The Gospel and Harry Potter
I am so excited for the release of the final Harry Potter movie this coming week! For those of you who are getting yourselves ready by re-reading the books or re-watching the movies, I am posting the first sermon I preached on Harry Potter eight years ago. I took this to the pulpit just 36 hours after the release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The congregation was full of folk, like myself, who had just spent an entire day reading the novel.
Next Wednesday I will post my final sermon on Harry Potter, the one I delivered on the Sunday just before the release of Deathly Hallows, in which I acknowledged that I was praying for Harry, and Hermione, and Ron. And even for Lord Voldemort. Enjoy (comments welcome)
The Gospel and Harry Potter
A sermon by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary
Sixth Sunday After Easter
June 29, 2003
Philippians 2: 1-13
Most of you know that I am an incredibly avid reader, because I manage to say something like that in my first sermon of the summer almost every year. Summer for me is a time to slow down a bit, swing in my hammock on beautiful days like we had yesterday, sip an iced coffee, and read a few good books. I read something like 150 books a year, a combination of fantasy, book group books, classics I missed in school, and an odd assortment of academic texts. And I know that some of my reading interests are shared by very few others. A few weeks ago I was reading to Noelle from a twelfth century life of St. Bernard of Clairvaux by William of St. Thierry, and she asked me, with a smile, “I wonder how many other couples are reading this book tonight.” This is a standard question between us, and my answer was, as it so often is, “probably not many, in fact, probably none.”
So, you can imagine my feeling last Sunday when I was curled up with a book I was confident several million people were reading at the same time I was. After almost three years of waiting, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth in the series was released Saturday. I was returning from a friends union ceremony Friday night just before midnight and I saw the large crowd which I know included some of you, waiting outside Borders, celebrating the immanent arrival of the long awaited sequel to the first four Potter novels. Other shoppers waiting until Walmart and even Stop and Shop opened at 7:00 am to pick up their copy.
One young person in our congregation told me it took her friend 2 hours longer to read The Order of the Phoenix than it did to read the fourth novel Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Stephen Bohlman showed up for worship last Sunday wearing an all-knowing smile, having finished Phonenix the night before, just 16 hours after purchasing it. It’s 870 pages! I finished mine on Tuesday, and immediately went out for ice cream with two junior high readers to talk about. I think my first impression was, “Wow!”
How many of you are familiar with one or more of the books? And how many already have at least one copy of Order of the Phoenix at home? It’s not surprising. This newest book has surpassed every sales record, selling an initial 5 million copies worldwide on it’s first day alone. Amazon shipped more than a million copies last Saturday, making it their largest shipping day in history. And with only 8.5 million printed in the U.S., it is likely copies will run out soon. And Harry set another record: it is the highest priced children’s book in history: at $29.95, it’s four dollars more than Goblet of Fire.
If you can’t tell, I love Harry Potter! I love Harry first and foremost because I love fantasy. Reading Harry Potter is like taking a vacation into another world where magic is possible, where boarding schools are filled with secret passages and moving staircases, photographs look oddly like mpeg video files, and magical creature like Hippogriffs (half grey horse, half giant eagle) can be kept as pets. Good fantasy is a playground of the imagination, and Rowlings books are good fantasy. Imagination, like faith, allows us to envision another world beyond the limitations of our present, “to believe what the eye has not seen,” and so to realize possibilities for living that our normal, non-magical (muggle) mind cannot find on its own. Muggle is Rowlings word for non-magical folk. Harry Potter’s world is a place for kids to be kids, and adults to be kids. (I thank Rev. Gary McCann for this turn of phrase). “We must become as children,” Jesus said, “if we’re to live in the kingdom of God. What is the kingdom of God if not an arrow of the imagination aimed right for the heart of God? Who can read the New Testament without imagination?
But perhaps more than the exercise of imagination, I love Harry Potter because he seems to me to be a pretty normal kid, despite the presence of magic and muggles. Sure his school is haunted with eccentric ghosts, like Nearly-Headless Nick who is not allowed to join the Headless Hunt because the axe that took his life failed to completely take his head, but Harry still has to go to school and study and doesn’t seem to like it any more than kids I know. He has teachers who just seem to hate him (Severus Snape, professor of potions), bullies to bother him (Draco Malfoy, with his henchmen Crabbe and Goyle), and he has good friends like Ron and Hermione, with whom he will go anywhere and do anything.
For those of you who have not yet read the series,
The Harry Potter books are written by Joanne Kathleen Rowling, a British author that was virtually unknown before the publication of the first Harry Potter novel. The novels follow the seven-year schooling of a poor, abused child, Harry Potter, who is being raised by an aunt and uncle who seem to loathe him, while doting on their son of the same age. Harry is so badly mistreated that we see him near his 11th birthday living in a broom closet under the stairway. Everything changes for Harry when a magical giant comes to take him to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, a kind of boarding school for magical children. Each book of the series deals with a year of Harry’s schooling, starting around the time of Harry’s birthday, just before he is to report for school. (After each school year, Harry is forced to return to his abusive relatives who hate him all the more because he is a wizard, but who avoid being too abusive for the same reason.) Five books have been written so far, with Harry mid way through school at 15 going on 16.
Each novel follows Harry’s and his friends’ (Ron and Hermione) encounters with his arch-enemy Voldemort. Voldemort is a powerful, evil magician that has gone entirely into the dark arts. Before Harry was born, Voldemort had been forming a society of “Death Eaters”: a group of wizards who hate Muggles (non-magical people) and “Mud Bloods” (wizards who have a Muggle parent). They had threatened to take over the magical world, and apparently the Muggle world too, until Voldemort attempted to murder Harry’s parents who were allied with the good wizards such as Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts. Voldemort succeeded in killing Harry’s father, then he tried to kill the infant Harry, but his mother threw herself in front of the spell’s strike and died. When Voldemort tried to kill the orphaned Harry, his magic apparently rebounded and all but destroyed him, leaving Harry with a lightning bolt scar on his forehead. For ten years Harry is raised by his abusive aunt and uncle, without knowing the real circumstances of his parents’ deaths or that he is a wizard. When Harry is brought to Hogwarts, the word is out that Voldemort, who was virtually gone for the past 10 years, is coming back to power. In the first book, Harry, Ron, and Hermione, work together to stop Voldemort from getting the sorcerer’s stone, which would make Voldemort immortal and restore him to full power. Although Harry and his friends succeed in stopping Voldemort in the first novel, Voldemort returns in each novel, getting more powerful and more threatening, even as Harry and his friends are getting more proficient as wizards. Each book gets more sinister and more violent as it follows Harry into budding adolescence with all the typical social and psychological aspects associated with regular kids. (Thanks to my colleague Paul Bube for his nice summary of HP, from which I have borrowed liberally).
Especially with book five, I find that Rowlings picture of the inner life of a fifteen year old is dead on. Stephen Bohlman told me he thinks Rowling writes emotions, all emotions, really well – and she manages to describe what it feels like to have all of them at once, which pretty much describes the way I remember adolescence. As Ron says in Order of the Phoenix: “One person can’t feel all that at once, can they, they’d explode.”
Does this explain the attraction of the novels to adults? Why, when I was writing part of this sermon in Starbucks yesterday morning, were there several adults curled up on the couches reading the new Harry Potter? Is it nostalgia for childhood, or compassion for adolescents? I have been saying for years that our Sunday morning worship is one of the few truly intergenerational forums in our society, where young and old together share stories and dreams. A third reason I love Harry is that his books and the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry have become another intergenerational meeting place where families, reading together, can meet new friends and explore the desires and dreams and dilemmas of Harry, Ron and Hermione.
But I think much of the popularity of the books is that they provide a compelling and highly readable way of exploring the very serious subject of good and evil and of imagining how evil should be fought. (Good and evil not only as we run into it in our regular lives, but ‘ultimate evil’ as we think about it in terms like “Dumbledore” and “Voldemort,” or “God” and “the devil.” According to one writer, so much of our Christian worship focuses on services of light to the exclusion of all else, that our worship services may fall into the trap of simply tapping into our desire to feel good rather than helping us to face the unpleasantness and fears inherent in our human situation.” No wonder, he suggests, so many welcome the darkness in Harry Potter, darkness found not only in the struggle against ultimate evil, but in simple truth-telling about lesser, though equally painful, adolescent evils like school bullies, jealousy, rivalry, betrayal and the everyday temptations to lie, cheat and even hate.
Following the analysis of a colleague, I want to suggest that there are at least three different kinds of evil depicted in Harry Potter, and an ethics that surpasses much of what we find elsewhere in popular culture and mass media, an ethics that should be familiar to we who read another story together every Sunday. The first kind of evil in Harry Potter I call contextual evils. These form the backdrop of the novels’ action and suggest the kind of moral problems J.K. Rowling believes that we, like the characters, need to be wary of. In Harry Potter, the contextual evils include child abuse; bullying; pride/arrogance; discrimination (or Muggle-ism); classism, disloyalty; and practicing the dark arts. These evils both foreshadow ultimate evil and are its effects.
The second kind of evil might be called “excusable evils.” Excusable evils are evils, which under “normal” circumstances would be condemned, but in light of the fight against ultimate evil, may be provisionally permissible. They include: lying, stealing, physical violence, spying, breaking laws and rules, and humiliating and/or embarrassing enemies. While in many ways these are all literary conventions found in many children’s books, these excusable evils are often recognized by the characters in the novels as violating normal moral standards, but are generally viewed as necessary in the service of a greater good. Occasionally they bring about a small amount of poetic justice when inflicted upon an antagonist, as for example, when Harry uses his magic to cause a verbally abusive aunt to blow up like a balloon.
The third kind of evil, what I am calling”ultimate evil or “apocalyptic evil,” is personally embodied in the arch-villain Voldemort, the Dark Lord. What makes him apocalyptic is that he fundamentally threatens to end the world as we know it. I say “we” because in the series, the world is our own. As the series opens, the events that lead up to Harry’s discovery that he’s a wizard, take place here and now, or in the very near future. They are not, like in The Lord of the Rings, events in a completely different world. As we begin these novels, we are largely familiar with their time and setting, even if we were unaware of what the setting is about to reveal. There may be more to our world than we initially believed, but it remains our world. And it is our world that is threatened with final destruction.
Now Harry Potter is no angel, or saint. He is a notorious rule breaker in school and is not above lying to protect his friends. But Rowling draws definite limits for him. In the third book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkeban, when two of Harry’s adult friends want to kill a wizard whose betrayal had not only led to Harry’s parents’ deaths, but also to the deaths of several innocent Muggles, and the unjust incarceration of Harry’s godfather, in spite of his own desire for vengeance, Harry stops the two out of unexpected compassion for the evil wizard (375-76).
What I find ethically interesting are actions like these that set Harry Potter apart from so much of what I find elsewhere in our society. No one today doubts that evil is a reality on our world which often takes violent and destructive form, and that good people enter into a struggle against it. Isn’t this the premise of our war on terrorism? But what makes good people good? I’m not sure we know. The vast majority of what I find when I go to the movies or read the newspaper today is an sustained argument that, at least when confronting ultimate evil, normal moral rules don’t apply and an interim ethic of redemptive violence is permitted to our heroes. Heros are above the law, or at least only subject to special laws only for them. Last summer’s box office hit Triple X (about an extreme risk-taking and violent criminal who is released from prison in order the fight for country) and this summer’s forthcoming S.W.A.T. Team (about the preparation of a legal lethal force more powerful than any potential illegal force) are perhaps only the most recent examples from the movies of our glorification of the pursuit of power in the name of the good. And at least part of last springs media portrayal of Sadaam Hussein as Ultimate Evil was to justify a morally ambiguous war in Iraq. We’re convinced of the reality of evil, but far less sure how to pursue the good, or even whether it exists. And so in the struggle against powerful evil, good guys pursue a force more powerful of their own, and we pray for them to win.
But no power of the enemy, whether weapons of magic or mass destruction, justify entering a power struggle with the enemy. In this sense, the Harry Potter books share a profound Christian insight into good and evil. Evil is not only to be fought and resisted, but good is to practiced. As Jesus teaches, a house divided against itself cannot stand. Satan cannot be driven out by Satan. Evil cannot be fought with evil means. In Harry Potter we have the assurance that good and evil are objectively real, and that it makes a difference which side you take. In our world where technology, the media, and corporate practice make right and wrong difficult to define and enemies are elusive, Harry Potter provides a comforting vision of a world where the differences between evil and good, falsity and truth, can be confidently discerned, and alternatives imagined.
But unlike our world, the good guys are not those who fight the bad guys, but those who practice goodness itself. Indeed, much like Star Wars, which was intentionally modeled on Christian myth, the strategy of the Dark side in Harry Potter is to convince Harry that there is no such thing as goodness, and to use his very hatred of evil as a way of enlisting him in the dark arts. In the first novel, the possessed professor Quirrell tempts Harry to join him and Voldemort by telling him he was once “full of ridiculous ideas about good and evil . . . but that he learned from Lord Voldemort that . . . there is no good or evil only power and those too frightened to seek it” (1997, 291). Harry not only refuses the temptation to join Voldemort, but refuses the temptation of wielding the power of the sorcerer’s stone to fight Voldemort. Even though rejecting power, he is not defeated by Voldemort. Harry’s ability to survive against Voldemort is explicitly identified with sacrificial love, in particular, his mother’s love that saved him initially from Voldemort. As Dumbledore explains after the final battle: “Your mother died to save you Harry. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is Love. He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign . . . to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin.”
In subsequent novels, Harry’s love and loyalty for his friends (Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore, and Cedric), and perhaps his compassion for an enemy, are the means by which Harry is able to survive the ever increasingly powerful Voldemort, and it is through these practices that we believe Harry will, in the end, defeat evil – not only the ultimate evil in Voldemort, but the little evils in himself and his world. Again, Christians know about costly love that saves, which shapes our lives and which must be shared. For Harry Potter compassion towards the bad guys may be risky, even stupid, but it is morally better. In short, for Harry Potter, evil is defined in terms of power, control, coercion and violence; striving for power is precisely the path that leads to evil, whereas good is defined in terms of self-sacrifice, loyalty, love, and compassion.
In Book Five, sacrificial love is described as a ‘very old kind of magic.” In that regard, it seems to me that Harry Potter is very close to the vision of Jesus in the New Testament. Old Magic sounds like gospel.
Praise God for any magic that helps us love our enemies. Thank God for Harry Potter.