Harry Potter and a Fate Worse than Death
This was the final sermon I preached on Harry Potter. It was delivered the Sunday before the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, came out. It reflects my sense that because many of us had invested ourselves so deeply in the story, the ending really mattered. Having prepared myself to speak about the books on Sunday morning, I had to change approaches at the last minute and instead speak about the moral imagination, to thank J.K. Rowling for her gifts, and offer a prayer for Harry’s final temptation. As I now count down the last 36 hours until the release of the final movie, I find myself hoping that the screen version of the story lives up to the vision of the book.
A FATE WORSE THAN DEATH
sermon preached on July 8, 2007
Text: Romans 12: 9-21
Have you ever put a lot of time and effort into something, only to be disappointed when you were finished?
Last fall I attended a conference on the spiritual formation of children through literature and I came back home inspired to write another “Harry Potter Sermon.” And I put together what I think is a pretty smart piece of writing. I waited for just the right time to preach it, and until last night I was very excited about it.
Now maybe it is because I was here in the church all day yesterday with the high school students and Stuart Campbell washing the outside of the church building and painting two of the rooms, and I was tired when I got home . . . but when I picked up the sermon last night and brought it over here to the church to practice it, it felt tired. It wasn’t exciting. I was disappointed with it. It just didn’t work anymore. Just before worship, Justin Loomis asked my why it didn’t work and I told him I suspected it was because I had changed between the time I had written it and now. I worked the sermon over for a couple of hours but finally took the whole thing and set it aside about one o’clock this morning and went to bed with the prayer that I would have something to say this morning.
And when I said my prayer I realized what had changed. When I wrote the sermon last fall I was thinking about Harry like a teacher, like a preacher, and like a reader and a fan. I now find myself thinking about Harry like a pastor. Like his pastor. And so this morning the first thing I have to do is to make a confession. Over the past month and a half I have found myself praying for Harry Potter.
Does that sound silly? I don’t think it is as silly as it sounds.
Listen to the words of our scripture again: Let love be genuine. Hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good. But how do we know the difference between good and evil? How can we tell if our love is genuine? How does we hate evil without becoming evil ourselves?
These are the kinds of questions that Harry will face in the seventh and final book in J. K. Rowling’s now famous series. In the past couple of weeks I have re-read all six of the novels and have re-watched all four of the movies (some of them more than once). Not only will I see the next movie when it comes out on Tuesday, but I feel deeply invested in – I care deeply about – the challenges Harry will face and the decisions he will make in the final book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which will be released thirteen days from now. Part of me, and of millions of others, is living in the world of Harry Potter right now the way I said last week that part of all of us ought to live in the world of the Bible. And I have said, more than once I have found myself praying for Harry Potter.
As I suggested in my sermon last week (“Landscapes of the Imagination” July 2, 2007), moral formation requires from us acts of imagination. For the past ten year, J. K. Rowling has been helping many of us do just that. Just as she has been shaping Harry’s moral imagination while she has been developing his character, so she has been developing the moral imagination of her readers, both young and old.
“To the well-ordered mind, death is but the next great adventure.” This is what Professor Dumbledore tells Harry at the end of his first year at Hogwarts and the end of the first book. It is important enough that Harry repeats it word for word to his friends Ron and Hermione moments later: “To the well-ordered mind, death is but the next great adventure.” For Harry Potter, as for all of us, having a well-ordered mind means putting our desires and our fears in their proper relationship. If our desires and fears are properly ordered, Dumbledore seems to be saying, then we are ready to die, if that is what is required of us.
Starting with the very first book, Rowling has been intentionally forming in Harry just such a well-ordered mind, so that he will be prepared to die if, and when, that is required of him. And she has been populating our imaginations with images of well-ordered lives and disordered lives and giving us some tools for distinguishing the two. Harry’s life has been marked ever since his infancy by love and death, by hatred and love, by death as murder and death as sacrifice, and Harry must sort them out in order to live a well-ordered life.
For those of you who still don’t know, the book series focuses on Harry’s movement through seven years of education at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, although the action actually begins when Harry is just 15 months old. In the very first scene of the series we learn that Harry’s parents, Lily and James Potter, have been killed, and that the evil wizard Voldemort who has been terrorizing their world, has been defeated. Professor Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts, leaves baby Harry on the doorstep of his Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon, the only family he has left. Then we fast-forward ten years to Harry’s quickly-approaching eleventh birthday and his entrance into Hogwarts. The series then follows that eleven year old through seven years of education and adventure as he learns how to use his magical powers, as he confronts the evil (and increasingly powerful) Voldemort again and again, as he learns his parents’ story, and as he discovers who he is. Much of that discovery is rooted in this coming to understand what happened on the night his parents were killed.
As we learn in later books, when Harry was born he was the subject of a prophecy that seemed to suggest that Harry would grow up to defeat the Dark Lord. Upon learning this, the evil Voldemort heads straight to the infant Harry’s house in order to kill him. After killing James, Harry’s father, Voldemort turned to Harry but found himself facing Harry’s mother, Lily. We have no reason to believe that Lily thought she could actually save Harry, or stop Voldemort. She was in fact offered the opportunity to save herself, to step aside and simply let evil run its course, and she refused. And she is killed. But in giving her life, Lily gives Harry something that Dumbledore can only described later as “very old magic,” and that is love.
Lily is the paradigm of the properly-ordered life, one that sees life as a good to be clung to, but not at all costs. There are some things, her death says, that it is better to die than to do, even when there seems to be no real hope of making a difference. She becomes a model, for Harry and for us, of love and sacrifice, of the mind that puts death and love in their proper order.
As a result, when Voldemort turns on Harry, his killing curse rebounds, leaving him, for the next ten years, “less than a spirit, less than the meanest ghost.” But the spell leaves upon Harry’s forehead the scar that makes him famous. The scar is a mark of Voldemort’s fear and his hatred. But it is also the mark of his mothers sacrifice and of her love. And this sets up the moral framework for Rowling’s novels. Voldemort become the model of the evil, disordered life interested only in the extension of life and power at any price, while Lily become the paradigm of a life properly ordered, where love for others comes before one’s own survival. The well-ordered mind knows when to let go of life.
Part of what Rowling has done so well is to help us see the changes that take place in Harry’s character. Two scenes from the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone capture these changes well.
During Christmas vacation, when most of the student are home for the holiday, Harry discovers in an unused classroom the Mirror of Erised (which is Desire, spelled backwards). The Mirror of Erised shows whoever looks into it their heart’s deepest desire. When Harry looks into the mirror, what he sees is his parents lovingly perched around him. Having never really known his parents, Harry’s deepest desire is to be with them and to be surrounded by their love. This, of course, is not a bad desire. He doesn’t wish for unlimited wealth or eternal youth, or even to win the House Cup or captain the Quidditch team as his best friend Ron sees when he looks into the mirror. Harry just wants to be with the parents he never really knew. He just wants not to feel so alone in the world. And he wants I bad enough that he goes back night after night, hungry for the connection that he feels by gazing at his parents in the mirror, until Dumbledore takes the mirror away. But before he moves it, Dumbledore gives Harry this bit of wisdom: “it does not do to dwell in dreams, and forget to live.”
Yet Harry sees something radically different when he looks into the mirror a few months later at the end of the school year and the end of the book (that’s 78 pages later). He now finds himself standing in front of the mirror with Professor Quirrell. The stone brings about eternal life, and Quirrell is seeking the Sorcerer’s Stone in order to help the Voldemort return to power. When Quirrell stands in from of the mirror he sees himself finding the Sorcerer’s Stone and handing it to his master. When Harry looks into the mirror, he also sees himself holding the stone, but to keep it from Voldemort. But then, with a wink and a smile, the Harry-in-the-mirror puts the stone into his pocket, and the Harry-in-front-of-the-mirror feels the weight of it drop into his real pocket. Dumbledore will later explain that this was one of his more brilliant ideas to protect the stone. Someone who wanted the stone in order to use it would only see himself using the stone, not finding it. Harry does not want to use to stone, and so sees himself finding it. What this means is that, in the time between Christmas break and final exams, Harry’s deepest desires have been re-ordered. He now desires nothing – not even being reunited with the parents he never knew – more than finding the stone so that Voldemort cannot use it to return to power.
It is possible that Harry’s desires have changed because of what Dumbledore said about living in dreams. Harry now accepts that his parents are really dead and never coming back, and that his desire to see them again is dwell in a dream. Perhaps he has dismissed this as an illusion and moved on. But that seems a little cold to me. No, I think it more likely that the change to place elsewhere, and it is exactly in the realm of the moral imagination -what Harry thinks and knows to be possible.
One of the most captivatingly horrible scenes in the first year and in the first book comes between Harry’s two sets of visit with the Mirror. While serving a detention in the Forbidden Forest, Harry sees a dark figure stooped over the body of a unicorn, and when it lifts its head, the silvery blood of the magical creature is dripping from its face. The centaur Firenze, after scaring off the dark, slithery figure, explains to Harry what “a monstrous thing” it is “to slay a unicorn.” Harry wonders why anyone would do such a thing. Firenze explains, “The blood of a unicorn will keep you alive, even if you are an inch from death, but at a terrible price. You have slain something pure and defenseless to save yourself, and you will have but a half-life, a cursed life, from the moment the blood touches your lips.” Harry, still puzzled, says, “But . . . if you’re going to be cursed forever, death’s better, isn’t it?” Harry has seen a rather powerful picture of the horrible things that Voldemort is willing to do to stay alive. And he knows, almost instinctively, that there are some things it is better to die than to do. By the time he gets back to the Gryffindor common room that night to talk it over with his best friends Ron and Hermione, he has realized that if Voldemort finds the Sorcerer’s Stone and returns to power, one of the first things he will do is try and kill Harry. So stopping Voldemort from getting the stone is part of Harry’s very survival. But what I find so powerful, and this is important, is that Harry learns that his life is on the line at the same time that it becomes clear to him that survival-at-all-costs is not a pretty picture.
By the time Quirrell reveals the presence of the Dark Lord and Harry is face-to-face with Voldemort, Harry is no longer the boy who would sneak down to gaze at his parents’ faces in the Mirror or Erised. And that change is crucial to his ability to confront Voldemort. Voldemort know that the stone is now in Harry’s pocket, and he offers him a deal. Give me the stone, he says, and together the two of us will have the power to bring your parents back. (By the way, kudos to the filmmaker who, at this point, shows us something that is not in the book. As Harry is tempted by the offer, he look again into the mirror and sees his parents watching him make his decision, a very nice way of showing how powerful that desire to be with his parents still is). As Harry pulls the stone from his pocket and considers the proposal, Voldemort offers him some moral wisdom: “There is no good and evil. There is only power, and those too weak to seek it.”
Harry can only reject the proposal because he also rejects the moral wisdom. He knows that there is more to life than the seeking of power and the extending of life. He knows that there are goods to seek and evils to avoid, even if one must die to do so. He knows that giving the Sorcerer’s Stone to Voldemort is one of those things that it would be better to die than to do. And so he calls Voldemort a liar and says he will never join him or give him the Stone. Now Harry does not know yet know what a powerful protection his mother’s love for him has become, that it will, in fact, save his life. And so he can only imagine that he is surrendering himself to his death. But he shows that his first concern is now not his own happiness or even survival; he was prepared to die rather than capitulate to evil.
As the story continues to unfold in the books and movies that follow, J. K. Rowling provides more details for the moral imagination. Although Voldemort is a paradigm of evil, she offers us other images as well. She gives us the Dursleys and their incomprehensible refusal to show Harry and real kindness. In Gilderoy Lockhart, she gives us a picture of the emptiness of the desire to be famous without the desire to accomplish anything. In Lucius Malfoy, Rowling gives us power and privilege together in service to evil. In Peter Pettigrew, she gives us a picture of fear and weakness turned to betrayal. In Cornelius Fudge, she gives us a leader so interested in keeping up the appearance that everything is under control that he unwittingly serves the agenda of evil. In Dolores Umbridge, she gives us the myopic cruelty of a bureaucrat who is more interesting in serving the agenda of those in power than in truth or in serving those she is paid to serve.
Likewise, Rowling shows us that there are all kinds of ways to be good. She gives us Arthur and Molly Weasley, who are inexhaustible bastions of love for their many children, and Harry as well, and show us that parents don’t have to die for their children to love and protect them. We get characters like Dobby the House-elf, Neville Longbottom, and Luna Lovegood, who are not always the most effective agents of good, but whose loyalty and willingness to risk themselves is unquestionable. Rowling also reminds us again and again that appearances can be deceiving. One of Harry’s most loyal protectors in Sirius Black, the scruffy fugitive from Azkaban prison. One of his best teachers is a werewolf, Remus Lupin. All of these, together with his best friends Ron and Hermione, Headmaster Dumbledore, and Professors Hagrid and McGonagall, are constant models for Harry, and for us, of some of the forms that goodness might take.
To shape the moral imaginations of our children – or ourselves, for that matter – is to offer them images of what good and evil look like when they are lived out, so that they might have a sense of what it is that they want to seek, and what it is that they want to avoid. J. K. Rowling has provided us with a world rich in such images. But at their center stands the constant sense that death is not the worst thing that can happen to us. The sense that we can secure for ourselves a fate worse than death by slaying the innocent or betraying our friends ought to push us to think carefully through our own desires and fears, through what motivates us and what allows others to manipulate us. The possibility of a half-life, a cursed life, a fate worse than death, can begin to help us sort out our priorities, to order our minds and our lives, and to shape our vision of who we are and who we want to be. Perhaps we will find that there are some things we would rather die than do.
And now, for those of you I spoke to ahead of time, I said I would not be making any predictions this morning. But since I have already set aside the sermon I was planning to preach, I will go ahead and forget what I said about predictions too. In the final book, Harry is going to once again need to wrestle with his desires and fears, and his readiness to die. In book five we learned about, for the first time, a prophecy that seems to mean that Voldemort and Harry cannot exist together, that one of them must die. Harry will need to decide whether he can do evil in order to overcome evil – can he kill Voldemort himself. He will also consider whether he must in some way offer his own life, as his mother did, so that Voldemort can be defeated by another. In the process he will isolate himself from, and alienate, most of his friends. It is my hope, and this is why I pray for Harry Potter, that in the end Harry will go even deeper into his mother’s love – a love that is not just protecting but is itself a good to seek and hold – what Paul called genuine love. It is my hope that Harry will discover some act of love, especially some act of love offered for an enemy, that will allow him to overcome evil with good. In other words, I hope that the final word for Harry is not death, not even a good death, but life and love.
 I am grateful to Prof. Dana Dillon of Providence College who shared her work on Harry Potter with me last Fall at the American Academy of Religion meeting in Washington D.C. I found her reading of Harry in light of St. Augustine’s understanding of “faith as rightly ordered desire” to be insightful. My sermon this morning is heavily indebted to her presentation and to our subsequent conversation. Thank you also to St. Augustine himself for the words: “Thou hast created the desire to praise thee. To praise thee is our joy, for Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.” My 2003 sermon, “The Gospel and Harry Potter,” is also available on this blog.
 This is why children’s and young adult literature ought to be read both by parents and kids, because it powerfully shapes our sense of what is and is not possible, what can and cannot be done, what should and should not be done. Einstein once said that “ once we stretch our mind around a new idea, it cannot be stretched back.” The very best books for kids (L’Engle, Rowling, Pullman, to name a few) have tried to stretch our minds around love, the biggest idea of all.