Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Harry Potter, The Supernatural, and Modern Mormonism

I've got a bunch of excited kids around tonight, wearing their homemade stenciled "HP" shirts and getting ready to go to the midnight showing of Harry Potter. And it's got me thinking about the role of fantasy and the magic world view in the lives of Mormons.

Now, most Mormons are a bit different than the brand of evangelical Christian who doesn't bother reading speculative fiction and sometimes even forbids the reading of fantasy stories, especially those containing elements of magic. I personally view fantasy literature as conducive to the building of a strong imagination. How will we learn to create worlds if we don't use our minds to imagine? Fantasy also contains strong themes of good and evil, death, humanity, heroism, and friendship. Fiction is a way of exploring the real issues of our lives in a non-threatening way.

But one of the reasons I think that Mormons do not feel threatened by fantasy and literature with magical themes is that they draw a strong delineation between this type of fiction and real life. And in this I see a giant step away from our nineteenth century religious origins.

In early Mormonism there was a strong magic world view. Everyday life was a place where buried treasure in the earth slipped away just when one was about to grasp it. It was a place where angels offered their palms for a handshake. Because the supernatural was possible, God himself could come down and reveal himself to a 14-year-old seeker. In this newly restored Church, a handkerchief or a cane could heal the sick and dying. The gift of tongues was an outpouring of glossolalia, and tongues of spiritual fire leapt from the windows of dedicated temples.

The Mormons of our century are in a strange place. With our minds steeped in the scientific method, we need to presuppose a rational explanation behind each seemingly supernatural occurrence. The gift of tongues is converted to an enhanced ability to speak and understand foreign languages. Healing is "according to the Lord's will" and assisted by modern medicine. Slippery treasure becomes a metaphor for a weakening economy. Though we hesitate to claim supernatural abilities for ourselves, we are constrained to believe the mystical experiences of our forebears. We speak and teach of the metaphysical in our lessons and testimonies of Joseph Smith and the early Mormons, but hold back from experiencing such esoteric episodes.

No, the magic of Harry Potter doesn't threaten the modern Mormon. We are too far removed from it. Not ours, the fear of the fanatical Christian who worries that reading about sorcery or the occult will give a tangible devil a foothold in the human soul. We tend to read our fantasy literature from one step away. Is that how we are reading our Church history?


Anonymous said...

Not at all sure how anyone could deal with the 3 Nephites or Nephi's crossing the Atlantic if they didn't have a decent appreciation of the fantastic. I think Mormons have a greater than average need for magical thinking. ;>

Cicero said...

I don't think that Mormons have a problem with accepting the supernatural.

Quite the opposite, I have found Mormons to be a little too gullible in believing "faith promoting" stories.

Rather I think the reason Mormons don't feel threatened by most fantasy is because Mormons believe they understand the supernatural. They read about wizards waving wands and speaking magical phrases and say: "That's not how the supernatural works!" If the story was about using perverted or desecrated symbols of the cross, a serpent, or a tree, and had evil rituals that mimed Priesthood rituals, I expect Mormons would be greatly disturbed, and might label it "devilish".

Instead Mormons look at Harry Potter and see a surface of nonsensical and harmless mishmash, which is concealing deeper symbolism. Things like say... drinking a cup that causes severe pain. Or an apple with a bite out of it. (Just some imagery from the recent movie). Mormons look at this symbolism and ask what kind of morals are being taught. They see that the morals and lessons being taught support, or at least don't conflict with, the message of the gospel, so they embrace the movies as "good entertainment".

Anonymous said...

I was taught that the early saints needed the visual stuff; we don't. But i think it's like
dog training. At first you give the dog a treat EVERY time it does something you want, then you decrease the treats, but the dog still wants a treat so it does the action hoping that THIS TIME it will get that treat. The early days members got 'treats' all the time; nowadays the members just hope they will be one of the lucky ones and get a treat at some time in their lives.
(Now i'm not sure that any of those stories are real anyway, so so much for the real treats. It's easy to make up magical stories about past events and then tell people that we don't need them nowadays anymore, so people aren't looking for that kind of visual stuff anymore.

I think the magical thinking just became less visible. To fit one of 2 categories: God will help you run your life, so don't worry as long as you do your church work and

:God can let you see beyond the veil and give you visions if he wants to and you're righteous enuf.

They turn into ideas like:
- god will protect you if you pray before you drive your car, but won't if you don't.
-if you're really spiritual when you visit the temple, you might be able to see spirits.

So you do these things, hoping the magic works. If it doesn't, then you just tell yourself that you weren't righteous enough and try again next time.

That's why get rich quick scams work so well on mormons nowadays. They feel entitled to a reward, after all the time and energy put into church work, and feel that god is going to help them win.

It becomes more problematic when the magical thinking evolves to believing statements like:
If the person you marry is lds,and you marry in the temple you can marry just about anyone and the marriage will work out.

When i was a child, i sure hoped an angel would come to me to tell me how i measured up with god. That i could see spirits when i went to the temple. I wondered why i wasn't getting more babysitting jobs than my nonmormon friend because i paid tithing and she didn't.

Growing up and living in the real world means dealing with your own life, making decisions, asserting yourself instead of waiting for god to do it for you (but at church i was taught that you wait for god to inspire the leadership to give you the 'right' room mates on temple trips, the right callings, etc.) In that way, HP awoke to his magical strength by practicing, learning and growing, and we need to awaken to our own strength instead of waiting for magical things to happen to us. Use goethe's words as a guide: When you make the FIRST move, then the universe moves to help you. Not in magical ways, but in opening your eyes to see opportunities that you can then take advantage of.

Gone AWOL for good.

Since this thread went way down the list at rfm, i thot i'd post my answer here too.I hope this answered yr qu. Funny how dh and i got on this magical thinking topic just after you posted yr response to mine. Then it made sense, this magical thinking in modern day mormonism.