Back in 2007 I preached a series on “the gospel and Harry Potter.” This series coincided with a huge cultural moment among HP fans: the release of the seventh book and the fifth film. Before I left for Collegeville, and in honor of the final chapter of the saga hitting theaters, I threw them up here on the blog. Enjoy…
One of the things I am not addressing much in this series is the discomfort that some people have with a series of books that are populated by witches and wizards—stories that are soaked in the language of magic. It bothers some, because aren’t there prohibitions against sorcery and witchcraft in scripture?
Yes, there are. And while it is important for parents to know what their children are reading, and I do hope that parents are circumspect in how they share these stories, especially with young children, there are at least two reasons why I find no major cause for concern.
The first is that the magic employed in these books is totally disconnected with any sense of religion or deity. There are no rituals of magic, no calling forth of satanic spirits or agents of the occult, indeed no mention whatsoever of spirits in the traditional sense. Magic serves a utilitarian purpose; it is not a means of worship or devotion. Magic is simply an aspect of the natural laws governing their universe. Just as we get around by car and bicycle; they get around by Portkeys and Floo Powder. Just as young people in our world might play a prank on a friend by TPing his house, young wizards might, say, turn his pet owl purple. (Not that I am condoning either activity, of course!)
The second reason I see no real concern, however, is much more important. Even with all the clever tricks, charms and potions we find in the Harry Potter books, there is a much deeper and universal force at work in the Potter universe. This idea is expressed well by an inhabitant of a different magical world, Aslan of Narnia, who says of the Witch in that story, “Though she knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know.” (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe)
Just as there is in Narnia, there is a deeper magic in Harry’s world. It is a magic that hums underneath all the comings and goings of the wizarding universe. And as fantastical as certain elements of Harry’s world are to us, this deep magic is instantly recognizable to us as well.
There is a scene toward the end of book 1 in which Harry fights Voldemort by way of one of his followers, who has insinuated his way into Hogwarts in the guise of a teacher. During the battle, every time the man tries to grab Harry, he recoils in terrible pain, and Harry prevails—much to his surprise, I might add.
Dumbledore, the headmaster, later explains to Harry why the evil one was unable to touch him:
Your mother died to save you. 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. Voldemort’s servant, full of hatred, greed, and ambition, could not touch you for this reason. It was agony to touch a person marked by something so good. (Sorcerer’s Stone, p. 299)
“If there is one thing evil cannot understand, it is love…”
—Love that cares nothing for self-preservation;
love that would sacrifice itself for another.
This love trumps everything else in the wizarding world, and that’s a basic theme of the books. So not only is the series not hostile to our faith, it underscores one of the basic principles of it.
Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And we know the long line of people throughout history, including Jesus, though of course not starting with Jesus: people who gave their lives for the life of another… in witness to the kingdom… in sacrificial love. The band U2’s classic song about the death of Martin Luther King sings “In the name of love, what more in the name of love?” It’s about King, but not just King. The lyrics suggest what we know, that it’s an old, old story indeed. One person dies that others might be free.
Just last week at the youth choir concert, the youth sang an anthem that was written in the wake of a plane crash that claimed the lives of several from a college choir who returning from a tour. One of the individuals who died was a young man who survived the crash, but was overcome by smoke inhalation as he led others to safety.
It’s a story that reverberates in our deepest heart of hearts—it appeals to our best hopes for ourselves. If last week’s sermon addressed the question, “Who are you and to whom do you belong?” perhaps today’s central question is, “What story are you in?” Are you in a story where it’s every man for himself, every woman for herself? Or is it a story in which we are powerfully and inevitably marked by the grace and love of God? …a grace and love that calls us to great sacrifice?
This is the story that weaves throughout the wizarding universe as well. Just listen to this exchange between two characters who were both close to Harry’s parents, one of whom betrayed them to Lord Voldemort:
Sirius: You sold Harry’s parents to Voldemort. Do you deny it?
Peter: What could I have done? The Dark Lord… you have no idea… he has weapons you can’t imagine… I was scared, I was never brave like you and the others. I never meant it to happen… He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named forced me.
Sirius: Don’t lie! You’d been passing information to him for a year before Lily and James Potter died! You were his spy!
Peter: He—he was taking over everywhere! Wh-what was there to be gained by refusing him?
Sirius: What was there to be gained by fighting the most evil wizard who has ever existed? Only innocent lives!
Peter: You don’t understand. He would have killed me!
Sirius: THEN YOU SHOULD HAVE DIED! DIED RATHER THAN BETRAY YOUR FRIENDS, AS WE WOULD HAVE DONE FOR YOU! (Prisoner of Azkaban, p. 374-5)
I myself pray that when faced with a life or death decision, to offer my life to save others, that I would make the faithful choice.
Yet I also know that if my past experience is any indication, the opportunities to truly sacrifice one’s life for someone else… well, they don’t come along very often.
What does it mean to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, each and every day? What about the day-in, day-out care for a spouse who has a chronic illness? Or the children with special needs and abundant energy?
“This is my commandment; that you love one another…” Love that isn’t wrapped in gauzy sentimentality, filmed through a soft-filtered lens. Love that is real and transformative, both for the giver and the receiver. I can think of at least three ways that we are called to love sacrificially even in the midst of everyday life.
First: love takes the long view, keeping the big picture in mind. Love values long-term wholeness over present gratification.
Toward the end of book 1, Harry and his friends Ron and Hermione are working through a series of tests and challenges in order to retrieve the so-called sorcerer’s stone from falling into the wrong hands. These challenges include a game of wizard’s chess—not the tabletop version, but a life-size chessboard in which swords are drawn and pieces are smashed to rubble. Listen to what Ron says to Harry as he prepares to make a decisive move:
[Play clip in which Ron says he must be sacrificed in order that Harry can go on]
Sometimes love means knowing what is most important—being able to see the larger picture. Jesus, for example, could have refused to go to the cross. He could have stayed and fed another crowd of 5,000, healed scores of others, preached more sermons. But he had a deeper mission—to feed the whole world, to heal all of creation; and his death and resurrection said more about the grace of God than a lifetime of sermons ever could.
That’s obviously a rather dramatic example. Maybe for us it’s as simple as forgoing a hurtful word or a nagging comment toward a loved one, in service to the larger goal of a harmonious relationship. Or maybe it’s letting a child make her own mistakes, resisting the urge to rescue every time she threatens a misstep, because that’s how children learn. Maybe it’s knowing that real love keeps the end in mind: a time when she will be an independent adult, able to make her own decisions and dust herself off when she falters.
Love takes the long view.
A second aspect of real self-sacrificing love meets people where they are. This is suggested in the experience of another character from the wizarding world, a werewolf. Now werewolves are perfectly safe to be around, except during the full moon, but they are second-class citizens in the society. Listen to a passage in which one of these individuals describes how his friends respond to his condition:
I became a full-fledged monster once a month. My transformations in those days were—were terrible. It is very painful to turn into a werewolf. I was separated from humans to bite, so I bit and scratched myself. But apart from this, I was happier than I had ever been in my life. For the first time ever, I had friends, three great friends. At first I was terrified they would desert me the moment they found out what I was.
But they didn’t desert me at all. Instead, they did something for me that would make my transformations bearable. They became Animagi—[humans who can transform into animals]. They couldn’t keep me company as humans, so they kept me company as animals. A werewolf is only dangerous to people. Under their influence, I became less dangerous. My body was still wolfish, but my mind seemed to become less so while I was with them. (Prisoner of Azkaban, p. 352)
This character’s friends walked alongside him each month, keeping him safe, letting him know that he wasn’t alone.
Sometimes laying down one’s life for one’s friends means meeting them where they are, not where we want them to be.
“Why can’t you just snap out of that depression?”
“Shouldn’t you have dealt with your grief by now?”
“You just need to accept the breakup of your marriage as God’s will.”
…we strive instead to pursue what Paul called “a more excellent way,” the way of love (I Cor. 13).
Remember poor Job? His friends had it right at first. When he’d lost everything and was sitting in the ash heap, they sat in silence with him for seven days. For just a little while, they lay down their lives—their need to fix, to seek explanation, to control the situation by picking it apart and finding someone to blame. (Too bad they don’t quit while they were ahead—they can’t resist jumping in with all sorts of well-meaning but tragically unhelpful theories.)
Love meets others where they are.
Third: love persists in loving, even when it seems foolish, weak, or naïve to do so.
At the end of the second book, Harry is fighting Voldemort (do you sense the trend?), who has taken the form of his younger self. Harry is fighting the good fight, but he is the underdog, and he is all alone. Watch what happens next.
[Show clip in which the gifts arrive to help Harry (phoenix bring the sorting hat) and Voldemort responds with scorn]
Love means that the tools at your disposal are going to seem woefully inadequate. Look at the contempt on young Voldemort’s face. This is what Dumbledore sends to help you? he sneers.
It is ridiculous. Love seems a feeble tool indeed in a world drowning in despair. We tear ourselves apart through a seemingly endless war and ever-more-horrific acts of terror, and the answer is to love one another? No wonder we’ve let marketers co-opt the word love to describe everything from carpet cleaner to sport utility vehicles: We know that any power the word love might have seems ridiculous in the face of real threats, real destruction.
The “old hat” doesn’t look like much, but it brings with it a powerful gift. And the “songbird” is a phoenix, and provides its own gift when Harry is mortally wounded:
[Show clip in which Harry is healed by the phoenix’s tears]
Is it any wonder that the phoenix has been a symbol used in Christian art from the first century? Not just because it rises again from its ashes, but because through its tears—an expression of true vulnerability if there ever was one!—it is able to heal.
Isn’t it Paul who reminds us, “God has chosen what is foolish to shame the wise”?
Christ’s power was in his weakness.
Real love persists in loving even when to do so makes us look foolish, weak, or naïve.
There are many more aspects of love we might mention. Like all great mysteries of life, love has depths and dimensions that will never be fully explored. The question is simply this:
What story are we in?
…The story written by the giants of commerce, empire and advertising, that might makes right, money is power, go along to get along?
…Or the story told in the life of a wandering penniless prophet from Nazareth who commanded us to love, who said to the evils of the world, “You think you’re going to have the last word? Watch what I do next.”
The choice is ours.