Harry Potter & A Pastor's Reflection


READING: I Corinthians 15:22-26 (v. 26 quoted in Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, p. 328

For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

So, Harry Potter. I grew up in the Luke Skywalker era, not the Harry Potter era. Star Wars is making a comeback, however, the original era was the late 70s, early 80s. I missed the Harry Potter era by some 15 years or so. At least, I missed it directly. Even grown adults could not miss the phenomenon that was Harry Potter beginning in the late-90s. It was everywhere. The series of books had young readers standing in line of your Borders Bookstores – remember them? – and your Barnes and Nobles. And these books weren’t 100 pages either. These were big, thick, 400 page books that kids devoured once they got their hands on them. And there are seven books in the series! Then there are the movies which blockbusters too. Now there is a Harry Potter Land in Florida. We can not underestimate the popularity of the Harry Potter franchise.
Up to just this week or so, I had never read a Harry
Potter book. I’ve read about them. I’ve seen a movie or two. I’ve heard about the Evangelical backlash and controversy. But I did not pay the book or all the talk that much attention.
However, in my conversations with young people about the book, it struck me that this was no ordinary book series. It was deeper than just simple entertainment. There was a profound connection to the books, to the character of Harry Potter, and to the storyline. In these conversations I got the idea that for many, it was a spiritual experience. Reading the books was akin to going to church and considering matters of good vs. evil and life vs. death. It felt and feels to me that the Harry Potter, in the absence of young people’s direct experiences with church or maybe negative experiences of church, Harry Potter filled the void. So much so that a big number of young people know more about the details of Harry Potter and Hogwarts then they do generally about Biblical stories and narratives.
I am not making a judgment here as much as an observation.
All of this is to say, I felt I needed to investigate this myself by actually reading the books. So I’ve been reading through the first book of the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to get to the second in the series. But that’s okay. I have enough to go on.
Before I get into the first book itself, which will mostly be next week, I want to first give some background, about the author and about the genre of the books.
The author of the Harry Potter series is JK Rowling. Here background is very interesting, giving the context of the books an intriguing narrative all by itself. JK Rowling was born and raised in a struggling, working-class family that Rowling described as impoverished. Her one aim in life from a very young age was to be an author, to write a novel. This was to her impoverished family a pipedream that was better left alone. But she couldn’t leave it alone. When JK Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book in the late 80s she was far from one of the richest women in the world, which she is now. She was a single mother on welfare. She was newly divorced after a short yet turbulent and harmful marriage. Her dream and work toward being an author had nothing to show for it at all. These were very hard times for Rowling. She experienced bouts of deep depression at this time, even times of feeling suicidal. However, she expresses that it was her daughter as well as good healthcare from her doctor that saved her from her depression and such an irreversible decision.
Fortunately, for a lot of people out there, she waded through this dark time and made it out on the other side. Rowling voiced pride in making it out of this dark time, she believes it made stronger. In her commencement speech to Harvard University in 2008. Rowling states, “a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.”
But Rowling was benefited by this failure. She states the failure means “a stripping away of the inessential.”
“I stopped,” Rowling shares, “pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
She goes on, “Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.”
So with that typewriter, Rowling finally finished her first book of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – interestingly in the US it was changed to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Next step, try to find a publisher. Not being able to afford photocopying the original, she hand-typed each copy she provided to publishers! Yeah, that is dedication and diligence. 
Believe it or not, she was turned down many times. The reason regularly given – it was too long at 320 pages. She found an agent, Christopher Little, which she chose because it sounded like Stuart Little or another children’s book character. Eventually, the book was accepted by Bloomsbury in London. How this came to be is an incredible story too. The president of Bloomsbury Books, Nigel Newton, not sure about the book off-handedly let his daughter read the book. She read it in a couple hours and asked for more. Bloomsbury gave his approval and initially published 500 copies. It would go on to sell billions. We have two daughters to thank – Rowling’s daughter who helped her to get through her depression and Newton’s daughter who experienced greatness in the book.
Let us move from Rowling and the story of her book’s publishing to the book itself. From the very beginning of the book it becomes pretty clear that we are in familiar territory in some ways. Harry Potter is a book in the long line of children fantasy books like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit, and C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Moreover, like Chronicles of Narnia or Wizard of Oz, Rowling uses a common literary subgenre of witches and wizards. Rowling uses the standard devices and tropes of the witch and wizard subgenre – black pointy hats, flying brooms, magic, cauldrons and potions using silly ingredients like the shed skin of a rare exotic reptile. In many ways, Rowling is tapping into the similar archetype as the TV show Bewitched.
This is to say Harry Potter is not tapping into any legitimate pagan religious understanding. As any true Wiccan can tell you, Harry Potter in no way resembles the specifics of their religion. In fact, Rowling herself said a few years ago that the only religious faith not represented were Wiccans. She said, “To everyone asking whether their religion/belief/non-belief system is represented at Hogwarts, the only people I never imagined there are Wiccans. It’s a different concept of magic to the one laid out in the books, so I don’t really see how they can co-exist.”
Rowling also has discussed the importance of her own religious faith. Rowling is a Christian who is a member of and regularly attends her church in Scotland and who has had all her children christened. She claims that “Christianity – and her struggles with and claiming of her Christian faith – inspired Harry Potter and mirror the character’s journey. In fact, the seventh – telling itself - and last book of the series actually quotes from the Bible, twice!  Rowling quotes Paul in I Corinthians 15:26 who states “The last enemy to be destroyed is death,” referring to Christ and his universal victory over all sin, all enemies of Love, and over even death itself, both spiritual death and physical death.  Then Rowling quotes Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount as well. “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”  
In other words, there is a lot here. The Harry Potter books have a religious/spiritual import that many may not realize is there, especially if you’ve never been to church, but is most certainly there. I have noticed this in my reading of just the first book which I will look at more specifically next week.


READING: Matthew 6:19-21 (v. 21 quoted in Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, p. 325-26)

Don’t store up treasures on earth! Moths and rust can destroy them, and thieves can break in and steal them. Instead, store up your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy them, and thieves cannot break in and steal them. You heart will always be where your treasure is.


Just Thursday, in the waiting room for a doctor’s appointment for Corey, there was a young girl Corey began talking to, as he often does whenever there is a kid his age around. The young girl was 9, as Corey found out which he also often does when there is a kid around. On her lap she had two books from the library. She was reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which is the largest of the 7 books at some 500 pages. She was 14 pages in. The other book, also a library book, was Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which she just finished. She had begun reading Sunday and finished on Thursday!

So if you’ve wondered about the popularity and enthralling nature of the books some 7 years after the last book was finished and 17 years after the first installment, that experience should tell you, it is still immensely popular and still enthralling to kids.

Why? What is it about the books?

From my reading of just the first book, it seems to me that Harry Potter is the Everychild. In the character of Harry Potter, we have represented the child’s journey, process of growing-up, with all that this entails.

There is the added dimension of grief that Harry Potter must deal with. The first book begins with an 8 year-old Harry living with his Aunt and Uncle. He lost his parents when he was an infant. And the aunt and uncle, and their spoiled and ill-behaved son Dudley, all treat Harry horribly. He sleeps in the closet, he is given very little to eat, he is not allowed to do any kind of extracurricular activity, he is spoken to unkindly and disrespectfully, and Dudley, the son, is the epitome of a bully toward Harry.

Harry, despite his lot in life, is supernaturally balanced. This is not to say he likes the abuse, but he endures it and even rises above through the strength of his will and heart. However, he is vulnerable, overpowered, dependent and made to feel weak by his environment.

How many children have felt this way? How about “all”?

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone offers a ray of hope, however. The first part of the book revolves around uncovering the mystery of Harry Potter’s identity. There are hints that Harry is special despite his context. And there is something hidden about the family that has adopted him.   

When letters for a Hogwarts School begin being delivered to the home Harry lives in, letters saying he has been accepted into their Boarding school program, the mystery is heightened. That his mean aunt and uncle discard the letters, despite Harry knowing they were addressed to him, only makes the mystery unbearable.

Finally, the content of the letters is revealed to Harry by a giant of a man named Hagrid who breaks into the island home of the aunt and uncle's. They have taken the two boys to the island to escape the constant deluge of letters being delivered to Harry and discarded by his so-called family.

The mystery of Harry’s identity and the content of the letter is revealed to Harry and to the reader simultaneously. Harry is a wizard born to parent who were wizards. His parents were killed by a renegade wizard named Voldemort. The renegade wizard attempted to kill Harry, but failed, which turned Harry into a legend in the wizard world. Harry’s innate strength prevented him from being killed by the evil Voldemort. This failure effected Voldemort’s departure from the scene, bringing peace to the Wizard World.

Harry was a wizard and a legend but didn’t know it. Being told this truth, his life is transformed. Despite his adopted family – his aunt was his mother’s normal human sister - not wanting him to go to Hogwarts School of Wizardry, Hagrid assures that he does go. This begins Harry’s astounding journey.

Realizing you are special. Yes, it could be said that this sentiment has been overdone. The narcissism in our society is rampant, especially in the Harry Potter generation. Mr. Rogers is critiqued for this very reason. His focus on telling children that they are unique, special, and to be loved just the way they are has been ridiculed and criticized as initiating our demise into a narcissistic culture. Harry Potter, some have said, confirms this by offering up supernatural protagonists who are all like normal kids but special at the same time. Special kids with special gifts -- this is true for everyone. Kids are all special like Harry Potter.

That is a misinterpretation of both Mr. Rogers and Harry Potter, I’d argue. But these critiques do offer us something important to think about.

That we all, ALL, are, in Christian lingo, created in God’s image and therefore all unique, means no one is inherently better than the other. Because we are ALL God’s image carriers means there is an innate equality to be risen to. We are all created equal, as Thomas Jefferson notes. This divine equality which we all share is the natural antidote to narcissism.

That said, we must consider the culture in which both Mr. Rogers and Harry Potter felt the need to highlight the fact of our God-image-carrier status. We see that culture represented by the culture Harry Potter grows up in. His aunts and uncles attempt to make him feel less than nothing. They ridicule, diminish, degrade, attempting to shatter his ego.

A culture that says we are sinners in the hands of an angry God does the same, does it not? A culture that says you are born a sinner and will die one ridicules, diminishes, degrades, and in some cases shatters our sense of self – it amounts to putting us in a closet and hiding us from us who we are.

The danger for our culture, I will say, is that the more and more we move away from the sentiment that says we are all sinners in the hands of an angry God, the less helpful is the sentiment that says we are special. If we are told we are special and unique from the get-go, with no reminders that we also carry imperfections and delusions and with constant assurances that we are special, narcissism is definitely a danger.

Harry Potter actually does a great job of reminding us that there is evil in the world. It reminds us that not everyone applies their uniqueness, their God-image-carrier status in good ways. 

In the first book, we see this in the character of Draco Malfoy. He is like Dudley, someone who thinks he is special in a harmful way. The balance, the balance that Harry Potter comes to embody, is seeing we are each equally special, equal in the eyes of God, and we are to act accordingly, seeking to make that equality a living, working reality.  

Another powerful thing Harry Potter teaches us is that there is a process, a learning, a growing into our specialness. It is one thing to know we are created in God’s image. It is actually a life-changing, salvific thing to know we are created in God’s image. It is a transformational thing to know that within each of us is the likeness of God here and now.  It amounts to what Buddhism calls sudden enlightenment. The insight into our spark of divinity changes everything.

But it must not stop there. We must also acknowledge that the Universe was created Good and that all humans too have that of God in them, as the Quakers say. An insight into our shared, our SHARED nature, is the next step in our own school of Hogwart learning. We are each created in God’s image. We are each equally special in this way.

Yet there is more to learn even after this. There is learning to act accordingly, in accordance with the fact that when we look at another person, we are looking at a being who carries within them the image of God. Treating others on the basis of this truth makes all the difference. We treat them like we would want to be treated because in the most essential ways we are connected. We share God’s likeness in us.

There is also learning to use our God-image-ness, the power that comes with it, in positive, helpful, and compassionate ways. This requires practice. This requires building on the foundation. This requires building friendships and trusting mentors and finding community.

Again, we see this in Philosopher’s Stone. It is clear that Harry Potter, because of his parents, is a natural when it comes to being who he is, a wizard. And there is some cockiness there even early on. But Harry soon learns that relying on what is inherent, what is inherited, what is natural to us, is not enough. We have to do the work, building strength in our hearts and minds.

I have been teaching a class on American Popular Music, as you know. This week we discussed Jazz and how jazz musicians have to be good improvisers. Yes, there is an element of being born with good improvisational instincts. But the art of improvisation, the art of creating art in the moment, is not something that is done haphazardly or magically. A good improvisationalist doesn’t simply grab good music out of the sky and begin playing it. There is a lot of practice involved. A lot of foundation-building through hard work and tenaciousness.

Similarly, we are born with God-image-ness, but it takes practice – prayer, meditation, works of compassion, community – to build upon that God-image-ness we carry.

We need a Hogwart school of our own. And the name of that school is The Church. Church brings us together to pray together, to meditate together, to on Sundays sit with God and express our deepest gratitude together, to lift others up together, to show compassion to others together. The Church is the place where we build the muscles of what Buddhism calls the three means – wisdom, compassion, and mindfulness.

So Harry Potter and the Hogwart School teaches us a lot, maybe things we never really considered when thinking about the book series. It reminds us of the reality of our own vulnerability and need for others. It teaches us about the importance of realizing who we really are. It helps us to see the need to build on our own spiritual inheritance and from that foundation spiritually grow and develop and love. It shows us the significance of a community that helps us to grow, develop, and learn to love.     

That’s what I learned from reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Thus ends my book report of a sermon.


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