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Harry Potter, Wandlore and the Imago Dei

Two things in particular have led my to write the following. The first was a recent conversation with a couple of Christian friends. When I expressed my joy of finally being able to see the latest Harry Potter movie (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1), I received back some respectfully worded, but obstinate hostility towards the “witchcraft” contained therein. The second thing was a comment made a while back on facebook by a friend. He said something like “I don’t read fiction, I like to read books about real life.” My reaction: “Fiction is about real life!”

Does that comment strike you as odd? Then let me begin with

A brief explanation of the Imago Dei

In Christian Theology there is an idea called the Imago Dei. (Gen 1:26-17) This idea is that God has given us something that reflects himself. This “Image of God” sets humanity apart from the animal kingdom and the rest of the created order. What it precisely means to be an Image-bearer is widely discussed with many differing opinions. There are however two solutions within the broad mainstream that are relatively uncontroversial.

The first is that the Image has something to do with creativity. The context of the passage is the the creation narrative, where humans are revealed to be the intended apex or goal of everything that has come before it. Also, it’s not just any god whose image we bear, but the one and only true creator God, who calls things into being from nothing.

The second is that the Image has something to do with the function of humans. Like a mission or call to action. In the middle of and immediately after the enigmatic passage God says, “Let them have dominion…” and “fill the earth and subdue it…” We are, as humans, commissioned to go into the world, and bring about God’s dominion to an unordered environment.

This Image was not destroyed when Adam and Eve sinned against God. It was merely distorted. The power of sin began to reign and bought death, both spiritual death and ultimately physical death. Spiritual death is any separation from the life of God, symbolized by their banishment from Eden where the tree of life was. The entire narrative makes it clear that Image-bearers were intended to operate in relationship with the one who placed it there.

So what does this have to do with Harry Potter?

Previously I have argued that J.K. Rowling intentionally utilizes familiar symbols to layer Christian meaning into her stories.[1] One example of this is Harry’s wand – made of holly with a Phoenix feather core.[2]

If you know anything about holly, you probably know its a tree particularly associated with Christmas. You probably recall Deck the Halls with Bells of Holly. Not so widely known is the carol is The Holly and the Ivy.

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown.

The holly bears a blossom
As white as lily flower
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To be our sweet Saviour.

The holly bears a berry
As red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good.

The holly bears a prickle
As sharp as any thorn,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
On Christmas Day in the morn.

The holly bears a bark
As bitter as any gall,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
For to redeem us all.

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown.

Christianity has an long tradition of taking the pagan symbols and super-imposing Christian meaning over it. It does this with the hope that, in time, the overlaid meaning will replace the old entirely. In this way, a culture can be transformed into a one that is accustomed, receptive and honoring to the gospel of Christ. The Christmas holiday was, for instance, directly modeled on the Roman celebration of the Saturnalia, where wreaths and garlands of holly were used as decoration during the cold winter months. Being an evergreen, the decoration was a reminder of the life that was to come while all else was dormant and appeared dead.[3]

This carol above is an example of this kind of co-opting of religious symbolism. “White as lily” here alludes to Christ’s purity. Red berries correlate to the redness of Christ’s blood, shed to save sinners from death. The prickles represent the crown of thorns that adorned Christ’s head while on the cross. Possibly the bitter bark is a reference to the drink offered to Christ while being crucified. The carol’s first and last stanzas bear a feint reference the battle between the “Holly King” and its brother the “Oak King” that is a part symbology’s cultural heritage. Here holly is made out to be the preeminent tree and a permanent victor over ivy – the plant that tries to choke it. Holly was already thought by pagans to protect against evil and ward off bad luck,[4] so the old meaning is concomitant with the new symbolic meaning. Christ is the Holy King,[5] the defeater of evil, and the master of death.[6] Accordingly the evergreen becomes an apt symbol for eternal life.

It is easier to understand its symbolic meaning of the Phoenix feather core. The Phoenix is the “resurrection bird,” named so because they die in a burst of flames and are re-born in their own ashes. This was commonly understood and utilized in Christian art of past ages to be a symbol of Christ, the Resurrected One. The Phoenix plays an important anagogic role in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,[7] and in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix when Fawkes blocks a killing curse directed at his friend, allowing Dumbledore to vanish a snake an instant away from sinking its fangs into him.[8]

Harry’s wand is thus a symbol of sacrificial death, resurrection and everlasting life all rolled up into one. In sum, it is a symbol of Christ, and particularly of what Christ has done of our behalf.

Accio Loose Ends

Although wandlore in Harry Potter is referred to as somewhat mysterious and difficult subject, a few facts do emerge. First, the magic inside a witch or wizard is harnessed and focused by the wand. An underaged wizard cannot fully control their own magic, so it is spasmodically and uncontrollably released. Second, the wand and the wizard form a partnership, learning to work together. Harry likens his holly and Phoenix feather wand to a familiar friend, whereas other wands fit strangely in his hand and do not produce the same strength of magic. Third, and most importantly, the wand chooses the wizard.[9]

So here we are presented with a picture of Harry (our “every man”) with magic inside him (the Image of God), forming a relationship with a wand (Christ) to transform, create and bring dominion to the world around him. There’s much more that can be said regarding Harry’s wand, its relationship to Voldemort’s wand, the elder wand, and the magic of imagination. I trust I have whet your appetite for more. [10]

To my friends I would repeat that an intelligent reading of Harry Potter is truly rewarding, and it would be a severe tragedy to unthinkingly dismiss something as evil without digging for the gold buried beneath, and dwelling on that which is true, honorable and excellent (Phil 4:8). There are riches aplenty to find. To my facebook friend, I would say fiction is wonderfully able to illustrate truths in ways that books on philosophy do not. Fantasy is a genre that is particularly capable of doing this. It creates a universe – and characters to populate it – that in some way reflects our own world. In doing so it can tease out and give answers to some the great questions of life, like what it means to be truly human – an Image-Bearer. Once again, I recommend Harry Potter.

Footnotes

1. See Stuart McEwing, “Muggle Matters: Is Harry Potter a Doorway to the Occult?” n.p. Online: http://talk.thinkingmatters.org.nz/2008/muggle-matters-is-harry-potter-a-doorway-to-the-occult/
2. Hat tip goes to Jane Hawes, “Guest Post: Tis the Season for Holly Wandlore” n.p. Cited 29 November 2010. Online: http://www.hogwartsprofessor.com/guest-post-tis-the-season-for-holly-wandlore/.
3. David Beaulieu, “The Holly and the Ivy” 2 pages. Online: http://landscaping.about.com/od/holidayplants1/a/holly_and_ivy.htm. See also “Christmas Holly Trees: History, Winter Solsitice” n.p. Cited 29 November 2010. Online: http://landscaping.about.com/cs/winterlandscaping1/a/holly_trees.htm
4. Frederick Warne in association with the Royal Horticultural Society, Flower Fairies: The Lore and Language of Flowers (London, England: Penguin, 2004), 78.
5. It is by no means clear that “Holly” and “Holy” can be linked linguistically.
6. See Jane Hawes, “Guest Post: Tis the Season for Holly Wandlore.
7. See John Granger, “Harry Potter and the Inklings: The Christian Meaning of the Chamber of Secrets” n.p. Cited 29 December 2010. Online: http://www.george-macdonald.com/resources/granger.html
8. Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix, p 719.
9. Harry Potter wandlore. See Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone, p. 65.
10. Start here. Jane Hawes, “Guest Post: Tis the Season for Holly Wandlore.

Reflections on Vampires in Twilight

Stephanie Myers novels already enjoy cult status. Reading some fan-sites its scary to see the testimonials of how Twilight has changed my life – what amounts to idolatry. There are people who live, breath and think about Twilight endlessly, so one fan says. The mania that these books and movies have inspired is a clue that there is something deeper here than what first meets the eye, and though I am not trained in the literary arts, I have been reflecting as I have watched the films and now reading the books about possible messages in Twilight and New Moon.

There’s no question that Vampires are “in” at the moment. But what is it about Vampires that strikes the chord and resonates so well with audiences today? What is it about them that inspires such intrigue and fascination? Traditionally, a Vampire is the archetype of a person who lacks all self-restraint, who cannot control their impulse to indulge in the wickedest of evil (Drinking blood – greed, Mind-control – indulgence, Illicit Sex, Murder), who is condemned to live a half-life forever without growing weary, and is never satiated. A Vampire is a picture of the sinful nature. They can be weakened by starving them of food (putting to death the sinful nature by righteous living). They can be killed by a wooden stake (crosses are made of wood) through the heart, or by letting them burn in the light of sun (exposing sin in God’s light of truth).  They cannot enter churches or stand against sacred things. With seduction and violence they can capture your soul and turn the innocent evil.

Of course no model is perfect. And Stephanie Myers’ incarnation of them breaks the traditional mould somewhat. But is there anything profound here? or is just literary-candy? I’m guessing the former, rather than the latter.

The Bella / Edward relationship is to me very interesting. Recall two snippets from the films. (1) Near the end of Twilight, at the dance where Bella asks to Edwards to make her a Vampire also. For a second it looks as if he will, but then he says, “Isn’t it enough to live a long life with me.” (2) In New Moon, during the trial Edward is asked how he can stand being with Bella, whose scent is intoxicating – to Edward her blood is like the heroine to an addict. He replies “With difficulty.”

From these we see a Vampire (one who lacks all restraint, the sinful nature) with tremendous self-restraint. Whose love is so strong he cannot stand the idea of hurting her, of taking her soul and condemning her to live a cursed life, but who is constantly, powerfully tempted to do what his nature tells him to do anyway. He hates who and what he is, and lives a frustratingly moral life. Is this a picture of a man by nature depraved but who longs for redemption?

Vampires, we discover, are also endowed with special gifts that are both frightening and menacing, but Bella is mysteriously unaffected by them. But – and this is key – the only power that effects Bella is the power of self-control by Edward and his family – the power that prevents her becoming like them – a power she is increasingly frustrated with. The message, it seems to me, is that true power is not measured by what one can do, but by what one can restrain from doing.

I think then of the problem of evil, and what this insight means when applied to the suffering we see in the world. God, who is all-powerful and therefore capable of ending all pain, and all-loving and therefore desiring to do the same – indeed longing for all pain to cease and evil to be gone, restrains himself for a grand purpose that only he can see and only he currently truly appreciates. This is the mark of a power that is true and righteous. Psalms 78:38 tells us God is restrained “time and time again.” Though we might plead for a reprieve from suffering, God displays his power by restraining his intervention, for he knows that this present suffering will produce a glory that is not worth comparing to our present struggles.

Romans 8:17-21

Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.

The First Last Great Christmas Movie

If there is one subject or theme that filmmakers repeatedly fumble, it is Christmas. For every good Christmas film there is a Bad Santa, Elf, or The Santa Clause. Yet, for a generation that prefers cynicism over sentimentality and values objects and people only for what they can contribute to pleasure, Christmas will always be misunderstood. The message of contemporary Christmas film, Love Actually, characterizes this predicament tellingly: ‘love actually is all around’, is its catchcry. Love, invisible and irresistible, can take any form. It is has no anchor, no zipcode in moral reality. But if love is everything, then it is nothing. When the objective realm has been supplanted by subjectivity, it is no wonder that moral principles evaporate and the heart of Christmas lost.

Joe Carter, over at First Things, gives a good argument for why Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life rightly upends the moral vision of our time and deserves its place as the best Christmas film. It’s a Wonderful Life is the translation of an older myth into a post-World War 2 world. That original story is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the tale of a miser who is given a shot at redemption.  It’s a Wonderful Life features not Scrooge but George Bailey, played by James Stewart, who is contemplating death after a financial crisis and the prospect of impending disgrace.  It takes a vision of a world in which he was never born to make him realise that life is indeed worth living and rediscover the spirit of Christmas. Carter, in comparing the work of Frank Capra to Ayn Rand, says:its_a_wonderful_life

What makes George Bailey one of the most inspiring, emotionally complex characters in film is that he continually chooses the needs of his family and community over his own self-interested ambitions and desires—and suffers immensely for his efforts.

Although sentimental, Capra’s movie is not a simplistic morality play. In the end, George is saved from ruin but the rest of life remains essentially the same. By December 26 he’ll wake to find that he’s still a frustrated artist scraping out a meager living in a drafty old house in a one-stoplight town. In fact, all that he has gained is recognition of the value of faith, friends, and community and that this is worth more than anything else he might achieve. Capra’s underlying message is thus radically subversive: it is by serving our fellow man, even to the point of subordinating our dreams and ambitions, that we achieve both true greatness and lasting happiness.

This theme makes Wonderful Life one of the most counter-cultural films in the history of cinema. Almost every movie about the individual in society—from Easy Rider to Happy Feet—is based on the premise that self-actualization is the primary purpose of existence. To a society that accepts radical individualism as the norm, a film about the individual subordinating his desires for the good of others sounds anti-American, if not downright communistic. Surely, the only reason the film has become a Christmas classic is because so few people grasp this core message.

You can watch the whole movie online at Google Video.