Posted by: Ken Brown | October 1, 2007

Harry Potter and the Christian Story

To many of us post-moderns, the Christian story seems rather a mundane thing. Residing in the back of our collective consciousness, it’s familiar enough to seem unremarkable, yet unknown enough to be misunderstood. Even Sunday school can be like a vaccine, providing just enough theology to leave us immune to the deep drama of the faith.

It was into just such a situation that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien wrote their works of fantasy. Their goal was to create fiction that could break through that cultural immunity, and allow a modern audience to hear the Christian story as though for the first time. As Lewis put it:

I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons?

It was an admirable goal, but only partially accomplished. Both Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings would eventually become exceedingly popular, but only long after their intentions were respectively too well-known and entirley missed. Thus, for many readers, the Christian themes of Narnia were a bit too obvious, a bit too early, to evade “those watchful dragons,” while the imaginative mythology of Lord of the Rings quickly obscured its own Christian trajectory. Don’t get me wrong, both series are outstanding in their own ways, but it remains unclear just how well they fulfilled their intentions.

It was with this background in mind that I finally read J.K. Rowling’s epic Harry Potter series this past month (now you know why my blogging has been so light!). Though I had seen and enjoyed a couple of the movies, reading the series all at once proved far more satisfying than I expected. Having studiously avoided reading anyone else’s views on the series, I was most surprized by just how well Rowling (a practicing member of the Church of Scotland) has managed to accomplish precisely the goal that Lewis and Tolkien set themselves. On the one hand, she managed to build an absolutely unprecedented readership who adored the series without yet knowing where it was headed (according to some reports, the series had sold over 300 million copies before the final book was released!). On the other hand, by the end of the Deathly Hallows she had succeeded in retelling the Christian story in a way that is at once freshly engaging, deeply nostalgic, and hardly mistakable.

Though lacking the poetic beauty of Lord of the Rings, and obscuring some of Narnia‘s theological distinctions, Harry Potter pulls together countless imaginative story-lines involving dozens of well-developed characters, while seamlessly interweaving a host of important themes: coming of age and facing death, love and friendship, trust and loyalty, redemption and sacrifice, courage and betrayal, good and evil, and much else. That entire books were written decrying the series’ “anti-Christian” message (I haven’t read them, but I can’t imagine anyone writing one now), indicates just how well she has accomplished her goal.

So as not to spoil them for anyone who hasn’t yet read the books (you really should!), I wont go into any details, but suffice it to say that Rowling has admirably lived up to her forebears in Lewis and Tolkien, not least because she allowed her Christian themes to build to a fitting climax, rather than airing them out too early. In the end, Harry Potter proves much more explicitly Christian than The Lord of the Rings, yet much less obtrusive than The Chronicles of Narnia. I really cannot recommend it highly enough; I only wish I had another month to reread it, now that I know how it all comes together!

If anyone else here has read the series, what are your reactions?

UPDATE: If you’ve come to this post directly and want a more detailed account of Harry Potter’s Christian nature, don’t miss Mark Shea’s “Harry Potter and the Christian Critics” (Spoiler Warning).

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Responses

  1. I read it and had the same reactions. It is sad to see so many Christians protesting the book. A. It is good fun. B. The message of the series is spot on.

    I am a big Harry Potter fan. Thanks for the post!

  2. John,
    “A. It is good fun. B. The message of the series is spot on.”

    My thoughts exactly. Though they are a bit too dark to really call “children’s literature,” I have no doubt that I will be reading them to my kids as soon as they are old enough.

  3. I think I may need to read the books again to understand the Christian aspect. My sister saw it in the last book, but I am not sure if I did or not. Thank you for this post. It is a subject I am going to look into more.

  4. There’s a ton of Christian symbolism to find if you look for it. For instance, in the last book Harry has to submerge himself in the icy pool to retrieve the Sword of Gryffindor, which is explicitly described as cross-like. While under, the Horcrux around his neck (=sin) tries to drown him, and Ron has to save his life and retrieve the sword for him. If you ask me, it’s a pretty nice picture of baptism, which Paul said is like dying to the sin nature and rising with Christ.

    Anyway, besides the post by Mark Shea linked above, Mere Comments also posted some great reflections on the Christian nature of Harry Potter, linked here.

    God Bless!

  5. [...] of magic with that in Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. I trust my own love for the series is well enough established (and see the excellent series of reflections at Non-Modern), but of all the [...]

  6. [...] of magic with that in Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. I trust my own love for the series is well enough established (and see the excellent series of reflections at Non-Modern), but of all the [...]

  7. [...] Harry Potter centers on an oppressed but noble orphan who is motivated primarily by love for his new friends, [...]

  8. [...] Harry Potter centers on an oppressed but noble orphan who is motivated primarily by love for his new friends, [...]

  9. [...] Fans, and Life inside the Harry Potter Phenomenon by Melissa Anelli of The Leaky Cauldron. Since I first read the series only after The Deathly Hallows came out, I got to experience the whole story [...]

  10. [...] preserve one’s own life. This is, of course, one of the many ways the Harry Potter reflects the Christian story, and it is embodied not only in the climax of the the Deathly Hallows but also in the scene from [...]

  11. I think you are essentially right. Below is a link to a series of videos I’ve done about Harry Potter and the catholic faith. http://www.preachingfriars.org/harry-potter-and-catholic-faith


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