Wednesday, August 19, 2009

How the boy wizard won over religious critics -- and the deeper meaning theologians now see in his tale

From the Boston Globe:
The world of religion was not, at first, particularly enthusiastic about the arrival of the Potter boy.

For several years, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series topped the American Library Association’s lists of the most-challenged books (reasons cited in 2001: “anti-family, occult/Satanism, religious viewpoint, and violence”). Evangelical Protestants were skeptical: would the positive depiction of wizardry mislead children? And some Catholics were worried too, ranging from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), who warned that “subtle seductions” in the text could “corrupt the Christian faith,” to the Rev. Ronald A. Barker, a Wakefield priest who yanked the books from his parish school library.

But over the last several years, religion writers and thinkers have warmed to Harry - both Christianity Today, the evangelical magazine, and L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, have praised the latest film. The Christian Broadcasting Network, home of Pat Robertson, now features on its website a special section on “The Harry Potter Controversy,” with the acknowledgment, “Leading Christian thinkers have disparate views on the Harry Potter products, and how Christians should respond to them.”

At the same time, scholars of religion have begun developing a more nuanced take on the Potter phenomenon, with some arguing that the wildly popular series of books and films contains positive ethical messages and a narrative arc that is worthy of serious scholarly examination and even theological reflection. The scholars are primarily interested in what the books have to say about the two big issues that always preoccupy people of faith - morality and mortality - but some are also interested in what the series has to say about tolerance (Harry and friends are notably open to people and creatures who differ from them) and bullying, the nature and presence of evil in society, and the existence of the supernatural.

Scholarly interest in the Harry Potter books began long before the series was finished, and shows no signs of slowing. There have been several academic books, with titles such as “The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter: Perspectives on a Literary Phenomenon” and “Harry Potter’s World: Multidisciplinary Critical Perspectives.” The American Academy of Religion last fall offered a panel at its annual convention titled “The Potterian Way of Death: J. K. Rowling’s Conception of Mortality.” And there is a raft of articles in religion journals with titles including “Looking for God in Harry Potter” and “Engaging with the spirituality of Harry Potter,” as well as the more complex, “Harry Potter and the baptism of the imagination,” “Harry Potter and the problem of evil,” and the crowd-pleasing “Harry Potter and theological libraries.”

“There is a whole burgeoning field of religion and popular culture, not just looking at what exact parallels there are, does it jibe with religious beliefs or is it counter to religious beliefs, but looking at these stories as a reflection of the spiritual or religious sensibilities of the culture,” says Russell W. Dalton, an assistant professor of Christian education at Brite Divinity School in Texas and the author of “Faith Journey through Fantasy Lands: A Christian Dialogue with Harry Potter, Star Wars, and The Lord of the Rings.”

“When stories become as popular as the Harry Potter stories, they no longer simply reflect the religious views of the author, but become artifacts of the culture, and they say something about the culture that has embraced them,” Dalton says. “And that is certainly the case with Harry Potter.”

The academic interest in The Boy Who Lived is part of a larger search by religion scholars and writers for signs of faith, and in particular for echoes of the Christian narrative, in culture. The search is not new, though scholars have historically concentrated on high art - like painting and literature. More recently, religion journalists have turned their attention to popular culture, authoring books with titles like “The Gospel According to the Simpsons,” by Mark Pinsky, and “The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers,” by Cathleen Falsani, while scholars are examining the role of religion in Madonna’s videos, in the Star Trek series, and on “Lost.”

“We have to be engaged with the conversation that’s going on in the public,” says Jeffrey H. Mahan, a professor of ministry, media and culture at the Iliff School of Theology in Colorado and an early proponent of studying religion and popular culture.

There is also a long history of children’s literature being used as a form of religious pedagogy. Amy Boesky, an associate professor of English at Boston College, says that the use of children’s literature to teach moral values goes back at least as far as Erasmus, who wrote during the Renaissance, and includes children’s classics from “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” published in 1678, to “A Wrinkle in Time,” published in 1962. The best known example is the seven-volume Chronicles of Narnia, written in the early 1950s by the Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, which, in addition to being entertaining fantasy literature, is often read as a Christian allegory featuring Aslan, a heroic lion and obvious Christ figure.

Although some scholars now see Harry Potter as a Christ-like figure, the parallels are subtler, and, undoubtedly, for many readers vastly overshadowed by a dizzying torrent of magical spells, strange creatures, and Quidditch games. Harry is, himself, a complex adolescent hero, haunted by the murder of his parents but at times conflicted about his own role in the world and unsettled, as anyone would be, by his mind’s strange connection with that of the series’s evil antagonist, Voldemort.

“The Potter books are not explicitly religious in the way that C.S. Lewis’s Narnia tales are, but there is a strong sense of evil, and issues of good and evil are not only philosophical issues but also theological issues,” says Gareth B. Matthews, a professor of philosophy at UMass Amherst.

Some scholars take the search for Gospel themes in the Harry Potter series quite far. Oona Eisenstadt, an assistant professor of religious studies at Pomona College, offers a particularly elaborate analysis, arguing that Rowling explores the complex natures of biblical characters by presenting two versions of each in the Potter books. Snape and Malfoy, she argues, represent competing understandings of Judas - each seeking to kill Dumbledore, but one because he is serving evil and one because destiny demands it. Eisenstadt sees Dumbledore and Harry, in different ways, as Christ figures - perhaps Harry representing the human Jesus, and Dumbledore the divine. And she posits that the New Testament depiction of elements of the Jewish community is represented by the goblins (unappealing bankers) and the Ministry of Magic (legalistic and small-minded).

“Rather than offering a one-to-one allegory which would shove a theology down the throats of her child readers, Rowling’s role doublings, her one-to-twos, are an invitation to them, and to us all, to think,” Eisenstadt writes.

Some religion scholars seem most interested in the Potter series as social commentary - in particular, they focus on Harry’s refusal to take part in the anti-Muggle bias demonstrated by some pure-blood witches and wizards, as well as the hostility toward giants and ghosts and other menacing magical creatures that some characters in the series evince. “One of the overall themes of the Harry Potter series has to do with race and race-based persecution,” says Lana A. Whited, a professor of English at Ferrum College in Virginia and the author of “The Ivory Tower And Harry Potter.” And Dalton, of Brite Divinity School, takes the argument a step further, suggesting that the series’s association of tolerance with the heroic characters is a critique of fundamentalism.

“To Dumbledore and Harry and his friends{hellip} it didn’t matter whether you were Muggle-born, or whether you were a giant,” Dalton says, “whereas clearly the Death Eaters, the evil ones, were intolerant of people who were unlike them.”

But not all scholars are quite so enthusiastic. Elizabeth Heilman, an associate professor of teacher education at Michigan State University and the editor of “Critical Perspectives on Harry Potter” says that, unlike Hermione, who adopts the cause of the house elves, “you don’t see Harry Potter ever taking up a cause for the sake of the downtrodden. He’s really a reluctant hero, and I’m not convinced the narrative has him effectively going beyond personal motives.”

The interest of religion scholars in the Potter series has intensified in the wake of the much-anticipated seventh and final book, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” which was published in 2007. The question of whether Harry would die (Spoiler Alert!) was much debated before the book was released, and it doesn’t require a divinity degree to see the themes of sacrifice and resurrection in the resolution of that question.

“I remember anticipating book seven, and having conversations with my kids about whether Harry Potter would die, and a lot of that conversation was about to what extent Rowling was going to make this a Christian book: was Harry going to die and save the world?” says Stephen Prothero, a religion professor at Boston University.

The denouement (really: Spoiler Alert!) is the starting point for many religion scholars, because in the final scenes, Harry realizes “that his job was to walk calmly into Death’s welcoming arms,” Rowling writes. Harry allows himself to be killed - or at least struck by a killing curse - in order to save the wizarding world, but then returns to life, egged on by a vision of Dumbledore that tells Harry, “by returning, you may ensure that fewer souls are maimed, fewer families are torn apart.” Harry then vanquishes Voldemort, and is described in the book as being seen by the crowd that witnessed the final battle as “their leader and symbol, their savior and their guide.”

“At the end of the last book, we have a dying and rising Potter - he has to be killed to deliver the world from the evil personified by Voldemort,” says Paul V.M. Flesher, director of the religious studies program at the University of Wyoming and the author of an article about Harry Potter for the Journal of Religion and Film. “There’s a Christian pattern to this story. It’s not just good versus evil. Rowling is not being evangelistic - this is not C.S. Lewis - but she knows these stories, and it’s clear she’s fitting pieces together in a way that makes sense and she knows her readers will follow.”

Rowling herself, in the wake of the final book’s publication, says she thought the religious themes had “always been obvious,” and scholars note there were at least two unattributed quotations from the New Testament in the series, one on the tomb of Dumbledore’s mother and sister (“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” from Matthew), and one on the tomb of Harry’s mother and father (“The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death,” from I Corinthians).

Harry’s ultimate struggle with death has cemented the romance between religion scholars and the Potter series, the initial controversies over wands and wizardry now largely overshadowed by discussion of Harry’s character and life choices.

“Rather than decrying as wicked certain elements of the series - as far too many Christians have done - we ought to be inviting our communities into deeper appreciation of both the similarities and the contrasts between the stories and our Christian faith,” Mary Hess, of Luther Seminary in Minnesota, writes in the journal Word & World.

Sure enough, Leonie Caldecott, writing in Christian Century a few months after the publication of book seven, opines, “As is revealed in ‘Deathly Hallows,’ far from trying to cheat death, Harry willingly embraces death when he comes to understand that this is necessary to save others, and not just those he particularly loves.”

Dumbledore, early in the series, makes clear his own views on this subject, saying, “To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”

At the American Academy of Religion conference, panelists mined the final scene, as well as other depictions of death in the Potter series, for meaning. Paul Corey, a religious studies lecturer at McMaster University in Canada, rhetorically asked, “What is the difference between a Christian and a Death Eater?” as a starting point for thinking about how Voldemort’s quest to conquer death might differ from, or resemble, the desire of Christians for eternal life in heaven. And Lois Shepherd, a bioethicist at the University of Virginia, said she found in the series an argument against prolonging physical life at all costs - a rejection of what she called a “quest to avoid death” that she said was played out in the real-world debate over Terri Schiavo.

“Death, in the philosophy of the series, is not to be feared,” Shepherd says. “It is in fact those who fear death the most - Voldemort being the supreme example - who engage in unspeakable acts of evil.”
Read it all here.


Steven in Falls Church said...

For Christian apologists, I think it is hazardous to read Christian allegory into too many things, as you risk distorting the Gospel message to others. Take, for example, the classic "good versus evil" plot line, which is the basis for virtually every fantasy novel ever written, including Harry Potter. This Manichean view of the universe is the antithesis of Christianity, wherein God always has dominion over Satan (remember Job), Christ has conquered death (i.e., evil) and the day of Christ's return and ultimate triumph over Satan is not in doubt. For Rowling to have done Christian allegory properly, HP's conquest over Voldemort would have been preordained in the opening dialogue on Privet Lane and would never have been in doubt throughout the series.

J.R.R. Tolkein got it right in his protestation of others' attempts to paint The Lord of the Rings as Christian allegory. Like HP, LOTR at best presents a Manichean view of existence, or worse (when read in conjunction with the Simlarillion) a world of a disinterested god (Iluvatar) who populated his creation with some angels (the Ainur) and then walked away from it. Tolkein, a person of profound faith, must have thought why write Christian allegory when you can crack open the Bible and get the Christian message undiluted.

Chip said...

I don't disagree with you about reading Christian allegory into too many things, Steven, and the Harry Potter series is wonderful literature but not fully from a Christian worldview, IMHO.

Concerning Tolkien, however, the author himself said that in the revisions of the text (made in the early '50s, if I remember correctly -- but definitely before the books were published) he *consciously* went back and put in Christian allusions (most notably, he confirmed that Galadrial is meant to reflect Mary). Now Christian allusions are not the same as Christian allegory, but I think it's also a mistake to say it "at best presents a Manichean view of existence, or worse." LOTR (and I'd add here all of Tolkien's Middle-Earth material) is not Christian allegory, but it *is* profoundly Christian in worldview.

Peace of Christ,

Chip said...

Just to add the actual Tolkien quote from a letter he wrote to a Roman Catholic priest:

The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.

(I haven't yet found the Mary quote that I remember.)

Unknown said...

Part One:

J.K.Rowling is much more a student of Dorothy Sayers than Tolkien, though she borrows some of the same story elements as C.S. Lewis and Tolkien though often with more of a humorous twist (i.e., the official motto of Hogwarts).

J.K. Rowling is far more a descendant of Sayer in that the Potter series embody a great mystery series - but just the genre alone (the mystery) is a marvelous vehicle to tell the Christian story. In this series Rowling does a tremendous work on explaining some of the fundamental elements of the Christian story, but in the most subversive way. For many years, folks like our friends Travis Prinzi and John Granger (whom I met through our years of discussion over solving the mysteries) could see the Christian worldview and story that Rowling was telling, but for most people reading the books that story went over their heads. It is possibly one of the most ironic if not bizarre outcomes of the publication of the HP series is that the very people who should have gotten it (IF they had actually read the books, which so many apparently DID NOT) they would have recognized that we had a major contribution to Christian storytelling by an author who indeed in telling the story was searching her own heart for her faith.

It elevates the story from propaganda to art.

That being said, I was tremendously irritated when, with the publication of the final book, Jo Rowling went on a "Now I'll Explain the Book To You" book tour and it would have been so much better if she patted a few children's heads, had a few chat-ups with fans, and kept the explaining to herself. When an author has to "Explain" what their books mean, they reduce their work.

It is a piece of trivia what Tolkien though of his books, but the author is not the final word, not on the great books (which Lord of the Rings is) because it is a co-creative process with the Holy Spirit and sometimes - often - the writing can take the writer into places where they can not fathom. That's how art becomes iconic - be it the great masters or the great authors.


Unknown said...

Part Two:

Rowling did that - because I think she was honest in her own deep search for her faith. She went into places, asked the questions, and dared to take a biblical view for the answers (now do we know for the modern audience what it means to be "covered by the blood?" Oh yes we do!!). The work then becomes larger than the author. This is true with Tolkein, for even Rowling and absolutely true for the great works. That's why readers enjoy it so much - the author is but one critic and there is so much more to discover than even the author knows.

I can remember this kind of experience when I wrote my BFA Senior Thesis and it was a full length novel. I had to go before a university board which had read the work and now was going to critique it as you would any of the books and stories we read in my courses. The student/author was not permitted to speak while the discussion went on and it was one of the most illuminating and exhilarating moments in all the years in college, of sitting there and listening to the discussion over characters I created and knew intimately and hear them spoken of by others who had come to know them too and were challenged by them. They brought not only their own stories to my work, but also the stories of others (in which I had been influenced at the time), and my writing style. I could not speak, I could only listen and it was an extraordinary exercise in self control. I was terrified going before that board but the experience left me so excited that writing was not limited to the author but was a collaboration with her readers and with so many authors and poets and philosophers who had gone before her.

Writing is always collaborative - it's never just about the author. So while I am interested from a trivia point of view in what Tolkien was thinking or Jo Rowling was thinking when they wrote their books, when the books are done they are wise to remain reserved and allow the books to not be mere extensions of their own personalities and egos, but of something much much more, far more profound - indeed, a work that is inspired by the Holy Spirit.


Chip said...


The Harry Potter series seems to me to reveal J. K. Rowling's wrestling with the Christian faith more than giving a strong apologetic for it. As Terry Mattingly has said, she shows every sign in her books of being a liberal Christian. Rowling herself, in an interview after the publication of Deathly Hallows, said that her doubts with which she struggles concerning Christianity are there to see in the books. There are a few syncretic elements as well.

All of that is not bad, of course - it's where J. K. Rowling is at, and much kudos and heartfelt thanks to her for setting her stories in the context of some form of a Christian worldview. (And you know I love the books!) But there's *much* difference between her and Tolkien.

Perhaps nowhere is this seen better than in Rowling's extremely disturbing handling of the resolution of Snape's story in connection with Dumbledore's death. Contrast how Rowling portrays that with Tolkien's message underlying the issue of what should be done with Gollum (beginning with Gandalf's words to Frodo in Chapter 2 of Fellowship on down through the rest of the story). Rowling comes out essentially pro assisted suicide, while Tolkien consistently argues that we are to be quick to preserve the life of even the most heinous individuals, because God may yet have something for them to do in our story. The whole outcome of LOTR depends upon first Frodo, then Sam showing mercy to Gollum -- without their decisions on the side of mercy, the ring would never have been destroyed. Furthermore, suicide is repeatedly condemned in LOTR as faithless.

Your point about the book's effects going beyond the author's intentions is well taken, but the author's meaning is still critical. I strongly disagree with you that "the author is but one critic and there is so much more to discover than even the author knows." There is so much in the way of impact that an work may have on someone, yes, but that is not the same as "discovery." There's a difference between application and meaning.

Peace of Christ,

Unknown said...

No, no, no - it's not assisted suicide, Snape kills him to protect Draco. Dumbledore was dying all ready, but in order to save Draco's life Dumbledore had to die. What Dumbledore did, though, was save Draco's soul from committing such a henius act as murder and Snape, who had made the promise in the first place, the "Unbreakable Vow" to Draco's mother, did the deed. He killed Dumbledore. It is Snape's soul that is put in peril and Snape complains about this to Dumbledore, as we learn from Hagrid's slip of the tongue. There's never an indication that what Snape did was "good" - it was murder. Dumbledore was murdered.

Snape did not kill Dumbledore to ease the old man's suffering - quite the contrary (in fact, it seems that Dumbledore intended for Snape to prolong his life since the school year was not quite over). But when it became clear that this was the night that Draco meant to take the headmaster's life, Dumbledore's plan for Snape to do the deed instead went into play. That is why Dumbledore pleads, "Snape, please." It's not to ease Dumbledore's suffering, but to spare Draco.

Snape carries out the deed - why? Dumbledore was indeed dying, a long goodbye, and it was only a matter of time before Dumbledore would die on his own. Snape was keeping him alive through his advanced potion making (as one would with modern medicine, no doubt - are not many people kept alive long after they may have succumbed because of the wonders of modern medicine - to even live normal life spans where in another decade they would have surely died, AIDS patients come to mind, as many take their "cocktails" and are living far more extended lives.

Dumbledore sacrifices his life to save Draco's, not to alleviate his own suffering. With a different set of reasoning, as some who complain about the Christian faith say, Jesus himself could have been said to have committed suicide on the cross for he had the power at his hand to save himself. But he allowed the Romans to kill him, and God allowed it to happen by design, to save the world.

Why would God permit His Son to die and not intervene to save Him? Because Jesus was dying to save the world, and Dumbledore died to save Draco - for Draco it seems clear did not have it in him to take the headmaster's life. Snape took the penalty himself and carried out the deed, something we learn he did not want to do. Dumbledore played a card to make Snape do it, by reminding Snape of his own vow to protect Harry Potter and this was done out his love for Lily.

I would not call it suicide, or assisted suicide, for it was not about Dumbledore - it was not about him. He intended to sacrifice his life to save Draco.

It was sacrifice and not a suicide (just as Christ's death on the cross was a sacrifice and not a suicide - neither Dumbledore or Jesus wanted to die, they both had desired that the cup of death spare them) but in order for Draco to be spared, Snape made the "unbreakable vow" and kept his promise in his the end and protected his student from the wrath and certain corporal punishment of the dreaded Dark Lord Voldemort.

As we learn, Draco did disarm Dumbledore and this act becomes the turning point for the entire series. In the end we see that Draco is redeemed, he becomes an upstanding citizen (as much as one could be with the name Malfoy) and shows a certain measure of respect (as much as a Malfoy could) when he meets Harry at the train station years later where they put their own children on the train Hogwarts. That "reconciliation" - as it is, would only have been possible by Dumbledore's own plan to sacrifice himself and allow Snape to follow through on his own Unbreakable Vow. He gave up his life.


Unknown said...

The real question, it seems to me, is this: Is Snape redeemed? Is he forgiven?


Anonymous said...

Good question, BB, but I think this is where mixing HP with too much Christianese gets a little dicy. Seeing as how there is no reference to God in the books themselves (meaning the words themselves, not Rowling's allusions), I'm thinking we'll never have that answer. Did he care for Harry? Yes. He said so himself. Did he care for Dumbledore? Definitely, yes. But who's to say that he didn't do a little killing well before Dumbledore's murder whilst still a Death Eater? Has he "repented"? All this to say, sadly, this is where the mixing runs dry.

Unknown said...

Perhaps redemption was on Snape's mind too as he died, looking into "Lily's" eyes, Lily, which has such a close connection to Easter and to the Resurrection.


Anonymous said...

Very creative.... :)