Vanessa Oler

TG: Scriptures, Harry Potter & The Sacred Text

Vanessa Oler
TG: Scriptures, Harry Potter & The Sacred Text

“The rise of the religiously unaffiliated has rightly drawn a lot of attention, but it is worth pausing to consider what that rise tells us. For one thing, the secular surge demonstrates the fluid and dynamic nature of America’s religious ecosystem. Most of the people who say that their religion is “nothing in particular” or “none” were raised in a household that was at least nominally religious. In other words, the “nones” were once “somethings.” But, equally important, most of the “nones” are what we might call soft secularists. Most do not describe themselves as atheists or agnostics, which suggests that they are not totally disaffected from all aspects of religion, or from a belief in a God or higher power. In other words, this suggests that many of the “nones” are not actively opposed or hostile to religion, and that some of them might even be attracted to a new form of religion.” – Pew Research Center 

If Dialectic were a school essay, this quote from the Pew Research Center would be central to the prompt. The last phrase in particular stands out: might even be attracted to a new form of religion. That naturally begs the question – what is a religion, exactly? And if religion can take a new form, which parts of any movement make it a “religion” vs. not a religion? Honing in on our topic of Scripture: what is scripture, exactly? And if scripture can take a new form, which parts of any book, movie, play, song, etc. make it “scripture” vs. not scripture?

In this Topical Guide series of Scripture, we’ve already taken a look at origins and physical veneration as criteria by which scripture is set apart from other text. We’ve also looked at scripture around the world and found common internal structures that make it a unique type of text. In this concluding post, we’ll take a look at our interaction with the text (aka reading) and how our style of reading a text is actually what makes it most sacred.

For my generation of soft secularists, the most obvious medium for testing our theories on scripture is Harry Potter. (Anyone in my parent’s generation reading this, sub out “Harry Potter” for “Star Wars” and see if that fits :D) And I’m not the first to come to this conclusion! In fact, there’s an entire podcast dedicated to treating the text of the Harry Potter books as “sacred text.” In their first episode, one of the hosts named explains it this way:

Casper- Treating Harry Potter as a sacred text was not something I was planning on doing. I was in divinity school against all expectations; I was growing up in a non-religious household and never thought I would be sitting in a Bible study class learning how to understand this ancient text. And it was interesting, but it never felt like it was mine. I didn’t love it.

And I happened to go on vacation with my family and you know, after about just two or three weeks with my family, I wanted to escape, and so looked for something to read, something that would be comforting, something that would remind me of a place where I felt safe. So I downloaded Harry Potter! And I started reading it, and not only did it make me feel comfortable and safe, and took me out of the situation I was in and into an imaginary world which I loved already, but the themes and the questions that were in these books were so. Big! They were just as big as the Bible questions I’d just been reading, you know.

The same questions of love and fear and death and even resurrection that were showing up in the Bible class were showing up in the Harry Potter text. And the difference was that the Harry Potter books felt like they were mine. I could claim them in a way that I never feel like I could claim the Bible. ‘Cuz this was a text I had grown up with; it’s a text I’d grown to love as a child. So for me, treating Harry Potter as a sacred text isn’t that strange, it’s something I think I had already done in a small way, but now we’re going to do it for real.

Their podcast doesn't aim to set Harry Potter the character as God, or even as a savior figure. Casper and Vanessa (I know, right!?) are aware that Harry Potter is a fictional character created by a human being. Their definition of a sacred text is is outlined under  Our Methodology:

This project is more than a book club or fan-podcast. By treating Harry Potter as sacred, we mean three things:

Trusting the text: we practice the belief that the text is not “just entertainment,” but if taken seriously, can give us generous rewards. Trusting the text doesn’t mean we understand the text to be perfect – either in construction or moral teaching – but that it is worthy of our attention and contemplation. A guiding principle is that the more time we give to the text the more blessings it has to give us.

Rigor and ritual: by reading the text slowly, repeatedly and with concentrated attention, our effort becomes a key part of what makes the book sacred. The text in and of itself is not sacred, but is made so through our rigorous engagement. Particularly by rigorously engaging in ritual reading, we believe we can glean wisdom from its pages.

Reading it in community: Scholars of religion explain that what makes a text sacred is not the text itself, but the community of readers that proclaim it as such. The same applies for us. We started reading Harry Potter in community in Cambridge, Massachusetts in September 2015 and are excited to be expanding that community through this podcast!

Rigor and ritual translates to taking several reading techniques developed by monks and devout practitioners over the last several centuries and applying them methodically to Harry Potter. Now, these reading techniques are not color-coding schemes, they are not yearly reading calendar challenges, they are not picture books, or Bingo score cards. You likely won't find how-to info-graphics on Pinterest. They are more like the technical instruction book for the old adage “search, ponder, and pray.” For example, as I read through the passages below from Guigo II (the Carthusian), I realized I’d heard all these words before but never put them together in such a way to produce an actual study method. This is what I hope we can accomplish today – to take a look at actual methods and techniques for studying scripture so as to make it a truly sacred practice in our daily lives, not five minutes here and a verse there.

For me, that means applying these techniques more thoroughly to the Mormon canon. However, there is great value in applying them to any text that has meaning or you want to have meaning in your life. My first encounter with this was for a class at BYU (REL C 358 Survey of Eastern Religions, Greg Wilkinson. You’re welcome.) where I applied a reading technique from Zhu Xi (a Confucian scholar) to Justin Bieber’s Love Yourself. The three weeks I sustained the practice proved to be incredibly cathartic and helped me begin healing wounds from a serious relationship that ended badly. I posted my write up for Wilkinson’s class detailing my experience here. Wilkinson’s response to my paper was, as expected, hilariously dry: “Justin Bieber will never be the same.”

While there are many techniques to apply to whatever text you find sacred, I’d like to introduce you to just three here. First is Lectio Divina from the Catholic/Early Christian tradition, second is Recitation from Zhu Xi and the Confucian tradition, and third is the four-step Pardes from the Jewish tradition. We’ll break it down into an overview definition, excerpts from the originating text, and how to use this technique today.


Lectio Divina

Latin for “divine reading” is a traditional Benedictine practice of scriptural reading, meditation, and prayer intended to promote communion with god and to increase the knowledge of God’s word.

Origin: Guigo II, the Carthusian, Letter of Dom Guigo the Carthusian to Brother Gervase, about the Contemplative Life, about the year 1150 AD.

When I was at hard at work one day, thinking on the spiritual work needful for God's servants, four such spiritual works came to my mind, these being: reading; meditation; prayer; contemplation. This is the ladder for those in cloisters, and for others in the world who are “God's Lovers, by means of which they can climb from earth to heaven.” It is a marvelously tall ladder, but with just four rungs, the one end standing on the ground, the other thrilling into the clouds and showing the climber heavenly secrets.

This is the ladder Jacob saw, in Genesis, that stood on the earth and reached into heaven, on which he saw heavenly angels ascending and descending, with God leaning upon the ladder. From the ascending and descending of the angels is understood that the heavenly angels delight us with much spiritual comforting and carry our prayers up to our Lord in heaven, where he sits on high, and bring back down from him the desire of our hearts, as is proved by Daniel. By God's supporting the ladder is understood that he is always ready to help all who by these four rungs of this ladder will climb wisely, not fearing nor doubting that such a ladder will really help us.

Understand now what the four staves of this ladder are, each in turn. Reading, Lesson, is busily looking on Holy Scripture with all one's will and wit. Meditation is a studious insearching with the mind to know what was before concealed through desiring proper skill. Prayer is a devout desiring of the heart to get what is good and avoid what is evil. Contemplation is the lifting up of the heart to God tasting somewhat of the heavenly sweetness and savour. Reading seeks, meditation finds, prayer asks, contemplation feels. Vnde querite & accipietis: pulsate et aperietur vobis. That is to say 'Seek and you shall find: knock and the door will be opened for you'. That means also, seek through reading, and you will find holy meditation in your thinking; and knock through praying, and the doors shall be opened to you to enter through heavenly contemplation to feel what you desire. Reading puts as it were whole food into your mouth; meditation chews it and breaks it down; prayer finds its savour; contemplation is the sweetness that so delights and strengthens. Reading is like the bark, the shell; meditation like the pith, the nut; prayer is in the desiring asking; and contemplation is in the delight of the great sweetness. Reading is the first ground that that precedes and leads one into meditation; meditation seeks busily, and also with deep thought digs and delves deeply to find that treasure; and because it cannot be attained by itself alone, then he sends us into prayer that is mighty and strong. And so prayer rises to God, and there one finds the treasure one so fervently desires, that is the sweetness and delight of contemplation. And then contemplation comes and yields the harvest of the labour of the other three through a sweet heavenly dew, that the soul drinks in delight and joy.

How to do it:

Harry Potter and the Sacred Text uses a variation on traditional Lectio, which I think is useful for the "nones"

  1. the smaller the text the better, Casper and Vanessa often choose just one sentence to focus on 
  2. ask yourself literally what is happening in this sentence
  3. ask yourself  allegorically what is this emotionally standing in for as a sentence
  4. ask yourself what does this sentence speak to in your personal life
  5. ask yourself, what do I feel called to do differently after going through this process

A more traditional approach to Lectio is diagrammed here:


Recitation of Zhu Xi

Origins: Excerpts below taken from “Learning to Be a Sage: Selections from the Conversations of Master Chu, Arranged Topically” by Zhu Xi, Translated with a Commentary by Daniel K. Gardner, accessed by me in Wilkinson’s class cited above. All Wade Giles spellings have been adjusted to pinyin for consistency.

There is not a Chinese thinker since Mencius (fourth century B.C.) who is better known than Zhu Xi (1130 – 1200 BC) or who has had more influence on Chinese culture –indeed on East Asian culture—than Zhu Xi. Drawing on ideas raised by his predecessors, Zhu developed a systematic metaphysics that dominated the Chinese intellectual world until the early years of the twentieth century. Zhu also wrote commentaries on the Confucian Classics, which in the fourteenth century the Chinese government declared orthodox: from then on all candidates for the prestigious civil service examinations, in answering questions on the Classics, where required to accord with Zhu Xi’s interpretation of them. And since most Chinese with any education aspired to pass the examinations, most Chinese capable of reading read and tried to master Zhu’s commentaries. Although some of these people no doubt remained unconvinced by Zhu’s interpretations of the Classics, few could escape their influence altogether. Zhu Xi has thus cast a long shadow over the literate culture of China for the last eight hundred years.

4.16 In reading, to understand the moral principle the mind must be open, unobstructed, and bright. You mustn’t be calculating beforehand the gain you’ll get from the reading. For once you think about gain, you’ll become distressed. And if you’re distressed, trivial things will gather in the mind and won’t leave. Now you should put aside unimportant matters, stop engaging in idle thought, and concentrate the mind in order to get a real sense of moral principle. In this way the mind will become sharp, and once the mind’s sharp, it’ll become intimately familiar with moral principle.

4.18 Your reading will be successful only if you understand the spot where everything interconnects – east and west meet at this pivotal point. Simply dedicate yourself to what you’re doing at the moment, don’t think about the past or the future, and you’ll naturally get to this point. But now you say that you’ve never been able to do it (i.e., read properly), that you fear you’re too slow, or fear that you’re not up to doing it, or fear that it is difficult, or fear that you’re stupid, or fear that you won’t remember what you’ve read – all this idle talk. Simply dedicate yourself to what you’re doing at the moment, don’t be concerned whether you’re slow or fast, and soon you will naturally get there. Because you have never done it before, exert the right effort now, and make up for past failures. Don’t look to your front or back, and don’t think about east or west, or soon you’ll have wasted a lifetime without realizing that you’ve grown old.

4.20 Read little but become intimately familiar with what you read; experience the text over and over again; and do not think about gain. Keep constantly these three matters and nothing more.

4.21 Generally, in reading, students should keep to these three: 1) read little but become intimately familiar with what you read; 2) don’t scrutinize the text, developing your own far fetched views of it, but rather personally experience it over and over again; and 3) concentrate fully without thought of gain.

4.22 Best to read less but to become intimately familiar with what you read. That children remember what they’ve read and adults frequently don’t is simply because the children’s minds are focused. IF in one day they are given one hundred characters, they keep to one hundred characters; if given two hundred characters, they keep to two hundred characters. Adults sometimes read one hundred pages of characters in one day—they aren’t so well focused. Often they read ten separate pieces when it would be best to read one part in ten. Extend the time you give to your reading; limit the size of your curriculum.

4.24 In reading, don’t strive for quantity. Instead become intimately familiar with what you do read. If today you are able to read a page, read half a page; read that half page over and over with all your strength. Only if you read both halves of the page in this manner will you become intimately familiar with the page. And only if you read for the meaning of the ancients will your reading be right.

4.41 The value of a book is in the recitation of it. By reciting it often, we naturally come to understand it. Now, even if we ponder over what’s written on the paper, it’s useless, for in the end it isn’t really ours.

4.42 The method of reading is to recite a text, then ponder it over; to ponder it over, then recite it. Oral recitation of a text helps us to think about it. For our minds then hover over the words. If it’s just a matter of the mouth doing the reading but the mind doing no thinking, what’ll our understanding be like? We won’t remember what we’ve read in any detail….”

How to do it:

Zhu Xi is fairly direct in his instructions, Wilkinson had us pick a text (maximum of two pages)  and a verse or two from Zhu Xi's On Reading, then follow Zhu's instructions to the letter. More often than not that meant reciting it aloud daily. We, as a class, had a bit of a background in meditation and our text became more like a mantra than anything else. Wilkinson was in Asia while we were in Provo doing this exercise, so he had the benefit of picking a different temple each day to sit in front of to meditate and recite his text. But, the idea holds. Find a spot that speaks to you, find a text that speaks to you, return to that spot and that text at the same time of day until you are intimately familiar with it. 


Pardes

"The four level of interpretation are called: Parshat, Remez, D’rash & Sud. The first letter of each word P-R-D-S is taken, and vowels are added for pronunciation, giving the word PARDES (meaning "garden" or "orchard"). Each layer is deeper and more intense than the last, like the layers of an onion." Excerpts below taken from Rabbi Scott Perlo's resources

How to do it: 

P'shat  (pronounced peh-shaht' - meaning "simple")

The p'shat is the plain, simple meaning of the text. The understanding of scripture in its natural, normal sense using the customary meanings of the word’s being used, literary style, historical and cultural setting, and context. The p'shat is the keystone of Scripture understanding. If we discard the p'shat we lose any real chance of an accurate understanding and we are no longer objectively deriving meaning from the Scriptures (exegesis), but subjectively reading meaning into the scriptures (eisogesis). The Talmud states that no passage loses its p'shat:

Talmud Shabbat 63a - Rabbi Kahana objected to Mar son of Rabbi Huna: But this refers to the words of the Torah? A verse cannot depart from its plain meaning, he replied.

Note that within the p'shat you can find several types of language, including figurative, symbolic and allegorical. The following generic guidelines can be used to determine if a passage is figurative and therefore figurative even in its p'shat: when an inanimate object is used to describe a living being, the statement is figurative, when life and action are attributed to an inanimate object the statement is figurative, when an expression is out of character with the thing described, the statement is figurative. 

Remez  (pronounced reh-mez' - meaning "hint")

This is where another (implied) meaning is alluded to in the text, usually revealling a deeper meaning. There may still be a p'shat meaning as well as another meaning as any verse can have multiple levels of meaning. An example of implied "REMEZ" Proverbs 20:10 - Different weights, and different measures, both of them are alike an abomination to the Lord. The p'shat would be concerned with a merchant using the same scale to weigh goods for all of his customers. The remez implies that this goes beyond this into aspects of fairness and honesty in anyone's life.

D’rash (pronounced deh-rahsh' also called "Midrash," meaning "concept")

This is a teaching or exposition or application of the P'shat and/or Remez. (In some cases this could be considered comparable to a "sermon.") For instance, Biblical writers may take two or more unrelated verses and combine them to create a verse(s) with a third meaning.

There are three rules to consider when utilizing the d'rash interpretation of a text:

  1. A drash understanding can not be used to strip a passage of its p'shat meaning, nor may any such understanding contradict the p'shatmeaning of any other scripture passage. As the Talmud states, "No passage loses its p'shat."

  2. Let scripture interpret scripture. Look for the scriptures themselves to define the components of an allegory.

  3. The primary components of an allegory represent specific realities. We should limit ourselves to these primary components when understanding the text.

Sud  (pronounced either sawd, or sood [like "wood"] - meaning "hidden")

This understanding is the hidden, secret or mystic meaning of a text. An example most people are familiar with is Revelation 13:18, regarding the "beast" and the number "666."


Conclusion

If two HDS students can gain three seasons of deep, meaningful insight from Harry Potter, then what is wrong with my daily scripture study? Is it that I don't actually treat the scriptures of my faith tradition as sacred? That's a rough question to ask, I know. But I think we've come to a point in our generation where these questions must be asked. The theory, in a nutshell, is this: scripture can be any body of text that we treat as sacred meaning employment of all our faculties, our whole mind and heart to the task of finding, understanding and applying the meanings of said text. Driven home a bit further, if we are not applying all our faculties et al, to the text sitting in front of us -- which we believe to be the actual Word of God -- then it is not actually sacred to us. We may as well shelve it and just read Harry Potter.