Reading Harry Potter too religiously

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
30 Jul 2007

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite (who is president of Chicago Theological Seminary) has a good article in The Washington Post on the religious reaction to Harry Potter - following on from the global release of 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows'. Her piece The Faith Of A Muggle is well worth a read.

Thistlethwaite writes: [T]he [culture] conflict over the Harry Potter books and movies ... reveals a deep division in how we regard religion and its purpose and meaning in our lives. On one side of this divide is an understanding of religion as primarily fixed and rigid; religious education in this sense is memorizing doctrine and rules and applying them directly and without question in your (and your family’s) life. Morality in this view is fixed and clear.

"On the other side of the divide stands an understanding of religion as a life lived in the struggle to understand this world and to find transcendent meaning in the midst of conflict, sorrow, loss and death as well as in achievement, joy and community. In this latter view of religion, the development of a moral sense is a deep engagement with the conflicting demands on human beings and the choices we make as we try to be accountable and responsible to a higher purpose.

"J.K. Rowling herself has observed that it is 'blindingly obvious' that the moral lesson of the books is the development of the sense in children, and the adults with whom they live and study, of the complex moral universe in which we live, the importance of resisting tyranny and the refusal to take the easy way out."

Brooks Thistlethwaite, whose work I greatly appreciate, has been a Professor of Theology at the Chicago seminary for 20 years and director of its graduate degree centre for five years. Her area of expertise is contextual theologies of liberation, specializing in issues of violence and violation.

Of course, the row over sorcery, metaphor and meaning in Harry Potter is hardly a new one, as I have personal reason to know.

I am not, I confess, a devotee of these books or of the fantasy fiction genre; though I know many who are. The associated ideas sometimes interest me, but the form generally does not.

Nevertheless a few years ago I found myself embroiled in a media brouhaha about Potter, following the publication of a booklet called Transparencies (Church House Publishing, 2002).

This was a set of Christian reflections on popular cultural and artistic themes. It was intended as a group-work accompaniment to a large ecumenical report called Presence and Prophecy - which was advocating a globalised and missional approach to theological education in the churches.

At the time I was working for the official ecumenical body Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (which co-published the report with the Church of England), and I wrote the study guide to the whole document (available through Ekklesia).

Anyway, Transparencies had a chapter on reading Harry Potter as an imaginative tale of moral conflict. This got picked up by Ruth Gledhill in The Times newspaper. She seemed to think it meant that the C of E was somehow asking people in the pew to read Harry's adventures instead of Bible stories.

Needless to say, we were rather manifestly doing nothing of the sort, but it made what journalists like to call "a good story".

The whole thing also got circularised by the Press Association and several other prominent news agencies, and as a result I spent several days of my life answering media enquiries - and discovering just what a game of 'Chinese whispers' reporting has become in the modern 24/7 environment - though in honesty I didn't really need to be told that.

What was astonishing to discover was how "literalistic" our Western cultures (and not just their religious protagonists) seem to have become, too. Again, not a total revelation - but an interesting instance.

The notion of ‘story’ as evocative rather than prescriptive for meaning seems hard for some people, even well-educated persons, to grasp.

Correspondingly, the notion that Harry Potter is a malign influence promoting witchcraft seems too silly to contemplate; yet many people clearly do.

J. K. Rowling has been known to attend an Episcopal Church in Scotland and to have interacted with Christian beliefs, but she understandably wishes this and other aspects of her life to remain private.

She has thus largely refused to respond to the crazier ideas about her work that exist on the blogosphere and elsewhere. Long may she fail to dignify ill-informed paranoia with attention, I say.

For the record (and thanks to a generally good piece on Reuters by Pete Harrison, 10 October 2002), this is how I responded at the time:

"We're not trying to Christianize Harry Potter," Simon Barrow, CBTI Assistant General Secretary told Reuters. "But the books deal with serious, adult issues - the struggle for love, truth and self-giving sacrifice for others."

CBTI is an umbrella organization for British and Irish churches, including the Church of England. The report will be debated by the Church of England's General Synod next month [November 2002].

The tale of the schoolboy sorcerer has sparked off a storm in many corners of the globe, particularly in the deeply Christian United States, but also in Australia, where the book was banned from 60 church schools.

Harry has been roundly denounced from the pulpit in Bulgaria, Germany and Taiwan.

"There have been some Christians who get very upset about this and say Harry Potter is leading people into the occult," said Barrow. "But Christians, rather than standing around and being sniffy about this, should actually be immersed in [the] culture."

A new book by US author Connie Neal 'The Gospel according to Harry Potter' concurs, describing 52 examples in Harry Potter of what she describes as "glimmers of the gospel."

Barrow quoted from a booklet 'Transparencies,' which was published alongside the 241-page 'Presence and Prophecy' report: "How can we use popular interest in Harry's story to ask people to think again about the selfish material world and the presence within it of Christian values?"

"Is this just to be a magic world in a story book? Or can it point toward the world that we really want to make a reality?"

Alongside Harry Potter, the report also embraces several other elements of modern culture including Europe's largest shopping mall Bluewater, in southern England, which it praises for its welcoming ambience.

The book "Girlfriend in a Coma" by Douglas Coupland is also lauded.

Strangely enough, no-one said we were trying to swap the Gospel for The Smiths, or Morrissey's wonderfully arch lyrics.

And the material on Bluewater was rather more critical than the Reuters report alone suggests.

Also, we weren't trying to co-opt all decent values for Christianity, but rather to point to consonances, where some Christians only see (or imagine) menace.

I trust I will be forgiven for quoting myself. But it is, by any standards, a cautionary tale.

Oh, and though I won’t be reading the final instalment of Harry’s adventures (I’ll leave that to my wife), I have checked out the final few pages. So I know how it “ends”.

But my lips are sealed.

See also: Mission Theological Advisory Group.

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