Potter disciples await high holy day

dumbledore harris filmForget Scooter. Forget Hillary. Forget Barry Bonds.

For millions of Harry Potter people around the world — young and old — here is an MSNBC update on the story that need not be named, the story that lives (maybe):

TODAYshow.com: With the final book coming out, do you ever get a sense of impending doom? Do you think you will survive “The Deathly Hallows”?

Daniel Radcliffe: I think I might die in it, but that’s just my prediction. I think so, but I’ve no idea at all; I have no inside hints.

On the surface, the upcoming Potter apocalypse does not seem to have much of a religion angle.

I disagree, strongly, and I am not just talking about the small armies of conservative religious folks who hated the witchcraft and wizardry angle from “hello.”

A few years ago, I attended a global forum on Harry Potter studies in Orlando (honest) and was surprised to find out that the room was divided primarily between two groups of people: Gay Wiccans and evangelical homeschooling moms. I kid you not. There are lots of Christian people out there who are getting deep, deep, deep into the Potter canon, and some of them are convinced (count me in) that the books are soaked in Christian symbolism and themes, most of a medieval variety.

If you don’t believe me, check out the work of my friend John Granger of HogwartsProfessor.com and various books on the topic. Here is the opening of one of my columns on this topic:

Harry Potter froze in terror as the hellish Dementors rushed to suck out his godfather’s soul.

But he was not powerless, because he had learned the Patronus Charm for use against the evil ones. So the boy wizard focused on a joyful memory and shouted, “Expecto Patronum!”

Salvation arrived in the form of a dazzling silver animal that defeated the ghouls and then cantered across the surface of a lake to Harry. It was as “bright as a unicorn,” but on second glance was not a unicorn. It was a majestic stag that bowed its antlered head in salute and then vanished.

If C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien had written this scene in “The Prisoner of Azkaban,” literary critics and Christian apologists would know how to break the code, according to John Granger, author of “The Hidden Key to Harry Potter.” They would parse the Latin charm and study author J.K. Rowling’s delicate use of medieval symbolism.

“The key is that stag, which is often a Christ symbol. But she is not content to make it a stag. It’s a stag that looks like a unicorn,” said Granger, who teaches Latin and Greek. … She’s saying to the reader, ‘A stag may be a reach for you. So I’ll have it be a stag that looks like a unicorn, since that has been a universally recognized Christ symbol for ages.’ It’s almost, ‘Let me make this clear for you.’”

6a00d09e468d2dbe2b00cdf3a8e888cb8f 500piThere is also, as the final book looms on the horizon, that old quote from a Rowling interview with the Vancouver Sun that very, very few journalists seem to have noticed. Here it is, in context:

Harry, of course, is able to battle supernatural evil with supernatural forces of his own, and Rowling is quite clear that she doesn’t personally believe in that kind of magic — “not at all.” Is she a Christian?

“Yes, I am,” she says. “Which seems to offend the religious right far worse than if I said I thought there was no God. Every time I’ve been asked if I believe in God, I’ve said yes, because I do, but no one ever really has gone any more deeply into it than that, and I have to say that does suit me, because if I talk too freely about that I think the intelligent reader, whether 10 or 60, will be able to guess what’s coming in the books.”

The ultimate question does seem to be whether Potter will live or die and, if in dying, Rowling is taking her sub-creation (hello J.R.R. Tolkien) closer to the kind of truly tragic ending that is going to push millions of readers — secular and religious — to wrestle with big, even eternal, issues. Is she, in effect, a kind of postmodern, progressive Inkling?

So here is the deal. We have already seen some rather straightforward “Gospel of Harry Potter” stories out there in the mainstream. And The New York Times has already run a rather effective piece on how important all of this is to the Potter generation.

But no one seems to be connecting the big book sales with the big issues very well.

So please help me find the best Potter stories that “get religion,” when it comes to digging into the ultimate questions in these books. Keep your eyes open. And have fun. Here is what Granger has to say about all of that in the Times:

John Granger, a professor of Latin and English at the Valley Forge Military Academy & College in Wayne, Pa., has written two books about the series and edited a third called “Who Killed Albus Dumbledore” that is filled with predictions.

He also runs a discussion group at HogwartsProfessor.com. “I’ve seen really intelligent, really literate women and men discuss these points and provide more than cogent arguments that Snape is X, Y or Z, and they all make sense in terms of all the clues she’s given in the book,” Mr. Granger said. “This has probably been the most fun that intelligent people can have with their clothes on in the 21st century.”

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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.HogwartsProfessor.com John Granger

    In 2005 I predicted that *Deathly Hallows* would be released today, the seventh book on 7/7/07. Let’s hope I’m doing better with the plot points than I have with the timing.

    FYI, Professor Mattingly, there’s another quotation from Ms. Rowling in 2000 where she told us we should wait until book 7 to judge her faith:

    E: When you talk about dealing with death and loss in the books, does this come out of your own – you’ve had loss with the loss of your mother – did it come out of a personal spirituality? I mean, are you are religious person? Does your spirituality come from a certain place?

    JK: I do believe in God. That seems to offend the South Carolinians more than almost anything else. I think they would find it…well that is my limited experience, that they have more of a problem with me believing in God than they would have if I was an unrepentant atheist.

    E: You do believe in God.

    JK: Yeah. Yeah.

    E: In magic and…

    JK: Magic in the sense in which it happens in my books, no, I don’t believe. I don’t believe in that. No. No. This is so frustrating. Again, there is so much I would like to say, and come back when I’ve written book seven. But then maybe you won’t need to even say it ’cause you’ll have found it out anyway. You’ll have read it.

    Couple this with Ms. Rowling’s comment to Ms. Johnstone also in 2000 about the events in Deathly Hallows:

    One of her fundamentals is that you can’t reverse death: “That’s a given. Without it the plot would fall apart, though in Book Seven you’ll see just how close you can get to the dead. You can be brought back from being petrified and from injuries that in the real world are mortal, depending on the degree of skill that a particular wizard possesses. You can’t go to any wizard and say ‘Will you cure my terminally ill relative?’ It’s a mirror image of the real world in that sense.”

    This last quotation, of course, about getting “close to the dead” can mean just how near to being dead an individual human being can come and still be resuscitated. Her following statements seem to suggest that a lead character will come very close to dying and be revived semi-miraculously in Deathly Hallows. A common place in predictions about the finale, consequently, is that Harry will seem to die but actually be feigning his death (which would satisfy story formula).

    If Ms. Rowling slipped here, though, and meant quite literally that we’ll see “how close we can get to the dead” in the sense of proximity to those who have died and passed beyond the Veil, I’ll gladly see my pet key-illustration theories go down in forgettable flames (will any of us remember any of the Interlibrum speculation in August?). Because if Harry does a Harrowing of Hell number and returns from his trip to the land beyond the Veil, my Looking for God in Harry Potter thesis that Ms. Rowling is writing edifying fiction in the literary stream of the Inklings, albeit as a postmodern, will have been given all the confirmation possible. The Veil will be the veil rent at the Crucifixion in the Temple and the archway the horn and ivory gates through which Anchises guides Aeneas and the Sibyl.

    Ms. Rowling has said that Deathly Hallows will end her frustration in not being able to answer questions about her faith because the story we’ll read there will demonstrate her Christian beliefs. A trip through the Veil by Harrowing Harry, heir of the Potter, Christian “Everyman,” would do just that.

    To have a better grip on this, please pick up Unlocking Harry Potter: Five Keys for the Serious Reader. Sunday night at 8:00 I’ll be on A&E to explain the literary alchemy behind the darkness of *Order of the Phoenix* and tomorrow MSNBC will run interview clips about the run-up to the movie and book releases this month.

    Do you think, Professor Mattingly, that we’ll see Ms. Rowling come out of the Christian closet in the story and in interviews this month?

    See you at http://www.HogwartsProfessor.com!

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

    There’s a quote here in the Telegraph that’s revealing as well. Rowling is talking about the impact of her mother’s death on Harry Potter. (Her mom died at a young age from MS).

    “My books are largely about death. They open with the death of Harry’s parents. There is Voldemort’s obsession with conquering death and his quest for immortality at any price, the goal of anyone with magic. I so understand why Voldemort wants to conquer death. We’re all frightened of it.”

  • http://gentlefuss.blogspot.com/ Nick Milne

    I regret that one of the Canadian nationals, the Globe and Mail, while committing more than a full page to the upcoming book, only considered “religious issues” insofar as they could use ‘em to make fun of the various Christian groups who are opposed to the series. Not a word on potential Christian imagery in the book, nor on the large (and growing) number of Christians, of all sorts of denominations, who see something of value in this series rather than just dismissing it outright.

    The Globe and Mail is often frustrating in this way.

  • Jerry

    I was hoping this topic would appear here. I think the readers of the series are way ahead of the media in many cases. I’m sure that many will find some of the following very familiar images: choices, love, doing what is right over what is easy, friendship, tolerance, sacrifice and redemption? Hmmm.

    These came from a poll on the underlying theme of the series done a couple of years ago at http://www.the-leaky-cauldron.org/ The top three, with quotes from the books, were:

    …choices (“It is our choices Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities”)

    love conquers evil (“It was your heart that saved you”)

    …do what is right over what is easy (“..if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy…”)

    The others:

    friendship (“Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open”),

    the importance of tolerance in the face of bigotry and prejudice (“it matters not what someone is born, but what they grow up to be!”),

    dealing with death (“death is but the next great adventure”),

    sacrifice (“love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark … to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever”)

    redemption (“The consequences of our actions are always so complicated, so diverse, that predicting the future is a very difficult business indeed… You did a very noble thing…”)

    and a joke (“Never tickle the giant squid”).

  • Joseph Fox

    Folks, some books are just read for the fun of it. Give it up!!

  • http://www.accidentalanglican.net/ Deborah

    I attended a global forum on Harry Potter studies in Orlando (honest) and was surprised to find out that the room was divided primarily between two groups of people: Gay Wiccans and evangelical homeschooling moms.

    Yet another confirmation (along with Africans evangelizing the West and a host of other postmodern ironies) that God has a delicious sense of humor.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    I have to come clean and admit that not all of the evangelical moms were homeschoolers. Many were ordinary evangelical moms.

  • Jeff Sharlet

    Is it any suprise that ordinary evangelicals, not stirred up by 24-7 cultural politics, like Harry Potter? Is it really that different than their love of Tolkien?

    “YES!!!” scream the Tolkien geeks and the evangelical Tolkien fans. “Tolkien’s imagination was much greater” (Granted.) “Tolkien was clearly a Christian.” Well, yes and no. He was, but The Lord of the Rings is as powerful as it is because it functions LIKE mythology — which is to say, its meanings are very flexible. One can read Christianity in it, but that’s by no means definitive.

    So I’ll defend the lazy know-nothing reporters who fail to explore religion in Potter — such books, those that create and explore worlds, don’t lend themselves easily to the religious terms of this world. Terry’s bolded Rowling comments might suggest otherwise, but I’m holding out hope that Rowling’s imagination is too unique to collapse the story into simple allegory.

  • Larry “Grumpy” Rasczak

    “This has probably been the most fun that intelligent people can have with their clothes on in the 21st century.”

    Somebody REALLY needs to get out more….

    “that the books are soaked in Christian symbolism and themes, most of a medieval variety.”
    Are there any Mideval themes or images that are NOT Christian when properly used? I mean so much effort goes into stripping Santa of his “SAINT Nicholas” personality, so much of mideval thought, and virtually all mideval art and literature are of a Christian nature. (This is what people mean when they say the West is is Christian cluture… those things that are most purely Western are also very, very, Christian.)

    I think it might be better to compare Potter with Narnia, rather that with Tolkien. The Christian take on magic is that there is no such thing… there are beings that have miraculious powers… but neither they nor their powers are ours to command. Lewis was very clear about this in Narnia, the children (except for Edmund) were given magic instruments to be used in the ways Aslan directed. There was never any question of where everyone ranked on the totem pole… after all Aslan is big, and powerful, and loving, but “He’s not a tame Lion.” (Notice that it was Lucy, Aslan’s favorite, who said that line… she had romped with Him after the Stone Table, but she also knew what had happened to the White Witch.)

    Potter’s take, along with all magic and witchcraft, and wizardry, is that Aslan is not just tame, but can be forced to do one’s will with nothing more than a High School Latin book and bad smelling herb soup. This is a gross violation of the natural order of things… akin to an unusually preciocus Jack Russel Terrier attempting to sieze command of the American Strategic Nuclear Deterrant Force. It’s just not going to happen… I don’t care how good Sparky is at roll over and fetch, he is not going to be allowed access to the War Room, much less the launch codes.

    So given the three above points, I am somewhat skepitical about if the Christian content in Potter is there because Ms. Rowling is deliberately putting it in (ala C.S. Lewis) or if it is something invented by Christians who desperatley WANT it to be there. (Ala Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451 Misinterpreted- L.A.’s august Pulitzer honoree says it was never about censorship )

  • http://oxfordinklings.blogspot.com Roger R

    From this discussion, and from one who has not read any of the Potter corpus, it sounds to me that JK Rowling could be compared with Charles Williams rather than other of the Inklings. See “Descent into Hell” and All Hallows Eve” in particular.

  • Dan Berger

    Folks, some books are just read for the fun of it. Give it up!!

    Mr. Fox, almost all books should be read for the fun of it. But it’s no fun to read a book with no depth, and a book with depth is fun to analyze.