Posted by: sorac | January 10, 2016

The Gospel in Harry Potter

[At the request of our friend Michael Jones, I’m reposting this old gem by Sora, originally published on her old Upsaid blog, called “Parah”. It was written on July 22, 2005, just after Sora had finished reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. I’m listing her as the author of this entry. Note that she pretty much predicted the ending of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows before it was written. – MC]

I consider the Harry Potter books to be Christian novels not merely because they “have the theme of a battle between “good” and “evil” but also because I find that both the overarching themes and the carefully chosen historical and literary symbols throughout all 6 books published so far tell a very clear story, one that I believe is quite intended on Rowling’s part. In Fantasia: The Gospel According to C.S. Lewis Michael Nelson writes:

Like the Chronicles, the Harry Potter books are infused with a Christian worldview: Both Lewis and Rowling celebrate courage, loyalty, friendship, compassion, forgiveness, persistence, and self-sacrifice with a compellingness that puts William Bennett’s Book of Virtues to shame. She’s a member of the Church of Scotland and, whenever she’s asked, says, “I believe in God, not magic.” In fact, Rowling initially was afraid that if people were aware of her Christian faith, she would give away too much of what’s coming in the series. “If I talk too freely about that,” she told a Canadian reporter, “I think the intelligent reader — whether ten [years old] or sixty — will be able to guess what is coming in the books.”

In Looking for God in Harry Potter John Granger points out that in each book, Harry dies a figurative death and is resurrected (after three days in book 1). Granger adds that “Harry never saves himself but is always saved by a symbol of Christ [for example, the phoenix] or by love.” He notes that Rowling’s books grapple with the “big questions” of change, death, love, and what it means to be human, and that the books are “both consistent with Christian answers to these questions and written in implicitly Christian language.”

(I do not agree with all of Granger’s speculation and “Harry Potter exegesis”, but his book is an edifying read. I have had my 10-year old read it, and would recommend it for young Harry Potter fans as well as their parents.)

In her comments on this post Carmon asked: Why is HP okay when Deuteronomy 18 specifically prohibits believers from the activities spoken of approvingly in the books?

Let’s put the generally quoted verses — Deut 18:10-12 — into a little bit more context.

Deuteronomy 18:9 When thou art come into the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not learn to do after the abominations of those nations. 10 There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, one that useth divination, a soothsayer, or an enchanter, or a sorcerer, 11 or a charmer, or one that consulteth a ghost or a familiar spirit, or a necromancer. 12 For whosoever doeth these things is an abomination unto the LORD; and because of these abominations the LORD thy God is driving them out from before thee. 13 Thou shalt be whole-hearted with the LORD thy God. 14 For these nations, that thou art to dispossess, hearken unto soothsayers, and unto diviners; but as for thee, the LORD thy God hath not suffered thee so to do.

In this passage, God is warning his set-apart people not to fall into the evil religious practices of the idolatrous Canaanites. It is my understanding that all of the practices refered to involve the invocation of demons, spirits, or false gods (or of the dead) with the intention of either predicting (divining) the future (think Saul and the witch of Endor) or causing harm / calling down curses upon others (think Balaam.)

Rowling has a name for “causing harm / calling down curses” in her books. It is called “the Dark Arts.” It is what the bad guys do. The Dark Lord and his followers torture, murder, and terrorize with magic, but their activities are absolutely not spoken of approvingly. (I’ll address divination in Harry Potter a little further down.)

Further, magic in Rowling’s invented universe is mechanical. It is the manipulation of natural (not supernatural) forces that some people (wizards) have the ability to do and others (Muggles) do not. It never involves calling in demonic powers a la Dr. Faustus. If you say the right words or mix the right potion ingredients you get the desired effect — something that involves training and practice, like baking a cake or programming a computer. My sons never walk through the automatic door at the grocery store without pointing their fingers (or pencils, or knitting needles) at it and shouting “Alohomora!” in imitation of Harry Potter. They like to pretend that it is their “spells” and not the motion detector that causes the door to open. I click the remote control on my keychain when approaching my locked minivan. The spells in Harry Potter are much more akin to the motion detector or the remote on my keychain than they are to ancient Canaanite sorcery. There are no “occult forces”, no demons, and no idolatry involved.

I think I can fairly safely say that no ancient Jebusites, Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, etc. were riding broomsticks, wearing cloaks and pointy hats, brewing potions, or pointing wands at things and speaking Latinate words to transform one object into another, make an object or person float into the air, or open a locked door. The “witchcraft” Rowling portrays is a literary device that has little or nothing to do with the prohibited religious acts of Deuteromy 18 and everything to do with our shared, post-medieval Western literary tradition.

“But isn’t divination one of the subjects taught at Hogwarts?”

Yes, divination is taught at Hogwarts. But divination is hardly spoken of “approvingly” in the books. Indeed, it is mocked. The divination teacher, Sybil Trelawney, is a caricature, a quack and a fraud whose interpretations of tea leaves, palm readings, and crystal gazing are repeatedly exposed as the meaningless ear-tickling of “cross-my-palm-with-silver” style fortune tellers throughout the ages. When the teacher actually makes a real prophecy in Book 4, she is entirely unaware of it. We later learn that the headmaster “was against having the subject continue” and keeps Trelawney at Hogwarts as an act of mercy, to protect her from the Dark Lord. Later, a star-gazing centaur (a figure of great literary renown, found in ancient Greece and Narnia as well as at Hogwarts) is likewise taken on as a divination teacher, partly because the school is the safest place for him. He tells his students “…that humans were hardly ever good at [divination], that it took centaurs years and years to become competent, and finished by telling them that it was foolish to put too much faith in such things anyway, because even centaurs sometimes read them wrongly. He was nothing like any human teacher Harry had ever had. His priority did not seem to be to teach them what he knew, but rather to impress upon them that nothing, not even centaur’s knowledge, was foolproof.”

I’m not too worried about my children getting into Tarot cards, I Ching, or compulsively reading their newspaper horoscopes because they’ve read Harry Potter. Rather, the books reinforce these “divination” practices as superstitious nonsense. Genuine prophecies do exist in Rowling’s stories — there have been two in the 6 books so far — and these real prophecies, far from being forces that wizards and witches can call upon on demand or control, are “mysteries” studied in the Department of Mysteries along with death, time, and love.

My conscience is no more troubled when my children read Harry Potter than when they read C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein, Howard Pyle, George MacDonald, or many traditional fairy tales. I realize that other families have chosen not to read any of the abovementioned authors because they believe that all fictional portrayals of magic are out of bounds according to the Bible. I don’t expect to convince any of them otherwise! If you love Narnia and The Lord of the Rings but have been avoiding Harry Potter, however, you might do well to actually read the books before deciding whether or not Harry belongs in your home.

Michael O’Brien claims that there is a dangerous difference between the use of “magic” in C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein’s fantasies (which he approves) and in Harry Potter (which he warns against). He writes:

Harry resists and eventually overcomes Voldemort with the very powers the Dark Lord himself uses. Harry is the reverse image of Frodo. Rowling portrays his victory over evil as the fruit of esoteric knowledge and power. This is Gnosticism. Tolkien portrays Frodo’s victory over evil as the fruit of humility, obedience and courage in a state of radical suffering. This is Christianity. Harry’s world is about pride, Frodo’s about sacrificial love.

Frankly, I don’t think O’Brien could be any more wrong. In book after book, Harry’s triumphs are not the result of his “esoteric knowledge and power” — he is not a particularly great or powerful wizard, certainly nowhere near a match for the evil Voldemort. Again and again, sacrificial love — identified in the latest books as “the power the Dark Lord knows not” — is all that saves him. In Book 1, Harry is saved (twice) by the power of his mother’s sacrificial love, a love which took the curse meant for him and saved him from death.

In Book 5, Harry, after the murder of his godfather by one of the Dark Lord’s followers, attempts to use the “very powers the Dark Lord uses” — one of the forbidden “unforgivable curses” — against her. She mocks him for his inability to do so effectively: “Never used an Unforgivable Curse before, have you, boy?” she yelled. …”You need to mean them, Potter! You need to really want to cause pain — to enjoy it — righteous anger won’t hurt me for long — I’ll show you how it is done, shall I? …” And a few pages later, Harry, about to die, is overwhelmed with love for his godfather and joy at the prospect of being reunited with him again in death — and this is the power that saves him from possession by the Dark Lord, who “could not bear to reside in a body so full of the force he detests.”

Two further notes: Rowling does portray what one might call “typical teenage behaviour” (but not at all typical for what we expect from ourchildren!) in her books. For this reason, we have not allowed our 8 and 10 year olds to read books 5 and 6 yet and will supervise and discuss these readings when the time comes. In fact, I’m thinking of having them write a series of essays on “Stereotypical Teenage Behaviour in Harry Potter” when they’re finally allowed to read the last few books. 🙂

Lastly, those who feel the books are “getting darker” and “blurring the line between good and evil” will, I hope, be reassured by the release of book 6 (if they get that far!) After some very human struggles in books 4 and 5, the innocent child hero of book 1 has matured into a man with drive, mission, and principle. Far from a Gnostic battle of esoteric forces, I expect book 7 to bring us an imaginative and compelling portrayal of the Gospel, in which the red lion crushes the head of the serpent and evil, sin, and death are conquered by sacrificial love.

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