I almost miss Harry Potter.
When the first book was published on June 26, 1997, now a quarter of a century ago, I was sixteen years old and consumed with American Legion baseball. That summer revolved around nine-inning games, at least three times a week, with the full catcher’s squad, in the heat and humidity of South Carolina. At the time, I had very little interest in reading anything, much less made-up stories about wizards and magic. Also, I was about to enter high school and thought I was too old for a book about 11-year-olds.
In the years that followed, as enthusiasm for the series spread like wildfire around me, I watched with reluctance as each volume grew larger and larger. I am a slow reader. Maybe I could make time for the first book, but not thousands of pages after that. Honestly, my growing dislike of the series wasn’t the well-intentioned Christian warnings about magic and wizards, but it was easy to join that chorus.
The last book appeared in 2007, with almost 800 pages. It took me fifteen years to finally pick up and read the entire series (1 million words), which I did, out loud, to my twins during lockdowns and quarantines. I am happy to have done it. And especially the final book.
spiritually aware stories
Something else happened on the way, after 1997, to open my mind beyond the glib critique (and convenient excuse) of magical fiction: I read The Lord of the rings. In Middle-earth, I discovered how an intentional and spiritually conscious visit to a fantasy world can have value in the real world. Too many trusted and deeply Christian friends who shared my love for Gandalf and Frodo also cherished Dumbledore and Harry. I eventually wanted to see Hogwarts for myself, and with my children getting closer to the appropriate age, I thought it might be a good trip to take together.
Elsewhere I have mentioned the roughly 100 hours it took to read the entire series out loud. I’ve come to love reading aloud to our kids, and I think it’s an especially good investment for dads to make in fostering life and growth apart from screens. But here, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the first book, I’d like to share something I saw in Harry Potter, with Christian eyes, as a father, that made the long walk worth it.
I could recount many simple (and useful) moral learnings—lessons, for example, about humility, self-control, and childishness (not childishness) that I often stopped to take home to my children. But here I will mention only three related expressions of a larger, deeper, and distinctly Christian theme. (Surely these few simple lessons will not be enough for some readers. For those who want more, I would recommend Alan Jacob’s book. 2007 revision of the final book, as well as Kyle Strobel 50 minute conference of 2017.)
As for the Christian voices that still disapprove of Harry Potter for defending witchcraft, I will say this: the criticism seemed to fade after the final volume appeared in 2007. In retrospect, the lesson we could learn is that wisdom often judges. . until the end. Be careful judging a book without its conclusion.. Alan Jacobs has observed that once the series ended, the (premature) Christian concerns about magic were soon overshadowed by “another and different set of critics. . . for whom the obvious traditionalism of the books is their greatest flaw”, that is, the progressives who found the conclusion “disfigured by ‘heteronormativity’”.
Unlike the final film, the final volume contains deeply Christian themes (along with two scripture references) which, for many of us, demonstrates the value of the entire series.
Weakness that shames the mighty
As deliberate as JK Rowling was in simply writing a great story rather than a Christian one (it is often difficult to separate the two), Christians can see a new expression of an ancient truth, always in need of reminders: that the counterintuitive way of Jesus triumphs over the way of the world.
“Harry gets to see the power of selfless love over the love of power.”
In other words, the key themes of the final book in particular tie together the threads of the entire series, to echo how God’s divine ways are often unexpected in the current age. The world around us, our society, has its standards and expectations of wisdom, strength and nobility, in natural terms. But Harry, with Dumbledore’s guidance and the timely help of his friends, comes to see the power of selfless love over the love of power.
So is the counterintuitive way of Christ, as captured in 1 Corinthians 1:27–28:
God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even what is not, to undo what is.
In Christ, we have come to know what it means to glory in what the world sees as folly, weakness, and shame.
“Hogwarts at its best resembles how Christ builds his church, not with the best and brightest in the world.”
An early expression of this is Hogwarts under the leadership of Dumbledore. Rather than a club for the wise, strong, and thoroughbred (as some would say), it’s a haven for all kinds, and in particular misfits who aren’t welcome or appreciated elsewhere. Outcasts like Hagrid are welcomed and even contribute at Hogwarts. jake pissing has pointed out how, in this sense, Hogwarts at its best resembles how Christ builds his church, not with the best and brightest in the world: the wise, strong and noble. Outcasts and untouchables find a welcome at Hogwarts and a usefulness found nowhere else.
Last enemy to be destroyed
A second expression comes in the theme of death, one of the main emphases of the series. In the contrast between Voldemort and Harry, we are faced with the question: Will you dedicate your life to avoiding death at all costs, or will you look to the life beyond and embrace it when your time comes?
When the time came, Christ did not avoid death, but embraced it and defeated it from the other side. He was through death, not around him, and until his return, so will we (Hebrews 2:14–15). Surprisingly, Rowling cites 1 Corinthians 15:26, engraved on Harry’s parents’ tombstone: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” At first, this confuses Harry. Pointing to death as the latest enemy to be destroyed sounded like the dark lord and his minions. Or maybe there is another meaning. To us, we know Christ as risen, but death still lingers in this age. death will be the latest enemy to fall, but will fall. death is not just a enemybut one that will be destroyed.
Dumbledore comments from the first book: “To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” There is a profoundly Christian way of reading into that statement what Jacobs calls “Dumbledore’s guiding principle,” which “repeatedly opposes Voldemort’s belief that death is the worst thing imaginable, and that therefore must be mastered, ‘eaten'”.
The way of Christ proves to be greater
Finally, there is the theme of power, which resonates deeply with the way the Christian gospel turns our exercise of power upside down.
First come the warnings against worldly power: from Harry’s godfather Sirius (“If you want to know what a man is like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals,” Book 4, Chapter 27), to those of Dumbledore. unmasking the insecurity of tyrants (“Do you have any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress? They all realize that one day, among their many victims, there will surely be one who rises up against them! and hit them back!” Book 6, Chapter 23).
In the end, it is not natural perspective and the use of power (the way of the world) that wins the war. It is the unexpected and subversive power of humility and selfless love. Of all people, aren’t Christians the least surprised by this? Our Lord “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). He, then, is the one whom God has highly exalted and given all authority in heaven and on earth (Philippians 2:9; Matthew 28:18). And although we are not surprised to find this theme, it is still glorious to see it again in a new representation and to love what we have in Christ. Oh, how important to remember the amazing glory of the gospel of the God whose ways and thoughts are not ours, but his, and far superior.
I don’t regret waiting 25 years for these reminders, plus I enjoy a fantastic story. I’m sure I was able to see (and apply) more in my 40s than I did in my teens or twenties. I also think I saw and enjoyed seeing it more through the eyes of my 11-year-old sons. Perhaps this is the best way to navigate the dark and light of the Potter series, with young and old traveling together.