Victoria Atkinson White: J.K. Rowling, Alan Rickman and the reign of God

Illustration by AdorindiL

Christian institutions are at their best when their focus is set on God’s reign, when their view of past, present and future follow a framework informed by “the end,” writes a managing director at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

“The end is our beginning” is a key phrase in the work of Christian institutions, because it describes the motives and the reasons for living and leading as children of God. The telos -- the purpose, the reason -- for leading Christian institutions is rooted in God and God’s reign on earth. It is what forms the answer to our “Why?” when we question our work or our existence. It is what fuels the work when we become weary, and what pulls us back to community when we realize we have mistakenly tried to take on kingdom work alone. At the same time, “the end is our beginning” can be a challenging concept to communicate to those who have not grown up in the church or do not have a foundation of church tradition upon which to draw.

A contemporary example of the telos concept is the buzz that circulated for weeks after British actor Alan Rickman died in early 2016. While famous for many cinematic roles, Rickman was best known as potions professor Severus Snape in the blockbuster series “Harry Potter.” As filming began for the first movie, only three of the seven books had been written. This left author J.K. Rowling as the only one who knew how the story would end. She needed Professor Snape’s character to develop with a secret, revealed only in what would become the seventh and final book. Rowling told Rickman what he called a “tiny, little, left of field” detail to inform Snape’s character development in the films. In the days following Rickman’s death, a 14-minute video of Snape’s pivotal scenes from all seven movies -- illuminating the role the secret played -- drew millions of views.

As Rowling intended, Rickman’s glimpse of the “tiny, little, left of field” detail informed his portrayal of Snape in each film. Interestingly, though, it was up to Rickman to interpret what the detail meant and how it would play out in the overall storyline. He even went so far as to correct the directors when they wanted him to do something he felt was out of line with the secret only he and Rowling shared.

Rickman took that tiny glimpse and improvised his way into one of the most influential roles in the series. His portrayal of Snape was dark, twisted, conflicted, and most of all incredibly complex, because his life as that character was informed by a secret fully revealed only at the story’s end.

So it is with Christian leaders. Our vision of the end informs the way we view the past, live in the present and hope for the future. Having even the tiniest, little, left-of-field glimpse into what the reign of God will look like sheds light on the way we see history and seek to live in the present and into the future.

The good news is that we have more than a little glimpse. God has revealed God’s self to us in Jesus Christ. While the intimate details of the reign of God may not be known to us, the life and love of Jesus Christ are, better informing and shaping the way we live and lead. We can create multiple ways to move forward and improvise, holding in tension the tradition of the church and Scripture with the glimpse God has given us in Jesus Christ to live boldly into the reign of God.

The telos frames and shapes the story, but it does not determine it. Sometimes the church behaves as if it were responsible for bringing about the reign of God. The church is part of the ongoing story bearing witness to God’s reign. But it is not responsible for the end of it, just as it was not responsible for the beginning. The story from beginning to end is about God. Humans are neither the creators nor the completion of God’s story.

This is actually the best news humans could receive. We are invited to participate in God’s ongoing story of love and redemption of God’s creation. We are not responsible for its outcome. The end belongs to God alone.

Our responsibility lies in doing the best we can with the “glimpses” we have been given as our contributions to God’s creation. Each glimpse contributes, as to a puzzle, revealing ever more clearly the magnificence and splendor of God’s reign. Recall the apostle Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).