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More than good against evil: Christian themes in Harry Potter

Scott Harris

July 4, 2019
Photo by bayek at freeimages.com
As someone who did not grow up going to church regularly, I wasn’t exposed to Scripture and homilies that unpacked its theological significance very often. But my life was still full of Christian influences. Because our Western culture is based in Christian values and built upon a Judeo-Christian tradition, it is possible to find Christian ideology within popular culture that can connect with people in positive ways.
One of the most meaningful sources of Christian themes in my own childhood, although I didn’t realize it at the time, was JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Some of the Christian influence is obvious, but there is also much that is very subtle and profound, communicating some of the central truths of the Gospel, sometimes more effectively than we find within the Church.
Even though there has been opposition in some Christian communities to the series about young people studying magic at a school for wizards, the Harry Potter books contain many important themes that are central to Christian life. The Christian theology in the Harry Potter series is a big topic, and I’m not the first person to discuss it, but I wanted to point out some of the general highlights that have stood out to me.
For those who are unfamiliar with it, the series is about a young, neglected boy who discovers that he is a wizard when he receives a letter to a school of magic. Over the course of the books, he comes into conflict with an evil wizard who wants to kill him and take over wizard society. Throughout the books, Harry learns more about his role in the salvation of the wizarding community from the evil and corrupt social paradigm that threatens to prevail under the leadership of Voldemort and his followers. On the surface it might seem like just another banal story about good overcoming evil, but really it is far more complex than that. It wasn’t until I was re-reading the books as an adult with a theological education that it really hit me how strongly it resonates with the Christian message.
Growing up going to her local Church of England parish church, JK Rowling was clearly influenced by Christian tradition, which shaped how she expressed the story she wanted to tell, even if it was in a way that is not as overt or intentional as predecessors like CS Lewis or JRR Tolkien. Christian values are evident and contrast with the portrayal of the central villain of the series, Lord Voldemort. In the later books, we can see his contempt for “Muggles” (the non-magical humans) and his disdain for creatures he believes are inferior to himself, such as the house elves. It is this disregard for the weak and vulnerable that becomes tied to his ultimate downfall. As we read in the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible, and in Christ’s own ministry in the New Testament, caring for the marginalized is fundamental to the terms of God’s covenant with humanity, and Voldemort’s disdain for the least powerful members of society portray him as an embodiment of human evil.
In addition to his desire for temporal power at the expense of oppressed members of the magical community, Voldemort has a fear of death that makes him go to great lengths to overcome it through keeping himself tied to worldly existence in a vain, perverse imitation of life everlasting. This is achieved by tearing his soul into pieces and instilling the fragments into inanimate objects. To tear apart his soul, he has to commit acts of extreme evil, such as murder. This reminded me of mortal sin, which, in Catholic teaching, is an act of such gravity that it separates a person from the divine life of God. This idea is reinforced in the final novel, when Harry Potter asks his studious friend Hermione Granger if there is anything that could heal a soul that has been damaged by evil acts, and her well-read answer is “remorse”. The concept of repentance being required to heal the soul from the guilt of evil actions brought to mind the sacrament of Reconciliation or Confession, in which a person seeks forgiveness for sins, and with contrition, is restored to a state of grace and communion with God.
As Harry Potter is the main hero of the series, he is comparable to a Christ-figure, which is most obvious in the seventh novel when he gives himself up to be killed by Voldemort during the final battle in order to save the people he loves. His unselfish sacrifice places a protective charm on his friends fighting against Voldemort, similar to the magic that has protected Harry because of his mother’s sacrifice. In giving her own life to save her baby, her selfless act caused the evil wizard’s curse to rebound and reduce Voldemort to a weak shadow clinging to life. By the end of the series, we learn just how important Harry’s mother is to Voldemort’s ultimate defeat, as the mother of the boy who is prophesied to end the influence of the evil that corrupts the wizarding community, which brings to mind the prominent role of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ, who redeems humanity from the hold of sin.
As the Son of God took on the human flesh of his Blessed Mother, the magical protection of the selfless sacrifice of Harry Potter’s mother is present in his blood, which is why Harry has to live with his aunt and her Muggle family. Harry had a childhood of neglect and abuse from his aunt, uncle and cousin, but since his aunt is his mother’s sister, being close to people who share his mother’s blood reinforces her final act of magic. In the fourth novel, Voldemort returns to full physical form through a dark inversion of resurrection, which uses Harry’s blood to restore his body. It seems that Professor Dumbledore, the venerable and omniscient God-figure of the series, has known all along that Harry will have to die like a lamb to the slaughter in order to defeat Voldemort, as Harry contains one of the fragments of the dark wizard’s soul that keeps him clinging to life. However, what Dumbledore has figured out is that, now that Voldemort’s own body is constituted of Harry’s blood, the protective magic of Harry’s mother also now dwells in Voldemort. The dark wizard casts a killing curse, and Harry dies only temporarily in order to sever the fragment of Voldemort’s soul that clings to him, but he is not conquered by death. The vanity, greed, and selfishness of Voledmort’s character causes him to disregard the powerful magic of Harry’s sacrifice and that of his Muggle-born mother. The powers of sin and death cannot triumph against selfless love.
The Harry Potter series incorporates universal truths of humanity and expresses them in a recognizably Christian way. The series has become dated when it comes to contemporary discussions of privilege and inclusion, but it still provides powerful allegories for important social issues. Themes of justice, marginalization of the vulnerable under a fascist regime, the danger of the sins of vanity and selfishness that cause one to ignore the needs of others, and the redemptive power of selfless love to overcome oppression speak to readers for the same reasons that people are drawn to Christianity. They embody the same themes of the Gospel of Christ as the Word made flesh and his mission to humanity. Certain Christian groups who can’t get past the use of fantasy and magic, miss the point that the series is full of allegories for Christian teachings and inspires young people to be aware of issues central to the Gospel.