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Harry Potter and Christian Theology

10 Jul

I like reading Huffington Post because they often have interesting articles on everyday topics. I’m kicking off Harry Potter week today while, like most of the world, counting down to the finale. I’m going to try to attempt to put into words how I feel about the series. In the meantime, here’s a wonderful article on Harry Potter as it relates to Christian theology.

See the original post here.

In an attic apartment during my last year of graduate school at Yale, I ate pizza with two friends and crafted a syllabus for the Harry Potter and Christian Theology course. My plan: de-emphasize witchcraft — which previously dominated Christian perspectives on the series — and focus on a variety of other topics in theology, including forgiveness, salvation and grace. Reframing would allow for richer, deeper analysis, letting students visit not just one small country but the entire globe of theology so that they could decide for themselves whether the books supported a Christian worldview.

But the proposal initially met with skepticism. Popular culture isn’t often included in a liberal arts curriculum, nor is an introduction to theology typically taught alongside literature many perceive to be for children. In fact, one student who participated in the selection process said of my idea: “The committee had a good laugh over the Harry Potter proposal” because it was “not something you could talk about for 13 weeks.”

And yet, between 2,000 years of theologians with their fast-firing synapses, logical savvy and critically constructed thoughts, and seven volumes of J.K. Rowling’s nuanced prose, there is more than enough fodder for discussion. Consider, for instance, whether there’s a God-figure in the series. This is the first issue my students question and it becomes the fundamental one in the course. Classical theologians define God using three characteristics: omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence (otherwise known as the Three Os). Yet it’s hard to think of a person within the series who possesses all three qualifications.

Every potential Christ-figure in the series falls short of at least one criterion. Harry, for instance, lacks full knowledge (omniscience) or he would have known the whereabouts of all the Horcruxes, while Dumbledore lacks omnipotence, or else he would have had the power to defeat the Death Eaters and their Dark Lord himself. Lily Potter’s death — while making her fully human — precludes her from being fully divine on the omnipotence count, and Severus Snape lacks not only in omniscience but also in omnibenevolence. Every character my students consider meets obstacles such as these.

Yet what if the search for a God-figure wasn’t limited to people? After all, God is ephemeral, transcendental, somehow beyond human. Looking for God beyond human form opens the possibility that something more abstract might fit the bill, something like love. Many of my students come to the conclusion that love is the closest approximation to God in Harry Potter, in part because God is defined as love in Christian tradition (1 John 4:16). Of course it goes without saying that love is all-good, but love also guides the operation and has the power to defeat Voldemort. Even in the first book, the reader sees evidence of love’s God-likeness when Dumbledore tells Harry:

Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no not a visible sign … to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. Quirrell, full of hatred, greed, and ambition, sharing his soul with Voldemort, could not touch you for this reason. It was agony to touch a person marked by something so good (SS, 299).

Intriguingly, love’s identity as something God-like within the series is a departure from other 20th-century fantasy books with theological overtones, most notably “The Chronicles of Narnia,” which depict God as a being (i.e. Aslan). This fact is not lost on my students. Why is that significant? My sense is that presenting God as an abstract concept resonates for many non-Christians who live in an era of skepticism. In other words, to describe God like this tracks for contemporary seekers in our scientific age who shy away from personifications of God because they feel too unrealistic.

Interestingly, if God is imaged as a force, the devil is not. In our section on Eucharistic theology, the moment when Voldemort regains his body with Wormtail’s invocation grabs my students’ attention:

Flesh — of the servant — w-willingly given — you will — revive your master … B-blood of the enemy … forcibly taken … you will … resurrect your foe (GOF, 641-2).

Few miss the connection when they then read Jesus’ lines at the Last Supper: “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me” and “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant of my blood” (NRSV, Lk. 22:19-20). It seems as if Voldemort’s words are quite literally the opposite of Jesus’: Whereas Jesus gives his body and blood for the eternal life of many, Voldemort demands the bodily sacrifices of many for his own revival. In this way, he is quite literally the opposite of Jesus.

Intriguingly, in the last moments of Voldemort’s life, Harry gives his anti-Christ enemy a last chance at redemption: “I’d advise you to think about what you’ve done,” Harry says. “Think, and try for some remorse” (DH, 741). So it would seem that when it comes to forgiveness, even the most damaged creatures in the wizarding world are given the possibility of wholeness if they repent. Restoration, then, is not for a chosen elect but for those who take the opportunity to choose.

If salvation is offered to all in the Harry Potter series, there is still the matter of figuring out who does the saving in the Harry Potter series. In Christian theology, it is Jesus who saves through his work on the cross and resurrection. Most Christians define Christ as being fully God and fully human, largely thanks to the medieval reflections of Anselm of Canterbury. For Christ to be fully human means that Jesus cognitively developed over time just like any child maturing to adulthood does, and it also means that he was made of flesh as vulnerable as ours. For Jesus to be fully God means he possesses the same Three O characteristics mentioned above.

So, is there anyone in the series that meets these criteria? The short answer is: No, there is not, for the same reasons that there was no person who functioned as a God-figure in the series. No one is quite godly enough.

Yet in order to discern a Christ-figure, it’s necessary to evaluate not only who Jesus is but also the work that he does. For some, salvation is accomplished in Jesus’ defeat of evil, which is done during a cosmic battle in Hell between his death and resurrection. That defeat meant that evil, no matter how powerful, could no longer trump God’s loving power. A different perspective — and probably the most commonly held one — states that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was an act of supreme obedience offered in order to free humans from the power of sin. (Some Christians would understand just one of the previous theologies to define salvation, whereas others would resonate with a variety.)

While these are two of several major theologies of salvation, the reader can see that these ideas are certainly present in the Harry Potter series. Dumbledore, while neither omnipotent nor — due to his younger years — omnibenevolent, teaches Harry about the power of love and, in that way, procures salvation for the wizarding world. Similarly, Neville, Ron, Hermione, Mrs. Weasley, Fred, George, Ginny, Luna and a host of others work together to defeat evil in the final battle at Hogwarts. Likewise, Harry, in his walk through the Forbidden Forest, subscribes to the radical obedience to death typified in Anselm’s theory.

Curiously, what the Harry Potter books do is to accomplish the work of Christ utilizing a whole community instead of a single person, which explains why no individual character closely resembles Jesus. This means that salvation is accomplished not by one person but by many people working together, with love (aka God) for a guide. Ethically, a theology like this has important implications because it empowers people — both in Harry’s world and our own — to live the life compassion for which Jesus lived and died.

What do students think of ideas like this? Over the years I’ve offered the Christian Theology and Harry Potter class, students consistently rank it a favorite, regardless of their faith tradition. This may be because my students treasure any excuse to re-read their favorite saga, but my sense is that the real reason for the course’s success runs deeper than that: The subjects theology tackles — what the purpose of evil is, whether we can maintain relationships beyond the grave, what forgiveness looks like — are the ones that keep our minds racing at 2 a.m., when we’re wrapped in warm blankets and sipping hot milk for comfort. Yet without a vocabulary — Christian or otherwise — to express those questions, it’s hard to find lasting resolution or peace. That’s why I tell my students that I know Harry Potter brought them to the class, but I hope that theology keeps them there, because questions about how much we love our neighbor or how much we embrace diversity are worth some curiosity, whether one is planning to become an elementary school teacher or a cardiologist. In other words, while I don’t expect or encourage my students to embrace the Christian faith, I do ask them to consider the kinds of questions that faith demands.

At the end of the first year that I taught the Christian theology and Harry Potter course, one of my sophomores asked if she could speak with me. She came from a secular background, a home in which religion was a banned topic. “Your class gave me a way to talk about questions of ultimate meaning,” she said. “I never had that before.”

I left smiling that day. It was the highest compliment she could have offered.


Conspiracy Theory

30 Jun

It’s geeky to think about conspiracy theories, right? Well, today’s Plinky prompt inspires me to think so: What conspiracy theory do you believe in?

If you’ve read Angels and Demons or The Da Vinci Code, you know about the wild theories and codes solved by Robert Langdon, put down by some of the greatest religious, philosophical, scientific, and artistic minds in history. While I wouldn’t necessarily say I believe that Jesus was married and has a legitimate bloodline, I do subscribe to the theory that history is full of twists and turns that are stranger than fiction. We’ll never know the answers to these crazy quesitons, but I do think it’s possible that ancient relics and facts have been buried throughout history, making it impossible for us to discover them. So I guess I’m taking a cop-out here. I’m not saying I believe these kinds of conspiracy theories. I’m saying that I’m open to the idea that history is complicated, that the world is full of questions without an answer, and that there are secrets that were never meant to be uncovered.

We aren’t meant to know or understand everything. There are mysteries in the world that will never be solved. And we shouldn’t limit our imaginations to thinking that we’re capable of figuring it all out. It’s possible that there are buried treasures out there, both tangible and theoretical, and it’s fascinating to think about what history has done to them. But we won’t ever know the truth.

Ten Things Tuesday – May 10

10 May

Ten things that would make the world a better place:

1. If kids actually respected and obeyed their parents. But before that can happen, parents need to take charge of their kids’ behavior, discipline them, and care about what happens to them. If they did these things, and oh, I don’t know, acted like an actual parent, their kids would actually listen to them. I’m more than worried for the youth of this country, and I blame parents, mostly.

2. Secondly I blame video games. I think kids should quit playing so many video games and get outside more often. I have a big problem with really young kids who play violent video games. It does nothing but encourage rage, laziness, and easy distraction while completely ruining problem-solving skills.

3. An education system that actually serves kids. Lawmakers and politicians have gotten their hands far too deep into the education system, and it doesn’t really work anymore. No wonder so many kids and schools are failing – they rely on data and completely unrealistic expectations and evaluation systems. We forget that it’s people who need to benefit from education, and people that it affects. We’re not a number, or a textbook, or a test score. We are people who benefit from quality education.

4. An attitude of servitude and a willingness to volunteer. If people actually served each other, instead of their own interests, I think we’d be much more cooperative as a society. I realize that this is totally unrealistic, but I would love to see some kind of instituted service for everyone. Sure, sure, not everyone would appreciate it or enjoy it, but I think it would be highly beneficial. When you graduate high school, spend one year of your life dedicated to service learning, then go on to pursue an education or a career. See how your perspective changes then.

5. Being able to eat as much ice cream as you want, without getting sick or fat. Ice cream just makes you feel better, hands down. And how could that possibly make the world worse?

6. Handwritten letters. I do see the irony of this, as I type this sentence on my computer. We’ve forgotten the art of letter-writing, and conversing with others just because it makes us feel good to have someone to talk to and listen to. Now, we don’t even have enough time to write out a complete word in a text message – we have to abbreviate it into this nonsensical shorthand. We have all these forms of instant mass communication at our hands, and still we feel more disconnected than ever. Along those lines, we need to quit texting each other and actually have a conversation with a real, live person. Especially when you’re in the company of others, and all you can do is type away on your phone to people you’re not even with. As previously stated, we don’t even know how to talk to each other anymore.

7. Show respect for so-called “blue collar” jobs. You don’t want to pick up trash for a living? Fine, you don’t have to. You don’t know how to fix a car? That’s OK. But just because you’re highly educated, don’t undervalue or underestimate the value and importance of people able and willing to do these things. Someone has to get their hands dirty. While it probably won’t be me, I have a great respect for the people who do. I admire people who happily work in labor jobs that bring a sense of self-satisfaction and accomplishment. These people are some of the happiest around. They do an honest day’s work at a job that truly needs doing. If we don’t have people to repair our roads, build houses, clean clogged pipes, and recycle garbage, our country’s infrastructure will collapse. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to see what that looks like.

8. The three R’s. No, I’m not talking abour Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic (although we have forgotten the value of these things), but Recycling, Reducing, and Reusing. We’re terribly self-centered as a species; we think everything is here just for our exclusive benefit. We don’t often stop to consider the environmental consequences of our actions. While it’s nearly impossible to be environmentally-friendly in every single thing we do, there are some major things we can do to help out our dear old planet. Recycling things that can be used multiple times, reducing the amount we waste, and reusing things that can get a second life are all great ideas for positive impact on the environment.

9. Quit arguing about things that don’t matter and start to love people. Politicians, I’m looking at you. We’ve forgotten that we should love others, and treat them kindly, rather than looking for everything we don’t like or everything we want to change. Why can’t we all just get along?

10. Be thankful. Truly thankful. Not just going around the table at Thanksgiving dinner and saying one thing you’re thankful for that year, but really practicing thankfulness on a daily basis. Appreciating the things you have – material and intangible – helps us all to remember the less fortunate and ultimately makes us happier people. I think we tend to want less when we’re really thankful for what we already have. Let’s focus on that, rather than the have-nots.

Ten Things Tuesday – April 12

12 Apr

Ten of the biggest BAMFs ever:

1. Lady Godiva. Somehow I don’t think Lady Gaga can quite live up to the badass-ness of riding your horse naked through the streets of England in the Middle Ages. And a noblewoman, no less. That took some balls.

2. Neville Longbottom. Because he is worth twenty Malfoys. Besides that, he leads the rebellion of remaining Hogwarts students in Deathly Hallows, going so far as to flat-out camp out in the Room of Requirement.

3. Anthony Bourdain. Badass in that snarky way. Sure, he comes off as being a pretentious chef sometimes, but he’s really just a well-read punk fan. He would be able to talk me into doing illegal things faster than anyone.

4. Han Solo. I don’t know anyone else who can reply, “I know” to someone’s declaration of love and not get slapped in the face. He also survived that cryogenic freezing mess.

5. Queen Elizabeth I. The mere fact that she became queen despite a father so hell-bent on having a son that he had his wives locked up or murdered (not to mention the invention of a new church just so he could get divorced) is pretty impressive. She also managed to defeat that pesky Spanish Armada and rule for 40 years without a husband. I give a close second in the monarch category to Eleanor of Aquitane.

6. Genghis Khan. He conquered more land than Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Adolph Hitler. Combined.

7. My friend Melody. You’ll just have to take my word on that. Being a full-time BAMF and the craziest person alive is such a winning combination, for all the wrong reasons.

8. Jesus. Yeah, I like to think Jesus was a badass. I mean, he started a pretty big worldwide movement, right? I like to think of Jesus as the hippie, free loving version of badass. Like, not blatanly so – more subtle.

9. Boudica. When her husband died and left his kingdom to his daughters, the Romans did more than slap them on the wrists. Boudica didn’t take kindly to this and started a revolt against the Roman legions, causing the deaths of 70,000 people. This revolt caused emperor Nero (you know, the one who fiddled), to sweat out his control of the Welsh territories. Rather than be captured, Boudica committed suicide (not a route I’d recommend). It helps to have a badass name, too.

10. Sayid Jarrah. Um, the guy was an “interrogator” for the Republican Guard. In Iraq. Yeah, OK, it was on a fictional TV show, but I still wouldn’t mess with him. Would you?

Remember, kids: the sun never sets on a badass.

Random Facts

20 Mar

One of those long internet quiz things. I’ve been really bored this weekend and thought this would help to pass the time.

Have you ever been asked out?

What color shirt are you wearing?
Yellow and white.

If you could go back in time and change something, what would you do?
Oh, very many things. I’d apologize sooner, or maybe just not do those things in the first place. I’d study abroad for an entire semester. I wouldn’t be afraid to say I love you. I wouldn’t eat that doughnut…

Your current relationship status?
Single, and looking.

Missing something?
Being able to wear contacts at the moment. I have some kind of nasty eye infection that means antibiotic eye drops and glasses only. Yuck.

If you must be an animal for one day, what would it be?
A giraffe, because I’d like to see the world from that tall of an angle.

Ever had a near-death experience?

Does your crush like you back?
I don’t think so.

Something you do a lot.
Chew on the birthmark on my lip.

Name someone with the same birthday as you.
Kelly Osbourne.

When was the last time you cried?
It’s been quite a while on that one. I honestly can’t remember.

Have you ever sung in front of a large audience?
Not by myself. In elementary school we did a grade-level program every year, and I always sang in that. It was always in a large group, though, never alone.

The song stuck in your head?
The Start of Something New or whatever it is from High School Musical. Because my friend’s photo album that I just looked at had this title.

If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
Invisibility. Or maybe the power to fly. Tough choice.

What’s the first thing you notice about the opposite sex?
I think it’s probably the hair. I’d like to say eyes, but that usually comes with the first close-up look, which you don’t always get.

What do you usually order from Starbucks?
When it’s in season, that salted caramel hot chocolate. Other than that, usually a frappucino or green tea.

What’s your biggest secret?
Like I would actually reveal that on my blog…

Favorite color?
Purple or green. Although lately it’s been yellow.

Do you still watch kiddie shoes or movies?
Shows, not really. Movies, all the time.

What’s on your walls?
Surprisingly, nothing. You’d thing that, being an artist, I’d have art everywhere. But in my bedroom, it’s just gray walls at the moment.

Do you speak any other languages?
I can still understand a good bit of French. I really want to be fluent in reading, writing, and speaking it.

What’s your favorite smell?

Describe your life in one word.

Have you ever been dumped?

Do you enjoy doing the laundry?
Actually, I secretly love it. Maybe that can be my biggest secret. I haven’t been doing it since living at my parents’ house again, but I do enjoy the organization part of laundry. I especially enjoy the folding clothes part. Weird, I know.

Have you ever kissed in the rain?
No, but that would be sweet.

What are you thinking about right now?
Kissing someone in the rain.

What should you be doing?
Going to the gym, cleaning the turtle tank, crossing off things on my to-do list that have been sitting there for months…

Who was the last person who made you upset or angry?
A friend who might be making an unwise choice.

Do you like working in the yard?
Not at all. I like being outside, but just to enjoy it, not to work.

If you could have any last name in the world, what would you want?
Something interesting, not very generic like Smith or Williams. Something to make myself stand out.

Do you act differently around the person you like?
I don’t think so. I think I’m pretty much myself no matter what. I think I maybe try not to spill food on myself so much. That usually doesn’t work out, though.

What is your natural hair color?
Brown, but with some blond highlights. It’s a birthmark – it highlights itself.

Who was the last person to make you dinner?
My grandmother.

Was your last relationship a mistake? Why?
No, it was a good learning experience.

Do you believe in God?

Who last said, “I love you” to you?
My mom.

Have you ever been depressed?
Yes. I think everyone gets depressed now and then.

How do you want to die?
I prefer not to think about this. Probably in my sleep, when I’m unaware of it. But many, many years in the future.

What did you last eat?
French toast and bacon.

Do you bite your nails?

Do you have an attitude?
Not really – I’m pretty mellow about most things. But it’s not good to get on my bad side.

What is your real name?
Princess Consuela Bananahammock.

Do you miss someone?
Yes, a great many people.

Twirl or cut your spaghetti?
Twirl against a spoon, the real way, which I learned from real Italians.

Do you tan a lot?
Never. I don’t tan very well in the sun – I just go straight to burned. And I never go to tanning beds.

Have any pets?
Yes, I have a turtle.

Ever made out in the bathroom?
No, that’s gross. Now I have visions of skanky public bathroom hookups.

Would you take any of your exes back?

Ever eaten food in a car while someone or yourself is driving?
Yes, all the time. An unhealthy amount of my meals are eaten in the car.

Are you scared of spiders?
A little bit. I’m creeped out by some things with more than four legs or fewer than two (excluding fish, of course). I’m not afraid to kill them, though, with a tissue or paper towel. Then they get flushed – not fooling around with them crawling out of the trash!

Would you go back in time if you were given the chance?
Yes – I would love to visit lots of different time periods in history.

Do you hate anyone at the moment?
Not really hate. More like dislike or indifference.

Do you want to have kids?
Some day. Not for a while, though.

Do you type fast?

Do you regret anything from your past?
Yes, many things. I wish I didn’t, though, but it happens.

Do you have piercings?
Just my ears.

Want any more?
I want to get my nose pierced, but my parents would never go for that.

Can you spell well?
Very well.

What are you craving right now?
Right now I want to create a French toast cupcake. I had French toast for breakfast this morning, and ever since then I’ve been thinking about how amazing it would be in cupcake form.

Ever been to a bonfire party?
Yes, and they are extremely fun.

Have you ever been on a horse?
Yes, but it’s been a long time.

Kissed someone in a car?

Have you ever broken someone’s heart?
Not that I am aware…

Have you ever been cheated on?
I don’t think so. That’s the one thing I will not tolerate, under any circumstance.

Would you live with someone without marrying them?

What’s irritating you right now?
I’m hungry and I can’t decide what to have for lunch.

Have you ever changed clothes in a car?
Yes. It’s not easy.

Do you have trust issues?
Only when trust is broken, then it’s very hard for me to give it back.

Do you have a good relationship with your parents?

Have you ever made a boyfriend/girlfriend cry?
I don’t think so.

Have you ever shaved in the kitchen sink?
No, but I have in the bathroom sink.

Do you believe your most recent ex thinks about you?
I don’t think so. It’s been a long time since we broke up. I think we’ve both moved on.

Do you give out second chances too easily?

Is it easier to forgive or forget?
Forgive. I’m usually pretty good at that. It’s much harder to forget things.

What was your childhood nickname?
Laura Lou

Have you ever walked outside completely naked?
No, but close.

Do you think you’re a good person?
I try very hard to be.

Do you believe everything happens for a reason?

What is the last thing you did before you went to bed last night?
Watched Glee.

Do you play Wii?
No. I’m not much for video games.

Are you listening to music right now?
No. It’s one of those rare moments when I sit and enjoy the quiet.

Does somebody love you?
Other than my family and close friends, I don’t know. But I hope so.

Do you like Chinese food?
Very much.

Do you know your father’s birthday?
April 19.

Are you afraid of the dark?

Can you keep white shoes clean?
Not really. It’s very difficult.

Do you believe exes can be friends?
I think some people can, but not me. I think it’s weird.

Do you like to be outside?
Yes I do, very much. I’ve missed it since it’s been such nasty weather this winter.

Are you proud of the person you’ve become?

Are you currently bored?
Yes. Otherwise I’d be doing something more productive with my time other than answering these questions.

Is it cute when a boy/girl calls you baby?
No, I hate pet names.

Are you hungry?
Yes. I need to fix a late lunch, or have some kind of snack.

Do you have a bank account?

Do you want to get married?
Someday, yes.

Would you change your name?
Only my last name when I get married.

Ever been to Alaska?
No, but I want to.

What makes you happy?
Finding the perfect present for someone, cracking the sugar coating on crème brulee, seeing a movie that really impacts you, laughing with friends, finding great concert tickets, traveling to foreign countries.

Do you watch the news?
Not usually. I feel like I should, though, to be well-informed about the world around me. I do typically keep up with it through the Huffington Post app on my phone.

What’s your star sign?
Scorpio, and proud of it!

Do you like Subway.
Not really – it smells funny. I like riding subways.

Would it be hard to kiss the last person you kissed?
Yes, there was lots of heartbreak involved with that. He’s also on the other side of the country now.

Your best friend of the opposite sex likes you. What do you do?
Chances are that I probably like him too, otherwise we wouldn’t be so close. It would be a tough call between telling them and not wanting to ruin the friendship. It might be worth it, though, because you don’t know what you’re missing.

Have you ever seen someone you knew and purposely avoided them?
More than is probably considered a healthy amount. Sometimes I’m just not in the mood for a mini-reunion.

Who is the last girl you talked to?

Do you think your ex still likes you?

Are you a Hannah Montana fan?
Absolutely not.

Do you talk like your friends?
I think sometimes I pick up their mannerisms a little when I’ve spent a long time around them.

Who is the last person you had a deep conversation with?
My mom.

Do you enjoy piercings and tattoos?
Yes. Not all, but some, if tastefully done.

What is the last thing you thought about?
Boys with tattoos.

You’re a Sharpie marker. What color are you?
Silver, of course.

Is it awkward when no one is talking?
Not usually, but it depends on the company.

Do you prefer to shower at night or in the morning?
Morning. Otherwise my hair doesn’t do what it’s supposed to.

Do you want to please everyone?
Not everyone, but the people who matter most to me.

Who gave you the last high five?
Probably Heather or someone else at work.

Have you heard a song that reminds you of someone today?

Do you have any older siblings?
No, I’m the oldest.

 How many months until your birthday?
7 months, 7 days.

So there you go. 120 random facts about me. If you actually made it down this far, you deserve some kind of prize. I know I probably just wasted 5 – 10 minutes of your life, but hey, I’ve wasted my entire day. Call it even?

Ten Things Tuesday – March 15

15 Mar

Today is the Ides of March, so naturally today’s list is ten things you should beware of:

1. The undead. Vampires, zombies, werewolves, skeletons, mummies, ghosts. They seem to be making a comeback in the most dominant way.

2. Believing you are entitled to everything, despite being undeserving or too lazy to have earned it.

3. The Jabberwocky.

4. The need to share absolutely everything about your life (likely on Facebook or Twitter): little random thoughts you have throughout the day, your personal informaton, naked pictures of yourself, ill-advised politics, personal vendettas against your boss. It’s annoying, and most people really don’t care.

5. Weird conspiracy theories.

6. The Death Starbucks.

7. Saran wrap. That stuff is the devil.

8. Hipsters.

9. Terrible books masquerading as best-sellers.

10. Believing everything you read on the internet. We’re here to spread information, although it’s not always helpful or reliable.


24 Jan

When I was a sophomore at Converse, I took a class called Ideas and Culture. Every student had to take it, and it was basically a class on Western civilization, thought, politics, religion, etc. The second semester I had a really great professor, and he really got me thinking about the topics we discussed in class. There’s one that I still think about quite a bit.

One of the ideas we talked about on a regular basis, but never really had an answer for, was the question of what separates humans from animals. What are the things that are truly unique about humans that cannot be said about the animal world? Our professor had an answer to negate every idea we came up with in class. He was actually pretty brilliant about it – to this day I still think about what I think he would say in response to my ideas.

Some people would suggest it’s opposable thumbs that separate us from animals. But I don’t think that’s enough. Not even the fact that we use tools, because there are plenty of animals that do that, as well. We can’t be so arrogant enough to think that we’re the only beings capable of using technology for our own benefit. True, we’re the only ones who use the internet, but it’s still considered a tool in my book. Animals don’t really have a use for it, but just the simple fact that we use tools doesn’t really separate us from animals. It’s not special enough.

Other people will tell you that it’s our forms of communication. True, we have more means of communication and media than any animal does, but it’s still not enough to make us special. Plenty of animals use basic forms of communication, such as SONAR and echolocation, not to mention all the different mating and warning sounds they can produce. Just because we’ve developed languages doesn’t mean it’s any different – just a little more advanced.

I think a good way to sum up the difference between humans and animals is this quote:

“Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps, for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are and what they ought to be.” –William Hazlitt

I believe that, more than anything, the thing that separates animals and humans is our ability to imagine something beyond our world. In some cases, we can actually create something bigger than ourselves, beyond tangible, physical reality. I think it’s our capability to create a world other than our own – in movies, books, TV, and art. We can create an alternate universe that, while technically still not true, gives us an escape from reality. I don’t think animals are capable of thinking this way; they cannot conceive of something beyond what is physically and emotionally present at that moment. They have no way to create a world beyond this one.

It’s this incredible imagination that separates us from animals, I think. Animals look at the world and see it for what it is, nothing more. Humans look at the world and see it for what it could be. We’re even able to create better versions of our lives. We build cities, cultivate food, treat animals like property, make products to make life easier, and write down our stories – fiction and non-fiction, for future generations. We’re always looking for the next best thing – something bigger and better – whereas animals are concerned only with making it day to day. There are millions of people, of course, who live a very similar existence. But in the Western world, mostly, we enjoy the luxury of leisure and imagination. We don’t have to worry so much about where to build a temporary shelter for the night or where to find food.

More than any other animal, we leave a lasting impressionon time. We have the ability to recreate history by writing it down, studying it, editing it. Animals have no such capablility. They are bound by the immediacy of their needs – to find food and water, to find a mate, and to raise the next generation. The human capacity goes much further than that. While we share the same basic needs, we also have the capability to change our path. We can do more than just provide for our most basic needs. We can conceive of something out there beyond ourselves. Some call it God, some think of it as aliens, some imagine something completly unique. We are human because we can consider something other than the absolute truth.

The example I can best think of to illustrate the point that we are capable of inventing our own world is the art of movies. I was thinking about this back in November when I saw the new Harry Potter movie. I always think about the incredible, seemingly endless possibilities of the imagination when I read or watch Harry Potter. The whole time I was watching the new movie, I kept thinking about how much I wish magic was real. Mostly because I really want that story to be real, and not a work of fiction. It got me thinking about the real world, and all the things we’ve created for ourselves to make life easier. In my opinion, movies are the closest thing to magic we’ll ever have. Some people would argue that technology or science are better choices, but I don’t think so. Movies, more than anything, give us the chance to escape from everyday life, and create worlds that exist only in the imagination.

This might be a complicated way to communicate, but it is still effective. I think we have a desire to communicate with those around us. Animals, of course, share this same need, but they aren’t able to do it in quite the same ways. Sometimes I think their pure, uncomplicated forms of communication are far more effective and poignant than anything people have dreamed up. But no matter how complicated or simple the communication is, the fact remains that animals cannot bring their imagination and creativity – if in fact they exist – in quite the same way we can.

And that is what makes us human. The ability to bring our imaginations to life, to extend them past our own minds, and share them with others.