“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Have you ever seen a movie that didn’t know what it was trying to be? That can be a frustrating experience. You want to enjoy the film, but you only want to enjoy one film, not three or four at the same time. Writing a story (or much of anything for that matter) can be tough. I can speak to this rather personally as I write a few thousand words every week. Not many of those words are for the purpose of telling a story, but writing a sermon requires the same kind of discipline. Too many potentially good sermons have fallen victim to the curse of not knowing what they are trying to be. The preacher starts out making one point, but then just can’t quite restrain himself from making two or three others. The jumbled mess that results from this may feel very inspiring in a moment, but doesn’t often stick beyond that. I recently finished watching a movie that suffers from this very thing. It’s too bad too, because I really wanted it to be good. Let’s talk this morning about the latest offering from the wizarding world of Harry Potter: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Secrets of Dumbledore.
To call the Harry Potter franchise a success seems rather dramatically understated. If nothing else, a world that began with a story about the boy who lived has taken author, J.K. Rowling from a struggling writer to a net worth somewhere in the neighborhood of a billion dollars. That first story grew to a collection of seven along with eight movies, several video and mobile games, every kind of merchandise imaginable, Lego sets galore, Broadway shows, a real-life Quidditch league (which does not feature real flying broomsticks, just so we’re clear), and on and on the list goes.
The latest major story offerings have come in the form of the film series, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The title of the series (now a trilogy) comes from the title of one of the textbooks Harry and his classmates used in their studies at Hogwarts. It was written by magizologist, Newt Scamander, and the films are supposed to be about his various adventures as he interacts with the menagerie of fantastic beasts of the wizarding world. The first film in the franchise did just that and was a ton of fun to watch. For fans who were hungry for more about this magical world they had become quite invested in, it gave a glimpse into the wizarding world outside of England, specifically in New York City.
As too often happens, though, after an initially tight and disciplined focus, the second and third entries into the franchise began to branch out into bigger and more potentially lucrative storylines, and something of what made the first so fun was lost. Instead of being primarily about Newt Scamander and his fantastic beasts, the story became about Dumbledore (now played by Jude Law) and Gellert Grindelwald (played by Colin Farrell, Johnny Depp, and Mads Mikkelsen), the best friends-turned enemies whose dual in which the former defeated the latter to put a stop to his nefarious plans to launch a war on the non-magical population of the world was the stuff of legends in the original series.
The third of what was originally planned to be a five-film series is all about Dumbledore’s efforts to use Newt and his ragtag group of allies to prevent Grindelwald from becoming the leader of the International Confederation of Wizards. Somewhat true to form, a beast did feature in the story, but it didn’t come off as all that fantastic. The beast was called a qilin (pronounced chillin’), which is out of the world of Chinese mythology. The deer-like creature is supposed to be a harbinger of a great or wise leader. A qilin is said to have appeared before the birth of Confucius. In the context of the story, a qilin can see a person’s soul and whether she is good or bad. A particularly good and pure-hearted person will merit the creature’s bow of recognition.
The reason this winds up mattering is that this is the process the wizards use to choose which candidate is the legitimate contender for the position atop the International Confederation of Wizards. The worthy candidate is selected by the qilin’s bow. It doesn’t make a bit of sense, but it keeps the story going so there’s at least that.
Keeping the story going, though, is part of the problem. On the whole, I enjoyed the movie. It has all the same wizarding charm that everything in the Harry Potter cinematic universe has had. The magic element is fun and even the more intense moments were fairly whimsical. But for a couple of scenes, it had none of the darkness of the final three Harry Potter films. The trouble, though, is that it doesn’t know what it is.
From the title, it’s part of the Fantastic Beasts franchise. Based on at least the first entry in the story, that gives the audience something to expect. But the subtitle is “Secrets of Dumbledore” which leads you to think something else. And rather than settling on one or the other, it tries for both and doesn’t really achieve either. The plot of the film is kind of a mess with several things happening that don’t appear to have any purpose except to add length. The final sequence is all coherent, but isn’t really supported by the rest of the movie. Then there are the love story elements that mostly feel forced. And the one main love story that has been delightfully driving much of the plot of the last two movies is nearly completely ignored in favor of another one that was one-sided and mostly heartbreaking. They do nicely wrap up a third love story, but it once again feels rushed. And, in the end, they leave more story lines hanging than complete.
No, the real feature of the film turns out to be the tragic love story between Dumbledore and Grindelwald. This came out of a tweet from Rowling sometime after finishing the original book series. Honestly, it came off a bit like pandering to the cultural moment at the time, but it was nonetheless received with delight from all the appropriately woke voices in the culture and Fantastic Beasts wound up being chosen as the vehicle for telling this clearly more important story. Yet, like everything else, it feels unnecessarily forced. Dumbledore and Grindelwald could have simply been best friends like was intimated in the original Harry Potter series, and it wouldn’t have changed anything. Frankly, it would have been a stronger story. And none of this criticism comes specifically because they are gay. It comes because it’s weak storytelling. If you are going to insist on representation, at least do it well.
Ironically, this entry into the series may wind up being the last instead of completing the originally planned five-part arc. The reasons for this are many. There were problems with some of the actors’ not being able to keep their social lives in order (looking at you, Johnny Depp). The movie didn’t make nearly as much money as the studio had hoped. But most significantly, Rowling’s refusal to back down from comments critical of the transgender movement have made her a pariah of the woke left instead of its darling. That hurt the film culturally more than just about anything else. Even some of the main actors have distanced themselves from the project.
Still, the whole idea of the qilin choosing the wizard who was pure of heart caught my attention. In the mythology of the film, it has the ability to see into someone’s soul and judge it pure or evil. On what basis this judgment is made is unclear. According to which standard the qilin can make such an assessment we don’t know. Why we should trust the opinion of this deer-like, mystical creature is completely unaddressed. Even more specifically, the language they use when the qilin makes its judgment is that the creature has “seen” the person.
This got me thinking about something Jesus said in the sermon on the mount. Right near the beginning, when He was giving what would become known as the Beatitudes, one of the things He said is that the pure in heart are blessed, and the nature of this blessing is that they will see God. This is different from Fantastic Beasts. There, it was the people who were seen. Jesus offers us something else: The chance to see. The thing about God is that He sees everyone. Nothing escapes His view. He knows who you are even more intimately than you do. You are seen.
But that’s not our problem. Our problem is that the impurity in our hearts prevents us from seeing. It clouds our vision. It makes the world around us blurry. We lose sight of the God who is pure. We need help in purifying our hearts so we can see things as they really are. Then we will know what’s true and what’s a lie. We will know when someone or something is trying to deceive us—even when that someone is us.
We need help with this, but we must choose our source for this help carefully. Looking inside as the world around insists will never steer us wrong is a fool’s errand at best. As the prophet Jeremiah rightly noted, “The heart is more deceitful than anything else, and incurable—who can understand it?” If we cannot look in, then, where else can we look? Around? That’s a tempting solution, to be sure, but the world around us is no more pure than we are ourselves. And someone impure cannot help us purify ourselves.
No, our only hope is to look up to the only one who is pure. And think what a wonder this is. When we are pure of heart, we can see Him. And, He is the one who helps to make us pure of heart so that we can see Him. He sets the standard and then reaches down to help us meet it. He wants to be seen. He wants us to see Him. He wants you to see Him.
In order to experience this wonder of sight, you don’t need a mythical, Chinese, deer-dragon creature. You only need Jesus who died to make you clean from all your sins. With your sins addressed, and the Holy Spirit dwelling in you, you will be clean to see God. Receiving all of this requires two things: belief and confession. Confess Jesus is Lord, and believe He rose from the dead. Do that, and you will be saved. It really is that simple.
In the end, Fantastic Beasts offers a fun story, but a nonetheless undisciplined one, and one that is so weakly rooted in the truth it can do little more than offer us examples of what not to do. Let us enjoy such storytelling where we find it (and indeed, it is not devoid of laudable elements like self-sacrifice for some greater end, and the living commitment of two brothers to one another), but let us look to Jesus as the way to be made pure of heart so we can see God.