June 30, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Friday, June 30, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Harry Potter at 20: What will be the legacy of J.K. Rowling's fantasy series 'Harry Potter'?
Two huge cultural anniversaries this week that demand our attention, first the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter. It was 20 years ago this week that J.K. Rowling released the first in the series. The first book was entitled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. A book that became a blip on the horizon later turned out to be an explosion, since then 450 million copies in the print edition of the Harry Potter books. That’s a worldwide phenomenon, and it turned out to be a huge event in popular culture, not only 450 million copies of the print books sold, but also millions and millions, eventually untold billions of dollars in the larger Harry Potter enterprise, including paraphernalia, movies, and all the rest.
There’s some huge questions to ask in retrospect. In the first place there’s an educational, a literacy question. One of the hopes that came riding on the Harry Potter phenomenon was that the popularity of the books might translate into a change in terms of the reading habits of children and adolescents and young adults. There was a desire, perhaps a hope, even then when print books were in something of a decline in face of the digital revolution that this would be a return to literacy in terms of children and young adults. It turned out as the Times Education Supplement tells us from the United Kingdom this week that there is no indication that there was a long-term effect on literacy or reading habits amongst the young.Show Full Transcript
But the larger issue for Christian consideration is what the Harry Potter phenomenon tells us about the fact that human beings desperately need an animating story by which we will live our lives. It’s really interesting to consider the Harry Potter storyline and to understand just how much of it was openly borrowed from pre-existing narratives. Some of those of course came explicitly from the Christian tradition, conveniently secularized in terms of Rowling’s appeal and her telling of the story. There’s no taking away from the fact that she was a brilliant author who capitalized on a compelling story. It’s also really interesting to note just how traditional the setting of her story turned out to be. It’s hard to come up with anything quite so traditional as a British school, a boarding school, and it is also very traditional in terms of its straightforward if simplistic depiction of the contrast and the conflict between good and evil.
And of course, even as many people first came to know that kind of storyline through Harry Potter, that has been one of the most important storylines throughout all of human literature going back to the earliest ages when human beings told stories. And of course Christians understand this is because we are made in the image of God, and we are spiritual beings, and we are narrative creatures. We have to have a story whereby we understand our lives and interpret our own lives in terms of the larger story. Viewed in that perspective, Harry Potter turns out to be a very inadequate story. But it’s important to note that human beings can often incorporate many different storylines into their own self-identity and their own personal stories. Judged by that standard Harry Potter was actually very effective, albeit in a limited way.
Harry Potter it turns out in the English-speaking world became a part of the narrative storyline of a specific generation, the generation of those who were children and adolescents and young adults during the time of the release of the books. College professors, for example, will say that the most commonly recognized narrative or literary lines come from the Harry Potter series for students who for the last several years have been in college and university and many of whom are there even now. It’s also interesting to note that the Harry Potter series basically ran out of steam, and efforts to try to create further storylines out of the Harry Potter series have been spectacularly less successful than the original novels. There’s a reason to understand that. These kinds of secular stories tend to outrun that their cogency and their currency. And for Harry Potter it appears that even though it’s a continuing brand, it’s not so much a continuing unfolding story.
Something else to recognize is that even as that narrative power was very pervasive in one generation it hasn’t really extended to generations thereafter. Now Christians should contemplate that for a moment and contrast that with the enduring power of stories such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Significantly that particular literary series, written back at the midpoint of the 20th century, has become only more popular amongst many readers going forward, but there’s something else Christians need to recognize. That is this: the Christian narrative, any biblical narrative incorporated into literature, is going to require a far thicker understanding than what appears in the Harry Potter series. For many young readers the Harry Potter series was not only interesting; it was fascinating. They lost themselves in terms of the narrative. That’s something of a testimony to the power of literature, but in reality, there’s nothing adequately substantial in the Harry Potter stories in which to create a compelling narrative of one’s life.
Judged over against the Christian worldview in terms of its best literary presentations, the worldview of Harry Potter is simply too thin. Its narrative is far too thin as compared with the thickness that is provided by the biblical worldview and by stories that are far more consistent with that worldview. Furthermore, in terms of literature, scholars will debate sometimes to the endless consternation of Harry Potter fans as to whether or not the novels actually constitute literature. One of the things that we simply have to remind ourselves of at this point is the fact that we often really don’t know what is enduring literature until sufficient time has past. But in that light we’ll simply have to reflect upon the fact that if Harry Potter, it turns out, is enduring literature it will be very indicative of a major change in the Western worldview consonant with the secularization of the age. And judged by the Christian worldview, the greatest failing of the Harry Potter series is not its presentation of sorcery and wizardry, but rather its failure to come to terms with our need not just for rescue, not just for the victory of good over evil, but for redemption. For Christians this 20th anniversary of Harry Potter should remind us of our responsibility to find people and understand the stories that animate and illustrate their lives. We then need to point them to the better story, the infinitely better story, the only saving story, which is the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The iPhone turns 10: Who owns whom? Do we own the iPhone, or does the iPhone own us?
Secondly, and perhaps with far greater enduring importance, this week marks the 10th anniversary of the debut of the iPhone. It’s hard to come up with any comparable technology that has made such a radical difference in the way human beings, especially in the industrialized West, lead their lives. Back ten years ago in the year 2007, it seemed implausible that millions and millions of persons would spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars to own what was then identified as a “smart phone.” But now ten years later, we come to reckon with the fact that the smart phone is now considered to be something of the basic equipment of our very modern, hypermodern, even postmodern world. In a digital age the smartphone has become basic equipment just in terms of navigating and negotiating our lives, not just in terms of communication with another. One of the unexpected developments of the rise of the smartphone is that it became less and less with every passing hour, it seems, a phone. It became a computer rather that went with us wherever we go.
And of course the marvels of it are beyond description. It would be hard to go back to 2007 and try to even explain to ourselves what this smartphone phenomenon, the iPhone in particular, would become. Every single human being holding a smart phone would be holding computing power that was multiply greater than the computers upon the Apollo rockets that took human beings to the moon and back. Virtually the entire world seems to be at one’s fingertips now with these very touch-sensitive screens and with Wi-Fi, something else the people wouldn’t have known to identify in 2007, by which we are connected to almost everyone in the world, almost anywhere we can go. When Steve Jobs of Apple showed that iPhone so proudly to an adoring public, that public looked at a phenomenon it hadn’t understood before. This rectangular, cold, glass, and metal object that would open an entire world and would offer mastery of that world.
In retrospect, we understand that it represented something else, and that was the ultimate privatization in terms of this hyper individualistic world. Now individuals, not just adults but adolescents and children, would inhabit their very own world in terms of access through the portal of this small rectangular device. We were already becoming a people marked by increasing social isolation. The iPhone that came with the promise of connecting us to others actually has had more the exact opposite effect. It has isolated us even further into our own technological and digital domains.
Furthermore, it set loose a revolution that won’t be limited, even now hasn’t been limited to the iPhone. Writing this week at the Wall Street Journal, Christopher Mims says,
“In 10 Years, an iPhone Won’t Be a ‘Phone’.”
As he writes,
“Sure, Apple may still sell a glossy rectangle. (At that point, iPhones may also be thin and foldable, or roll up into scrolls like ancient papyri.) But the suite of apps and services that is today centered around the physical iPhone will have migrated to other, more convenient and equally capable devices—a ‘body area network’ of computers, batteries and sensors residing on our wrists, in our ears, on our faces and who knows where else. We’ll find ourselves leaving the iPhone behind more and more often.”
But at least in terms of technological and cultural directives, there is no reason to believe that we’ll be leaving the logic of the iPhone behind, nor the social effects that the iPhone as it turned out represented. Back ten years ago in 2007, the iPhone appeared to be a luxury that might be bought by just a few. But as we now know, it has become something considered a necessity, and in this world, if we’re playing by the world’s terms, of course it is. And I use an iPhone, many people are listening to The Briefing, right now, on an iPhone, but the question the iPhone represents to us is: who owns whom? Do we own the iPhone, or, increasingly, immorally does the iPhone own us?
Recognizing this ten-year anniversary, Tony Reinke has written a new book entitled,
12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You
Written from an explicitly Christian perspective, he lists twelve different ways that the iPhone is changing us. He says we are addicted to distraction. We ignore our flesh and blood. We crave immediate approval. We lose our literacy. We feed on the produced. We become like what we like. We get lonely. We get comfortable in secret vices. We lose meaning. We fear missing out. We become harsh to one another. And we lose our place in time. I think Reinke is right on every one of those points. But of course we also need to recognize with honesty, there are trade-offs with every technology. There always have been. When human beings invented the wheel, or as it was said, discovered the wheel, the reality is it brought good things and bad things. The same thing can be said of virtually every other technology, including radio and television. You can go right down the list, all the way to air-conditioning.
But when it comes to the iPhone, it has come with specifically and uniquely moral effects, social effects that have great moral consequence. I think Reinke’s right about all twelve of those points. The other side of it of course is that even though Reinke’s right—we lose our place and time—in reality, it’s become almost impossible for anyone with an iPhone to become lost. Through its GPS capacity and its mapping services, we can locate ourselves just about anytime, anywhere, almost magically. Gone are the days when human beings unfolded a print map. Today’s kids, teenagers, and young adults don’t even know how to do that. Instead, they simply know what it means to press an app, and instantly to be found, and to find directions quite easily, even if those directions are ignored.
Commercially and financially, the iPhone was understood ten years ago to be a massive gamble by Apple. Talk about a gamble that paid off, and now Apple is selling iPhones by the millions, not just in the United States and in other Western nations, but in Asia, particularly in China as well. With the massive technological developments that came in the Western world during the 20th century, Christian theologians such as Jacques Ellul consider the fact that every technology comes as a theological challenge that thinking Christians need to understand and take into full account the theological implications of the technologies we use. In the most sinister form these theological implications are hidden from us, but these theological implications, along with the attendant moral and social implications, simply are a matter of our Christian stewardship and discipleship. We are accountable for the technologies we use. We’re also accountable for the technologies we choose not to use. We’re accountable for the way we use technologies, including perhaps most specifically now, the smart phone, the iPhone.
In terms of a Christian consideration of these theological implications, we have to take into effect not only what it means for all persons in terms of this hyper individualization, the isolation that comes and the moral complications that come from access to pornography, instantaneous likes, the affirmation upon which human beings seem to become dependent in terms of social media, but we also have to understand how it has changed, in far too many cases, even something so basic as the relationship between parents and children. It’s not just the digital age in general. It’s perhaps the rise of the smart phone specifically that has more than anything else removed parents as the ultimate authorities and sources of truth in the lives of their own children. Rather than ask mom or dad, kids these days can just Google or ask Wikipedia.
And those issues may appear to be the most tame and nonthreatening of the way that the relationship between parents and children has been fundamentally changed, and you’ll notice the moral complexities of all of this. Just simply ask yourself this question: if you’re to be considered a sophisticated, upright, attentive, and responsible parent, say in a suburb of a major American city in these times, would you be considered irresponsible for giving your child or teenager an iPhone or for not giving it to them? One of the moral imperatives comes with the issue of security and safety. How could you possibly as a parent not give to your child the security that comes with that kind of connectivity? On the other hand of course, there’s the case to be made that it’s irresponsible in extreme to put a smart phone with all of its connectivity, with all of its vulnerabilities, with all of its instant access into the hands of those who are certainly by a parental responsibility to be guarded from many of the very things that that iPhone makes instantaneously and anonymously and privately accessible.
Christians in past generations did not have to ask these questions, including Christian parents. But now in this generation, we have no choice but to ask these questions. A reminder to us that when we have a major technological development, such as the smart phone, ten years old this week, it affects even those persons who say, “We are not going to purchase this item, and we’re not going to use it.” It creates a fundamental shift in the entire society that eventually affects even those who think themselves to be abstainers from the technology. The technology is so fundamental in terms of the way it changes society there’s no escaping the consequences even if right now you do not carry an iPhone and if you’re not listening to The Briefing on an iPhone.
The important thing to recognize is that the default in this society at present is that everyone can and should have such an instrument, and its connectivity, and be available and accessible through it all the time. So there it is, the second huge cultural anniversary coming this week, first Harry Potter, then the iPhone. Over time there is no question which will be the more important in terms of impact. The iPhone beats Harry Potter hands down. But the other thing we need to recognize is that right now, the iPhone beats just about every other technology and cultural influence, day by day, hour by hour, even right now.
Religious liberty vs. sexual liberty: How "dignitary harm" could completely reshape the conversation
Finally this week at The Gospel Coalition, I have published a major review of a new book published by Oxford University Press. It’s by John Corvino, Ryan T. Anderson, and Sherif Girgis, the title, Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination. It’s a really important book because it is an exchange of views on this frontline issue that’s inescapable in our times. As I’ve often discussed, and as I presented my book, We Cannot Be Silent, we’re talking about the inevitable collision between religious liberty and this new-styled sexual liberty. The book, Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination, is something of a state-of-the-art form of the argument. Arguing on behalf of religious liberty, Ryan T. Anderson and Sherif Girgis. Writing on behalf of the LGBT movement is John Corvino.
Now there is much to discuss in this book, but on this occasion, I want to discuss just one point that I believe may be the most enduring significance of this book. In making the case for what can only be the renegotiation of religious liberty in this country—as a matter of fact, John Corvino, the philosopher, doesn’t seem to believe there’s anything particularly important or to be protected when it comes to religious claims—the big issue is what he writes about in making the claim of dignitary harm. He contrast this with material harm. In terms of litigation in society the major concern has been about creating material harm, a loss to body or property or some other entity. But now Corvino writes in terms of dignitary harm, and this is really important in the challenge we face. There’s this one clash of arguments that in the book I think over time will be seen as most important. It’s dignitary harm as differentiated from material harm.
Corvino describes dignitary harm in these three points:
1) treating people as inferior, regardless of whether anyone recognizes the mistreatment;
(2) causing people to feel inferior, intentionally or not; and
(3) contributing to systemic moral inequality, intentionally or not.
Now let’s just pause for a moment. I really don’t know of any more momentous argument that I have confronted in many years. This is the claim, and it’s now a claim that’s being put forth by a leading LGBTQ proponent, that material harm should be considered alongside this new dignitary harm. And notice very carefully, this dignitary harm is defined as treating anyone as being morally inferior to oneself or any moral argument as being morally inferior to any other. Now let’s just note that doesn’t only mean the end of religious liberty, it means the end of any moral argumentation because you can’t have moral argumentation without believing that one’s own moral position is superior to the argument you are confronting. Indeed, Corvino is making the argument in this book that his moral worldview is superior to that of Anderson and Girgis. There’s no way around that.
So where is the power in his argument? The power in his argument is that there are certain persons who were identified as to be a protected class, who are to be protected from any claim of moral inferiority. Now you’ll notice that this is a very significant, it’s a monumentally significant, shift in the argument. It’s a shift in the argument from, “You must recognize our right to exist. You must recognize our right even to be married,” to “You must agree that our moral state is on par with your moral state. You must agree that a same-sex married couple is in no way morally inferior to a heterosexually married couple.” Now that’s a stunning claim. It shows you just how fast this moral revolution is progressing. This is a book that’s already come out. It came out just this past week. It’s an argument then that is already current. It’s an argument being made by a leading philosopher and proponent for the LGBTQ movement. It’s an argument that is going to have compelling power, we need to note, in our secular society. It is the argument that runs on the heels of the Obergefell decision legalizing same-sex marriage in 2015. Again, this is the two-year anniversary of that Supreme Court decision. My review of the book and of these issues is again found this week at The Gospel Coalition. We’ll put the link up at the website for AlbertMohler.com in this day’s edition of The Briefing. But this is an issue to which we return. It’s that big. We can’t possibly put an end to it today. It’s going to be one of those issues we will confront time and time again. But as we go into the summer, at least we need to recognize this is a powerful new argument, and it’s coming at us very quickly.