Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The Harry Potter controversy

So, today I read this post. Someone is querying whether or not the Harry Potter books are suitable for Christians. When book six was published, I wrote this post which outlines my own views. In a nutshell: I think they're good books, they give some positive messages, and making a huge outcry against them merely ensures they're read all the more. On the other hand, I think the hype that surrounds them is ridiculous. It's way out of proportion.

Of course the debate rages on. In a way it's very sad: how decadent we in the West have become if one of the major concerns of Christendom is whether or not our children should be able to read a currently popular book. But people have always needed this kind of issue to argue about, and Christians are not exempt. So many people want things to be black-or-white - clear guidelines as to how they 'should' behave. Christians aren't exempt from that either, despite Jesus's generally laid-back attitude to moral niggles, and his insistence that love was far more important than rules or regulations.

Back to Harry Potter. Put aside the wizarding trappings for a moment, and what is the series about? At core, it's the Cinderella story in a school setting. A very unhappy child, living a life of drudgery with some really appalling (almost Dahl-ishly grotesque) relatives, suddenly learns that he is 'different' - he's famous in another world, he has money, he can go to a new school and make friends who are like himself. So off he goes to school where he not only learns to use his gifts and to focus them for positive ends, he learns about honesty, integrity, hard work and loyalty. He comes up against some bad people and there's a classic good vs evil climax to most of the books where good is shown to be stronger than evil. Even if, sometimes, unpleasant things happen along the way.

Moreover, in book one there's a very clear message given that self-sacrificial love is the strongest force in the world.

So what of the characters?

Harry is an ordinary sort of boy, given his unusual abilities. He's not briliantly academic, he's not always well-behaved, but underneath he's a boy of strong integrity who comes up against some pretty big temptations. Compare, perhaps, with Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings, or the children in the Narnia series. Or any everyday person thrown into unusual circumstances.

Albus Dumbledore, the wise headmaster of Harry's school, is comparable with Tolkien's Gandalf - or perhaps even Lewis's Aslan, though maybe that's going too far. Anyway, we know intuitively that Prof Dumbledore can be trusted, both as a person and as a school Head. While he's there, Hogwarts is safe. He is the main force for 'good'. With him are many other trusted friends.

The evil Lord Voldemort is also rather obviously the force for evil in the series, growing ever stronger as the books progress, but partially defeated each time by Harry and his companions. There are others in the book who side with Voldemort, and some whose behaviour is uncertain. There are surprises in the books as we discover which side some people are on, and one or two who remain undecided (from the reader's point of view) at least up to the end of book five. I'm still awaiting book six.

So... in my view, it's a positive spin on children's literature. Whereas many books for teenagers these days are filled with violence and pain, abortion, divorce, incest and worse, JK Rowling has managed something completely different. Children who read these books will not become corrupted; instead they'll see the power of positive traits. Harry and friends are not too good to be true - they have plenty of faults; but those faults are minor. When it comes to the crunch, they can be trusted to support what's right.

All right, so this might all change in the last book, which apparently has some dramatic ending which nobody has yet managed to guess. Perhaps after all Harry will go over to the dark side. Perhaps he'll be killed and evil will triumph. If so, then I'll take it all back.... but in the meantime, I see these books generally as a Good Thing.

Nor am I alone. If the symbolism in the books bothers you, read this amazing article.

As a postscript, I was recently lent a series of books by Francine Rivers to read. I was told they were exciting Christian historical novels. I read some reviews, and people said they were wonderful, awesome, brilliant....

I started the first book. The first chapter was about a Jewish Christian girl caught up in the destruction of Jerusalem in the 1st century. And it goes into the most gory detail about dead bodies, blood, people dying of starvation, and general carnage. It made me feel sick so I skimmed to the end ofthe chapter. The second chapter introduces us to a German solder who's caught up in other battles, and there's even more blood, gore and unpleasantness.

I nearly gave up by the end of that chapter. I certainly couldn't get to sleep till I found some light, amusing and relaxing literature to read instead (I chose '101 dalmations'). But the friend who lent me the book told me it got better. So I've kept reading.

Now I'm over half-way through the book, and yes, it's better. But not much. The heroine is indeed charming - a tiny light amongst a cruel and immoral people. No doubt her influence will be felt in some positive way before the end of the book. But the author seems to revel in describing the lifestyles and general atrocities in Roman society. I find myself cringing, wincing, even sickened at much of what I read. And I wonder why it's necessary to go into so much unpleasant detail. We all know what Roman life was like. I certainly don't need it spelled out in vivid images.

I also find myself wondering why some Christians think JK Rowling's writing is terrible because it's about witches and wizards in a fantasy world, while Francine Rivers is considered a great writer because she's writing from a Christian perspective about a Christian girl in a realistic world. Is it really acceptable to read about extreme violence and perverted desires merely because the author is a Christian?

The Bible tells us to fill our minds with what is 'true, noble, right, pure, lovely and honourable'. This historical fiction may contain much that was true, and in the heroine the other traits are certainly present. But when I read that book, my mind is filled with what's ignoble, wrong, perverted, ugly and dishonourable. By contrast when I read Harry Potter, there may not be anything that's true in the sense of the real world, but there's plenty that's noble, right, lovely and honourable.

Friday, August 05, 2005

What is it like as INFJ?

To be pedantic, I shouldn't say 'I am an INFJ'. I should say (using the Myers-Briggs model) that I have preferences for Introverting, iNtuiting, Feeling and Judging. Or (using the cognitive processes model) that my dominant process is Introverted iNtuition, with axiliary Extraverted Feeling. Or (using the temperament model) that I'm a Role-Directing Responding Idealist. Sometimes given the title 'Foreseer Developer'.


So much jargon. It takes a long time to come to terms with all the ramifications of these theories, and see how they interrelate. I do see them all as different sides of the same coin. Or perhaps a better analogy is the famous one of the blind men and the elephant. One felt a leg and insisted it was a tree. One felt the tail and said no, it was a rope. One held the trunk and assured his friends it was a snake. All their sensory impressions were valid, but their conclusions were false because they were each only considering one part of the whole. Put together, with someone else feeling the body, and the tusks, and understanding the patterns was necessary before the elephant could be perceived as what it was.

Of course we each have our own perspective on just about everything. And while some conclusions might be wrong, or only partly true, our perceptions are always valid. The problem arises when we refuse to acknowledge that others may have different - but equally valid - perceptions. They may also draw different conclusions, which may or may not be as accurate as our own. So long as we remain open-minded, we can always learn.

Yet we cannot be TOO open-minded. It's a fine line. 'So open-minded his brains fell out' is bandied about as an insult about someone who can't seem to think for himself. Yet the opposite of open-minded is closed-minded. Personally I prefer to err in the open-minded direction if I can't get the right balance. At least I will listen to others, and be willing to learn, and also willing to change my own misunderstandings and incorrect conclusions.

It took me a long time to realise that (using the simplest shorthand) my preferences are indeed INFJ. I didn't even want to admit it at first. I would prefer to be a straightforward person who's good at hospitality, understands logistics, makes friends reasonably well, and always understands social customs. Those people who buy just the right gift, express just the right amount of thankfulness, throw great (but relaxing) parties, invite guests to their home and find things to talk about, seem to fit in wherever they go, don't worry about dozens of contradictory perspectives and complex abstract theories ... doesn't that sound great?

But it isn't me. I finally gave up my self-image as a Guardian (albeit a rather different and not very succesful one) about six months ago, and sat down wearily in the INFJ box. There aren't many INFJs around, only about 1% of the American population, and perhaps similarly low elsewhere. So I don't even have any role models whose preferences match mine. Descriptions aren't always very useful either. The one on the Personality Page for instance, doesn't leap out at me at all. I don't think I"m particularly complex, I'm certainly not artistic. I like things to be fairly orderly and systematic, but I'm very bad at arranging them that way. Logistics is the realm of the Guardians, not the Idealists.

There's plenty more that does describe me (warm, sometimes intuitive about people, potentially stubborn...) but then personality descriptions have a lot of generalisations in them and most of us can find something in just about all of them that seem to fit. For years I identified with ISTJ descriptions, and then for a year or so with ISFJ. I can't honestly say that INFJ is a better match, as far as most descriptions go.

On the other hand, there's much in this description at the BestFitType site which is correct. I like this site, because it talks about 'best fit' types rather than exact matches. It also uses personal descriptions by people with the particular types, ensuring as much as possible that is common to all of this type rather than vague generalisations which either apply to just about anyone (whatever their type) or only a few people.

Even so, I had to read it a few times before I made sense of it. But that figures. The core of each of us is what we take for granted, what's always been there. It's not obvious to us at all, and for Introverts like myself it's not much evident to anyone else either.

Here are a few sentences from that page which really do sum up who I am:

Connecting for me means being able to intuitively ask questions of people to get them to go deeper into the things they are talking about.

Yes! Rapport is very important to me, and one of the ways I establish it is to ask questions. I like to encourage people to think beyond the box. To figure out WHY they believe what they do.

Sadly, this often leads to misunderstandings. It's only recently that I realised that not everyone wants to think more deeply about anything. Some people want to accept what they've been taught, at more-or-less face value. Others adopt strong moral principles, but then feel threatened if anyone else queries them.

For an INFJ, querying something is not the same as attacking it. In fact I'm not sure I'd attack any philosophy or belief, because I truly believe everyone is entitled to believe whatever they like, however pointless or immature, or even incorrect. If it's a belief that's going to put them - or someone else - in danger, I want them to see it for themselves. Sometimes I seem argumentative, even provocative, but it never (all right, hardly ever!) feels that way from where I sit. It's just that what I'm hearing isn't congruent, and I want to hear more - for the other person either to explain in a way I can truly understand (even if I don't agree with it) or to see any fallacies and move on.

Here's another sentence from that description:

The challenge is opening up people’s minds to have their own original thoughts. I’m a listener and guide.

Absolutely. It seems so obvious. Isn't that what magazine articles, and mailing lists and blogs are for?

But not everyone sees them that way. I've had to learn that some people really don't like their minds being opened up, and perceive any attempt to do so as criticism. So either I phrase my questions more tactfully, or I swallow them altogether and say nothing. Sometimes the latter option is the right one, but it's a very difficult lesson for me to learn. If someone doesn't want a listener or guide, and is not interested in deep thinking or new perspectives, then that is their right.

In the meantime, if anybody I've upset with questions comes across this post, there's another vital sentence in that description:

I’m not as outgoing or as critical as I may sometimes appear.


There are other parts of that description that are absolutely right. Caring is (for me) at least partly about helping people grow. Physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally. And yes, when I care about someone I care deeply even if I'm not always very good at showing it.

I love reading and writing. Indeed, I need to read. Fiction as well as non-fiction. Secular books as well as Christian books. Some people don't understand that either, but books are almost as important to me as food and drink. I also need to write. I have always written something - journals, stories, appalling poetry in my young childhood - and know I communicate better in writing than I do in speech.

I would like my day to be structured and organised. I set up routines, and sometimes I stick to them. Many times I don't, but it doesn't mean I don't like structure. I just can't be tied to it, and - much as I would like to think I follow logic rather than emotion - if I don't FEEL like doing something, it's very difficult to bring myself to do it.

Finally, one sentence which sums me up, and my purpose in blogging. I don't know if this is typical of all INFJs, but I suspect it might be.

If we spent more time trying to understand each other’s point of view, to communicate more effectively, we would grow.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Personality models

Each person is a unique individual, created by God.

That's the heart of what I believe. Even identical twins are different in some ways; for everybody, there never has (and never will be) another person the same.

However there are similarities between certain people. Not just in physical appearance, but in the way they are. They way the behave. How they relate, and learn, and make decisions. And to understand others better - to help our own communication and relationships - it can be valuable to learn from those who have researched and observed and produced theories to explain the patterns.

One of the oldest is the theory of temperament. Ancient Greeks divided people according to which body fluid of four they thought was most prevalent. Over the ages there have been quite a few similar theories about what motivates people at their core, the most recent in this genre being Keirsey's temperament theory. His book '' Please Understand Me II" is well-written and appealing in many ways. It divides the entire world into just four temperaments:

  • The Idealist who seeks authenticity and rapport
  • The Artisan who seeks freedom and impact
  • The Rational who seeks achievement and competence
  • The Guardian who seeks belonging and security.
One problem, of course, is that we all seek all these things to some degree, and seeing which one is our 'core' is not easy, because we tend to take it for granted.

Another problem is that within each of these four temperaments there are huge variations. Two are explained by Keirsey. Each temperament has those who are 'Introverted' or 'Responding', and those who are 'Extraverted' or 'Initiating'. Extraverts gain their energy from other people, Introverts become drained by other people.

The other division is into Role-informing or Role-directing: if we want someone to do something, we have a preference either for asking them directly, or for giving them some pertinent information.

So four temperaments divided twice leads to sixteen possibilities; these are - mostly - congruent to the well-known Myers-Briggs types.

Of course nobody (or hardly anybody) finds their type by taking a questionnaire, of which there are several online and some available professionally. Answers depend on how we interpret the questions, how honest we are, what mood we're in when answering the questions, and possibly what we think the questions are leading to. When I first came across Myers-Briggs, I seemed to test as ISTJ. An Introverted Guardian with role-directing style. The descriptions I found online (there are many) all seemed to be reasonable, although I prided myself in being rather different - more thoughtful, less rigid, not remotely interested in business or commerce.

Then I started studying cognitive functions - the way some of the functions of Myers-Briggs operate within each of us. It became clear that ISTJ was not correct, and I considered ISFJ. Later on, in discussing temperament, I realised INFJ is more likely still.

But INFJ isn't all of who I am. There are other personality models - many of them. I've learned a bit about the Enneagram, which deals more in motivation than behaviour. No doubt there are many others, and more will be discovered. None of them, to my way of thinking, is the whole truth. Each one is simply a different way of looking at humanity, seeing different patterns. Like a kaleidoscope. Or a single thread in a tapestry. Or the construction of a certain model from Lego pieces, which can be taken apart and re-built in a completely different way. If one model helps me understand someone better, or learn how to communicate with them better, then I'll adopt it for a while. If it doesn't help with a particular problem, I'll try something else.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Abstract vs concrete

David Keirsey, in 'Please Understand Me II' talks about use of language as being one of the main dividers between two groups of temperament: a preference for concrete or abstract speech. In Myers-Briggs/MBTI terms, this is similar to the 'Sensing' and 'iNtuiting' preferences (S or N) respectively.

While I've thought of myself as fairly concrete for years, I've realised in discussion with others that I'm actually more of an abstract thinker. Of course we all live in the concrete world, so we can't avoid a certain amount of concrete language. But given my own time and space, I think about theories, philosophies, theology. I love sitting around chatting about such things, whereas the price of apples interests me only for about ten seconds.

My 'Life in Cyprus' blog is informational, for those interested in us as a family or in moving to Cyprus. As such it's primarily concrete as I describe things we do and the way life works. My 'Random recipes' blog is just that: recipes we use in our family. For information, for future reference, and to add a tiny fraction to the wealth of recipes online already. My 'Recent reading' blog is a rather self-indulgent place for brief personal reviews of all the books I've read, for my own satisfaction and future browsing. And as recommendations to others, should anyone read them. My 'Quizzes and questionnaires' blog is even more self-indulgent; a place to quote all the results of those quizzes that pass around in emails and on other blogs.

And this one? Who knows. But I hope it will catch the extra stuff I want to write about but which - so far - had no outlet.