Books

Harry Potter Turns 25: What I Saw While Reading to My Sons

I almost missed Harry Potter.

When the first book released on June 26, 1997 — now a quarter century ago — I was sixteen years old and consumed with American Legion baseball. That summer revolved around nine-inning games, at least three times each week, in full catcher’s gear, in the South Carolina heat and humidity. At the time, I had very little interest in reading anything, much less made-up stories about wizards and magic. Besides, I was about to be a junior in high school, and I fancied myself far too old for a book about 11-year-olds.

In the coming years, as enthusiasm for the series spread like wildfire around me, I observed with reluctance the increasing length of each volume. I’m a slow reader. Perhaps I could make time for the first book, but not thousands of pages after that. Honestly, my growing aversion to the series wasn’t the well-meaning Christian cautions about magic and wizards — but it was easy to join that chorus.

The final book appeared in 2007, at almost 800 pages. It took me fifteen years to finally take up and read the whole (1-million-word) series, which I did, aloud, to my twin boys during lockdowns and quarantines. I’m glad I did. And especially the final book.

Spiritually-Aware Stories

Something else happened along the way, after 1997, to open my mind beyond the simplistic criticism (and convenient excuse) of magical fiction: I read The Lord of the Rings. In Middle-earth, I discovered how an intentional, spiritually-aware visit to a fantasy world can have real-world value. Too many trusted and deeply Christian friends who shared my love for Gandalf and Frodo also appreciated Dumbledore and Harry. Eventually I wanted to see Hogwarts for myself, and with my sons inching closer to age appropriateness, I thought it might be a good journey to take together.

Elsewhere I’ve mentioned the roughly 100 hours it took to read the whole series aloud. I have grown to love reading aloud to our kids, and think it’s an especially good investment for dads to make in fostering life and growth apart from screens. But here, at the twenty-fifth anniversary of the first book, I’d like to share some of what I saw in Harry Potter, with Christian eyes, as a father, that made the long trek worthwhile.

I could recount many simple (and useful) moral takeaways — lessons, for instance, about humility, self-control, and childlikeness (not childishness) which I often paused over to drive home with my boys. But here I’ll mention just three related expressions of one great, deeper, and markedly Christian theme. (Surely, these few simple lessons will not be enough for some readers. For those who want more, I’d recommend Alan Jacob’s 2007 review of the final book, as well as Kyle Strobel’s 50-minute lecture from 2017.)

As for Christian voices still disapproving of Harry Potter on the basis of it advocating witchcraft, I’ll say this: that criticism seemed to fade after the final volume appeared in 2007. In hindsight, the lesson we might learn is that wisdom often holds judgment till the end. Be careful judging a book without its conclusion. Alan Jacobs has observed that once the series finished, the (premature) Christian concerns about magic were soon eclipsed by “another and different set of critics . . . for whom the evident traditionalism of the books is their greatest flaw” — that is, the progressives that found the conclusion “defaced by ‘heteronormativity.”

In contrast to the final movie, the final volume contains deeply Christian themes (along with two references to Scripture) that, for many of us, demonstrates the value of the whole series.

Weakness That Shames the Powerful

However deliberate JK Rowling was in simply writing a great story versus a Christian one (it is often hard to separate the two), we Christians might see a fresh expression of an ancient truth, ever in need of reminders: that Jesus’s counterintuitive way triumphs over the way of the world.

“Harry comes to see the power of self-sacrificial love over the love of power.”

In other words, the key themes of the final book in particular draw together threads of the whole series, to echo how the divine ways of God are so often unexpected in the present age. The world around us, our society, has its standards and expectations for wisdom, strength, and nobility — on natural terms. But Harry, with Dumbledore’s guidance and well-timed help from his friends, comes to see the power of self-sacrificial love over the love of power.

So too is the counterintuitive way of Christ, as captured in 1 Corinthians 1:27–28:

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.

In Christ, we have come to know what it means to glory in what the world sees as folly, weakness, and shame.

“Hogwarts at its best similars how Christ builds his church, not with the world’s best and brightest.”

A first expression of this is Hogwarts under Dumbledore’s leadership. Rather than a club for the wise, strong, and pure-blooded (as some would have it), it is a refuge for all kinds, and particularly for misfits who are not welcomed and appreciated elsewhere. Outcasts like Hagrid are received, and even contribute, at Hogwarts. Jake Meador has pointed out how in this respect Hogwarts at its best resembles how Christ builds his church, not with the world’s best and brightest — the wise, strong, and noble. Outcasts and untouchables find welcome at Hogwarts, and usefulness, that they find nowhere else.

Last Enemy to Be Destroyed

A second expression comes in the theme of death, one of the series’s main emphases. In the contrast between Voldemort and Harry, we’re confronted with the question, will you dedicate your life to avoiding death at all costs, or look to life beyond it and embrace it when your time comes?

When the time came, Christ did not avoid death, but embraced it, and conquered it on the other side. He went through death, not around it — and until his return, so do we (Hebrews 2:14–15). Remarkably, Rowling quotes 1 Corinthians 15:26, etched into the gravestone of Harry’s parents: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” At first, this confuses Harry. Noting death as the last enemy to be destroyed sounded like the dark lord and his minions. Or perhaps there’s another meaning. For us, we know Christ as risen, but death still lingers at this age. Death will be the last enemy to fall, but it will fall. Death is not only an enemybut one that will be destroyed.

Dumbledore comments as early as the first book, “To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” There is a profoundly Christian way to read in that statement what Jacobs calls “Dumbledore’s governing principle,” which is “repeatedly opposed to Voldemort’s belief that death is the worst thing imaginable and that it must therefore be mastered, ‘eaten.'”

Christ’s Way Proves Greater

Finally is the theme of power, which resonates deeply with the way the Christian gospel turns our wielding of power upside down.

First come the warnings against worldly power — from Harry’s Godfather, Sirius (“If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals,” Book 4, Chapter 27), to Dumbledore’s unmasking of the insecurity of tyrants (“Have you any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress? All of them realize that, one day, amongst their many victims, there is sure to be one who rises against them and strikes back!” Book 6, Chapter 23).

In the end, it is not the natural perspective and use of power (the way of the world) that wins the war. It is the unexpected, subversive power of humility and self-sacrificial love. Of all people, are not Christians the least caught off guard by this? Our Lord “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). He is the one, then, that God highly exalted and gave all authority in heaven and on earth (Philippians 2:9; Matthew 28:18). And while we may not be surprised to find this theme, it is still glorious to see it afresh in a new cartoonal, and love what we have in Christ. Oh, how important to remember the surprising glory of the gospel of the God whose ways and thoughts are not ours, but his, and far superior.

I don’t have any regrets waiting 25 years to get these reminders — and just enjoy a fantastic story besides. I’m sure I was able to see (and apply) more at age 40 than I would have in my teens, or twenties. I also think I saw and enjoyed more seeing it through my boys’ 11-year-old eyes. Maybe this is the best way to navigate the darkness and light of the Potter series, with young and old journeying together.

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