Rowling dispels Christian critics

PotterHallowsCoverAbout a month ago I had lunch with tmatt, who gave me solid arguments for why the Harry Potter series were loaded with Christian themes and messages. I didn’t need much convincing since the arguments that the books were bringing children into the occult sounded a lot like the ones people used against C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, and those are some of the best books ever written.

Disclaimer: I’ve never cracked one of the Potter books or watched more than a few minutes of the movies, so take this review of the recent splurge of news on the Christian message contained in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows with a grain of salt. I have been fascinated by the news coverage of the Potter phenomena ever since a colleague at a newspaper I was working at in the summer of 2003 stayed up all night to finish an early copy for a properly timed review.

Spoiler alert: there could be spoilers in this review so if you haven’t read the book and plan on doing so without any clues on the ending, stop reading this post now.

Jeffrey Weiss has the most compelling personal story to tell on The Dallas Morning News religion blog about how the final book reversed his opinion on the series:

Primus: In which I admit that I’ve been completely wrong for several years about my religion-related analysis of the Harry Potter saga. I do offer an excuse or two.

… Here’s my mea culpa: After finishing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I realized the entire seven-volume story is at least as essentially Christian as C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories. That was a bit of a shock for me, because I’ve spent a couple of years writing about how the books are devoid of anything resembling explicit religion. And I had suggested that the moral themes that some Christian authors found in the books are also found in many other religions.

Weiss is hardly in the category of Potter-haters like Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, but guess who Newsweek‘s Lisa Miller decided to bring up in writing that the Potter series might in fact be “Christ-like” (gasp!):

These enemies of young Potter arm themselves with this quotation from Deuteronomy: “There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or daughter pass through fire, or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead.” Conservative Christian leaders continue to make public statements against the book. James Dobson, of Focus on the Family, reiterated last week in a statement that he has “spoken out strongly against all of the Harry Potter products,” and Chuck Colson, of Prison Fellowship, said in somewhat gentler terms that while most kids will probably read the books, he personally does not recommend them.

But it’s not as simple as that. As tmatt explains in his most recent column, Colson’s view on the books is slightly more nuanced that simply outright condemning them:

Evangelical activist Chuck Colson, for example, praised the books in 1999, noting that they contrasted good and evil, while the main characters displayed courage, loyalty and self-sacrifice. “Not bad lessons in a self-centered world,” said the founder of Prison Fellowship.

But Colson’s latest statement warned: “Personally, I don’t recommend the Potter books. I’d rather Christian kids not read them.”

There is a more intricate story to be told about the Christian community’s approach to Harry Potter. Remember that this is America, where The Matrix was quoted in sermons.

Will this final Potter novel from J.K. Rowling and its rather surprising (to some) message of Christianity turn some doubters into readers? And will the media cover this shift? I hope so, and I also hope that they cover it with nuance and talk to more people than just James Dobson, though I would be curious to hear what he has to say about this latest novel. As tmatt and Weiss explain, there are more Christian themes in Potter than in just the last book.

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  • Erik

    Those (like myself) who have always argued that the books are essentially Christian have been vindicated by the final book in the series. I’ve never understood the argument that the books have been devoid of religion. The same argument has long been made by secular fans of Tolkien’s work–that there is no church, etc. Rowling’s work (though far from the level of Tolkien’s books) follows the same pattern. And it is impossible to read the final book, with Harry’s death, resurrection, final breaking of the Dark Lord’s power, and explicit hope in the life to come without seeing an explicit Christian message there. Rowling once said that she didn’t want to talk about her religious beliefs because it would give the ending away. For some of us, that was enough of a clue to see where things were going. But some still refuse to see it.

    The final Potter book is a huge religion story, and religion reporters should be banging down her door for an interview to explore the message of the final book in the series. Perhaps, then, those Christians opposed to the books might give the series a chance.

  • Darrel

    This MSM guy, a Star-Ledger reporter, nailed it — before Book 7 came out:

  • Jerry

    If you have not read the book yet, there are some spoilers in my comments: has some cogent points:

    First they see the grave of Kendra and Ariana Dumbledore, the mother and sister of the late Hogwarts headmaster. It bears this inscription: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (None of the characters seems to know that these words are from Matthew 6:21.)

    Not far away is the Potters’ tomb, with a different inscription: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” The quotation is from 1 Corinthians 15: 26, part of a long passage about the resurrection.

    In the NBC interview with J. K. Rowling she reveals her belief and struggle:

    J.K. Rowling: Well, there– there clearly is a religious– undertone. And– it’s always been difficult to talk about that because until we reached Book Seven, views of what happens after death and so on, it would give away a lot of what was coming. So … yes, my belief and my struggling with religious belief and so on I think is quite apparent in this book.
    Meredith Vieira: And what is the struggle?
    J.K. Rowling: Well my struggle really is to keep believing.
    Meredith Vieira: To keep believing?
    J.K. Rowling: Yes.

  • F.Scottie

    From a journalist’s standpoint, I can understand why it would be an interesting story. From a Christian standpoint, I don’t get why we should be obsessed in seeking to dig out vague semi-Christian themes in pop culture.

  • Karen H

    From a Christian standpoint, I don’t get why we should be obsessed in seeking to dig out vague semi-Christian themes in pop culture.

    Because, pop culture or not, it’s a story. A story arises from the experiences and beliefs of an author, and Rowling is an author who has a Christian viewpoint. As someone who is part of the body of Christ, the experiences of belief and faith from another part of that body will often be relevant in one way or another, and even inspiring to some. Even more, that the Harry Potter series has touched so many children and adults speaks to the fact that the Christian symbols and themes still have relevance to those who are unchurched or of other religions, and gives lie to the idea that religion–and Christianity in particular–has little or no relevance in this post-modern era.

    It’s something that gives hope, and I don’t think we can afford to overlook something like that, pop culture or not. I’m all right with digging out things that give hope.

  • Stephen M Schedra

    This is not a specific comment on Ms. Rowland’s work, but rather a more general statement in regards to “Christian” themes. I am more inclined to think along the lines of Malcolm Muggeridge in his writing in “The End of Christendom”. I put forward that an organization of Christianity, whether of philosophy or institution, that does not by essence include the Christ is non-Christian. That is not to say anti-Christian, but simply non-Christian, because it does not contain the Christ.
    Now that I’ve got that bombast off my chest let me say that I do enjoy the works of Lewis and Tolkien and have watched Potter with my kids. I am also one of those flighty Christians who see Jesus in a British soccer riot. In the end, however, when I feel the touch of the master’s hand, I am indebted to the author for the experience, intended or not.

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  • BlackPhi

    To be honest, that Harry Potter should “die to save the world” is not really that surprising to those who have followed the books through – although whether Rowling could plausibly bring in a resurrection was a moot point.

    More of a puzzle was Snape – the Judas character – who had been a very ambiguous figure from book 1. Yet there seems little reporting (apart from the Christian Science Monitor) about Snape’s moral journey. Given the focus in conservative Christianity on sin and redemption, that seems a little surprising.

  • Nathan

    One should check out the Christian radio show “Issues ETC” from Sunday July 29th, 2007 (available on the web).

    The guest is a conservative Lutheran pastor Richard Stuckwisch who likes the Harry Potter books – AND one year ago predicted more or less exactly how the books would end.

    Its really pretty amazing.

  • EstelleR

    I have been blown away by the whole Harry Potter phenomena. The books came out when I was a teenager and my mother said absolotely not. I have only recently read the books since watching the first movie on television. The christian connection was unexpected and really something special, I was certainly touched. But my concern is that although Rowling wrote a christian story and really effected a lot of people (namely me), there are kids out there who are still googling covens and looking for real witchcraft schools and practising so called spells because of the Harry Potter influence. I believe that the books have been Holy Spirit inspired but why Witchcraft and Wizardry as a theme? It has had a bad effect even though the books were well intentioned.

  • Michael

    I think that we must be careful not to promote something only because it has themes or occurences that seem Christian or biblical. The fact that “Neo” in the matrix was “the one” and died to set everyone free does not mean it was a christian allegory, nor does the death and resurrection of Harry potter automatically render it “Christian allegory”. There is another entity in scripture that will die and revive that will capture the heart world community with his power, policies, and seeming care for man, but in the end he turns out to be a fake, an antichrist. Many have seen the antichrist as being some outwardly diabolical person that will deman that every christian be killed and what not, but though this will occur it will be under the pretense that he will convince the world that he is Christ and therefore to not worship him would be blasphemy in the eyes of all those who have believed his lies. It is my contention that what we should be wondering is not so much is this movie a Christian allegory, but which christ did it present, the true or the false. I thik that our need for movies and stories to be some how secretly christian uncovers our personal need to justify our enjoyment of the movie or story that would otherwisw be very questionable. I believe that the world is being set up to receive the antichrist, and to believe in his claims. what better way to do that than to present and distorted view of who the Christ should be, what exactly His message is.

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