Harry Potter and the Christian Critics

A curious teapot tempest of the sort one only finds in the hothouse of Extremely Earnest Conservative Christianity has been going on for several years, ever since the release of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and the subsequent popularity of the Potter phenomenon.  Various concerns litter the landscape of Christian conversation on these books, charges which seem to me to virtually no substance at all.  For example:

A. Charges of occultism. The simple fact is this: the books are not occultic. Magic is not real, as Rowling repeatedly has had to state to interviewers who ask her if she “believes” in it. The magic of Harry is, as John Granger points out, “incantational”, not “invocational”, exactly like the magic of Gandalf.  If you happened to be born with the talent for magic, you say the magic words and fire leaps forth from Gandalf’s staff just as from Harry’s wand. No principalities or powers are invoked in HP. Indeed, if any words are “invocational” they are the prayer to Elbereth and Gilthoniel uttered in Middle Earth. Yet nobody accuses Tolkien of promoting the worship of false gods. That’s because we understand Tolkien’s fictional subcreation and its rootedness in Christian thought. I suggest Christian critics try to extend Rowling the same charity.

B. Guilt by AssociationNuff said.

C. The Charge of Gnosticism: Michael O’Brien et al have made a career of arguing that Harry is an elaborate anti-Christian gnostic myth teaching that we can become gods without God by the mastery of hidden knowledge.

But magic in Harry’s world is a sort of knack or inborn talent just as the magical abilities of elves or Istari are in Middle Earth. You either have the gift or you don’t. Many of the wizards in Harry’s world are morons or monsters who happen to have the ability to do magic (think Crabbe and Goyle, or the Death Eaters). Indeed, the repeated lesson of Harry Potter is that mere magical ability is of no moral or spiritual significance at all. Harry’s great fear, again and again, is that he shares many native abilities in common with Voldemort (for instance, being a Parselmouth) and therefore wonders if he too is bad. Dumbledore’s consolation to Harry is that “it is our choices”, far more than our abilities that are what really matter. And Harry’s choices concern, not “secret knowledge” but deeply human things like love, mercy, forgiveness, courage, loyalty, and fidelity. None of this is gnostic.

C. The Charge of Irreligion and the Death of God. When The Lord of the Rings came out, Sir Ian McKellen demonstrated yet again that actors should stick to acting by replying to Christians who suggested Gandalf has some Christ-like aspects:

What I liked about Hobbits was that it was the perfect community but it didn’t have a church. There is no God in Lord of the Rings, no Pope, no bishop, no credo, or no one telling you what to do.

The irony of Michael O’Brien’s “death of God” claims about HP is that they echo McKellen’s thinking about Middle Earth. Nobody in HP goes to Church or prays. God is never invoked. Harry feels forsaken by Dumbledore, so that allegedly proves that the world Rowling has created has no room for God. As O’Brien says, “There is no God, apparently, so we must be our own gods. If there is no father (as every orphan knows) than we must be our own fathers.”

But then again, as McKellen says, it “proves” exactly the same thing about Middle Earth. The closest you get to prayer is the Standing Silence of the Men of Gondor (and that, only among the best of them, such as Faramir). Gandalf makes dim mention of Frodo being “meant” to find the Ring, but surely this can’t mean Frodo is the humble one chosen by Providence, because then we might have to admit the same possibility for Harry.

For the same reason, Frodo’s soldiering on through sheer dint of will despite death, betrayal, loss and apparent abandonment by the world are really Tolkien’s way of asserting that God is dead, and that Frodo must achieve salvation without the help of grace. After all, if we acknowledge that this is preposterous, then we might also have to acknowledge that when Harry must undergo a baptism to retrieve the Sword of Gryffindor that Rowling carefully describes as shaped like a cross, or is helped by the phoenix (an image of Christ as old as 1 Clement) that too might just possibly suggest that Harry isn’t quite living in the autonomous existentialist atheist universe O’Brien insists he is. Indeed, Rowling’s books are stuffed with Christian imagery, climaxing in Harry’s own sacrificial self-offering, “death” and “resurrection” by which he saves the wizarding world and robs Voldemort of his power. Not for nothing did Rowling note that she did not discuss her Christian faith too much, lest it give away the end of the series

D. Moral problems. Till the release of Deathly Hallows, a minor “Harry is immoral” argument tended to get trotted out when critics started to realize that the charges above don’t fly.  Failing to show that Harry was the spawn of Satan, the charge “Harry lies and bends the rules and gets away with it” was then granted Most Favored Damnation status–as though books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn did not exist and were not classics of the English language.  Proponents of such arguments seem to really think that a book in which the whole point was the purification of the hero ought to have a hero who did not need purification.

However, it became hard to dismiss the charge of immorality when Deathly Hallows presented us with, in my opinion, the only really intellectually respectable basis for Christian criticism of the series: Snape’s killing of Dumbledore on Dumbledore’s orders.

Some fans of Harry have attempted to come up with excuses for this act. If Snape didn’t kill Dumbledore, the logic goes, then Draco Malfoy would have been forced to do it. So (the claim goes) this is a salvific act, not an act of murder. Some even go so far as to say it was okay because Dumbledore was dying anyway.  And besides, he ordered it. 

One wants to be generous to such people, especially after all the unjust guff they’ve taken as “dreaming slaves” to quote O’Brien.  But the fact remains that “You shall not do evil that good may come of it”. It is evil to kill an innocent man, as Snape himself points out. Mercy killing isn’t just wrong for Muggles.  And “I was just following orders” was shown to have limited traction 1946.  Fans of Potter cannot escape the problem of Dumbledore’s and Snape’s actions by this route.

That said, I think this is only an intractable problem if we view Dumbledore as the source and summit of all moral and spiritual wisdom–which is precisely what Rowling labors to prevent in the final book. Indeed, the curious thing about Deathly Hallows is that Rowling repeatedly hammers home an attack on exactly the consequentialism that some Harry fans are mistakenly laboring to excuse in a whitewash not unlike Elphias Doge’s sentimental hagiography. Rowling inexorably takes apart such hagiography and does not permit us to turn Dumbledore into a plaster saint.  Dumbledore’s great downfall was doing evil “for the Greater Good”. And that, I think is the key: Deathly Hallows is the book in which, above all, Dumbledore gives way to Harry as the doubtful and imperfect Baptist gives way to Jesus, as the great but pagan Vergil gives way to Beatrice, as the greatest prophet gives way to the least in the kingdom of heaven. A reader of my blog perceptively writes:

Let’s not forget that Rowling also depicts Dumbledore as a character with very significant moral flaws–[Rowling] has spoken of this several times in interviews, besides all the evidence she gives us in the books, particularly DH, where it is a major theme. Dumbledore himself is aware of this–his remorse for his sins against his sister is permanently chiseled into her grave stone, and he is still haunted by them when he talks to Harry in King’s Cross. He has also said that with his very great gifts, he sometimes makes greater mistakes than others. Despite decades of good work defending the weak, giving second chances and defeating evil characters, he is still so prone to the seduction of power he cannot resist putting on the Resurrection Stone, which Snape rightly excoriates him for doing. In short, just because Dumbledore the character plans it, or does it, doesn’t make it right, even in the books. Nor are we required to approve of all his choices as they are presented in the books.

Beyond that, Rowling makes clear … that Dumbledore’s grand plan doesn’t work! We are not to look at him sacrificing himself (as many try to see it) as the act of deep genius that makes it all come out okay. His choice to have Snape kill him was a way to get the unbeatable Elder Wand into the hands of the strongest wizard left standing on the anti-Voldemort side. Instead, events he had no control over lead things in a completely different direction. Draco didn’t kill him, but the wand became Draco’s when he pinned Dumbledore and it fell away. Though it was buried with Dumbledore, it ‘belonged’ to Draco. In the chapter “Malfoy Manor,” the right to the wand passes to Harry when Harry bests Draco by wrestling three wands from him. And, in the end, Voldemort wields a wand he doesn’t really own against Harry. In fact, he murdered Snape in the mistaken belief it would make him master of the wand-murders Snape because, in accord with Dumbledore’s grand plan, Snape should have inherited the wand when he killed Dumbledore. Instead, the Elder Wand responds to Harry’s ‘signature spell’ Expelliarmus, leaping from Voldemort’s hand to Harry’s and sending Voldemort’s hurled curse back upon himself. I’m paraphrasing here, but Rowling said that “in the end, all Dumbledore’s plotting didn’t make the difference–instead it came down to a wrestling match between two teen-aged boys.”

Harry understands all (or almost all) of this when he leaves King’s Cross to confront Voldemort a last time. He thinks he will win, but he is ready to try it, even if he fails, because he has grown through struggling with his own flaws (and the flaws of Snape, Dumbledore, Ron, and others) and he has learned the key lesson taught by the Blessed Woman (Lily! That name!) and the hobbit of hobbits in the book, Dobby–real life, life stronger than death, is found by giving your life for another.

Dumbledore is, like Vergil, a “great man” (in the words of Hagrid). But he himself acknowledges that Harry is the “better man”. Harry can do what Dumbledore could not. That’s not because Harry has mastered secret knowledge. It’s because Harry is the recipient of grace. Dumbledore’s death is marked by the sin that marred Dumbledore’s life: he does evil “for the greater good”. And the plan he hatches “for the greater good” is fruitless. The Elder Wand he aimed to give to Snape goes to Draco. But in the mystery of grace, his failure is redeemed by Harry’s response to grace.

So it seems to me that Rowling is, in fact, remaining true to her rejection of consequentialism. Dumbledore’s consequentialist act of ordering Snape to kill him “for the greater good” results only in failure and Rowling wants us to see that (if the interview is any indication). But sin and failure are not the last word–grace is. Harry’s imitation of Christ’s death and resurrection is rewarded with redemption, reconciliation and healing that saves Harry’s world.

One need not find the novels not to their taste. One can complain about Rowling’s style, etc. But the assertion that the books are spiritually dangerous or anti-Christian is, in my view, unfounded and, indeed, counter-factual.


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