Now that the movie is grossed more in its opening weekend than any other movie in history, I thought it was fitting to offer a couple of thoughts on the Harry Potter series. This is not a book or movie review. Rather, I wanted to discuss something interesting which I came across in two newspaper pieces over the weekend. In light of the end of the movie series, there was discussion as to the spiritual/religious significance of these books. I am going to share some excerpts from the two articles and then will offer my own thought on the issue.
During one brief — extremely brief — lull in the wall-to-wall wizardry that drives the climactic “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2,” a very old friend of Harry’s shows up with one last bit of advice. “Words,” he says, “are our most inexhaustible source of magic.”
In all of Hollywood’s adaptations of the Potter books, never has one quite so clearly caught author J.K. Rowling’s deepest belief. Words wound. Words heal. Words matter. And it is her own words — spread over seven books and thousands of pages — that have encouraged millions to turn to her tales for pleasure, and perhaps to find — quite accidentally — a moral lesson.
Words are not what most young fans of the movie series will take away with them, as the franchise draws to a close with its eighth film, released Friday. Movies are about movement, and images, and they’re more likely to send people home on a purely emotional surge rather than wrestling with ideas.
But Harry Potter’s saga has always had a message to it, too. It was never too obvious, although Rowling has always been forthright about her own beliefs. She has said she was raised Protestant, and felt her religion deeply (although she struggled with it during her university days). She says she still goes to church regularly, describing herself as a sort of constantly questioning, Grahame Greene kind of Christian.
Doubt, in fact, is a large part of her faith. But ultimately, as she has said, “I believe in God, not magic…”
Watch the new film and you’ll see many of them from a more mature viewpoint. And you’ll realize they were often far more complicated than we, or Harry, first realized.
Because if growing up means anything at Hogwarts, it means acknowledging how little we know of people’s real problems, and potential. Ferocious werewolves may turn out to be heroes; motherly teachers may turn out to be fiends. Everyone is vulnerable to envy or despair; everyone is capable of remorse and rebirth.
Everyone, that is, except Voldemort — which is why it is only Voldemort who is finally, fully, beyond all redemption.
Of course, one doesn’t have to be Christian, or even religious, to appreciate the moral lessons of “Harry Potter.” Much as she loved those “Narnia” books, Rowling learned an important lesson from them, and hid her own treasures well. The symbolism is there, if you’re willing to look for it. But if you don’t share her faith, or simply choose not to see those parallels, that’s no worry either. The stories still enchant.
There’s still the powerful secular message of friendship, loyalty, duty and honor. There’s still the fantastic English-schoolboy world — part Dickens, part Dahl — of terrifying teachers and luscious sweetshops and sneering snobs. And, of course, there are still the thrilling delights of adventure and fantasy and mystery and romance…
Christians today are certainly not universally enchanted by the series. Over time, however, more readers have begun to express praise for its honest depiction of fear, loneliness and sacrifice as Harry faces the evil wizard Lord Voldemort. Many Christians have cheered the portrayals of loyalty, courage and love, as the main character repeatedly risks his life.
“These books are not written for people who have a mechanical faith,” says John Granger, author of “Looking for God in Harry Potter.” “For Christians who are consumed with moral elements and symbolism, Potter mania was ironic beyond words.” Spoiler detail about the movie aside, the idea that sacrificial love conquers power, including magical power, is strongly suggested in the final book.
“Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling, a member of the Church of Scotland that has Presbyterian roots, initially avoided talking explicitly about her faith. “To me, the religious parallels have always been obvious,” Ms. Rowling said in 2007. “But I never wanted to talk too openly about it, because I thought it might show people who just wanted the story where we were going.”
Ms. Rowling is hardly the first author to face misunderstanding from a religious audience. Before C.S. Lewis became well known as a Christian, he noted that most British reviewers missed the underlying theology in his science fiction “Space” trilogy. Christian writer Madeleine L’Engle was criticized by some for the magic elements in “A Wrinkle in Time.” On the other hand, J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” appeared to escape similar scrutiny despite his characters’ use of magic.
Since the seventh Potter book came out in 2007, Ms. Rowling—who acknowledged the influence of Tolkien and Lewis on her work—has drawn more explicit religious parallels. She suggested that the two Bible verses found on tombstones in the final book almost epitomized the whole series: “And the last enemy that shall be defeated is death” and “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
The author put a little damper on some enthusiasm when she said that she always thought of one of her main characters, Albus Dumbledore, as gay (after which Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network called for a ban on the books.) And she did distance herself somewhat from C.S. Lewis when she told Time magazine in 2007 that “I did not set out to convert anyone to Christianity.”
Christians are still somewhat divided on “Harry Potter,” with lingering concerns. “We’re not monolithic on this,” says Bob Waliszewski, a media specialist for Focus on the Family. “The major issue for the faith community is all packed in that simple word: witchcraft…”
The debate about the Christian values of Harry Potter has been in the forefront since the publication of the first book. The question that strikes me is why this is seemingly the most important aspect of Rowling’s stories, the question of the moral and religious lessons to be learned. In thinking about it, I think we struggle to find fictional literature that delivers timely and yet ageless messages, such as true love can conquer all evil and that almost anyone can find some form of redemption, even those steeped in the dark side (sounds very star wars like, but there again that message is clear). I recall that during these Potter years, articles were written about Harry Potter in a Jewish context as well. This goes to show that one person’s fantasy is another’s teaching moment.