Death of the muggle God?

hedwigWant to read something really sad and rather strange?

This is one of those zippy Time mini-essays, and it has been a long time since I read one that made me laugh harder, although in a laugh-to-keep-from-crying kind of way. It’s called “Who Dies in Harry Potter? God” and is yet another MSM attempt to find the religion angle in the Story that Need Not be Named (as I called it the other day).

Now I am aware that all kinds of people read the Harry Potter in all kinds of ways.

But this take by Lev Grossman is the first I have seen in a long, long time that seems totally unaware of the religion currents swirling around the books. I mean, check this out:

Rowling’s work is so familiar that we’ve forgotten how radical it really is. Look at her literary forebears. In The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien fused his ardent Catholicism with a deep, nostalgic love for the unspoiled English landscape. C.S. Lewis was a devout Anglican whose Chronicles of Narnia forms an extended argument for Christian faith. Now look at Rowling’s books. What’s missing? If you want to know who dies in Harry Potter, the answer is easy: God.

Harry Potter lives in a world free of any religion or spirituality of any kind. He lives surrounded by ghosts but has no one to pray to, even if he were so inclined, which he isn’t. Rowling has more in common with celebrity atheists like Christopher Hitchens than she has with Tolkien and Lewis.

What does Harry have instead of God? Rowling’s answer, at once glib and profound, is that Harry’s power comes from love. This charming notion represents a cultural sea change. In the new millennium, magic comes not from God or nature or anything grander or more mystical than a mere human emotion. In choosing Rowling as the reigning dreamer of our era, we have chosen a writer who dreams of a secular, bureaucratized, all-too-human sorcery, in which psychology and technology have superseded the sacred.

Oh my, where to begin? Well, you can start here, here and here.

Yes, I have to confess that the Christian writer John Granger — he of HogwartsProfessor.com — has won me over. Not so much to each and every one of his interpretations of Rowling’s work, but to his basic thesis that her books are drenched in very traditional forms of Christian symbolism. It’s hard to Google “Potter, Rowling, God, Christian” without hitting some of that material by Granger and others.

I could go on and on about this all day, but the Time article really struck me as strange. How could the editors there have missed all of the religious debates about these books?

116 white stag at lamppostLet me give you one example, flashing back to Granger commentary in the era of book three.

Granger has focused on her language and symbolism, in large part because of his similar studies in “Great Books” and ancient languages. …

“I started reading the Potter books as an Orthodox Christian father who had to explain to his oldest daughter why we don’t read such trash,” he said. “But once I started turning the pages the University of Chicago side of me kicked in.”

Take that climactic scene in “The Prisoner of Azkaban,” he said. The Latin “expecto,” as used in the Apostles’ Creed, is best translated “to look out for” or “to long for expectantly.” And “patronus” means guardian, but can also mean “deliverer” or “savior.” So Potter cries “I look for a savior” and a stag appears, one that looks mysteriously like a unicorn.

In the Middle Ages, noted Granger, stags were Christ symbols, in part because of the regeneration of their antlers as “living trees.” A cross was often pictured in the prongs. Lewis uses a white stag in this manner in “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Unicorns were also popular Christ symbols, portraying purity and strength.

Rowling repeatedly links Potter with creatures — a phoenix, griffins, centaurs, hippogriffs, red lions — used by centuries of Christian artists. Her use of alchemy symbolism taps into medieval images of spiritual purification, illumination and perfection.

And Harry’s snowy white owl? It is interesting to know that Saint Hedwig is the patron saint of orphaned children. And the final product of that spiritual, alchemical discipline? The goal was to create a symbol of salvation and eternal life, something called “The Philosopher’s Stone.”

Hey, Time editors: “Draco Dormiens Nunquam Titillandus.”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike

    I can’t believe the comparison of Rowling to Hitchens. Really? I mean, really? How could anyone who has by either Hitchens or Rowling actually write that with a straight face? Though, I suppose, if by “more in common” Grossman means “still alive” or “published in 2007,” then Grossman is 100% correct.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    You mean, Hitchens has not identified himself as a Christian and a member of the Church of Scotland?

  • http://www.msu.edu/~chasech5 Christopher W. Chase

    Mr. Grossman’s characterization of Tolkien also deserves serious question. Tolkien’s throughgoing romanticism and reaction against overindustrialization and the World War of his time is the dominant character of the novels–there is no suggestion of Gandalf as a “GodMan” or other divine mediator playing some role in the story–certainly not like the thin allegory of Aslan in C.S. Lewis’s works. While Tolkien was certainly a follower of Roman Catholicism, I would challenge Mr. Grossman to substantiate his claim that it plays such a role in the trilogy. If anything, Tolkien’s qualities share a common ancestry with the same British Romanticism which gave rise to Gardnerian witchcraft, as discussed by religious historian Ronald Hutton in Triumph Of The Moon. This in turn would help explain the resonance of Tolkien’s story among contemporary Pagans. Certainly other recent popular fantasy series, such as Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, owes more to the rustic Romanticism of Tolkien and Hermetic undercurrent of alchemy in the Philosopher’s Stone than the White Witch, Aslan, and C.S. Lewis’s portrayal of Lilith in the “Magician’s Nephew.”

  • http://www.HogwartsProfessor.com John Granger

    The best response to Grossman’s nonsense was posted at Travis Prinzi’s Sword of Gryffindor: http://swordofgryffindor.com/2007/07/14/lev-grossman-strikes-again/

    My reflections on Rowling as Secular Artist are at Hogwarts Professor: http://hogwartsprofessor.com/?p=103

    Though the major Harry Potter web sites won’t discuss it, there is supposedly a copy of “Deathly Hallows” afloat on the Internet. The Live Journal sites are humming with links to it and the death lists. It could be a hoax — one reader has suggested it is a Scholastic sponsored conspiracy! — but it has pushed Mr. Grossman WAY out of the spotlight.

  • Steve

    I can’t find “expecto” in the Latin version of the Apostles’ Creed. “Credo in Deum Patrem omnipotentem, Creatorem caeli et terrae. Et in Iesum Christum, Filium Eius unicum, Dominum nostrum, qui conceptus est de Spiritu Sancto, natus ex Maria Virgine, passus sub Pontio Pilato, crucifixus, mortuus, et sepultus, descendit ad ínferos, tertia die resurrexit a mortuis, ascendit ad caelos, sedet ad dexteram Dei Patris omnipotentis, inde venturus est iudicare vivos et mortuos. Credo in Spiritum Sanctum, sanctam Ecclesiam catholicam, sanctorum communionem, remissionem peccatorum, carnis resurrectionem, vitam aeternam. Amen.”

  • Steve

    Actually, I can’t find “expecto” in my Cassell’s Latin Dictionary, but I expect (ha ha) Granger/Rowling intended to write “exspecto” which does indeed mean I await, long for, hope in, etc.

  • http://7leper.blogspot.com Bruce

    But it’s in the Nicene Creed!

    Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum, et vitam venturi saeculi.

  • Caelius Spinator

    Granger means the Nicene Creed, where the present Missale Romanum indeed spells the word in question as “expecto.”

  • http://religion.beloblog.com/ Jeffrey Weiss

    Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Any story as richly layered as the HP mythos can be read as “Christian.” Or as Hindu or Sikh, I betcha, if we were as familiar with the material. And that’s the point: Rowling is the product of a Christian-centric culture, and so are we. What source material would you expect that she use? No matter where faith has gone, Christianity is still the most common idom for Western culture. And how many Latin-ish words could she pick that have any meaning and not be found in one or another of traditional Catholic texts?

    But I’m with Grossman: Harry’s World is astonishingly — intentionally? — a-religious. Even Dumbledore’s funeral — a place to slyly insert a bit of faithstuff, had she wanted — had none.

    Note, btw, I claim it is a-religious, not anti-religious. Which cleverly leaves room for religious readers to fill in and read out what they’d like.

    Ahem, I’ll quote myself from what I wrote for the Dallas Morning News after Book VI:

    Harry’s story has never included anything like traditional religion, and Half-Blood Prince extends that line. After 3,365 hardcover pages, we know an awful lot about the orphaned wizard, and as far as we know, neither he nor anyone else in the books has ever set foot inside a church, spent a moment in prayer or acknowledged (or even contemplated) the existence of God.

    In the new book, as in the earlier volumes, Christmas is a holiday of feasts, presents and decorations – with no whisper of Christ.

    There’s an elaborate and magical funeral. While the details surely mean that the special effects in the movie-to-come will be spectacular, there’s no mention of faith, an afterlife or any other religious trappings.

    There’s no explanation (and surely no obvious Christian context) for where magic comes from, what a human soul is, what it means that a ghost is an “imprint,” what’s really behind those talking paintings of the dead, etc. etc. etc.

    Maybe this will all change in Book VII? I’ll be writing about that for the DMN as soon as I finish it…

  • http://www.HogwartsProfessor.com John Granger

    And we can be sure that Mr. Weiss’ insights will be that Ms. Rowling is not what she says she is and that the almost exclusively Christian tradition in which she writes has no part in shaping the purity of soul, sacrificial love, and life after death streams in her work….

    Why not write it out now to get the jump on other secularists wanting to claim Ms. Rowling as their own? Oh, but I guess Mr. Grossman has that point-man position taken. Well, at least we can take a stab at Christian readers who are, once more, risibly projecting their beliefs onto a value neutral text. Unlike confessed atheists like Mr. Grossman who sees things as they really are and whose beliefs “don’t really matter” in shaping his opinion of Rowling….

    Expecto vomitorium!

  • http://lowly.blogspot.com UndergroundPewster

    I agree that people are reading things into the Potter business that were not put there intentionally. At least no one is taking a “Historical” approach to the interpretation of this fiction. Putting God into Harry Potter is going to take a few more imaginatively stretched metaphors than the ones I have seen thus far.

  • http://religion.beloblog.com/ Jeffrey Weiss

    Um…it it necessary that a Christian writer write Christian stories? Of course her tale is shaped by her beliefs and interests. But all a reader really has is what is there on the page. If the reader finds a particular meaning between the lines, it’s really there for that reader. But that doesn’t mean another reader will — or should — find the same meaning. As for “value neutral text,” is such an animal even possible? Seriously, I don’t think it is.

    Rowling *could* have chosen to write an anti-religious book, had she wanted to. On an explicit allegory, a Pilgrim’s Progress for our times. Instead, she chose to write HR in a way that is open to a wide spectrum of interpretations. Grossman’s and yours and mine, for instance.

  • Diane Fitzsimmons

    While fans and scholars alike acknowledge that Tolkien’s faith infused LOTR, there is no “Christianity” in his books, either.

    I am a conservative Christian and enjoy the Harry Potter books. They uphold values that I uphold, such as the image of what I think of as an ideal family, the Weasleys. I like its assessment of ethics, such as Dumblebore’s noting that characters must decide between doing what is good and what is easy.

    No doubt the reason I enjoy the work of J.K. Rowling — not to mention Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, P.D. James, and other favorite authors — is because their words speak to my Christian values, even if the G-word is never mentioned. (In fact, Jane Austen routinely poked fun at clergymen and rarely if ever gave her heroines an extended conversation with God, but do we see God as absent in her works? I think, rather, we see God as assumed, just like air.)

    But, all that said, I read HP and Austen, et.al., for entertainment, not spiritual enlightenment.

    For that I go to the best and my favorite book, the Bible.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JEFF:

    The ultimate meaning of the series is, of course, a matter of interpretation — unless JKR closes that door somehow.

    However, she has said the ending will reflect her faith. That’s a quote from the author.

    You also need to accept the fact that the books are packed with medieval Christian symbols and contain references to spiritual alchemy (British title of book one).

    So, I do not know what you mean by saying she has or has not written a “Christian” story.

    Let’s just discuss the facts in front of us. That’s a good starting point for journalists. What the facts mean we can discuss later.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    The Dallas Morning News religion blog has started a thread on this issue, based, in part, on a mistaken impression that I am saying that Rowling set out to write “Christian” fiction.

    There is a difference between a book written by a Christian and a “Christian” book, in this age of Christian marketing, Christian heavy metal, Christian coffee, etc., world without end.

  • http://god-of-small-things.blogspot.com Bob Smietana

    Jeff,

    There’s a least one whisper of Christ and traditional religion in Harry Potter. He was baptized, or christened, as an infant–which allowed Sirius Black to be his godfather. Which means that at least once he and his parents were inside a church, prayed, and spent at least a moment in prayer. And the idea that sacrificial love is stronger than death is the central principle that Christianity is built around–it’s not the idea that Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism or the Sihk faith is built around, unless I’m very much mistaken.

  • http://god-of-small-things.blogspot.com Bob Smietana

    Hitchens would probably get along famously with another British children’s author–Philip Pullman. In Pullman’s Dark Materials books, (which are huge in the UK, there’s a church and devils and angels and hell–even God puts in an appearance–and really does die in the last book of the series. (A film version of the first story, the Golden Compass, will be out later this year.) But there’s no Christianity in that book. In Rowling’s creation, there’s a only whisper of church but a lot of Christian undergirding.

  • http://carelesshand.net Jinzang

    And the idea that sacrificial love is stronger than death is the central principle that Christianity is built around—it’s not the idea that Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism or the Sihk faith is built around, unless I’m very much mistaken.

    You do have the idea of the bodhisattva in Buddhism, who is willing to sacrifice his body and life for the sake of others.

  • Larry “Grumpy” Rasczak

    Jeff is so right when he says “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Any story as richly layered as the HP mythos can be read as “Christian.” ”

    I point to this (of all things) L.A. Times article about Ray Bradbury and Fahrenheit 451, and how it is NOT, NOT, NOT what all the literature professors and grad students keep saying it is… and how they refuse to believe him when he tells them that. :-)

    http://www.laweekly.com/news/news/ray-bradbury-fahrenheit-451-misinterpreted/16524/

    ANY story using a Middle Ages Mythos will have a healthy layer of Christian symbols in it… simply because the fabric of Europe in the Middle Ages was so drenched in Christianity that there are are no non-christian symbols from that time! Example: shamrocks supposedly became the symbol of Ireland because St. Patrick used them as a teaching tool to explain the Trinity. That being said it does not logically follow that when I am at Home Depot selecting what sort of plant to use as ground cover for the bald spots on my lawn that the choice of clover means I am making a statement about my personal theology.

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  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    So why did the filmmakers eliminate the Patronus stag, if not because it is Too Christian?

  • Dan Berger

    Actually, the stag patronus shows up at the beginning of OOTP (the movie) rather clearly. It’s still not explained.

    There was a tremendous hit on the backstory in POA (the movie) when Cuaron and his scriptwriter cut any reference to either Prongs or the shape of Harry’s patronus. It still hasn’t been made up.

  • Ahem

    I must strongly disagree that Tolkien’s work is not deliberately Christian. He, himself said it was.

    The confusion comes from various definitions of what “Christian” means in this context.

    For some, in order to be a true Christian novel it must be overtly so like a sledgehammer of Christian dogma that noone can deny much less escape.

    But Tolkien’s view of the faith was far more nuanced than that.

    Its true that he shunned allegory and I think he was right to do so. But his ideas about the great human myths and why they were great in the first place was intimately connected to what he saw as the True Myth of Christianity.

    I think that rather than say that LOTR was left completely open to interpretation, that it was instead carefully constructed on two closely related levels. The first level is one that can be entered and enjoyed by anyone. Yet if its deeper themes and clues are followed by those willing to do so, they lead in only one direction. They lead to the upper level which is profoundly Christian in a metaphysical rather than a dogmatic sense.

    I think that there are those readers out there who insist on reading all books as if they were all wide open to personal interpretation and in a sense that is true. A person can make any work, even the Bible, mean what they want it to mean. But when a reader chooses to ignore the intentions and the interpretation of a work as clearly expressed by its own author, then the result is a dialogue with themselves. They fail to engage with the authors intentions or to receive any part of the author’s contribution to the conversation. That reader learns little to nothing and what he learns is all about himself.

    So yes, a Sikh or a Muslim could arrive at an interpretation that suited them in any expressly Christian work especially the great and subtle ones like LOTR and HP* but this is in willful rejection of the authors clear intentions. Although, I doubt very seriously if they would find find very much to support such views. It would be a real stretch to make something like “lembas” for instance, stand for anything except the Catholic Eucharist or Eowyn stand for any one other than the Holy Mother of tradition with spiritual sword in hand combating evil in an ultimate showdown.

    * I think HP is also very likely deliberately constructed in this two-tier form. Everyone can enjoy the lower level, but the upper level can only be appreciated by those who choose to follow the trail laid down by the author designed to reach their intended conclusion.

  • Ahem

    I think another issue is that non-Christians seem to think that any talk of a book being Christian is an attempt to claim the book for Christians only to the exclusion of all others.

    This is just not true. It doesnt have to be seen that way. I think that the two level theory shows how this can be true. One doesnt have to accept the higher or deeper meaning of a work to enjoy it in their own way. I happen to think this is the truly Christian approach to welcome all into the house without forcing everyone to accept the beliefs of the head of the house. Those beliefs are quietly and unobtrusively offered and if refused there is no lack of good things for that person to enjoy at their own comfort level.

    But it is a denial of reality to say that there isn’t a deeper Christian meaning that is very much intentional but at the same time optional. The reader is given the very hospitable choice to enter into that level or leave it alone. But it can’t and shouldn’t be denied that this level not only exists but it is also very specifically Christian. Such an understanding not only takes into account the author’s faith and intentions, it also takes nothing away from any reader regardless of their beliefs.

  • Ahem

    And the idea that sacrificial love is stronger than death is the central principle that Christianity is built around—it’s not the idea that Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism or the Sihk faith is built around, unless I’m very much mistaken.

    I dont think that is the point of Christianity at all, I’m afraid.

    Self-sacrifice is a well known concept in all religions. What makes Christianity different is its claim that the Most High God, not angels or sub-dieties or human believers, is the one who sacrificed of himself, renounced His divine priviledges, became man and then suffered a horrific death for the sake of all men.

    If anything the Christian story has nothing to say about the strength of sacrificial love. It has everything to do with the power of God’s Love in enduring the Cross for us and everything to do with the power of God Himself to overcome death.

    To make this point clear just think about it. No matter how much a human being practices sacrifical love, that love has no power over death. If that person should die, they stay dead. If someone they love dies, their love has no power to ressurrect them.

    I think its a mistake to paint the differences between Christianity and other faiths in broad bold colors with solid black lines and lots of white in between. The differences are actually more subtle without losing a bit of their power or shock value.

  • Discernment

    I know Lewis wasn’t…. Was Tolkien as shy as Rowling about being a Christian?

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  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Along with the references to Moony, Padfoot and Wormtail, so the Map and “the manufacturers” was left without explanation.

    Tolkien aroused suspicion at Oxford by his Catholicism… I recall his complaint about Lewis recoiling when he acknowledge “a special devotion to St. John”.

  • bluemoon

    I was about to say something about the comment about “other” religions until Ahem did it for me. Living in America, where the predominate religion is Christianity (some form) and while not being Christian myself, discussions about HP as a “Christian” book and the ensuing debates interest me. From reading numerous books, I probably have a better understanding about concepts of Christianity and the themes of Christianity in works of literature than I do my own religion (Hinduism). For instance, I learned yesterday that the snake Nagini, was possibly named after a Hindu diety. I also learned of the Hindu phoenix from swordofgryffindor.com. Point being, here, we’re used to Christian symbolism being weaved in and out of literature, however, I think most of us (even those who are NOT Christian) are woefully ignorant of other religions and the symbolism or themes that come from them. Again, I agree with Ahem that religions that are NOT Christian should not be painted with the same brush, and that there are many similarities between different religions. Say JKR were not Christian- would the themes of the power of love, friendship, loyalty, and truth – ring any less powerful?

  • David Buckna

    J.K. Rowling will be interviewed on NBC, and will talk about the conclusion of the Potter series. Coverage on “Today” Thursday, July 26 and Friday July 27, on “Dateline NBC” on July 29, and on MSNBC.com.

    Also:

    Harry Potter quiz
    http://www.dickstaub.com/links_view.php?record_id=4604

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