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Harry Potter and the Communion of Saints

Q U I C K S C A N

Good and Evil, Not Black and White
Those Who Go Before Us in Faith
The Real Magic of the Series

With the seventh and final of the books (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) and the fifth of the movies (Order of the Phoenix) both released last July, how can anyone deny that J.K. Rowling’s fictional world relies on Christian themes?

I was not introduced to Harry, as most adults were, by their children, but by a professor at a Catholic university. She sees these books in the tradition of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, both of whom wrote fantasy with Christian overtones.

I immediately fell under the spell of the boy with the lightning-shaped scar on his forehead and Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. I’m not alone in my love of the series: A record-breaking 8.3 million copies of the seventh volume sold just in the United States within a day of its release. The new movie’s box office reaped $261 million the first month.

So when a telephone poll conducted by a local TV station showed that 58 percent of viewers consider Harry Potter “dangerous” rather than “harmless,” I was shocked.

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Good and Evil, Not Black and White

Most people who think Harry Potter is dangerous probably do so because they connect magic with Satan. But the Harry Potter series is not built on the demonic sorcery that the Bible forbids. No spell taught by Hogwarts ever starts by invoking the devil.

Rowling’s world is divided into wizards and Muggles (non-magical folks). The villain of her series, Voldemort, is promoting the purity of the wizard “race.” The ultimate of this kind of racism shows up in Deathly Hallows, with scary echoes of Nazism and ethnic cleansing. Christians should applaud making prejudice, racism and arrogance the cardinal sins in this universe.

Admittedly, the series is sophisticated in its depictions of characters. Rowling moves her readers from seeing her characters as all-good or all-bad to having bits of light and dark in each of them. As Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black, points out to him, the world is not divided into good guys and Death Eaters (supporters of Voldemort).

Rowling even allows us in Half-Blood Prince to understand the kind of childhood that made Voldemort who he became—but she does not excuse him. In Deathly Hallows, she depicts Hogwarts’ beloved headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, flirting with the Dark Arts in his youth and discovering his weakness for power; even Rowling’s “wisdom figure” had to struggle to be good.

We are what we become by our choices in life. What more Christian idea is there than this?

Those Who Go Before Us in Faith

It was the self-sacrificing love of Harry’s mother that saved him as a baby. Lily Evans Potter tried to protect Harry rather than save herself. That kind of love is reminiscent of Jesus’ death on the cross. Love, says Dumbledore, is the one thing Voldemort does not understand and always underestimates.

Rowling is a practicing Christian (Church of Scotland-Presbyterian). She relies on Christian symbols (unicorn, phoenix, serpent) and allusions (veil of death, hallows, King’s Cross). Specific lines of Rowling’s text echo the Bible. For example, Dumbledore tells Harry that help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask (“Ask and you will receive”—Luke 11:9).

Two of Rowling’s biggest themes are essential Christian dogma: Death is not the end of our lives and the communion of saints surrounds us.

Dumbledore tells Harry that death is the “last great adventure.” His pet phoenix, Fawkes, dies and rises again and again (Books 2 and 5). In real life, Rowling endured the lingering death of her mother from multiple sclerosis and admits she struggled to keep her faith. But in her books, she puts forth a shining Christian affirmation of the afterlife.

And she draws strength from the communion of saints—not that she calls them saints. The “saints” in Harry’s life (his parents and parents’ friends) intervene in his world, giving him protection in the duel with Voldemort in Goblet of Fire and reassurance and company in his “death scene” in Deathly Hallows. I don’t think there’s ever been such a comforting portrayal of the communion of saints as this last. In Rowling’s scene, I see my grandmothers standing beside me.

The Real Magic of the Series

Harry Potter’s magic “draws on the forces of love, redemption and forgiveness to conquer Voldemort at last,” writes Teresa Malcolm in National Catholic Reporter (August 3, 2007).

According to John Granger, author of Looking for God in Harry Potter, Rowling’s series employs “magic that shows—in story form—our human thirst for a reality beyond the physical world around us.”

Professor Granger, who is Greek Orthodox, took some convincing to appreciate Harry Potter. At first he tried to keep the Harry Potter books out of the hands of his seven homeschooled children. But then he read them.

Now he says, “I am convinced that the fundamental reason for the astonishing popularity of the Harry Potter novels is their ability to meet a spiritual longing for some experience of the truths of life, love, and death taught by Christianity but denied by secular culture.” In fact, Harry Potter can reinforce the values that many of his current critics hold dear.

Granger says the Harry Potter stories “sing along” with the Great Story of Christ. And I hear that harmony, too.—B.B.


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