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Rich Christiano[Jeff Gerke]

Interview: John Granger

John Granger is the author of The Hidden Key to Harry Potter and Looking for God in Harry Potter. He was born in Corning, NY, and holds a degree in Classical Languages from the University of Chicago. John took part in the list in November, 2005. Graham Darling, Donna Farley, Marty Helgesen, Patrick McGuire, and Greg Slade asked the questions, and here is an edited version of the question and answer sequence. You can learn more about John and his work from his web page at www.HogwartsProfessor.com.

DF: Where were you born? What is your educational background?

I was born in Corning, New York, which is about ten minutes from the Pennsylvania north-central border (100 or fewer miles due north of Williamsport, I think.) We moved a lot. I grew up in northern New Jersey in a small town called Mountain Lakes. I went to prep school at Phillips Exeter Academy and to college at the University of Chicago. I graduated from Chicago in 1983 with a degree in Classical Languages.

DF: What is your family situation? (Married? Kids? 1.7 dogs?)

I am married. Mary and I have seven children, ages 5 to 17. She pretty much pays all the bills via her cooking business while I teach the children (we homeschool), wash pans, and write books or give talks. We are a pretty happy bunch living on the poverty line on the Olympic Peninsula. [Note: Since this interview, John has moved to Wayne, PA, with his family. He teaches Latin at Valley Forge Military Academy.]

DF: Who are your influences as a writer/favourite writers of fantastic fiction, and why?

My job is to track the influences of authors on other authors – but I haven't given a thought to what my influences are. Certainly I think the way I do because of the way I was taught to think at Exeter and Chicago, where "penetration" and "secret Writing" (because of the prevalence of students of Leo Strauss at Chicago) were the key virtue and discovery, respectively, we were taught to esteem as the prizes of serious reading. I think what I do because of my being won over as a young man to the perspective on modernity in the books by Rene Guenon, Frithjof Schuon, and their many students (especially Martin Lings and Titus Birckhardt), the so-called traditionalist school.

About fantastic fiction, I'm afraid I'm something of an ignoramus. I read The Lord of the Rings as a young man but it didn't make the impression on me that it did on my friends. I didn't discover C. S. Lewis and Narnia until college where his thoughts on the reasonableness of Christianity helped soften my youthful atheism (godlessness being a strong part of the Chicago curriculum in those years, too.) I read Asimov's Foundation trilogy and loved it, but found almost everything else he wrote, forgive me, somehow annoying and self-celebrating.

The one author whose books I loved and read again and again was Ray Bradbury, especially his October Country. I recently found one of these books in a used book store and looked through it – and didn't care for what I read. Quite a disappointment. But only the Hardy Boys and comic strip collections (those big books put out in the 70's of years of Dick Tracy, Buck Rogers, and Little Orphan strips) sparked my interest and kept my attention like Ray Bradbury.

And I would be less than honest if I didn't admit that my favorite reading as a young man until two years after I left college was super hero comic books, especially Batman, Captain America, and the groups (Fantastic Four, the Invaders, Justice League/Society, X-Men, Defenders, Avengers, etc.) I didn't have the money to indulge in anything like a collection or steady reading but I loved the adventures, the pictures, and the heroic morality tales and would binge-buy as my pocket money allowed.

DF: How did you become a Christian? C.S. Lewis wrote about how literature led him back to God. Was literature (Christian or not) a part of your spiritual journey?

I don't think so but, reading is such a big part of my life, perhaps this is just willing self-blindness. I think I became a Christian because I thought of myself as being smarter than the average bear and because I wanted to be living in resistance to the agnostic philosophical currents of our times. All my most intelligent friends were Christians and the smarter writers I was reading were also God-believers and merciless critics of naturalism and the modern/post-modern world. I remember being asked in college why I was studying Greek and Latin. My answer was "Either pretence or self-importance" – and I'm afraid this would also be an honest answer to how or why I became a Christian.

I should also say I realized I was a first class jerk and that I was incapable of righting myself by myself. I had learned, through a change in diet, believe it or not, at age 23, that God's Word was a physical as well as a metaphysical principle. This, as much as intelligent apologists like Lewis and Ware, broke down my resistance to faith in Christ as an opiate for idiots. Understanding that Jesus of Nazareth was the Incarnation of the Logos – and that this Word was the Creative Principle evident in everything existent – made a return to Christian faith almost a necessity. Certainly it made the Eucharist appear as the necessity to spiritual life that It is.

DF: How did you choose the church you attend?

Again, I think the most honest answer is a tendency for over compensation (I'm a short man) and the egocentric failing of "all-or-nothing" ism. This and the fact that the Orthodox Christians are the only Christians who accept the central place of fasting and feasting in the spiritual life, which really impressed me. I think I became Orthodox (I grew up in the American Episcopal Church) for the same reasons I had joined the Marine Corps: a martial, whole-hog attitude and a hint of disdain for the junior varsity, heterodox players. I am an "old calendarist" because, among the Orthodox in America at least, they seemed the most determined to preserve the savor of tradition and to live in resistance to sloppy thinking and informal worship. I like to think I am less of a jerk (and a sinner) than I was because of the obediences and conformity to standards required by Orthodoxy as well as by receiving the Graces these things make possible. Water on a very hard rock.

I should say, too, that the Orthodox Christians apologists and Fathers I read as an enquirer wrote about the soul having a noetic faculty and that the enlightenment of this faculty, noesis or theosis, was the telos or end of human design. I believed this be true from my reading of Sufi writers like Guenon – and my experience of Orthodox worship (in contrast to my experience of Catholic and Protestant services) made me think the Orthodox alone among Christians were serious about pursuing this end. I never thought seriously of becoming a Sufi because of how absurd Americans who tried to become Japanese or Muslims had always struck me. I knew a duck was more likely to become a lion or elephant than I a Sufi. As a westerner raised in the Christian tradition, however compromised, I knew I had to be a traditional Christian or nothing.

DF: Briefly – When and how did you start to write about Harry Potter?

I read the first book in order to explain to my oldest daughter, who had been given a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, why we don't read serial trash like this. I assumed it was something like Goosebumps. I didn't know anything about Christian objections to the book. I read it – and loved it. Ms. Rowling is a classicist and an acerbic critic of Muggledom. The alchemy and profound Christian imagery of the books I thought (and still think) were wonderful and edifying.

I started writing about it because I gave four lectures at the local Carnegie library ("Taking Harry Seriously") which were filmed for television. I sent tapes to friends who asked for them – and they told me I should write up the talks and publish them (they also said they would pay for it.) This became The Hidden Key to Harry Potter (Zossima Press, 2002) which quickly sold out its first run. Tyndale bought it and a much revised version is available now as Looking for God in Harry Potter (Salt River, 2004.) My agent is shopping around a proposal for a book called Harry meets Hamlet and Scrooge: A Serious Reader's Guide to Harry Potter. It is a tour of the various authors and genres from the English literary tradition Ms. Rowling has "rowled" seamlessly into her story.

GS: Have you ever had the chance to communicate with Rowling herself about her writings, and your writings on her writings, and the whole "Is she a stealth Wiccan or a stealth Christian" controversy?

I have sent Ms. Rowling copies of both versions of my book and have not received acknowledgement of their receipt or any comment from her. Several readers, who are more kind to me, perhaps, than they should be, have suggested that her comments in her July interviews about C.S. Lewis and specific issues are responses to my published assertions. I doubt that I am on her radar screen. Her lawyers and publishers have said the only ancillary books and guides to Harry Potter that they will endorse are the one she has promised to write at stories' end, a Silmarillion of sorts from her boxes of back story.

I should add that I heard a fascinating lecture at the Belmont C.S. Lewis conference this past weekend by Andrew Lazo of Rice University that has turned my thinking about Ms. Rowling in a new direction. Professor Lazo's brilliant, common sense point was that J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis must be understood first as moderns in order to appreciate their differences with other moderns (namely, that they follow Pound's demand that writers "Innovate! Innovate! Innovate!" by renovating and rehabilitating traditional and medieval formulae.)

I am thinking that Ms. Rowling, too, is best understood, if we must use academic categories, as a post-modern writer who deconstructs the idea of genre and theme, not by reduction and minimalism but by collapsing genres into a category-busting, seamless synthesis. There are at least ten genres from the English literary tradition in the Harry Potter books, of which Christian fantasy is an important one but perhaps not the central one. It is, of course, the most controversial (and ironic) because of the response some have had to the magical backdrops. Her usage of magic, though, in a work that is at least in part Christian inasmuch as it is a celebration of a literary tradition that is almost exclusively Christian, points to her being post-modern in her disregard for conventional and traditional boogeys.

GS: Given that there are some Christians who have been very critical of Rowling and her works, and your own stance on the issue, have you ended up "drawing fire" from the anti-Potter camp?

I have drawn some fire from the Harry Haters but nothing like what Connie Neal experienced at the height of the controversy. I think I have been spared by and large because I approached "the controversy" from literary tradition rather than from within the evangelical communities that were upset by the books. As it is, I receive as much criticism from the Harry Hallowers as from the Haters, and the mail I receive from Christians is on the whole very positive. I get a lot of email (my address is in the book) and only one or two letters every month are anything like Howlers. These letters just want to know how I could be so stupid that I cannot understand how scripture condemns witchcraft, Harry is about witchcraft, therefore, scripture condemns Harry Potter. I have not been successful, as you might imagine, in breaking the iron grasp this faux syllogism has on these writers – but I keep trying.

PM: Before John joined the list, we had an outbreak here of the long-standing controversy about the (allegedly) stereotyped treatment of overweight children (boys especially, I think) in both the Potter series and in C.S. Lewis's Narnia books, where they seem to symbolize selfishness and serve as figures of derision. I'm wondering if John thinks that there is something non-obvious to be said in Rowling's defence.

GD: (quoted from a previous thread) Patrick, maybe you were thinking of items like this, appearing just before the first Harry Potter movie. Here's another critique of Rowling's portrayals of fat people from a neopagan source, dated "Beltane 2002." Here's a bibliography of obesity in literature, as part of a "Literature, Art and Medicine" database. Mentions Rowling, but not Lewis though. For a twist, here's a site urging Rowling not to let Harry Potter be used to sell Coca-Cola because it causes obesity in children. Here's what might be an important point or two from the "Mere Lewis" archives of Sept. 2003.

I confess to never having heard of it, though I am very grateful for the collection of urls Graham posted. I think Ms. Rowling might be accused as correctly of fidelity to children's literature and specifically the Narnia Chronicles in her food writing as of insensitivity to overweight children and the issues of poor eating and body image. Having said that, I wonder if I am not mistaken in thinking that she has self-corrected in response to this criticism. Haven't the last books featured a leaner and meaner Dudley? And less about feasting?

DF: What kind of reactions and interactions have you had with Christians who read your books or hear one of your talks – positive, negative?

The reactions and interactions I have had with Christian readers and audiences have been more positive than I ever could have expected. I have received little of the name calling and vicious comments, live or in email, that Connie Neal received the year before I began writing and speaking on "the Magic Controversy." I think this is because I speak to the issue from a different perspective than she did and our audience is different.

Speaking about the books in the context of English literature rather than Biblical conformity per se puts the average Harry Hater in an uncomfortable position. As a rule s/he knows little about the Great Books and has been taught to defer to authority on academic subjects lest s/he look foolish or backward (a fear we all have but a real insecurity among conservative Christians talking about topical issues). Really, I've gotten off easy.

DF: What about secularists and pagans – in what ways are their reactions and attitudes similar to or different from those of your Christian audiences?

Most of my Christian audiences for talks I think are closeted Harry fans who are delighted by my confirming what they have always suspected, i.e., that these books have a below-the-radar but hardly subtle Christian message. Harry fans who are not Christians, in contrast, have reactions across the spectrum defined by (a) smug satisfaction that the Christians who hate Harry are as stupid as they thought they were and (b) something like horror that the books they love are edifying literature chock full of Christian symbolism and meaning.

At my Nimbus 2003 talk one young woman stood up as soon as I finished speaking to tell the 300 to 400 people there that, no matter what I said, she was never becoming a Christian, she "wasn't buying it." I told her only that I wasn't selling anything except for an interpretation of the books within the context of the tradition in which they are written, an almost exclusively Christian tradition. Both her outburst and my response were greeted by uncomfortable laughter and applause.

DF: How has your life changed since you became the "Hogwarts Professor"?

I wish I could say I've been struggling with issues of celebrity and what to do with my untouched royalty monies. I am the only person in Irondale who has been on CNN's "Paula Zahn Now" program, but my family still lives on the money my wife earns with her cooking business. I'm still a stay-at-home dad teaching our children in the basement and occasional classes at local schools and libraries. We're still scrambling every week to pay the bills. [Note: John reports that he is still scrambling but he now lives outside Philadelphia where he works full time as a Latin teacher.]

GS: How do you find the Harry Potter movies when it comes to dealing with the Christian themes and symbols you find in Rowling's books? Are they more prominent in the films? Less prominent? Edited out entirely?

I have not seen any of the movies more than once and I only saw the second one a few weeks ago; please forgive me if I reveal how little I know about movies in general and HP movies in particular, consequently, in trying to answer this question!

First, the one trick in Ms. Rowling's bag is narrative misdirection. It doesn't really work in the movies, if the movies are careful to show only what Harry sees rather than cutting to scenes of Snape or Dumbledore doing things Harry cannot see. The books' surprises are more impressive than the movie endings I think because we are more closely linked to Harry and his perspective from the narrative line in the novels.

About the Christian symbols, well, I was delighted that the Medieval Morality play at the end of Chamber of Secrets was presented absolutely intact. Who would have thought that Hollywood would show the suffering of the Resurrection bird healing the wounds of the fallen hero, the slayer of the serpent? Not me.

In contrast, the end of Prisoner of Azkaban was remarkable for obscuring the Stag Patronus and Christ Symbol. It was a fuzzy ball of light, I thought, reminiscent of a NDE account. Pretty disappointing, even if the producer/director may have been trying to make readers think of the light behind the door in Order of the Phoenix's Ministry of Magic Department of Mysteries scene.

The threesome, though, of Harry, Ron, and Hermione are all there and consistent with the soul/tryptich that Ms. Rowling uses a la Star Trek, Star Wars, and the Brothers Karamazov. That's the piece we cannot do without – and the movies do a fine job here, I think, in showing the relationships portrayed in the books.

GS: Have you picked up on this Christian "background" that you find in Rowling's work in other works of genre fiction, specifically fantasy, science fiction, or horror? If so, which author(s) have you found in whose works it is particularly prominent, and could you comment a bit on their work?

Two comments here. First, I think what strikes me most about modern and post modern writing is how much any specific work succeeds or fails in serving the mythological or religious function Eliade said all entertainments, especially books, in a secular culture are obliged to fulfil. In a world largely immunized against conscious experience of reality outside energy/matter naturalism, reading and watching movies are where most of us spend our ego-less time, or at least our less obviously self-important moments. I don't read anything anymore without this thought in the back of my mind.

Second, and more to the point of your question, I have been thinking a lot lately about how much C. S. Lewis' Ransom novels and the Ms. Rowling's Harry Potter stories have in common, as well as the important ways in which they differ. What they have in common that is striking and important, I think, is a profound use of alchemical imagery for the edification if not the transformation of readers suspending disbelief and identifying with Ransom/Potter. The difference is in intention.

Andrew Lazo at Rice University argues cogently that the Inklings are best understood first as Modern writers dealing with modern themes and issues. The important difference between Lewis and Tolkien, he says, and Eliot and Pound, is only in their answer to Pound's demand that everyone writing "Innovate! Innovate! Innovate!" The Inkling response is not to deny change or the modern impulse, but to insist that writers and readers are best served by "renovation" and rehabilitation of the best forms and topoi of traditional writing.

To Lewis, this meant that writing, a la Spenser, was about "instructing while delighting" and being relatively open with his didactic and evangelical purpose. Aslan's sacrifice on the Stone Table is a powerful image but not especially subtle or sneaky (how watchful were those dragons really?) The alchemy of the Space trilogy and the astrological underpinnings of Narnia are not in your face artistry but their Christian message is.

If Lewis and Tolkien are modernists writing in reaction to the same questions and issues that provoked all writers of the modern era, albeit as moderns in opposition to the unexamined convictions of modern people, I think the same might be said about Rowling as a post-modern writer. She is exploring the same problems as her contemporaries and she has the same seeming superficiality and lightness that makes her satire comic and winsome. And like the Inklings as "modern medievalists," as Lazo calls them, Rowling works as a post-modern traditionalist critiquing post-modern ennui, deconstruction, and reductionism.

Her Voldemort, for example, is the most powerful indictment of the humanity of our times of any book I have read not written by Guenon, Schuon, Lings, or Perry. He is an idolator, an egotist, fragmented, friendless, and a slave to his fears of death. He is the Twin Enigma ("Tom Riddle") or schizophrenic dualist become a man fleeing mortality ("Voldemort"). As Harry's doppelganger and the person he must come to terms with, I think he will become the signature literary figure for our historical period, as Frodo is for moderns.

But her intention seems more therapeutic and cathartic than didactic. She denies in all her interviews that she is trying to teach her readers anything beyond moral courage, and that she offers only as an after thought. Lewis' paintings in Narnia are meant to suck readers in and change them even against their will by the experiences they have in Aslan's world sailing with Prince Caspian in search of the lost Kings. Rowling's paintings are engaging but only open up if you know what to say to them or what point to touch on the canvas.

Rowling thinks art (painting here being metaphor for literature) is powerful stuff and that it should not force its message on those not ready to penetrate beneath the surface of their own volition. I don't think Lewis or Tolkien share this sensitivity or respect for the individual – or that Rowling has the confidence and faith that the Inklings did in the message they were sharing. Harry Potter's Christian elements are all in place but you have to reach out to grasp them or they will roll off your back. This is I think much less true of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, or Sayer's radio dramas.

DF: There sure is a lot of drinking in this book... each of the first three chapters has the characters sitting down for a different alcoholic drink together. Even in chapter 4, Dumbledore asks for and receives an unspecified drink from Slughorn. What's up with all that? ...and then of course later there is the Horcrux draught....

Donna points to the meaning of the drinking as a literary set-up for the pay-off we receive in Dumbledore's drinking what seem to be the sins of the world (a la Calvary) in the cave. I discuss the meaning of this green draught from hell in my essay "But obviously Dumbledore isn't Jesus" posted at www.HogwartsProfessor.com. But it points to something about Ms. Rowling as a writer that I think her Christian fans and her Christian critics both neglect, perhaps because of their shared ignorance of the Signs of the Times.

Lewis and Tolkien, as I think I have written here before, were modern writers writing about modern issues and critiquing modernity and its blind spots as they did so. They were not Victorian writers, and I think Andrew Mazo is right in suggesting that the Inklings as a subset of the category "Modern Writers" have at least as much in common with the innovative writers of their milieu (Pound, Eliot, Wolfe, etc.) as they do with any Victorians or Edwardians to include MacDonald. The First World War divides them from these groups and, if they are throwbacks to traditional Christian literature, it is in reaction to and as modern writers, not as sentimentalists full of nostalgia. This possibility died at Verdun.

Ms. Rowling, likewise, cannot be an Inkling because to her (as with all of us) World War I is ancient history from the dawn of time before television. Her concerns, like all of ours, are PostModern. We are different people of a different historical age and different mindset, blindspots, and tastes and sentiments than moderns like Lewis and Tolkien (hence the nostalgic atmosphere at most Inkling gatherings, I'm afraid – rather ironic, given the darkness of much of what the Inklings wrote, however hopeful on another level.) Rowling writes to this PoMo audience, who by and large, do not have hang-ups about drinking alcohol. She is not writing for the Christian ghetto or for the Mormons in Salt Lake City. Except for Scholastic's ban, I'm sure the children in her books would be cursing a blue streak.

So what? Well, the virtue of what she has done as a throwback to the Inklings, is that she is writing Christian books that critique the age in which we live and its blindspots while simultaneously addressing its concerns. She smuggles the answers to this problem – which remains communion with Christ, whatever the age – in her themes, symbols, and story scaffolding as deftly as Lewis and Tolkien, and necessarily without the didactic edge these professors and Christian apologists left in everything they wrote, an edge that would rouse the sleeping dragons in her reader's hearts.

Booze? For a generation consumed by hook-ups and "real" drugs, alcohol is a given, part of the fabric of their parents' lives. An abstinent community would be a more unbelievable fantasy than the wands and spells of Hogwarts – and Ms. Rowling reflects this sensibility of her readers in her writing. If this offends the parents in the Christian fundamentalist enclaves (who receive Focus on the Family radio shows by cable), I doubt she cares. Let them eat cake at Mr. Whittaker's.

MH: I had one very minor observation. When I read in his book that "Hermione" is derived from "Hermes" it occurred to me that the chemical symbol for Mercury is Hg.

In case the connection with alchemical Mercury in Hermione's name was not sufficiently made with its masculine form and her initials, Ms. Rowling has made her parents dentists.... Hermione, too, is the sister of Orestes, the other hero with a scar on his forehead and a murdered father to avenge.

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[Karen Hancock][Miles Owens][Robert Liparulo][Bryan Davis, part 2][Chris Walley][Kathryn Mackel][Gene Wolfe][Sharon Hinck][Wayne Thomas Batson][Lars Walker][Christopher Hopper][Jeffrey Overstreet]

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