guest post: “Slytherin will help you on your way to greatness”

Today, I’m pleased to be able to feature the work of our Slytherin correspondent, Andy Ford, who will be looking at the hallmark traits of the serpent house from a Christian perspective. Let him know what you think on Twitter: @Andy_Ford

Or perhaps in Slytherin,

You’ll make your real friends,

Those cunning folk use any means,

To achieve their ends.




Can a person be both a believer in Christ and a Slytherin? Can a person balance Pride, Ambition, and Cunning with following Christ? I’m not sure. I’d like to think so. I’d like to be both, a Slytherin and a Christian. I’d like to be one unified person, rather than have two sides of myself warring with each other.

The first problem for the Christian Slytherin, at least on the surface, is that Pride, Ambition, and Cunning are all things to which the Christian must die. Pride is often condemned, Paul warns against selfish ambition and vain conceit, and the serpent in the Garden is described as cunning. The question, then, is: can a Christian exercise Pride, Ambition, and Cunning while maintaining his or her witness? To answer this question we must first define terms. For the purposes of this discussion, I will use the word “Pride” to mean the opposite of humility, I will use the word “Ambition” to mean “a strong desire to do something, typically requiring determination and hard work,” and I will use the word “Cunning” to mean “having or showing skills in achieving one’s ends by deceit or evasion.”

So first, Pride. Pride is and has long been considered sinful; ask Thomas Aquinas. But is there a difference between, for example, Lucifer’s pride in Ezekiel 28:17, and being a proud alumnus of Liberty University, or being proud of a child when he succeeds at something he cares about. Again, the Pride I am discussing is the opposite of humility. One of my Graduate School professors taught me that all sin is ultimately idolatry, and all idolatry is ultimately Pride. Which means that all sin is Pride and thus all Pride is sin. As believers, we are instructed to die to ourselves daily and that includes dying to our own Pride. However, for every command against in the Bible, there is a command to. In the case of Pride, we die to it to embrace what I would call holy confidence. We are told to approach the throne of Grace with confidence. Confidence that we will not be turned away. That confidence has nothing to do with our accomplishments but has everything to do with the character of God. Brennan Manning (who is always a Win) wrote that God’s fundamental attitude toward us is one of affection. This affection directly contradicts Pride, because it is not dependent upon our own actions. Regardless of how holy or unholy we think we are, God’s attitude does not change. There is nothing we can do to change God’s attitude toward us; we are loved. Period.

This raises the question of how a Christian can exhibit the Slytherin trait of Pride without contradicting his or her walk with God. The answer, I think, lies in the type of Pride discussed. A person can be proud to be part of Slytherin House without falling into the sin of Pride. This does not mean being ashamed of being a Slytherin, or making excuses for the Sorting Hat’s decision, but rather it means that one understands both the benefits and the weakness of the House.

Ambition raises a slightly different question, although one that still has its own complications. Ambition is frequently pointed to as the defining characteristic of dictators and tyrants, like the titular character in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, but the Apostle Paul writes that we should do nothing out of selfish ambition, which implies that there is another type of Ambition that is not selfish, and I think that’s the type of Ambition Slytherin House should emphasize. Salazar’s personal desire for greatness aside, being a Slytherin is not about being the greatest ever for the sake of being better than anyone else. That way leads to Voldemort’s obsession with becoming the Master of Death. Instead, I think true Slytherin Ambition is about becoming the best version of one’s self for the sake of being better than one was. Hemingway wrote, “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self,” and I think the same can be said for Ambition. True, Godly ambition is the desire to improve one’s self and the desire for continuous sanctification.

I’ll be honest, Cunning put me into a quandary. On the one hand, in the New King James Version of the Bible, the serpent in the Garden is described as Cunning. (The New International Version and the New American Standard Version both use “crafty,” while the King James Version uses “subtil.”) On the other hand, Jesus tells his disciples to be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves. As the symbol for Slytherin House is a serpent, I find this to be an interesting connection. So, which is it? Is Cunning evil or not? The problem is: Cunning implies deceit, deceit implies dishonesty, dishonesty implies lying, and lying is a sin. By telling his disciples to be as wise as serpents, is Jesus instructing his disciples to get what they want through deception? Obviously not. I think the proper, Godly use of cunning is in a sort of “it takes one to know one” sort of a way. The context of Jesus’ words is: he’s sending his disciples out into the world to spread his message, and he’s instructing them on how best to keep themselves safe. One of my all time favorite movies is Gone Baby Gone, and the film opens with the main character, Patrick Kenzie, discussing this exact question: “When I was young, I asked my priest how you could get to heaven and still protect yourself from all the evil in the world. He told me what God said to his children. ‘You were sheep among wolves. Be wise as serpents, yet innocent as doves.’” I think Jesus meant: you are about to enter a fallen world, be aware of how people will try to take advantage of you and do not let them. But, and this is the “innocent as doves” part, do not do anything that would compromise your witness. Do not be taken advantage of, but in your attempt to avoid being taken advantage of, do not take advantage of someone else.

Neither Pride, nor Ambition, nor Cunning is necessarily evil in its own right. They are simply traits, like having red hair or blue eyes. The question is: how will the person who possesses those traits make use of them? And that depends, in large part, on the character of the person. This is the important part. A person’s sorting says what traits they possess and says absolutely nothing else about the type of person sorted. The Sorting Hat makes no character pronouncements. There are evil Slytherins, absolutely. But there are also good Slytherins (not naming names; I’ve been in that fight before, and it’s not worth it). The point is: Slytherin is not necessarily “the Evil House of Evil.” It does seem to have a uniquely dangerous combination of virtues, especially when compared to the Integrity and Hard Work of Hufflepuff and the Intelligence and Creativity of Ravenclaw, but having traits that are perceived as negative is not the same thing as being evil. A person can balance all three while remaining a good person. The goal, I think, of being a member of any organization is to identify both the strengths and weaknesses of that organization and embrace both, making use of its strengths and avoiding its weaknesses. As Harry tells Albus Severus in the final scene of Deathly Hallows, it does not matter into which House a person is sorted as long as the person does their best and strives to be a good person. For a Christian, as long as he or she is open to the correction and guidance of the Holy Spirit, God will mold them into the type of person God wants them to be.


Hufflepuff human resources

Last night, some friends and I had a lengthy discussion about human resources departments.  (Yes, we’re a barrel of laughs.) And then, on The Walking Dead, Negan–a character who is the opposite of a Hufflepuff leader, ruling by intimidation and derision (click here for a post on how I feel about him)–once again referred to people as resources, one of his favorite expressions. And then, this afternoon, the author of a newsletter article I was reading mentioned treating people as resources and assets as if this were a good thing. So, I thought, there’s the theme for this week’s post.

I think the newsletter article author was referring to valuing our people’s expertise and perspectives and trusting them to do good work rather than falling into the “I can do it better myself” trap. These are good things. Where the “people as resources” trope becomes dangerous is the point at which we begin to value people only for what they can contribute. I have blogged about this before, but I want to revisit the idea in a Hufflepuff leadership context (with some examples from The Walking Dead). When we start valuing people only by their contributions–an attitude I see in a lot of the rhetoric surrounding zombie apocalypse narratives, as well as (I hate to say it, but it’s true) in some of my Hogwarts compatriots from the other three houses–we ignore two crucial truths. Briefly, I want to remind us of those truths:

  1. All people have value because of who they are, not what they’ve done. As a Christian, I believe that all people have value because they are created in the image of God. If you’re not prepared to go that far, at least I hope you can accept that people have value because they’re human. That includes people who are judged as too disabled, too reticent, too selfish, too [fill in the blank] to contribute anything noticeable to the world. On The Walking Dead, as I’ve mentioned before, this means that even people who are self-admitted cowards, who freeze in the face of danger, are valuable. (Are you reading this, Gryffindors?)
  2. We all can contribute something valuable to the world, but that something might not look valuable in an obvious or accepted way. My favorite example from The Walking Dead is Father Gabriel, who isn’t a good fighter, planner, or leader; isn’t athletic, and has now become visually impaired. But he provides spiritual guidance and a calm, non-judgmental spirit that many characters have benefitted from (including Negan!). I always go back to the example, as well, of Rick Grimes, who got blasted by fans several seasons ago when he devoted some time to growing vegetables instead of killing zombies or fighting enemies. He was trying to help create a sustainable community–literally, to feed people–but because his actions weren’t the expected ones of a leader in this type of narrative, he was derided and undervalued–wrongly, as I will never stop arguing! I’ll give one more example: one of my favorite Hufflepuff predecessors, Newt Scamander. In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, he is awkward around people, to the point of social paralysis, but calm and confident around animals. At the end of the movie, he applies that “gentling” ability to a human who is becoming something other, and he prevents that person from doing further damage to himself or others. So Newt, the guy who could barely carry on a conversation, ends up pulling off a fantastic feat of diplomacy.

So today’s leadership principle is this: People are much more than resources.

National Day of Unplugging (i.e. hiding in the Forbidden Forest)

This week’s Hufflepuff leadership topic is what to do when you need to get away from people–either because you need to work on stuff or because you’re an introvert and being around people (even though you love them) exhausts you.  When asked how they create alone time and space, my two contacts at Hogwarts* had similar answers.  Muggle studies teacher and Hufflepuff alumna Becky Weasley said, “Well, it helps that I’m married to the Hogwarts gamekeeper.  Charlie and I have our own cabin a little ways away from the castle.  When I have a lot of grading to do, I work on it at home instead of in my office.  But when I really need to get away, I pack a picnic and conveniently get lost in the Forbidden Forest.  Charlie will always come find me eventually.”  Her nephew, Patrick, a seventh-year student and Hufflepuff prefect, said, “I like to be available to the first- and second-years when they have questions about school or are just homesick, but sometimes I have to get my own work done, you know?  So a lot of times, I’ll go next door to the kitchens and ask the house-elves not to tell anyone I’m there.  They usually give me some of whatever they’re cooking.  And in return, I help them clean up.  Or I’ll go visit my Aunt Becky and Uncle Charlie.  They usually feed me too.”  So, common themes seem to be 1) food and 2) hiding (like a badger in a burrow?).

But Muggle/No-Maj society presents an additional challenge that our Hogwarts friends don’t have to face: technology.  You can hide if you want, but if you have a phone, people can still find you.  (Unless you’re in the Forbidden Forest, where I hear that reception is really bad.)  Much ink (which here is a metaphor for digital text) has been spilled over the effects that smartphones have had on the American and European work week.  Now, our bosses, colleagues, and employees can find us anytime.  Some people, like me, avoid using their phones for email, but there’s still texting.  One curious consequence of this constant connectivity is a comparison game over who’s the busiest.  I’ve heard people in my organization brag about how many emails they get over the weekend.  “My boss starts emailing me Sunday night around sundown, and I can’t wait until Monday morning to respond to them [implied: because I’m too important to the company].”  I’m not saying this is any one person’s fault.  What we have not only in my organization but in our society at large is a culture of busyness.  And it’s not healthy.

Some Hufflepuff leaders (okay, I just made an assumption there) at an organization called Reboot have started an annual event called National Day of Unplugging.  I participated last year, and I’ve been looking forward to the 2018 event for months.  It’s simple: From sundown this Friday to sundown this Saturday, you keep your phone and other digital devices off.  (The resemblance to Sabbath is not an accident–Reboot is a Jewish organization.)  Of course, that’s if you want to be extreme (which I do).  Maybe for you, unplugging simply means you don’t check email or Instagram for that 24-hour period.  But in any case, you’re engaging in an act of radical freedom and humility–declaring that the digital world (which is not the whole world) can survive without you for 24 hours.

What does this have to do with leadership?  First, obviously, leaders themselves need a break.  But secondly, unplugging has a trickle-down effect.  When I step away from work for a day, I’m letting my employees and students know that it’s okay for them to do the same.

Will you be participating in the National Day of Unplugging?  Do you have other suggestions on this topic?  Let me know in the comments!

*These characters are both my own creations–see last week’s post.

Hufflepuff Leadership: a bit more explanation

Based on the copious positive feedback I received on last week’s post, I plan to move forward with the Hufflepuff Leadership project, but as you can see, I haven’t taken any steps yet toward changing the look of the blog.  I did receive an offer of free design work that I’m definitely going to take up, and I have an idea about the cover illustration.  I thought it would be fun to find a picture of a badger (the Hufflepuff mascot) in a business suit, and of course, this made me think about Badger from The Wind in the Willows.  I’ll probably need to check copyright/fair use issues if I’m going to use the picture as part of my brand, but just for this post, I think it’s probably okay to show you this example that I found on someone’s Pinterest: Wind in the WillowsOkay, it’s not exactly a business suit he’s wearing, but Mr. Badger definitely appears to be in a leadership role in this picture, wouldn’t you say?

As I mentioned last week, I’m thinking of writing from the perspective of a Hufflepuff prefect.  It just so happens (I’m about to get weirdly confessional here) that I have invented what amounts to a Mary Sue character (a character in fan fiction who is essentially the author inserting him/herself into the story) named Rebecca (my middle name), or Becky, Weasley (she’s married to Charlie!), who is a Hufflepuff alum and former prefect.  I also made up a Weasley nephew named Patrick who is a current Hufflepuff prefect.  I don’t know if I’ll use these characters extensively because I’m a little embarrassed about disclosing the extent to which my unwritten fan fiction has gone, but now that I’ve introduced them to the world, I guess they’ll at least have to make occasional appearances.

I’ll probably kick off the new project with a series of posts about the basic principles of Hufflepuff leadership.  I’ve already thought of clever aphorisms to express a couple of these, such as “A soft heart does not equal a soft head.”  I’ll illustrate these principles with my own experience, research on emotional intelligence and other concepts from various fields, conversations with colleagues, and of course, Hufflepuff students and graduates from the Harry Potter canon.  Also, based on responses from last week, it sounds like I have a good team of writers who can give us the Griffyndor, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin perspectives on these issues as well.

I also mentioned last week that not all posts from here on out will necessarily be directly focused on the theme.  For example, this past weekend, I attended the Southeastern Writing Center Association conference, and I deliberately chose sessions on concepts that I could see myself writing about on this blog: vulnerability, burnout, mentoring–topics from the non-cognitive side of tutoring.  From time to time, I will report on events like these (as well as books I’m reading, movies I’ve seen, etc.) and may not necessarily use the language of Hufflepuff leadership, but I won’t stray far away from topics my regular readers will be interested in.

As always, let me know what you think!


Hufflepuff Leadership: a blog idea

I’m thinking of rebranding my blog. Before I explain why, I’ll briefly explain the blog’s history for those of you who haven’t been with me from the beginning.

I started in December 2011 so that I could get two free books. A friend had told me about an opportunity to receive the books for free in exchange for reviewing them on my blog. I didn’t have a blog, but there’s a lot that I’d be willing to do for free books, so I started one. (I posted the book review in January 2012.) As you will see if you read my inaugural post, I had fairly high aspirations for the blog (I wanted it to be “a place where thoughtful inquiry and the magic of words can thrive”), but I never had a specific theme in mind. For the past 6+ years, I’ve kept that tradition alive, posting about whatever I felt like posting about. In that inaugural post, I also explained the reasoning behind the blog’s name–and its subtitle, which is the motto of Ravenclaw House–and while my original ideas about the title still apply, I’ve come to identify with Hufflepuff more than Ravenclaw (a journey I’ve documented well here on the blog, in a number of existential-crisis posts). In the beginning, I sometimes used “Penelope Clearwater” as a narrative persona; I rarely do so now.

Recently, some observations and conversations have gotten me rethinking the goal of the blog and how I want to represent that goal. Let me first make clear that I have no intention of quitting my day job in order to become a professional blogger. This is a hobby. Nevertheless, hobbies can be approached with purpose just like jobs can. One way I’ve been approaching my blog with greater purpose over the past year and a half is to post weekly, with few exceptions, generally on Mondays. I’ve also linked the blog to my Facebook and Twitter accounts, garnering a larger readership, even if it consists mostly of people I know personally.

I’ve also noticed that most other people’s blogs–at least the popular ones–have a specific theme. I’ve observed that when I categorize my posts with certain keywords–especially “travel”–I get more likes and follows from the WordPress community than when I use other keywords (and certainly more than before I started using categories and tags). This phenomenon was confirmed by a successful blogger I know. Another friend helped me to nuance this idea by noting that while the blogs she follows do tend to have a specific theme (cooking, design, books, etc.), some of her favorite posts are the ones in which the bloggers depart from their ostensible topics and show a slice of their lives and/or make observations outside their chosen fields. This reassured me that committing to a narrower focus may not be as restrictive as I had feared.

Also, when my dad’s guest post from this past Friday sparked immediate attention and elicited articulate comments from some of my Facebook friends, I again got the message that people are looking for ideas to engage with and not just the kooky ramblings of my mind.

All of this led me to the conclusion that it might be time to refocus and rebrand my blog.  But I didn’t know what to focus it on until one recent morning when I was thinking about some recent conversations I’d had with a work colleague. The idea came to me that someone should write a book (or a blog–or both) about how to lead like a Hufflepuff–a person who is probably not a natural or comfortable leader. I thought it would be fun to write in the persona of a Hufflepuff prefect and offer advice, from my own and others’ experience, about leading with the qualities valued by our house. And I realized that a number of my existing posts would fit into this theme with very little tweaking.

Next week, I’ll expand on this idea, but for now, what do you think? Would you read a blog about Hufflepuff leadership, keeping in mind that not every post would be explicitly on that theme?

Guest Post: Another Shooting

Some of you may have read my response to the Sandy Hook school shooting back in 2012.  Today, I am featuring a response to yesterday’s school shooting in South Florida, this one by a guest blogger, my dad, Todd Stockslager.  Dad is a thoughtful observer of recent societal trends, and whether you agree or disagree with his arguments (most likely, you’ll agree with some and disagree with others, which is how normal argumentation works), you’ll have plenty to think about after reading.  If you like his writing and want to know what he thinks about books and the topics they address, you can follow him on Goodreads.

Here’s the post:

Another shooting.  Another round of press conferences with first responders and politicians expressing shock, grief, and prayers for the survivors and the families of the victims.   Another round of tweets and condolences and visits from President Trump.  The places and faces change.   The words and responses don’t.   It’s time for change:  Gun control or mind control?  Pick one.

President Trump called the Las Vegas shooter a mentally ill “very sick” person, apparently to deflect the issue away from the call for banning the assault weapons and the kits that can convert other weapons to fully automatic weapons.    Now the same terminology is being applied to the Florida shooter, again for the same apparent reason, and already even though I have not paid full attention to the story I am seeing headlines that we need to do a better job keeping guns away from the “mentally ill.”  Is anyone else as frightened by this trend as I am?

With a portion of the American population, access to assault weapons or these converter kits is an absolute political right that can never be taken away or even limited, based on one interpretation of the Second Amendment.  President Trump seems by his actions and words in these mass shooting incidents to support this position.  So the only option is to increase psychiatric testing and monitoring of behavior, speech, association, and social medium usage to be able to better detect, predict, and restrict the freedom of speech, association, and belief of those who are deemed “mentally ill”.    Behavior that is not wanted—bullying, membership in certain groups like white nationalist groups, or the reverse, seeking isolation from social contact—is to be not criminalized, but medicalized:  identified as “mental illness.”

But who gets to identify what qualifies as “mental illness”?  Who enforces the actions—legal, medical, social, financial—that being labelled “mentally ill” brings to bear on a person?  What recourse does that person have to appeal the labeling and remove themselves from the action brought to limit their legal, medical, social or financial freedom?  Have we forgotten that within the last century thousands of people were identified (by families, doctors, and others) as “mentally ill” and forcibly placed in mental institutions against their will with no recourse, where things like forced sterilizations, abortions, electroshock and drug therapy and lobotomies were performed, against their will with no recourse?  Have we forgotten that Hitler labelled groups of people as undesirable and thus worthy of extermination based on characteristics such as ethnic and religious Judaism and mental illness?  In labelling them together as undesirables, he made Judaism and mental illness equivalent and sent them all to concentration camps for extermination—all legally within the government policies of Nazi Germany, all against their will with no recourse, all ignored by the rest of the population?   In case we have forgotten, it is history, it happened, it is called the Holocaust.

We started down this slippery slope with the criminalization of “hate speech” in the last few decades.  As much as we may hate speech we disagree with and find despicable, absolute freedom of speech is the one true inviolable right that every American has and should have defended but gave away.   Some speech, which should never be criminal, has now been identified as “hate speech” and criminalized.  The next slip down the slope is medicalization of some behaviors that we disagree with and find despicable, and as should be clear from the argument I have already made, medicalization of behavior is potentially more dangerous than criminalizing it, and is just one short slip away from the Holocaust.

As much as I hate this behavior, belonging to a white nationalist group is not a sign of “mental illness.”  As much as I hate this behavior, belonging to and training with a paramilitary group is not a sign of “mental illness” and should not be criminalized.   The headlines I saw identified the Florida shooter as having these behaviors, and he has already been identified as “mentally ill”.   He is not mentally ill.  He is a criminal, not because he belonged to those groups, but because he killed 17 people.  Full stop.  That is the crime for which he should be charged and punished.

Note that I didn’t say: “He is a criminal, not because he belonged to those groups, but because he killed 17 people with an assault weapon.”  Had he killed 17 people with a knife, or a handgun, he would be just as guilty.  However, had he tried to kill 17 people with a knife or a handgun, it is highly unlikely he would have succeeded.  The speed and effectiveness of what are essentially military-grade automatic weapons enable one person to fire off thousands of rounds indiscriminately and cause more death much more quickly.  Just close your eyes and listen to the sounds of the Las Vegas shooting and remember that one person firing one weapon at a time fired all those shots and killed all those people.

But we’re back to the apparently absolute political right to access assault weapons or these converter kits, based on one interpretation of the Second Amendment, so we have no choice but to medicalize the behavior.  At least that seems to be President Trump’s position and the position of those identified as the “gun lobby.”  Then who decides?  And which behaviors are medicalized?    Every person of faith, of every faith—Christian, Jewish, and Muslim—should be frightened by this, because faith will be the next behavior to be medicalized.  Again on that slippery slope we’ve already started down:  business owners who refuse to serve homosexual customers because of their religious faith already face criminal prosecution.  The next step is medicalizing the belief so that people who believe this way can be medicated, or institutionalized, or sterilized, or lobotomized, or—subjected to the final solution?  That could never happen here, could it?  If you are counting on President Trump to make clear moral decisions based on a consistent philosophy rooted in 5000 years of Judeo-Christian moral principle, in 500 years of Enlightenment philosophy, and in the Constitution that encoded both of those cultural legacies in our founding political document, you are expecting more than an amoral and incompetent businessman and reality TV star has ever demonstrated himself capable of even attempting.   I do not trust anyone in American politics today on either side of the political aisle to make decisions about which of my behaviors and beliefs constitute mental health or illness.

For that, I might have to take up a gun to defend my freedom.   OK, so let’s talk about gun control   since we’re done talking about mind control and how horribly frightened we all should be by the prospect (I am reminded of Aragorn’s exclamation to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings when he said that he was frightened by the events he had just witnessed:  “Not nearly frightened enough!  I know what hunts you.”).   I’m not talking about hunting rifles, vintage collector’s items like muzzle-loaders and Civil War weapons.  I’m not even talking about handguns.  We already have restrictions on buying, licensing, and carrying them, which may not be 100% effective, but limit use of them to either individual acts of robbery or murder on the one hand, or self-defense on the other.  Handguns and hunting rifles are not being used to kill dozens of people in Las Vegas and Florida, and the incidence of misuse of handguns and hunting rifles, while sad, is an acceptable price to pay for the freedom to own and use them.

Can we then agree to ban the sale of assault rifles, automatic weapons converter kits, and other military-grade weapons to civilians?   I would say again, close your eyes and listen to the video of the Las Vegas shooting and ask yourself in what context any civilian has any valid use they can make of weapons that can cause such instantaneous destruction.  The instantly available horror of these events in the cell phone video era have made it unacceptable to allow such events to continue to occur without some political and legal response.  If the choice is to accept control and limits to some types of guns or to accept control and limits to some types of beliefs and behaviors, then the smallest loss of freedom is in the controls on guns.

Those who are unwilling to accept these controls because of their interpretation of Second Amendment rights in the Constitution are ignoring their much more fundamental and important First Amendment rights.  I am not arguing whether they may be right on the Second Amendment; legal scholars and the courts have been debating the intent and meaning of that amendment for 200 years, so I certainly have no insight on any of that debate that is better than that already expressed over those years. I just know that not all of us own guns that may be protected by the Second Amendment, but all of us own life, liberty and the freedom of speech to pursue happiness that are protected by the First Amendment.

And the alternative to that freedom is holocaust.

blessed are les miserables (and other lessons from song lyrics)

As you may know, if you’ve been reading my blog for long, I tend to listen to a lot of music that doesn’t have lyrics, particularly my workday quadrivium of classic, ambient, post-rock, and movie scores.  So when I do listen to music with lyrics, I make sure they’re good lyrics.  Here are some observations I’ve made recently on some great song lyrics.

  1. 2009 was the year I fell in love with both the Harry Potter series and Coldplay’s album (which I still maintain is their greatest) Viva La Vida.  I got really invested in Snape during my first reading of the series, so I often thought of him–and still do–when I hear these lyrics from the last song on Viva La Vida: “No, I don’t wanna battle from beginning to end; I don’t want a cycle of recycled revenge; I don’t want to follow death and all of his friends.”  In those lyrics, I see Snape making the hard choice not to take revenge on James Potter’s child, and I see him turning his back on Voldemort and all of his Death-eaters.  Whatever you think about Snape, you have to admit those were brave things to do.
  2. Recently I’ve been listening to the song that goes “I’m no longer a slave to fear; I am a child of God.”  (Someone help me out here–is the artist I Am They or Bethel Music, or are those essentially the same thing?  I’m not hip enough to understand what’s going on with these “worship collectives” that are so popular these days.)  It’s the sort of song that I would generally say is a little too “on the nose.”  I admit it; I’m kind of a music snob, so I prefer subtlety in my lyrics.  But I’ve realized recently that sometimes a song that’s “on the nose” is exactly what I need.  Sometimes I just need someone to tell me that I’m a child of God.  I’m thankful for this song.
  3. And now, a thought for this Ash Wednesday from my favorite musical, Les Miserables.  I’ve been thinking about the title (which is also the title of Victor Hugo’s novel, the musical’s source text) and how we never translate it into English.  I think that’s because we don’t have a word in English that exactly captures the meaning.  “The Miserable (People”) isn’t quite right because we’re talking about a specific kind of misery.  There’s a phrase in one of the songs that captures the idea well: “the wretched of the earth.”  Les Miserables is mostly about the poor, prisoners, and prostitutes–the rejects of society.  But it gets really interesting if you think of every character in the story as les miserables, including the supposed antagonist, Javert, who is a tragic character because he can’t accept forgiveness or even his own life as a gift.  “Les miserables” are similar to the people Jesus was talking about when he said “blessed are the poor in spirit”–the people who don’t have it all together, to put it mildly.  These people are blessed if, like Jean Valjean, they acknowledge their poverty of spirit; they are doomed if, like Javert, they try to deny it.  And, if we’re honest, these people are all of us.  So take that thought into Lent with you.