Harry Potter and The Dearth Of The Divine

Every once in a while in some publication, somewhere, comes a great little column like this one, in the Thursday, July 12 issue of Time magazine, that I just wish I had somehow written myself. The piece, by writer Lev […]
on Jul 18, 2007 · No comments

Every once in a while in some publication, somewhere, comes a great little column like this one, in the Thursday, July 12 issue of Time magazine, that I just wish I had somehow written myself.

The piece, by writer Lev Grossman, examines the role of God in the Harry Potter series — or rather, His nonexistence within the stories — as compared to His place in the works of J.K. Rowling’s “literary forebears,” particularly Tolkien and Lewis. The 381-word selection is well worth quoting in its entirety:

Joanne Rowling has three fancy houses and more money than the Queen, but she still doesn’t have a middle name: the K. is just an empty invention, added for effect when she published her first book. Starting with that first letter, she has orchestrated a sustained dramatic crescendo unlike anything literature has ever seen. By selling 325 million books in 66 languages, she has almost single-handedly made the case that the novel can still be a global mass medium. With the fifth Harry Potter movie opening on July 11 and the seventh and last book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, coming at midnight on July 21, the crescendo has reached a grand climax.

Rowling’s work is so familiar that we’ve forgotten how radical it really is. Look at her literary forebears. In The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien fused his ardent Catholicism with a deep, nostalgic love for the unspoiled English landscape. C.S. Lewis was a devout Anglican whose Chronicles of Narnia forms an extended argument for Christian faith. Now look at Rowling’s books. What’s missing? If you want to know who dies in Harry Potter, the answer is easy: God.

Harry Potter lives in a world free of any religion or spirituality of any kind. He lives surrounded by ghosts but has no one to pray to, even if he were so inclined, which he isn’t. Rowling has more in common with celebrity atheists like Christopher Hitchens than she has with Tolkien and Lewis.

What does Harry have instead of God? Rowling’s answer, at once glib and profound, is that Harry’s power comes from love. This charming notion represents a cultural sea change. In the new millennium, magic comes not from God or nature or anything grander or more mystical than a mere human emotion. In choosing Rowling as the reigning dreamer of our era, we have chosen a writer who dreams of a secular, bureaucratized, all-too-human sorcery, in which psychology and technology have superseded the sacred.

When the end comes, where will it leave Harry? He’ll face tougher choices than his fantasy ancestors did. Frodo was last seen skipping town with the elves. Lewis sent the Pevensie kids to the paradise of Aslan’s Land. It’s unlikely that such a comfortable retirement awaits Harry in the Deathly Hallows.

Protecting the mind against occult-mency?

The other day I entered a brief conversation with a coworker about the Potter franchise. This woman, probably more than twice my age, was also likely more than twice the fan about all this that I would ever be. Of course, she was eagerly awaiting the seventh volume, releasing in the U.S. on July 21.

After we briefly discussed the movie — I saw it Friday with some friends, the first Harry film I’ve seen in theaters — she talked about a friend/relative of hers. Apparently he at first thought the series was “anti-God and all of that,” but had since forsaken that view and was snapping up books and movies left and right with the rest of the world.

“Well, of course it is anti-God,” I commented. “God’s nowhere to be found in Harry Potter. In that Time article [she had referenced it earlier], the author got one thing wrong: God doesn’t ‘die’ in the stories, because He never existed in there. You never hear about where all this magic is coming from. All of these supernatural occurrences are just there. And it’s the same thing as Star Wars or something like that — it’s anti-God too, because it promotes a worldview that ignores Him. But nobody complains nearly enough about Star Wars as they do about Harry Potter.”

My coworker then said something, though, about how nice it was that the series promoted values such as friendship, loyalty and all of that. I suppose, in the back of her mind, these things are inherently Christian. At that point I merely recounted my enjoyment for the novels’ story value, and that was it.

That, however, led to my considering an alternate universe or two, in which J.K. Rowling, who has claimed belief in God, decided to include Him in her stories after all. Exactly how well would that have gone over, with readers Christian and nominally so — God, or some parallel-world version of Him, deciding to grant magical abilities to certain “witches and wizards”?

Yes, Rowling could have even changed the terms, perhaps to something less-evil-sounding like “Jedi knights,” as George Lucas did, and worked the series up to the conclusion of perhaps necessitating Harry’s death, and resurrection, to defeat the evil Lord Voldemort (which, I might add, some speculate could happen anyway; resurrection motifs have been so popular in fantasy fiction). Now, would that have added to the series’ spiritual value, or else confused the spiritual issues further, I wonder?

So far, though, Rowling’s world is inherently Godless. The Creator has no part in the story whatsoever, just as He doesn’t in fairy tales, such as Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast.

But no other “god” is given credit for anything in Harry Potter, either, not even spirit guides or even something like The Force, as explanations for all the magical abilities. If Rowling had gone that direction, the books would have been much more pagan and objectionable.

As it is, the “magic” is almost mechanical in nature. Harry is just another Godless story among many.

‘The fool has said in his heart . . .’

Scripture is fairly clear in Psalm 14:1 and other verses that God-disbelievers aren’t the wisest bulbs in the box. But it’s also clear, strongly implied in many other passages, that God nevertheless bestows what some theologians call common grace upon Christ-followers and unbelievers alike. Therefore, it stands to reason that some unbelievers will run rings around the Christians in many areas. And thus, it isn’t that surprising, either, when a non-Christian like Rowling — though she says she believes in God — writes a darn good story that just happens to be Godless.

Does that mean, though, that Christ-followers can feel free to enjoy Godless literature?

I might think so — as long as no threat exists of the Christian being sucked into a lot of useless, time-wasting junk out there, or worse, is insecure in his or her worldview enough to be sidetracked into un-Biblical ideas. This remains an issue of Christian freedom.

But many questions remain, on whose answers sincere, Bible-believing Christians can certainly disagree. How much Godless literature is “too much”? What about the fact, which Jason Waguespack mentioned yesterday, that some stores are intentionally using the novels to promote Wicca and real-life witchcraft? Also, how “Christian” can any story really be at least in its presentation of good and evil, in which characters possess within themselves the ability to choose between right and wrong without God’s input or His sovereign heart-regeneration?

(That’s a topic I hope to explore in a future column …)

E. Stephen Burnett explores fantastical stories for God’s glory as publisher of Lorehaven.com and its weekly Fantastical Truth podcast. He coauthored The Pop Culture Parent and creates other resources for fans and families, serving with his wife, Lacy, in their central Texas church. Stephen's first novel, a science-fiction adventure, launches in 2025 from Enclave Publishing.

What do you think?