Book Review: Two Religious Interpretations of Harry Potter
In the DVD special features for the movie Groundhog Day, director Harold Ramis describes the feedback he received from Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Buddhists, and members of other religions, all convinced that the film has a coded message connected with their beliefs. Ramis’s bemused response suggests that most, if not all, of these religious interpretations spring from the fertile imagination of the beholder. I would like to say that I have been wiser than all those people, too wise to put a sectarian spin on my own pet enthusiasm, the Harry Potter series. But my record is not entirely clean. My first exposure to Harry Potter was as a Lutheran pastor, who went to see the Sorcerer’s Stone movie at the request of a parishioner who wanted my opinion as to whether it would be spiritually safe for his kids. The fandom bug didn’t bite until later, when I started reading the books; at the time, my only view on this subject was, “Meh. Harmless.” Later, also, I wrote a satirical column comparing theories about the authorship of the Bible to the Harry Potter series; it was even printed in a serious theological journal. But today, if you ask me what I think about the relationship between Harry Potter (or other fantasy tales) and religion, I will say something like: “I’ve noticed that many fantasy tales are open to a wide variety of religious interpretations. Personally I just read them for the entertainment.”
I appreciate them as stories. I like what J. K. Rowling does with the raw materials of mythic archetypes, literary traditions, character development, and humor. I think she spins a great yarn. I have been repeatedly and powerfully moved by what she has done. And I am proud of the work it has inspired me to do, on MuggleNet and beyond. By personal conviction and vocation, I am bound to confess the Christian faith. I make no secret of, or excuses for, the fact that my taste in books is somewhat influenced by my faith, and that some tales of magic cross a line that does not sit well with my conscience. I have factored those feelings into my reviews of some books; I have declined to review a few other books because of them; and I have taken my lumps in feedback from readers who concluded that I was close-minded. I prefer to look at it as “knowing myself.”
Meanwhile, in relation to the Harry Potter fandom, I am bound to be respectful of everyone’s beliefs. So I try to remember to put out an “adult content advisory” where appropriate, to show respect toward parents who believe it is their job to protect their children from early exposure to graphic sex and vulgarity. I also sometimes throw in an “occult content advisory,” out of respect for Christians and others who find pagan spirituality distasteful. For this duplex book review, I think an “occult content advisory” is in order. But out of respect for other points of view, it may also be time to put out a “Christian content advisory” as well.
I have had two books sitting on my desk for too long. Each was sent to me by the author, a gift that I clearly did not deserve, since it has taken me months to work up the nerve to read them and write a review. To be honest, even after the idea came to me of combining them into one article, I still dragged my feet. So my first criticism is of myself. I simply lacked the self-discipline to take a break from reading stories, to devote even a few hours to reading about stories. Or perhaps it was just that I was too embarrassed to get in the middle of a duel between different religions’ interpretation of Harry Potter; only the prospect of having to read a Bible study series based on the Boy Who Lived could be more discouraging. But then, I could always make it fun by sneering knowingly at the whole enterprise of reading Harry Potter through a religious filter—check! So what else held me up? The length of the books is no excuse. They are both thin paperbacks; I read both of them today, from cover to cover, one after the other. I only regret that a scientist wasn’t present to measure the critical mass of guilt that finally touched off my reading frenzy. At last, I can fulfill my commitment to discussing these two books!
Long story short: Sonia Falaschi-Ray, an adult convert to Christianity who is now an ordained Anglican priest, argues in her book that there is nothing in the Harry Potter books that could harm the faith of Christian children. Indeed, she finds many correspondences between the characters, worldview, and values of the Bible and J. K. Rowling’s wizarding world. Modern witch Rik Potter, meanwhile, shares his own testimony, and the testimony of several other neo-pagan/Wiccan people, to the difference Harry Potter made in their lives. And though he frankly admits there is no explicitly Wiccan or pagan content in the series, he makes his own case for correspondences between Harry and the world of Wicca.
Long evaluation short: It pains me very much to say it, but while my religious views are similar to Sonia’s, I found Rik’s presentation more effective. Maybe part of it is that I’ve been dragged through the arguments for a Christian interpretation of Harry Potter so many times before, and Sonia’s book adds little to what I’ve already heard. Maybe part of it is my lack of enthusiasm for the whole apologetic task—either defending Harry Potter to ignorant Christians who fear that it’s satanic, or defending Christianity against its critics. In both cases, I think the best medicine is to hear or read what they have to say for themselves, as proclamation or as story. They will either win you over or they won’t. The apologetic reasonings are only helpful to doubting believers. I need no convincing, either of the Christian faith or of the excellence of J. K. Rowling’s storytelling.
But these aren’t the only reasons I was underwhelmed by S. F-R.’s presentation. A tiny bit of it was irritation with her theology and her interpretation of Bible texts, which I found a little weak at several points. But since this isn’t the place to go into all that, I’ll move on to the big problem: structural weakness. To be sure, Sonia crafts her book in the classic “introduction-body-conclusion” form where, as the saying goes, you “say what you’re going to say, then you say it, and then you say what you’ve said.” Also, she has her main points organized in a nice, tight outline, and follows up the whole thing up with a chart that could be used to lead a Bible study, comparing excerpts from Harry Potter to similarly themed passages in the Bible. The trouble is that, beneath each heading in her outline, she tends to ramble without purpose, and often lays out less-than-convincing evidence to support her arguments.
Rik Potter, meanwhile, writes engagingly and persuasively about his topic. While drawing parallels to the characters in Harry Potter’s world, the subjects he studies at Hogwarts, and the way things seem to work there, he leads the reader through a highly informative survey of the high points of Wicca, shamanism, alchemy, and the real-world history of magic (sometimes spelled magick). He even gives beginners’ tips for practicing witchcraft, doing Harry Potter-themed interior decor, and sorting out the energies involved in yoga. Though he openly admits that his speculation about the Potterverse is no more valid than, for example, Sonia Falaschi-Ray’s, he makes his points so much more clearly that one could really end up convinced. Why? Because his writing is tighter and better organized, his reasoning more controlled. And while Rik also writes with a clear “beginning, middle, and end,” he never repeats himself in quite as tediously literal a way as Sonia does; he never leaves you complaining to yourself, “That’s exactly what he said before.”
The weakness in Rik Potter’s book is the chapter in which he lets several other representatives of Wicca, witchcraft, or paganism speak for themselves. Logospilgrim, Tom & Bella, and Lucius & Draco either vary or alternate between being long-winded, repellently weird, and incomprehensible. For long stretches, they say nothing that seems relevant to the book’s central thesis that Harry Potter goes hand-in-glove with Wicca. One of them shares a personal testimony of a very idiosyncratic spiritual journey. Another focuses mostly on role-play gaming and its impact on his personal and professional life, when he isn’t making elaborate excuses for running the character of Voldemort. The third seems to be talking about his career as a Malfoy impersonator and his connection with the fan community. I’m happy for all of them, to be sure. But the chapter, close to the end of a not-very-long book, became so boring that I almost gave up.
I prefer not to go to the places Rik Potter’s book led me—and I say this not just as a Christian, but as the son of a former Wiccan, and one who has thus had as close a look as I would like at that religion. Nevertheless, in this grudge match against Sonia Falaschi-Ray, I’m afraid the winner is Rik Potter. On a five-star scale, I would give the Wiccan author four stars (deducting a star for that one awful chapter), and three stars to the Anglican contender. If you want to read another book by Sonia Falaschi-Ray, in spite of this review, check out Missing: Three Days in Jerusalem. If you’re interested in what other authors have to say about the intersection between Harry Potter and religion (and related fields of study), here are a few more titles you can look up for yourself. Please don’t wait for me to review them, though.
- Abanes, Richard. Harry Potter and the Bible: The Menace Behind the Magick.
- Bell, Luke. Baptizing Harry Potter: A Christian Reading of J. K. Rowling.
- Dickerson, Matthew T. and David L. O’Hara. From Homer to Harry Potter: A Handbook on Myth and Fantasy.
- Granger, John. How Harry Cast His Spell: The Meaning Behind the Mania for J. K. Rowling’s Bestselling Books.
- Granger, John. Looking for God in Harry Potter.
- Granger, John. Unlocking Harry Potter: Five Keys for the Serious Reader.
- Killinger, John. God, the Devil, and Harry Potter: A Christian Minister’s Defense of the Beloved Novels.
- Murphy, Derek. Jesus Potter Harry Christ: The Fascinating Parallels Between Two of the World’s Most Popular Literary Characters. (This book uses Harry Potter as a running metaphor to debunk Christianity.)
- Neal, Connie. The Gospel According to Harry Potter: The Spiritual Journey of the World’s Greatest Seeker.
- Neal, Connie. What’s a Christian to Do with Harry Potter?
- Tumminio, Danielle. God and Harry Potter at Yale: Teaching Faith and Fantasy Fiction in an Ivy League Classroom.