Post-Christian Potter

Where does Harry’s magic come from?

[SPOILER ALERT: While the ending of the new Harry Potter novel is not revealed in this review, certain plot points are…consider yourself warned.]

Shortly after the first Harry Potter books came out in the United States in 2000, The Onion ran a story with the memorable headline “Harry Potter Books Spark Rise in Satanism Among Children.” Included in the article was an interview with a young six-year old Potter fan who says that the books taught her “Jesus died because He was weak and stupid.”

Though The Onion is a satiric newspaper and the story was a complete fabrication, the conceit that there is something evil lurking behind Harry’s magical powers is no laughing matter among some conservative Christians who presume that magic must come from the devil. But in imaginative works of fiction like the Potter books, including the latest, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, magic is no more a gift from the devil than is Superman’s X-Ray vision or Huck Finn’s raft. The magic in Harry Potter is simply an aspect a different, fictional world. Still if Harry’s magic isn’t Satanic, neither is it Christian. He never really acknowledges God, nor the sources of his powers (if they have a source), or for that matter any reality beyond the one he is in. Though its source is never acknowledged, if anything, the Harry Potter series is post-Christian because it is unconsciously filled with the values and vocabulary of Christianity.

Potter’s universe has a clear moral code, and, what’s more, people who follow it, people who don’t, and people who change sides. This concern for the knowledge of good and evil and the possibility of both redemption and a fall from grace are clearly Christian themes.

The outright battle between the light and dark wizards which began at the end of the previous novel reaches full force with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. The Dark Lord, Voldemort has assembled hordes of followers called “Death Eaters” who cause all sorts of violence and danger that threaten both the wizard and muggle worlds.

The story’s external conflicts are matched by equally intense internal battles. Harry is constantly tempted to use his considerable powers to quench his growing anger and need for vengeance. Dumbledore, the master of the Wizards School, Hogwarts, is confident in the goodness of others but even his deep wisdom is susceptible to trickery. Severus Snape, Harry’s former potions teacher, is also a former death eater and no one knows where his allegiances lie.

To complicate matters even further, as the “The Chosen One,” Harry is believed to be the only wizard who can kill Voldemort. But he is also racked with doubt about his abilities and concerned that any relationships he has could distract him from his mission. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince constantly asks profound moral questions but struggling with deep ethical dilemmas does not necessarily make a novel Christian, it just makes it human.

Harry truly grows up in J.K. Rowling’s newest installment. He becomes a leader on the Quidditch field (sort of a wizard soccer, but with flying brooms) and comes to realize, again, both the phenomenal importance of his friends and the strengths and limitations of his mentors. By the end of this second-to-last novel in the series, Harry makes certain realizations about the future of his life (to say more would spoil it). Suffice it to say Christians would call this a vocation; Harry calls it his destiny.

Such talk of vocation and destiny mark the Potter tales as post-Christian, which reflects the post-Christian England in which the series is set and the series’ author, J.K. Rowling writes. While the Church of England is the official state church in England, for practical purposes Christianity has been supplanted by a secular culture with a lingering residue of Christian values and vocabulary. Just as Beowulf was a pagan story told in a newly Christian land, so Harry Potter has Christian elements that can appeal to a widely secular audience. What is perhaps most profoundly Christian about this latest Potter novel, and the entire series, is that Harry was saved as a baby because Voldemort could not overcome the love of Harry’s mother. Years later, Dumbledore insists that Harry’s ability to love is ultimately why he is stronger than the Dark Lord.

Love as the source of our strength is neither secular nor is it especially pagan, it is a Christian value. Harry’s magic might not necessarily come from God but it does come from love. Vocation, destiny, redemption are certainly Christian themes, but they also appear in literature and myth, and it seems a bit selfish for Christians to claim them as exclusively theirs. The difference is that while other religions talk about the importance of love, Christianity invests love with, as Dostoevsky said, a “harsh and dreadful” power. If–as John says in the New Testament–God is love then Harry Potter is Christian enough for me.