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Friday, September 14, 2007

Are the Harry Potter books Christian?

Are the Harry Potter books Christian novels? I'd like to muse about that. This post isn't exactly about the plot of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, but some important plot details may be given away below. You have been warned.

I have dealt with the subject of what makes a novel Christian at some length, here, setting forth criteria, etc. There are links, from that post, to analyses of some works of fantastic literature. I've been surprised at how difficult it is to assess some works of fine fiction, using my own criteria.

A lot has been written on the topic of the present post, and you can find wildly different answers. In part, I think, the authors are seeing themselves here. Dave Bruno, in Christianity Today, claims that "Harry Potter 7 is Matthew 6." Conversely, Christopher Hitchens wrote this in The New York Times Book Review:
Most interesting of all, perhaps, and as noted by Orwell, “religion is also taboo.” The schoolchildren appear to know nothing of Christianity; in this latest novel Harry and even Hermione are ignorant of two well-known biblical verses encountered in a churchyard. That the main characters nonetheless have a strong moral code and a solid ethical commitment will be a mystery to some — like his holiness the pope and other clerical authorities who have denounced the series — while seeming unexceptionable to many others. As Hermione phrases it, sounding convincingly Kantian or even Russellian about something called the Resurrection Stone: "How can I possibly prove it doesn’t exist? Do you expect me to get hold of — of all the pebbles in the world and test them? I mean, you could claim that anything’s real if the only basis for believing in it is that nobody’s proved it doesn’t exist." "The Boy Who Lived." (Posted Aug 10, official publication date Aug 12.) The Wikipedia article on Hitchens says that he is a determined atheist and antitheist.

Now to my criteria.
1) Is there a Christ-figure in the Harry Potter books? In the sense of sacrificing oneself, even offering one's life, for others, yes. Harry's parents seem to have done that. In the sense of giving one's life to atone for evil in others, I'm not so sure. Possibly Dumbledore, Snape, and even Harry might have done that, but it seems that they were fighting for good against evil, more than trying to redeem evil in others.

2) Is there belief in orthodox Christian doctrine?
The two verses mentioned by Hitchens are Matthew 6:21 and 1 Corinthians 15:26. Apparently Dumbledore had one, or both of these placed on gravestones. They are certainly about orthodox Christian doctrine, and Dumbledore must have believed them.

3) Practicing monotheistic prayer to a divine being is scarcely there, if at all. Harry says "Thank God" in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and seems to mean it. (p.74) Molly Weasley says the same thing a few pages later. (p. 78) That's as close to prayer as I recall in the entire series, and of course it may not have been exactly prayer.

The inhabitants of Godric's Hollow are mostly wizards. Harry and Hermione come to the village, and some of them are at church. However, it's Christmas Eve, and lots of non-believers go to church in that season.

I don't recall any other evidence of worship (except the evil worship of the evil Voldemort) throughout the series.

4) Expressing a relationship with the God of Christianity seems to be entirely absent.

5) Consciousness of supernatural guidance seems also absent, unless Dumbledore is conscious of this as he watches Harry's life.

6) There is rejection of evil. The most dramatic is Snape's life as an agent of Dumbledore among the Death Eaters, in spite of his earlier loyalty to Voldemort. In the seventh book, several other characters show unexpected turns to the good, including Percy Weasley and Wormtail, and even Narcissa Malfoy and her son, Draco. Draco pretends not to know if Harry is really Harry, and Narcissa doesn't tell Voldemort that Harry is alive, when she knows that he is.

So, there are some elements in the Harry Potter books that might qualify them as Christian novels. But some elements seem entirely lacking. That's hardly surprising. At least two of these missing elements, the 3rd and 4th, are also missing in The Lord of the Rings, which many people say is a Christian work.

Thanks for reading.

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On April 2, 2009, E Stephen Burnett wrote an essay, asking questions about how far a Christian author could go in writing fiction which has a God who is significantly different from the Christian God, and whether a Christian could legitimately create a fictional character who is in defiance of God. I posted tentative answers to these questions, which are related to the subject of the post above, on April 13, 2009.

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In November, 2010, a writer, on the Christianity Today web site, suggests that the Harry Potter franchise is like Paul on Mars Hill -- engaging the culture for Christian values.


Anonymous said...

A little late on this post - I just discovered your blog...I am struck by how much fiction is redemptive in nature. Being redemptive (as is a theme in Harry Potter) does not make it Christian. It simply makes it a part of human nature - the desire for redemption (whether knowingly or unknowingly). That is what enables us to use popular culture as a point of engagement for the gospel. We want a Savior!

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, anonymous. Perhaps redemptive is a better word, but others, before me, and more important others, have argued over whether or not a work of fiction is Christian or not, so I used the term.

I would be interested in how (if at all) fiction could be Christian, in your view.

Michelle said...

Late stirred up some thinking on my part. I think redemptive literature is both Christian and non-Christian. I think the first criteria of Christian literature would be that it must be written by a Christian. This does not mean, however that every Christian would write Christian literature. As to its content, I would postulate that it would be written from a Christian worldview - where there is a reality of evil and sin, of a fallen world with fallen relationships, and have a creation-fall-redemption model. An element of resisting evil would be present, as well. These ideas, I believe are in part some of what you have mentioned in other posts.

Martin LaBar said...

May 5, 2008: Thanks, Michelle. I don't think I disagree with what you said.