Who, what, when, where, why and Harry

First things first: I want to stress that I feel nothing but sincere pity for the world weary and stressed news editors who recently had to sit around conference tables and, perhaps in the presence of oracles who read focus-group tea leaves, discuss one of the big questions of this news cycle.

That question, of course, can be stated this way: “What was this whole Harry Potter thing about?”

There is no need to get into the billions and billions of amazing statistics about this astonishing phenomenon in pop culture and in human culture — period. I mean, we’re talking about miracles, such as teen-agers reading books. Let’s leave it at that.

Who, what, when, where, why and how?

So, we have finally made it to the news cycle for the last movie. Editors knew that they needed an epic Harry Potter story and they needed one now. It must have felt something like the days before Christmas and, in newsroom culture, that is not a good thing. There is this giant thing taking over your city and your land and you have no idea what to write about it. It’s too big to cover. But you need a story.

Over at Poynter.org, the story is that journalists are relieved that this story is finally over.

But what, precisely, is the story? How did J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” books end up becoming the saga, the myth, the received text of a generation? What was going on inside those book covers?

Tell me you cannot hear the conversations around that archetypal newsroom conference table as you read the top of today’s Washington Post feature that began on holy ground — A1.

Friday, it comes, the final detonation of the cultural blast that left millions of foreheads metaphorically imprinted with lightning-bolt-shaped scars. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2” is the final installment of the leviathan eight-film series based on J.K. Rowling’s monumental best-selling novels.

Since 2001, the Potter movies have been both a financial freight train and a jobs program for all of Britain’s aging character actors. The books have become almost holy.

“I’m holy. Holey, Fred, geddit?” (Don’t worry, your kids get it.)

It is a franchise that became a movement. A revelation. An era. Friday’s opening is the last chapter in a saga that has affected — at least via “Saturday Night Live” spoofs, mentions on university syllabuses, and in religious sermons — the world’s collective oversoul. Doled out incrementally over 14 years, it taught us patience.

“What has ‘Harry Potter’ meant?” asks Emerson Spartz, who founded the fan site MuggleNet.com as a home-schooled 12-year-old more than a decade ago. “What is the meaning of life?”

That’s a rather big question.

Perhaps the actual Post movie review for final movie captured the stakes best. This is how critic Ann Hornaday dared to open her piece:

It is finished.

That Biblical reference is fully intended when considering “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2,” the final installment of a movie series that surely owes part of its astronomical success to its rich symbolic underpinnings of sacrifice, resurrection and redemption.

This phenomenon was precisely the kind of beat-blurring story that I struggled to get editors to let me to cover when I was religion-beat reporter in Denver and Charlotte, N.C. Everyone knew that there were religious elements to this story right from the beginning, especially when the marketers producing the American edition of book one (“Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”) decided to change the title.

But where did religion fit in, other than a few mobs of folks wanting to shred the books?

Harry & Co. received quite a bit of ink in my book at few years ago (“Pop Goes Religion: Faith in Popular Culture“) and it will not surprise you to know that I returned to the subject this week in my column for the Scripps Howard News Service.

I decided, with the help of a Potter pro who has become a good friend, to try (in my usual 666 words or so) to sum up what the Godtalk side of Potter mania was all about. The expert I consulted once again was the ever quotable John Granger of HowartsProfessor.com, who gave me a few moments in a week in which he was being chased by NPR, The Wall Street Journal, etc., etc.

Here’s a goodly chunk of the column:

… (T)hat very first title — containing a medieval Christian alchemy image for eternal life — was a sign of debates to come. Publishers changed the title image to “Sorcerer’s Stone” in America, assuming Americans would shun “philosopher” talk. Before you could say “Deuteronomy 18 (There shall not be found among you anyone … who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells)” — the Potter wars began.

It mattered little that Rowling soon outed herself as a communicant in the Scottish Episcopal Church and told a Canadian newspaper: “Every time I’ve been asked if I believe in God, I’ve said, ‘yes,’ because I do. … If I talk too freely about that, I think the intelligent reader — whether 10 or 60 — will be able to guess what is coming in the books.”

Thus, the series unfolded, with each book containing waves of medieval Christian symbols, including many used by artists to point to Jesus — such as white stags, unicorns, hippogriffs, a phoenix and a red lion. Meanwhile, the plots were built on alchemical themes of dissolution, purification, illumination and perfection, themes shared with Milton, Blake, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and others. In each book, Harry Potter the “everyman” tries to sacrifice himself for others, before somehow being raised to new life in the presence of a Christ symbol.

Nevertheless, many critics failed to see how Rowling’s work stands in contrast to the spirits of materialism and individualism that dominate modern life, according to classics scholar John Granger, an Orthodox Christian best known as the scribe behind HogwartsProfessor.com and numerous related books. I met him at Nimbus 2003, an early global conference on Potter studies, and we have compared notes ever since.

“In a secular culture like ours, fiction of this kind serves an almost sacramental function for millions of people,” said Granger. “This offers a hint of the transcendent, a taste of spiritual transformation — but it’s not the real thing. … Reading ‘Harry Potter’ could, however, help some people become more open to transformative experiences and perhaps even to yearn for them.”

Here is where I want the input, indeed the help, of GetReligion readers.

You see, I quickly decided that there was more faith-based content in Potter mania than the one easy news hook, which some people are still using. You know, the “Conservative Christians hate anti-Christ Harry” headline.

That’s out there. I know that. But that doesn’t explain the thousands of conservative Christian home-school moms I met packed into the Orlando hallways of that Nimbus 2003 conference so long ago. We’re talking armies of witches and home-school moms and only the Christian home-school moms thought that the books contained large doses of their own brands of faith.

Thus, in this last column I attempted to create a short typology to describe the most common religious camps that I encountered during the Harry Potter era. The judgments pronounced by these camps went something like this:

* Rowling intentionally wrote occult books, creating a doorway into witchcraft for young readers.

* The books are merely tempting trifles celebrating adolescent behavior and mushy morals. They were not intentionally evil, but simply bad books.

* These fables are a mixed bag, mixing good messages with the bad. But if Rowling used Christian symbolism, it was as mere window dressing.

* Rowling intentionally wrote “Christian books” containing literal, almost mechanical allegories that can serve as evangelistic tools, in and of themselves.

* The books, according to Granger and many other academics, are part of a British tradition of storytelling built on Christian symbols and themes (including clear biblical references) and can be enjoyed on several levels, including as stories of transformation and redemption.

So here is my question. In this round of mainstream and online coverage, which of these Harry Potter religion camps made it into print? What other religion angles were pursued? Who was quoted? Or, to be blunt, did editors simply collapse from exhaustion and throw in the towel?

For example, did any of the coverage note that the Bible verses had been left off the tombstones in the pivotal Christmas Eve scene in the previous film? That’s a nice, crisp factual question. Did anyone bring that up? I mean, other than Sarah Pulliam Bailey in the WSJ.

IMAGES: The infamous Dallas Morning News image of Harry Potter as, literally, iconic savior. Also, the cover of the original British edition of book one.

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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.

  • Jerry

    First, I really liked Terry’s column and urge everyone to read it in full.

    In terms of what made it into print, a fast scan did not find much beyond the secular details. I’m not really sure this is a news story or that a news story can really capture how people analyze the books outside of a few superficial details. How can one cover what is properly a university level course on theology in 1000 words? Rather, I think well-written and thoughtful pieces such as Danielle Tumminio, author of “God and Harry Potter at Yale” wrote on HuffPo. She covers some points in the class she teaches. She writes:

    …forgiveness, salvation and grace. Reframing would allow for richer, deeper analysis, letting students visit not just one small country but the entire globe of theology so that they could decide for themselves whether the books supported a Christian worldview.

    She argues that God is there as the force of love:

    My sense is that presenting God as an abstract concept resonates for many non-Christians who live in an era of skepticism.

    But in terms of evil, there is a clear figure:

    Interestingly, if God is imaged as a force, the devil is not…Few miss the connection when they then read Jesus’ lines at the Last Supper… It seems as if Voldemort’s words are quite literally the opposite of Jesus’: Whereas Jesus gives his body and blood for the eternal life of many, Voldemort demands the bodily sacrifices of many for his own revival. In this way, he is quite literally the opposite of Jesus.

    In terms of Jesus, she wrote:

    Curiously, what the Harry Potter books do is to accomplish the work of Christ utilizing a whole community instead of a single person, which explains why no individual character closely resembles Jesus. This means that salvation is accomplished not by one person but by many people working together, with love (aka God) for a guide. Ethically, a theology like this has important implications because it empowers people — both in Harry’s world and our own — to live the life compassion for which Jesus lived and died.

    If I were in her class, I’d propose that instead of the community being the Christ, that in Christian theology we have the examples of the early martyrs who lived for God and died for God.

  • Dave G.

    The media reviews I’ve read have mentioned the religious groups that opposed HP, but by and large have focused on HP – the greatest cultural phenom of all time. I’ve read some where the moral/religious themes were mentioned. But that has been left out of many of the reviews and articles, since they seem to be focused mostly on the movies right now. Best as I can tell, the real magic of HP was Rowling’s ability, in our internet age of global, immediate information, to say just enough and yet no more in order to convince a wide range of groups that her books really were ‘just for them’. Me? I go by what my two oldest boys say, since they’re the fantasy fans who have read all the books.

  • http://filmchatblog.blogspot.com/ Peter T Chattaway

    Actually, the Bible verses were not left off the tombstones in the previous film; I looked for them and spotted at least one of them when the trailer came out, though it took a bit of frame-freezing. (You can see it here.)

    However, there is no reference to these verses in the dialogue, as there is in the book, so yeah, it’s not like the movie drew our attention to them.

  • bob smietana

    I thought I saw the Bible verse on the tombstone.

    I did see a review saying that the scene with Dumbledore at King’s Cross station, right after Harry dies, is in the film.

    That’s a big of a subtle hint

  • Dave G.

    Bob makes a good point. I’m no expert on English landmarks, but I think King’s Cross station is a real place. So, the question is, did Rowling put that there on purpose to make a point? Is that just part of that European tendency to have Christian imagery lying around ready to use for whatever reason? Did she do it just to appease the religious base? We’ll never know motives, of course, as we seldom ever do. But I see what the different groupings are and how each reader can still come out of it with what they want to see in the first place.

  • Tyson K

    Dave G.:
    A couple clarifications/points from someone who is a big fan of the series and follows information about it….

    King’s Cross station is indeed a real place, one of the busiest and most famous railway stations in London. It’s also a prominent place in the novels outside of that scene at the end; it’s where students catch the train that takes them to the Hogwarts (the magic school at the heart of the series) and thus is an established “boundary between worlds,” and in the scene we’re talking about, Harry’s sort of between life and death.

    To bob’s point, the scene at King’s Cross station pretty much has to be in the film (which tragically I haven’t seen yet) for the subsequent action to make sense.

    As for why Rowling used King’s Cross… this actually is one of those rare exceptions to not knowing an author’s motives. After the last book came out, Rowling did an online chat with fans around the world (something she’d done before as well) and someone directly asked her why she used King’s Cross. Along with noting the usefulness as a place of transition, she said “the name works rather well.” I think that’s probably a pretty clear sign of motives! You can see the whole exchange and some context here.

    As John Granger as noted, Rowling’s actually been somewhat upfront about the explicitly Christian imagery and schema she uses in the later books in the series (especially the last), even if it’s not her main goal. At some point she said, before the last book came out, something along the lines of “surely people will quit calling these books ‘godless’ after they read the last one.

    So this exchange has very little to do with journalism, but I hope it’s helpful and provides some context.

  • Joe

    Funny how no one interviews ANY intelligent voice who has problems with the books. Michael O’Brien is a Canadian painter and prolific novelist and a devout Catholic who has criticized the books. Never mentioned. Granger appears to make his living writing in praise of the books and suggesting those who don’t like them have a “mechanical” faith. And he is the only source? Does not seem in the least balanced, and assumes naysayers are nuts.

  • Dave G.


    For me, as I said, the big thing I admire about Rowling is her ability to say just enough, and not too much. Everyone seems to agree there is some level of Christian symbolism and themes. But then, what does that mean? Pat Roberston uses Christian symbolism and themes. So does John Spong. It’s the gaps between those Christian themes that make me wonder. I admit, I’m not a big fantasy fan, so I would not be a fair critic of the quality of the books. My two older boys read the series and seemed to like them, though they are split on what the themes and morals of the series are, and to what extent they are that old time religion. As are fans all over the world. Not only what they convey but what is their purpose. Again, to me that goes to Rowling’s abilities to speak to everyone at once just enough that they all appear to come away assured that she was speaking to them.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    I think Granger would be the first to say that elite critics should be quoted. If anything the press has stayed with the “fundamentalist wackos hate Harry” meme and that has hurt the coverage.

  • Joe


    Thanks for the reply. I was thinking of Bailey’s WSJ piece. It certainly was solid, but part of my brain felt like it steamrollered over the idea that any objections *could* possibly be valid. Sort of a “4 out of 5 doctors…” thing. Only quoted Potter cheerleaders. And it takes little research to discover OBrien. …

  • MJBubba

    I am a “confessional” Lutheran, and I read the whole series and watched the movies because my sons did. I found Rowling’s use of Christian symbols to be maddening. She used most of them well, but some are really out of place, just thrown in for atmosphere. None of the books work as a Christian parable, but Christian themes can be drawn out of all of them. I have never seen anyone comment along these lines in the mass media (though discussions are easily found in cyberspace). I have seen the “Christians debate Harry Potter” angle covered, and every instance ends with the last word going to liberal Christians who love Harry Potter.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    What about the views of conservative Christians who praise the books?

    So you are saying that the MIDDLE is missing in the debate, that there are only haters and lovers in ink — that the camp three in my column is missing?

    And focus on the NEWS ISSUES in your reply.

    Again, also know that John Granger has, at least, done everything he can to point journalists toward sober, fair voices who oppose his views and oppose the books. He agrees — let me state again — that many issues about the book are worth debating.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Note to readers:

    This is not the place to debate the Potter books themselves.

    I, especially, would appreciate it if readers focused on journalism instead of bashing the images and beliefs of Christians in other ages.

  • Maureen

    Michael O’Brien makes money complaining about fantasy books not written by him or exactly to his specifications of what a Christian fantasy must be. So yeah, he’s a possible journalistic source, but only if you want a source who will tell you exactly what you already know he’ll say.