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On Loving The Unlikeable Neighbor in J.K. Rowling's New Novel

10/12/2012 01:57 pm ET | Updated Dec 12, 2012

It's not easy to love the characters in "The Casual Vacancy": They don't wage an epic war against evil. They don't have warm, fuzzy names like Neville Longbottom or Albus Dumbledore.

They don't trade Chocolate Frog Cards.

Instead of the earnest likes of Hagrid and Luna Lovegood peppering the pages of Rowling's latest novel, we meet Terri Weedon, an impoverished heroin-addicted mother; Parminder Jawanda, a rigid doctor judgmental of her daughter's imperfections; and Howard Mollison, a narrow-minded delicatessen owner whose behavior toward women would cause Gloria Steinhem to throw tomatoes in his direction.

There's no one like Ginny Weasley in sight.

It was hard for me to like these characters. Even harder to love them: More than once, I thought of putting the book down because these characters are so real, so raw, that they become dislikable and at the same time, curiously familiar.

Because they remind me of my family, my friends, my parishioners, my students -- they remind me of the neighbors Jesus calls me to love.

I will say very quickly, before I go any further, that not all the people in my life are "self-absorbed, small-minded, snobbish and judgmental folks." In fact, very few of them are.

But they are flawed.

And sometimes, they are not easy to love.

(Neither am I, I should add. Because I would not want you, dear reader, walking away from this article under the impression that I perceive myself as any more perfect than any of Rowling's imperfect characters. I am not.)

But back to the neighbors. You see, I -- who teach a course at Yale on Christian Theology and the Harry Potter series -- often fantasized about closing Rowling's book because I had such a hard time loving these characters. I was tempted to terminate our literary relationship in the way a Hogwarts first year is tempted by a pumpkin pasty on the train to Hogwarts.

I was tempted in the same way we're all tempted to disengage from difficult people in real life.

Yet, as a priest, as a Christian, I have committed myself to loving my neighbors, even when it's not convenient for me. Even when I don't really like them. I'm supposed to love everyone, including the woman who cuts me off on the parkway because she's texting and the guy who spits on the empty seat next to me on the bus.

Only it's not so easy to love texting lady or the spitting guy. And it's even harder to love friends and family when they do something hurtful.

It's much easier to walk away, to close the book on tough relationships. (Indeed, in some cases, closing the book is the wise choice: In a case of domestic violence, for instance, severing the relationship is not only healthy, but may be life-preserving.)

As a priest, loving one's neighbor takes on an even more nuanced dimension: Priests are called to hear peoples' stories, all of their stories, even the ones about frailties and faults that they're afraid to utter elsewhere. We hear their sins and their doubts, and while we have the great privilege of witnessing their greatest acts of compassion, we also see their most hardened, bitter, seemingly unlovable parts.

We priests, we Christians, are called to love all of this.

I kept hoping -- though I knew Rowling was not that kind of writer -- that the pages of this book would offer some kind of easy answer to the challenge of neighbor love.

But they don't.

No one in "The Casual Vacancy" loves their neighbors with grace and none but the deceased character Barry Fairbrother -- who is almost God-like in the way his physical absence is constantly present -- seems capable of loving his neighbors well at all.

As a priest, I naturally wondered if Rowling would turn to the Church's teachings to explain what love of neighbor was really all about in this town where "a communal life ... seemed to revolve around the church" (300).

She doesn't do that either.

If the Church is supposed to be offering answers to these characters, it has curiously little to say from Rowling's purview. While she acknowledges the church as the center of town, the out-of-touch vicar seems to be the only unnamed member of the community and Rowling portrays his homilies as sterile, impersonal.

Without ruining the ending, Rowling does offer some kind of guidance. As one character sits in a pew near the book's conclusion, she finds herself under a statue of the church's namesake, St. Michael, the archangel who slew a dragon and defeated Satan in the Book of Revelation. St. Michael is charged with rescuing humans from the devil, with protecting God's people, with judging souls. This character -- one of the many imperfect, hard-to-love characters -- thinks to herself, "It would have been a relief if St. Michael had stepped down and enacted judgment on them all, decreeing how much fault was hers ... for the broken lives, for the mess" (499).

But St. Michael does not come down. No judgment is cast in this world. And perhaps that's where hope for how to love difficult neighbors lies, in the tomorrows characters are given to do better, to try again.

It's not an easy hope. It's not a magical one. But it's a real one.

And it's one we Christians might be able to adopt as well, if only we're willing to keep turning pages in our relationships, to keep the book open and read further.