him three times and will be born at the end of July. Voldemort knows this because one of his servants was eavesdropping when the prophecy was spoken, but the eavesdropper was discovered and removed from the premises after hearing only the first half of the prophecy, which the eavesdropper dutifully reported to Voldemort.

Dumbledore points out that Voldemort himself has singled Harry Potter out as the subject of the prophecy by attempting to murder Harry when Harry was one year old. Not having heard the second half of the prophecy, Voldemort is unaware that he will thus mark Harry as his equal and that Harry will have powers of which Voldemort knows nothing. Indeed, in attempting to kill Harry, Voldemort himself dies (or would have died if it hadn't been for his horcruxes, which keep him in a sort of half-life from which he can rebuild himself). Also, in attempting to kill Harry, Voldemort transfers to Harry some of his powers--not his evil character but his powers. Harry, for example, like Voldemort, has the power to understand and speak Parseltongue, the language of snakes, and a mental connection is established that allows Harry access to something of what Voldemort is thinking and feeling. Also, Voldemort, in attempting to kill Harry, first kills Harry's father and mother, who give their lives in attempting to save Harry, thus assuring that Harry will want to avenge their deaths by killing Voldemort.

Dumbledore points out that the prophecy would never have been fulfilled if Voldemort had not heard the first part of it and then acted on what he had heard. Dumbledore also points out that Voldemort's actions insured the fulfilling of the second part of the prophecy. On page 510 of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore says:

Voldemort himself created his worst enemy, just as tyrants everywhere do! Have you any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress? All of them realize that, one day, amongst their many victims, there is sure to be one who rises against them and strikes back! Voldemort is no different! Always he was on the lookout for the one who would challenge him. He heard the prophecy and he leapt into action, with the result that he not only handpicked the man most likely to finish him, he handed him uniquely deadly weapons!

These deadly weapons include the powers that Voldemort transferred to Harry as well as the deep hatred for Voldemort within Harry because of Voldemort's murder of Harry's parents. Dumblemore also points out that, because Voldemort murdered Harry's parents, Harry would want to kill Voldemort even if Harry had never heard of the prophecy. Therefore, it is not true that Harry must try to kill Voldemort in order to fulfill the prophecy. Voldemort is the one who is making the prophecy all important, meaning that Voldemort will continue to pursue Harry, and this makes it inevitable that either Harry or Voldemort will finally kill the other.

Harry, too, has a choice. Voldemort will continue to pursue him, but Harry himself has a choice in how he will respond, as expressed on page 512 of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince:

It was, he [Harry] thought, the difference between being dragged into the arena to face a battle to the death and walking into the arena with your head held high. Some people, perhaps, would say that there was little to choose between the two ways, but Dumbledore knew--and so do I, thought Harry, with a rush of fierce pride, and so did my parents--that there was all the difference in the world.

While the lesson of Greek tragedy is that we cannot escape our fate (that which the fates have ordained, or prophesied, to be our lot), the lesson of the Harry Potter novels is that we have choices. Prophecies are fulfilled when we choose to act on them. Even when someone else's actions "force" the fulfillment of a prophecy in which we are involved, we have choices as to how to respond.

Harry Potter: Dumbledore's Consistency

I have just re-read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth (and second-to-last) of the Harry Potter novels. This is the novel in which Professor Albus Dumbledore dies, a huge blow to Harry Potter, to all the faculty and students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardy, and to the whole magical community.

One of Dumbledore's qualities that has struck me in each of the Harry Potter novels is his marvelous consistency. Dumbledore is unfailingly calm, polite, and kind. Dumbledore's calmness, politeness, and kindness remain consistent, no matter what circumstances he finds himself in and no matter how someone else may be treating him. Whenever someone insults Dumbledore, he remains calm, polite, and kind. Dumbledore's behavior is determined by his inner sense of who he is (a calm, polite, kind person); he is not a chameleon who changes his behavior to match the behavior of the person interacting with him. This doesn't mean that Dumbledore allows himself to be trampled upon. He is quite firm in standing up for himself, but he remains calm, polite, and kind, even while being firm.

Some of us match our behavior to the behavior of the person with whom we are interacting. This allows other people to determine our behavior and makes us chameleons. If the other person is polite, we match that person's politeness; if the other person is rude, we match that person's rudeness. Others of us, like Dumbledore, know who we are and remain consistently calm, polite, and kind (firm, too, when needed) no matter whom we are interacting with. If we are like Dumbledore, we determine our behavior ourselves, based on a deep sense of who we are. The other person may be polite or rude, but if we are consistent, we will remain polite because that is who we are.

Harry Potter: Horcruxes

Horcruxes are introduced in the sixth Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. On page 497, we learn that a horcrux is "an object in which a person has concealed part of their soul." Further, also on page 497, we learn that "you split your soul . . . and hide part of it in an object outside the body" and that, after doing so, "even if one's body is attacked or destroyed, one cannot die, for part of the soul remains earthbound and undamaged." Then, on page 498, we learn that splitting the soul is done by committing murder, for "[k]illing rips the soul apart."

This information about horcruxes is conveyed as Harry Potter and Professor Albus Dumbledore observe a memory of Professor Horace Slughorn, using Dumbledore's pensieve. In this memory, Professor Slughorn is talking privately with a Hogwarts student, Tom Riddle, who later becomes the evil Lord Voldemort. In the memory, Tom wants to know about horcruxes, one of the most evil forms of dark magic, and Professor Slughorn reluctantly answers his questions.

In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Lord Voldemort, a.k.a. Tom Riddle, has pushed the boundaries of dark magic further than any other dark wizard. Using horcruxes, he has split his soul, not just in two, but into seven pieces, seven being a powerful magical number. This, Voldemort believes, will insure his immortality. One horcrux can possibly be found and destroyed, but with so many horcruxes, the likelihood that they will all be found and destroyed is so slim as to be negligeable. And the power of the magical number seven gives extra protection to the pieces of Voldemort's soul. As long as any piece of his soul is encased in a horcrux, Voldemort cannot really die, although he can be reduced to a very diminished form of existence. But, from this diminished existence, Voldemort can rebuild himself.

To destroy Voldemort and the evil he plans to unleash upon the world, it is necessary to destroy each of the horcruxes and then to kill Voldemort himself. Dumbledore believes that the seven pieces of Voldemort's soul have been split as follows:

  • Within Tom Riddle's diary (already destroyed in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets)
  • Within Slytherin's ring (already destroyed by Dumbledore earlier in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince)
  • Within Slytherin's locket (believed to be destroyed by someone with the initials R.A.B., as discovered by Harry toward the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince)
  • Within Hufflepuff's cup
  • Within some other object belonging to Ravenclaw or Gryffindor
  • Within Voldemort's snake, Nagini
  • Within Voldemort himself (the final piece)

So, we have this evil and powerful wizard, Voldemort, who, as stated on page 500 of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, is an individual "so determined to evade death that he would be prepared to murder many times, rip his soul repeatedly, so as to store it in many, separately concealed Horcruxes." As we learn on page 498, this is horribly unnatural, for "the soul is supposed to remain intact and whole. Splitting it is an act of violation, it is against nature."

Voldemort is an individual with a single-minded focus--one might say a deep obsession--on becoming immortal and gaining as much power as possible, even pushing the boundaries beyond what has been thought possible. Needless to say, the type of power that Voldemort craves is power over others. So deep is Voldemort's desire for immortality and power that he is completely willing to rip his soul apart, not just in two, but into seven pieces--committing murder each time.

The world is filled with people who, in large and small ways, focus on obtaining something so intensely that what is truly important in life gets swept aside. Certainly, we see this in male politicians who find it so important to gratify their momentary sexual desires that they have sex with a prostitute or an intern or a woman other than their wife, completely tossing aside their marriage commitment, their family's happiness, the respect of their community, and their political career. This is perhaps different from Voldemort in that Voldemort is constantly obsessed with immortality and power, whereas these politicians appear to give in to gratification in the moment. But the willingness to toss aside deeper values for selfish reasons is the same. In both cases, the individual destroys himself in order to have something lesser--Voldemort destroys his soul to have earthly immortality, and the politician destroys the trust of his wife, his family, and his community to have illicit sex.

I would say that a person rips their soul, or at least harms their soul in some way, through acts of various degrees of seriousness. These include murder, rape, verbal abuse, illicit sex, stealing, gossiping, lying, power plays, and unkind words. Thoughts count, too. In fact, so does any thought, word, or deed that violates the Golden Rule. Anytime, we treat others in ways that we would not want to be treated ourselves, we harm our souls. This includes thinking unkindly about others or talking unkindly about others when they are not present. It includes acting unkindly toward others, whether directly or indirectly. (An indirect act of unkindness, for example, might be leaving a mess behind for someone else to clean up. This can happen on an individual level as well as on a collective level. We might, for instance, consider the collective behavior of leaving a polluted world to future generations or leaving future generations burdened with a heavy financial debt.) Unkindness can often be subtle, as when we subtly put someone "in their place" by talking down to them.

Whenever a person engages in unkind behavior, it is because that person strongly desires something lesser than the joy of a principled life, such as power, money, revenge, sex. I will also say that a person can harm their soul through unfaithful behavior, even unfaithfulness to self. This can happen when one is not faithful in caring for one's health, such as when one engages in smoking, substance abuse, overeating, or being a constant couch potato. In these cases, such things as a large or small high feeling, escape from reality, comforting tastes, or the pull of inertia become more important than assuming responsibility for maintaining one's health.

I should mention, though, that sometimes a person is in dire need of something that will save their life and may violate someone else's right in order to fulfill their own need. The author and feminist scholar of pornography, Andrea Dworkin, recounts how she was once in an abusive relationship in which she was kept isolated from others and never allowed to have money of her own so that she remained completely dependent on her "lover" and had no means of escape. She finally did manage to escape, but to do so she found it necessary to steal money. I hardly know what to say about this, but I do find it understandable.

In any case, the horcruxes in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince point out the very real danger of harming one's soul in large ways by murder or rape but, if we think about it, also in daily actions, words, or thoughts of unkindness or unfaithfulness.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Frank Schaeffer's Sex, Mom, & God: The Blessing in the Shadow Part II

In this post, I will try to show something of how Frank Schaeffer moves from revealing the shadow side of L'Abri in Crazy for God to revealing the blessing within that shadow in Sex, Mom, & God. First, I will zero in on the way Frank tells the story of his mother's almost love affair with a sensitive young poet in the two books. Then, I will compare the shadow within Edith, the blessing withing Edith, and the blessing for Frank.

I will begin with Edith's almost love affair. After reading the two accounts of this in Crazy for God and in Sex, Mom, & God, I would describe what actually happened like this. A sensitive young poet, twenty years younger than the very youthful-looking Edith, showed up at L'Abri and began to pay Edith special attention. Edith and this young man spent time in the woods together and prayed together. The young man collected ferns and flowers for Edith's artistic table arrangements. He understood Edith on a soul level in a way that Edith's husband, Fran, simply could not. He also asked Edith to marry him, but he and Edith never went so far as to have sexual intercourse. In the end, though, he went away, and Edith remained married to Fran.

In Crazy for God, Frank tells us the story of this almost love affair in a way that emphasizes Edith's failing. Here is what Frank says on pages 216-217:

On some days, Mom was hiding bruises on her arms; on other days, she was flirting shamelessly with Roger, a handsome "sensitive poet" from San Francisco, twenty years younger than her. This was the source of my parents' biggest fights.

Mom would take Roger to pray with her in the woods, to her prayer trees--a great and unique honor!--where he would collect moss, twigs, and flowers and make lovely Japanese-style arrangements. Dad was reduced to glaring fury by these activities. He never so much as picked a bunch of flowers, and now here comes this Roger, writing poems, empathizing with Mom's "if-only" wistful remembrances of opportunities lost, and endlessly seeking her spiritual advice.

In Sex, Mom, & God, Frank tells this story at greater length and with far greater sensitivity to his mother. Here,
Frank emphasizes Edith's longing for someone who understood her deeply and Edith's brave and selfless ultimate choice of her husband, her family, and continuity. On page 91, Frank speaks of his mother's need with sensitivity and understanding:

I think she also ached for someone in her bed who understood her flower arrangements soul to soul.

For Edith to contemplate a relationship with this young man--something so out of keeping with her professed beliefs--shows how deep her inner ache and longing must have been. For Edith to choose her family in the end shows how deep her sense of what is right must have been. Edith's ache and longing and her commitment to what is right--not Edith's failing--is what comes across in Sex, Mom, & God, where Frank recognizes not only the shadow but also the blessing within the shadow.

In Sex, Mom, & God, Frank describes the paradox that was his mother--a woman deeply committed to a narrow Christian fundamentalist worldview and to what she understood as God's restrictive call on her life yet also deeply committed to beauty and creativity. Within this paradox are shadow and blessing. The shadow is emphasized in Crazy for God, the blessing in Sex, Mom, & God.

THE SHADOW IN EDITH. The shadow predominates in Crazy for God. Edith drives her family crazy with the way she practices her faith. She prays long prayers before meals. She turns every conversation into an opportunity to witness for the Lord. She invades her children's privacy by sharing their private moments with others as illustrations of how God works. She overloads her children with sex information. She neglects Frank's education because she is so busy with the L'Abri ministry. She subtly criticizes her husband and his working-class background. She flirts with a sensitive young poet who visits L'Abri.

THE BLESSING IN EDITH. The blessing predominates in Sex, Mom, & God. Edith welcomes marginalized people to L'Abri; in Edith's mind, there should be no such thing as a marginalized person. Young pregnant women, for example, are welcomed and guided through their pregnancies. Edith loves literature and reads nightly to her children from the great literature of the world. Edith loves music and takes her children to concerts and operas. Edith loves art and nature and prepares beautiful artistic flower arrangements for the home. Edith is a wonderful and beloved grandmother to Frank's children. Edith gives up her opportunity for a soul-mate life-partner in favor of faithfulness to her husband and family and of providing continuity for them. Edith has the soul of a dancer and an artist. I should mention that the blessing of Edith also comes through in Crazy for God, but the shadow predominates in that book, while the blessing predominates in Sex, Mom, & God.

THE BLESSING FOR FRANK. In Sex, Mom, & God, Frank shows that his mother has been a great blessing to him. On page 91, Frank says, "I simply chose to follow the 'other' Edith Schaeffer, the one whose heart was elsewhere than in the lifeless theories she paid lip-service to." In following the "other" Edith Schaeffer, Frank has been greatly blessed. Here are some blessings that I see in Frank's life, stemming from his mother's legacy:

  • AN ARTIST'S LIFE. First, Frank loves art and derives great pleasure from art--visual art, music, film, writing. Second, Frank practices art and enjoys the flowering of his own creativity. He does this in writing, painting, cooking, and gardening, to name a few fields of his creative endeavors.
  • PARADOX. Although Edith espoused a one-right-way-only view of Christianity, she herself was a paradox in that she professed belief in a narrow version of "truth" yet practiced a wide love of people, the world, and art. Frank picked up on this paradox in his mother. The fact that Edith herself embodied paradox may have helped to pave the way for Frank to embrace a different version of Christianity, one that emphasizes life as paradox and God as Mystery. It is worth noting that Frank was able to see paradox within Christianity itself--he did not feel that he had to reject Christianity and move into some other belief system. While it is certainly fine to move into a different belief system, it is also good to recognize the many possibilities within one's own. Frank moved from the evangelical fundamentalist version of Christianity to the Greek Orthodox version. Christianity itself embraces the paradox of those who hold to a rigid and literal interpretation of the Bible with very exact and certain ideas about God as well as those who interpret the Bible more selectively and welcome the Mystery of God.
  • FRANK'S WIFE, GENIE. Frank married a wonderful wife, Genie, whom he loves deeply. Frank seems to have found in his marriage the depth of love that his mother craved. An important factor is that Frank chose Genie with his heart, not his head. Ideas of God and God's will or God's call were not part of Frank's choice of Genie, as I think they were in Edith's choice of Fran. When Edith chose Fran, she was (I believe) coming from the Christian fundamentalist side of herself, causing her to see Fran as a man with a firm dedication to God that matched her own and a strong intellect to support his beliefs. Edith's passionate artistic side would have chosen Fran as a friend but not as a husband. Frank, in contrast, chose Genie because his heart leaped toward her from the moment he first saw her. Clearly, this was a strong physical attraction, yet Frank's descriptions of his now forty-year marriage and his ever-deepening love for Genie indicate that the attraction went beyond the physical to the soul level. Frank shares with Genie the type of love that Edith craved to share with her husband. In choosing Genie, Frank was following the "other" Edith Schaeffer.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Frank Schaeffer's Sex, Mom, & God: The Blessing in the Shadow Part I

What impresses me most about Frank Schaeffer's latest book, Sex, Mom, & God, is that Frank has moved from revealing the shadow in his Christian fundamentalist upbringing to revealing the blessing in that shadow. In this post, I will explain what I have seen over the years of Frank's parents' ministry and later of Frank's books. In my next post, I will focus specifically on how Frank's latest book reveals the blessing in the shadow.

Frank's parents, Francis and Edith Schaeffer, were U.S. American evangelical fundamentalist Christian missionaries to Switerzerland, where they founded the L'Abri ministry. L'Abri, which now has branches all over the world, began at the Schaeffer home in the beautiful Swiss Alps, where people would come to ask heartfelt life questions that they were struggling with. At L'Abri, the guests would receive well-thought-out biblical answers provided by Frank's father and the lovely hospitality of Frank's mother.

Francis and Edith Schaeffer complemented each other in the L'Abri work. Francis Schaeffer was a scholar not only of the Bible but also of popular culture and of art history. He could discuss the songs of Bob Dylan, the poetry of Alan Ginsberg, the philosophy of Timothy Leary, and the art of Salvador Dali, and he could show how the Bible provides answers to the issues raised by these contemporaries. Edith Schaeffer served lovely dinners and teas, provided spiritual counsel, and generally ministered to the more personal needs of the L'Abri guests. The Schaeffers also opened their home to people in need, particularly to unmarried pregnant women. The Schaeffers helped these young women through their pregnancies, accompanied them during the birth of their babies, and coached them through the initial months of motherhood.

Francis and Edith Schaeffer were also prolific authors. Francis Schaeffer's books set forth the ideas on which L'Abri is based, and Edith Schaeffer's books describe the personal side of the ministry. I read almost all of Francis and Edith Schaeffer's books as they were being published, mostly while I was in my twenties. This was at a time when I was trying to follow a version of Christianity that had some fundamentalist overtones.

I loved what I knew of Francis and Edith Schaeffer. Their ideas and life seemed to validate what I believed. Francis was so clear and logical, and the entire Schaeffer family was so dedicated to their Christian beliefs and to following the Lord. When I speak of the entire Schaeffer family, I mean Francis and Edith Schaeffer's four children (Priscilla, Susan, Debby, and Frank) and all their grandchildren. I learned about this through Edith Schaeffer's books. Priscilla & John Sandri, Susan & Ranald Macauley, Debby & Udo Middlemann, and Genie & Frank Schaeffer--all were raising wonderul Christian families.

So, with Francis and Edith Schaeffer's books, I absorbed the attractive side of the L'Abri ministry, filled with the light of logic, beauty, and love. Then, I learned that Frank Schaeffer is now writing books with quite another take on L'Abri. In his Calvin Becker novel trilogy and in his memoir Crazy for God, Frank writes about the shadow side of this ministry. Here are some of the things we learn in Crazy for God:

  • Francis Schaeffer had a mood disorder that caused him, at times, to be angry or depressed. The anger often took the form of physical abuse of Edith. The depression often took the form of threats to kill himself.
  • Edith was a powerhouse of energy who wore out her daughters and other L'Abri workers, none of whom could keep up with her. The eldest Schaeffer daughter, Priscilla, actually suffered several complete nervous breakdowns.
  • Edith overloaded her children with sexual information that was inappropriate for their ages.
  • Francis and Edith Schaeffer neglected Frank's education because they were so busy with L'Abri.
  • The "call of God" bound Francis and Edith Schaeffer to the L'Abri ministry and prevented them from enjoying professions that would have been much more fulfilling for them: art history and popular culture scholar for Francis and dancer for Edith.
  • Powerful chains bind professional Christians, especially second-generation ones, to their ministries and make it very difficult to break away when disillusionment sets in. These chains include the need for certainty, the perceived lack of preparation to do anything in life but continue the work of their parents, and the access to money and power.

All of this and more is revealed in Frank Schaeffer's Crazy for God. What a different picture of L'Abri this gives us! L'Abri was not simply a place of truth and love, as depicted in Francis and Edith Schaeffer's books. L'Abri also had a dark side, a shadow side.

But even this doesn't complete the picture. Recognizing the light and recognizing the dark is not the end of the story. Frank demonstrates this in his latest book, Sex, Mom, & God, which goes a step further. In Sex, Mom, & God, Frank reveals the blessing in the shadow. In my next post, I will show how Frank reveals to us the blessing in the shadow.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Frank Schaeffer's Sex, Mom, & God: Bible Interpretation

In Sex, Mom, & God, Frank Schaeffer writes a great deal about how we interpret the Bible. Frank himself grew up in a home where the Bible was interpreted literally: God created the world in six actual days (Genesis 1:1-2:3); Adam and Eve were actual people who ate an actual piece of fruit in disobedience to God's command and were thereafter banished from an actual Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:4-3:24); the sun actually stood still for an extra twenty-four hours so that Joshua could finish his battle against the Amorites (Joshua 10:12-14); Jonah was swallowed by an actual big fish and lived three days in its belly before being vomited back up (Jonah 1:17-2:10); and so on. Frank grew up with the idea that it was important to believe, literally, everything that the Bible says because the Bible is directly inspired by God, and God does not make mistakes.

Unfortunately, as Frank points out, the God of the Bible says and does a great many terrible things--things that would be considered seriously wrong if anyone else said or did them. The God of the Bible sanctions sexual slavery of virgin women captured in war (Deuteronomy 21:10-14), commands the slaughter of conquered men and women and children (I Samuel 15:3), orders the stoning to death of Israelites who gather sticks on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36), and personally kills Uzzah for reaching up to steady the Arc of the Covenant when God had said that no one but the Levites must touch it (II Samuel 6:6-7).

Trying to believe that God is all-good and all-loving while also believing that God condones sexual slavery, deliberate war-time killing of civilians including children and infants, and the death penalty for disobedience of minor commands requires some mind-twisting mental gymnastics. We wind up denying what our hearts tell us about good and evil so that we can affirm that otherwise evil actions are good simply because God is the one who does them. After all, if God does something, it has to be good, right? So, somehow, all this God-endorsed sexual slavery and civilian killing must be good simply because it is endorsed, or even committed, by God. When I was trying to so believe, I found this a terrible mental and emotional strain (as did Frank).

But then one day I actually found myself thinking something like this: Wait a minute. We are constantly told that we have to accept God's actions as good simply because God does them and that we must measure our own thoughts and words and actions by what the Bible says. But suppose we turn this around. Suppose we measure the words and actions of the God of the Bible by what our own hearts tell us. How about that, for a change?

Frank says something similar. First, Frank makes a distinction between the God of the Bible and the actual God who really created the universe. On page 83, Frank makes this wonderful statement, which I love: "[M]aybe the best thing a believer in God can do is to declare that a lot of the Bible is hate-filled blasphemy--against God." Wow! Those parts of the Bible where God is depicted as condoning such atrocities as sexual slavery and civilian killing are actually evil lies against God! How terrible to feel trapped into believing that one must honor and defend these despair-producing lies!

And these lies are despairing-producing. I remember my mother expressing to me how trapped she felt within the Catholic Church. She told me that she was afraid to leave the Catholic Church because it might actually all be true and she would find herself condemned to hell for eternity for rejecting the One True Church. On the other hand, my mother was also concerned that, when she died, she would find herself before the Real God, who would say to her, "I condemn you to hell for being a Catholic." How awful to believe that maybe the Real God condemns the Catholic Church and the Bible and the people who adhere to them, but then maybe the Catholic Church and the Bible are all true and people who reject them are the ones who will be condemned. How awful to believe that, whoever God may be, God is caught up with condemning.

The idea expressed above, that God is in the business of condemning, is despair-producing. I think that it is very important to realize that, when an idea is despair-producing, it is wrong. This should be a rule of thumb: When an idea leads to despair, let us reject that idea. If we think about God and feel despair, we can be sure that there is something seriously wrong with our ideas of God. This doesn't mean that we reject painful facts; it does mean that we refuse to interpret those facts in a despairing way. If it is clear, for example, that I am facing an imminent and inevitable death, I can accept that fact in a peaceful rather than in a despairing way. If it is clear, for example, that we are destroying our earth with pollution (and this should be clear to us), we can accept this fact and work to change our direction rather than succumb to despair.

Well, back to what Frank says about interpreting the Bible and God's words and actions therein. After stating that the Real God may not approve of the God of the Bible, Frank says that the sane way to interpret the Bible is with our hearts. On page 87, Frank says:

To reject portions of the Bible is not necessarily to reject God or even the essence of Christianity. A great deal of the Bible is contradicted by the Love that predates it and, more importantly, survives in you and me. And that Love edits the Bible for us. Call that editing the Holy Spirit, or call it a more evolved sense of ethics and human rights, but most people know what to follow and what to reject when it comes to how they live. Sacrifice for others, not sacrifice of others, is the message of the "better angels" of spiritual faith.

To boil this down to its essence, Frank says that "Love edits the Bible for us." Yes! Yes! Yes! You are so right, Frank. LOVE EDITS THE BIBLE FOR US! Our hearts shout out: No! Sexual slavery is wrong! Slavery itself is wrong! Deliberate war-time killing of civilians is wrong! Our hearts know what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil.

Our hearts, informed by love, know how to edit the Bible. Here is an example.
When we read, "Slaves, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters" (Colossians 3:22a), our hearts say, No! Slavery itself is wrong! When we read, "I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent" (I Timothy 2:12), our hearts say, No! Women are not inferior to men! But when we read, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28), our hearts say, Yes! Yes! Yes!

Frank points out that there is much good in the Bible. Our hearts know how to zero in on the good and reject the bad. Frank also says that the Bible can be a blessing or a curse, depending on how it is interpreted. On page 99, Frank says, "Sometimes belief in the Bible leads to building a hospital. Sometimes it leads to justifying perpetual war and empire building. Same book--different interpretation."

I will end this post with a final thought: It is an act of maturity to move away from swallowing, whole and literally, whatever the Bible says and to move into interpreting the Bible with one's own heart informed by love. Frank shares this idea on pages 86-87 of Sex, Mom, & God by quoting from page 168 of Thom Stark's The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It). So here is what Thom Stark (as quoted by Frank) has to say:

An infallible Jesus, just like a set of infallible scriptures, is ultimately just a shortcut through our moral and spiritual development. To have a book or a messenger dropped from heaven, the likes of which is beyond the reach of all human criticism, is a dangerous shortcut. It is no wonder humans have always attempted to create these kinds of foundations. And it is a revelation of God's character, from my perspective, that cracks have been found in each and every one of those foundations.

To expect the Bible to give us all the answers in a literal and wholesale way is a mark of immaturity. For God to provide such ready-made answers, says Thom Stark, would be to cut short our spiritual development. In fact, says Thom Stark, God shows God's character by refusing to provide us with ready-made answers even when we clamor for them (just as a good parent shows his or her character by refusing to give in to a child's clamoring to gorge on unhealthy sweets). No, God insists on supporting our maturity. The Bible will not work as a wholesale revelation dropped directly into our laps from God. The Bible will only work when we interpret it with our hearts informed by love.

Frank Schaeffer, thank you so much for this beautiful truth: We interpret the Bible through the love in our hearts!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Frank Schaeffer's Sex, Mom, & God: Appreciation for My Own Sex Education

One result of reading Frank Schaeffer's latest book, Sex, Mom, & God: How the Bible's Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics--and How I Learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway, is that I have come away with a greater appreciation for the way my own parents taught me about sex. In fact, they did a very good job of providing me with appropriate information.

Before reading Sex, Mom, & God, I had always compared my parents with parents who never breathed a word to their children about sex--and I was grateful that my parents had talked to me about these matters. After reading Sex, Mom, & God, I now realize that it is possible to give one's children too much information about sex or inappropriate information. Frank Schaeffer's mother, for example, revealed to Frank that his father required her to have sex every single night
, she showed Frank (when he was eight years old) the diaphragm she used to space her children, and she talked to Frank so much about sex and the importance of doing it only with one's spouse after one's wedding that Frank could think of nothing but when and how he might have sex!

Here are some of the points my parents followed when talking with me about sex.

LET THE CHILD GUIDE THE KIND AND AMOUNT OF INFORMATION. My parents simply answered my questions about sex or where babies come from. If I asked a question, they simply answered it and let it go at that. If I asked more follow-up questions or wanted to have a discussion, then they went along. They didn't push information at me. In contrast, when Frank asked a question, this seemed to open an unstoppable fountain of information from his mother on the topic of sex.

USE CORRECT TERMS. My parents used correct terms, such as menstruation, intercourse, vagina, uterus, and penis, when talking to me about reproduction. Frank's mother used euphemisms, such as falling off the roof for menstruation and little thing for penis.

DO NOT SHARE YOUR PERSONAL SEX LIFE WITH YOUR CHILDREN. My parents never used themselves as examples or talked about what they themselves did in their sex life together. They talked about the man and the woman or the husband and the wife.

DO NOT SURROUND SEX WITH WARNINGS. My parents did not go on and on about the importance of being a virgin on one's wedding night or saving oneself for one's spouse or the danger that boys and men might pose. They did always put sex within the context of marriage when they talked about it, but they did so in a natural way, as though it were a given that sex would be performed within marriage. They said things like this: "When a man and a woman get married, they show their love for each other in a very special way." Or: "Husbands and wives show their love for each other in a special way."

Now, here are some other interesting things about my sex education from my parents.

SILENT PARENTS OF THEIR OWN. My parents had parents of their own who never breathed a word about sex to them as they were growing up. This is true of my father's parents and of my mother's parents. Sex was a taboo subject in their households. My parents decided to do things differently with their own children. They decided to answer their children's questions as those questions arose, and to give clear information using correct terms. Both my father and my mother would answer questions about sex.

OTHER SOURCES. My parents also provided other sources of information. My mother gave me a booklet about menstruation and arranged for me to attend optional talks about menstruation given for fifth and sixth grade girls at my school. She explained that it would be good for me to have these other explanations as well as her own, and I did like having the booklet and attending the talks with other girls in my class. I might mention that I attended a Catholic girls school, and the talks were given by the father of a girl in the class two years ahead of me. He was a gynecologist, and his talks were interesting and informative. For some girls in my class, these talks were all the information they got about menstruation because they had parents who would not breathe a word about these subjects.

CURIOSITY ABOUT HOW IT'S ACTUALLY DONE. While Frank's sex education caused him to want to have sex as soon as possible, mine did not have the same effect. Having a boy or a man put his penis into my vagina just didn't sound like something I'd want to participate in. Frank was curious to try it, but I was curious to see it done. I just couldn't imagine even how it was initiated. Or, if I did try to imagine it, I imagined something like this. One spouse says to the other, "Well, shall we have intercourse now?" The other spouse says, "Okay." So they both pull down their pants and the husband puts his penis into the wife's vagina, sends the sperm up into her uterus, and takes out his penis. Then they pull up their pants and go about their business.

From this, you can gather that my parents didn't provide much information about what leads up to the actual act of intercourse.

Anyway, so curious was I about how intercourse was actually negotiated that I once asked my mother, "Mommy, the next time you and Daddy do this, can you let me watch to see how it's done?" My mother very nicely explained that, no, I couldn't watch because this was a very special way that married people showed love for each other and it was private.

SEX OUTSIDE OF MARRIAGE. My parents always assumed a marriage context when they talked about sex. They didn't push this overtly, but they always talked about the husband and the wife. This eventually caused me to wonder what would happen if a man and a woman had intercourse but weren't married. Did this ever happen, I wondered. And it it did, would it work. That is, could intercourse lead to a baby if the two people weren't married. I vaguely remember asking about this and being told that, yes, two unmarried people could have intercourse, but it was very wrong. I can't remember if I asked about the baby.

OMISSIONS. There were some omissions in my sex education. My parents never said much about foreplay, and they didn't mention homosexual sex. But this was in the 1950s and 1960s, so homosexual sex wasn't much talked about anyway.

UNFORTUNATE RESTRICTION. My parents did put an unfortunate restriction on the topic of sex. They often told me that this was a special topic that should be discussed only with Mommy or Daddy, not with other people. Their idea was that they didn't want me to receive misinformation from unreliable sources, such as other kids. But this meant that I couldn't talk with friends about our bodies without disobeying, so I missed out on conversations that I think it would have been good to have with my friends. (I wish I hadn't obeyed this injunction from my parents as long as I did.)

MORE UNFORTUNATE FACTS. Another unfortunate fact was that my father could be quite frightening with his rages, so I thought it best to avoid men as much as possible. As a child, I remember thinking that the world was set up to be painful in so many ways. One of those ways was the institution of marriage, where a woman would have to share her life with one of those frightening men. I wondered why it wasn't possible for two women to share their lives together. (I didn't realize that it was possible because I had never heard of it.) I wasn't thinking of this in a sexual way--as far as I knew, there was no way for two women to have sex, and I didn't experience sexual attraction to women. I was thinking of it in a friendly way--two women living together and sharing their lives and maybe even raising children. How safe and comfortable that would be. I wondered why no one had considered it.

Another unfortunate fact is that I was being raised in the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church. Probably because I had a rageful father, I tended to zero in on the rageful aspects of God the Father as presented by the Catholicism of the time. I zeroed in, for example, on how a person could be sent to hell for just one unconfessed mortal sin, such as impure thoughts. We learned things like this at my Catholic girls school, and I don't think my parents were aware of how this aspect of my Catholic education was affecting me internally. I was learning that sex was bad, some parts of my body were off-limits even to me, touching those parts of my body was bad, and thinking about those parts of my body or those parts of others' bodies was bad. When one is going through puberty, it is not easy to avoid thinking about what is happening within one's body! And yet this was a sin (or so I thought)!

My parents would never have agreed with this heavy sex/sin connection. They were a voice of reason on the few occasions when I did ask them a question that seemed to relate sex (or just bodies) and sin. For example, I remember once dreaming about running around naked with other girls in my class. I think I was about eight at the time of this dream. I was worried that this dream might have been a mortal sin since it obviously involved thinking about naked bodies. After all, dreaming takes place in one's mind, so dreaming about naked bodies would be the same as thinking about naked bodies, which would be indulging in impure thoughts. Fortunately, I asked my mother about this, and she explained that we did not have control over our dreams, so a dream could not be a sin. (I can't remember if she commented on my underlying belief that thinking about naked bodies was a sin--perhaps she did--but I know that she would not have subscribed to such a belief.)

Well, to get back to my original thought, I am grateful that both my mother and my father in his better moods gave me good information about sex. Some people get no information from their parents, and others (like Frank) get an overload!

Frank Schaeffer's Sex, Mom, & God

One of my favorite authors, Frank Schaeffer, has just come out with a new book: Sex, Mom, & God: How the Bible's Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics--and How I Learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway.

Frank is the son of Francis and Edith Schaeffer, evangelical fundamentalist Christian missionaries to Switzerland, who founded the L'Abri ministry, where Francis Schaeffer provided thoughtful biblical answers to visitors' life questions and Edith Schaeffer served lovely dinners and teas and ministered to the more personal needs of the guests. Francis and Edith Schaeffer espoused a literal view of the Bible, a view that Frank has since rejected in favor of a spirituality that honors the Mystery of God rather than certainty about God. Frank has written about the shadow side of L'Abri in his memoir Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back.

In Sex, Mom, & God, Frank illuminates each word in the three-part title:

  • SEX: his unusually explicit and early sex education
  • MOM: his unusually creative and energetic mother, Edith Schaeffer
  • GOD: his conflicted relationship with the God of the (very literally interpreted) Bible

One of Frank's key messages in Sex, Mom, & God is that our thoughts are tethered to our feelings; that is, the carefully constructed intellectual framework of our worldview is often undergirded by strong emotions and psychological currents. In fact, Frank shows how, in his own life, Sex and Mom and God all generated feelings that led to the extreme Christian fundamentalist stance of his young adulthood during which he worked diligently (and angrily) to convert the United States to a Bible-believing nation, as well as to his later embrace of a God of Mystery, his growing comfort with not knowing the exact nature of Ultimate Reality, and his own life of creativity.

Now, here are some wonderful points about Sex, Mom, & God.

STORY: Frank is a gifted storyteller. Frank's stories are charming, outrageous, and often hilarious. Two of them particularly stand out. In one, Frank describes how he sculpted an ice woman and then tried to have sex with it as a child. In the other, Frank recounts
how his childhood bath-time was supervised by a kind-hearted babysitter who was obsessed with the Queen of England.

THOUGHT/FEELING CONNECTION: In Sex, Mom, & God, Frank juxtaposes stories and essays to illustrate his points. The essay-type parts of the book are fascinating. As a former extreme right-wing Christian fundamentalist, Frank understands that mindset from the inside. From his own experience, Frank knows that the intellectual gloss of fundamentalist thought is undergirded by strong emotions and psychological needs. Frank excels at making these thought/feeling connnections clear and vivid.

Having read Sex, Mom, & God, I now have a far better understanding of why it is so very difficult for fundamentalists to recognize the paradoxes of life and the possibility that there may be other equally valid ways to truth besides their own, of why the second generation of Christian fundamentalist preachers like Franklin Graham tend to become more extreme and strident than their fathers, and of why the pro-life and pro-choice factions have become so terribly polarized on the issue of abortion.

THE BLESSING IN THE SHADOW: This is the most wonderful thing about Sex, Mom, & God. Sex, Mom, & God is a gentler book than Crazy for God, where Frank, who is an inveterate truth-teller, reveals the shadow side of his parents and their ministry. In Crazy for God, we learn that Francis and Edith Schaeffer had some serious weaknesses that were kept hidden so as not to tarnish their Christian ministry. Now, in Sex, Mom, & God, we see the blessing in the shadow.

In Sex, Mom, & God, Frank presents us with some of the stories about Edith Schaeffer from Crazy for God, but in a very different light. A case in point is Edith's almost love affair with a sensitive young artist. It is fascinating to compare the way Frank tells this story in the two books. In Crazy for God, we see Edith's failing; in Sex, Mom, & God, we see Edith's courage and love for her family.

In Sex, Mom, & God, Frank honors his mother, Edith Schaeffer. Edith was a tremendously creative, life-loving, and energetic woman who was not able to fulfill her deepest longings because of her dedication to what she believed to be God's call on her life. On page 91, Frank describes his mother like this: "Edith Schaeffer herself was the greatest illustration of the Divine beauty of Paradox I've encountered. She was a fundamentalist living a double life as a lover of beauty who broke all her own judgmental rules in favor of creativity."

I especially love this sentence on page 91: "Mom was just so un-Edith-Schaeffer-like in person!" And I absolutely love Frank's response to his experience with his mother, also on page 91: "I simply chose to follow the 'other' Edith Schaeffer, the one whose heart was elsewhere than in the lifeless theories she paid lip-service to."

I, too, am very thankful that Frank chose to follow the "other" Edith Schaeffer!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Harry Potter: Thestrals

A very interesting creature in the Harry Potter novels is the thestral, a creature that figures prominently in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

We first meet a thestral when Harry and his friends prepare to enter the carriages that will take them from the Hogsmeade train station to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for Harry's fifth year at Hogwarts. In previous years, the carriages have appeared horseless and have propelled themselves from the train station to the Hogwarts castle with no visible means of locomotion. This year, however, Harry notices that the carriages are being pulled by a strange horse-like creature, described on pages 196-197, like this:

The coaches were no longer horseless. There were creatures standing between the carriage shafts; if he [Harry] had to give them a name, he supposed he would have called them horses, though there was something reptilian about them, too. They were completely fleshless, their black coats clinging to their skeletons, of which every bone was visible. Their heads were dragonish, and their pupil-eyes white and staring. Wings sprouted from each wither--vast, black leathery wings that looked as though they ought to belong to giant bats. Standing still and quiet in the gathering gloom, the creatures looked eerie and sinister. Harry could not understand why the coaches were being pulled by these horrible horses when they were quite capable of moving along by themselves.

Interestingly, Harry's friends cannot see these creatures, except for Luna Lovegood. Only Harry and Luna can see the thestrals. To the others, it appears that the carriages are moving forward under their own invisible means of locomotion.

Later, we learn more about thestrals, and as we and Harry and his friends learn about them, the thestrals become much dearer. Here is a later description of the thestrals from page 762, as Harry and his friends are preparing to mount them to get to the Department of Mysteries at the Ministry of Magic in London to rescue Harry's godfather, Sirius Black.

Harry whirled around. Standing between two trees, their white eyes gleaming eerily, were two thestrals, watching the whispered conversation as though they understood every word.

"Yes!"" he whispered, moving toward them. They tossed their reptilian heads, throwing back long black manes, and Harry stretched out his hand eagerly and patted the nearest one's shining neck. How could he ever have thought them ugly?

As it turns out, thestrals can fly, which means that they can carry a rider from one place to another quite quickly.

Also--and here is the most interesting point about thestrals and the reason that Harry and Luna can see them while their friends cannot--Thestrals can only be seen by people who have seen death. Prior to his fifth year at Hogwarts, Harry could not see the thestrals because he had not seen death. However, at the end of his fourth year at Hogwarts, Harry saw the death of Hogwarts student Cedric Diggory during the Triwizard Tournament; therefore, when Harry arrives at Hogwarts for his fifth year, the thestrals are visible to him. Luna saw the death of her mother when Luna was a little girl, so the thestrals have been visible to Luna from her first year at Hogwarts.

I believe that there is a deep truth behind the thestrals and the fact that they are visible only to those who have seen death. The truth is that some experiences are key to seeing, or understanding, certain things. Here are some of those key experiences:

  • Deep loss: loved one, work, health or physical capacity, home and possessions, freedom
  • Giving birth to a child
  • Living on one's own

Each of these experiences, and I am sure that there are others, opens our eyes and our hearts to see and to know things that we would never see or know otherwise.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Harry Potter: Squibs

In reading the Harry Potter novels, I have found myself very interested in squibs. A squib is a non-magical person born to magical parents.

The Harry Potter novels divide people into two groups: magical and non-magical. Magical people are witches and wizards. Non-magical people are called muggles. Every person is born either magical or non-magical, meaning that magical ability or the lack thereof is innate. If a person is born a muggle, there is nothing that he or she can do to procure magical ability.

Muggle parents sometimes produce magical children. Unfortunately, magical parents sometimes produce non-magical children, but this appears to be rather rare. Nonetheless, it does happen. A non-magical person born to magical parents is called a squib.

Magical people -- witches and wizards -- tend to look down on squibs. But they shouldn't, because being a squib is not a matter of choice.

It is interesting, though, the way J. K. Rowling introduces squibs -- she does so in a way that actually invites us, the readers, to look down on them. The first squib we meet is Argus Filch, the castle caretaker at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Filch is not a sympathetic character. He hates Hogwarts students and is always trying to catch them breaking school rules so that they can be punished. Filch would like very much to bring back the severe punishments of older days, such as whipping students, chaining them up, and hanging them by the feet or the hands. The fact that Filch is a squib is discovered when Harry Potter finds that Filch has been consulting a book of remedial spellwork in a futile attempt to master basic magic. This discovery seems to explain Filch's hatred of Hogwarts students -- he is jealous of their ability to do magic. Nonetheless, it almost seems that being a squib is a punishment for Filch's nasty character.

But then, we meet another squib, Arabella Figg, a much nicer person. Arabella lives inconspicuously in the same neighborhood as the Dursleys. Petunia and Vernon Dursley, Harry's aunt and uncle, are very reluctantly raising Harry. Harry's own mother and father, Lily and James Potter, were killed by the evil Lord Voldemort when Harry was one year old. Lily Potter was Petunia Dursley's sister. The Dursleys are muggles with a very anti-magical bias, and Harry's parents were a witch and a wizard. The neighbor Arabella Figg takes on the task of watching over Harry as he grows up in his aunt and uncle's muggle home, not knowing about his magical background. Arabella has been commissioned with this task by Albus Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts, and she fulfills her role admirably. She does what she can to watch over Harry surreptitiously and make sure he is safe.

Arabella Figg even courageously serves as a witness in Harry's defense when he is accused of using magic illegally as an underage wizard at age fifteen and threatened with expulsion from Hogwarts. Harry must appear before the Ministry of Magic for his trial. His defense is that he was using magic in the face of life-threatening danger -- to protect himself and his cousin, Dudley, from two attacking dementors. The Ministry of Magic, however, does not want to believe it possible that dementors could be operating outside their control and appearing in a muggle town. Arabella Figg, having witnessed the dementors' attack, is brave enough to give testimony on Harry's behalf in court despite the risk of incurring the displeasure of the Ministry of Magic.

So we now have a very sympathetic squib, Arabella Figg, to contrast with the highly unsympathetic squib, Argus Filch. Both were born to magical parents, but they themselves lack magical ability. Argus Filch uses his knowledge of the magical world to become bitter and jealous over what he cannot have. Arabella Figg uses her knowledge of the magical world to serve as a bridge between the two worlds, magical and non-magical, and to be helpful. She seems to take a stance of "I will concentrate on what I can do, not on what I can't -- and there is much that I can do."

It is also worth mentioning that Argus Filch is terribly ashamed of being a squib and tries to hide this fact. Arabella Figg, on the other hand, freely acknowledges that she is a squib. For Arabella, being a squib is a simple fact about how she was born, not something to feel ashamed or or to hide.

Now--who might be the squibs of our world? I think that Martha Beck, author of Steering By Starlight, and her husband provide a good example: they are very high-achieving intellectuals, and they have a son, Adam, with mental retardation. In fact, I think that something like squib-hood happens when high-achieving people give birth to an average child or a child with a mental or physical handicap.

I would also say that a kind of squib-hood happens when society values certain kinds of intelligence above others, so that those who excel in the valued intelligences are held in esteem while those who do not are frowned upon. I am referring here to Howard Gardner's idea of multiple intelligences. These intelligences include the two that are most valued in one of the first social environments that children enter--our schools:

  • Linguistic intelligence
  • Logical-mathematical intelligence

But people who are not strong in those two intelligences may excel in one or more of the other intelligences:

  • Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence--dancers and athletes
  • Existential intelligence--those who connect closely with life's larger meaning
  • Interpersonal intelligence--those who excel in relating to others
  • Intrapersonal intelligence--those who excel in self-understanding
  • Musical intelligence
  • Naturalistic intelligence--those who relate closely to nature
  • Spatial intelligence--those who excel in the visual arts

So we might ask ourselves how we view and treat the squibs of our world.

Harry Potter: Dementors

Dementors are horrible non-human creatures that appear in the Harry Potter novels. Dementors serve as guards at the wizard prison of Azkaban.

Physically, dementors are repulsive. They are draped in black cloaks, but what is under the cloaks is not clear. However, one can often see the dementors' hands, which are bony, moldy, and grasping. One can also hear their rattling breath, which smells of death and decay.

Dementors affect the entire environment when they are present. Everything grows cold and black. The cold is not only external but seems to enter a person's very heart. The person, then, finds all joy seeping away, leaving only blackness, hopelessness, and despair. It becomes impossible to remember any happy memories, and one feels as though one will never ever be happy again.

The worse thing about dementors is that sometimes, as a punishment for a particularly bad human, a dementor is allowed to perform the dementor's kiss. The dementor puts its mouth, or a round hollow where its mouth would be, over the human's mouth -- and sucks out the human's soul. After the dementor's kiss, the human continues to exist, but devoid of his or her soul and of his or her personality. There is no full description of what existence is like for one who has been kissed by a dementor, but such an existence is clearly a hollow one, utterly lacking in joy, purpose, meaning, or humanity.

Humans are not completely defenseless before dementors. A witch or a wizard can use a patronus spell to produce a patronus spirit. This is a protective spirit - often in the form of an animal - that will chase the dementor away. Harry Potter's patronus takes the form of a stag. Hermione Granger's takes the form of an otter.

As I see it, the dementor is a personification of depression. The dementor, like depression, kills all joy and meaning in life. The ultimate end of untreated depression is, indeed, a soul-less existence -- and this is so unbearable that many people with severe depression actually kill themselves.

Suicide used to be considered a terrible sin, but how much compassion we should have for someone suffering from severe depression. We now know that depression has physical causes -- it is not a moral failing of the depressed person. The severely depressed person finds himself or herself simply unable to find ANY joy or meaning in life -- to a such a degree that existence becomes excruciating. Rather than blaming a person for killing himself or herself, we might do better to ask ourselves what unbearable degree of pain that person must have been feeling.

I believe that J. K. Rowling does a wonderful service for us in at least three ways with her description of dementors in the Harry Potter novels. First, if we can make the dementor/depression connection (which seems quite obvious to me), we can feel something of the horror that a severely depressed person must feel. As we identify with Rowling's characters and feel their horror in the presence of dementors, we get a small taste of what a severely depressed person may be feeling. This can lead to real compassion for the severely depressed.

Second, personification of an inner state is very salutory. When depression is roiling around vaguely and horribly inside us, we can hardly get a firm grasp of what is happening to us. But if we can find a way to put depression outside ourselves by picturing it -- so that we can look at it squarely -- then we can begin to find a way out.

To look at depression objectively, words help and pictures help. I first understood my own moderate (not severe) depression when I read a magazine article describing depression in my thirties. Until then, I had thought that something unique and probably shameful was wrong with me. But this magazine article described what I had been feeling in clearly articulated words. I now had a name for this condition, a description of its characteristics, and the knowledge that others suffered from it, too. Objectifying depression in this way was a wonderful revelation and set me on the path to healing.

As part of the path to healing, I found that pictures were very helpful. I often drew pictures of depression, thus putting it outside myself where I could look at it. This, too, helped to objectify depression -- depression was not something that I was, but something that I felt or experienced. It was a feeling or an experience, not a core part of me. This is an important function of the dementors -- they are a picture of depression.

Third, Rowling tells a story that includes vanquishing the dementors by using a patronus spell to call forth a patronus spirit. Each person who suffers from depression can find his or her own patronus. What chases away the dementor, the depression? Sometimes it may need to be medication. It may also be a deliberate change of thought, an activity, a mental picture, or a story we tell ourselves.

So, with the dementors, J. K. Rowling gives a picture that allows us to objectify and look at depression outside ourselves, and she tells a story that can help us to find a way out of depression and to have compassion for those who are severely depressed.