Sermon for January 29th, 2017
The righteous know the needs of their animals, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel.
33 “No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar, but on the lampstand so that those who enter may see the light. 34 Your eye is the lamp of your body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light; but if it is not healthy, your body is full of darkness. 35 Therefore consider whether the light in you is not darkness. 36 If then your whole body is full of light, with no part of it in darkness, it will be as full of light as when a lamp gives you light with its rays.”
2 Corinthians 4:16-18
16 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
Faith & Film V: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Three Minute Film Summary
This film (like all of JK Rowling's stories) has a tremendously complicated plot line. My first few attempts at a summary were almost as long as the movie itself, so I'm borrowing (and modifying) language from a very concise summary I found online from Nick Riganas.
Holding a mysterious leather suitcase in his hand, Newt Scamander, a young activist wizard from England, visits New York while he is on his way to Arizona. Inside his expanding suitcase hides a wide array of diverse, magical creatures that exist among us, ranging from tiny, twig-like ones, to majestic and humongous ones.
It is the middle of the 20s (70 years before the events in the later Harry Potter series) and times are troubled. The fragile equilibrium of secrecy between the unseen world of wizards and the ordinary or "No-Maj" people is maintained by an organization called the Magical Congress of the United States. That balance is at risk of being unsettled, as the the voices against wizardry keep growing with daily protests led by puritanical evangelist Mary Lou Barebone and (on the opposite extreme) fuelled by increasing disasters ascribed to a dark wizard, Gellert Grindelwald.
In a twist of fate, Newt's precious suitcase gets switched with an ordinary one, belonging to an ordinary (non-magical) New Yorker, Jacob Kowalski.
Newt Scamander is arrested for being an "unregistered wizard" by Tina Goldstein, an auror (which is the wizard version of a detective) for the Magical Congress. With Newt's suitcase in the wrong hands, several creatures manage to escape to unknown directions. Before long, this situation catches the attention of Tina's boss, Senior Auror Percival Graves, who targets both Tina and Newt amid panic caused by an invisible, devastating and utterly unpredictable menace that wreaks havoc in New York's 5th Avenue.
And this time, I'm not going to give the ending away.
The Wizarding World of JK Rowling
Fantastic Beasts is written by Joanne Rowling, set in the same world as her more famous Harry Potter series of novels and films. This film is a prequel to those stories. When the first Harry Potter novel came out in the late 1990s, conservative evangelical and fundamentalist Christian groups were instantly up in arms. It was, on the surface, a book about a school for witches and wizards, and there is a famous prohibition in the Old Testament against "witchcraft." Many churches and religious groups demanded for the books to be banned from schools and libraries, some led book burnings, and all of them failed to recognize that the Harry Potter series is, at its core, based on the gospel message of Christianity. How very embarassing for Christians not to even recognize their own story, only slightly hidden in medieval Christian symbols and allegory.
By the seventh book in the series (there were SEVEN books!) it was kind of obvious, but for those of you who still haven't read them, suffice it to say that in every novel, the main character experiences a death and rebirth in the presence of a sybmol of Christ. In that last book, two verses from the Bible show up, and Rowling has said they epitomise the entire series. 1 Corinthians 25:26, "The last enemy to be defeated is death itself," and Matthew 6:21, "Where your treasure is, there your heart is also."
When asked why she hadn't been more open early on about the influence of her faith in the stories, Rowling said that she had been afraid that if people knew, they would have figured out the end to the series long before she got to the last book. And while (ironically) so many Christians didn't figure it out, a few did, and predicted the series' end long before it was written. In one interview, Rowling was asked if she, as the author of children's books about magic, believed in magic herself. She said, "I don't believe in magic, I believe in God."
It's worth noting that while Rowling was raised, and is, an Anglican, she wrote the first book in the Harry Potter series while attending a Presbyterian church, where her oldest daughter was baptised.
Because of all this, when I heard that Rowling was going to continue the story with a series of prequels, I wondered if she would also continue her prolific use of Christian symbols, themes, and messages in this series, too. I was not disappointed.
All Creatures of Our God and King
On the surface, this movie is about fantastic beasts, and where to find them. There's more to it than that, of course, but even on the surface there's a Christian connection here, Proverbs contrasts the righteous, who "know the needs of their animals," with the wicked, whose mercy is cruel. You really can judge a person's character by how they treat animals. The hero of the story, Newt Scamander, is kind and gentle, loves all the animals in his care, the beautiful ones as well as the frightening ones, the largest and deadliest along with the smallest and most insignificant.
He's kind of a modern day version of St. Francis of Assisi, who wrote the words to the hymn All Creatures of our God and King. Others in the film are portrayed as being cruel--or callous and indifferent--to Newt's fantastic beasts, and that's a pretty good indicator of which side they're on, good or evil.
But the animals, magical or otherwise, are not the only "fantastic beasts" in the film. In fact, I think they're a metaphor for the most fantastic creatures of all--the humans. Newt shows just as much fascination and care for his ordinary, non-magical, mundane factory worker friend Jacob as he does for any of his magical creatures. I'm going to come back to this later.
One of the central characters of this film is a young, orphan boy by the name of Credence. Anyone who reads much Harry Potter knows that names are important. To properly understand a character's name is the key to understanding that character, and often the entire story. What does credence mean? In English, it means belief. To give credence or credibility to something is to believe it. The Apostle's Creed is a list of things we believe. The root comes from Latin, and in Latin when it's pronounced Credens, it actually means one who believes, or a believer. Who is the character Credence? He's a believer. Or at least, he's trying to be. He's struggling with belief.
On the surface, he's struggling with the realization that he has the gift of magic. In JK Rowling's world, magic is often a metaphor for creativity and imagination, but sometimes it's also a metaphor for faith or belief.
But Credence, our struggling believer, is torn between two extremes--and they are extemes that pull at all of us in our faith struggle. On one hand, there is the pull from a magic-user, a wizard from the Magical Congress who intitially treats Credence kindly, has recognized his gift, and promises to help him develop it. But there are strings attached. And when Credence hesitates, his wizard friend turns against him and becomes abusive.
On the other extreme is Credence's mother, who detests witches and magic in all forms, and punishes Credence severely for any semlance of interest in it. Because of this, he represses his magical abilities, creating a dark, destructive force known as an "obscurus" which sometimes lashes out from within him uncontrolably. Obscurus, of course, means hidden. Jesus, in Luke, speaks of the dangers of hiding one's light, hiding the gift we have been given.
If Credence's gift is his faith, his belief, then the first extreme represents those who would have us use our gifts, our faith, but for selfish or abusive purposes. I see this in religious circles a lot. Come join our church, our faith...because we need your warm body to fill our seats, we need your money to fund our ministries, we need your talents to make us look good.
The other extreme is the repression of belief. The forces in our world which belittle and persecute us for our beliefs, or encourage us to hide those beliefs from the world. What are the two things you can't talk about in polite company? Politics and Religion. To this, Rowling makes a very strong point: Suppressing your God-given gift, hiding your light away from the world, ultimately leads to darkness and death.
I think the wizards of the Magical Congress, in this film, ironically can be taken to represent legalistic religious groups in our world that profess the importance of faith, but really care more about your allegiance to their causes than your soul. And the New Salem fanatics, ironically, represent the militant atheists in our world who deny the very existence of the soul and its eternal worth.
This is the tension that exists in the world of Fantastic Beasts. It is the tension that grips our own world and our own tendencdy to political and religious extremism as well.
Love Drives All of Us Wild
What to do? In the middle of this tension comes Newt Scamander, a good shepherd who loves and takes care of his sheep, a messenger sent from a far away place to break through our false dicotomies, to remind us what is truly important, and to preach a message of unconditional love for all. Sound familiar? It should.
Newt and his disciples (Jacob, Tina, and Tina's sister, Queenie) as they travel from place to place in the streets of New York, develop an appreciation and love for each other that transcends social class, political persuasion, and ability to use magic or not. They are the only ones to reach out to Credence in love, for who he is, not for what he can do.
Near the middle of the film, the main characters are all in a 1920s magical speakeasy, and there is an elf-like jazz singer singing a song in the background. Most people probably ignore the words, but if you listen, they state what I think is actually central theological message of the entire film, which ties together the fantastic beasts...and the fantastic people:
Yes, love has set the beasts astir, The dangerous and the meek concur, It's ruffled feathers, fleece, and fur, 'Cause love drives all of us wild.
Wild, in this case, is the state of our purest nature, the way God created us, free from the domesticating worldly influences of sin, violence, and opression. Love drives all of us wild. Love returns us to God.
This film also reminds me of another song, which was written by Cecil Frances Alexander, in her collection of Hymns for Little Children, which was meant to put to music the faith and belief articulated in the Apostle's Creed. Her song may be familiar to you, and I'd like to end with her words:
All things bright and beautiful, All creatures great and small, All things wise and wonderful, The Lord God made them all.