The Ghosts of Holiness Past
A Reflected Unreality
In the first Harry Potter Book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone , Harry happens upon a mirror when he panics and hides from discovery as he has been sneaking into the Restricted Section of the school library. The large and ornate mirror is within what appears to be an empty classroom. The image he sees as he approaches the mirror startles Harry. Instead of seeing what he expects, he sees a large group of people. Harry’s curiosity captures him and he approaches the mirror. He sees himself now, but also two figures. As he examines the people and tries to reach behind him, he realizes that the man and woman he sees are his parents, who were killed when he was an infant. Harry becomes transfixed upon the mirror as he interacts and basks in the image of himself with parents who love him. Eventually, he realizes he has been in front of the mirror for a long time and heads back toward his room.
The next day, he tells his best friend Ron about the experience. Ron responds with the pain of having missed out, but Harry tells him they can go together that night to see the mirror. It takes a while, but the pair eventually find the room and Harry rushes to the mirror and asks Ron if he can see Harry’s parents. Ron says he only sees Harry. Disappointed, Harry tells Ron to stand where he is and to look closely. Ron describes what he sees, which differs from Harry’s experience. Ron sees an older and taller version of himself. He is not only Head Boy, but captain of the house Quidditch (a sport) team. He is also holding the House and Quidditch Cups signifying championship. Harry dismisses Ron’s experience and attempts to push him out of the way to see his family again. But they are both thwarted by a noise which sends them scurrying back to their room under Harry’s invisibility cloak.
The third night finds Ron desperately trying to distract Harry with games and visits to the Gamekeeper, Hagrid. But Harry remains determined looking. Ron implores him not to return to the mirror because of the close calls. Ron also has a feeling that the mirror is not as benign as it appears to Harry. But Harry is determined and returns to the mirror, quietly sits down and thinks he will sit and watch his family all night uninterrupted. Until that is Professor Dumbledore, whom Harry had brushed right past, speaks up. “So - back again, Harry?” Harry stumbles over his words as he acknowledges Dumbledore’s presence. Harry learns the mirror has a name; The Mirror of Erised. Dumbledore asks if Harry has worked out what the mirror does. He tells Harry what Ron saw and explains that the mirror reveals the “deepest, most desperate desire of our heart.”
Dumbledore tells Harry the danger of the mirror; “However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge nor truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible.” Then tells Harry the mirror will be moved and he should not go looking for it. Dumbledore is highlighting the danger of nostalgia and misplaced hope plus how we can become frozen in a place because of the emotion of both.
I believe there is a reflexive tendency to view the past and the struggles of the present through a type of “Erised translator.” My friend Bob Hunter calls this idea “Rosey Retrospection.” I believe a vision of holiness captivates that Holiness Folk they see as a reflection of the past. For example, if we simply recover the ideas of this or that great hero of holiness, we might make a difference in our world. Of course, the Holy Spirit is not looking backward while preveniently working in lives. Quoting and desiring to return to a time which did not really exist will not usher in a revival or increased love of holiness.
It is not unusual for those who look backward to string quotes from past holiness folk to show a way to holiness. This can work, but it needs to keep modern language usage in mind. It is helpful to show how later discoveries, understandings, and scholarship work with and augment those quotes from the past. Care also needs to be taken in the context of the past and present. We can quote someone like J.B. Chapman to stir feelings, but that needs to be tinged with care. We cannot simply accept the language of the past if it has changed so much that it can cause unnecessary offense, for example. Importantly, Chapman was one of a few who pulled the Church of the Nazarene particularly toward a premillennial direction while deemphasizing care for orphans, unwed mothers, and other marginalized communities.(Grace 236) Chapman did a lot of good, but not everything he said or did was spectacularly holy.
I also find it interesting how Mildred Wynkoop is misunderstood by some. Speaking of a past voice, Wynkoop’s theology was a fully relational theology which flowed out of Wesleyan-Holiness thought. Wynkoop was highly critical of streams that looked backward too often. While Wynkoop was not fully within Open or Process theology, she was open to it (pun intended). When I first read A Theology of Love Wynkoop’s own comments in the Preface pleasantly surprised me. Contrary to many who look backward, Wynkoop was willing to look back and forward to a new way of expressing holiness. “‘Process Theology’ makes a much-needed correction to the dualisms of a former day. It is my considered opinion that, though the metaphysical foundation of process thought is not the only solution to theological problems, its insights are inescapable in a biblical theology. The dynamic emphasis in relation to God, man, love, grace, nature, and salvation and interpersonal relations is crucial to the Christian faith.” (Wynkoop) Did Wynkoop get everything right? No, but she was wiling to do what may are continuing to do; look back, look forward, and communicate that in the present.
The difference is that Chapman is and has been revered. Wynkoop was attacked in her day by some and is misused today by those who look back with misplaced nostalgia. Both have something valuable for our day; as do many others from the past like Phoebe Palmer, Alber Outler, Kenneth Grider, Richard S Taylor, and others. But we should communicate those truths in our context and be willing to move past ideas that no longer contribute to holiness.
Maybe we can find a way to learn from the Ghosts of Holiness Past while being heard in the present and avoiding an absence in the future. One day, we will be the ghosts of the past as well. I hope we are seen as complex as those we look back toward today rather than shallow duplicates of the past. Otherwise we may waste away staring into a mirror of ghosts and miss the world who needs to hear of hope and mercy and love.
Ingersol, Stan, Harold E. Raser, and D. P. Whitelaw. Our Watchword & Song: The Centennial History of the Church of the Nazarene. Edited by Floyd Timothy Cunningham. Kansas City, Mo.: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 2013.
Wynkoop, Mildred Bangs. A Theology of Love: The Dynamic of Wesleyanism, Second Edition. Nazarene Publishing House. Kindle Edition.