August 17, 2009


The Book of Harry: How the boy wizard won over religious critics -- and the deeper meaning theologians now see in his tale (Michael Paulson, August 16, 2009, Boston Globe)

[O]ver 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. [...]

“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.”

-REVIEW: The Youngest Brother's Tale: Harry Potter's grand finale. (Alan Jacobs, September 1, 2007, Books & Culture)

A little more than a hundred years ago, a number of British educators, journalists, and intellectuals grew exercised about the reading habits of the nation's children. The particular target of their disapproval was the boy's adventure story—the kind of cheap short novel, full of exotic locations and narrow escapes from mortal peril and false friends and unexpected acts of heroism, that had come to be known as the "penny dreadful." Surely it could not be good for children to immerse themselves in these ill-made fictional worlds, with their formulaic plots and purple prose; surely we should insist that they learn to savor finer fare.

Then came riding into the fray a young man—twenty-five at the time—named Gilbert Keith Chesterton, who, though a journalist and an intellectual himself, repudiated the hand-wringing of his colleagues and planted his flag quite firmly in the camp of the penny dreadfuls: "There is no class of vulgar publications about which there is, to my mind, more utterly ridiculous exaggeration and misconception than the current boys' literature of the lowest stratum." Chesterton is perfectly happy to acknowledge that these books are not in the commendatory sense "literature," because "the simple need for some kind of ideal world in which fictitious persons play an unhampered part is infinitely deeper and older than the rules of good art, and much more important. Every one of us in childhood has constructed such an invisible dramatis personae, but it never occurred to our nurses to correct the composition by careful comparison with Balzac."

Nor should our nurses have done so, because what matters most about the penny dreadfuls is the soundness and accuracy of their moral compass, and their power of inspiring their readers to discern the significance of moral choice:

The vast mass of humanity, with their vast mass of idle books and idle words, have never doubted and never will doubt that courage is splendid, that fidelity is noble, that distressed ladies should be rescued, and vanquished enemies spared … . The average man or boy writes daily in these great gaudy diaries of his soul, which we call Penny Dreadfuls, a plainer and better gospel than any of those iridescent ethical paradoxes that the fashionable change as often as their bonnets.

And above all, what Chesterton loves about the penny dreadful is this: "It is always on the side of life."

I have been meditating on these thoughts in recent days, as I have scanned cyberspace for the many and varying responses to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final tale of the Boy Who Lived. It is a story full of exotic locations and narrow escapes from mortal peril and false friends and unexpected acts of heroism; it is a story which suggests that courage is splendid and fidelity noble. Of course, that's not enough for some people; and for others it's precisely the problem.

We already know that some Christians mistrust the Potter series because of its depictions of magic; we already know that some critics (Harold Bloom most prominent among them) deplore the books' lack of literary grace. But another and different set of critics has emerged here at the end of the series, for whom the evident traditionalism of the books is their greatest flaw. One of the participants in's Book Club thinks that the novel, and its epilogue in particular, "feels awfully bourgeois in its concern with little other than our heroes' marriages and children." (I did not know that concern for marriage and children was the exclusive province of the bourgeoisie; but that's why I read Slate, to learn stuff like that.) And as I scanned the blogs I lost track of the number of people who complained that the epilogue, and indeed the whole series, is defaced by "heteronormativity." Not a gay or lesbian couple in sight—though, if it makes anyone feel better, I have seen that a few readers of the previous book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, think that Harry's obsession with finding out what Draco Malfoy is up to marks a welcome homoerotic interlude.

What could one say in defense of these books, so unliterary, so unsophisticated in their morality and style, so bourgeois, so heteronormative? Perhaps only this: that J. K. Rowling has produced, in the vast, seven-book, thirty-five-hundred-page arc of Harry's story, the greatest penny dreadful ever written.

-ESSAY: Harry Potter and the Christian Critics (Mark Shea, Sep 13, 2007, First Things)
[I]t became hard to dismiss the charge of immorality when Deathly Hallows presented us with, in my opinion, the only really intellectually respectable basis for Christian criticism of the series: Snape's killing of Dumbledore on Dumbledore's orders.

Some fans of Harry have attempted to come up with excuses for this act. If Snape didn't kill Dumbledore, the logic goes, then Draco Malfoy would have been forced to do it. So (the claim goes) this is a salvific act, not an act of murder. Some even go so far as to say it was OK because Dumbledore was dying anyway. And besides, he ordered it.

One wants to be generous to such people, especially after all the unjust guff they've taken as "dreaming slaves," to quote O'Brien. But the fact remains that "You shall not do evil that good may come of it." It is evil to kill an innocent man, as Snape himself points out. Mercy killing isn't just wrong for Muggles. And "I was just following orders" was shown to have limited traction in 1946. Fans of Potter cannot escape the problem of Dumbledore's and Snape's actions by this route.

That said, I think this is only an intractable problem if we view Dumbledore as the source and summit of all moral and spiritual wisdom—which is precisely what Rowling labors to prevent in the final book. Indeed, the curious thing about Deathly Hallows is that Rowling repeatedly hammers home an attack on exactly the consequentialism that some Harry fans are mistakenly laboring to excuse in a whitewash not unlike Elphias Doge's sentimental hagiography. Rowling inexorably takes apart such hagiography and does not permit us to turn Dumbledore into a plaster saint. Dumbledore's great downfall was doing evil "for the Greater Good"—and that, I think, is the key. Deathly Hallows is the book in which, above all, Dumbledore gives way to Harry as the doubtful and imperfect Baptist gives way to Jesus, as the great but pagan Vergil gives way to Beatrice, as the greatest prophet gives way to the least in the kingdom of heaven. A reader of my blog perceptively writes:

Let's not forget that Rowling also depicts Dumbledore as a character with very significant moral flaws—[Rowling] has spoken of this several times in interviews, besides all the evidence she gives us in the books, particularly DH, where it is a major theme. Dumbledore himself is aware of this—his remorse for his sins against his sister is permanently chiseled into her grave stone, and he is still haunted by them when he talks to Harry in King's Cross. He has also said that, with his very great gifts, he sometimes makes greater mistakes than others. Despite decades of good work defending the weak, giving second chances and defeating evil characters, he is still so prone to the seduction of power he cannot resist putting on the Resurrection Stone, which Snape rightly excoriates him for doing. In short, just because Dumbledore the character plans it, or does it, doesn't make it right, even in the books. Nor are we required to approve of all his choices as they are presented in the books.

Beyond that, Rowling makes clear . . . that Dumbledore's grand plan doesn't work! We are not to look at him sacrificing himself (as many try to see it) as the act of deep genius that makes it all come out OK. His choice to have Snape kill him was a way to get the unbeatable Elder Wand into the hands of the strongest wizard left standing on the anti-Voldemort side. Instead, events he had no control over lead things in a completely different direction. Draco didn't kill him, but the wand became Draco's when he pinned Dumbledore and it fell away. Though it was buried with Dumbledore, it "belonged" to Draco. In the chapter "Malfoy Manor," the right to the wand passes to Harry when Harry bests Draco by wrestling three wands from him. And, in the end, Voldemort wields a wand he doesn't really own against Harry. In fact, he murdered Snape in the mistaken belief it would make him master of the wand-murderer Snape because, in accord with Dumbledore's grand plan, Snape should have inherited the wand when he killed Dumbledore. Instead, the Elder Wand responds to Harry's "signature spell," Expelliarmus, leaping from Voldemort's hand to Harry's and sending Voldemort's hurled curse back upon himself. I'm paraphrasing here, but Rowling said that, "in the end, all Dumbledore's plotting didn't make the difference—instead it came down to a wrestling match between two teenaged boys."

Harry understands all (or almost all) of this when he leaves King's Cross to confront Voldemort a last time. He thinks he will win, but he is ready to try it even if he fails because he has grown through struggling with his own flaws (and the flaws of Snape, Dumbledore, Ron, and others), and he has learned the key lesson taught by the Blessed Woman (Lily! That name!) and the hobbit of hobbits in the book, Dobby—real life, life stronger than death, is found by giving your life for another.

Dumbledore is, like Vergil, a "great man" (in the words of Hagrid). But he himself acknowledges that Harry is the "better man." Harry can do what Dumbledore could not. That's not because Harry has mastered secret knowledge. It's because Harry is the recipient of grace. Dumbledore's death is marked by the sin that marred Dumbledore's life: He does evil "for the greater good." And the plan he hatches "for the greater good" is fruitless. The Elder Wand he aimed to give to Snape goes to Draco. But, in the mystery of grace, his failure is redeemed by Harry's response to grace.

So it seems to me that Rowling is, in fact, remaining true to her rejection of consequentialism. Dumbledore's consequentialist act of ordering Snape to kill him "for the greater good" results only in failure, and Rowling wants us to see that (if the interview is any indication). But sin and failure are not the last word—grace is. Harry's imitation of Christ's death and resurrection is rewarded with redemption, reconciliation, and healing, which save Harry's world.

Harry Potter and the Way of Jesus (Sylvia Keesmaat, Banner)
I admit that when the Harry Potter phenomenon first hit, I was a bit skeptical. After all, a series about witches and wizards that had hit the best-seller list didn’t sound that attractive to my tastes. I was partly doubtful that anything so hugely popular could have any literary quality and partly unsure of the subject matter.

Then a colleague suggested I read the first book. The first led to the second and the third and then the fourth (all that were out at that point). I discovered, first, that the Harry Potter books are an excellent addition to children’s literature. The first three are rather lightweight, but by the fourth book Rowling has created something that rivals the Narnia series and enters the epic proportions of Lord of the Rings. Add to that the extra level of meaning in the names and spells for those who know a little Latin, and the books become an intellectual exercise as well.

I also discovered that Harry Potter has nothing to do with any real-life religion that uses the terminology of witchcraft (commonly called “Wicca”). Rather, Rowling’s world of magic, of witches and wizards and spells, is a literary device, a fantasy world.

Harry Potter fits squarely into the category of fantasy literature, with its major influences being the Christian fantasy authors C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, whose Narnia chronicles and Lord of the Rings trilogy have shaped the Christian literary imagination for half a century now. Just as the works of Lewis and Tolkien are about the epic struggle between good and evil, and just as Lewis used the terminology of the “Deep Magic” and portrayed his evil character as a witch, so also the Harry Potter books draw on the language of fantasy.

And just as Tolkien and Lewis put average characters in central roles in the struggle between good and evil, so Rowling describes the challenges faced by an average boy given an exceptional task.

As the story line unfolds over the seven Harry Potter books, however, it becomes clear that Rowling is not merely interested in a wooden, clear-cut battle between good and evil. Both the characters and the story reveal a worldview that is deeply Christian at its core. Let me illustrate.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 17, 2009 6:07 AM
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