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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Can Slytherins Go to Heaven: A Look at Christian Ambition

I am a resolute fan of the Harry Potter books. I'm not crazy for it, off learning how to speak troll or anything. (The real fans will probably write me to correct that the troll language, of course, can't be learned by humans. Or something...) But there are a few troubling thoughts that emerge from the books, and the greatest in my mind is the wizarding school's house system. They're basically like teams with their own mascots and colors. And characteristics. Here's where it gets interesting.

The first house is Gryffindor. All students that go to this house have within them great courage, a desire to do good, and being a champion against injustice. The second house is Ravenclaw, which prizes knowledge, learning, and wisdom above all else. The third house is Hufflepuff, which is honestly sort of a throwaway because all the other houses get cool characteristics and this sort of takes the leftovers. And the fourth and last house is Slytherin. The students of Slytherin all exhibit great attraction to power and ambition.

The problem here is that the author of HP pulls nearly every villain in the series from Slytherin. The implication seems to be that of course a lust for knowledge doesn't corrupt and of course anger at injustice can never end badly but naturally all humans with ambitions who enjoy leadership are very easily made evil.

I don't think the author had Christian intentions but this echoes our own Christian faith and culture. We have divided many characteristics - what are called "personalities" or "essences" or "types" - into 'Of God' and 'Not of God' categories. If you dislike injustice, that's clearly from God. If you're ambitious, that's clearly not. Ambition is evil.

The ambitious are the ones you'll find in Slytherin House. Or perhaps even in your own house and family. Humanity is full of people who seek the spotlight, who are naturally cunning, who have ambitions and goals for themselves. And while we can never condone a life of pure self-interest, it's a mistake to think that ambitions are desires that Christians must automatically deny.

What Do Christians Think of Ambition?

The conversation in most Christian circles assumes ambition is inherently evil. You'll easily find articles with titles like, "Is Ambition Always Sinful" (emphasis added), because of course it's wrong to want to achieve goals or have recognition.

This is because as Christians we've adopted a dualistic view of reality. We hold that certain traits like self-sacrifice come from God and other traits like ambition come from the Enemy. It's one or the other or so we're taught. But is it?

No. Ambition is not an inherently good or bad characteristic; it simply is. For those of us who have great ambitions (and yes, I'm decidedly in this boat), it's simply a matter of orienting those desires properly. I recently spoke to a Wheaton College graduate who said that of course she learned at college to be ambitious, but "ambitious for Jesus!"

This is much healthier than selfish ambition but even what people like John Piper call, "holy ambition," can be dangerous (though not necessarily so). The danger is in thinking that you shouldn't desire success and that if God truly wanted you to be successful, s/he'd give you a winning lottery ticket and 1 million loyal customers overnight! Right...

In one of the best conversations I've had on the topic, I spoke with Adam Graber, a friend, blogger, and deep thinker about faith, technology, and culture (he blogs at The Second Eclectic). I shared that I was feeling guilty wanting my blog to be a success, wanting to get more speaking engagements, wanting to be a voice in Christian conversations. "It's not like I'm person X. I didn't have something from God that was out of my control happen to me that was a sign to write a book or anything," I confessed to him. "I feel like I'm the one choosing to try to be successful." Adam responded, "Even person X wouldn't be a success unless they actively marketed themselves. No one makes it 'just because.' They make it because they pursue success."

He's right. Every popular Christian preacher, blogger, author, and musical artist is popular because they have ambition and because they use that in real attempts to promote their work. "It's hard to imagine anybody who accomplished anything in life or in ministry without a helpful nudge from ambition," says Will Willimon, Methodist bishop and former Dean of the Chapel at Duke University.

God Uses Everything about You

God uses all parts of us, even our ambitions. And it's okay to want to be successful in a personal sense. But we have to come by it honestly and hold it loosely. Probably the greatest quote I've read comes from Rachel Held Evans:
Success and failure are a part of life. And it is for life that Jesus has equipped us.  So he has prepared us to see success for what it is—sometimes the result of faithfulness and hard work, sometimes not, sometimes used rightly to glorify God and care for his creation, sometimes used wrongly to glorify ourselves, never an entitlement, often a stumbling block, and always fleeting. 
Always fleeting...isn't that the truth. I think the pitfalls of ambition are a sense of entitlement and putting yourself above others. But this is very different from simply wanting to be read, heard, seen, or otherwise recognized for the gifts God has given you and the hard work you've done. "Ambition denied can be self-deceitful and eventually self-destructive," says Willimon in Christianity Today's Leadership Journal. We should be honest about our ambitions. We just have to be careful that we see them properly. Feeling recognition and success are owed to us is what turns ambition into self-centeredness.

The themes of living a holy life pervade every part of us, including ambition. You can be a Slytherin and still image God beautifully and uniquely. You can be attracted to leadership, have ambitions, and even desire power, just not power for its own sake. Desires are not bad and I would encourage you to pursue your own dreams and success. But we have an obligation to keep in mind that we may not achieve success according to our own standards and that even if we do, it must be honestly come by.

Love, it's always love. If our ambitions are pure, they need not be overtly religious ("Ambitious for Jesus!"...). We need only be sure our lives - whatever the success - have a worth determined by something deeper, that is, the Deep Something.

Related Posts:
Should Christians Feel Guilty about Being Rich?
The Real and True Enemy: What Is "Evil"?

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