A common theme of my life seems to be feeling a little bit embarrassed by evangelical Christians’ public representation of Christ when it comes to literature and the arts. Harry Potter is by no means an exception. I am a Literature and Philosophy graduate, so I often find myself cringing when I hear preaching which misrepresents these disciplines. (The worst I have heard recently from a platform is that ‘existentialism is basically another word for political correctness.’ Make of that what you will. I think the speaker was probably a little bit confused.) So something I like to try and do on this blog is to try to articulate a slightly more informed perspective, which might gently challenge others to think about things in a fresh way, and maybe even change their minds, if that is possible.
Before I start, let me recommend this lecture from Jerram Barrs, possibly one of my favourite lectures ever. It will say far more good things about Harry Potter than I am capable of doing here.
This first post will be a positive affirmation of Harry Potter, which I will release at the same time as my second post in defence of Harry Potter. You can read them in either order, but I’m making this the first because I regret having to write the second, and it’s not the substance of what I want to say. If you are a Christian struggling with the fact that I have something positive to say about Harry Potter, you might want to read the second post first, and I hope this will challenge you to think more deeply about some of your criticism of JK Rowling and the Harry Potter series.
In Praise of Harry Potter
I have only just finished reading the series of Harry Potter books. I started a few years ago and then had a long pause after Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which I felt was over-long, largely irrelevant to the main story, badly in need of an editor, and a disappointment after the cliff-hanger ending of The Goblet of Fire. I recently visited Harry Potter world in Watford, which I very much enjoyed, and which caused me to think about the series again. After that I read the last two books, and I have subsequently re-watched all the films (some of them more than once).
Although I think that there are some flaws in both the books and the films, on the whole I think they are some of the most powerful works of fiction I have ever come across, certainly on a par with Lord of the Rings in literary terms or with Star Wars in cinematic terms. I have been thinking about what it is that makes these books so profound, and so captivating, and I have a couple of thoughts to share here.
In his lecture, Jerram Barrs makes the point that all great works of literature have three themes in common. ‘All’ may be an overstatement, but Barrs says that these themes are: firstly, the celebration of a good creation, secondly, the sad reality of suffering and evil, and, thirdly, the possibility of redemption. Barrs, being a Christian believer, naturally believes that these are all aspects of reality in the broadest sense of the word, and so thinks that Potter is ‘tapping in,’ so to speak, to something that is really there. In other words, the reason that so many people are captivated by these stories is because they are true. Not in the literal sense that Hogwarts is a real place or that Dumbledore is a real person, but they speak of a deeper reality that lies behind these stories. What is this reality?
The Christian story is that creation is a fundamentally good thing, which was originally so good as to be beyond our comprehension in wonder and excitement, and still retains much of that goodness, even though it has been so badly corrupted by sin. The fact that Harry Potter celebrates the wonder and joy of what it is to live with a sense of abundance and freedom, seen through the eyes of a boy who realises that he is not ordinary but special, speaks to our desire to experience that for which we were originally made. Hogwarts feels like home to Harry. The new creation will feel like home to us, and it speaks to us of our homesickness.
I wonder if you feel this too? When I read or watch Harry Potter, I feel a profound sense of longing and almost sadness. It’s a strange feeling. I’ve spoken to many people about the books, and they have said to me that they love the main story with Voldemort and so on, but mostly they just want to go to Hogwarts and live there and join in the experience of that world. This longing is a wonderful thing, but it is also a sad thing, because we know that this is not the reality in which we live. Our reality is mundane and tired, and full of problems. It may be the same thing to which C.S. Lewis assigned the technical term ‘joy’ in his memoir ‘Surprised by Joy.’ This is a sense of profound longing, which in itself is a wonderful experience. The moment you notice it, it’s gone, and you’d do anything to have it back again. Some people feel this pain acutely. Other people try and initiate themselves into the world of Harry Potter by somewhat strange means. When we were at Harry Potter World, there was a teenager there who was dressed in wizard robes. Why? He wants to live in that world. And I say, this is not an escapist fantasy, but a deep part of the human spirit, longing for home.
Harry Potter is a story about the goodness of creation and a celebration of life. It is about the reality of sin, suffering and evil, as represented by the quasi-demonic incarnation of Lord Voldermort, and the death and destruction he wreaks upon the world. And it is about the possibility of redemption, and the end of suffering and death, as we see powerfully in the final books, encompassing strongly Christian themes of resurrection and sacrificial love to death.
It makes me sad that many Christians have not taken the time or the care to see what I am about to say. The main theme of the Harry Potter books, from the first page to the last, is this: sacrificial love is the most powerful force in the whole universe. More powerful than evil, and more powerful than death. This is Lord Voldemort’s first mistake, and the mistake that leads to his demise. Harry’s mother gives her life to protect him, and it is this love that stops Lord Voldemort from destroying Harry. His mother’s love was more powerful than Lord Voldemort’s evil magic.
For me, the most moving part of the whole series comes at the very end when Harry learns that he must sacrifice his own life in order to save his friends. At the end of the final film, he goes to Ron and Hermione and tells them what he is going to do. Hermione flings her arms round Harry, and says, “Harry, we’ll go with you.” But Harry knows this is something he needs to do alone. He needs to take the Calvary Road alone and sacrifice his life for the sake of his friends. One of the final chapters of the Deathly Hallows is a play on words, entitled ‘King’s Cross,’ and it’s in this moment that we can see with fresh eyes the beauty of the sacrifice that our Lord Jesus made on his own King’s Cross.
I compare it to moments like Aslan being tied to the Stone Table in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, or to Frodo and Sam in The Return of the King, as their strength gradually ebbs away while they suffer their own long, drawn-out passion experience on the way to Mordor, knowing that they too will certainly suffer death to save others from evil.
Greater love has no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.
I wonder if you are a Christian, and you have dismissed or not engaged with Harry Potter, which was the case with me for a long time. I hope that reading this has whet your appetite to find out more about it, and I encourage you to listen to Jerram Barrs, which is much more interesting than what I have said here.
I hope that you will come to celebrate the story of Harry Potter as I do, and come to see it as a very profound, powerful and wonderful story, which touches the deepest parts of the human spirit, and speaks to us of the most powerful force there is, that of the sacrificial love of Christ.