But her success immediately raises a fear… or maybe a hope. I fear that too many Christian adults are going to merely see enough that is familiar in Rowling’s conclusion that they overlook the far more deeply subversive theology that it contains. And having done that, they’ll teach their children to do the same. My hope is that everyone will look deeper. For Jo Rowling is presenting a far more radical vision than standard Churchianity traditionally presents. To put it as simply as possible… Harry Potter is NOT C.S. Lewis’s Aslan. This is not a book or series about substitutionary atonement. Harry is not portraying Jesus, but he is a “Christ,” and his story challenges every reader to be one to.
As I read the deep magic of Joanne Rowling, she is dealing with the aspect of Christianity that reminds us that we are not just called to “believe” in Jesus as the Christ. Rather, we are called and graced to become “little Christs” participating in the redemption of the world. That is to say that Harry fulfills the ancient magic that is supposed to be the outcome of baptism, our “christening.”
Some years ago I was asked to provide a visual thematic display for Palm Sunday in the narthex of the church I was then attending. Like many who do work in spiritual formation and direction, I have a rather eclectic collection of spiritual practices and tools stuck away in my bag of tricks. And after some thought I pulled out an icon of the Stations of the Cross that I had in my cupboard for use on spiritual retreats. Along with the icon of the Stations I added contemporary icons of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Oscar Romero. (Unfortunately I did not then have a copy of the icon of the Maryknoll sisters to add into the mix.) My intent? To remind folks that the sacrifices of these folks weren’t just inspired by the gospel, but they were and are part and parcel of it. They were an actual participation in the cosmic drama that Christians across the ages have perceived to be supremely expressed in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. I think Ms. Rowling is doing exactly the same thing in the conclusion of the Harry Potter saga. The intent is not to invite readers to become a Christian, the intent is to inspire them to choose to be a Christ.
What I love is that she also makes Harry so utterly religiously clueless in the process. (He’s truly a child of our time in that respect!) She goes out of her way to show that Harry Potter can’t recognize a verse of scripture even when it is engraved on his parents’ tombstone. And reading it, he totally misunderstands. Harry is like the Grail hero, Parzival, who in his quest knew nothing of God or religion. Harry is simply Harry, being the best Harry he can be, enjoying lots of “pure dumb luck” (as Professor McGonagall famously recognizes in the movie version of The Sorcerer’s Stone), and always finally choosing the Good. That’s the thing about Harry, in the big things he always ultimately chooses what is right, decent, and good… even, in the end, if it involves Draco Malfoy, or Severus Snape, or You-Know-Who himself.
Though I understand that J.K. Rowling is a member of the Church of Scotland, she never comes across as a believer in the ancient doctrine of “original sin” that has long held particular sway there. She apparently believes in original goodness, and in choice. Dumbledore makes that clear in the second book, when Harry worries about certain similarities between himself and the Dark Lord his mentor reassures him, “It is our choices that define us.” Good is a choice, and evil is a choice. Our circumstances in life have profound impact, but it is ultimately choice and not fate that shapes our destiny. That is true, as we eventually learn, even for the “Chosen One.” Harry isn’t fated to face Voldemort, prophecy itself notwithstanding, but he may choose to embrace that path. (One of my favorite semi-heresies, at least in regard to much of popular evangelicalism and fundamentalism, is that I believe exactly the same thing to be true about Jesus. His death was not his fate, but a choice made freely in his heart of hearts.) And in the end Harry prevails NOT by dying, but by being willing to “empty himself” to the point of willingly choosing a path that he fully believes will result in his death in order to overcome evil with good. The deep magic is in his willingness, not in the spilling of blood.
In fact, Joanne Rowling’s belief in the freedom of the will is apparently so complete that in their final confrontation she even has Harry Potter extend to the Dark Lord an invitation to choose a different path that would restore wholeness to his soul. Rowling thus echoes the ancient debate of whether the Devil himself could repent and be saved. I suspect that she would say he could, if he were willing.
And then, at the very end Harry makes a last profound choice, which above all else I will not give away to any who may have foolishly chosen to read this before reading the book. Let’s just say that he follows the example of the wisest of his (now) known ancestors. And then Harry is done, and over the ensuing years seems to do his best to just blend back into the crowd on a busy station platform, as ordinary as possible. The tale is finished.
“So, then, Professor… what does it mean?” Well, despite my long gray hair and beard I’m no Dumbledore, but my deepest hope for the Christian readers of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows is that they find in Jo Rowling’s story the invitation to become a really incarnate Christian, a little Christ moving through life trying above all to live in the power of love and to choose the good. Others will find what they will in this Mirror of Erised.
The fact that this extraordinary series of books emerged coincidentally (providentially?) with the darkness and terror recent years makes the message all the more necessary. Just a day before writing this I spoke with a friend who was with her son in the Glasgow airport within sight of the flames of the recent bombing attempt. But like Harry she is responding with resilience and a commitment to work even harder for understanding and peace.
In these days neither the boggarts of fear nor the dementors of depression can be permitted to prevail in our struggle for the wellbeing of our world. We are called to strive to keep our souls, and the souls of all, whole and healthy. And although we ourselves cannot actually destroy Evil, or master Death, we continue the struggle of resistance until the powers of the Dark Lord finally implode upon themselves. Along the way, in these times of the deconstruction of faltering old ways and for waiting for the re-emergence from the ashes of new expressions of the living Christian tradition itself, I suggest that we can hardly do better than to ponder the story of Jo Rowling’s “Boy-Who-Lived.”
After all, “Yer a wizard Harry….”
Books by John Granger —
The Hidden Key to Harry Potter, Zossima Press, 2002.
Looking for God in Harry Potter, Saltriver (Tyndale House), 2004
Unlocking Harry Potter, Zossima Press, 2007