How this attitude came about I won’t get into here, other than to say it was promoted by rumours about J.K Rowling, author of the popular Harry Potter novels, and her studying witchcraft and she herself claiming to be a witch. This it turns out was nothing more than malicious gossip and rumour-mongering. After the release of the seventh and final instalment, and the dramatic conclusion, she revealed herself to be a Christian and member of the Church of Scotland. The reasons she gave for not sharing her religious convictions and affiliations? – to guard against people predicting the ending. So jealous was she in her task it’s possible she intentionally helped encourage the rumours, manipulating the media impressions of her personal life.
Whatever can be said about her strategy, it was without a doubt effective. Potter-mania still rages, and shows no sign of stopping. It is the most successful publishing event in history, breaking all records (of course this excludes the Bible). It has spawned thus far five successful films, and mid 2009 will see the release of the sixth. The seventh book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will be split into two films.
Still, the attitude persists. Almost everyone I talk to in Christian circles either shakes their head disapprovingly at the idea of reading such literature, or mentions their concern about the questionable content. “What about the witchcraft?” “Isn’t it a doorway to the occult?”
I have five major criticisms of this idea.
The first I was made aware of the first at the height of the furore about Harry Potter. Craig Heilmann, currently director of Focus on the Family, New Zealand had written a book called Howarts or Hogwash?1 The Harry Potter Phenomenon and Your Child, and was delivering a message on Romans, a Wednesday night meeting during the school holidays. He mentioned the book he had co-author with Peter Furst and briefly set forth the case they made. He argued we should not reject the story outright, but take from it what was good and use it as Paul did when he quoted Greek poets at the Aereopogus to the Epicurean philosophers in Acts 17.
In an interview on ABCTV, Sunday June 13 2004 he says of the stories,
“It rings true with people, it excites them, it energises them. Definitely I think the church at large has to figure out new ways of addressing the culture if it intends to have any real relevance to the culture. I think there’s a lot of good in the Harry Potter stories. . . . The vast difference between his world and ours is this issue that some people have magic skills and some people don’t. But really in terms of trying to grapple with questions like the imminence of evil, what are the purposes of evil, what is the nature of what is good, what causes people to go astray in life, what causes the suffering and the negatives that we see in the world. I don’t know that J K Rowling does any job really of answering those questions. . . . There’s just something a little bit flat and absent in it and I guess I can only simplify it by saying it’s like the supernatural world has simply collapsed into the present and I never get a really clear perception of evil.”2
Heilmann can be forgiven his uncomplimentary view. His rational voice laid a critical foundation for engagement with culture at a time when Harry Potter was being bashed brutally by fundamentalists. He let people know that there is much to consider and admire about the stories, even when the whole story had not been told.
The criticism mistakes a caricature of witchcraft and wizardry portrayed in the books with the witchcraft and sorcery clearly condemned in scripture. Magic is the furniture of the world, rather than the feature. Its the characters that infuse the magic with the moral meaning. Like money, it is amoral – that is neither right nor wrong: without morality. It all depends on the hand that wields the wand.
The word ‘magic’ itself should not be cringed at. In Rowling’s work it is used as an artifice to say something else. Something deeper about the nature of the world and human beings. In Narnia and Middle-earth there is magic, and similarly the ‘magic’ used there is a devise to help us think about what is happening in life. The use of the word doesn’t mean you are interacting with the occult or satanic practice.
One of Rowling’s underlying objectives is to progress the discussion on the nature of man, laid out by all the great authors. Her contribution is perhaps not new, but is made accessible to a new generation and a much wider audience. Throughout she seems to say, you are the choices that you make. See the developments in the story about the sorting hat, the prophesy and what Dumbledore sees in the mirror of Erised (reflected desire).
Magic is used almost entirely for mundane purposes like lighting a fire, doing the housework, travelling and carrying heavy objects. Despite its mundaneness what makes it so wonderful a feature is that we imagine how great it would be to travel from one place to the next in a instant (as Jesus did?), or have the utility of a quick quotes quill. When Harry visits the Quiditch world cup he says, “I love magic.” As an objective feature of the world Rowling has created, in that instant magic becomes part of the beauty of creation.
Well-known forms of real witchcraft are often presented as silly. The one vampire we know of is quite comical. The author of the texts books they use are great fun (Magical Theory by Adalbert Waffling, A Beginners Guide to Transfiguration by Emeric Switch). The one subject that resembles familiar occult practices is Divination, and that is the one subject that Hermione hates and thinks is nonsense, that Harry and Ron mostly laugh at, whose teacher is inept at the subject, what McGonagall thinks is a worthless waste of time, and that Dumbledore considered dropping at one point. We find out he only keeps the subject in the end because he receives a true prophesy(something a Christian should not have any problems with per se) that turns out to be vital for the development of the back-story, the drama of the final allegory, and characters involved.
Jerram Barrs, Professor of Christian Studies and Contemporary Culture as Covenant Theological Seminary in St Louis, Missouri said after the release of the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, that he was convinced that Rowling was writing from within the Christian worldview – a conviction I share with him. I have outlined in my previous article (http://talk.thinkingmatters.org.nz/2008/harry-potter-and-the-deathly-hallows-–-a-christian-novel/) how this is so. Notice one need not necessarily be a Christian to write from within the Christian worldview. He also went on to say that while observing a child at play you will see many magical things.
we need to recognize that almost all children play imaginative games in their minds starting at a very young age and have no difficulty whatsoever in distinguishing between fantasy and reality.3
Imagination is something fundamental to who we as people made in the image of the God, the great creator. It is healthy and normal for a child to make-believe, and the child who does not imagine has a severely diminished capacity. And so children playing games with the fiction they enjoy is a overwhelming good and should be encouraged, rather than an evil.
Futhermore, children with no exposure whatsoever with the occult, Barrs says, will sometimes use devices such as sticks that touch toys an animate them in their imagination, making them come alive and start to talk like the animals and mythical creatures in the forbidden forest at Hogwarts. This indicates a lost clarity of the Image of God.
J.R.R. Tolkien who coined the term Mythopoeia in the 1930’s, commented to his friend C.S. Lewis days before his conversion that all the myths and legend and fairy stories are simply echoes, or distorted memories of real truths. If the lies move him so deeply, then what about the myth that was true? Lewis responded with the famous lines, lies “breathed through silver” and Tolkien dedicated the following poem to him. Here is a portion of it.
The heart of man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed,
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act.4
Magic represents the rags of our lordship – a vision of the image of God that is distorted through the fall of man.
The prevailing secular state-religion is naturalism. Into this cultural landscape Rowling delivers a radical presentation of a supernatural worldview. It is a devastating blow to the (intentional? well-meaning?) indoctrination agenda of the humanist. Rowling has given wind to the sails of the Christian worldview. Harry Potter, by delivering a shared text to a generation, has achieved something unprecedented. It is a pity that Christians have been slow on the uptake.
Perhaps one reason why the culture has devoured Harry Potter, and why Christians have generally stood back with critical eyes is because people have been given a taste of something cool and wet for a thirsty people starved of the supernatural. Like rain in desert. There is something about Harry Potter that draws in the crowds, its not overtly Christian, but its enough to act as a catalyst for the Christian to culturally engage, use in the task of evangelism, as salt on the tongue for the secular soul, and as a point of entry for the those who have not heard the gospel.
What makes the supernatural theme and its popularity so great is they are written intentionally and thoughtfully by an intelligent Christian. Though some slow mining may be required to discover the gold beneath (see point five). What is needed to enter into the text and discover the truth beneath is the a key of some kind. The Gryffindore common-room requres a password. The Ravenclaw common room requires you to solve a riddle.
So rather than being a doorway into the occult is a doorway into Christianity. It is also noted to be a doorway to classical literature, to philosophy, and the Latin language.
Talking about doorways and keys, in Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia you had to go through a wardrobe or a paining to get into Narnia and the experiences were only for a select few. Harry Potter novels run alongside the real world. The Magical world interacts with the Muggle (non-magical) world in a way that could be described as extra-dimentional.
In Harry Potter there are fantastical things that are real and objectively part of reality. If a Muggle were to look at some objective feature that was apart of the magical world they would look right through it, or pass right by. It would not even enter the cognitive faculites. There are things you can see, feel, touch, and experience – but only if you are a part of that world. That relationship in itself strikes a stunning analogy of the Christian view of a spiritual and the physical world.
These books are well written. The test is how easily they can be read aloud. It is true that the prose never rises to the sublime. There isn’t anything magisterial about the use of language. She does comedy well and weaves a great story that is accessible to a broad range of people. This might have the effect of sounding juvenile and cause her written works be ignored as a serious text to be analysed were it written by an Oxford don. It makes it easy to treat callously instead of careful consideration.
But what does make these works extremely well written is the careful consideration Rowling gave it. It took her seven years of planning before she started writing Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone. What could have taken so long?
The whole seven books are remarkable intertwined. There are several back-stories which all infuse the main narrative. There is a overwhelmingly intricate details she has considered. The character arcs, especially the main characters of Harry, Ron and Herminone, (also second-tier main characters Neville Longbottom, Draco Malfoy, Severus Snape and Albus Dumbledore), progress smoothly throughout are realised thoroughly in the seven volume narrative.
But there is also the four levels which Rowling is writing on; the literal, the tropological (moral), the allegorical and the anagogical. As John Granger, Harry Potter scholar and author of several books on the literature (including Looking for God in Harry Potter, The Deathly Hallow Lectures, and the Hidden Key to Harry Potter), and critic in the school of symbolist literature, points out Rowling is intentionally writing in the tradition of the Inklings, the association of friends that included J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis. Intentionally they all placed into their stories anagogical meaning.
Anagoge is a Greek word suggesting a “climb” or “ascent” upwards. The anagogical is a method of spiritual interpretation of literal statements or events, especially the Scriptures. George MacDonald, Jane Austen, John Bunyan, William Shakespeare (who are all Christians), and John Milton all intentionally wrote on this level. It differs from mere allegory, when a visible fact is signified by another visible fact. The anagogical is ‘leading above,’ when by a visible fact an invisible is declared. It is a transparency to transcendance. Take for instance the meaning of the broken stone table in the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
John Granger points out many examples. Here is one of my favourites from early on in the Potter narrative, at the climatic scene of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I’ll let John Granger describe and analyse it in his own way.
Chamber as Morality Play
Christian morality plays were the first theater in Western Europe. They were almost without exception either portrayals of Bible stories or ‘Everyman’ allegories of the soul’s journey to salvation through thick and thin. Imagine medieval street dramas at public markets and fairs by itinerant players putting onvariations of Pilgrim’s Progress and the Passion Play. The finish to Chamber of Secrets, as morality play, is the clearest Christian allegory of salvation history since Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Let’s look at it in detail.
Harry, our ‘Every Man’, enters the Chamber of Secrets to find and rescue Ginny Weasley. He finds her but she is unconscious and Harry cannot revive her. He meets Tom Riddle. He had thought Riddle was a friend and asks for his help in restoring Ginny. No deal.
He learns then that Riddle is anything but his friend; Tom Riddle is the young Lord Voldemort, Satan’s ‘stand in’ in the Harry Potter books, the Dark Lord or Evil One. Far from helping him revive Ginny, Riddle has been the cause of her near death. Harry boldly confesses his loyalty to Albus Dumbledore and his belief that Dumbledore’s power is greater than Voldemort’s.
The Chamber is filled with Phoenix song at this point, heralding the arrival of Fawkes, Dumbledore’s Phoenix, who brings Harry the Sorting Hat of Godric Gryffyndor. The Dark Lord laughs at “what Dumbledore sends his defender” (page 316) and offers to teach Harry a “little lesson”. “Let’s match the powers of Lord Voldemort, Heir of Salazar Slytherin, against famous Harry Potter, and the best weapons Dumbledore can give him”(page 317). He releases the giant Basilisk from his reservoir and the battle is joined.
The look of the Basilisk is death so Harry, eyes closed, runs from it. The Phoenix attacks the charging Basilisk and punctures its deadly eyes. Harry cries for help to “someone – anyone -” (page 319) as the Phoenix and blind Basilisk continue to battle; he is given the Sorting Hat- by a sweep of the Basilisk’s tail. The Harry throws himself to the ground, rams the hat over his head, and begs for help again. A “gleaming silver sword” comes through the hat (page 320).
The Evil One directs the blind Basilisk to leave the Phoenix and attack the boy. It does. Harry drives the sword “to the hilt into the roof of the serpent’s mouth” when it lunges for him – but one poisonous fang enters Harry’s arm as the Basilisk falls to its death. Harry, mortally wounded, falls beside it. Phoenix weeps into Harry’s wound as Riddle laughs at Harry’s death.
Too late, Riddle remembers the healing powers of Phoenix tears and chases away the Phoenix. He then confronts the prostrate Harry and raises Harry’s wand to murder him. The Phoenix gives Harry the diary and Harry drives the splintered Basilisk fang into it. Riddle dies and disappears as ink pours from the diary. Ginny revives and they escape. Holding the tail feathers of the Phoenix, they fly from the cavern “miles beneath Hogwarts” to safety and freedom above. Harry celebrates with Dumbledore.
Now let’s translate this Morality Play. First, the cast of characters, the dramatis personae:
- Harry is ‘Every Man’
- Ginny is ‘Virgin Innocence, Purity’
- Riddle/Voldemort is ‘Satan, the Deceiver’
- The Basilisk is ‘Sin’
- Dumbledore is ‘God the Father’
- Fawkes the Phoenix is ‘Christ’
- Phoenix Song is ‘Holy Spirit’
- Gryffyndor’s Sword is ‘the Sword of Faith/Spirit’ (Ephesians 6:17)
- The Chamber is ‘the World’ and
- Hogwarts is ‘Heaven’
The action of the drama, then, goes like this: man, alone and afraid in the World, loses his innocence. He tries to regain it but is prevented by Satan, who feeds on his fallen, lost innocence. Man confesses and calls on God the Father before Satan and is graced immediately by the Holy Spirit and the protective presence of Christ.
Satan confronts man with the greatness of his sins but Christ battles on Man’s side for Man’s salvation from his sins. God sends Man the Sword of Faith which he ‘works’ to slay his Christ-weakened enemy. His sins are absolved but the weight of them still mean Man’s death. Satan rejoices.
But, wait, the voluntary suffering of Christ heals Man! Man rises from the dead, and, with Christ’s help, Man destroys Satan. Man’s innocence is restored and he leaves the World for Heaven by means of the Ascension of Christ. Man, risen with Christ, lives with God the Father in joyful thanksgiving.
If I look closely, I can imagine where different types of Christians might disagree with this thumbnail sketch of Everyman’s salvation drama in emphasis and specific doctrines. It would be a very odd Christian indeed, though, who could not understand what the story was about and would not admire the artistry of the allegory. Using only traditional symbols, from the ‘Ancient of Days’ figure as God the Father to the satanic serpent and Christ-like phoenix (‘the Resurrection Bird’), the drama takes us from the fall to eternal life without a hitch. Nothing philosophical or esoteric here (can you say ‘no alchemy’?).
Rowling illustrates here that her books are Christian and in bold opposition to the spiritually dangerous books our children are often given. Chamber of Secrets is an example in the genre of an engaging, enlightening, and edifying reading experience for children – and a powerful rebuke and wake-up call to her Christian critics.
What is Chamber of Secrets about? Rowling, perhaps in response to the absence of intelligent discussion of Stone’s meaning, in her second book clearly reveals to the discerning reader that she is writing Inkling fiction, i.e., stories that will prepare children for Christian spiritual life and combat with evil. Talk about baptizing the imagination with Christian symbols and doctrine!
She also points out to her Christian critics that their real enemies are not her counter-materialist magic but both the dark magic hidden in their children’s textbooks and the ‘good children’s books’ written by atheists and the worldly minded. Chamber of Secrets is a tour de force operating on at least three levels of meaning simultaneously. I can understand, consequently, Rowling’s struggle in writing it and I agree with her that it is the best single volume of the series.5
1. For a review by Bill Muehlenberg, (a Baptist teacher of theology at several Protestant Bible colleges in Melbourne, and National Secretary of the Australian Family Association) of Hogwarts or Hogwash? by Peter Furst and Craig Heilmann, goto http://www.ad2000.com.au/articles/2002/feb2002p16_927.html
2. Craig Heilmann interview with three other authors discourse on the supernatural themes in Harry Potter. http://www.abc.net.au/compass/s1120233.htm
3. For the lecture by Jerram Barrs that first opened my eyes and gave me the gift of Harry Potter, goto http://www.bethinking.org.uk/your-course/intermediate/j-k-rowling-and-harry-potter.htm
The lecture is about an hour followed by great discussion for another hour. I also recommend the other lectures by Jerram Barrs on Jane Austen and Shakespear found at the same website.
4. Bruce L. Edwards, C.S. Lewis: An Examined life, (http://books.google.com/books?id=8OskozFVBMYC&printsec=frontcover#PPA259,M1; Retrieved 6 December, 2008) p. 259. For the full poem you can read it at http://home.agh.edu.pl/~evermind/jrrtolkien/mythopoeia.htm
5. John Granger is the ‘Hogwarts proffessor’ at http://hogwartsprofessor.com/ He blogs on the issues surrounding Rowlings works intelligently from an educated Christians perspective. An example chapter of one his books is at http://www.george-macdonald.com/harry_potter_granger.htm which includes the above description of the Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets morality play.
For more information and interviews:
7. A short article, J.K. Rowling, Inkling? on the expecto patronum charm and the climatic scene of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Very Cool! Found at http://tmatt.gospelcom.net/column/2003/06/18/
8. The Hogs Head is another forum for people who take Harry Potter as serious literature, run by Travis Prinzi. http://www.TheHogsHead.org/ There are some interesting podcasts there called “Pubcasts”
Four audio files featuring John Granger, the Hogwarts Professor, are available:
9. Hog’s Head PubCast #60: John Granger Interview, The Deathly Hallows Lectures: with Travis Prinzi, from the Hog’s Head, on his book The Deathly Hallows Lectures: The Hogwarts Professor Explains Harry’s Latest Adventure. A conversation about the eye symbolism of Deathly Hallows and more.
10. “Are Joanne Rowling’s Harry Potter Novels Great Books?” was the question in a Biola University podcast featuring John Mark Reynolds, Paul Spears, with John Granger, in which the Torrey Honors Institute professors express their doubts and the Hogwarts Professor tries to keep up.
11. The same crowd try to decide “What Constitutes Harry Potter Canon?” John Mark Reynolds champions “text alone,” John Granger argues for “text first,” and the push-back is genial and furious.
12. Jerry Bowyer, talk-radio host calls for a catch up and to help promote How Harry Cast His Spell: The Meaning Behind the Mania. Here is an mp3 recording of that exchange.