Saturday, July 28, 2007

Thoughts from a Harry Potter agnostic

by Nathan Brown

[***Spoiler alert***]

For the past 10 years, I have been a Harry Potter agnostic.
While enjoying the stories as just that—stories—with each installment, I have been aware of their questionable literary merit and frustrated, with the increasing size of the successive volumes, about the seeming absence of a hard-nosed editor from J K Rowling’s literary life. Even about the 400-page mark of The Deathly Hallows, it was more determination to see how it would end than my engagement in the story that kept me reading.

But the greater cause of my Potter agnosticism was the continuing ambiguity about the nature of the story and characters themselves. Having read opinions on the Harry Potter series from across the spectrum, I was unable to settle the question in my mind. Of course, there were the hardline, angry Christian perspectives, who were askance at any mention of wizards and magic in anything less than a completely negative way and—ignoring the use such motifs as literary devices—were ready to declare Harry the illegitimate son of the antichrist himself.

On the other hand have been those educators and parents just happy to see kids put down the Playstation controller for a moment and pick up a book, like we did in the “good, old days.” And of course there were also Harry Potter’s grown-up fans, drawn in by a remarkably readable story.

And then there was one more school of though of which I had read a little—those Christian voices who were keen to point out the goodness embedded in the Potter stories. Some even went so far as to suggest Rowling—who has always been reticent in taking about issues of faith—was a Christian, using her writing to get “past watchful dragons” (as C S Lewis put it) in a post-Christian society, particularly in her native England.

So my anticipation of the seventh and concluding book of the series was heightened more by this underlying ideological tension than by my mere curiosity as to how the story was to end, whether Harry was going to make it out alive and how neatly Rowling was going to wrap up the loose ends. Without denying my enjoyment of a rollicking narrative, it was more as an observer of a cultural phenomenon that I made the pilgrimage to a suburban bookstore on the Saturday evening of its release and purchased one of the record 12 million copies sold on the day.

So am I a believer? As I have mentioned, two-thirds of the way through Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I was still to be convinced. And, in our cynical age, it is remarkably difficult to write an ending that is both credible and satisfying.

But J K Rowling pulled it off—and in ways that few of the many speculators were able to predict. As a modern-day fairy tale, the series works, while still giving the literary purists things to grumble about.

And, ideologically, my agnosticism has also faded. A few years back, I was a volunteer at a church teen camp at which the speaker used the early books of the Harry Potter series to explore the themes of the Great Controversy and book 7 brings the battle between good and evil to its climax. This motif has been an important part of the ongoing story—as it is in many of our culture’s great stories—and the distinction between good and evil becomes clearer as the characters are forced to choose their response to the growing conflict. While the dark side employ whatever means possible to achieve their ends, the Harry Potter heroes choose to make space for compassion and maintain self-imposed limits on their use of power.

But Rowling also portrays the choice between good and evil as not so black-and-white as one-dimensional stereotypes might be. The good guys have their flaws, doubts and struggles, while some of the worst characters are not beyond moments of ambiguity and even the possibility of redemption, if they choose.

And the central choices are those Harry must make. Does he have faith in Dumbledore’s instructions, despite the questions raised about his mentor after Dumbledore’s death? And ultimately is Harry prepared to face his own death, trusting that somehow his sacrifice will destroy the evil of Lord Voldemort and put an end to the reign of terror?

In a scene that wakes strong echoes of Aslan’s self-sacrifice, his walk to the stone table and his death in Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Potter dons the cloak of invisibility for a final trip into the Forbidden Forest to face Voldemort and his minions. And then the “deeper magic”—as Lewis describes it—does its thing. In both Narnia and Harry Potter, love, goodness and humility are stronger than evil, even when evil appears triumphant.

A believer? No, I don’t believe in Harry Potter, I have not rushed out to join a HP fan club and I have not sent any money (after my initial “donation” of about $A30 for the book itself). But at the end of our 10-year adventure with Harry Potter’s fantasy world and J K Rowling’s roller-coaster of a story, I have been reminded of the importance of choosing goodness and trusting that goodness to overcome evil, whatever it might cost and however doubtful it might appear.

As a result of reading Harry Potter, I am encouraged as a believer in God and in His purposes and plan for goodness in a world that often doesn’t look like it. And I am hopeful that others who may not yet be as familiar with the realities of the kingdom of God might recognize something of this same self-sacrificing goodness when they hear the story of Jesus and what He has done to overcome the evil in our world.

For other useful perspectives on Harry Potter VII, check out Gary Swanson writing on Adventist Review’s web site and Trudy Morgan-Cole at her “Compulsive Overreader” blog .


  1. Nathan,

    Let me preface this comment by first saying that I have never read a Harry Potter book or seen a movie. I do not say this as a declaration of self-congratulations, only to admit to you that I am commenting with limited information.

    However, I am a little disappointed with the conclusions that you have come to. Though they are much milder than many other Christians' (as well as Adventists) responses who have embraced the Potter craze whole-heartedly, they are still startling.

    Admittedly, I don't know the specifics of Harry Potter to react against, but I do know that a movement that reaches such heights across the board - and around the world - deserves a little more critical evaluation. Truth has never been popular, so when something has such an incredible following (with people from every persuasion - even those who deny the existence of God), I tend to be a little skeptical.

    From personal experience, I also wonder about its place when grown women (grown women!) are addicted to Harry Potter like it's ecstasy. I don't think God has ever chosen to reveal Himself through addictive means (of course, I recognize that abuse doesn't cancel legitimate use).

    I also wonder about its place when Adventist parents bring their seven and eight year old children to the midnight showing the first night, and then bring them late to school the next morning. How many parents would bring their children to church at midnight, nevermind Sabbath school at 9:30 in the morning?

    Doesn't this type of stuff also take people away from the unadulterated Word of God, and make them disastisfied with spending time with Him?

    Again, I recognize that this doesn't inherently condemn the whole Potter craze, but a person still has to inspect the fruits of it and think about it a little more critically.

    If you haven't already listened to it, Dwight Nelson has a great sermon on Harry Potter that you can download for free here, and he has a sermon that compares Lewis's literature with Potter here. I'm sure that many people would be very turned-off by his "closed-minded" approach to the subject (violent opposition to his sermon made the front page of AU's student newspaper), but I believe he has something to say.

  2. How pathetic that Christians and non-Christians look for God in places where he is least likely to be found, such as Harry Potter books et al.

    What about spending more time reading the word of God?

    Is this one of the downsides of progressive adventism, when you start looking for answers and lines of thought and different approaches in many places that don't even remotely bring you closer to a walk with God?

    Are we relegating the foundation of our christian walk, the word of God to a second place and turning to the popular thinkers and writers of our day?

    Solomon seems to have tackled these questions a long time ago and his conclusion was, Vanity, vanity...

  3. I'm glad to hear that I'm not the only one who wonders where a good editor was hiding during the Harry Potter saga. She often hits the right storytelling notes, but so rarely the right literary ones. Some might argue that in children's literature it doesn't matter, but I wouldn't be one of them.

    In fact, that might be the most evil thing about her books. ;)

    andre wrote:

    "How pathetic that Christians and non-Christians look for God in places where he is least likely to be found, such as Harry Potter books et al."

    I am perhaps the last person who should currently jump to God's defense, but I am beginning to suspect that he is found in more places than we might imagine.

  4. Vera,

    I don't want this to sound too harsh or judgmental. I apologize if it comes across that way. I write these things lovingly.

    You wrote, however, "I am beginning to suspect that [God] is found in more places than we might imagine."

    You can also find water in a lot of different places, but that doesn't mean you should go around and drink them as your source for nutrients.

    Any person who is serious about getting healthy isn't going to be drinking Pepsi as their daily source of nutrition.

    Isn't it more the Devil's ploy to put "God" in less-than-praiseworthy places? Hasn't that always been his modus operandi? The last I knew, he does a pretty good job of quoting scripture, too (see Matt 4:6). I know this isn't a popular idea with "post-moderns," but I don't think that God reveals Himself cloaked in the garb of error (see James 3:10-12).

    I think too many times we find God in places because we want to find Him there.

    Why do we settle for "second best" (though I wouldn't even classify Harry Potter as that) when God has given us 66 wonderful books to mine to understand more about His loving character?

  5. I agree Shawn (miss our times singing in the AU singers together!! :o)

    I'd like read more discussions on how progressive adventists contribure to the application of God's word to my day-to-day life.

    Life is busy enough, time is short to delve into the so-called "wisdom of this world"... have we exhausted God's revelation that we need to drink in these "bitter" waters...??

  6. Hi Shawn
    Appreciate your comments. Not sure that your quoting of James 3:10-12 in regards to your statement "I don't think that God reveals Himself cloaked in the garb of error," and your discussion on water is entirely in context. I thought James was talking about controlling the deadly poison of our tongue, not the cloaking of error, or clean water.
    However, If you want an example of God revealing himself "cloaked in a garb of error," check out the ten commandments. The second commandment specifically forbids making idols. It forbids having anything to do with idols. Yet in Daniel 2, we have God Himself giving a pagan king a vision of a an idol. He cloaked His message of truth, a truth that we still discuss today, in pagan idolatry. Did it cause trouble, yes. Neb went on to make his own idol Dan 3. God still did it. Why. He wanted to reach Neb. God still choses to reach people in their own 'pagan' culture and language. Maybe even in Harry?

  7. pardon me, but that argument is flawed wayne, the statue of Neb was not for worshipping, so God was not going against his own principles... God is not in everything and we don't find in anywhere we look in this world... that's pantheism..


  8. Sorry Francini,
    probably didn't make myself clear. I agree that "the statue of Neb was not for worshipping," but then again I never said it was. Ex 20:4,5 has a number of parts. Part 1 is not to make graven images and I would suggest have anything to do with graven images. Whatever our view, it seems God is anti idols! The rest of the commandment is about worshipping them etc. My post was emphasizing part 1. The fact that, the God who is so much against idols, makes such a strong command against them, then goes and gives a vision of an idol to a king.

    My point was that God communicated to a pagan, from a pagan's view point. He used an abhorant medium - ( a cloak of error?) an idol, to give His message. God reveals Himself in strange places. Sometimes He even sends His messages via idols. Is it inconceivable that He could speak through Harry?

    I also agree with you that "God is not in everything," But then again I didn't say He was, I checked! I am sorry that what I said was construed as leading to pantheism. Perish the thought. I was saying - and obviously not very well, that God sometimes speaks in ways, and in places, that seem to be what I felt Shawn was talking about, "cloaked in the garb of error."

    "Daddy, God says I can't make an idol, so why did God make a king dream about one?" "Jessica, God loves people and and wants them to love and serve Him, so He reaches them in ways that they understand."

    Like Nathan, I am an agnostic when it comes to Harry Potter. I wouldn't however, go so far as to say - God can't speak through Harry! I understand He spoke through an ass once. Still does!

    Oh, I also believe that the Bible is our best source of nourishment and spiritual growth - just in case some might have some doubts. For some reason, I think Nathan believes that about the Bible as well. Good post mate!

  9. Shawn, let me go back to andre's comment:

    "How pathetic that Christians and non-Christians look for God in places where he is least likely to be found, such as Harry Potter books et al."

    I don't doubt that some people (Christians and non-Christians alike) actively look for God in highly unusual places.

    Personally, I didn't find him in Harry Potter, but a) I wasn't looking at all, and b) my Inner Rowling Critic was working overtime.

    But I sometimes find God in places I didn't expect to see him. I can be pretty inattentive to the things of God (just ask TE), but I get unexpected glimpses in unlikely places.

  10. Wayne,

    Thank you very much for your comments. I will have to "brood" over your analogy with Nebuchadnezzar a little more.

    In regards to your comment on the ass - are you comparing an innocent, ignorant donkey with a witch-craft filled, make-believe children's book? Please don't denigrate the poor ass like that!

    Secondly, I am not categorically opposed to God revealing Himself through such means to a "pagan," per se. But what does that make those of us Christians who rely on Harry Potter for our source of spirituality? Pagans, perhaps? As Christians who know "truth," what does it say about our spiritual maturity if Harry Potter is the source of our spiritual edification?

    Thanks, again, for the stimulating points.

  11. So you would probably agree that God spoke through the medium of Endor as well, which is absurd.

    What about the angels on top of the ark in the sanctuary, were those also part of the commandment against idols? I don't think so, God was not against all and any sculpture, the principle was about making those to become an instrument of worship. That is not the case in the statue of Neb or the angels in the Most Holy Place or the snake in the desert.

    That's my problem with this approach, instead of really looking for light and truth in God's sure revelation, why look in places where I'm actually putting my faith at risk? I don't think God works like that, light is not found in the darkness...

  12. I would like to affirm Nathan's use of Harry Potter.

    1. God is, indeed, in all things. Even chaff-filled fields of wheat. There is great danger in limiting where God can and shall be found.
    2. I see Scripture as the "trunk" of a 4000-year old tree of spiritiual stories. Very important. But truth found in flimsier branches may even be MORE important if millions of people are out on this limb!
    3. Scripture is not truth. Jesus is truth, and scripture merely speaks of Him. There is a difference. And He shall be revealed in many odd and interesting places. Are there greater revelations than Scripture? Yes. Jesus, for one. And the Holy Spirit, now, for another. Scripture is our "guide" to the Spirit.
    4. Finally, of all people, Christians should embrace stories of the spiritual world. Not literally, always. No orthodoxically, always. But Jesus drew out Satan, drew out demons, drew out evil in order to show the supremacy of The Spirit.

    Harry Potter is ... an opportunity. Thanks, Nathan.

  13. Problems with Alex's approach:

    1. God is NOT in all things, this is the old Pantheism idea which has been dealt with long ago. Is God in my morning cereal? If not, why not?

    2. Can Bible truth be manipulated to fit people's experiences or to be culturally relevant? Does new relevance abolish old relevance? Is relevance universal? This goes along Catholicism's idea that Scripture is only relevant because Priests and Popes make it relevant; tradition (dare we say culture?) suplants the Bible;

    3. Scripture reveals Jesus and therefore IS truth. However, can something else that 'reveals' Jesus be considered Scripture as well? Would it be authoritative as the Scriptures? If it were possible for Harry Potter to reveal Jesus albeit it , would it be in the same level as Scriptures? What is special about the Scriptures really and why should it continue to be the foundation of our belief instead of all that literary prowess of secular authors?

    4. Should Christians really embrace all that is branded as ethereal, transcendent and "spiritual"? Should we ask Lucifer how he used to know God, how he felt before his fall and how heaven is like? Sure he would be an excellent source of information...

  14. Maybe you should take a "closer look" at Harry Potter, this could help:

  15. What about that little verse in Philippians chapter 4:

    "Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is worthy of respect, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if something is excellent or praiseworthy, think about these things."

    I'm tempted to think Harry Potter fails a good number of these "tests."

  16. Harry potter rules