An Introduction by Dr. Kj Swanson:
Every other year, The Seattle School offers the course SFD (Spiritual Formation & Direction) 523 Spirituality & the Arts and with each offering, the instructor has focused on a particular form of art as a way to explore spiritual practices and how the arts can inform and sustain spiritual formation. Two years ago I centered the course on film. This year I wanted another medium of artistic engagement that students may already find meaningful and that I too have found spiritually and formatively significant. The Wizarding World created by author JK Rowling was an obvious choice. It encompasses not only literary traditions rooted in the work of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, but it also includes film, fandom, immersive theme parks, and creative digital media.
From January to April of 2019, 40 students read (or re-read) over 1,000 pages of Harry Potter texts, created immersive experiences for their classmates, wrote and analyzed fan fiction as a form of spiritual practice, and unpacked together the resonance, both theological and psychological, of these stories that have enchanted so many of us for over twenty years. I was humbled and awed each week by what students discovered and shared with one another, and am pleased to have some of them able to share their work with a wider community. Expecto Patronum.
The process of writing and enjoying fantasy and fiction can be understood as a form of escapism, however, this seems to be an over simplistic and dismissive belief. Escapism would suggest a dismission of reality in favor of a delusional or detached reality, whereas fantasy and fiction can be significant forms of exploring reality through imaginative processes. Instead of escaping reality, or maybe it would be more accurate to say a particular understanding of reality, fantasy and fiction allow us to view reality differently. Life can become enchanted, and
spirituality can be nurtured through fantasy and fiction, because it provides a different lens through which we can perceive reality. My own spirituality and theology has been formed through fantasy and fiction literature, because these genres often take themes of spirituality and reality to create an imaginative world where the two collide.
This belief in imagination from Rowling’s literature, as well as other fantasy writers such as Stephen King and C.S. Lewis, has influenced my own spiritual life and how I practice spirituality in reality. Imagination to me is a reflection of what children tend to nurture, where typically as an adult the dominant American culture desires conformity to particular norms and ways of thinking and believing. There is a beauty in the world that can often be missed when there is a lack of imagination or enchantment.
Practicing enchantment has changed my own ways of acting in the world and in relation to other people and the Earth.
A theme from Dr. Swanson’s course on Spiritual Formation and Development through the Harry Potter series that has influenced me in integrating theology, spirituality, and imagination is the idea of imagination and the ancient Hebrew tradition of Midrash. The process of Midrash is a process of creative and imaginative interpretation of the Torah. Literature functions in a similar way to Biblical writings in the sense that the authors tend to have an
intended meaning or purpose to their writings, however, the readers interpret through our own cultural and personal lens, which brings multiplicity and difference in meaning to the texts. What a creative re-imagination of the text does is bring a multiplicity of perspectives to Biblical interpretation, which challenges a positivist interpretation of the text that demands conformity to one particular belief system or absolute truth.
As readers of literature from the stories of Harry Potter to Hagar, it is important to think and see imaginatively so that we can transform ourselves in response to the stories. As story lovers, we may see the truths of our own stories in the lives of the characters and people we gravitate towards in literature. We may begin to ask important questions that cause us to develop a deeper sense of empathy for others and ourselves when reading and interpreting different texts.
We may ask what did Harry feel having his unique talents as a wizard suppressed by his abusive Aunt and Uncle? How does my faith community view Hagar as an Egyptian slave who was used and abandoned by the apparent righteous religious folks in the Biblical text? How do we as people change in response to the stories and trauma of others and by exploring our own stories and trauma?
Imagination is vital to the process of Biblical interpretation, and to understanding our own lives as spiritual and physical beings.
The process of growth as a person, and the process of healing from trauma require creativity and imagination. To grow and to heal it is important that we develop the ability to imagine how our lives could be different. This is something we can do through engaging with fantasy literature and other forms of creative expression. Not only is literature a creative art, it is a demonstration of how many people imaginatively express their own life stories. The process of reading and listening to the stories of others can inform us as we can engage with our own life stories and spiritual development alongside enchantment.