Sunday, October 30, 2005

The Gospel According To Harry Potter


As I begin this article, I want to say several things. First, I am a Fundamentalist Evangelical (as in Bible-Believing) Christian, and I am not only aware of Spiritual Warfare, I have experience and wounds in that practice. This is an important part of the motive behind this piece, and hopefully will also lend perspective on my thoughts. Second, if you are a Harry Potter fan who has not yet read the Sixth Book, or if you do not want to read any “spoilers”, you might want to give this article a miss. Third, while this article is principally an examination of the Christian themes in the ‘Harry Potter’ series, I have tossed in some speculation about the stories and what may come in the final book of the series. None of this has been contributed or approved by J.K. Rowling, nor should any connection to Ms. Rowling be inferred.

Some years back, I heard about the ‘Harry Potter’ series from people warning me away from the series. ‘It’s teaching children to use magic’, one person assured me, and another said, ‘it’s subversive, replacing Christmas with Halloween, and promoting the occult’. So, I stayed away, but when my own mother began to speak highly of the stories, I began to wonder if I was missing something, and so I took it upon myself to read the six books already in print. Initially, I was pleased to find no obvious intent to subvert young minds, and the stories were very well-written. One rare quality Ms. Rowling has, is the ability to write a story which is interesting for both young and old. As a guide, I would think that Harry’s age in each book is the appropriate minimum for introducing children to the stories in most cases. As Harry turns eleven in the first book, I mean that adolescents should be the floor age for the stories.

But as I read on, I caught the sense of deeper themes in the stories, and certain echoes bumped around in my head. As I was a Literature major in college, that’s not surprising, but it occurred to me that Ms. Rowling had Christian themes in mind when she wrote the series. That’s right, the lady accused of trying to lure children away from Jesus, was in fact teaching about Jesus in her books. I was hardly the first; Dave Kopel has been writing about this more than a little while, and other bloggers have mentioned the connection, most notably La Shawn Barber, but I like to believe I have my own valid ideas on the subject, and so here we go.

Harry Potter, in case you are not familiar with the story, is a boy whose parents were murdered when he was just one year old. What’s more, the man who murdered Harry’s parents tried to murder him as well, but was unable to kill the infant Harry. Harry is sent to live with some rather distant and hostile relatives until he is eleven, when he is surprised to find out that he is a wizard, and has been accepted to a special school for Witches and Wizards, called Hogwarts. Throughout the books, Harry encounters adventure and all the normal and exciting things which happen to children his age, including all the annoying demands of school, which means both new friends and dealing with bullies, teachers he likes and teachers he hates, discovering things about himself, both good and bad, and a continuing effort by certain people to kill him.

OK, thus far there’s not am obvious Christian message to Harry Potter, but it shows up when you look deeper. For instance, Harry was saved by the deliberate sacrifice by his mother of her own life. This created a power that the “Dark Lord knows not”, and remains in effect years later. I wish I could claim it, but other writers spotted the effect of the Patronus charm, where Harry calls forth a spiritual protector against demonic attackers with the words, “Expecto Patronus”, or ‘I look for my Savior’, if you want to read it that way. And the Patronus Harry is able to call on, is in the form of a stag, often used as a Christ figure in medieval literature. Also, Harry’s story, especially the boy’s friendship with the great wizard Dumbledore, brings comparisons to the legend of King Arthur and the wizard Merlin. I noticed long ago, however, how the Arthur/Merlin legend comes in large part from the story of David and the prophet Samuel in the Biblical accounts of David’s rise to be King.

Another thing that I find interesting and worth noting here, is what Harry cannot do; he has not yet been able to kill anyone. Now granted, most of us can claim to have never yet killed another person, but when someone is actively trying to kill you, and sends monsters and minions out after you, it’s a neat trick staying alive without killing someone else, yet through six books and six years, Harry has managed that. It reflects a purity of spirit that is not only important to how Harry should be able to survive his final confrontation with Lord Voldemort (the chief villain), but also is consistent with his character through the books. Harry is not perfect; he lies, he gets into fights, he hates some people for the wrong reason. But he also stands up for misfits and outcasts, he looks into the hearts of people he meets, and he is able to love without condition. No, Harry is not a Christ symbol, but a symbol of a proper Christian. He makes mistakes and sometimes does something he should not, but he desires the right, he repents of his wrongs and makes amends, and he is thoroughly decent. If people want to know what the Gospel is about, they might consider that a Christian is just someone who has decided to do what is right, rather than just what is easy or what they would themselves like at the moment.

The series also has lessons for Christians. A very good example is the heart of Severus Snape. Potter fans have been debating, quite literally for years, about whether Severus Snape is a man who made a horrible mistake in serving Lord Voldemort years ago, and who has repented of his evil ways and spies on Voldemort to help the forces of Right; or whether Snape is a man who only pretended to repent, and who has been serving Voldemort and spying on Dumbledore and the Ministry of Magic. There has been little doubt that Snape hates Harry Potter personally, yet it is also true that in spite having many opportunities to harm or kill Harry, Snape not only has never physically harmed Harry, he has also protected and defended him. One possibility that occurs to me, is that Severus Snape is very much undecided himself. That is, he may be trying to play both sides against the middle while he sorts out his decision. The problem for Snape, is that what he would personally enjoy the most, his personal code of honor absolutely forbids. At the same time, Snape leaves no question that while he acts within the boundaries he accepts, he feels and thinks as he pleases, and considers himself the intellectual superior of almost everyone he knows. Such people find it very difficult to sort out their beliefs, and so it is very important to the story, that such people exist in the Potter books.

Rowling is presenting the Potter saga in seven books, not only because she is being paid very well for her work, but far more importantly, because she is quite detailed in each book,and determined to be clear in her lessons. Here are the six books, in brief:

Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone (Philosopher’s Stone in UK editions): Harry learns he is a wizard and goes to Hogwarts, the school in England for magic-using people. He learns that his parents were murdered by the evil Lord Voldemort, who was himself almost destroyed when the spell meant to kill Harry instead bounded back on Voldemort. Harry quickly makes friends with Ron Weasley and later with Hermione Granger, and the three act together throughout the books. He becomes enemies quickly with Draco Malfoy, a bullying and arrogant (racist as well) wizard. Harry and his friends are sorted into the House of Gryffindor, which prefers the bold and heroic. Draco is sorted into Slytherin, which house seems to prefer the self-serving and malicious. The other two Houses are Ravenclaw, generally for the smartest, and Hufflepuff, which looks for loyalty and fair-mindedness. The interaction between the Houses is important at different times of the story. Harry learns about the teachers at Hogwarts, especially Professor Snape, who teaches Potions and instantly hates Harry. Harry comes to believe that Snape is trying to steal the Sorceror’s Stone, which Harry knows is being kept safe at Hogwarts. As the story proceeds, Harry and his friends discover how the thief means to claim the stone, and in chasing him down they face danger and confusion, but are able to save the stone, but Harry discovers that Snape, rather than trying to steal the stone, was protecting it from the real thief, Professor Quirrel, who was under the possession of Lord Voldemort. Voldemort, not strong enough to keep his own body, took over Quirrel, but failed to steal the stone which would have allowed him to live forever.

(to be continued)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well, I was enjoying this thread! Are you going to complete it?
Have you read "What's a Christian to do about Harry Potter"? I used to run a bookstore and everytime someone came in complaining about that "horrible" book, I would suggest they read it.
I think the HP series is one of the most brilliant of this century. I don't know who enjoys them more, my 15 year old daughter or me!