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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.

A seamless garment with no holes: human persons and the failure of naturalism

Last year, the release of J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig’s Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology saw a lot of attention. And quite rightly. The Companion marshalled some of most cutting-edge work in the field of the philosophy of religion and showed why natural theology is fast becoming an exciting scholarly domain again. But in the shadow of the Companion‘s release, another of Moreland’s works was published: The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism. Although it might not have got the same amount of attention, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei also represented an important entry in the contest of ideas and a powerful defense of theism. In it, Moreland argues for the theistic position by way of a stinging attack on naturalism and its failure to answer the problem of consciousness and account for the basic facts of human experience, such as free will, rationality, and intrinsic value.

The problem of consciousness is a deep mystery for philosophers and neuroscientists. This problem is the dilemma of how conscious states (thoughts, feelings, perceptions) arise from physical brain states. Ned Block, the American philosopher at NYU, has said that “researchers are stumped” and that we have “no conception” that enables us to explain subjective experience or conscious life. Colin McGinn, a professor at the University of Miami in the philosophy of mind, says that the emergence of consciousness “strikes us as miraculous, eerie, even faintly comic”. Even if we are sure that they arise from brains, we do not know the sorts of connections that conscious states (such as “seeing a tree”) have with brain states (such as “there are neurons firing at point A in the brain”). Hard materialists like Daniel Dennett have argued that conscious states are nothing more than brain states and brain behaviour, but Moreland argues that in both science and philosophy, a strict physicalist analysis of consciousness and the self has been breaking down since the mid-1980s.

For Christianity, the existence of such features basic to human experience are not metaphysically strange or inexplicable. For if in the beginning existed a supremely self-aware Being, then it is not difficult to see how consciousness could emerge. And if Christianity were true, Moreland also suggests one would predict that alternative worldviews whose basic entity or entities are not spiritual would find these things we take for granted recalcitrant – that is, hard to explain or explain away. In his book, Moreland shows that this is exactly the case with philosophical naturalism. Because naturalism posits particles at the beginning, one cannot adequately account for consciousness without mounting other reductive or eliminative strategies to explain their emergence. In The Recalcitrant Imago Dei, Moreland looks at these strategies and shows why they fail. Moreland therefore concludes that consciousness, freedom, rationality, a unified/simple self, equal and intrinsic value, and moral action of a certain sort, are all rebutting defeaters for naturalism and evidence for Judeo-Christian monotheism.

Bill Vallicella has written an excellent and thorough review of Moreland’s book, giving a summary of Moreland’s discussion of naturalism and his argument from consciousness for the existence of God.

Formally set out, Moreland’s argument looks like this:

1. Genuinely non-physical mental states exist.

2. There is an explanation for the existence of mental states.

3. Personal explanation is different from natural scientific explanation.

4. The explanation for the existence of mental states is either a personal or natural scientific explanation.

5. The explanation is not a natural scientific one.

Therefore

6. The explanation is a personal one.

7. If the explanation is personal, then it is theistic.

Therefore

8. The explanation [for the existence of mental states] is theistic.

In his review, Vallicella examines each of the premises, cataloguing additional reasons that Moreland offers in support for them. He writes:

Moreland makes a very powerful case, to my mind a crushingly powerful case, that [mental states] do not have a natural-scientific explanation. I would go further and claim that they cannot have such an explanation. (If a naturalist pins his hopes on future science, a science that can do what contemporary science manifestly cannot do, then I say our naturalist does not know what he is talking about when he bandies about the phrase ‘future science.’ He is merely gesturing in the direction of he knows not what. He is simply asseverating that somehow science will someday have all the answers. That’s as ‘theological’ as the assurance that, though now we see through a glass darkly, later we will see face to face. What do faith and hope have to do with science? Furthermore, why should anyone hope to have it proven to him that he is nothing more than a complex physical system?)

While Vallicella acknowledges that there are possible objections to Moreland’s argument (he raises some potential ones himself), he concludes that it renders belief in the Judeo-Christian God reasonable, and when combined with the rest of Moreland’s arguments, demonstrates why theism is more reasonable than naturalism.

It is worth reading his whole review (it can also be found on his own blog here). Also worth looking at is Moreland’s interview about the book on the Evangelical Philosophical Blog from last year (part 1 and 2) and Moreland’s post about the topic on his Amazon blog.

The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism, can of course, be picked up on Amazon.

Notes:

“God, Naturalism and the Foundations of Morality” by Paul Copan in The Future of Atheism: Alister McGrath and Daniel Dennett in Dialogue, ed. Robert Stewart. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.