(Photo: Jesus raising the dead with a wand, Roman catacomb, 3rd century)
When J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books hit the shelves and became a global hit, American fundamentalist Christians took note and reacted with a loud fear, demonization, and astoundingly idiotic condemnation that was rare even for their various denominational demographics. There is perhaps nothing more threatening than rival mythology, especially when its well publicized and successful. Protestations and calls to ban the books were followed by entire websites devoted to instructing Christians how to respond to witchcraft and demonology as pop phenomenon. It backfired and the Potter juggernaut paved right over all that evangelical silliness. With the films that followed, Rowling became the most successful franchise since Disney. Given their way, these Western, allegedly Christian sects would have certainly have mounted a belated sequel to the Salem Witch Trials. Alas, pesky secular laws predominantly douse homegrown puritan torches and minimize imitation of Isis-styled iconoclasm, which hardly negates in-house suspicion of and aggression toward imagery, such as detailed here:
(Photo: 4th century Raising of Lazarus Fresco ((Christ with magic wand)) Catacomb cubiculum O, Rome)
Although the display of overwrought evangelical histrionics reached a new, modern height with the opening of the Harry Potter universe, their pop paranoia is nothing new. For those of us old enough to remember, the same demographics were issuing warnings about Superman, who they saw as a rival to their Lord and Savior (the mythological underpinnings of the DC character were undoubtedly inspired by Christ origin Gospel narratives).
In A Search For Solitude, Journals 1952-1960, Thomas Merton lists “distrust and rejection of emotional symbolism of art,” as an unfortunate tenet of contemporary Western Christianity.
Earlier, in “Run To The Mountains. Journals 1939-1941, ” Merton wrote: “It is one of the singular disgraces attached to Catholics as a social group that they, who once nourished with their Faith and their Love of God the finest culture the world ever saw, are now content with absolutely the worst art, the worst writing, the worst music, the worst everything that has ever made anybody throw up. All this, far from being caused by their Faith, only weakens and ruins their Faith. It is something of a Middle Class culture which is poisoning the Faith instead of slaking our thirst to honor God. And those who cannot distinguish what is bourgeoisie, in what they believe, from what is Christian are crucifying God all over again with their trivial, complacent ignorance and bad taste and materialism and injustice.”
(Photo: 4th century sarcophagus depicting Jesus using a wand to raise Lazarus from the dead)
In addition to Western Christian suspicion of imagery is a preferential illiteracy toward the history and traditions of their professed religion. The most common contemporary image of the Corpus Christie, was almost unheard of in the first five centuries of Christianity. In the borrowing of pagan imagery, it strongly appears that early Christians had no delusional denial of or trepidation toward mythological metaphors, as John Dominic Crossan astutely observes:
“My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”
John Dominic Crossan, Who is Jesus? Answers to Your Questions About the Historical Jesus.
(Photo: Early catacomb art, 3rd to 5th centuries, of Christ performing miracles. Going from let to right, images 1 ((raising of Lazarus)), 3,5 ((raising of Lazarus)) and 6 depict Christ using a magic wand-like tool to perform miracles)
Rather than voyeuristically focusing on a sadistic, gruesome murder of a deity, early Christians most often depicted a beardless, joyful, boyish Jesus as good shepherd and magician performing miracles with the symbol of a wand. Of course the wand as a tool to expel magical feats pre-existed Christendom and the most prominent examples are found in the classical Greek God Hermes and Roman God Mercury.
Magic was a vital motif in the ancient world and there is undoubtedly something of an ecumenical spirit in early Christian iconography, which joins together the tradition of Moses’ staff with Hermes’ wand. Of course, no mention is made of Christ using a wand in the New Testament, but we also have to keep a mind that a Biblical Christianity would have been virtually unknown during the religion’s first millennium. Christ as a first century Harry Potter certainly is more convivial, entertaining, and edifying than Mel Gibson’s Dolores Umbridge-like dying slab of bloodied raw hamburger nailed to a tree.
When, as they often do, contemporary fundamentalist Christians wax nostalgic for a “return to the early Church,” it is, perhaps a good thing that they do so in naiveté because with a tour through the catacombs and unveiling of Christ the magician in frescos and sarcophagi, they may not like what they find.