In a society that is increasingly post-religious and secular, how do we cope with senseless tragedy and death? Who do we invoke to assuage our anguish? In some cases we still might cling to the concept of God or seek the salvific intervention of some compassionate saint or bodhisattva. Other times, we may look to canonized characters from the realm of fantasy fiction.
On July 9th, 2014 Stephen and Katie Stay, along with four of their five children, were murdered in their Houston-area home. Their daughter Cassidy, 15, was the sole survivor who, according to family, police, and media, “heroically” called 911 and gave details to authorities that led to the capture of the suspect just minutes later.
Certainly, what happened to the Stay family was an absurd tragedy. In the wake of such senseless slaughter neighbors, family, friends, international authors and celebrities, and the nation as a whole rallied around Cassidy. A gathering was held to raise support for her as she coped with losing her family. Religious invocations and undercurrents were omnipresent at the event, which is understandable given the otherworldly nature of tragedy and the family’s membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a.k.a. “LDS” or “Mormon Church”).
Stay’s grandfather, Roger Lyons, spoke at the memorial before Cassidy and mentioned the support of their LDS church and community and clinging “to the hope of life.” He then invoked his faith’s founder — Joseph Smith — alluding to his persecution, trials, and contemplation of “the sting of death” and the baptism of the dead, and quoted him:
When Cassidy stood to speak, she did not quote The Book of Mormon, The Bible, or any other sacred text of the LDS church, but instead she invoked Albus Dumbledore, the revered and sagely headmaster from Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry:
While not downplaying these horrible circumstances and extending compassion, without judgment, to Ms. Stay and her family, this episode invites consideration of the role of myth in the 21st-century West. This post is a consideration of how in the wake of catastrophe, and in dealing with death, in a religiously pluralistic culture, we not only look to traditional spiritual sources for solace, but also to “post-modern parables” and modern, “profane,” myths such as Harry Potter.
Throughout history, humans have composed, compiled, and communicated myths, stories, and parables to convey perceptions of deep and abiding truths concerning the human condition. In many societies, these myths were explicitly religious and part of the plausibility structure of a culture and its ethos that helped members of the community deal with anomy — or chaotic events and circumstances — such as death. Myths proved a powerful vehicle for dealing with cosmic questions and often shaped the lives and rituals of the people who told them or wrote them down for posterity. Indeed, in many ways, stories are part of what it means to be human and, especially, to be human in community.
In today’s world, myths are not always religious per se, but serve similar functions. While they may play off religious themes (we all remember studying the biblical references made in famous British and American literature classics we all read in high school), modern stories do not necessarily, or directly, invoke “the gods” in order to sneak past, or perchance to slay, the “watchful dragons” that C.S. Lewis referred to in discussing the power of fairy tales.
Reading, whether religious or secular, continues to play a central role in American religious practice and community building. Indeed, much of modern day literature is an attempt to provide formative stories to help explain the human condition and build community, albeit loosely, around contemporary fiction. Look no further than the cathedral of literary sodality — the book club.
Lamenting the fact that so many books are inherently depressive when it comes to the modern human condition and, in fact, disdainful of moral communities and spiritual institutions, Kristen D. Randle wrote this reflection, “the world seems to be going through some kind of accelerated social and moral entropy, a dissolving of the kind of cultural and moral bonds that make and keep a community.” She called for hopeful stories, particularly in the realm of young adult literature, that would beckon youth and children beyond death and decay and into life, and faith (although not explicitly religious or divine faith).
Enter Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling, who to her credit sent a letter “from Dumbledore” to Ms. Stay, crafted such a hopeful narrative when she penned the Potter series. Not only did this story invite readers into a fanciful world of magic and mystery, but it beckoned them to consider life, death, community, sacrifice, and the eternal battle between good and evil. Unabashedly, Rowling spun together Christian and post-modern spiritual themes to great effect. In the words of one commenter, in a post-Christian world Rowling re-articulated “the themes of religion in fresh and original ways” that are accessible to all, regardless of religious background. The series not only created fanfare, and garnered much economic success, but created community — replete with gatherings, pilgrimages, and rituals.
Effectively, albeit unintentionally, Rowling created a non-sectarian, non-institutional, secular-but-still-spiritual “little religion.” A “little religions” is what Mircea Eliade said modern humanity turns to as a “pseudo religion,” but with its concomitant symbols can still provide “a religious vision of the world” that enables the non-religious “modern man” to open up his individual experience to bear fruit in the universal. As Eliade wrote, “Whether modern man ‘kills’ time with a detective story or enters such a foreign temporal universe as is represented by any novel, reading projects him out of his personal duration and incorporates him into other rhythm, makes him live in another ‘history.’” These stories are the narratives of “camouflaged” religious myths.
The transcendence, resurrection, and corporate salvation we may no longer wish to find in institutional religion, we now seek in “post-modern parables” like Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, or The Hunger Games.
This is all very similar to the journey of a young man who used magical seer stones to discern hidden messages on golden plates in the hills of New York in the early 19th-century. Joseph Smith was uncertain about the religious choices of his day, the institutional offerings of access to the transcendent and the divine, and so he sought the magnificence of the spiritual world in his own visions and writings. So too, have generations of Mormons who followed his words and attempted to establish their own spiritual community — Zion — on earth.
When dealing with tragic events such as natural disasters, genocides, or family murders it seems our post-modern search is not limited to what is already available or offered by institutional religion and their attendant myths, stories, and parables. If we cannot find what we are looking for in these traditional sources, we increasingly invoke other stories, and their characters, such as Albus Dumbledore, to help us cope with the chaos of death.
*This blog entry does not wish to make any statements concerning Cassidy Stay's religion or convey any judgment on her experience. Instead, it seeks to use the anecdotal note from the memorial event and make comments related to general religious and spiritual culture in the U.S.
Barned-Smith, St. John. “Harry Potter author reaches out to survivor of Spring family shooting.” The Houston Chronicle, August 6, 2014, http://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Stay-family-thanks-community-for-donations-says-5681733.php (accessed August 14, 2014).
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Click2Houston. “Cassidy Stay, grandfather speak at Celebration of Life event.” http://www.click2houston.com/news/cassidy-stay-grandfather-speak-at-celebration-of-life-event/26923030 (accessed August 13, 2014).
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