Sometimes Finding Meaning in the Familiar is Okay

A response to “Millennials are Turning to Harry Potter for Meaning. That’s a Mistake.”

Let me first put this out there: finding meaning in something familiar to you is not all bad.

Have you ever encountered something you connect with deeply, that has taught you a variety of things in a variety of ways, and then someone shares they were “dismayed” because it was “childish”? That’s how I felt reading Christine Emba’s article on believing millennials are making a mistake in finding meaning in Harry Potter.

Credit: Wikipedia

If like me, you grew up reading the Harry Potter series, you probably feel like you’ve come home when you open those pages or sit yourself down to watch any one of the Harry Potter Weekends Freeform puts on. J.K. Rowling created characters we could relate to and grow with. When the series came to an end and the final movie was released, we were left trying to fill a space in our lives that had, for years, been taken up with the eagerness of finding out what new adventure the Golden Trio would encounter next, and how Voldemort would meet his ultimate end.

We have been finding meaning of some kind in Harry Potter for years, and the books are full of quotes that resonate deeply with us (especially just about anything Professor Dumbledore says).

On May 19, 2016, a new Harry Potter podcast released its first episode: Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. The hosts, two graduates of Harvard Divinity School, seek to take listeners through each book one chapter at a time on a journey to create meaning. Listeners read the series, then, “as instructive and inspirational texts that will teach us about our own lives.”

Since embarking on in-person tours, it seems the podcast has gained additional attention.

Emba expressed her dissatisfaction with these in-person tour events and, it seems, the podcast in general: “it seems more a reversion to childhood than a real search for meaning.”

My first question to Emba is: have you actually listened to the podcast episodes? Because the themes the hosts explore are themes a child would not be able to delve into with a thoughtful and academic mind: commitment (Book 1, Chapter 1); Betrayal (Book 1, Chapter 9); Regret (Book 1, Chapter 15); Sanctuary (Book 2, Chapter 15); Forgiveness (Book 3, Chapter 6)…and the list continues. These themes can run deep, and life experiences shape how we, as listeners, view and discuss those themes, which can then shape the way we read the text. (This is similar to the way the trials I face may shape the way I read the book of James or Job in my Bible.)

The primary complaint Emba seems to have is that the action of “practicing faith,” as the podcast teaser explains is the goal of the podcast, is empty. She argues we should “practice on something outside of [our] childhood comfort zone.”

But here’s the thing: practice. The word practice means a repeated performance or systematic exercise for the purpose of acquiring skill or proficiency. When we begin practicing something, be it reading, playing an instrument, or building trust, we practice on something familiar. When I first started playing the flute, I practiced my arpeggios daily. I got pretty good at the B flat scale, to the point I had it memorized, and it became my comfort zone. As I progressed in my playing, I had to play things I wasn’t comfortable with, but every time I “failed” at the new stuff, I immediately went back to that B flat scale. Not because I didn’t want to get out of my comfort zone, though — because I knew I could play that one correctly. It served as a motivator and a reminder I could get the hang of the new stuff with practice.

We cannot do anything well without practice, including have faith. As a Christian, I am familiar with practicing my faith. I go to church to practice my faith, I pray to practice my faith, I journal to practice my faith…Some of the times I feel I have really heard God when I have been most convicted, are when I pray, journal, or meditate on something familiar. Because I practiced talking to Him about those things, so I could trust Him enough to move forward into the unknown.

Emba also states that J.K. Rowling “didn’t set out to create a Bible.” I don’t think anyone would argue that, even Rowling herself. And I don’t think like it seems Emba does, anyone is trying to use the Harry Potter series as a guide to living life.

I think what the podcast does, though, is teach Millennials how to search for meaning — what type of questions can we ask? What strategies are there? Listeners can then use those strategies in other areas as they continue to search for meaning in their lives. I think that’s what the podcast hosts mean when they say they use the books “as instructive and inspirational texts” to help teach us about, and guide us through, our own lives.

One of the reading strategies the podcast hosts use, lectio divina, actually gave me a way to start reading my religious text (my Bible) in a deeper way. I didn’t have strategies, and reading the Bible straight through is difficult. But this religious practice gave me steps and strategies so I could better find meaning in the text I use to guide my life.

Sometimes it’s okay to resort to what is familiar to help us move forward.

So, Christine Elba, I encourage you to listen to the podcast and try to be open-minded and open-hearted. You might find some meaning, too.