Much literary fiction – from The Book of Jonah to The Prodigal Son; from The Brothers Karamazov to Anna Karenina; from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to the Lord of the Rings; - has been written by people of faith to convey some of the great truths of their faith. In our time J.K. Rowling is one of those people, and the seven books collectively known by the name of the hero Harry Potter are such fiction.
They use a fantasy medium – witches, wizards, spells, and the like – to be the vehicle in which important questions are asked, and in which asking [or better ‘seeking’] is affirmed. Questions like: how do we know what is good, and how do we do good? Who is great, and what makes for greatness? Is it possible to defeat evil and how on earth do you do that?
A number of religious people seem not to understand either fantasy or mediums. When hearing about our service today, for example, one St Lucan received the following message: ‘I cannot imagine a Christian message in a book written by a Satanist! [for the record J.K. Rowling is an Anglican]. Harry Potter is a series that has induced many to turn to witchcraft… Apparently, once you have read them all, you could be quite capable to cast real spells on people!’
This detractor is in good company. In the United States there were calls for the books to be banned from schools. The Orthodox churches of Greece and Bulgaria also campaigned against the series, and some Catholic writers have voiced a critical stance. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger denounced the series for glamorizing witchcraft. He wrote: “[the books’] subtle seductions... deeply distort Christianity.” Other protestant leaders condemned warlocks [like young Harry] as carte blanche ‘enemies of God’. The books have been banned from private schools in the United Arab Emirates and criticised in the Iranian state-run press.
However the popular scholarly site Muslim Matters has spoken positively of both the books and the films.
Similarly not all Christian responses to Harry Potter have been negative. “At least as much as they've been attacked from a theological point of view,” notes Rowling, “[the books] have been lauded and taken into pulpit, and most interesting and satisfying for me, it's been by several different faiths.” Danielle Tumminio[i] who taught a Harry Potter course at Yale Divinity School writes: “My course de-emphasized witchcraft - which previously dominated Christian perspectives on the series - and focused on a variety of other topics in theology, including forgiveness, salvation and grace.” [Not unlike the literary classics I mentioned earlier].
Let’s start with some of the theological questions one can bring to a work of fiction. Firstly, is there a God figure in the series? Classical theologians define God using three characteristics: omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence. Yet it's hard to think of a character within the series that possesses all three qualifications. Yet what if the search for a God figure wasn't limited to people? Looking for God beyond human form opens the possibility that something more abstract might fit the bill, something like love. Of course it goes without saying that love is all-good, but love in the series also has the power to defeat evil. Even in the first book, the reader sees evidence of love's God-likeness when the wise headmaster Dumbledore tells Harry:
Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort [the evil villain] cannot understand, it is love. He didn't realize that love as powerful as your mother's for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no not a visible sign ... to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. [ii]
Intriguingly, love's identity as something God-like within the series is a departure from other 20th century fantasy books with theological overtones, most notably “The Chronicles of Narnia,” which depict God as a being (i.e. Aslan the lion).
Tumminio suggests that presenting God as an abstract concept appeals to contemporary seekers in our scientific age who shy away from personifications of God because they feel too unrealistic.
If God is imaged non-anthropomorphically, evil is not. Evil is personified in the series by Voldemort, the Dark Lord.
Interestingly, Voldemort’s ascension to power is described using an inverted Eucharistic theology. The invocation at his ascending reads:
Flesh -- of the servant -- w-willingly given -- you will -- revive your master ... B-blood of the enemy ... forcibly taken ... you will ... resurrect your foe.[iii]
It seems as if Voldemort's words are quite literally the opposite of Jesus' at the Last Supper. Whereas Jesus gives his body and blood for the many, Voldemort demands the bodily sacrifices of many for his own revival.
Note in the last moments of Voldemort's life, Harry gives his anti-Christ enemy a last chance at redemption:
“I'd advise you to think about what you've done,” Harry says. “Think, and try for some remorse.”[iv]
So it would seem that when it comes to forgiveness, even the most damaged creatures in this wizarding world are given the possibility of wholeness if they repent. Restoration then is not for a pre-selected few but for those who take the opportunity to choose. And note choice plays a critical part in the series. It’s not what you believe, or where you are from, or what your powers are, but the choices you make that are all important.
If salvation is offered to all, there is still the matter of figuring out who does the saving in Harry Potter. In Christian theology it is Jesus who saves through the cross and resurrection. Many Christians define Christ as being fully God and fully human, largely thanks to the medieval reflections of Anselm of Canterbury. So, is there anyone in the series that meets these criteria? The short answer is: No. No one is quite godly enough.
But in order to discern a Christ-figure, it's necessary to evaluate not only who Jesus is but also the work that he does. For some, salvation is accomplished in Jesus' defeat of evil, which is done during a cosmic battle in Hell. A different perspective – one common these days - states that Jesus' sacrifice on the cross was an act of supreme obedience offered in order to free humans from the power of sin. (Some Christians, like me, wouldn’t hold to either of these understandings.)
While these are two of several major theologies of salvation, the reader can see that these ideas are certainly present in the Harry Potter series. Dumbledore while neither omnipotent nor omnibenevolent teaches Harry about the power of love and, in that way, procures salvation for the world. Similarly Harry’s friends: Ron, Hermione, Neville, and a host of others work together to defeat evil in the final battle at Hogwarts. Likewise, Harry, in his walk through the Forbidden Forest, subscribes to the radical obedience to death typified in Anselm's theory.
Curiously, and I think tellingly, what the Harry Potter books do is to accomplish the work of Christ utilizing a whole community instead of a single person, which explains why no individual character closely resembles Jesus. This means that salvation is accomplished not by one person but by many people working together, with love (aka God) for a guide. Ethically, a theology like this has important implications because it empowers people - both in Harry's world and our own - to live the life of love and community for which Jesus lived and died.
Even when we are alone it is love and community that are the most powerful things. In “The Deathly Hallows” Harry, walking towards his nemesis Voldemort in the Forbidden Forest, finds himself surrounded by those who died but who loved Harry deeply: his mentors, Sirius and Lupin, and his parents, James and Lily.
Lily speaks first: “You’ve been so brave.” “You’ll stay with me?” Harry asks. “Until the very end,” responds James.
In other words, it is community and love that see us through even the greatest losses. It is friendship and faith that help us walk bravely to our destiny.
Harry is a seeker[v], but like us he is a seeker who struggles with his faith. In The Order of the Phoenix Harry’s mentor, Dumbledore, is absent in a time of evil, as the wizarding world is subjected to a campaign to abolish anyone not of pure wizarding descent [kind of like Trump’s vision of America without Mexicans or Muslims]. Meanwhile, a tabloid journalist has published a book smearing Dumbledore’s reputation. Though Dumbledore taught Harry that the only way to defeat Voldemort is through the power of love, the force of love has been seriously called into question. With subjugation and violence all around and with Dumbledore’s image smeared, love doesn’t seem much worth trusting. Harry, like us in times of great change and stress, must seek for himself what is worth trusting and what is not.
At Hogwarts School Harry has learnt that good is something that can be actualized. Everyone has the potential to do good if they choose. This resonates with the Pauline wisdom in the Book of Romans: evil can be overcome through loving what is genuine and holding fast to what is good. But before Harry learns to do good, he learns that although good has the potential to produce great things, greatness is not always good.
By the end of the series Harry has learnt to be wary of power [greatness], even when it is wielded for the good. In one of the final scenes, after he has triumphed over Voldemort and acquired the all-powerful elder wand, Harry deliberately snaps that wand in two. There is a limit to how much power any one person should have.
In the Godric’s Hollow graveyard[vi] Harry reads the epitaph: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”[vii] If your treasure is power, then power will have your allegiance. If your treasure is money, money will have your allegiance. If however your treasure is love, then it is love that will have your allegiance.
The Harry Potter series has offered a generation of children and adults unfamiliar with the language of theology a way of talking about meaning and purpose:
What is the purpose of evil and how should we respond to it?
Is it worth believing in love [God] without evidence of its transformative power?
What does forgiveness look like?
What does it mean to embrace diversity, when respecting so-called ‘inferiors’ can get you killed?
These are the kinds of questions that faith demands. So seek then with all your heart and all your soul and with your closest friends by your side.
[i] I am indebted to Danielle Tumminio’s work. See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/danielle-tumminio/harry-potter-christian-t...
[ii] Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, p. 299).
[iii] Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, p. 641-2.
[iv] Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. p 741.
[v] In the game of Quidditch Harry was the seeker in the team.
[vi] Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, chapter 16.
[vii] Matthew 6:19.