Casting Lumos on the Catholic Faith and the Harry Potter Series
By Sommer Yesenofski
Summary: The research question of this essay is, âWhat are the judgments of the Catholic Church regarding J.K. Rowlingâs Harry Potter series, are these judgments logical, and what in the series itself supports or refutes these judgments?â. For my investigation, I began by discerning the history of the Churchâs stance on witchcraft and various books considered to be heretic and then delved into the success of the series despite Christian criticism. After gaining an understanding of what exactly Christian critics find doubt-worthy at best and sinful at worst, I re-read the series, highlighting examples of moral lessons and biblical allusions displayed by the characters and plotline, trying to put my own prejudices as a Catholic and as a Harry Potter fan aside. I finally concluded that âalthough basic elements of the books are not perfectly aligned with Christian ideologies, the values portrayed in the books, the details of the story, and the plotline support and reflect morals and ideas expressed in the Bibleâ. Furthermore, books are a good example of upstanding morals for children. This conclusion was reached considering various examples and extracts from the books themselves that portray ethical dilemmas and their appropriate solutions or direct biblical influences."
At 12:01 p.m. on November 19, 2010, witch hysteria of another kind brewed outside movie theatres across the United States as muggles of all ages anticipated the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallow - Part 1 - which soon became the tenth highest grossing film worldwide while its ancestor, Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone, ranks eighth. Preceded by six films and based upon the seventh book in Joanne K. Rowlingâs Harry Potter series, the 2010 film was not the only mark of success that the series has attained. The Harry Potter series has sold over four hundred million copies in two hundred territories, translated into sixty-nine languages. The series has been followed by a legion of consumer products including toy wands, school uniform costumes, and an Orlando theme park - all in celebration of the wizarding world and The-Boy-Who-Lived, Harry Potter. All of these factors have rendered J.K. Rowling the first author to become a billionaire from the success of her books alone, and a female author no less.
So why and how, after all of the history built up against witches and when Christianity has reached its greatest point of influence, has this story of a young wizard and a school of witchcraft captivated the world? One argument for why the series has been so popular despite sentiments against witchcraft is simply that the story is fictionâa childrenâs book: no harm, no foul, no threat. However, witches in fictional movies and stories have gained bad reputations throughout the history of pop culture. The Wicked Witch of the West, green in the face with a cackle to match, was not portrayed in a flattering image in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, nor was the child-eating hag in the Brothers Grimm tale, Hansel and Gretel, nor any of the Walt Disney characters such as the likes of Snow White or Sleeping Beauty. Everything from religion, to history, to pop culture has criticized and negatively connoted the ideas of witchcraft - and at a point in time when there are more Christians in the world than ever, why now has the world fallen under Harryâs spell?
Suffice it to say, perhaps not everyone has been bewitched by the boy wizard. Since the very first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopherâs Stone, was released in 1997, the series and J.K. Rowling have faced criticisms from parents and church officials regarding the message and themes of the books. The American Library Association named the books near the top of their âmost challenged booksâ listing for the years 1999-2001. Evangelicals, Baptists, and Presbyterians each have their reservations regarding the series, but the Catholic Church has sent mixed messages regarding their stance on the tale of witchcraft and wizardry. In 2003, at a Catholic forum on the dangers of the New Age, an associate of the Vaticanâs council for culture, Rev. Peter Fleetwood, said that he did not âsee any problems in the Harry Potter seriesâ and that they were good tools to âhelp children to see the difference between good and evilâ when asked whether the series was one of those dangers.
This reaction was then taken by the media and dramatized with headlines such as the Guardianâs âCatholic Church Stands Up for Harry Potterâ and the Chicago Sun Timesâs âVatican: Potterâs Magic OKâ, attributing the one officialâs statement to the overall policy of the church, or even to Pope Jon Paul II himself. The sensation caused by Fleetwoodâs comment caused German critic Gabriele Kuby, author of a book entitled Harry PotterâGood or Evil?, in which she expresses her opinion on the overall evil of the book, to write a letter to the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. In her letter, she expressed her outrage over the statement. Ratzingerâs response was one of agreement and thanks for her efforts to âenlighten people about Harry Potter, because those are subtle seductions, which act unnoticed and by this deeply distort Christianity in the soul, before it can grow properlyâ. He allowed her to release the letter, which he hand signed, as his official statement.
Two years later, in May 2005, Benedict XVI, or Cardinal Ratzinger, was inaugurated as the new Pope. Therefore, it is easy for many Catholics to assume that the Vaticanâs position on the Harry Potter series is one of disapproval. However, the Church has not made an official statement and is still up for debate. In 2008, the Vaticanâs official newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, published two editorials under the headline âThe Double Face of Harry Potterâ, in which two opposing columns offer the solution. One column, a pro-Potter editorial, was entitled âNot the Power of Success but the Humbleness of Giving Himselfâ. The other titled itself and Harry âA Wrong Image of the Heroâ. Apparently, the Pope dos not hold the final word. In addition, in 2009, in response to the new film Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, L'Osservatore Romano commended the film for its âclear line of demarcation between good and evil, making clear that good is right, and that in some cases this involves hard work and sacrificesâ.
With all of these conflicting views, who holds the right answer? Does the Harry Potter series advance Christian morals and beliefs, or are they dangerous, âsubtle seductionsâ for children?
Although basic elements of the books are not perfectly aligned with Christian ideologies, the values portrayed in the books, the details of the story, and the plotline support and reflect morals and ideas expressed in the Bible. Much like the stories of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein, many of J.K. Rowlingâs characters are allegorical or at least share certain attributes of individuals in the Bible. On the whole, many of the arguments against the series are made by ill-informed individuals. Although their arguments do highlight elements of the series that may cause concern for parents, the books provide a number of exemplary lessons for children.
The Church has a history of judgments on witchcraft - and not just those confined to the fictional world of Harry Potter. Christianity, now the largest religion in the world, with three billion followers, was not always so. Pre-Christ, witches were ârespected and esteemed for the good they could do in the communityâ, though it was recognized that their power could be âused for both good (white) and evil (black) magicâ. It was widely believed that witches existed, and that, furthermore, so did gods and goddesses. As a new, struggling belief-system, Christianity had to coexist with paganism - even integrating multiple pagan celebrations into their calendar. Saturnalia, a Roman festival, was the inspiration for Christmas Eveâs celebration of Jesus Christâs birth, although âbiblical accountsâ¦ indicate it occurred in late summer or early fallâ. In effect, Christianity was marketing itself with convenience and practicality, hoping to persuade pagans to convert by maintaining a sense of familiarity for them. However, the churchâs blurring of the lines between pagan and Christian was ineffective. Although a surge in conversions to Christianity occurred, followers still observed old pagan traditions, causing church leaders to feel threatened by these practices. Around the third century A.D., persecution against witches began when Romans ordered witches to be burned alive, and, in 428 A.D., pagan practices were finally outlawed and deemed punishable by death. Yet, although these policies discouraged the practices, they failed to eradicate witchcraft because of the fact that they still recognized it. Thus, trying out a different approach, a document entitled the Canon Episcopi denied the existence of witchcraft at all - though this was denounced again in the Middle Ages, when witches were considered heretics. In 1252, Pope Innocent IV authorized the torture of accused witches and heretics in order to force out confession - and from then on, it became a business.
Witch-hunters were paid for finding witches and all of the possessions of the witch were collected by the state. This financial incentive caused Prince Philip Adolf von Ehrenberg to burn over nine hundred witches, many children, in Wurzburg, Germany. It was not only Europe that was affected by witch hunts. Puritans in the New World of Salem, Massachusetts held infamous trials against accused witches starting in 1692, resulting in the death of around thirty three people, through hangings, pressings, and poor prison conditions. The confession system, in which an accused witch escapes the death penalty by offering names of other âknownâ witches, popularized witch hysteria, creating an out of control snowball effect. Infamous witch-hunts in Wurzberg, Germany and Salem, Massachusetts both serve as typical examples of witch hysteria.
Just as witch hunting is nothing new in Christianity, criticizing and banning books and authors is also an old practice of the Catholic Church. The Vatican has censored and banned thousands of books in their Index Librorum Prohibitorum, including the works of Descartes, Galileo Galilee, John Locke, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean Paul Sartre. One book that seems to be missing from their list, however, is Adolf Hitlerâs Mein Kampf, which was influential in leading to the genocide of millions of European Jews. The fact that the Church is so concerned with a childrenâs story and yet did little to reprimand the book that symbolized the sin of the entire Nazi empire seems hypocritical. In comparison to the movement following Hitlerâs book, the craze following Rowlingâs series is innocent.
Rowling herself stated that the religious parallels in her series âhave always been obviousâ and that she finds it âsomewhat ironicâ that she, as a Christian, is regularly criticized for the books . Although the Church does not recognize these biblical allusions, they are overwhelmingly present.
Within the Harry Potter series, Rowling uses a number of biblical numerology symbols within the stories. The Christian idea of the holy trinity suggests âunity of purposeâ between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - an idea that gives the number three a holy significance. Rowling uses the number in a multitude of ways. Harry, Ron, and Hermione form a trio of best friends, each one contributing his or her qualities to form a balance in the books: Harryâs courage, Ronâs dedication, and Hermioneâs wit are each instrumental in achieving the trioâs goals and quests throughout the series. For example, in Sorcererâs Stone, Hermione uses her knowledge of herbology to make it past the deadly Devilâs Snare plant, Ron employs his dogged patience in wizard chess, and Harry finally gathers his bravery in facing Lord Voldemort for the first time since infancy in order to protect the Sorcererâs Stone from corrupt forces.
Things never seem balanced in the books when any members of the trio are in disagreement, much like the fact that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit cannot work as separate entities. Another holy trinity element seen in the series is the idea of the Deathly Hallows: the Elder Wand, the Resurrection Stone, and the Cloak of Invisibility. Each of these items is forged in order to give the possessor a certain power - and when the three are united the rightful bearer âbecome[s] master of Deathâ, but separately are fallible and not entirely foolproof. In addition, after his first battle with Voldemort since infancy, Harry spends three days in a coma before reawakening, similar to the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. The number seven, too, is a holy number, the number of days of creation - and also the same numbers of books in the series and years wizard students spend at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. In addition, 1997 is the year that the finale of the series takes place. Rowling emphasizes and reuses these numerical biblical allusions to draw attention to and create parallels with Christian morals.
The temptation and evil that is epitomized by the image of the snake in Genesis is also reflected in the series. The animal mascot and symbol of Slytherin, the Hogwarts house that has the darker reputation for producing wizards of more evil nature, is a snake. As Ron Weasley put it, âThere's not a single witch or wizard who went bad who wasn't in Slytherinâ. Even the name âSlytherinâ, named after the dark wizard who harbored bigoted sentiments about students of non-magical parentage, Salazar Slytherin, suggests the serpentine sounds of hissing and slithering. Descendants of this dark wizard are said to have the ability to speak parseltongue, a snake-language that allows communication with the serpents, which present temptation and the presence of evil. A serpent is also found in the Dark Mark - a tattoo-like brand on the followers of the dark wizard, Lord Voldemort. A basilisk and Lord Voldemortâs pet snake, Nagini, prove to be animals Harry must defeat in order to survive.
Overall, the snake symbolizes evil in the series, but also temptation. Upon arrival into Hogwarts, students are sorted into one of four houses: Gryffindor for the brave, Ravenclaw for the intelligent, Hufflepuff for the kind-hearted, and Slytherin for those âcunning folks [who] use any means to achieve their endsâ (Sorcererâs Stone, 118). When Harry steps up to be sorted, the Sorting Hat nearly sorts him into Slytherin, claiming Slytherin âcan help [him] on the way to greatnessâ (119). There is a great temptation for Harry in this moment, just as when the snake tempts Eve with the apple, but he resists and insists against being sorted into the house, chanting ânot Slytherinâ¦ Not Slytherinâ. In the following sequels, Harry learns of his own ability to speak with snakes in parseltongue, to become overwhelmed with angst, and to tap into Voldemortâs thoughts and emotions through dreams. These connections to Voldemort cause Harry to doubt his moral compass-if that hat nearly put him into Slytherin and he has a powers shared by infamous dark wizards, does that make him a dark wizard as well? In response, Dumbledore assured Harry that âit is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilitiesâ. This connection to Genesis and the moral of choosing between âwhat is right and what is easyâ, as Dumbledore puts it, asserts to readers the importance of making moral decisions, especially in the face of the temptation of power. Just as in the Bible the snake represents evil, the phoenix in the Harry Potter series represents resurrection, as the phoenix recreates itself from its own ashes after death - rising again much as Jesus Christ after his crucifixion. Rowling uses the phoenix as a foil to the snake, highlighting its benevolent goodness and the snakeâs evil lure.
Even some of the characters in the Harry Potter series have allegorical similarities to figures in the Bible. Harryâs father, James, and three of his friends, forming a group named the Marauders, are very similar to the twelve disciples in their value of friendship and trust. One of these disciples, Judas, however, betrays Christ by revealing his location to the Romans and thus causing his crucifixion. One of the Marauders, Peter Pettigrew, does the same - he reveals James Potterâs location and causes the death of him and his wife Lily, and nearly of their son Harry himself. In the Bible, Judas is rewarded with silver from the Romans and Peter Pettigrew is rewarded with a silver hand to replace one he sacrificed to bring Lord Voldemort back to life in the fourth installment, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Judas eventually hangs himself out of grief and guilt. Similarly, at one point in the finale, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Peter Pettigrew attempts to capture Harry and take him to Lord Voldemort, at which point Harry reminds Pettigrew of his father. Pettigrewâs artificial silver hand then turns against him, sensing his guilt, and in effect, Pettigrew takes his own life by strangling himself - much like Judas. Through this parallel, Rowling asserts to her readers the importance of friendship and loyalty, just as is maintained in the Bible.
The most recurring biblical parallel is that of Harry Potter as a Christ figure, just as Lord Voldemort shares parallels with King Herod. Shortly after the birth of Jesus Christ, Magis had seen the stars in the sky that prophesized the âbirth of the King of the Jewsâ, and in their search for him, came across King Herod. Detecting a threat in the baby Jesus, King Herod plotted to kill the baby once the Magis discovered him. Similarly, shortly after Harry was born, a prophecy was made that âone with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches, born as the seventh month dies ... and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows notâ (Order of the Phoenix, 841). Lord Voldemort, upon hearing this, was determined to get rid of Harry Potter as an infant. Neither Voldemort nor King Herod was successful. Just as Jesus spends three days in a tomb before resurrection, Harry spends three days in a coma before reawakening after his confrontation with Voldemort.
Perhaps the most important parallel between Harry and Jesus is their willingness to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others. Jesus Christ endures crucifixion for the salvation and the sins of men. Harry does the same - he dies at the hands of Voldemort willingly. He âunderstood at last that he was not supposed to survive. His job was to walk calmly into Deathâs welcoming armsâ (Deathly Hallows, 691). If he did not do so, Voldemort could not be defeated. One criticism of Harryâs sacrifice, however, is summarized by Richard Abanes, author of Harry Potter and the Bible, who noted that âChrist died for the ungodly. He died for us while we were yet sinners. This is agape love - selfless, self-giving, god-like. Harry seems only willing and able to sacrifice for his friendsâ¦ The parallel, therefore, does not existâ. This criticism is truly surface level. It seems that Harryâs sacrifice is for the sake of his friends and fellow students because they are those who are in immediate danger if Harry does not sacrifice himself. However, truly, the fate of the entire wizarding world is on him - without his sacrifice, their world, as well as the muggle world, is left to the murderous, bigoted Voldemort. In addition, it cannot be ignored how many other times within the series that Harry risked his life for others. He spares Peter Pettigrew from a vengeful Sirius Black despite his betrayal of Harryâs parents in Prisoner of Azkaban, salvages a girl he has never met from the Black Lake and saves his competitor Cedric Diggory from death in Goblet of Fire, and finally rescues his nemesis Draco Malfoy after he had just attempted to kill Harry in Deathly Hallows. All of this points to Harryâs selflessness and sacrifice, even for those who are not his loved ones. Rowling depicts all of these parallels between Harry and Jesus to portray Harry as a role model. If Harry shows all of these similarities to the son of God, why does he receive so much criticism?
Critics maintain that the fundamental reasons why Harry serves as a poor role model is the fact that he breaks school rules and partakes in witchcraft. Many parents and critics worry about Harryâs constant disregard for the rulesâsneaking out of bed after curfew, forming illicit clubs to teach students how to defend themselves, and stealing from a professors stock of ingredients. Yet, Harry does this for a greater good: he demonstrates âhigher levels of moral insightâ, meaning he uses ends that do not cohere to the rules to establish means that are more ethical. Jesus himself did not always follow the rules of society. He âate with sinners and tax collectorsâ, consorted with prostitutes like Mary Magdalene, and âhealed on the Sabbath, in violation of Jewish lawâ, yet all he did served a greater purpose, a âhigher law than man-made lawâ. Rowling makes it clear to readers that sometimes rules are made to be broken, but, once again, it is important to make moral choices. Making Harry a role model, Rowling uses the same ideology as the phrase âWhat would Jesus do?â, which asserts that in ethical conflicts, it is important to recognize that just because something is the law does not necessarily mean it is right. Deuteronomy 18:10-12 urges Christians to âlet no one be found among you who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spellsâ¦ Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORDâ. Thus, according to the Bible, witchcraft is a sin despite the intentions or motives connected to its use. Critics suggest that âHarry Potter and his friends use magic to achieve their will; Christians know that it is not their will but Godâs will that should be doneâ and that the books âlure children to witchcraftâ (BMW). One thing that is not recognized it that Harry utilizes magic for good and the defeat of evil and the power of children to understand this.
Children are underestimated in many ways - the argument that after reading the series, children will want to become witches is illogical. One short conversation between parents and their children will confirm the pure fantasy of the series. Furthermore, although the series rejects this excerpt from the Bible, the series supports and even quotes the Bible. For example, in Revelation 9, âthere are a few verses that refer to God granting protection to those who have His mark on their foreheadsâ. Harryâs souvenir from the sacrifice of his mother sits in a lightning bolt-shaped scar on his forehead, a biblical allusion. In the final installment, Deathly Hallows, two epigraphs contain Bible verses: one from Matthew 6:21 that says âFor where your treasure is, there your heart will be alsoâ and another from Corinthians 15:26 stating âThe last enemy to be destroyed is deathâ. The inspiration attained directly from the Bible is obvious in Rowlingâs last few chapters, which reflects the biblical details and allusions she has used since the beginning, because, according to Rowling, the two verses âalmost epitomize the whole seriesâ. Most importantly, however, is the emphasis placed on the power of love - the force that saves Harry from Voldemortâs wrath and the power that enables him to defeat Voldemort once and for all. Rowling emphasizes the power of love to her readers, as it is âthe one thing Voldemort cannot understandâ. Harryâs motherâs love for him protected Harry through her sacrifice, just as Jesusâ love gives guidance to Christians today.
Within the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling uses numerous biblical allusions to present her readers with values, details, and a plotline that support and suggest valuable lessons and role models. Whether on screen or on the page, the Boy-Who-Lived continues to charm his fans with his loyalty, bravery, and, most importantly, love.