[Warning: Spoilers are included, but just read the books already.]
Twenty years ago today, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published. This is a pretty big deal — seeing as the Harry Potter books were (and are) a publishing phenomenon like none that has ever existed — but a certain amount of cynicism has cropped up regarding the books. It’s well deserved. Harry Potter has become the go-to illustration for anything anyone does or does not like.
A group of Harvard students launched a “resistance school” to fight against President Donald Trump’s agenda, referring to themselves as “Dumbledore’s Army.” Depending on whom you ask, any of Donald Trump, Theresa May, or Betsy DeVos are Dolores Umbridge. It seems that nothing has shaped the millennial mind quite like Harry Potter has. As many have said before me: Read. Another. Book.
Some have turned against the books because of the political views of the author, J.K. Rowling. There is of course the long ago reveal that Professor Dumbledore was gay. But Rowling also tweeted that “Voldemort was nowhere near as bad” as Trump in response to Candidate Trump’s proposed Muslim ban. And while her outspoken liberal politics have turned off many conservatives, many evangelicals were never turned on due to the series’ use of magic.
I didn’t read the books as they came out, even though I was just about at the ideal age (eight years old). I read the first one early on — in fact, there is a videotape somewhere of me and my siblings filming a Harry Potter movie for my parents; I believe we even drew a lightning shaped scar on my poor little brother’s forehead — but actively avoided the rest of them. This wasn’t because my evangelical parents wouldn’t allow me to read them. It was because I’ve always been a bit of a nonconformist. I didn’t watch Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, because everyone else liked them. I chose different football and baseball teams than my dad. I didn’t want to dress like other kids. Even as a graduate student, if the rest of the class took a certain viewpoint on a book, I would usually (reflexively, out of habit, instinct) take the opposite viewpoint. Hence, I did not read the Harry Potter books because everyone else read them.
It wasn’t until I neared the end of my high school career that my curiosity overcame me, and I picked up the books for the first time. I’m sure my experience was not unlike that of many others: I was captivated. The books were quite literally awesome. The world Rowling created seemed so real and possible, yet so mythic and grand. The themes were so mature, even though it was children’s literature. And it was nigh impossible to ever put any of the books down until one had them good and finished. They were simply good books.
And I like them even more today than I did when I first read them. It’s not because they are such page-turners, even though of course they still are. It’s partly because of the world that Rowling created, but it is even more. The books are true. Evil exists, but so does good. They exude heroism. Courage, loyalty, and generosity are virtues to be praised and cultivated. Big families and close friends are to be desired.
Each book is filled with wisdom. From Philosopher’s Stone: “After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” From Chamber of Secrets: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” From Prisoner of Azkaban: “You think the dead we have loved ever truly leave us? You think we don’t recall them more clearly than ever in times of great trouble?” From Goblet of Fire: “If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.” From Order of the Phoenix: “Indeed, your failure to understand that there are things much worse than death has always been your greatest weakness.” From Half-Blood Prince: “It is the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness, nothing more.” And from Deathly Hallows: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” and “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.”
Those last two quotes are, of course, from the Bible, Matthew 6:21/Luke 12:34 and 1 Corinthians 15:26, respectively. Most readers in our biblically illiterate society likely have no idea the source of these quotations; they simply appear on tombstones without any biblical reference. Most readers also likely have no idea the source of the heart of the story. For what is the heart of the Harry Potter stories? It’s not magic. It’s sacrificial love. That is the thread that connects books one through seven: the sacrificial love of Harry’s mom both keeps him alive and gives him a great deal of protection as he battles Voldemort. The sacrificial love of his friends and family like Ron and Hermione, the Weasley family, Sirius, Remus and Tonks, Neville, Professor Dumbledore, and Professor Snape keep him and the hope of the magical world alive. And of course, the sacrificial love of Harry defeats Lord Voldemort in the end. And what could be more Christian than that?
J.R.R. Tolkien coined the term eucatastrophe to represent “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears.” This is a common feature of fairy stories. Once upon a time, the good was threatened by evil, until the sudden happy turn that allows us to say they all lived happily ever after. Tolkien connected this feature to the story of humanity and our relationship with God: We were doomed, until the eucatastrophe of the cross, that sudden happy turn wherein we might experience eternal life and a joy that brings tears.
In Harry Potter, all seems lost. Voldemort is about to take Hogwarts Castle. Harry, the only hope of the wizarding world, is giving himself up to be finally killed by Voldemort. Dumbledore is already dead. Many of the Order of the Phoenix are dead. Hope is seemingly lost. And then, the sudden happy turn — that actually, Harry’s sacrificial love can save the people and transform the world.
That’s the gospel. It was Christ’s sacrificial love that, in an even greater way, saved us and is still transforming the world. Every time we read Harry Potter, we are catching a glimpse of Eden, we are seeing a shadow of the gospel.
That is why we should continue to read it.