Harry Potter

Dr. Jerram Barrs is Professor of Christian Studies and Contemporary Culture at Covenant Theological Seminary, St Louis, Missouri. He’s also a big fan of the Harry Potter series.

Today I listened to a 96-minute lecture Barrs delivered on the series of books and its author, J. K. Rowling (see here). I’ve looked all over for a date for when this lecture was delivered/recorded but without luck. In the talk he references only the first four books in the series. Book 5 (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) was released in June 2003, so this lecture must have been recorded before that.

After the lecture, Barrs opened the floor to Q&A, where at one point he said this:

I don’t know where J. K. Rowling stands in terms of Christianity. It will be very interesting to see as the books come out. There is one book by a Christian that argues that Rowling is a Christian because he is so moved by self-sacrifice at the center of this, he feels that she must be [a Christian] to say this so strongly and passionately. I don’t think that’s necessarily so, but it will be very interesting to see. He proposes that by the time she gets to the final novel, there will be an explicit reference to Christianity. Whether that’s true or not, I have no idea — I rather doubt it. [56:57–57:42]

I appreciate his reservation — even doubt — over whether the Christian faith was going to make an explicit appearance in the final book.

So, now the Harry Potter series is complete, what does he think?

Here’s what Dr. Barrs said in July of this year:

13 thoughts on “Harry Potter

  1. Thanks for not shying away from controversial issues, Tony. This sums up my 2009 review http://elbks.com/uHYvNN

    “The Harry Potter series is entertaining and well written, and follows a good-against-evil motif that is in some harmony with a Christian worldview. The magic in the early books seems for the most part fantastical, although the later books move into darker, more occultic territory. More problematic is Harry’s isolationism, as well as the absence of trustworthy, competent adults in his life.”

  2. Thanks for highlighting Barrs’s lecture, Tony. I look forward to listening to it.

    Jenni and I love the HP series: http://andynaselli.com/harry-potter

    We’re listening through it for a second time now, and it’s even better the second time. We’re making so many more connections the second time through that we missed before. The series is masterfully done. And it’s very accessible and entertaining. It’s a delightful way to relax.

  3. Thanks for this quote from your review Shanna. Yes, the series is not without it’s concerns. As I explain a bit in Lit! it’s exactly books like these that cause initial reservation that are in fact (I think) often the safest for us to read because we don’t go in expecting to agree with everything the author tells us. The Barrs video intrigues me. I’m thinking about reading the HP series in 2012. Thanks for commenting! Tony

  4. Ah, yes, how could I have forgotten that you and your wife have been through the series! The movies are more like junk. That’s helpful to know at this point. I’m kicking around the idea of reading through the HP series in 2012 and your example is very encouraging to me. What an incredible God we serve, who sent his servant Moses to go to war against the dark forces of magic in Pharaoh’s house. Blessings my friend!

  5. I am intrigued that you posted this, Tony, as this topic has been on my mind a lot lately. I have read all of the ‘Harry Potter’ books and enjoyed reading them as an adult. However, when it comes to letting my children read them I had hoped to wait until they were older. I myself was not allowed to read “That Hideous Strength” until I was 13.

    My main issues with Harry Potter are what I feel are acts of rebellion by the main character and his accepting of responsibility for the effect some of his actions. I won’t say more since you haven’t read them. Scripture says rebellion is like witchcraft. Both are attempts to grab power. I know J.K.Rowling is trying to speak to her audience, but I feel they may not be ready for some of the situations presented. Narnia has a softer feel for readers today (I can’t speak for readers when it was written). Those are children’s stories. I feel that Harry Potter is for an older, more discerning audience.

    When I look for comparisons, the themes feel closer to the “Matrix” movie series than Narnia or Lord of the Rings. In C.S.Lewis’ series, the main characters rarely use magic. If you wade though all of Tolkien’s other middle earth writings you will find that Gandalf was basically angelic.

    As I watched the video above and read some other writers on the topic I had a thought. It seems to me that British Christians are more accepting of the series than we are on this side of the pond. This is my perception and may not be accurate, but it does intrigue me.

    Finally, I am interested to read N.D.Wilson’s new series and see how the two compare.

  6. Gandalf’s identity as a Maia doesn’t diminish his role as a Wizard. He is, after all, a conjurer of spells.

    TB

  7. As do Coriakin and Ramandu in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Yet they are of a higher order of creation, perhaps lesser forms of Eldila. Since I learned more about him, I figured this to be true of Gandalf as well. If higher being are wielders of Power then that is between them and their maker. Balam and Simon Magus, both humans, seem interested in Power for personal gain. Gandalf seems to use it almost as a footnote, more like the angels in Sodom blinding the men of the town. To my mind, even when confronting the witch king, and later Saruman, Gandalf seems to rely more on authority than anything else. For me his role is that of a guide. While I wouldn’t directly compare him to Bunyan’s Greatheart, and especially not Mr. Interrupter, I sense a similar purpose.

    I think J.K.Rowling tries to respect this by casting Dumbledore in a similar role. I would just prefer my young readers to travel to Narnia, at least the Lonely Mountain, and maybe even Macalandra before venturing to Hogwarts. Some time at Redwall Abby might not hurt either.

    I read The Prince and the Goblins to them when they were little. The grandmother is very fey, and yet again she is more of a guide. I wonder if those who don’t like the magic in Narnia and middle earth are comfortable with the super-natural at all.

  8. “If higher being are wielders of Power then that is between them and their maker.”

    Fine and well, but this is not the same as sundering the angelic from the conjurer as you did previously: that is, Gandalf is “basically angelic” and therefore rarely practices magic.

    True enough, Gandalf is both scholar and counselor. But he also, by his own admission, is a master of nearly every spell in the tongues of Elves or Men or Orcs.

    And magic, of course, is not limited to the Wizards, but is very much part of the Elven world. The rings themselves, of course, are magical, a magic not to be divorced from the spell-casting we encounter at various points in the narrative. And it is this magic, the magic of the rings, that makes Gandalf who he is as counselor and leader throughout much of the story: for he too is a ring-wearer.

    It makes absolutely no sense–whatsoever–to say that Gandalf uses magic sparingly, or as a footnote. It is contra-Tolkien in nearly every possible way.

    TB

  9. Good points. I had forgotten that Gandalf was a ring-bearer too.

    Both Lewis and Tolkien seem to me more comfortable with ‘magic’ than many of the general Christian public today. Perhaps a better grasp of their thinking would aid Christian readers of fiction.

  10. I collected a short summary of my thoughts here:

    http://nathanielclaiborne.com/love-wins-a-brief-theology-of-harry-potter/

    I read the entire series during my last semester of my Th.M and the books themselves, ironically enough, were very well thought of in the pastoral ministries department at Dallas Seminary. I found after reading them that it seemed like many people misinterpret the symbolic usage of the wizardry in Harry Potter. In their world, wizardry is basically filling the role that technology does in our lives and it would be incorrect to see wizardry function in their world the same way that witchcraft functions in ours. In other words, in the absence of a world where Satan and demons exist (Hogwarts, etc) there can’t technically be any kind of occultic elements.

    All in all, I enjoyed them and do not find anything strictly objectionable from a Christian perspective. When I have kids, I will most likely encourage them to read the books and then actively discuss it with them, but I will probably wait until they are teenagers to do so.

  11. Tony,

    Looking forward to discussing this more with you in a few weeks. But in the meantime, one of the things that really frustrated me about these books (but which I later grew to love) was that they were missing purely good characters like Gandalf or Aslan in other mythologies. I realized this was one of the strengths of Rowling’s narrative in a modern sense: kids read these books and look at the world around them and the see symmetry to their own lives: the adults, the people in power, the people with authority…they are flawed, imperfect. I kept waiting for the “white knight” to show up and one never did. Dumbledore was clearly painted as a flawed character. Lewis and Tolkien seemed to be writing books in an Old Testament kind of world, and I think Rowling cleverly aimed for a New Testament kind of world (with a modern setting). The “white knight” has already come and gone.

    Others can debate the use of magic and occult elements, but I think the great thing about the Potter books is that it creates an opportunity for a young mind to voice concerns about why the world is broken and what we are to do in response to it. It is our job to reach out to the Harry Potters of the world, though they may isolate themselves, and admit the brokenness of the world while still maintaining that virtue exists, because Virtue has come, and Virtue will come again.

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