Wednesday, April 05, 2006

J.K. Rowling and the Magical Christian World of Harry Potter


Left: J.K. Rowling herself
Right: "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" movie poster


Staying on the subject of fiction, I want to share an article I recently wrote for a small student-run newspaper that gets put out around campus here at Franciscan University. The newspaper's called The Gadfly, after Socrates' use of the term, and it's purpose is to 'bite the sleeping horse,' raising new questions and discussion where they aren't already taking place. Basically, it's to upset the status quo, to try and get people to be a bit more open and critical in their thinking. The title of my piece is "The Christian World of Harry Potter" (slightly modified here for the blog/internet), and I'm trying to break down the wrongful prejudices so many Christians seem to have against the books. At the same time, I don't think you have to be Christian to make sense of it. More than any of my other recent posts, I'd love to get some feedback on this one (it will also likely be my last post until sometime after Easter). Enjoy!

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I think most would agree that the controversy among Christians over Harry Potter has largely petered out in the last couple of years. Nevertheless, I have a hunch that strong sentiments—both pro and con—still lurk beneath the surface for many. So, naturally, I thought it'd be fun to put a new spin on the subject and stir things up a bit, hopefully for the better.

In the past you see, even those Christians willing to defend Harry Potter have typically only emphasized that there’s some good to it and it isn't intrinsically evil. What I want to suggest here though is far more, for I actually think the books are drenched in Christian imagery and symbolism. To recall a C.S. Lewis notion, I believe J. K. Rowling has created Harry Potter largely with a desire to "baptize the imaginations" of her readers, helping them to ultimately better comprehend the heart of the Christian story.

To understand how this might be so, let's first go back to one of Rowling's own interview statements from 2000 after she was asked about her religious beliefs: "Every time I've been asked if I believe in God, I've said yes, because I do, but no one ever really has gone any more deeply into it than that, and I have to say that does suit me, because if I talk too freely about that I think the intelligent reader, whether 10 or 60, will be able to guess what's coming in the books."

A remark like this ought to spark some curiosity: just what is she up to? After all, Rowling, a member of the Church of Scotland, seems to be implying two things: not only will the series eventually reveal her faith, but talk about her faith could also give away secrets to the upcoming books. Still, on shouldn’t draw conclusions too hastily, for Rowling may simply be a Wiccan incognito, right? To really find answers, we must turn back to the books themselves, searching for clues within.

In doing so, anyone with background in classical literature and Latin (like Rowling herself) will immediately recognize a plethora of Christian alchemic symbolism. Of course, I'm sure everyone recalls that alchemy was much more than a proto-science; to most who practiced it, alchemy was a deeply mystical discipline. The goals of transforming common metals to gold and finding the philosopher's stone were symbols pointing to the deeper spiritual transformation being sought after by the alchemist. Within Christian alchemic tradition, this obviously meant a transformation in Christ.

This spiritual practice fell to the wayside with the rise of modern science, but the symbolism continued to permeate Christian literature, from Shakespeare all the way down to Lewis and Tolkien. And now, I propose, Rowling has joined that tradition. Alchemic symbols in Harry Potter include the philosopher's stone in the first book (American publishers changed this to "sorcerer's stone" because they thought kids wouldn’t read a book with "philosopher" in the title!), the variety of images used throughout (resurrecting phoenix bird, unicorn, dragons, etc.), and even character names, just to mention a few.

Each book Harry also goes through a spiritual transformation from beginning to end, actually following the three stage alchemic process: nigredo ("black," dissolution), albedo ("white," purification), and rubedo ("red," perfection). Additionally, the fifth and sixth books each correspond respectively to the whole nigredo and albedo stages, implying the seventh final book will be the final rubedo stage, thus bringing the series to completion.

Throughout the novels, Harry's character is truly growing in virtue and being purified, slowly becoming more open to love, sacrifice, and seeing people genuinely, while conversely overcoming his pride, fears, and wrongful prejudices. This is especially shown at the end of each book, where Rowling seems to create a medieval Everyman morality play using symbols from the various challenges Harry faces. (Here it should be noted that the symbols representing good and evil are always traditional Christian ones.) Ultimately then, Harry provides the reader's imagination with an incredible experience of the battle between good and evil, each book ending then in an illuminating encounter with the amazing value and power of sacrificial love. If that doesn't sound Christian, I don't know what does.

Before closing though, I want to briefly answer three objections to the picture I've laid out. First, some critics may point to the "Pope opposes Harry Potter" reports from last summer. Any serious consideration of the documents, however, will show the weakness of this argument. For a detailed analysis, see the essay, "'Pope Opposes Harry Potter'? Hardly".

Secondly, about the whole magic thing, please consider the idea that maybe, just maybe, Rowling's "magic" is simply fantasy/fairytale magic. In case you didn't know, real-life witches don't use broomsticks or magic wands (Rowling has emphasized this numerous times in interviews). Additionally, the spells used in the books are quite different from the real-world occult practices that invoke spiritual powers.

Thirdly, many might protest that even the mere potential of leading people astray is cause for not reading the books. The problem here, though, is that anything can lead people astray, because anything can be interpreted badly (even the Bible!). A survey several years back revealed that most Wiccans point to The Lord of the Rings as the most influential book early on in their lives. Does that mean we ought to condemn Tolkien's work? I really hope not. Why should we let evil and error spoil the fun for the rest of us?

That being said, if this has peaked your interest, know that it’s only the tip of the iceberg. To really learn more, go to www.hogwartsprofessor.com, or read John Granger's book, Looking for God in Harry Potter. Most of the ideas put forth in this article actually come from his work. Feel free to also email me with your thoughts, questions, and concerns. Lastly, go pick up a Harry Potter book yourself and read it with a newly open heart (i.e. turn off those "witchcraft" blinders). Perhaps then you'll discover, not an enemy of God, but a new source of spiritual growth, wonder, and creativity.

5 Comments:

At 4/07/2006 07:33:00 AM, Anonymous Sarah Jane said...

Nice thoughts. I have yet to read Harry Potter, mostly because I'm afraid that once I start, I won't be able to stop until I've reached the end of the series. I just don't have that kind of time right now!!!

Thanks for giving me something to look forward to when I do get to reading them. ;)

 
At 4/14/2006 09:55:00 AM, Blogger Steve said...

nice way to justify your indulgeance in paganism, pagan!

 
At 4/15/2006 12:59:00 AM, Blogger Chris said...

Well, if we're speaking only in terms of the Late Latin root of the word "pagan"--paganus (which dictionary.com tells me means "country-dweller" or "civilian")--then I've got no qualms with paganism!

 
At 4/15/2006 01:00:00 AM, Blogger Chris said...

p.s. Harry Potter rocks!

 
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