In a recent article published by the Religion News Service, Tara Isabella Burton introduces the Harry Potter series, writing:
It’s a book nearly everybody knows, many of us nearly from birth. We reference it in our daily lives. We use its complicated moral systems to define our social and political stances and to understand ourselves better. Once we have read it, and learn the lessons considered therein, our political attitudes alter, making us more welcoming and more caring to outsiders.
Activists quote from the stories on placards to make their points at protests. Hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of people have written their own narratives in response to these foundational myths.
I refer, of course, to the “Harry Potter” series.
She refers to the statistics that show that 61% of Americans have seen at least one Harry Potter film. That statistic juxtaposed with the mere 45% (a little more than 50% for US Christians) who can name all four Gospels is a bit shocking. She observes, “it’s no stretch to say that Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff are better known in American society than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.”
She offers a reason for the ubiquity of Harry Potter in that it was published during a time of a massive, earth-shaking transition. In the years before the publication of the first volume and the fourth, internet use increased 500%. So, she argues, the popularity of the fiction series resembles the Bible in that, just as the rise of the printing press enabled the Protestant Reformation to put Scripture in the hands of the masses, the Harry Potter books grew in prominence during a time when the masses were introduced to a new media—the world wide web.
And again, she’s not wrong.
Of course, she argues that this is the manner in which the Harry Potter “most resembles” the Bible. And that conclusion is where I must beg to differ.
In a 2007 article published in the Telegraph, J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, acknowledged that they were inspired, in fact, by the Bible. Rowling, who was raised in the Anglican Communion, but now a member of the Church of Scotland, was quoted as having said, “the religious parallels have always been obvious.” In a different interview altogether, she made those parallels explicit, explaining that Albus Dumbledore is “John the Baptist to Harry’s Christ.”
She explained her reasoning for avoiding the question until the moment of her interview in the Telegraph (she had just released the final installment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) to her attempts to avoid spoiling the ending: “I never wanted to talk too openly about [the influence of the New Testament on the series] because it might show people who just wanted the story where we were going.”
So, the argument that the Harry Potter series resembles the Bible most due to providential timing ignores the most glaring parallel—one was patterned after the other!
So, when Burton concludes that the Harry Potter series has supplanted the Bible as the common mythological foundation of understanding for the new generations, Christians should take notice—if only for the purpose of considering her claim further. She presses her argument to conclude that, in light of the obvious fantasy and fiction that describes the Harry Potter series, “fewer and fewer of us need to believe in a text to take it, well, as gospel.”
The question that discerning readers should ask is, “Does her conclusion follow from her argument?”
In a world that fails to observe the author’s own declaration that her stories (creative as they may be) are patterned after the Gospel narrative, the historical similarity between the Reformation-era printing press and the advent of the internet age seems reasonable.
But, if we allow the author’s own admission to raise the issue, it becomes more clear why this story resonates with the new generations (and many from the older generations as well)—it is built from the pieces of the story of salvation. The elements in play over the course of Rowling’s stories reflect the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Is it a simple re-telling? Obviously not.
But perhaps it resonates so clearly because it speaks to genuine needs and longings of the human heart. And the answer to those needs isn’t found in a book of spells, in the waving of a wand, or in the Room of Requirement. Harry Potter’s journey over the course of Rowling’s books (and movies) brings him from a childhood discovery of his place in the world to an encounter with evil that rescues a people with whom he identifies.
Perhaps it resonates so powerfully because it resembles so closely “the old, old story of Jesus and his love.”
Pastor at University Baptist Church, San Antonio.
Professor. PhD in Theology.
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Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.