The Land of Magical Thinking

Editorial by Art Dewey

From The Fourth R
Volume 29, Issue 3
May – June 2016
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A short while ago I decided to do field research. The eternal game known as the presidential primaries was still turning serious matters into mush. The heavy atmosphere of unreality was becoming more and more oppressive. But the stars aligned for me to do some research on the ground and spend time with my granddaughter. My son and daughter-in-law invited Sora’s grandparents to visit the “Wizarding World of Harry Potter” in Orlando. Spring break afforded me the opportunity that I usually spend reading blue books and finishing overdue articles. Now I would ride shotgun beside Sora on the flights.

I agreed to go for three reasons. The first was obvious: more time with Sora. The second was that long ago I had been taken by the enchanting tale of that lightning-marked wizard and wanted to see how technology could handle that spellbinding tale. But the third was to use this visit as an “unreality” check. Yes, not a “reality” check. I intentionally deviated from my usual modus vivendi and would allow myself to be subjected to what Universal Studios could conjure. I also was aware that we would be landing in Florida just days before the Florida Presidential Primary in mid-March. I had been to Florida numerous times, made many friendships giving workshops, and always been in awe of the sunsets, particularly on the Gulf side. At the same time, I knew that, just as in the other states (including my Ohio, the “heart of it all”), reality was becoming a scarce commodity. The Sunshine State Governor had labeled climate change as the “word that cannot be uttered,” while their Senator could look at the seas swelling near Miami and with a cherubic face deny the latest scientific warnings. You didn’t need to enter the Magic Kingdom to sense an unreal atmosphere.

So we made our visit to this alternate world. We walked through Springfield, the Simpsons’ hometown, ate a humongous pink donut, passed the Men in Black pavilion on the right, then crossed from a movie-set America to a theatrically appointed London street. Across from the triple-decked bus, we found a secret entrance into Diagon Alley. There everything changed. Sunlight competed with the shades of the cramped buildings on the cobble-stoned streets. A gigantic dragon sitting on the roof of Gringott’s bank glared down menacingly.

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Our first stop was Ollivander’s wand shop. There the fine points as well as the ingredients of each wand were explained. A young girl was asked to try a number of them out, with a variety of predictable effects. Upon which, after some sage advice from the wand maker (“never put it in your back pocket”), we were ushered into the salesroom. There is nothing more magical in America than the ringing of the cash register.

Now armed with wands we went about trying spells at various designated areas. Sometimes the magic worked. Sometimes it didn’t. But even the eight year olds became wise to the electronic detectors that made it all happen. We enjoyed the delights of Butterbeer in three forms: frozen, warm, and ice cream. When it is eighty-five degrees under the snow-topped roofs of Hogsmeade, there is nothing like it. We took the train from platform 9¾ back and forth from London. There were fish and chips and Dragonscale ale for a ransom at the Leaky Cauldron. On the last night twenty-month Sora wanted to try a spell. The moment when her wand waving turned on the lights of an entire shop will never leave my memory. The sudden light reflected on her open-mouth awe and innocence.

In short, it was quite fun. There was indeed magic, not the electronic ghostings, but the sheer delight of diverse people having fun. For a brief moment old and young bumped and played in a story in which they had already invested. They extended the imaginary world of Rowling beyond the books and into their play and mirth.

Then we returned to the hotel. The Republican Presidential Debate continued with another incarnation. This time something unusual occurred: civility was the watchword. Everyone was trying to do his best impression of a statesman. But it was hard for me not to consider each an electronic imposter; their repetitive campaign clichés strengthened my suspicions. They too, like the characters of Hogwarts, were involved in a game.

Now the genius of the Harry Potter books is that it does not shy away from the reality of power and loss in children’s lives. It gives young readers a chance to imagine co-operative ways around, through, and under life’s discouragements. The four political shades on the stage offered no such deliverance. They stuck to their guns. Children are often accused of magical thinking, of believing that their wills can overcome obstacles. But that sells children too short. They may not have the words for it, but they sense that there are forces beyond their control. Moreover, through this experience they can learn a fundamental reality: that they need others in order to survive, in order to continue to play. It was the adults on the stage that were addicted to magical thinking. They were quite happy to relegate religious differences to demonic forces. They repeatedly debunked legislation unless it was on their own terms. Long forgotten was the sage conservative advice of William F. Buckley that political survival in this country depended on compromise. Ambition laid siege to reason. Facts fell into the maw of fear. An argument’s strength does not win debates, strongmen do. Why would anyone imagine an educated Potter world when you can save on entitlements with a Pottersville? Why furrow your citizen’s brow with worry when a loyalty salute can wipe it all away?

As I flew back to Cincinnati with Sora in my arms, I wondered if we will grow up as a nation, if we will realize we need all the help we can get from each other, especially from those who differ and are different?

Photo of Arthur Dewey

Arthur J. Dewey (Th.D., Harvard University) is Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati. A distinguished teacher, writer, translator and commentator, he is the author of Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus was Remembered (forthcoming 2017) and co-author of The Complete Gospel Parallels (with Robert J. Miller, 2011) and The Authentic Letters of Paul (with Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt, 2010). Dewey’s poetry has appeared in Christian Century and his poetic perspective aired on the Saturday Morning Edition on Public Radio Station WVXU (91.7) in Cincinnati for more than a dozen years.