Harry Potter and the Hallowed Hysteria

Deathly Hallows

“Let me just say something about Harry Potter,” yelled the youth camp lady in an ironically unwitting imitation of Dolores Umbridge. “The Bible says, ‘Suffer not a witch to live!'” And the children cried, “Hallelujah!”

That’s from a snippet of a scene in Jesus Camp, one of the most gut-churning documentaries you’ll ever see, especially if you grew up “in the church,” as I have. I won’t say any more about it except that it’s must viewing. The Potter reference is indicative of the saturation in the culture that the magical icon has achieved.

In a Christianity Today opinion piece, Jacqui Komschlies likens the Potter stories to orange soda mixed with rat poison. Why would anyone want to do such a thing? Her argument is reminiscent of the old brownies mixed with manure riposte made against the viewing of R-rated movies, once again by concerned Christian parents. I call either of these “Death by Analogy.”

I’m actually a little hoarse. I have spent the last few days reading the final book in the Potter series to my family. I’ve read each of the books in this fashion. I confess I really get into it, doing the voices as best I can. Before the movies one had to guess at the sound of them, but the films give you something to go on, anyway. We finished last night after a marathon weekend and a few hours each evening for three evenings. That’s a lot of reading.

I’ve spoken with Christian college students who have said, “I don’t know about Harry Potter. I just can’t get past that witchcraft thing.” Many of the objectors have been pastor’s kids. That makes sense, I guess. Their concern reflects the stance taken by people like Berit Kjos who takes a strong literalistic approach to scripture and directs much of his ire against celebrated Christians who have come out in support of the Potter series. The fear, presented with exhaustive scriptural quotations regarding witchcraft and some feeble statistical documentation is that children and others are being inspired by these texts to examine Wicca more closely and to be seduced into occult practices.

Half Blood Prince

I don’t intend to ridicule these folks, really. Some of them are actually highly educated. Any one of them would be highly offended if you were to ask them if they knew what a metaphor was. They could doubtless provide a pristine dictionary definition, describe the highly technical differences between a metaphor and a simile and perhaps a dozen other figures of speech. And in doing so they would make the point very nicely that they neither know what a metaphor is nor the function it serves in our understanding of things in general.

C.S. Lewis understood metaphor extraordinarily well as a vital function of language itself, having discussed this sort of thing with the likes of Owen Barfield, Charles Williams and JRR Tolkien, to name a few. “For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.” (From “Bluspels and Flalanspheres: A Semantic Nightmare”)

Lewis’ circle (the famed Inklings) consisted of people who took something as apparently mundane as metaphor very seriously. They knew it was the lifeblood of discourse. And they wanted nothing more than to be part of infusing their discourse with truth-laden metaphors that would serve as little gift-wrapped parcels that, once you opened them, would contain beautifully and lovingly crafted traces of Divine Revelation. That, to me, is the highest aspiration of Art, all of which serves as metaphoric discourse of one kind or another.

This concept of hidden revelation, gift-wrapped in a compelling artistic design, is one of the ideas that compels author John Granger (no relation to Hermione) to argue that JK Rowling, Potter’s creator, is a closet Inkling who practices what Lewis and his friends preached. In two recent books, Looking for God in Harry Potter and Unlocking Harry Potter, Granger reveals not only Rowling’s personal Christianity (a long-standing member of the Church of Scotland) but some of the alleged secrets of her symbolism, figures throughout her books taken directly, Granger says, from Medieval Christian imagery. He also does an analysis of many of the key names that Rowling uses, all with Christian undertones. He also has a webpage entitled “Hogwarts Professor” for discussion of all these things.

I have not had the chance to read these books just yet, so I am reluctant to embrace all Granger’s assertions. I know in one instance he gets Ginny Weasley’s name wrong, assuming her first name is actually Virginia, when in fact it isn’t (her real first name is in the final book). The little I’ve seen induces me to think that Granger, like a lot of other well-meaning Christians who also dig Harry Potter, reads a little more into the stories than may actually be there.

I wrote a column in 2001 about the Potter stories in which I said there was nothing to fear: “Around the stories is a vague moral world in which good and evil exist and the highest, redeeming power is that of sacrificial love. Rowling is not a Christian and she makes no attempt to preach the gospel. She may have no terribly clear moral compass herself. But she has a remarkable talent for creativity, imagination and story crafting and nothing she does in these stories is apt to proselytize for the devil.”

I want to apologize for those disparaging remarks. I couldn’t have been more wrong. After reading the final book in the series, I have to agree with Granger on one major point. Jo Rowling is a Christian. The last book is as straightforward, in your face, retelling of the Gospel as you could ask for.

I’m not one for spoilers, so I won’t reveal anything major, but when I encountered, along with millions of other readers, the words on the tombstone of Harry’s parents, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” I almost leaped out of my rocker. “There!” I cried. “Proof! She IS a witch! Burn her!”

JK Rowling is an exceptionally clever woman. Like Philip Pullman, the atheist author of the Dark Materials trilogy, she keeps us guessing and wondering until the very end, when she takes off the cloth, like Harry’s invisibility cloak, and says, “OK. There it is. Make the most of it.”

I could see where things were headed toward the end of the sixth book with the open homage to Dante. I was curious whether Rowling was going to take it further. The progression of the symbolism, about which I was now much more conscious, unfolds relentlessly in the final book. And while I can’t go as far as Granger’s evangelical, Inkling fervor, there is no denying–no denying at all–that Rowling’s work is firmly grounded in the Christological metamyth, the larger story of expiation and redemption, the piety of ultimate love. The witch-hunters will just have to go find another victim.

Many people do not recall, or perhaps choose not to recall, the fact that Tolkien was viewed (and may still be, I don’t know) as the devil’s cousin by many conservative Christians not so terribly long ago. And when I was a teenager, I was confronted by several people who thought CS Lewis was highly

suspect. “Too much paganism, tobacco and alcohol,” one person told me. Others were concerned by the young boys and girls who spent so much time alone together in Lewis’ Chronicles. I now know these were just repressed libidinous hyper-moralists (translation: they felt guilty that they had genitals).

But what about the witchcraft? I can hear the question asked in all sincerity from people who still don’t get it. The best way to answer that may be to remind people that CS Lewis wrote what was once the best-selling book in his arsenal from the point of view of a demon. And in that book, he made an interesting observation, that people can fall into two errors regarding the devil. They can take him too seriously or not seriously enough. I believe that in the case of the Potter stories, those obsessed about the magical metaphor in which Rowling has chosen to cast her story have committed the first error. They have taken the devil far too seriously. They have, in Rowling’s terms, become mortally terrified of Lord Voldemort and forgotten he is only Tom Riddle.

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3 thoughts on “Harry Potter and the Hallowed Hysteria

  1. Rachel

    I have been perusing your blog at work this morning (purely for academic research’s sake, of course). I feel as though my brain has been in a state of deep hibernation, and, while content, is in need of some nourishment. I have scarcely a journal entry to my name in many months, and want desperately to begin writing again. Maybe reading is the first step.

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