Life, Death, and Harry Potter

[photopress:hp7_high_1.JPG,thumb,right]Don’t worry, there are no spoilers for Deathly Hallows in this post!

I confess. I’m a big fan of J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books – and have been since I discovered Chamber of Secrets nearly ten years ago. I understand why some Christians baulk at the concept of good witches and wizards, but frankly I just cannot see the difference between Rowling’s writings, and those of Tolkein, and countless tales of Merlin and King Arthur which I grew up on.

The Bible is clear, witchcraft is wrong. But if I lay aside every book that contains things that are wrong, I will only ever read the Bible. The doctrine of common grace – not to mention that of common sense – surely demands otherwise. We should be far more worried about books who’s subliminal messages are opposed to Christian virtues than we should about Harry Potter. A great deal of children’s literature promotes lifestyles that are directly opposed to Christian values and morality. It relatively simple to sit down with your young son or daughter and say “Real witches and wizards are not like Harry Potter. Look with me at what the Bible says”. It is much harder to say, “The underlying meta-narrative of the book you are reading runs contrary to a Christian worldview”. In other words, we ought to be much more wary of the devil’s subtle attacks, and his great desire for us to accept as normal that which God says is unnatural. Harry Potter is an easy target, but surely it should not be our primary target.

Of course some will reply that the Scriptures teach that “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). Harry Potter simply doesn’t measure up. Well, yes and no. I cannot think of any novel that is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise. But Paul does not tell us to find and read such books. He says “think about these things”. Crucially, we are to think. We cannot be thinking Christians by locking ourselves in Christian closets. Harry Potter may not be intellectual literature, but there is a great deal to think about. That’s because the series is not really about magic at all, but, in Rowling’s own words: “My books are largely about death. They open with the death of Harry’s parents. There is Voldemort’s obsession with conquering death and his quest for immortality at any price, the goal of anyone with magic.”

Moreover, Christian motifs and themes are found through her writings. Some are clear, some are intriguing (King’s Cross in book 7, for example). Certainly, the series is no allegory, but there are strong threads running throughout the books that will be familiar to any Christian. Reading the series, particularly the end of Deathly Hallows, you cannot help but believe her when she says that her Christian faith is important to her. Yet significantly she adds, “my faith is sometimes about if my faith will return”.

The result is a series of books that reveals a great deal about the longings of much of the present generation. Certainly there is that desire to be back in the apparently idyllic and simpler world, away from suburbia, computer games and health and safety regulation. But stronger than that is the desire to be loved, the desire to make the right choices, the desire to be happy, the desire to be free from the hurts of the past. And ultimately, of course, is the desire to defeat death. Thinking about such things is surely what Paul had in mind in Philippians 4:8.

The ending of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is remarkably imaginative and poignant. Yet despite the strong Christian imagery, and even two quotations from Scripture, Rowling is only grappling with and grasping for Christian truth. When it really matters, her understanding of the glory of the Christian faith fails. Towards the end of the book there are two questions, incidental to the plot, but nevertheless crucial. What came first, the phoenix or the flame? (Answer: A circle has no beginning.) Where do vanished objects go? (Answer: Into non-being, which is to say everything.)

Scripture, of course, has much more to say about both the origin of life, and the destiny of man. So whilst thinking about Rowling’s questions will fulfill Philippians 4:8, thinking about her answers won’t. Dumbledore’s has already said in book six that “it is the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness, nothing more” and in book one that “to the well-organised mind, death is but the next great adventure”. Dumbledore says that by conquering the fear of death, death itself is also defeated. Yet Scripture says that because death has been conquered, fear is conquered too.

And that explains why Rowling herself seems unable to be quite as serene as Dumbledore. In the interview already cited above, she said “I so understand why Voldemort wants to conquer death. We’re all frightened of it.”

Harry Potter is a gripping tale. There is much good in it. But what I take away from the series will not be the characters of Ron, Hermione and Harry. What remains in my mind is a woman, who like millions of others, needs to know how death is conquered, knows that the answer is found somewhere in Christian truth, but has yet to understand. Who will tell her and all like her? Think about these things.

Comments

  1. Nice blog post. I appreciate the acceptance of Harry Potter books, while also reminding people of the true source of a life at peace.

  2. Mark, thanks for the link to this post from John Granger’s blog. I just wanted to let you know that I replied to your ideas over there in the comments section and would love to hear your thoughts…

    http://hogwartsprofessor.com/?p=134#comment-11357

  3. I really enjoyed reading this. You are right on in your assessment of Rowling’s faith and how we need to think about these things, not ignore or condemn them.

    I’ve written several things on Harry Potter on my blog. Check it out at: http://atthestudy.blogspot.com/search/label/Harry Potter

  4. I find Rowling doesn’t suit me. I’m sure this says more about me than it does Rowling. She is in the same long tradition of fantasy/space fiction writing in which we find C S Lewis. ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’. Some people may not know Lewis’ wrote space fiction. ‘Out of the Silent Planet’, ‘Parelandra’ and ‘That Hideous Strength’ (all as you might guess are battles between good and evil) were such exciting reading when I discovered them some 40 years ago. I don’t know how well they have worn, but so good is Lewis generally, that I suspect they may still be worth a go. One book, now out of print, that I know has worn well is Edmund Cooper’s ‘Seahorse in the Sky’ ( Two people I know really did read it in one sitting-about 220 pages) It demands you read on. It has you asking ‘What on Earth happens next?’ at the end of each small chapter. It is very simply written with deeply-layered meanings. A book of hope. Very mysterious. Very warm, as you might expect of a writer who wrote  poetry as well as other novels. Although some of these are good ( eg The Overman Culture) none is in the same class as ‘Seahorse’. If anyone can find a copy I would be interested to know what they think. Like Lewis, Cooper writes thinly disguised Christian theology.