Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix -- isolation or teamwork

Director: David Yates, 2007.

With this fifth installment of the Harry Potter series, the characters are well-defined and the overall story arc is underway. In the last film, Goblet of Fire, Lord Voldemort was re-embodied and came back. As the series has turned darker, so the story has become deeper and fuller. There is death here, even death of a key character. But there is life, too, with the bright themes of friendship, loyalty, teamwork and truth. These are the redemptive threads that make these films enjoyable.

Where Goblet of Fire did not include any of the Dursleys, Phoenix starts back in muggle-land. It's a strangely hot summer. But as Harry and cousin Dudley face off, the sky suddenly darkens and the temperature drops fifty degrees in fifty seconds. Running for their lives, they shelter in a tunnel. But they cannot run from the dementors who swoop to suck the life and joy out of both. With Voldemort back things are not the same. When Harry uses his magic to save both himself and his bullying cousin, he breaks the laws of the Ministry of Magic. He has to appear before a full inquiry headed by the minister himself, Cornelius Fudge.

It is at this inquiry that we learn that the minister and the ministry are refuting the return of Voldemort. When Dumbledore, defending Harry, says, "The evidence that the Dark Lord has returned is incontrovertible," Fudge responds, "He is not back!" Not content to ignore the events at the end of Goblet of Fire, the Ministry and the Press are running a smear campaign against Dumbledore and Harry who are preaching the bad news. Potter is declared to be a Plotter and Dumbledore is maligned as wanting Fudge's job.

The Ministry does not want the truth to emerge since this will cause fear and panic and require action on their behalf. There is a place for propaganda in war, when we want the enemy to be misinformed. But it is wrong to deceive the people when war is imminent. There are times to shield the truth from those who are not ready to hear it. But this is not one of them. The honest wizarding families needed to know that Voldemort had returned so as to prepare their defenses. Similarly, there are times when we need to know the truth so we can take appropriate action. Lies and deception tend to enslave. Lies are sins, and come from the father of lies (Jn. 8:44). They create animosity and division, as they do here, and they require huge amounts of energy to keep track of. In contrast, the truth is freeing and empowering (Jn. 8:32). It is better to err on the side of truth than deception. Harry and his friends arrive at Hogwarts, they find a new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton). Appointed by Fudge, she is a plant to ensure that Dumbledore and Potter stay in line. Avoiding any actual experience of spells in class, she focuses solely on theoretical book-knowledge. She also acts as a Spanish Inquisitor, with powers to do almost anything. Hogwarts, with Umbridge, descends into a totalitarian institution. With Draco Malfoy appointed one of her deputies it can rightly be called draconian. Umbridge taking control of the school so the students don't learn the truth, Harry is isolated. Many of the students believe what they have been told or read, that Harry is a liar. Only Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) remain loyal. But new student looney Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch) tells him she and her father believe him too. When Harry says, "Seems you're about the only ones that do," she replies, "I suppose that's how he wants you to feel. . . If I were You-Know-Who, I'd want you to feel cut off from everyone else. Because if it's just you alone, you're not much of a threat." Isolation leads to despair and despair is crippling.

Isolation is a key strategy in warfare. By separating a soldier from his troop and making him think he is all alone, the enemy can debilitate him making him powerless and no threat at all. This is how Voldemort worked. And it is how Satan works. Throughout history, this strategy has been effective. In the Old Testament, Elijah thought he was the only true prophet of God left and fell into despair (1 Kings 19:1-10). Yet, God had a reserve of 7000 faithful followers in store and when Elijah saw this his strength and resolve returned (1 Kings 19:18). We can fall prey to this attack today.

When we feel alone, separated from other Christians we can become despondent and our flame dwindles. By turning to God, and trusting him we can realize the truth is something else. We are never alone. Jesus has promised to always be with us (Matt. 28:20). We can walk confident in this promise. this fifth year, Harry experiences strange dreams, dreams where he sees things from a snake's perspective. Somehow, Voldemort is getting into his head while he is asleep. Fearful of this growing connection with Voldemort, Harry thinks he is becoming more like him. In a moment of honest vulnerability, he confesses this to his godfather, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman). Black comforts him, "You're not a bad person. You're a very good person. . . . We've all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That's who we really are." Good comfort, bad theology.

Theologically, we are all depraved creatures (Jer. 17:9). Depravity means that sin has impacted us deeply to our core, and every part of us has been touched by this sin. It does not mean that we are as bad as we can be. But there is nothing that remains free of sin. We can do good; indeed we do. And we are good, to some degree. So, Black is right that we have all got light and dark inside of us. But the dark will win because our own light is not enough. Unless we turn to the Light, Jesus Christ (John 9:5), our own light will dim until we die with a dark soul. Jesus, though, can rescue us from the kingdom of darkness and brings us into his kingdom of light (Col. 1:13); that is, if we let him.

In Order of Phoenix, the rebellion begins. The forces of good start preparing for the inevitable war that will happen. Just as the adult wizards on the side of good have formed the secret Order of the Phoenix, so Harry, at Hermione's request, forms Dumbledore's Army to prepare the student wizards. While Umbridge is wasting their class time, Harry begins teaching them real defenses against the dark arts. In doing so, he sees that he is not alone, there are other students who want to stand up for good and confront evil. the exciting climax approaches, Harry is drawn mysteriously back to the Ministry. He thinks it is best to go it alone, but Ron, Hermione and some others from his "army" persuade him that teamwork will prevail: "We're in this together!" This is good advice for Harry and for us. We cannot live apart from others. In the Christian community, when we find ourselves pulling away, the words from Hebrews echoes Hermione's advice: "Let us not give up meeting together" (Heb. 10:25). We cannot have victory alone.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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