On Monday evening, June 4th at 7pm, our very own Greg Wilbur will lead a book discussion on The Sorcerer’s Stone—the first book in the wildly popular Harry Potter series. Knowing something of the controversy behind the series, you may be asking yourself, “Why would a church assign a Harry Potter book for a literature discussion?” I posed that question to Greg Wilbur. His answer is below.
Why read Harry Potter? At the heart of that question lies the deeper question of why we should read fiction. Isn’t it better to spend time reading scripture, theology, and non-fiction? Without taking away from those pursuits, there is a place for fiction in the Christin life. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien have written far more detailed descriptions of why to read stories than we can cover here, but the crux of their argument is that just because something is fiction doesn’t mean that it is not true. Myths from various cultures and times contain kernels of truth—a fact that caused Lewis to declare that Christianity is the only True Myth. Stories can reveal truth about the world God has made, about sin, rupture, redemption, and resurrection in ways that are both instructive and formative. Perhaps that is why Christ used stories in the form of parables—He spoke far more often in stories than in theological teaching.
So, if stories can convey truth and be instructive, what is the foundational truth on which the Harry Potter series is built. Firstly, it is important to know that the author, J.K. Rowling, studied classics and has an above average knowledge of classical and medieval literary traditions. Secondly, she is a huge admirer of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Thirdly, though she grew up Anglican, she was an active member of the Church of Scotland while writing the series. In speaking about her faith and the books, she said, “To me, the religious parallels have always been obvious, but I never wanted to talk too openly about it because I thought it might show people who just wanted the story where we were going.”
Without spoiling plot lines, here are some of the ways in which Christianity plays a role in the books:
1. Medieval symbols of Christianity are used in consistently Christian ways.
2. The heads of serpents are crushed (Gen 3).
3. Recognized symbols of Christ such as a unicorn (purity), phoenix (resurrection bird who rises from the ashes), and griffin (half eagle and half lion=lord of the sky and king of the beasts=dual nature of Christ as God and man).
4. The role of sacrificial love—Harry is literally marked by love that protects him.
5. Themes of death and resurrection.
6. Intentional story of sanctification.
7. The hero, Harry, is not gifted in and of himself and is saved from death again and again by the imposition of a Christ-figure.
In addition, the very structure of a hero story conforms to the pattern of how God made stories to work—certain biblical worldview assumptions have to be in place. For instance, hero stories are dependent on the idea that someone(s) are in danger and need to be saved. There is an inherent value to life and a recognition that death is an aberration of how the world was meant to be—these are both Christian ideas. Harry Potter explores these ideas in biblical ways.
One other objection to the stories is the use of magic. We will talk about that topic more in the discussion, but the short answer is that there are two historically recognized types of magic—invocational (invoking evil spirits) and incantational (“singing” along with nature). The second type is what we see in such Christian stories as The Lord of the Rings, Cinderella, Narnia, Beauty and the Beast, and Harry Potter. This is a significant distinction.
Rowling has written a richly textured sub-created world—a made-up world where sacrifice, sanctification, and redemption consistently point to the truth of scripture.