Monday, October 19, 2015

Harry Potter and Jane Eyre as sacred texts

During orientation at Harvard Divinity School here in 2013, Angie Thurston wandered amid the tables set up by the various campus ministries. Catholic, Methodist, Muslim — they mostly served to reinforce the sense that Ms. Thurston did not fit into an organized religion.

Here she was, starting her graduate studies in religion when she did not know the definition of liturgy, had never read the Bible and could not have identified a major theologian like Karl Barth, even if it would have won her a fortune on “Jeopardy!” Yet something in organized religion hinted at an answer to the atomized, unmoored life she led. ...

Now in her final year at Harvard, Ms. Thurston is a central figure in a boomlet of students who are secular or unaffiliated with any religious denomination, commonly known as “nones,” attending divinity school. While Harvard may be the center, nones can be found at other divinity schools around the country, especially those inclined toward theologically and politically liberal Protestantism, like Chicago Theological Seminary. ...

The group that Ms. Thurston helped start, Harvard Religious Nones, includes almost 70 people on its email list and regularly attracts 20 people to its meetings, not insignificant in a divinity school with 350 students. The divinity school also has a humanist group with about a half-dozen members.

One of her classmates, Casper ter Kuile, and a recent divinity school graduate, Vanessa Zoltan, teach a weekly course together for about 55 people on “Harry Potter” as a sacred text at the off-campus Humanist Hub. ...

With a divinity school professor, Stephanie Paulsell, [Zoltan] did an independent study in “Jane Eyre” as a holy book.
--Samuel Freedman, NYT, on the universal human need to worship

Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship -- be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles -- is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things -- if they are where you tap real meaning in life -- then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already -- it's been codified as myths, proverbs, cliches, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power -- you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart -- you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self.
--David Foster Wallace on what we worship