Monday, August 22, 2011

The Gospel According to Hogwarts

Warning: Spoilers if you haven't read/seen "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows."

I started reading the Harry Potter books after reading a review that compared them favorably to the Narnia Chronicles. And once into them, I noticed that, while they were definitely fantasy, they also partook of the sub-genre of British Boarding School novels. The most famous is "Tom Brown's Schooldays." I can't summarize the tropes of this type of book better than the entry in Wikipedia does: "It focuses largely on friendship, honor and loyalty between pupils. Furthermore plots involving sports events, bullies, romance and bravery are often used to shape the school story." That pretty much describes the Harry Potter novels, doesn't it?

There have been objections in Christian circles to the novels because of the magic involved. My response is that this has nothing to do with the real world witchcraft that the Bible condemns. There is no calling up of demons or invocation of gods or goddesses in order to accomplish one's will. The people in the Potter universe are either born magical or not, and their powers manifest themselves somewhere around their teens, rather like the X-men. If you are a muggle, you cannot use magic. If you are a wizard or witch, you already have magical powers and need not make deals with devils or gods. Hogwarts, like Professor Xavier's school, merely teaches these kids to use their powers properly. And the most important lessons learned by the people in the novels are moral. The morals are specifically Christian.

Traditionally there are 7 chief virtues. Four are called the cardinal virtues and were recognized by all people, Christian or pagan: wisdom, fairness, moderation and courage. You see examples of all of them in the Potter series. The wisest characters are Dumbledore and Hermione. Harry has a strong sense of justice or fairness, though Hermione is one of the few who sees that the wizarding world has mistreated other magical folks, like the house elves. Hermione and Ron are always urging moderation or self-restraint upon Harry, who is a bit of a hothead and whose impetuousness does, in a sense, lead to the death of his godfather, Sirius Black. And several characters are courageous, perhaps most of all Severus Snape, who is a double agent for Dumbledore and pays dearly for it. In his years at Hogwarts, Harry learns a lot from these people and comes of age early, another trope of this genre.

As we said, all people value the 4 cardinal virtues. But the 3 theological virtues are uniquely Judeo-Christian: faith, hope and love. If non-believers value them today, it is because these virtues have become part of the culture due to the influence of Christianity over the last 1700 years. And when I recognized that these virtues were the linchpin of J.K. Rowling's saga, I strongly suspected that she was writing a Christian story. Let's look at each of the these virtues closely, both by themselves and as part of the novels.

Faith is not merely a vague, unfounded feeling that all will turn out well. Faith is trust and trust has to have an object. You trust your car to get you to work. You trust your parents to have your wellbeing in mind when they make decisions that will affect you. You trust your doctor when he tells you what you must do to avoid illness or to get better. Of course, your faith in any of these can be shattered. In a fallen world trust is difficult. That's why in Christianity it is a virtue, a conscious moral stance you take. At some point, you have to choose whether to trust God or not. And if you do so, you choose to rely on him even in the face of events that have a negative impact on your life. Making that choice is virtuous.

In the Harry Potter world, the person whom the good guys trust is Dumbledore. When Dolores Umbridge takes over the school, Harry forms like-minded classmates into a group called Dumbledore's Army. It is Dumbledore's wisdom and goodness that causes Harry to trust him. He later finds out that Dumbledore has been watching over him throughout his life, often through agents like Mrs. Figg, the cat lady who gave Harry chores to do as he grew up with the Dursleys. Even his placement with his aunt's family was done by Dumbledore to protect him from his enemies. Harry continues to trust Dumbledore even though he finds out the headmaster knew about the prophesy that Harry and Voldemort could not both continue to live and knew from the time Harry was an infant. Harry trusts Dumbledore to the extent that he is able to face his death as Dumbledore did his, in order to destroy Voldemort.

The opposite of faith is fear. Without trust, all that is left is uncertainty. Uncertainty is a terrible state in which to live. I know of someone who adopted the 3 year old child of addicts. When she fed the child, it not only ate hungrily, but hoarded and hid food. The child's early experience was that being fed was not a certainty. Fear of not being fed again led it to keep some food in hiding just in case. The child had to learn to trust its new mother.

Fear is what motivates Voldemort. He fears death above all and he trusts no one but himself. Fear of him is what binds his followers, more than anything else. Many of mankind's sorrows come from fear. Fear of others can lead to hatred and rage and isolation. If someone hates a group of people, it is because on some level they fear them. In the Potter universe, certain wizards fear what they call "mud bloods," magical folk born to muggle parents. It is telling that Voldemort's father was a muggle, paralleling the historical question of whether Hitler's grandfather was Jewish. Rowling says Voldemort thinks of death as a human weakness, so one can see why he hates muggles and wants only pureblooded wizards.

Fear of loss can lead to greed. A person who hoards can never have enough. We have seen the devastation that fear and greed have wrought in the world. Ironically, it is because money is basically a symbol of trust. Now the world is unsure whether the richest nation in the world will always pay its debts. It is afraid that the Euro and the dollar will not retain their value and so the markets resemble a very scary rollercoaster. Only the restoration of faith will calm the financial world in which we have ourselves put too much trust. This is an example of why it is silly to say "it doesn't matter what you believe, as long as you believe in it sincerely." Not all things are worthy objects of our trust. In the Potter universe, it is wise to trust in Dumbledore. In the real world, it is wise to trust in God.

The second theological virtue, hope, is the future tense of faith. It is the belief that one's trust will be rewarded. It is the belief that the bad things in our past need not dictate our future. In Christianity it is the trust that the God of love revealed in Jesus Christ will fulfill his promises, to redeem us and restore the world to what he intended it to become when he first created it and pronounced it good.

In the Potter universe, that hope rests in Harry. He is the "boy who lived" when Voldemort intended him to die. The spell rebounded on the evil wizard almost killing him. Harry's survival is for the magical community a sign of hope. It is interesting that Harry's greatest fear, manifested when confronted by a boggart, is a Dementor. The effect of the Dementor's Kiss is the loss of all joy, all hope, in other words, despair. Despair is the opposite of hope.

Again, in Christian ethics, hope is a conscious moral choice. Strictly speaking, one cannot know the future. But by choosing to hope, to believe in the triumph of God's goodness and justice over evil, one is taking a moral stance. You are choosing sides. By giving in to despair, by giving up, you are choosing to be part of the problems that afflict this world, either actively or passively. By choosing hope, and acting on it, you are part of the solution to the ills of the world. When learning of the prophesy that neither he or Voldemort can survive together in this world, Harry could have succumbed to despair. In fact, that is what kept Dumbledore from telling Harry about the prophesy earlier. He did not want to dash his hopes. But the prophesy is ambiguous. Does it mean only one can live or that neither can? Does it require the death of one, or of both? Harry chooses hope.

The final and greatest of the theological virtues is love. And by this, we do not mean just any kind of love. We mean the divine love most perfectly manifested in Jesus' sacrifice of himself to save humanity. Self-sacrificial love is the heart of the Harry Potter saga. In the very first book we learn that it was the self-sacrificial love of Harry's mother that caused Voldemort's killing spell to backfire. It protects him over and over and it is something Voldemort does not understand. Because of his fear of death, the evil wizard cannot conceive of sacrificing himself for another person. But Harry puts himself in harm's way again and again to save his friends. In the Chamber of Secrets, he nearly dies to save Ginny. He himself is saved by the healing tears of Fawkes, the phoenix. And you can be sure that J.K. Rowling knows that the phoenix, which dies and is reborn, is an ancient symbol of Christ. It could be a symbol of the entire Harry Potter series.

In the last book, Harry realizes that when Voldemort tried to kill Harry as an infant, he inadvertently made the child a horcrux instead. Murdering Harry's parents splintered the wizard's soul and a small part entered Harry. Voldemort had been using this evil method to hide bits of his soul in various objects, to secure a kind of immortality. Harry and others in the Order of the Phoenix had tried to destroy these horcruxes so that Voldemort would be mortal. Now Harry must die so that Voldemort can be killed and the world saved from his evil. While this is not the first time Harry faces death, it is the first time he will do so without the intention of fighting back. He goes like a lamb to the slaughter, trusting that Dumbledore was right and hoping that the world will be better for his sacrifice. As it says in John 15:13, "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." Harry Potter puts up his wand and lets Voldemort kill him.

The whole series is leading up to this. My daughter and I anticipated it and were worried that Harry would win a Pyrrhic victory. Rowling's books, while replete with Christian ethics, were silent on its theology. When Sirius Black dies, Harry is frustrated by the silence of the grave and its finality. There seems to be no way to bring back the dead. So Harry along with the reader is surprised to find him conscious and in some sense alive immediately after Voldemort pronounces the killing curse. He finds himself in what appears to be the train station at King's Cross, probably the most blatant symbolism in the series. There he talks to the deceased Dumbledore and it is revealed that he can return to his body if he chooses. The spell simply destroyed the sliver of Voldemort's soul hidden in Harry.

Harry does return, of course. And here I want to draw attention to another virtue we find in the Potter tales: mercy. In their confrontation in the Room of Requirement, Harry saves his adversary Draco Malfoy from a fiery death. When Harry returns to life, he finds that it is Malfoy's mother who is bending over him, checking that he is dead for Voldemort. Noticing that he is in fact alive again, she whispers, "Is Draco alive? Is he in the castle?" Harry lets her know he is and she lies to the dark wizard, telling him Harry is dead. This allows Harry to get the drop on Voldemort. Again and again Harry shows mercy, to Dobby the house elf, to his opponents in the Tri-Wizard Tournament, and to Draco. And in most instances, it is repaid. In this instance, it enables Harry to end the evil of Voldemort.

Harry Potter, like the main protagonists in the Lord of the Rings, like Neo in the Matrix, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, like Aslan in the Narnia Chronicles, is an archetypal Christ figure, one whose self-sacrifice saves others. Unlike Aslan, Harry is not divine, nor does he foresee what he must do. In that way, he is like us. Rowlings intimates that either Harry or Neville Longbottom could have fulfilled the prophesy. Ironically, by choosing to attack Harry, Voldemort marked him as the chosen one. So, too, extraordinary circumstances may make one of us the ordinary person who must step up to the plate and make a fateful decision or a loving sacrifice. Or we may, like Neville, find ourselves faced with the less central but equally important task of helping and supporting others in their mission. Neville uses the sword of Gryffindor to dispatch another horcrux, without which Harry would not have succeeded in freeing everyone from Voldemort's evil reign.

Indeed, the final virtue celebrated throughout the books is that of a community that helps and supports each member as they strive to do good. Harry could not have won were it not for Hermione, Ron, Ginny, and their family, Professor McGonigle, Moaning Myrtle, Dobby, Professor Lupin, Tonks, Dumbledore and even Snape. They are bound by their faith in Dumbledore, the hope Harry represents and their love for each other. In this, they parallel the Body of Christ, the community bound by our trust in God, our hope in Christ and our fellowship in the Holy Spirit of the Divine Love that made us and redeems us and sustains us. May we, like the good students of Hogwarts, keep alive and practice these virtues as we go out into a world that, though lacking in fictitious magic, is suffused with the wondrous works of our great, good and wise God.

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