How Christian are the Harry Potter stories? That's a question that's fueling a lot of post-Deathly Hallows discussion right now, at least among the websites and forums I visit.
D. and I were discussing this issue this past weekend. I've found myself wanting to stay away from some of the discussions, truth be told, in part because I think we can risk becoming too dogmatic in our defense of Harry as "Christian" literature. Do I believe these stories are steeped in Christian imagery and symbols? Yes. Do I think that Rowling has shaped the story around themes that are deeply and importantly Christian? Yes. Do these books, and especially this final book, personally move me on deep spiritual levels? Oh yes.
Do I think that these elements are so blatantly obvious that anyone who misses them (or sees them and tries to brush right by them out of discomfort or frustration) is just being stupid? That's where I'm drawing a line. I think we need to show a little mercy to the people who refuse to see these things in the Harry Potter stories. The fact that they have a hard time hearing and seeing them may, in fact, be testament to the underlying needs of people in our culture.
These are rich and complex stories. Our current culture is story-starved, I think, at least starved for good stories that really echo the true Story. Ms. Rowling has created stories in which people will hear more than they know, imbibe more than they realize. I'm not sure we should try hitting people over the heads by unpacking the "message" in these books, although I do love discussing and unpacking them among others who are eager to see what's there. I just wonder if we shouldn't let sleeping dragons lie...at least sometimes. That may be a more effective way to ensure that more people will read, enjoy and experience some deep formation of the heart through their experiences of these stories!
Some of the most basic things Rowling's stories show (show, not tell) are so basic that it would be easy to miss their import. One of the most important things of all might be the simple fact that there is more to this world than material reality. Spiritual reality, unseen reality, exists. We are people with souls, not just minds and bodies. And people with souls are worth loving. They're worth living for and dying for.
That may seem so basic that a lot of people will just skeptically raise their eyebrows and say "so?" But children are growing up not knowing these realities. If a fascinating and wonderful story with characters they love can help point them toward these realities, I for one want to cheer that on. And there are more explicit Christian truths to be mined in these stories as well. But I'm not going to hand a child Harry Potter (or for that matter C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which is far closer to straight allegory) and tell them to read it because it's good for them. I know it's good for them, but I'm going to give them the story knowing it will delight them as a story...and knowing that they will find instruction in the midst of the delight.
How conscious Rowling was of the Christian depth of what she had to say I don't know. It's hard to believe that some of the direction wasn't conscious, because it's so deeply engrained. On the other hand, that very depth could also point to an element of unconsciousness. Sometimes the book actually knows more than the writer, or helps lead the writer into places where they didn't at first intend to go. I think Rowling's recent comments about "struggling to believe" were very honest and also inform what was going on here. I think God was at work in Rowling's writing, not only in helping her to craft stories that will delight and instruct many people in our age, but in helping her to wrestle with and work out her own story, her own coming to terms with grief and death and love and choice and what it means to live in a fallen world between the now and not yet.
And a side note to the whole issue of how faith informed the writing. I find it interesting that some people are displaying a frustration with not knowing exactly how well-planned these books were. People seem to vaciliate between yearning to know all the details of Rowling's fictional world (with an assumption that Rowling knows all the details and can reveal them all if she so chooses) and a skepticism that she doesn't really know all the answers, didn't plan things carefully enough, and might even have contradicted herself in talking about the fictional world she's been writing for the past seventeen years. I think whatever contradictions might exist are perfectly understandable, given the length of her writing process and the complexity of the plot. In fact, months ago I remember writing here on this blog about how encouraged I was to hear that Rowling herself was surprised/saddened by writing in unexpected character deaths. Not that I wanted to see beloved characters die, but it struck me as hopeful that the writing process was still so lively for her that she could be surprised in the midst of it, even though she had repeatedly talked about how firm her ultimate direction was and how carefully she'd plotted. It gave me more confidence, not less, that we could trust the final direction and the ways in which she got there. And I don't think we were disappointed.
Sometimes I think one of the best things Rowling has done in the Harry Potter stories was to give our time and culture a Mirror of Erised, a glass into which we can look and find revealed, sometimes to our astonishment, our own heart's desires. Because I wonder...as we look eagerly for answers about what happened to beloved characters (how did their lives turn out?) and ask questions about the still puzzling patterns in the less-revealed plots and the motivations of characters whose stories were not fully told, are we asking questions about our own lives as well as about the lives in these stories? Does the yearning to delve deeper into meaning, the longing for certainty that the author knew where the story was going, the hope for consistency to answers about this sub-creation, say something real about us? Might it not reveal a hunger to find meaning in our lives, a fully trustworthy Author behind the meaning, and a lovingly intentioned and crafted purpose behind the creation in which our stories play out?