Religion and magic have rarely been so often represented and relevant in the contemporary world. Hawking’s recently published book The Grand Design has thrown into question the existence of God, and with the advent of the new instalment of the Harry Potter Film series, J. K. Rowling’s wizarding world is again in the minds of children, teenagers and adults alike. But not everyone has always shared this enthusiasm for Harry Potter and, in particular, fundamentalist Christians have condemned Harry Potter because of his use of magic. All Christians naturally reject Hawking’s conclusions about God but should Harry Potter really be seen as an enemy of Christianity?
Many Christians have been alarmed at the dark content of the books; some parents have even banned their children from reading them because of their unchristian content. The initially dubious topic of sorcery is made a lot worse by the gruesome aspects of the tale such as Voldemort’s obsession with immortality becoming manifested in murder to obtain horcruxes. Joseph Chambers, a Pentecostal preacher, wrote in 2007 that “Without question I believe the Harry Potter series is a creation of hell helping prepare the younger generation to welcome the Biblical prophecies of demons and devils led by Lucifer himself.” Chambers would go so far as to think that the inspiration behind the books is Satan.
Despite this the Christian community is far from univocal on this matter. John Granger in his book Looking for God in Harry Potter asserted that “the Harry Potter stories ‘sing along’ with the great story of Christ [which] is a significant key to understanding their compelling richness”. Granger argues that Rowling is following in the footsteps of authors such as C. S. Lewis who use a magical story to portray prototypal human experiences that echo of salvation history.
Rowling does believe in God and has stated on numerous occasions that the Lewis stories were a significant influence on her life – she states she cannot even be in the same room with a Narnia book and not read it. Of course, many feel this way about Harry Potter! There is little doubt that her imaginative creations do carry religious conceptions. Post-publication of the Deathly Hallows, she has directly spoken on the religious parallels, saying that they “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’re going.” Perhaps in a time when Christianity – or indeed, religion – is not considered popular, Rowling is presenting a basic understanding of the Christian story which is new and original but also close to the true meaning of Christianity. With Christianity under such fierce attack in current culture finding an ally in one of the most popular books of our time would surely be a victory for Christians?
Of course, it would be a mistake and far too simplistic to suggest that Harry is a Jesus figure, although in the end Harry does experience a resurrection of a kind. It does not take long for the reader to discover that the character of Harry is flawed. He reveals he is disobedient, quick to anger and full of wile and deceitfulness. But he matures and grows. It is closer to the truth to compare him to St Augustine, who was a man who went from being a sinner to a great saint. Because he is human and fallible he is accessible to the reader making the truths of Christianity approachable to all.
St Augustine once said “give me chastity and continence – but not yet”. Augustine was but a fallen man living in a world of great temptation, just as Harry lives in a magical world where there are evil magical temptations. Harry does not pursue the dark arts and he does not show contempt towards authority figures. When faced with the real issue of facing death, he does not shy away from the task. Instead, he willingly embraces death because he realises that it can in fact save his friends. This clearly mirrors Jesus’ sacrificial act on the cross.
Fundamentally, in Harry Potter it is love which saves. It was the love of Lily Potter which protected Harry in the first place; and it was the same love which protected him again and again, even in the final show-down; showing that good conquers over evil. It was not a spell which saved the day but something very human, something very Christian. Professor Dumbledore underscores this by reassuring Harry that his power has nothing to do with high-level magic but it goes beyond it. Voldemort underestimates Harry for this reason – he has not understood the power of self-sacrifice because this is one thing which cannot bring him any personal gain or power.
It is for this reason that Harry Potter echoes so strongly the greatest story of Christianity, that of Jesus’ laying down his life for humanity. “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15: 13). When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he said “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” The second is “love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22: 34–40). Or as St Augustine said, “Love and do what you will.”
The heart of Harry Potter is not evil and while Harry has to face evil so Christians have to live in a fallen world. It is not the role of the Christian to live in a safe bubble but to face reality and all that it brings, including evil people and ideas. Harry faced a great evil as Jesus did. Jesus had to battle with the Devil in the desert for forty days and forty nights, he had to face people who were possessed. But most significantly, he conquered the Devil’s power in the Resurrection. The dark magic in Harry Potter should not be understood literally but as a symbol of the state of the fallen world; we can see Harry is a great moral warrior with many Christian virtues. It is a pity if he is a figure some Christians reject because he is one who ought to be embraced.