“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?” Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry’s ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure. “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
I like this quote from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which comes at the end of the “King’s Cross” chapter. I like it because it serves as a defense for the Harry Potter phenomenon, and for all fantasy-fiction literature as well.
My family loves to read. Our oldest is just now able to sit down and read books himself, and my wife and I continue to read books to all the boys. My wife likes to read fantasy-fiction type books, and I like to read more theological-type books. Occasionally, I like to read a good fantasy/adventure fiction book, or what I have affectionately termed “The Cracker,” which helps me “cleanse the palate” before I undertake another series of theological-type books. Some of my favorite fiction writers include James Rollins, Matthew Reilly, and yes, J. K. Rowling. Now I know that I am a little late entering this debate, but in anticipation of the opening of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, this weekend, I wanted to pen some of my observations on this particular series of books, and really comment on all fantasy literature in the process. Be warned, there are spoilers below based on the book.
I believe that we as evangelicals owe J. K. Rowling an apology. Since the final book in the series was published, I have not seen a single apology to J. K. Rowling from any of the various evangelical and fundamentalist bashers. Why no apologies to the lady? First, it’s always tough to say you’re sorry. But deeper than that, could it be that many of us fail to see the Christianity in the Harry Potter novels, because we know so little about Christianity itself? Truth be told, the gospel stories themselves, the various metaphors and figures of the Law and the Prophets, and their echoes down through the past two millennia of Christian literature and art, are largely unknown to vast swaths of American Christendom.
I can certainly understand being cautious about messages sent to young people, but Harry Potter is quite literally the most powerful positive influence, and Christ figure, many young people in the English speaking world will have encountered in the past 10 years. But instead of discerning that, and fostering the themes and messages it contains in our churches, and instead of taking that seed and watering it, we’ve turned our backs on it, and castigated the author as a villain.
About twelve years ago, Joanne Rowling was asked whether she is a Christian. Her answer:
Yes I am. Which seems to offend the religious right far worse than if I said I thought there was no God. Every time I’ve been asked if I believe in God, I’ve said yes, because I do, but no one ever really has gone any more deeply into it than that, and I have to say that does suit me, because if I talk too freely about that I think the intelligent reader, whether 10 or 60, will be able to guess what’s coming in the books. – October 26, 2000, interview with Max Wyman from the Vancouver Sun
On this point, I disagree with her: I honestly don’t think we would have guessed the ending. Most of us can’t recognize the ending of the story even after it’s been told. Just as reading the Old Testament gives clues to what will eventually happen when Jesus comes on the scene, it is only when all the pieces are put together that the picture is formed and makes sense. Rowling’s masterstroke is similarly ambiguous at first, but as the pages go by in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final picture is revealed as an epic battle of good and evil, with good having the upper hand on the last page. This is why it is dangerous to have preconceived judgments about situations, individuals, or books, for one could be made to look quite foolish in the process. And to that end, apologies are necessary.
J. K. Rowling may not be as articulate or exact a writer as C. S. Lewis, or have a mythology as extravagant as J. R. R. Tolkien’s, but she is an excellent storyteller whose series will stand alongside such sweeping tales as The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings in its power and significance to people of all ages about good and evil, and ultimately about Jesus Christ, his death on the cross, and his resurrection.
Harry’s whole story begins with the sacrificial death of his mother to save Harry, a baby at the time, from certain death at the hands of the dark lord Voldemort. This idea of a substitutionary sacrifice is conveniently similar to The Chronicles of Narnia where Aslan explains the “deeper magic” at the Stone Table, and how the White Witch did not, and could not, understand because it was based on the power of self-less love, something she knew nothing about. As you read the entire Harry Potter series, this theme is reiterated over and over again, as well as many other themes such as redemption, judgment, forgiveness, and faith.
It is only really in this final book of the Harry Potter series where Rowling begins to disclose that the world of Harry Potter has a “deeper magic,” similar to that of C. S. Lewis’ in The Chronicles of Narnia. Love, conveyed as a substitutionary sacrifice and a choice to die for your friends, has a power that Voldemort, like the White Witch before him, is blind to. Harry learns in this last book that in order to defeat Voldemort, the ultimate sacrifice will have to be made, and he must willingly give up his life. Upon his “resurrection,” Harry finds that since he willingly gave his life for the people of Hogwarts, Voldemort’s curses no longer bind them. Voldemort, then, is destroyed (by his own hand in an attempt to kill Harry again). As the tombstone of his parents, James and Lily Potter, says, “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26), and Rowling makes those words resonate with meaning in the final battle.
This leads me to the more generic critique of this genre of literature. Most people would say that these types of books are only make-believe, and while they may be fun to read and immerse oneself in, they are a waste of time and nothing more.
There is certainly a predisposition towards this kind of literature that assumes, because it is so fantastical and unlike reality, that it can have no relevance or grounding in the real world. It is the same predisposition that dismisses abstract painting because it doesn’t represent anything, and contemporary classical music because it is just “noise.”. People are scared of the unknown, the imagined, the make-believe. Perhaps this is why Christians have been so hard on Harry Potter. In addition to being about witches and wizards, these books are simply a waste of time, they might say. Although The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings can be justified as time well spent (because of their much-publicized, if a bit over-emphasized, Christian allegorical elements), Harry Potter is just a lot of hocus-pocus silliness.
But the reality is that Harry Potter has much to say about Jesus and Christianity, the last book especially. J. K. Rowling, like C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Madeleine L’Engle, William Shakespeare, and others before her, has managed to illuminate the sacred through the mythical, the real through the fictitious. In his book On Fairy Stories, J. R. R. Tolkien wrote of creating fantasy as a “human right” that is endowed to us through the incarnation: “We make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”
C. S. Lewis would go even farther in his defense of myth. He eloquently wrote of Jesus as a myth become fact:
Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens-at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. – C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, “Myth Became Fact”
Whenever C. S. Lewis began writing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, he wasn’t thinking about how he could write a Christian allegory:
Some people seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something abut Christianity to children; then fixed on the fairy tales as an instrument, then collect information about child psychology and decided what age group I’d write for; then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out ‘allegories’ to embody them. This is all pure moonshine. I couldn’t write in that way at all. Everything began with images. A faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sled, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn’t anything Christian about them. That element pushed itself in of its own accord. – “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said” from On Stories and Other Essays on Literature by C.S. Lewis
Something like what Lewis encountered seems to have happened to J. K. Rowling. She started out writing about witches, howlers, knight buses, sorting hat’s, Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans, and quidditch, and at some point, Jesus began to whisper into the story.
J. K. Rowling, thank you for introducing Harry Potter, a cast of hundreds, and the eternal story of good and evil to millions upon millions of young and eager readers. Thank you for baptizing the imagination of millions of children. Jesus calls his followers to stand up for truth wherever we see it, whether it’s in bookstores, art galleries, city hall, theaters, or church buildings, and we have let you down, more than that, we let truth down, and in some way let Jesus down. Please forgive us for not speaking up more when we knew better.