Thursday, 2 August 2007

Theology with J. K. Rowling

The new Harry Potter novel is not only a damn good story (the best of the series), it’s also a book of extraordinary theological insight. At some points, it almost passes over into theological allegory – and it’s pretty robust theology, too. (Perhaps the book is itself a divine judgment on all those lunatic Christians who have complained about the “occultism” of Harry Potter!)

Anyway, I’d be interested to know what others think about the book’s theological dimension.

Spoiler warning: don’t read these comments if you haven’t finished the book yet!

22 Comments:

Rob said...

Ben, I was so pleased with the final book.

Rowling mentioned in an interview that she didn't speak too openly of her faith because intelligent readers would pick up on things coming in book 7 (rough paraphrase of what she said). Indeed, she's created a myth with fantastic Christian elements.

Harry, whose death threat as a baby reminds us of Herod's attempt to kill Jesus, Harry, the one who doesn't seek power and thereby gains it (elder wand), Harry, the one who communes with spirits in the forbidden forest as Jesus prayed in the garden of gethsemane, Harry who lays down his life for his friends and thereby grants them protection (the chapter right after this is called 'Kings Cross' - probably one of my favorite things in the book) - this Harry is such an exciting Christ figure.

And in the end he even offers his enemy repentance!

I particularly liked how Harry's struggle with belief and doubt in Dumbledore potrays the believers' common doubt about God's will and what is required of us, even when we don't have all the facts and understand as much as we wish. This in fact parallels Rowling own struggle to 'keep believing', as she puts it in interviews.

We can all be thankful that when we keep believing as Jesus did, and trust God's will as Harry trusted Dumbledore's, it all works out.

One more note: I wish she would've gone into more detail about the use of unforgivable curses from the good guys. There barely seem to be any qualms. Are they unforgivable only in the eyes the ministry, and are they appropriate at times? Is it ever right to torture someone? Or does she still maintain it's wrong, but uses it to represent what flawed characters can do in extreme situations?

Kjetil Kringlebotten said...

I don't see Harry necessarily as a Christ image. He may be a type of Christ, just like there are different types of Christ in The Lord of The Rings (Aragorn, Gandalf, Frodo, Sam, etc.) There are more than one type of Christ in the Harry Potter books too. In the first book, the Philosopher's Stone is itself a type of Christ (and it has been used thus in the Christian alchemical tradition.) In the second book, Fawkes the Phoenix is a clear image, in the third book you have James Potter (or at least the patronus mirroring him), in the fourth we have Fawkes again, in the fifth we have (yet again) Fawkes, who eats the death curse aimed at Dumbledore. In the sixth we have Dumbledore, who gives his life for Draco (and Snape?) and who weakens himself in the search of the locket. And in the seventh, we have Harry. But they are types on Christ, and a type should never be to close to the original (which would make the type a copy or a allegory.) Some have argued that Harry didn't die properly, but neither did Aragorn when he went to meet with the dead.

I would also like to point out that while they are all types of Christ, they are fundamentally more like Christians (little Christs.) Harry gave his life, and his sacrifice was deemed good, and he ended up at King's Cross, which I do not see as a way of saying that he is Christ, but that he is a Christian, and that he mirrors St. Paul. "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church." (Col. 1:24, ESV)

Jonathan said...

"The last enemy to be destoyed is death" (1 Corinthians 15:26). Voldermort is destroyed not through brute force, but through suffering love - the same way the beast of Revelation is overcome by the Lamb - through suffering, self-sacrificial love. The fact that Voldermort has no friends (and thus no love) is the antithesis of the Triune God who lives in relationship and invites us into friendship with Him. Friendship with others is at the heart of who Harry is. On p. 483 of the American version, there is something like prayer. At King's Cross, Dumbledore's hand is restored, and Harry has no scar, anticipating an eschatological healing of all creation. The resurrection stone almost ties him in with the cloud of witnesses who have gone on before him. I certainly wouldn't call the stories Christian allegories, but I would say they are shaped by a Christian ethos. More Harry Potter theology at my blog.

e said...

I'd love to hear how you all might seriously respond to all those lunatic christians who think Harry Potter is paving the way for the anti-christ etc. There seems to be sooo many articles on why the series is pure garbage and not nearly enough sound, rational, christian/theological responses for its defense. Thoughts?

shane said...

Among those lunatics you mentioned earlier: the Pope.

Matt Wiebe said...

I agree, the final novel is a fantastic story with some incredible theological content. I was just in the process of writing a post on this topic when I came across this post, so I thought I'd share:

Harry Potter and Good Theology

Oh, and I had to resist the urge to include some of the insights in these excellent comments that I hadn't thought of!

Kjetil Kringlebotten said...

Shane;

1. He was not Pope at the time, he was Cardinal.

2. He ha never read the books, he said som himself.

3. There is nothing in those letters that suggest that Harry Potter is bad, it is just a polite answer.

4. The person Ratzinger suggested that she should write to, Peter Fleetwood, is himself positive to the Harry Potter books. And some in the Vatican are not.

So, there has been no "approval" or "disapproval" from the Vatican of HP, but why should it? Are they to "approve" every book, every bit of fiction out there?

5.; Read "Rita Skeeter Covers the Vatican" by John Granger.

jonathan keith said...

Kjetil's comment that Rowling's characters are more like Christians than like Christ is interesting. Perhaps the many parallels between the stories of Harry and Jesus are evidence not so much of the theological concerns of J.K. Rowling as of the way in which gospel values have permeated and transformed the values of the West. So much so that good and appealing characters in Western literature tend to look a lot like Jesus.

And maybe these are not just Western or Christian values, but fundamentally human values, on which the gospel draws and to which it appeals.

Anonymous said...

I certainly enjoyed the book, as I have enjoyed all seven, but I wondered whether the theological themes were more archetypal than conscious.

Catherine said...

I thought the book was fantastic, and from all the interviews I've heard with JKR, her themes were very much consciously woven. In fact, at one point years ago she refused to comment on her religious beliefs, saying it would give away too much of the story if we knew!

I just posted my own reveiw…I’d love to hear what others think!

http://catherinemcniel.blogspot.com/2007/08/my-final-post-about-harry.html

Kjetil Kringlebotten said...

Jonathan Keith,

I believe that you misunderstood me. I did not say that the Harry Potter books are not Christian, which I believe they are, but that Harry is not Christ (or, to make a pun on Rowling, "obviously, Harry is not Christ.")

It is like The Lord of the Rings, which, according to Tolkien, is "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work." There you find many Christ figures, or Christ types, but neither of those is Christ. Aragorn is the King, and he walked the Paths of the Dead. Gandalf is the wise man, the prophet, and he dies and comes back as Gandalf the White (and not Grey.) Frodo is the one who sacrifices himself for his friends. Sam is the one who helps Frodo carry the burden, etc.

The point is; they are Christ figures or types of Christ, but they are not allegories of Him (there could not be more than one allegory.)

John said...

Christians just love their cosmic dramas with lots of sound and fury (which signifies nothing at all) and preferrably with mountains of corpses (Lord of the Rings) or at the very least the sacrifice of one or many heroes---and lots of broken and bruised bodies---blood everywhere.

And all the nonsense of "redemptive" violence---the scapegoat game dramatised on either a small or grand scale.

They love to see the signs of some cosmic battle or the working out of some great "plan"---as if Real God was/is the being that is in to planning.

Lots of theological and other "meanings" everywhere---"meanings" to be analysed adfinitum until the next big thing is hyped to (quite literally) sucker our attention.

The truth of the matter is that the Process that is True Religion is just a matter of simply waking up (one at a time) and responding to Divine Grace.

This childrens book (for children of all ages) communicates profound Spiritual Wisdom and the essential basics of a Spiritual Way of life---no drama whatsoever---all dramas are comletely beside the point---a terrifying distraction if truly observed.

1. www.dabase.org/happytxt.htm

kim fabricius said...

I am of the devil's party. I prefer Pullman.

jonathan keith said...

Hi Kjetil, I understand you, I think! I didn't think you were saying the Harry Potter books are not Christian; I used your interesting statement that certain of Rowling's characters 'are fundamentally more like Christians' to launch my own point. Sorry if I seemed to misrepresent you.

Anyhow, I loved the book and agree that there's much there to prompt profound reflection.

One of Freedom said...

This last one was absolutely delightful, both as a story and as a clear presentation of the gospel. And not some wimpy pie in the sky bullshit gospel, like we get all the time here in North America. This was love and hope disarming the powers of darkness by doing what as right despite the inevitible outcome. This is a wonderful retelling of the passion of our Lord, one that I'll delight my own children with for years to come.

Thom said...

We've been teasing at Harry's motivations at jurgenmoltmann.com, spurred on by the contrast between optimism--blind faith that things will just work out in the end--and hope, which involves the determination to goodness despite suffering. I see hope--not Christian hope, for there are no promises or resurrected God, but still hope--as a central theme in the Potter series.

Halden said...

I'm with you, Kim. I just finished The Golden Compass last night!

D. W. McClain said...

I wonder at those that prefer Pullman to Rowling, as I was sadly disappointed with his development of the characters as the books progressed. They seemed to loose a lot of vitality toward the end. Additionally, Rowling's hand at weaving allegory and concepts into the fabric of the story, as many have attested to here and elsewhere, feels not only more masterful, but also more subtle, imho.

Thanks for the great discussion!
Dan

Peter Aschoff said...

I just finished the book because I had to take turns with my children. It is much better than the previous two volumes. A few things really resonated with my faith and understanding of the gospel:

Harry's struggle to trust and follow Dumbledore's advice reminded me of the experience of God's absence that we all share. Not a total absence, but God is not as available as I would like him to be. And he certainly does not answer all my questions.

The blindness of evil and the inability to understand love reminds me like some others here of C.S. Lewis' work. There are some nice (but not new) shots aimed at racism and justifications of all sorts of violence. At the same time, some "bad" people come up with good surprises and some good people turn out to be more complex, too. Which is good for the story as well as more like our every day experience of human affairs.

And of course there's Harry embracing death for the sake of nothin less than the world. But I think in Rowling's logic it is not just suffering love (like in the case of Harry'y mother Lily) but the breaking of the magical link by killing that part of Voldemort that resided in Harry himself which does the trick. It is less of a mystery and more magical "mechanics".

Che Vachon said...

I just finished #7. I loved it!
But now I'm in HP withdrawal....
I have enjoyed the themes woven throughout, and have often thought that JKRowling must be a person of faith...too much intimate knowledge of what walking with God is like..
As for the Pullman vs. JKRowling, I just finished 'the Amber Syglass' and left feeling very dissappointed. The first book was very promising, but seemed to peter out at the end.
Any others of his worth a read?
Got any other books that any like as much as HP?

D. W. McClain said...

Che, I would suggest you try Neil Gaiman's Stardust and Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, both fabulous books and have met rave reviews from respectable critics. I've recommended both to friends and colleagues, and have always received excited replies upon finishing. incidentally, Stardust has been made into a movie that's being released today.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Just finished Harry today -- whether or not it is explicitly a theological treatise, it does speak to important theological themes. I was impressed by Harry's love of others, his willingness to give his life (whether or not in Christ-like fashion) that others might live, and the message that bigotry is not right -- for at the heart of Voldemort's message is that purity of race is above all else -- that despite the fact that he is not of the pure blood himself.

Excellent book and series!

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