Sunday, August 26, 2007

After half a lifetime...

It is hard to believe that my time here has almost run out and I am in my final days as a resident of these United States. When I board the plane in Nashville on Labor Day to go to my new ministry in Cambridge, England, almost to the day I will have spent half my life on these shores and half my life in the country of my birth. I have lived, worked, and raised children here, and have for nearly a quarter of a century been a Citizen. The challenge of the Cambridge opportunity is a big one, it came as a surprise and in some ways I am surprised to find myself taking it up. Perhaps there is a tad of hubris in accepting something like this that has come my way so late in the game.

As with all moments of parting, these are bittersweet days. What makes them sweet is my growing excitement for what lies ahead, what makes them bitter is the business of leaving a place and a country where we have lived so much of our lives, and where we have been fulfilled and edified. What makes them worse is that I will be apart from my beloved wife for three months, something to which I am not looking forward.

Each day I say goodbye to someone or something that has been important in my life. I know when saying farewell to some that it is unlikely we will meet again on this earthly shore. One thing of which this experience convinces me is that the Gospel is far, far more about eternity and unseen than we in the earth-bound West tend to make it. We would do well to redress this balance.

These have been profitable years, although not without pain and anguish -- but that is always the case with the vocation of ministry. The call which came so long ago to work within the Episcopal Church was unmistakable, and we believed then that God had it in mind for us to play a tiny role as his Spirit's renewed North American Anglicanism. Throughout most of our time here we worked hard in the hope that this vision would one day become a reality. In the midst of the present turmoil I find myself wondering how much of this dream was rooted in wishful thinking rather than realizable fact.

This is not to say that nothing has happened. During these last three decades we have seen a burgeoning of the missionary vision of orthodox Christians within the Anglican tradition here, and were privileged in various ways to play a small part in re-establishing this vital element of what it means to be a faithful witnessing church. Given the nature of the Episcopal Church, this is no small advance, and I suspect that as North American Anglicanism is forced painfully to reconfigure itself, this willingness to exercise a missionary vision alongside the outreach of a global Communion, will become one of the defining characteristic of whatever freshly emerging Anglicanism looks like. If it does not, then it is doomed before it begins.

We have also during these years seen a steady increase in the number of those, lay and ordained, who have a confidence in the faith as it is revealed in Scripture. Year after year there has been that gentle flow of men and women who sense a call of God to leadership, and who also are prepared for their lives to be honed and shaped by the vision that God makes plain in the Word written as they take up their cross daily to follow the one whose death upon the Cross was their means of salvation and eternal redemption. This is a long way from the carriage trade image of the church to which I came in the mid-1970s.

I had thought that we were coming here to play our part in the renewal of the denomination in which we have served, but in recent years I have had to do a lot of pondering and rethinking. As Paul wrote that "we have this treasure in earthen vessels" (2 Corinthians 4:7), the organizational vessel in which God's treasure is contained is ultimately replaceable, and I suspect that if we could see time from the end to the beginning rather than the other way round, we would have a much better idea of what is going on in the midst of today's confusion.

Out of my introspection on this issue I have come to the conclusion that while the church as an organism that has organization, the Gospel is ultimately a great deal more about the Kingdom than it is about the institution. I confess that there have been times when my love for the institution has gotten in the way of my passion for the Kingdom, and in some respects these recent years have been a radical corrective for me.

I came to realize some time before that fateful General Convention of 2003 that re-formation requires revised structures and we were probably the generation who would live through the early stages of remaking of those structures. Reading between the lines of histories of the Reformation era, I realize that those exciting days of the 16th Century were perhaps every bit as nail-biting as the period through which we are now passing. Reformation then did not happen overnight, and we should not expect the same. Luther may have set the fire of reform in October 1517, but it wasn't until the 1540s that the actual new shape of the Reformation and the Catholic churches began gingerly to emerge.

I take many riches from these years in the USA. One is a far deeper respect for the genius of Anglicanism, while another is a more robust ecclesiology that is much more catholic in many ways. Strangely, this puts me in a place where I am at odds with many with whom I have journeyed during these years, because I have yet to be convinced that attaching to other Anglican provinces and entities is necessarily the right way to go. While I deplore error and have little desire for companionship with it, I also hope that I know my own soul just a little and recognize that in my sinfulness I am capable of creating something that is every bit as inadequate as the fallen and straying church of which I am part.

As an evangelical and catholic Christian, fragmentation does not seem the right way forward, but I am not sure what actually is appropriate. I guess that for me that jury is still out on what is happening. This is a time, perhaps, when we need to combine those biblical values of faithfulness and patience, prayerfully waiting to see where God might guide us -- and guide us he certainly will.

However, fragmentation has taken place, which means one of the major tasks ahead of American Anglicans is to find ways of putting the pieces back together in some coherent form. I suspect that this will be about as easy as returning the contents to Pandora's box and then closing the lid. When there is a multiplication of jurisdictions and bishops, each with ego needs and turf issues, it is clear that all the seeds of significant tension have been sown. Ultimately one has to wonder what damage this does to Gospel ministry, much as those of us who remain in the Episcopal Church wrestle with the damage done by the theological and ethical faithlessness of the denomination.

One of the great blessings I have gained from my years in the Episcopal Church is that I leave these shores with a far deeper appreciation of the liturgical strengths of our tradition. I arrived just as the present Prayer Book was being brought in for trial use prior to final acceptance in 1979. There is much in the 1979 book that I really appreciate, but having said that hardly a day passes when I have not been deeply conscious of the book's significant theological shortcomings, I have wished that in some way these could be straightened out, but looking at the trajectory liturgical revision has been taking I knew that such a thing would never happen.

However despite this, over these years I have transitioned from tacit acceptance of liturgical worship to a deep love of the liturgy. I have visited a lot of Episcopal parishes over the years and seldom have I seen worship conducted in a manner that is either tacky or lacking in reverence. This may seem a strange thing for a priest to say, but the English Evangelical Anglican nexus in which I was formed tended toward ambivalence about the liturgical tradition. The liturgy sometimes seemed to be considered an unfortunate necessity pressed upon us by the church, rather than the vehicle whereby the People of God enter the presence of God.

There were good reasons for this. Evangelicals recognize the need to be able to reach beyond the walls of the church with the Gospel, and therefore did not want anything, including our patterns of worship to be the stumbling block to the outsider coming in to see if he or she could discover (or be discovered by) God. However, within the tradition there is this tendency to fall over backwards and abandon (or nearly abandon) our liturgical rootedness altogether. My American years have helped correct this imbalance, and I suspect that as I return as an Episcopal priest to the life of the Church of England, liturgical casualness among my fellow-evangelicals could well be a point of irritation.

I have also become much more sacramental. I was formed to believe in the power of the Word, so wouldn't have minded if we had had Communion just once a month. I am now grateful that the norm is to gather around both Word and Table each Sunday, the one preparing for the other, and the other reinforcing the one. Some years ago I went to be with a former Southern Baptist on his first Sunday in his Episcopal parish. I was looking forward to sitting at his feet as he opened Scripture - and to this day I remember the text: Romans chapter 7! However, it was not his preaching that left the most indelible impression that morning, but the humble reverence with which he presided at the Eucharist. The pre-America me would never have been able to admit such a thing.

But the shortcomings of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer point up what I believe is American Anglicanism's greatest weakness -- its theological vapidity. I am not an Anglican because of the lovely worship or our sacramental life, or any of the various pieces of adiaphora that so many of us enjoy. I am first and foremost an Anglican because of its doctrinal and theological tradition.

I don't know how many times I have heard it said outright or implied in my years here that theology doesn't really matter or Anglicanism is not confessional. I'm sorry, that is just plain wrong: Anglicanism from the 16th Century onward has taken doctrine seriously and is has always had a strong confessional tone. Because so many have come to believe this flaccid approach to theology and the revealed truth, in recent years we have been reaping the whirlwind of the wind that for several generations has been being sown. I think this has been one of my greatest causes of grief.

What startled me when I first came here was that I was pilloried by some because of my theology, and then immediately judged not on the basis of what I believed but on my stance in relation to what was the issue du jour. In those days it was women's ordination, which most of the time was approached not as the theological issue that it truly is, but as an issue of human right. Very early on I realized that not only did many leaders not really know the Scriptures very well, or be particularly interested in growing in their Scriptures, but they did not see that as a problem. Added to that was a very limited understanding of those generations of Christian shoulders on which we as people of this time stand.

It was when I started traveling around the church that I got to visit the seminaries that I started to discover how they functioned and what they perceived their role to be. Also, for a decade I happened to be officed in a seminaries so could see what happened there first hand. Gradually it dawned on me that my understanding of the nature of theological education was not what was going on in most of these places. There was little laying a firm foundation in Scripture, classic theology, philosophy, church history, and so forth, thereby equipping the next generation of ordained leaders for pastoral and missional ministry, but was more about propagandizing the student body into seeing life, ministry, and God in a particular culturally-conditioned kind of way.

In these seminary settings some students rebel, a few are capable of cutting their theological and intellectual teeth in a constructive manner, but significant numbers swallowed the bait hook, line, and sinker, and in the process often seemed to lose their first rich passionate love of the Lord Jesus Christ. A significant element of this prevailing seminary process is that it is predicated upon a hermeneutic of suspicion when handling the Scriptures, coupled with a sense of disdain for the wisdom of those who have journeyed the Christian way before us, and the notion that we now know better. When coupled with the desperate shortcomings of the Commission on Ministry system in most dioceses it is not difficult to see why leaders cannot lead, and the faith is not growing and blossoming as it ought.

Today's theological confusion is the end product of decades of such conditioning. Perhaps the classic example of our church's theological vacuity was the statement that came out of the House of Bishops in March: a mishmash of inadequate theology coupled with such a spin being put on history that the facts could not sustain. It was a classic example of wanting things to go a particular way, and so tinkering with events, movements, and theology so that it was possible to justify what was desired by the majority.

Theology is not meant for this. Theology begins with God. Theology for us starts with worship of this omnipotent God. Theology goes awry if we do not set out by prostrating ourselves before the living God in awe at his glory, grieving because of our sin, amazed at his grace, and willing to give our all to serve him. Theology begins, like prayer, in the heart of God, and the Lord Almighty then seeks by his love to form us into the people that he yearns for us to be. Theology requires that we work hard to engage God's self and God's revelation with the minds that have been given to us.

Yes, we should read, discuss, debate, perhaps even disagree, but in the presence of God and for the good of the church, not because we are cherishing a certain issue or agenda. It is a long time since such an approach to theology has prevailed in North American Anglicanism. My prayer is not only that the Episcopal Church and the rest of North American Anglicanism allows itself to rediscover God's glory, but that we allow ourselves to be rediscovered by this God of glory.

It is true that God's call is taking me across the ocean to live, but I will not be permanently gone. Ministry and family will bring me back, and I remain a priest canonically resident in the Diocese of Tennessee. There is much about America that I will be desperately homesick for, and there are friendships and attitudes that I am sure I will crave. However, God calls and we must follow -- which is what I am trying to do. I expect when I next put fingers to keys and add something afresh to this blog that I will be in Cambridge, the new kid on the block at Ridley Hall, someone learning afresh the survival skills necessary in the oh so different country from the one that we left thirty-0ne years ago.

Friday, August 24, 2007

The Anguish That Accompanies Moving

At my age I should really know better...

In just over a week from now I will be repeating in reverse the journey that we as a family took thirty-one years ago -- a half a lifetime away for me. That is, I will be moving back across the Atlantic Ocean to the new ministry that God has in mind for us in Cambridge, England. There is a deep confidence that we are following the Lord's leading and doing his will, but the same pain of letting go of where I am has returned. I had not really expected this.

While I was working hard in the parish, and even in the first week since I finished my pastoral duties, my emotions remained amazingly placid, but in these last few days as the clock ticks, as realtors swarm over the house, as we are warned that we are being caught in the credit crunch when it comes to selling our home, as I seek to get plans in order on the other side of the water, and so on, and so on, I find myself subject to occasional emotional meltdowns.

Do I really want to do this, I find myself asking, and my head says one thing while portions of my heart say something else. Certainly, because it demands that my wife and I live apart on either side of that vast expanse of water for several months, I am not looking forward to the separation one little bit.

"This is much too difficult," I complain, especially when in addition to all else I, in effect, see myself letting go of the stuff that has surrounded me and comforted me for these many years. But I need to gird myself up because part of this exercise is discovering just how much I have been possessed by my possessions, and now must deliberately let them go. In a way my system is being flushed out, but like an enema, there is no reason I should enjoy it!

Moving is almost always a foretaste of hell, but moving back across the Ocean has miseries that are unique. Among them are the dreams and nightmares that I have been living through during the hours of darkness. I hardly remember the content of the ones that assailed me last night, but my consciousness is still living with the feelings that have stuck to everything like so much mud and debris after I woke up and lay trying to work out whether it was the dreams or my sweaty tossing body which were the genuine reality.

It is ironic that when we left England in 1976 the landscape was brown and parched as a result of a long, hot summer, and one of the severest droughts then on record. While the Midwest struggles with too much water, we in the Midsouth are living with endless days of searing heat, 100 degree temperatures, and weeks and weeks since we saw even the whisper of rain. The landscape here is brown and parched, too, and as I look out of the window at the results of the endless sunshine that is how my heart feels.

I thought that I would make this hop across the Pond with ease, but that is far from the case. I am looking forward to the new challenges awaiting me at Ridley Hall, but my psyche has caught up with me and is reminding me that whenever we follow God's dream for our lives we are not necessarily going to experience all sweetness and light. Grieving for and letting go of what has been is part of the process of moving forward into God's providence for the rest of our days.

While it is exciting that at this stage in my life God should entrust to me a challenge that a person half my age would relish, I had under-estimated the angst that accompanies the letting go of the old in order to move forward to the new. I am glad that my latter years will be spent fruitfully in the service of the One who has redeemed me, but I have been as conditioned as anyone else in this cosseted age to believe that the Almighty will dish up life for me sugar-coated and drenched in honey.

While digging around in the attic yesterday and packing endless boxes I came across a little book of Victorian devotions and spiritual bon mots. This morning while doing my devotions I treated myself to a few minutes in its pages. Some of the little sayings and texts made me shudder, I have to confess, but others are helpful, bolstering me up in times like these.

For example, Isaac Pennington (whoever he was) wrote, "Prize inward exercises, griefs, and troubles; and let faith and patience have their perfect work in them." Another was by M. De Molinos, who said "Thou art never at any time nearer to God than when under tribulation; which He permits for the purification and beautifying of thy soul."

On the same page is this quote from Scripture, "Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful until death, and I will give thee a crown of life" (Rev. 2:10).

I guess that is what sums the turmoils of this life up and puts them in perspective. We go through none of this for personal aggrandizement, but because we are seeking to be faithful servants of the living God. Faithfulness is the name of the game, whatever the challenges that are before us.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Flock of Dodos

While we are working like slaves to get our house ready to put on the market, this is supposedly my vacation! So the other morning when I was exercising and ran across an interesting documentary on the television called Flock of Dodos, I felt no guilt about sitting down for a couple of hours and watching it.

This movie was an attempt to talk to both evolutionists and intelligent designers to get a clear picture of what the conflict is between these two ways of perceiving the origins of the created world.

It was put together in an engaging manner, and managed to talk at least somewhat seriously with everyone from the conservatives who used to be on the Kansas School Board, and who had opposed the teaching of evolution in the state's schools, to professors at the Ivies and beyond. What I appreciated was that although the narrator/interviewer, Randy Olson, was by training and inclination clearly an evolution activist, most of the time he managed to handle everyone appropriately and get them to present their position in a digestible and gracious manner.

However, every now and again interviewees got out of control and in those moments revealed their true colors. For example, there was a discussion between various professorial types who had been friends of Stephen Jay Gould, and during the conversation one of these gentlemen suddenly fulminated against the "ignorant yahoos" who could not see that evolutionary thinking was the only approach that held any water.

In that one moment he made it clear that he had absolutely no respect for those who asked questions of Darwinian orthodoxy, and the manner in which it has developed in the last 150 years. One of the basic principles of a serious intellectual discussion is having respect for those with whom you disagree.

As far as the evolutionists were concerned the bete noire was the Discovery Institute in Seattle, an outfit that I have visited and enjoyed several times. There are a lot of very bright folks associated with Discovery, and they have over the years put a lot of funds into advocating intelligent design, underwriting scholars and publications, etc., but Discovery refused to allow the filmmakers access or an interview. Not talking to your opponents is another way of blowing off where they are coming from.

This also made them seem much more sinister than they really are. Then when the figure of $5+ million was being thrown around as the annual budget of Discovery, it was made to seem that these folks were using money from conservative and reactionary deep pockets to buy a huge hearing for their cause. What the filmmakers didn't say was that Discovery's budget covers a lot more than just intelligent design, including, for example, issues to do with the environment in the Pacific Northwest.

As someone who does not have the problems with evolution that some other orthodox Christians do, as I watched Flock of Dodos I realized I was observing the dynamics more than the content because it is a fight in which I do not have a dog. I believe in an Intelligent Designer and while I can see the difficulties inherent in the more classic developments of the Darwinian thesis, do not find it hard to believe that the Designer used evolution to enable the creation to reach the point where it is today.

So, I found myself fascinated by the manner in which these two sides faced off against each other. What made it enthralling was that the dynamics were in many respects similar to those we see within the divides of North American Anglicanism. The truth is that with a few exceptions, there seemed to be little genuine engagement between the two sides of the debate.

On the one hand the evolutionists, as the "ignorant yahoos" comment suggests, had little patience for the scholarship of the intelligent designers, a good number of whom were not trained biologists but came from other disciplines and used the intellectual tools developed in those disciplines to look for the inconsistencies in the generally accepted evolutionary models. Perhaps the evolutionists were right, but their unwillingness to take seriously the positions of their opponents was itself shortsighted.

This is precisely what we see in the church fights going on. We are now at a point where there is virtually no genuine intellectual engagement between those opposed to one another happens, and it is clear from the manner in which we treat one another that there is little respect for the positions of those who disagree with us. There is a strong bias in the Episcopal Church. I have spent a lot of my life over the last thirty years being dismissed as an uneducated and narrow-minded theological wacko, an "ignorant yahoo," as it were, not because I necessarily am, but because I bring to the table presuppositions that are not respected by those who use this language of me. The result is that I am dismissed as irrelevant.

Both sides are guilty of such a thing because in the church context those on the right sometimes function as if those who disagree with them are not just wrong, but are dead wrong, and because they won't listen to what is being said to them are beyond the pale. So, with ears closed and megaphones in hand we scream our propaganda at each other, rather like evolutionists and intelligent designers, and there is never a meeting of minds from which something substantial and creative might possibly come.

But more than that. By not engaging one another it is as if we are free then to dehumanize (even demonize) those who we are against. A good cartoon takes certain characteristics of an individual and exaggerates them. This is what happens in much of our characterization of those with whom we disagree in the church conflict. In the process in our minds they cease to be the people they really are but a misrepresentation of that reality. Once we have set someone up like this, then it is easy to knock them down or to put ourselves in a position where we do not have
to have a serious relationship with them.

When we create such circumstances of non-relationship then there is no way of any kind through any impasse except conflict. The conflict we are experiencing has turned into civil war, and as history shows, whether it be the war between the American States or the battles in the former Yugoslavia, civil wars or often the most hostile, bloody, and damaging, leaving the most lasting scars. The question we should also be asking, too, is whether they glorify Christ.

As I watched Olson's representation of the evolution debate it was clear that these kind of dynamics were not only at play, but they were preventing either group from finding a way forward in any kind of relationship with the other. With but a few exceptions each side ridiculed the position of the other.

I was reminded of Francis Bacon's comment in his Essay on Truth, "'What is truth?' said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer."

Bacon goes on to talk about the giddiness of fixing a belief but not allowing discussion of the intellectual questioning of that belief. This, I think, is how battlelines get drawn up, shooting begins, homes are burned to the ground, much blood gets shed, and many lives are hurt. Those of us who are pastors are living with that hurt and its long-term consequences.

Whenever notions like these are raised there is an immediate outcry that the one presenting them is soft, flaccid, a theological and ideological wimp, or worse, a turncoat. Sometimes this may be so, but often it is an individual suggesting that ortho-doxy must be married to ortho-praxy. That is, true believing and true acting go hand-in-hand with one another. Grace and Truth belong together, but in the fight that is destroying the church today either one or the other tends to be the victim of all the combatants.

Somehow or other, and before it is too late, we need to get beyond this stand off, but, alas, I do not see anyone with the courage, the position, or the ability to do so.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Ecclesiastical Courts and Universal Fallenness

During the last couple of days I have been following the responses to the reporting of the ecclesiastical trial of a priest in Colorado who has been accused of the misuse of more than $400,000 of funds. It is not so much the details of this tragic case that I want to focus on, however, but the way people have greeted the guilty verdicts of the church court.

Reading the responses to the story on two conservative blogs, Stand Firm and TitusOneNine, I found myself getting both uncomfortable and irritated. What makes me uncomfortable is the notion that the diocese brought charges against this priest in order to destroy him and his credibility. While I suspect antagonisms, to suggest such a thing is a very dangerous supposition.

Many of the responses have, in effect, said that despite the fact that this man has been found guilty, because the panel is predominantly of a revisionist/progressive mind, then their minds were so twisted that they could only interpret the facts negatively as far as the defendant is concerned. These responses have been based upon little more than a cursory grasp of the facts, whereas we have been led to believe that the diocese has worked with the best figures accountants have been able to compile.

I know no more the rights and wrongs than anyone else who reads the media so cannot come to any firm conclusions, although a reliable and respected person close to the case has told me that these were certainly not trumped up charges. We must accept a strong possibility that this ecclesiastical action will be followed by state and federal investigations, and possible actions about which we must just wait and see.

I want to plead with folks always to be more thoughtful before they rush to judgment. It may be natural to want to smear the motivation of those who oppose us, or whose ideology and beliefs are at odds with our own, but is this a worthy way of proceeding? Just because we believe people are deeply in error in one area, it is illogical to assume that they are going to be incapable of seeing facts clearly in other areas.

While I have experienced misrepresentation and have seen much misrepresentation in the church, I have never in 30+ years as a priest of the Episcopal Church seen anything on the scale that is being implied by respondents here. From all I know it appears that the Diocese of Colorado is seeking to get to the bottom of this apparent mishandling of money because it has grave fiduciary responsibilities.

What those making the accusations seem unwilling to accept is that the outcome of the court makes it increasingly likely that the priest actually did commit what he is accused of doing. Just because his theology is sound when compared to the belief systems of those adjudicating the business does not mean that he is not prone like all of the rest of us to give way to temptation and fall into sin.

This is the point that I was wanting to get to.

I am anxious about the attitudes of the respondents because they seem to be working under the illusion that just possessing an adequate theology trumps the universal curse of fallenness. I sense that both the left and the right of the wider conflict are working with a deeply flawed understanding of the pervasiveness and power of sin to draw us from the Lord we claim to serve. Even the best theologies in the world are incapable of saving us from sin's power if we are not able to say to our temptations, "Get behind me, Satan!"

Monday, August 06, 2007

The Last Harry Potter

The other morning I finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and now know what happens at the end of the boy-wizard saga. In many ways I found this last more engaging that most of the earlier novels, but perhaps that was because it successfully concludes the tale J. K. Rowling set out to tell rather than leaving us at a point where we know that there is a lot that still needs to be resolved.

As the series has progressed it is clear that Joanna Rowling has developed as a storyteller, and in this last book of the series she demonstrates admirably the way in which she has mastered her craft -- and, it has to be pointed out, has made an awful lot of money in the process! Indeed, I found myself wondering whether she has opened an account for herself at Gringotts Bank! My wife said she doesn't have to worry about her pension, to which I responded that she probably owns the pension fund...

Before publication there was a great deal of speculation about the ending, who would die, and so forth. By the time I got to the last page I was nodding my head and whispering, "How appropriate," for there is satisfaction in the way in which the characters mature is brought to an appropriate conclusion. While I am sure there will be websites popping up with all sorts of alternative endings (if that hasn't happened already), the way the threads are pulled together left me feeling very satisfied and able to continue chewing over the substance of what I had read.

But it wasn't so much the tale that kept nudging me as I read along but what I saw happening with the story. For most of the Potter books I have found myself walking through a landscape that was vaguely familiar, for they are in many respects a variant on the English boarding school stories with which I grew up. Also, having gone to boarding school there were elements that were entirely recognizable, although Hogwarts might have been a lot more interesting than the Victorian hallways, classrooms, and quadrangles where I learned the three Rs.

This book does not stop there but takes us into a bigger landscape. Now I have read it I realize that there were earlier hints that the Potter saga was moving in this direction, but only as the end of the tale approaches do we see the reality of this emerging. There were times when I thought I had wandered into something that was more akin to a Tolkienesque world than the boarding school genre with which we started.

I suspect debates will continue for years about whether Harry Potter has a Christian flavor or not. My wife's aunt in England is firmly of the opinion that the floods that have caused such devastation there are God's judgment on a nation that allowed such anti-Christian stories to sully the minds of the country's children. She is a lovely and godly woman, but I have to disagree with her. However, I am not entirely sure that I agree with Bob Smietana, writing for Christianity Today, that "She began writing about wizards and quidditch and Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans, and somewhere along the way, Christ began to whisper into the story." (

Yet if Christ did not whisper into the story, we were taken to the edge of that larger stage upon which the Lord God in Christ worked out the drama of salvation. While I am not entirely sure in the elaborate mythology of Tolkien that I was ever able to see, as it were, a Jesus figure, Tolkien certainly gave me a wonderful sense of the great divide between good and evil in which Christ is the primary player. This last Harry Potter is somewhat similar.

Just as you cannot leave a Tolkien book without knowing that there is something more than what we can see, touch, feel, and smell, the same is true with this final volume in Rowling's series. If I were an inquistive kid reading this story I would have all sorts of questions about right and wrong, good and evil, life and death, whether there is a resurrection from the dead, and so on. I think I would also have a much more highly developed sense of justice. It is a fabulous launchpad for conscientious Christian parent to talk seriously with their children.

While there is no mention of God, the church, Jesus, or any of the paraphenalia of ecclesiastical life, there is a lot more to these books than may at first glance meet the eye. Some years ago I was a little concerned when a kid brought a Potter book to church with her, I don't have those misgivings now. There are, perhaps, things that a young mind can learn about the topography of time and eternity that Joanna Rowling does not know she is imparting to her readers.

Just as we do not abandon the myths that surround King Arthur, the Holy Grail, and so forth, so here is a 20th and 21st Century myth that broadens our scope and widens our vision. It is entirely possible that the Potter stories will take their place alongside these older tales that have shaped our culture, in the company also of the likes of authors like Charles Dickens and Joseph Conrad. Maybe there's even something of a Moby Dick in there, too.

I grew up with several Ron Weasley-like boys, and I have to confess that every time I read about Hermione Granger I see elements of both my wife and my elder daughter. Dumbledore in a strange way is not unlike a very influential teacher in my own growing up, while when I manage to expel Alan Rickman's movie portrayal of Severus Snape from my mind that wily professor is very like the gangly man with a beak-like nose who taught me to love English literature and the beauty of our langauge. This means, I think, that these characters have become friends, which I suspect is something any novelist wants of her or his creations.

Rather than being scared of the Potter books, in a few years time I am looking forward to being able to sit down with my ganddaughter, Hannah, and read her the first of the Harry Potter stories, hoping that it will give her a love for the language, too, and that it will help her to understand the vastness of the temporal and eternal landscape across which we are rowing our fragile barques.