Monday, December 22, 2014

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

It was June 2007 and I had been assigned to read Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird for my summer reading homework before I started my junior year of high school. The book was one I had heard of as being a classic and a renowned piece of literature yet I had also heard from friends who had already read it that it was dreadfully boring and dumb. My assignment was simple. I had to find 15-20 quotes for three pre-chosen themes and then hand write three 150 word essays about the themes and integrate my quotes. It was a simple summer task but for most it was a complete buzz kill. I have always enjoyed summer reading. There was never any pressure for you to read the book fast or for peer interaction. It was just me and a book and my thoughts. I found that I enjoyed the assignment. In fact, it was this book in particular that changed the way I viewed books and literature and writing.
I loved this book. My 16 going on 17 year old self was mesmerized by Scout and her innocence and the adventures she had that so often reflected my own childhood although we were years and worlds apart. I loved the simplicity of the novel and it's call for justice. When I turned the final page I was confident that this book would be taking it's place on my favorites shelf.
I hadn't returned to the book since then and was curious to see if it would hold the same quality reading it a second time. I reread Where the Red Fern Grows almost ten years after reading it a first time and found I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as my 12 year old self did. This may be because Red Fern was my first experience with a subtle title. I remember thinking how brilliant it was that the author named the book after something so beautiful as the flowers that grew on the dog's graves. When I reread the book, I was experienced with so many books that did something similar and therefore Red Fern lost it's "wow" factor for me. Luckily, Mockingbird wasn't the same type of experience.
Mockingbird indeed introduced me to a lot of literary tropes but it also shaped the way I look at literature. My growth only stemmed from my first reading of this book. The second read was just as good. I definitely gained a better perspective on Atticus this time around and teared up after reading his speech at Tom Robinson's trial. 
I keep asking myself, why this book? Why is this the book that gained all of the attention? Well, of course it is written well and it's message is unlikely to be beaten. But I also think there is a timelessness to the story that resonates with many readers. Not much happens in Scout's day to day life. She goes to school or gets in an argument with her pubescent brother or gets reprimanded by an adult. She is a child in a mixed up world and Lee is able to capture this moment of all of our lives with stand out moments yet we still feel we can relate. We may not have had a mad dog roam the neighborhood street but we did have  moments that united the neighbors or scared the neighbors. We may not be teased because our father is defending a man who is racially discriminated against but we did get teased and were accused of things we shouldn't have been.
The book offers a unique look at childhood and though some call it didactic, I say it is a call to do what is right in the face of adversity. This speaks very loudly to recent events in the media. Make of that what you will. It is a call to return to innocence. This book is a 5 star book still. It still holds up to me and it will hold up as long as we continue to pick up books and seek knowledge and understanding.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Saint Nicholas by Joe Wheeler

Saint Nicholas has acquired many names over the centuries: Kris Kringle, Saint Nick, Santa Claus. When we hear the name Santa we think of the man in the red suit with a jolly laugh and a large white beard. We think of Coca-cola bottles and reindeer and presents. Santa is generally seen as a jolly old soul whose mythical presence brings joy to every child on December 25th. But when it comes to the man Saint Nicholas, I think it is safe to say Santa is his secularized form. He is a pop icon with no more authenticity than a clown. And while the idea of Santa is a very nice one, I think it is safe to say that I am not the only person who is sick of his polarization. Santa has become more of a marketing tool...a way to suck kids in and make them behave this one time of the year. He is a pagan giant who supports department stores and malls all over the country. While Santa is fun as a kid, I really yearned to learn more about the man Saint Nicholas as I got older. When I saw this book at a bargain book store, I knew I needed to buy it for my own cause. I wanted to know who the really Saint Nicholas was.
I'm not a huge history reader so please forgive me when I say I found this book to be incredibly boring at times. While I am a huge reader I prefer to learn about history on the TV with visuals. That being said, this was a good book. Ir is a generally short read and is very to the point of who Saint Nicholas was and how he slowly molded into what he is today. I was very surprised to learn that Nick did more than simple anonymous giving while he was alive but had some involvement in politics of the church and was even imprisoned for his beliefs.
The author made sure to not skip over any detail about Nick's life, large or small. The first fourth of the book talks about Nicholas while he was alive while the rest discusses his impact over the centuries. The book does a great job at capturing how culture forms and how everything is connected. He talked about miracles surrounding the Saint (none of which I have heard of) and artwork and went into great detail about Saint Nicholas's transition from Saint to Santa. The book definitely has commentary on culture without being social commentary. This includes why people pray or why saints are so important and what it all means in the grand scheme of things. I also loved that the author explained how Saint Nicholas Day and the birth of Christ merged into one.
Overall, I was very touched by this book. I think it is a great read for the holidays yet can also be enjoyed as a religious or historical text. I learned a lot. I will give this book 3 out of 5 stars.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Harry Potter's Bookshelf by John Granger

If you know me than you must know I love Harry Potter and am always seeking out new material to study about these books. One author/speaker you can never go wrong with is John Granger, also know as the Hogwarts Professor. Granger is a pretty big deal. He virtually changed how I look at these books with his ring composition theory and always wows my brain on the podcast, Mugglenet Academia.
I've always been fascinated by the influences Potter claims and was so excited to tackle this book. If you are a big follower of Granger then this book may come off as a bit repetitive at times but at others it is utterly brilliant! The book makes so many fantastic connections and really holds Potter in the high standards that it deserves to be held in.
The book's beginning chapters were very good. Then the book slowed down a bit and became a tad bit boring (and I will admit I considered not finishing the book) but I pressed on and the rest of the book was epic! Granger made connections to Austen and Dante and works that were unknown to me that I have now added to my reading list.
Jo Rowling is a fascinating person and I love how Granger studies her to gain more access to the Potter world. This is a must read for any Potter fan. I will give this book 4 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Harry Potter and the Science vs. Religion Debate

Kathryn Applegate is the program director at BioLogos. BioLogos is an organization dedicated to showing the "harmony" between faith and science. In a recent article by Jesse Carey in Relevant Magazine, Carey quotes Applegate as she discusses the intersection of science and faith. "People have felt worried that if they go in one direction or the other; they're going to lose their faith or have to just stop thinking," Applegate says at the age of science versus religion debate. She continues, "I feel like it's a false choice between excepting the Bible or excepting science." Wait, so is she suggesting that these two things can be harmonious? Most people would tell her to come off it. But the truth is that there are a lot of truths intertwined in our world. The belief that science goes hand-in-hand with religion isn't a new idea but one that is currently taking force. Relevant Magazine strives to cover faith, culture, and intentional living and they certainly do that with Carey's masterfully crafted article.
Relevant Magazine isn't the only media form driving to bridge this gap. Another media form striving to bridge the gap is the Liturgists podcast. The podcast consists of Michael Gungor, Lissa Paino, and Science Mike as they discuss creativity through the lens of science, art, and faith. The program does a great job at breaking down barriers without insulting a particular group of people on the way and it strives to ask questions that make us uncomfortable.
But can a text or a podcast, or any media for that matter, that isn't aiming to discuss this topic teach us something about said topic? Let's find out.
I mentioned above that truths can be intertwined. Connections can be made anywhere and out of anything. Our world literally revolves in a circle, physically and metaphysically. That book you read last week resonates with the piece of you that reveals knowledge about certain history that connects to Galileo that connects to your crummy day job, etc. Here is an example. Harry Potter makes me very nostalgic for my days of youth group which is where I learned a lot about my faith and that Jesus loves us all which is also reiterated in Harry Potter when Harry fights for those who are oppressed by Voldemort who greatly resembles Hitler in his want to destroy those who he feels are below him, etc. See my point? Full circle. And speaking of Harry Potter, I found a very interesting connection which I believe can shed light on the science vs. religion debate.
There is a quote in John Granger's Harry Potter's Bookshelf where Granger discusses the feud that exists between the Hogwarts house Gryffindor and opposing house Slytherin. Slytherin's are, for plot purposes, the bad guys.  Granger notes on page 118, "Like all cultures, Hogwarts has a Founder's Myth: the story of the Four Founders and the break up of the once dear friends Salazar Slytherin and Godric Gryffindor. Ms. Rowling asks us to see how this story poisons the minds and hearts of all witches and wizards. This grand narrative causes not only the Gryffindor/Slytherin battle that is the good/evil axis of the story line, but also turns each magical person into a partisan defending their quarter rather than celebrating the whole. Gryffindor is core, Slytherin is 'other' from the Gryffindor side; Pure Bloods are core, all other beings are 'other' and 'lesser' to the Slytherins."
I want to pick apart this quote from Granger to connect it to the debate at hand. I trust you already noticed some sort of connection already. First of all, fiction itself is a reveler of truth. The concept of fiction being truthful sounds like crazy talk to many but take a look back at our ancestors who told the story of Pinocchio to their little boys to keep them from misbehaving or the Little Red Hen to encourage children to help. Yes, fiction is a great teaching tool although the examples I gave are stories written purposely to teach. But what about stories that don't aim to teach? Can they teach us on the same level as didactic stories? I'd argue these stories are more powerful because the reader is letting their guard down. It is when we let go of our preconceived beliefs that we absorb the most.
But back to Granger's quote...he frst discusses the Founder's Myth and states that all cultures contain something of the story. For Christians, this story is the Creation story and for others it is the Big Bang Theory and Evolution. These two ideas clash all of the time and it seems to go that you either believe one thing or you believe another. That simple. And in the Hogwart's Founders Myth, many people choose sides as well. The Gryffindor's side with Godric and the Slytherin's side with Salazar. They do this with no particular reasoning in mind other than pride and preconceived ideas.
Granger then talks about Rowling's intent with this story. He explains that right away, Gryffindor's and Slytherin's can not be friends or have the same morals because at the end of the day, Salazar left. This is very reminescent of the Capulet's and the Montegue's from Romeo and Juliet. Salazar Slytherin left Hogwarts and never mended his relationship with Godric Gryffindor which implies that the same will continue to happen. This very much mirrors a person's struggle with which side of the debate to be on. Do you go with the Creation story or do you go with scientific evidence? We are taught we can only choose one or the other and like Salazar we must leave one behind. Thus there seems to be no alternative. And as Granger states, we forget to celebrate the whole.
The entire Harry Potter series is about acceptance and I think it is important that we keep open minds
and try to learn from all areas of the spectrum. Besides the Gryffindor and Slytherin feud, another feud can be looked at as a personification of this debate as well and that is the feud between Hermione Granger and Luna Lovegood.
These two characters are always at odds. When defining them, Hermione would easily be the side of science and Luna the side of faith. Luna is constantly believing in things she cannot see or things that are said to not exist. Hermione relies completely on logic, especially in the final book when she doesn't believe the objects of a children's story could actually exist (these objects being the Deathly Hallows). Both of these characters mean a lot to Harry and both stand on opposite ends of the spectrum. The war calls them to come together and embrace their differences and try to learn from each other. As readers we are seeing through Harry and because Harry likes Hermione and Luna, we tend to agree. Why can't the same be said of science and religion?
There is a character in the series that is mentioned only briefly in the books and his name is Graham Montague. He is in Slytherin house. In the fifth book, Montague is stuffed into a broken vanishing cabinet (for those who don't know, a vanishing cabinet is always made as a set and when something/someone enters it they should be able to teleport to the other one easily) by the Weasley twins Fred and George. This is done because he joins the Inquisitorial Squad and as if this "privilege" isn't enough, he tries to abuse his new found power by docking rival house, Gryffindor, of house points. Fred and George take matters into their own hands and stuff him into the broken cabinet and feel not a drop of guilt. A moment like this could easily be passed off as house rivalry or the good guys (Gryffindor) triumphing over the stupid bad guys (Slytherin). But I think it is important to notice this Slytherin's last name...Montague. Ring a bell? Montague is the last name of the classic romantic character, Romeo from Romeo and Juliet. How coincidental this Slytherin is named after a character from a text that is promoting unity between arguing houses. It only makes sense that Rowling purposefully put this in her books. She did not randomly name this character. The entire series promotes unity between houses and this is a brilliant way at using subtext to establish a point. We are called to learn from these stories as they are allegory for our own lives.
The Harry Potter books are classics in their own right and what they can teach us knows no boundaries. I think it is important that people see this connection. Of course there are many other connections I could make such as the lion vs. the snake but I will end my blog here. It is important to connect Hermione and Luna and the Founder's Myth to this pressing issue because it will hopefully help us understand our own problems and put them in perspective.
What do you guys think about the science vs. religion debate? Do you see the connections I made? Can you make any other connections with other works of literature?