Monday 7 February 2011

The soul and prophecies in Harry Potter


I have been, very belatedly, hooked by the Harry Potter series; which initially I was indifferent-to, or mildly hostile about.

It required that I read the end of the series (to 'get' what the books were doing) and then went back and read the earlier books (albeit in some peculiar order, which I cannot now recall).

Now I am very taken with them, and regard them as genuinely inspired (whereas, previously, I saw them as merely ingeniously contrived - the product of a magpie bricolateur, rather than of a wise and farseeing owl - as I now think).


The most stunning, and heartening, thing about the series is their moral seriousness underpinned by a transcendental perspective: which is pretty much exactly what the modern world requires.

The Harry Potter books provide a rich Christian perspective - but not too rich nor too obvious (indeed, not-at-all obvious - there is their strength); they provide about as much as our deeply corrupt and barren modern world can reasonably digest.

Much more, and the books would have been merely a cult. As it is, there is a great deal in HP, and it has gone out to tens (or, more likely, hundreds) of millions of people - and the books have not merely been read-through, but devoured, multi-read, and assimilated. 



The first and most vital thing is that the Harry Potter series is predicated on the reality of the immortal soul.

The reality of the soul is not argued; it is accepted: as indeed it must be.

It is there; indispensable and woven through the whole story: Death is real, necessary and irreversible; yet the soul is eternal.

And the soul is regarded as being a person's primary concern; susceptible of change as a result of choices.

(And free will is foundational, assumed, intrinsic to the series as well, as it must be.)

The soul can be maimed and diminished, irreversibly, by choices during life - as we discover from Harry's sight of Voldemort's maimed and diminished soul in the King's Cross chapter of Deathly Hallows.

Such damage cannot be undone after death.

That is what I mean by moral seriousness.

How many other works of late twentieth century mainstream literature can compare with this? I can't think of any at all.


The second aspect is prophecy.

We moderns have a big, big problem with the reality of prophecy - which I take it is a self-made and artificial problem, because earlier generations did not share it.

That there were real prophecies was a given: the problems related to discerning the real prophets and prophecies from the fake; and understanding the real prophecies, and recognizing when they were being, or had been, fulfilled.

But the reality of the phenomenon of prophecy was not in question.


In relation to Harry Potter the explicit explanation of prophecy (both from Dumbledore, and by JKR) is psychological - prophecies are real because (and only because) people believe them, and make them come true.

But as pointed out in this insightful blog posting...

...this is not quite right, since Dumbledore clearly recognizes when Professor Trelawney is making a real prophecy (only twice, when she goes into an altered state of consciousness and is apparently unaware of what she is saying and does not recall it), and when she is just consciously making-up stuff.


My feeling is that these are moments when JKR is pointing off-stage, beyond the world of HP, since true prophecy is supernaturally inspired (and is beyond the capability of 'magic'); ultimately true prophecy would imply God.

(Prophecy implies God even when a specific prophecy might well be 'demonic' - indeed it might well be that most true prophecies were indeed demonic - because the existence of demons is predicated on the existence of God)

Rowling must have known, or been inspired to act on the basis, that she could not bring God explicitly into Harry Potter, or else her book would have been restricted to a Christian genre and a Christian sub-culture.

The Harry Potter novels are therefore compatible with a Christian perspective, subtly point to that perspective, but in an entirely optional and 'deniable' fashion.

You don't need to acknowledge the presence of Christian underpinnings; but they are there if you notice them, want them, or need them.


As CS Lewis recognized after publishing That Hideous Strength and Perelandra, it is one advantage for the Christian apologist in our secular public discourse that almost any amount of theology can be 'smuggled' into fantasy novels without being detected, but still having an effect - so long as it is not explicitly labelled as such.


Given the sheer scale of their sales, and the obvious devotion of their readership (and no book can have much real influence on people unless it inspires multiple re-readings - which the series clearly does) - I would have to regard the Harry Potter books as one of the most hopeful and potentially fruitful recent phenomena of the Western world.



Arakawa said...

"(Prophecy implies God even when a specific prophecy might well be 'demonic' - indeed it might well be that most true prophecies were indeed demonic - because the existence of demons is predicated on the existence of God)"

Only tangentially related to this discussion, but I was amazed to find in St. Seraphim of Sarov's famous discussion with Motovilov, that Seraphim considered the prophecies of the pagan Sybils to not only have been genuine (!), but to come from the Holy Spirit (!!).

So, the presence of Prof. Sybil Trelawney (likely unintentionally) references the exact same pagan institution, which is another reason to consider her prophecies as coming directly from God.

The fact that she has no talent of predicting the future otherwise may be a sort of divine dispensation itself, since (absent an explicit tradition that warns about the dangers of misusing divine gifts) it works to keep her from being able to take unnecessary pride in her own abilities. A case of God choosing to work through the weak, so to speak....

(St. Seraphim's other category of pagans who were granted the Holy Spirit were the philosophers, which I am guessing refers to such phenomena as Socrates having his 'tutelary spirit':

"You have often heard me speak of an oracle or sign which comes to me …. This sign I have had ever since I was a child. The sign is a voice which comes to me and always forbids me to do something which I am going to do, but never commands me to do anything, and this is what stands in the way of my being a politician.")

So, coming back to Harry Potter, the series is very much set in that kind of pre-Christian epoch -- where, explicitly speaking, the wizard society is in the "darkness of ignorance of God", but is still subject to active Divine Providence of this kind.

The fact that the (effectively) pre-Christian wizarding society is coterminous with the post-Christian Muggle society winds up being a bit of a red herring, though....

Reece said...

I came across your blog from Nathaniel's Difficult Run post. I think I read (or at least skimmed) every post and the comments in your Harry Potter section. I like your style of writing and approve of the ideas you articulate, and it was an enjoyable read; however, I have to heartily disagree that there's any meaningful amount of Christianity in Harry Potter at all.

In your writings on Harry Potter, you keep referencing its "deep Christian structure" and messages, and yet nearly half of your posts are about how Rowling is herself a fairly amoral/immoral secular leftist. Maybe the disconnect isn't Rowling denying her deep-seated Christian principles after all, and maybe you just read too much in to the book?

About the only spiritual themes I picked up in Harry Potter struck me as patently cheesy. The books do not present Christianity, they present Moral Therapeutic Deism; that is, they present a castrated and defanged feel-good spiritual do-goodery. If you want to call that deep Christianity, then fine, but it's also deep rabbinic Judaism and deep Islam and deep Hinduism, too.

The main issue (in all your posts on Harry Potter) where I agree you do make a point is in Harry's pleading with Voldemort to repent. I will give you that one; that concept of forgiveness seems particularly Christian. However, this is possibly by accident, possibly by cultural osmosis, and especially likely is by the aforementioned Moral Therapeutic Deism which retains many former Christian virtues like forgiveness and humility.

Also, there's a Bible verse on a tombstone somewhere.

I think that's about it for Christian themes in Harry Potter.

There's death, and people being sad about death, and models of the afterlife. None of those concepts are explored in a Christian way; they're explored in a general, secular, "spiritual but not religious" way which I imagine I'd be much more likely to hear from the neighborhood Tarot card reader as I would be from a pastor.

There are also virtues, such as they are. Courage I guess is a big one; Prudence not so much. They talk about "Love" a lot, which I understand from the context to mean a protective and maternal emotional state that Harry's mom had at seeing her infant son threatened; it seems a weak thing compared to the Agape that the Bible talks about. There's also a lot of Lying, Sneaking, Defiance, and Stubbornness.

On top of these are plenty of flat-out pagan elements; ghosts, Samhain, Yule celebrations, tea reading, astrology, Sirens, and a dozen other things. Unlike the spiritual elements which you admit are hidden, these are right there the whole time in the focus of the story. There are, also, pagan attitudes and ideas articulated by the characters at several points (though I'd need to re-read to find them all; I wasn't reading them under moral scrutiny). My criticism, by the way, isn't that the books aren't Christian and are therefore bad; my criticism is that the books aren't Christian and therefore aren't Christian (they're bad for completely different reasons).

I just really have a hard time seeing the fledgling spirituality in the books as being particularly Christian . Though I've read you say this many times, I really don't understand your reasoning in recommending it as a great Christian spiritual work, one right up there with C.S. Lewis' writings. JK Rowling seems from her politics and statements to be a spiritual-not-religious, Moralistic Therapeutic Deist who believes in personal fulfillment and being "nice" and has some ideas of an afterlife, and that's exactly the spiritual tenor of her Harry Potter books. I think it makes a lot more sense of the series, really, to read it in that light.

And so that's all I had to say. Cheers, and carry on.

Bruce Charlton said...

@R - If you don't like the books - and I find that perfectly understandable and reasonable, since I didn't like them for several years - then obviously you don't pick up on the *deep* themes - because the deep themes are only perceptible to those who are immersed in the books.

That the HP books are deeply Christian is clear from the points I have made and which you describe, and whole volumes have been written by the learned John Granger which establish this pretty irrefutably.

The HP books are deeply Christian, but JK Rowling has become (whether or not she acknowledges the fact) apostate - for the usual reason of giving priority to Left wing politically correct ideas.

This politically-driven apostasy has happened to millions of British people (including the past two Archbiships of Canterbury) and it is an absolute tragedy - but it does not contradict the fact that JKR WAS a Christian, and that this profoundly influenced, indeed fundamentally structured, the Harry Potter books.