"Unity without verity is no better than conspiracy." - John Trapp

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Harry Potter - Concluding Thoughts

As a follow-up to the series looking at the themes in Harry Potter, I wanted to make just a few additional comments, in part as a result of the post by Joshua Harris' "Harry Lives, God Dies" this past week at Between Two Worlds. Justin's post was a reflection on an article written by Lev Grossman.

In that article, Mr. Grossman claims that the world created by J. K. Rowling is signficantly different than the worlds created by J. R. R. Tolkein and C. S. Lewis. I want to look at two statements from that article and show why I think Mr. Grossman has grossly missed the point.

WARNING: There be spoilers ahead!

Quote 1: Harry Potter and religion
Harry Potter lives in a world free of any religion or spirituality of any kind. He lives surrounded by ghosts but has no one to pray to, even if he were so inclined, which he isn't.

Mr. Grossman is correct that we do not see Harry going to church or praying. However, the Christian calendar is followed, including Christmas break. One could argue that many of these holidays are now cultural and not religious in signficance. But what cannot be escaped (and, to Mr. Grossman's defense this was in book 7, released after his article) is that both Dumbledore's family and Harry's family had Bible verses on their tombstones. That Harry does not recognize them as such I see more as commentary on the general lack of Biblical knowledge in our society than a denial of Christianity. Hermione, even if she does not know where it comes from, at least understands that "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death" on the marker for Harry's parents is not a death eater idea, but an affirmation of life after death.

In terms of the spells Harry uses, none is more powerful than the patronus charm. This spell is used most frequently against dementors, the presence of which causes despair. In her list of influences, I have not seen Rowling mention John Bunyan, but the wizard prison Azkaban, which is under the oversight of the dementors, would be something akin to Giant Despair's Doubting Castle Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.

To use the patronus charm, one thinks of a happy memory and utters, "expecto patronum." The "happy memory" can be interpreted as having faith in the midst of despair. The charm itself, in translated latin, is a call for a protector or guardian. In similar manner, a "patron" saint is one who protects those under his charge - e.g. St. Christopher is the patron saint of travelers.

In classical latin "pater" (from which "patronus" is derived) means father. "Expecto patronum" is a call for aid, therefore, to a guardian or father, or a prayer. One receives the aid when one has faith and does not despair. Some are surpised that Harry can create a patronus because of his youth. This calls to mind those who would keep the children from Jesus or Paul telling Timothy not to let others despise his youth.

How much of this is intentional with Rowling I cannot say. But I certainly think we cannot, as Mr. Grossman does, easily dismiss the possibility that there are signficant religious elements in the Harry Potter series.

Quote 2: Harry Potter and love
What does Harry have instead of God? Rowling's answer, at once glib and profound, is that Harry's power comes from love. This charming notion represents a cultural sea change. In the new millennium, magic comes not from God or nature or anything grander or more mystical than a mere human emotion.

In my post on Love and Harry Potter, I deal with the theme of love more fully. Here, I just want to place a reminder that the love that is powerful magic in Harry Potter is much more than "mere human emotion." It is self-sacrificial love. The love required to be powerful magic is anything but a "charming notion." It is a love that dies that another may live. While some may point to Harry's sacrifice in book seven - a good reference - this has been clear since book one when Lily dies to save Harry. Painting the love in Harry Potter as a "charming notion" and "a mere human emotion" does injustice to one of the main themes in the novels.

Are the Harry Potter Novels Christian?

I think that is a mistaken question, not just with Harry Potter but nearly all fiction. How would one define whether a novel is Christian or not? The question is whether or not a novel is consistent with a Christian worldview. Some might say that Harry Potter is not because there is no mention of God. As others have noted there is also no mention of God in the book of Esther, yet it is in the Bible. Like Esther, I could argue for God's providence being a signficant presence in the Harry Potter books. Just one example is Hermione's having the "Time-Turner" in The Prisoner of Azkaban.

As I hope I've shown over the last several posts, major themes in the series are consistent with a Christian worldview. Views of community, the afterlife, power, death, and love in the novels are in alignment with Biblical views of the same. These are novels, and they are not as explicit on many of the topics as the Bible is, but what is there has substantial agreement.

And while thinking about and looking at these themes is profitable, let us not lose Alan Jacobs' final note on the series in his essay "Harry Potter's Magic." The books are "a great deal of fun."

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