Monday, October 1, 2007

Harry Potter and the Christian Story

To many of us post-moderns, the Christian story seems rather a mundane thing. Residing in the back of our collective consciousness, it’s just familiar enough to seem unremarkable, yet just unknown enough to be misunderstood. Even Sunday school can be like a vaccine, providing just enough theology to leave us immune to the deep drama of the faith.

It was into just such a situation that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien wrote their works of fantasy. Their goal was to create fiction that could cut through that cultural immunity, and allow a modern audience to hear the Christian story as though for the first time. As Lewis put it:

I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons?
It was an admirable goal, but only partially accomplished. Both Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings would eventually become exceedingly popular, but only long after their intentions were respectively too well-known and entirley missed. Thus, for many readers, the Christian themes of Narnia were a bit too obvious, a bit too early, to evade "those watchful dragons," while the imaginative mythology of Lord of the Rings quickly obscured its own Christian trajectory. Don't get me wrong, both series are outstanding in their own ways, but it remains unclear just how well they fulfilled their intentions.

It was with this background in mind that I finally read J.K. Rowling’s epic Harry Potter series this past month (now you know why my blogging has been so much lighter!). Though I had seen (and enjoyed) a couple of the movies, reading the series all at once proved far more satisfying than I ever expected. Having studiously avoided reading anyone else's views on the series, I was most surprized by just how well Rowling (a practicing member of the Church of Scotland) had managed to accomplish precisely the goal that Lewis and Tolkien set themselves. On the one hand, she managed to build an absolutely unprecedented readership who adored the series without yet knowing where it was headed (according to some reports, the series had sold over 300 million copies before the final book was released!). On the other hand, by the end of the Deathly Hallows she had succeeded in retelling the Christian story in a way that is at once freshly engaging, deeply nostalgic, and hardly mistakable.

Though lacking the poetic beauty of Lord of the Rings, and obscuring some of Narnia's theological distinctions, Harry Potter pulls together countless imaginative story-lines involving dozens of well-developed characters, while seamlessly interweaving a host of important themes: from coming of age and facing death, to love and friendship, trust and loyalty, and redemption and sacrifice, to courage and betrayal, good and evil, and much else. That entire books were written decrying the series' “anti-Christian” message (I haven’t read them, but I can't imagine anyone writing one now), indicates just how well she has accomplished her goal.

So as not to spoil them for anyone who hasn’t yet read the books (you really should!), I wont go into any details, but suffice it to say that Rowling has admirably lived up to her forebears in Lewis and Tolkien, not least because she allowed her Christian themes to build to a fitting climax, rather than airing them out too early. In the end, Harry Potter proves much more explicitly Christian than The Lord of the Rings, yet much less obtrusive than The Chronicles of Narnia. I really cannot recommend it highly enough; I only wish I had another month to reread it, now that I know how it all comes together!

If anyone else here has read the series, what are your reactions?

UPDATE: If you've come to this post directly and want a more detailed account of Harry Potter's Christian nature, don't miss Mark Shea's "Harry Potter and the Christian Critics" (Spoiler Warning).

2 comments:

John said...

I read it and had the same reactions. It is sad to see so many Christians protesting the book. A. It is good fun. B. The message of the series is spot on.

I am a big Harry Potter fan. Thanks for the post!

Ken Brown said...

John,
"A. It is good fun. B. The message of the series is spot on."

My thoughts exactly. Though they are a bit too dark to really call "children's literature," I have no doubt that I will be reading them to my kids as soon as they are old enough.