Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Literary Alchemy

As a Christian, what are we supposed to do when reading about characters who manipulate and control water, air, earth, and fire or who speak commands to direct the sea and air to obey them? What about potions that control elements of nature? Is this witchcraft and therefore to be avoided by Christians? What if the author claims to be a Christian?

These are just some of the issues one must face when reading the Venerable Bede, the 8th century British monk and Biblical scholar. O wait—you thought I was talking about Harry Potter.

The miracles related in the works of Bede (as is true of other writings from this period) have a distinct moral character to them. Bede, and the people of his time, possessed a much greater sensitivity to the spiritual nature of the world around them. They saw events in spiritual terms—comets, storms, fires, harvests, birth and death. We who think through the mind of Greeks are much too quick to look for rational and reasonable explanations as opposed to the wonder of God’s creation. Yes, there are natural laws that govern the universe, but it was Yahweh who created those laws, not the other way around. And as such, those laws reflect the nature and character of Him.

As such, medieval authors often present a person’s virtue in terms of their ability to regain the Edenic ability to take actual dominion over the earth. The process of sanctification is one of moving towards that state of our first parents and the new paradise. Interestingly, that is the goal and process of alchemy—the purification and sanctification of the internal soul. They believed that man was a spirit who had a body, not the other way around (a concept that George MacDonald writes about in Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood).

As Bede shows, Bishop Aidan and St. Cuthbert displayed their virtuous life through their ability to make the waves and wind obey them and by aligning with the harmony of the created order in the way Adam did.

Incidentally, J.K. Rowling uses this medieval concept of the miraculous. The Harry Potter novels have the same approach to spiritual growth, alchemy, and incantational magic that the Medievals understood, wrote about, and assumed as a spiritual metaphor of the Christian life. Interesting…

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