Friday, June 19, 2009

The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J. K. Rowling

The 6th Harry Potter movie will be released in less than a month, and since I probably won't have time (or shouldn't take the time) to reread all 7 books as I had hoped, I picked up The Tales of Beedle the Bard at the library for a small teaser of wizarding magic. Actually, it's probably best that I don't reread the books: first, because I tend to read them rather obsessively into the wee hours of the night, and second, because I'm always more frustrated watching the movies after I've recently read the books. No matter how well-done the movies might be, the books are always better - better in character development, better in suspense, better in description, just better all around.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard contains 5 short fables, purportedly translated by Hermoine Granger, with commentaries by Albus Dumbledore and additional notes by J. K. Rowling. I think it is so clever and fun that Ms. Rowling creates books that come from the fictional world of Harry Potter. She is following in the steps of great myth makers like Tolkien and Lewis in creating an entire world, and though I wouldn't go so far as to put Hogwarts on the same level as Middle Earth or Narnia, I do think these books will have lasting value and appeal. In fact, I would classify them as new classics, mostly because Book 7 wraps up the entire series with such a clear redemption narrative.

But back to Beedle the Bard. . . the fables of the wizarding world are not so different than Aesop's fables or other such tales that convey a fairly simple story with a moral lesson, only instead of drawing on nature, these stories tell of magic used for good or ill. They teach the value of humility, the folly of selfishness, the worth of all people, consideration and care for others, and the finality of death. I think they would be excellent to read aloud to children as young as 5 or 6, for there are certainly parallels that could be drawn between these tales and biblical truths and values, giving a family plenty to discuss even before reading the Harry Potter series.

For those who are still skeptical about Christians reading and enjoying tales of witchcraft, I would recommend Looking for God in Harry Potter. The The Tales of Beedle the Bard will help you to find the underlying moral values of the wizarding world Rowling created, and Looking for God in Harry Potter will further guide you through more significant symbolism and parallels in the larger series so that you can have fruitful discussions with your children about faith, fantasy, and myth.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

I read Lisa See's other historical novels, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love, earlier this year and quickly became a fan of her detailed and personal writing style and intense character development. I also enjoyed learning so much about Chinese history and culture from her novels. So I reserved this book at the library before it even hit the shelves, and then I got to enjoy that "new book" smell and feel as the first one to check it out - what fun!

Shanghai Girls is historical fiction, but it deals with more modern ideas and the shaping of Chinese-American culture as opposed to ancient Chinese beliefs and traditions, which is to be expected since it is set in the 1930's to 1960's and over half the story takes place in California. I like old things, and it seems that modernity brings with it a more blatant acknowledgement of sin, which colors the novels even if its not flagrantly described. "The Old Chinese City still has temples and gardens, but the rest of Shanghai kneels before the gods of trade, wealth, industry, and sin" (12), and the same could be said for Los Angeles once the sisters Pearl and May arrive there, only the Chinese are mostly sequestered in China City or Chinatown trying to eke out enough to live and stay anonymous to the government.

It was interesting to read of the presence of Christian missionaries both in China and Chinatown, but somewhat sad to read of the way many Chinese used their services simply for personal advancement or to have the right political connections. The main character did become a "one-Goder," as the Chinese-Americans referred to Christians, but it seemed primarily a means of personal comfort as she added prayer to the old Chinese superstitions and religious practices.

There were certainly enlightening aspects of this novel, especially the scrutiny and fear under which the Chinese lived in America not so many decades ago. On the other hand, perhaps the close proximity to the time and culture made the character development not quite as rich or insightful as See's other novels. It seemed more like I was simply observing the events that unfolded around the characters rather than understanding how they thought or why they reacted in the ways they did. So for several reasons, this is probably my least favorite of the three See novels I have read, but it was still very interesting and a learning experience about another time, place, and life very unlike my own.

Like Lisa See's other historical novels, there is a distinctively tragic element to the plot, though not without moments of happiness. The main character, Pearl, is shaped by life events and petty jealousies with her sister May that lead to misunderstandings and mistakes, somewhat similar to the plot of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Apart from the history, it is a story about relationships, and how one's short-sightedness and selfishness can shape the course of one's life.

Finally, I thought the ending was a bit too abrupt - I was really surprised to turn the page and find Acknowledgements instead of another chapter. Maybe she has a sequel in mind...

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Girl Meets God: A Memoir by Lauren F. Winner

Life happens, and it's been happening in a big way around here, so I haven't been reading as much or as quickly as I would wish. But I don't really regret having taken my time reading Girl Meets God because it is a book that is best pondered and savored.

Lauren Winner came to faith in Christ after being raised in a Reformed Jewish synagogue and then converting to Orthodox Judaism because "[n]o other way to parse Judaism made much sense. If the Torah was true, then we should spend all our time reading it, and all our life living by it" (43). But within a few years, she became captivated by the incarnation, awestruck by the fact that God became flesh, and converted to Christianity, specifically of the Anglican/Episcopalian variety. Interestingly enough, I started thinking that Lauren's writing style reminded me of Madeleine L'Engle's Crosswick Journals, and in the very next chapter, Lauren revealed that she attends the same Episcopal church in NYC that L'Engle did.

I can identify with many aspects of Lauren's personality - her bookishness, her dislike of recess, her love for study and complete immersion in a topic - but her spiritual journey is completely different from my experience. Even though I'm not in the same place and don't agree with her on some points, I'm really glad to have read of her experiences and the insights on faith and theology that she draws from such a unique background.

Lauren juxtaposes the Jewish and Christian calendars to create the structure of the memoir, and this allows her to trace her journeys in each faith as well as compare and contrast elements of these two biblical faiths. For instance, she links the Jewish high holy day of Yom Kippur with the Christian practice of confession of sins. On Yom Kippur the Jews confess a long list of sins, of which the particulars they may not be guilty, but which a rabbi enjoins, "If you understood the glory and grandeur of God, you would realize you had committed each of these sins, every day of your life." Thus, as a Christian, Lauren concludes:

Confession makes sense to me because it is incarnational. In the sacraments, the Holy Spirit uses stuff to sanctify us. In the Eucharist He uses bead and wine, and in confirmation He uses oil and in baptism He uses water. In confession, the stuff He uses is another person. In that way, confession teaches us about the Incarnation all over again. . .Here, in confession, God is connecting us to Himself not through bread or oil or water or wine, but through another broken body, one who absolves you, and then says, "Go in peace, and pray for me, a sinner." (214-215)
As an intellectual and a historian, Lauren is at once more modern and more grounded in tradition than your typical evangelical. There is a subtle undercurrent of feminism that runs throughout her story (both ethically and vocationally), and she makes an aside comment in favor of Darwin (105). In that sense, perhaps her adoption of evangelical theology has not entirely encompassed her worldview, in spite of her intent to be logically consistent.

Her brief historical description of tattoos (154-155) as used by Christian pilgrims to mark their identity with Christ (Galatians 6), made me almost ready to go get one. But then her account of a holocaust survivor's tattoo shocked me back to a stark, unromantic reality. It is this thorough understanding of her Jewish heritage and her Christian adoption that that can jolt us evangelicals out of our complacency and primly pious attitudes. In describing celebrating the Passover seder as a Christian, she reflects:

We see in the three pieces of matzot the Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and see that we are taking the middle matzah, and breaking it, and we see that this is the way Jesus' body will break, on the Cross. . .I think, It is we Christians, we, who do this, not the Jews. At the seder, it is so clear: The Jews didn't break his body. Our sins broke his body. Break break break. They didn't kill Him; the weight of our sin killed Him. (172 - This is the spiritual truth, of course, but we cannot ignore the mystery of God's sovereignty and human responsibility described in Acts 2:23)
Finally, I was challenged by the seriousness and sincerity with which she pursues God. She humbles herself not only in the practice of confession, but also by following her priest's counsel to give up reading, yes, reading as a whole, not just certain books, for Lent, because, he said, "I think books would be a gift you could give Christ that would be really meaningful. . ." (124). She does it, not perfectly, but she gives up reading for Lent and learns that reading was her "always-cure. . .a tonic or escape route" (128). She realizes that "[w]hen I am stuck in a puddle of sadness and mistakes, I cannot take them to Mitford. I have to take them to God. I begin to suspect that [my priest] didn't want me to give up reading just because it was the equivalent of some dearly loved green sundress, but because it might move me closer to Jesus. It might move me to my knees" (129). That is profound, powerful, and convicting, especially for a fellow bibliophile!