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Posted by on Aug 3, 2007

Theology in Harry Potter?

So how can I follow posts on heavy topics such as the meaning of human suffering (Richard Rohr, OFM) and the consciousness of God in all things (Ignatius of Loyola) with Harry Potter? A lot of Christians would say the whole series is anti-Christian, pro-witchcraft, and neo-pagan, although some naysayers have had a change of heart. When we look at the basic themes, there is a similarity. Rohr’s focus on the discovery of God “at the bottom,” when everything has gone wrong, finds its echo in the story. The presence and activity of God in our daily lives, as taught by Ignatius Loyola, and our being led by the Spirit, finds an analog here as well.

Lev Grossman in his July 21, 2007 Time Magazine pre-publication review of the seventh and final volume of the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, summarizes the “cosmology of the Potterverse”.

Though thematically speaking it’s a sidelight, it’s one of the key differences between Rowling and her great literary forebears. Rowling has been careful to build Harry up from boy to man, student to leader, but she has been equally attentive to the task of breaking Dumbledore down, from a divine father-figure to a mere human. Her insistence on this point is a reflection of the cosmology of the Potterverse: there are no higher powers in residence there. The attic and the basement are empty. There may be an afterlife, and ghosts, but there is certainly no God, and no devil. There are also no immortal, all-wise elves, as in Tolkien, nor are there any mystical Maiar, which is what Gandalf was (what, you thought he was human? Genealogically speaking, he’s closer to a balrog than he is to a man.) There is certainly no benevolent, paternal Aslan to turn up late in the book and fight the Big Bad. The essential problem in Rowling’s books is how to love in the face of death, and her characters must arrive at the solution all on their own, hand-to-hand, at street level, with bleeding knuckles and gritted teeth, and then sweep up the rubble afterwards.

According to Grossman, there is no God in the universe of Harry Potter. To quote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “Well that about wraps it up for God.” Or does it?

Earlier in his review, Grossman reviews the primary theme of the series:

Deathly Hallows is of course not merely the tying up of plot-threads, it’s the final iteration of Rowling’s abiding thematic concern: the overwhelming importance of continuing to love in the face of death. On this point, at least, we’re not waiting for a new wrinkle. Dumbledore has been schooling us on this subject since Goblet of Fire, if not longer — when in doubt Rowling tends to err on the side of quashing ambiguity, both telling and showing when one would probably do. So we have known for a while that Voldemort cannot love, that he has been spiritually ruined by his parents’ deaths, and he will kill anyone to stave off his own death. Harry, though also an orphan, has found the courage to love. “Do not pity the dead, Harry,” a wise man tells Harry in Deathly Hallows. “Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love.”

Grossman does not give the ending – or even much of the story – away. So after reading his review, my hopes for a theology of Harry Potter appeared to meet the fate of most of my bright ideas. Nevertheless, I mentioned it to my in house Potter expert, my 14 year old Rosie. Her answer was prefaced by that sort of perplexed look she inherited from her mother prior to asking me to get down – very carefully – from my cloud. Her question was obvious. “How can there be a theology if there is no God in the series?”

Although my intellectual backhand has never been very good, I can sometimes get it to return the ball over the net. “Well,” I said, trying to sound neither too defensive nor too academically pompous “some German theologians published a paper on the theology of Harry Potter some years ago, so…” The flash in her eyes indicated that I was getting into the forbidden “lecture zone,” so I knew I had 5 milliseconds to change the topic before I got the dreaded wrinkling of the eyebrows, signifying an impending system lockout heralded by the morning comics coming up to somehow mask the rolling of the eyes that burned through the newsprint anyway.

Deciding that a diplomatic back channel through a third party might give me a chance to make my argument, I pivoted by gaze to my wife Kathy, whose eyes came up from her morning toast with her best “to the rescue” look of quizicality. I made my case.

In “Harry Potter and the Art of Theology 2” Wandinger, Drexler, and Peter (2005) present their analysis of an implicit theology.

J. K. Rowling’s novels are read as containing an implicit theology that is essentially Christian. We argue this case here for a theology of sacrifice and the novels’ allusion to a Messianic calling of their main character.

I pointed out that the basic themes were all there, even if they were buried beneath the post-modern, post-Christian rubble of a 21st century deconstructed worldview.

A few days later, after we had read the final book, I sat down at the table and Rosie said, “Do you always look so smug when you are right?” She continued “a sacrifice — he goes willingly to save others – a resurrection of sorts.” Flabbergasted and delighted, the only thing that I could think to say was the obvious. “I inherited it from my children.”

Post Script:

Behold A Phoenix, a blog about the Christian values in the Harry Potter series takes on Grossman’s atheistic interpretation and counters it with Rowling’s views as quoted in a Vancouver interview. The author declares that she is a Christian and that her admission would probably be more disturbing to the Christian right than to athiests. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows appears to reflect very central Christian themes of faith, love, and hope in the face of death and trust in the resurrection. Will Rowling be the new C.S. Lewis?

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  1. I like the Harry Potter series and very much enjoyed this article. It occurred to me that God is often present even when we do not refer to or perceive God. It is our own single view of the world and creation that makes us feel uncomfortable when others act in a “Godly” and good manner but never refer to God. To me the mystery of God is made manifest in the good things we and others do. It is not important, essentially, if they refer to God at all.

  2. It is ironic that many times when people think they are acting on God’s behalf and make a big deal of it you can almost be certain that there is more self than God in the action. Thanks for your note. Take care.

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