Friday night finds me a bit melancholy. As I’m sitting here in our apartment that opens onto a picturesque French courtyard, listening to the concierge and some friends chat over an evening aperitif, I am overcome with emotion, with an ache in the depths of my heart.
SPOILER ALERT in this paragraph: It’s a homesickness of sorts, but not the type you’d expect from an American living in Paris for the summer. I’m not missing home (although, I do). I’m not missing my friends or family (although, I do). I know I will see all of the above soon, next week, in fact. What I’m homesick for is a story, a story that I’ve followed for almost a decade, and that is now complete, the last page read. I’m homesick for Harry. For Hogwarts. For Dumbledore. And for Dobby—especially Dobby, the little house-elf who spent most of the series providing laugh track moments and ended up being the ultimate hero whose sacrifice foreshadows Harry’s and indeed gives Harry the strength to believe once more and to walk forward into his own destiny with courage.
There’s a core, fundamental part of my soul that is built for story, for myth, and for magic. Given the success of the Harry Potter series, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia and other quest epics, I think it’s a fair guess that we are all built for story (thank you Joseph Campbell). These stories speak to me in the way that good music does, bypassing the cynical, doubting voices in my mind and going straight to my heart, whispering that there is meaning, there is a bigger plan, there is a reason to believe. Even now, as an adult, I often find peace in difficult theological quandaries by remembering a moment or a conversation from one of these books—for some reason when I can’t find (or listen to) answers in the Bible, I can find (and listen to) answers from Aslan or Dumbledore. (FYI, J.K. Rowling says she can hardly pass by a book from The Chronicles of Narnia without stopping to read it cover to cover.)
When I first started reading the Harry Potter series, I was an 8th grade language arts teacher at an SDA school. One day I noticed several students sitting through all of their breaks—including their lunch breaks—reading the same book. I asked what could possibly be keeping them in the classroom over break, and, voilà, I met Harry and quickly became a fan.
The controversy over the books started quickly at our school. While I read the book with my students over lunch, the six grade teacher banned the book, citing arguments that are by now familiar: the books glorify witchcraft, tempt children to break the rules, and might tempt impressionable minds to dabble in the occult, or, at the very least, New Age philosophy. This was my introduction into the argument that has simmered among Christians about the merits (or dangers) of these books, flaring every time a new book or film is released.
At first, I felt that the books were simply good fun, an amusing and epic tale with good morals. This is what Charles Colson, a leading evangelical voice said at first too. "The magic in these books is purely mechanical, as opposed to occultic," he said in 1999. "That is, Harry and his friends cast spells, read crystal balls, and turn themselves into animals—but they don't make contact with a supernatural world. ... The plots reinforce the theme that evil is real, and must be courageously opposed....[Harry and his friends] develop courage, loyalty, and a willingness to sacrifice for one another—even at the risk of their lives. Not bad lessons in a self-centered world" (Quoted on the Christianity Today website, July 2007). Colson and others have changed their tune though—he along with James Dobson now oppose the books (Christianity Today has continued to endorse them.)
On a personal note, family members of mine have discussed their worry about the books, feeling that we have been seduced by Satan as part of the last days resurgence of witchcraft. Just last week a friend forwarded an e-mail that I had to respond to—you know, the one about the throngs of children converting to Satanism as a result of these books? This e-mail is largely based on an article from The Onion, a satirical newspaper. I try to take these warnings with a smile, as I know they are offered in genuine love.
The biggest concern parents and others have is the “m” word: magic. As a teacher having to explain why I was allowing students at an Adventist school to read the books, I did have to think long and hard about the “m” word. I ended up citing the magic in Narnia as a predecessor and assuring parents that good and evil were very clear in the books. Now I refer people to John Granger’s Looking for God in Harry Potter where he differentiates between incantational magic—magic that works according to rules just like physics, gravity, and your car radio, and invocational magic—magic that calls upon the spirits of the dead, a practice condemned by all major world religions and not practiced by any character, good or evil, in the Potter books.
I’ve moved past feeling that the books are merely good, wholesome fun though and now believe them much deeper. Although I find several genres present throughout the series—Harry is as much an Everyman as a young King Arthur—they are also very clearly rich in Christian allegory and symbolism.
As I read Deathly Hallows with my husband, Stephen, I kept exclaiming at key moments, “I can’t believe how clear the Christian symbolism is in this book! How can people not see this?” The book spoke to me on a deeply Christian level.
In short, it’s a story about the difficulty of belief—how do we believe in God and that there is a bigger plan when we have so little to go on? When things seem such a mess?
As she’s done in every book, Rowling emphasized key points that seem to me, not just Christian, but down right Adventist: there is a “Great Controversy” happening that most people (muggle and wizard alike) want to deny; there is true evil that must be resisted; material wealth is insignificant, relationships are what matter; the right path is often difficult, dark, and full of opportunities for failure; death is certain, but there are things worth dying for and fates worse than death; we have a choice in our destiny, and, the most consistent theme of the series, self-sacrificing love is the most powerful force in the universe—Voldemort’s weakness was always that he underestimated the power of love because he could not feel it.
Rowling finally admitted a Christian bias in the series in a recent Dateline interview. She was asked by a child in the studio audience what the significance of her calling Harry Potter the “chosen one” might be.
J.K. Rowling: Well, there– there clearly is a religious– undertone. And– it’s always been difficult to talk about that because until we reached Book Seven, views of what happens after death and so on, it would give away a lot of what was coming. So … yes, my belief and my struggling with religious belief and so on I think is quite apparent in this book.
Meredith Vieira: And what is the struggle?
J.K. Rowling: Well my struggle really is to keep believing. (Dateline/Today, 26 July 2007)
I’d like to hear your stories about Harry Potter. Do we have a strong Harry Potter contingent among the Spectrum Blog readers? What have been your experiences with the books? Do you find them not just Christian but even Adventist-friendly with the whole idea of a hidden world with good and evil forces fighting for our souls? Does it help you to know that Rowling did intentionally create religious symbolism in the series—we’re not just reading what we want in (or do you think we’re stretching it?) How about Harry’s sacrifice at the end of Book 7? What was your take on this? Did you find yourself understand the Garden of Gethsemane in a whole new way? Will you read these books with your children?
Is anyone else homesick for Harry?
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/4155