Friday, July 27, 2007

July 27, 2007 - Harry Potter and the Christian Faith

Yesterday, I went for my PET scan and accompanying CT scans. I've written previously of what these tests are like, and these were no different – so, I see no need to repeat myself. I'll be eagerly awaiting the radiologist's report interpreting these images, which will suggest whether or not the cancer has advanced further since my last scans, just over three months ago. There's not much more to say than that: once again, it's a waiting game. I'm getting quite used to that, by now.

What I'd prefer to write about, instead, is the book I've just finished reading, in the wee hours of this morning. Along with millions of other people, I've been reading J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final volume in this series that has been such a publishing phenomenon. (Don't worry, if you haven't read it yet: I have no intention of communicating "spoiler" plot details.)

I've always been impressed by this series of children's books, that adults have read just as eagerly. The first volumes attracted some undeserved flak from Christian fundamentalists, who feared that the magical premise of the stories – all the talk about wizards and spells and flying around on brooms – could somehow be spiritually dangerous to young readers. It's the same sort of misguided thinking that leads some Christian conservatives to forbid their children from trick-or-treating on Halloween (or, at least, to steer them away from wearing ghostly bedsheets or pointy witches' hats). There are some people who seem to believe more strongly in the devil's power than in the very Lord whose victory, scripture tells us, results in Satan being chained and cast into a bottomless pit (Revelation 20:1-3).

Fortunately, most of the malicious whisperings about the Harry Potter books being un-Christian have died down – because anyone who actually reads them quickly realizes there's a deep morality at their very core: one that's certainly compatible with Christian faith, even if it may not speak explicitly in Christian terms).

I was pleased to no end to realize, upon reading this seventh and final volume, that it's a departure from the others. What's different is that the Christian symbolism of the earlier books – which had been, at best, extremely subtle – now becomes very obvious indeed. I can't say too much more than that without giving away plot details, but I will predict that the Harry Potter books will henceforth be considered to be as much classics of Christian literature as C.S. Lewis' Narnia books now are.

In most of her press interviews, J.K. Rowling has adroitly dodged the topic of her personal religious beliefs. In at least one interview, however, she's admitted to being a member of the Church of Scotland. That means she's not only a Christian, but – are you ready for this? – a Presbyterian! This latest volume contains two Bible verses, both of them found on tombstones of important members of the wizarding community who have died in years past: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" and "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death." These are, of course, Matthew 6:21 and 1 Corinthians 15:26. Rowling doesn't cite chapter and verse, nor does she identify these words as coming from the Bible, but their placement in the story line is about as unmistakable as a neon sign.

Again, I can't reveal plot details, but the whole story is a cosmic struggle between good and evil, in which selfless love is shown to be capable of vanquishing the most soul-chilling and vicious hatred. Death, and life beyond death, are discussed at greater length than in the previous books, as is the immortality of the soul. We have already seen how, in earlier volumes, it was the selfless, sacrificial death of Harry's mother, Lily, that rendered Harry uniquely resistant to the killing curses of Voldemort, the Dark Lord. As one Christian reviewer has put it, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows "Rowling begins to reveal that, like Narnia, her world has a ‘deeper magic.' Love, expressed as substitutionary sacrifice – choosing to lay down your life for your friends – has a power that Lord Voldemort, like the White Witch before him, is blind to." (Bob Smietana, "The Gospel According to J.K. Rowling," on the Christianity Today website, July 23, 2007).

Being told you have incurable cancer – even a treatable variety, such as I have – does send your thoughts winging, more frequently than others', to subjects such as death, love, courage and life eternal. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is as reliable a vehicle for raising up those weighty questions as any other novel I can think of. As more and more people read it – and as we can speak freely, no longer having to worry about avoiding “spoiler” surprises – I predict this book will become a potent tool for discussing the greatest questions of this human life of ours.

10 comments:

Vance Esler said...

I just finished the book this morning, too. I also took note of the Christian similarities.

But as you also point out, I found all the talk about death near the end to be not scary, but comforting.

The whole idea of conquering death is well done.

The remaining movies will probably be good, but I don't know how they will ever live up to the books...

Carlos ("Carl") said...

I found that whole "King's Cross" chapter immensely comforting, as well (BTW, I think the whole name "King's Cross" is one of many Christian allusions in the book - yes, I know it's the name of a London rail station, and that's the explanation given for the name - but Rowling could just as well have chosen "Paddington," but didn't).

I'm with you, too, on the movies not being able to live up to the books. I've enjoyed the movies, too, with their special-effects magic - but they're still no match for REAL magic, of the sort that lives in the imagination.

Vicky said...

What's "misguided" about Christians who choose not to participate in celebrating Halloween, Carl? That seems a bit judgemental (intolerant?) of those who choose not to acknowledge Satan anymore than he already is acknowledged by the world. Why is it if people believe in the superior power of our Lord that they would then give recognition and glory to His enemy? Scripture tells the believer"Greater is He that is in You than He that is in the world" and yet Halloween is a celebration of the dark side.

I haven't read any of the Potter books nor seen any of the movies and most likely I won't - I've heard pros/cons - really doesn't interest me either way so I'm not here to make an argument on them - I do have to wonder why the author would be so reluctant to aknowledge a Christian faith, however?

Carlos ("Carl") said...

Well, Vicky, I see the ancient celebration of Halloween rather differently than you do. When young children dress up as "things that go bump in the night" that they would otherwise be inclined to fear, it can actually be an expression of faith: an implicit declaration that, with God on their side, such things cannot harm them. I really don't think young trick-or-treaters believe they are giving "recognition and glory" to God's enemy. Such a thought would never have occurred to them, had not some adult first suggested it.

Scripture teaches that Satan is the great deceiver. There's nothing deceptive about Halloween - whereas there's quite a bit deceptive about, say, declaring that it's our national destiny to consume the greater part of the world's natural resources and accrue vast wealth, when this is so directly opposed to the teachings of Jesus. Satan is far more likely to seduce us through that kind of thinking, than through some kid wearing a witch or skeleton costume.

As for whether J.K. Rowling is reluctant to acknowledge Christian faith, I suppose she has her reasons for coming at the subject so gradually. She seems to be a rather private person, who has had to deal with a celebrity she never dreamed would be thrust upon her. It's possible, also, that her faith has been growing over the years, as she has worked her way through this series. I couldn't say, because I don't know all that much about her. Not many do, really. The one thing that seems very clear to me is that she has become much more public about Christian faith in this last book, including some rather obvious symbolism.

My point is that, in the future, we'll probably consider the Harry Potter books to be the 21st century Narnia Chronicles. C.S. Lewis wasn't very explicit about Christianity in those books, either - but the deeper symbolism makes it very clear what he's all about. When Rowling has Harry spy a magical sword lying at the bottom of a pond, but describes his first sight of it as a glowing silver cross, it's pretty clear what she's up to, as well.

Why do some of the same people condemn the Harry Potter books as evil, but uphold the Narnia books as exemplary contributions to Christian literature, when both of them contain magic? Aslan performs magic for good, as does Harry Potter. The White Witch performs magic for evil, as does Voldemort. What's the difference? Lewis presents Aslan as a Christ figure, while it's pretty clear from this last book that Harry Potter is a Christ figure.

When someone asked C.S. Lewis, by the way, whether he considered the Narnia books to be an allegory of Christianity, he strenuously denied it. The stories came to him as stories, pure and simple: the Christian themes, he said, arose as though of their own accord, as part of the creative process. Would J.K. Rowling say the same thing about the Harry Potter books? I think she just might.

I'd encourage you to give the Harry Potter stories a chance. They're not what others have told you they are.

Vicky said...

Carl,

I do confess to chuckling at your politicizing the issue of Halloween. I see it as a weak argument that children can dress as witches etc in order to strengthen their Christian faith. I don't understand your inference about adults misleading children about Halloween - as parents, grandparents, teachers etc - aren't we always teaching and guiding and leading in the way we believe our children are to go?
By the same token, think about the little kids who are initially frightened and repulsed by some of the ugly costumes at Halloween and there are parents who "push" it as fun and cute. Maybe that is what desensitizes children to some of the wrongs in the world? Just a thought.

I've never read the Narnia books either Carl - I just meant I most likely won't read the Potter books because my interests don't lie in this area - I've never been able to get into C.S.Lewis books either.

Sometimes I pick up a derisive tone from your posts about a certain type of Christian and it's bothersome to me. And I don't consider myself "one of those" Christians.

Carlos ("Carl") said...

Vicky,

It's not my intention to deride anyone. One of the downfalls of cyberspace communication (be it email, blogs, or whatever) is that it's easy to ascribe emotional content (or "tone") to text, even when it's not meant to carry that kind of message.

I did express an opinion, and you (or anyone else) is of course free to disagree.

As for "politicizing" the Halloween debate... I find that a curious term to use. All I'm saying is that, in my opinion, it's a very minor issue, but it often functions to distract the attention of well-meaning Christians from issues of economic and social justice that - according to ample and well-documented sayings of Jesus - are more worthy of their attention. I would tend to say the same thing about those whose attention is focused mostly on predicting "end times prophecies," even though the biblical admonitions against doing so are very strong indeed.

Keep the people in constant fear - be it fear of Satan or fear of the four horsemen of the apocalypse - and it can be pretty hard for them to find time to love their neighbor.

I do not mean to deride such individuals. But I hope I can still express my viewpoint that they are wrong.

Carl

PhatMama said...

Thank you! You said what I, as a Christian, have been feeling about the series from the start. And probably better than I'd ever be able to word it. Thank you, thank you!

Carlos ("Carl") said...

You're welcome, phatmama.

Zam said...

Just looking back at your blog which i find very interesting. Just thought I should say that JK Rowling is actually an Episcopalian (she was a member of my old church in Edinburgh)although she may well go to a Church of Scotland when staying at her Perthshire home. Also re Kings Cross. As Hogwarts is in Scotland this is the main London station. the only alternative would be Euston!

Carlos ("Carl") said...

Interesting, Zam. I'd always heard Rowling attended a Church of Scotland congregation in Edinburgh. I did a little Googling, and found at least two major news articles that confirm that - at least, a few years ago. It's possible she was involved with more than one congregation at different times, I suppose:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/books/features/rowling1020.htm

http://www.guardian.co.uk/guardianeducation/story/0,,313220,00.html

I know Wikipedia's not always 100% accurate, but their article on her says flat out that she's a member of the Church of Scotland:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._K._Rowling#Personal_life_and_family

As for the King's Cross station thing, yeah, it's the station you'd use to go to Scotland. Yet, even so, there's no particular reason why, in the final book, she'd have to have the afterlife/near-death experience happen in a station at all. I think the "King's Cross" name is more than accidental - she could have titled that chapter using a whole lot of other names.