Harry Potter Is Filled with Implicit and Explicit Christian Themes

Andy Naselli —  April 30, 2012 — 9 Comments

Admission: I read a book about the Harry Potter series. And I liked (most of) it:

John Granger. How Harry Cast His Spell: The Meaning Behind the Mania for J. K. Rowling’s Bestselling Books. 4th ed. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2006. 304 pp. (34-page sample PDF)

I actually read a few others, too:

But they weren’t as captivating as this one (at least as this one starts out—it fizzles a bit).

I didn’t plan to read to read it straight through. I checked it out via my public library’s inter-library loan, and I planned to give it about 30 to 60 minutes. But after reading the first few chapters, I bought it in Kindle format and marked it up as I read the whole thing straight through. Chapters 1–10 and 19–20 are more interesting than the others.

The book is popular, not academic, and sometimes it is a bit corny. But its insights are worth the read. I don’t follow all of the symbolic connections Granger makes in this book: some of them seem like too much of a stretch (especially when deriving hidden meanings via tenuous etymologies), but most of them make sense.

I didn’t know that there are “Potter Scholars,” but TIME calls John Granger the “Dean of Harry Potter Scholars.”

One point that Granger demonstrates very well is that all seven Harry Potter books are filled with implicit and explicit Christian themes. He begins to unpack his argument in this sample PDF, but the rest of the book relentlessly and overwhelmingly proves that argument.

Here’s a figure from chapter 2:

And here’s a table from chapter 3that illustrates that “the Harry Potter books are laid out according to a formula repeated in each story” (the table is spread over two pages so that the seven Potter books appear in seven parallel columns):

Granger writes,

“My ‘Great Book’ test has three parts:

  • Does it address the big questions of human life?
  • Does the artistry of the work support the answers given to these questions?
  • Are the answers about edifying relationships with God, man, and the world? (This last, in light of historic English literature being almost exclusively by Christians for other Christians, can be rephrased more simply, ‘Are the answers Christian?’)

“The Harry Potter books are classics—and not just as ‘kid-lit’ but as classics of world literature.” (p. 53)

Related:

  1. Harry Potter
  2. Rebuked about Harry Potter
  3. Successful Rereading: Maintaining the Magic

Update: Just to clarify, I’m referring to the Harry Potter books, not the films. As I say here, “Don’t judge a book by its movie.”

9 responses to Harry Potter Is Filled with Implicit and Explicit Christian Themes

  1. Do you think that Harry Potter only appears to reflect Christian themes because Christian themes are the basic themes of life? CS Lewis said something similar: ‘Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call “real things.”‘ [From C.S.Lewis letter to Arthur Greeves,1931.]

  2. 1. “Only”? No. Some of the Christian themes are explicit, and Rowling has said so in interviews.

    2. But partly? Yes. Some of the Christian themes are implicit. That’s a good observation.

  3. I think the Narnia and Philosophy book is better than either of the two Harry Potter ones. You read the better of the two Potter ones, though (because it deals with the whole series).

    You may have picked up from my piece on destiny in the Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy that I think there’s an implicit providence theme in the stories. At least, the stories make a lot less sense if you don’t have something like providence. The fact that she makes so much happen seemingly by chance with the luck potion made me think about how often lucky occurrences were necessary even without the luck potion, and it seems far more than could possibly be reasonable. But it’s not clear to me if Rowling is aware of that or if she just tells the stories in a way that sort of implicitly requires it because she thinks it makes better storytelling. You never wonder about that sort of thing with Lewis or Tolkien. It’s quite clear in Lewis, especially in The Horse and His Boy, and there are a few oblique references to it even in Tolkien. This is a theme that I haven’t noticed anyone else drawing attention to.

  4. Brian Bollon May 3, 2012 at 3:36 pm

    Andy,I feel bad that in my first comment on your blog I’m going to disagree with you. I concede that I haven’t read this book you’ve reviewed, and that I’m not a literary scholar. My only claim is that I read the Harry Potter books for their entertainment value – which is the level of interest with which (I suspect) most readers encounter them.
    I assume you’ve read the books and aren’t just going on what Granger says about them. Based on my reading, I’d be inclined to agree with Louise’s post, that Christian themes are present because they are the stuff of life and they make good stories. I can’t deny that Rowling intentionally wove some Christian themes into the to stories. The “Harry’s Journey” chart you seems to demonstrate more about Rowling’s ability to consistently incorporate literary elements than her use of Christian themes.

    I don’t think the Potter books are (necessarily) bad reading for Christians. But I also don’t think there’s much value in trying to tease out lots of explicit and implicit Christian themes. Some of the themes may be there, but they (again, based on my casual reading)certainly aren’t handled from a Biblical perspective. Two examples:

    First, Harry Potter is a disappointingly non-heroic hero. He doesn’t come anywhere near a Christ-symbol except for the fact that he chooses to let Voldemort kill him. He lies. He doesn’t study. He doesn’t work hard. He’s selfish. His only virtues seem to be that his mother loved him and that he’s very, very, extremely lucky. And he has a friend (Hermione) who does take studying magic more seriously, if not more morally. Harry displays no Christian virtue that I can recall.

    Second, though the stories do raise serious, significant themes like the conflict of good and evil, the struggle (and in fact the whole story) remains completely disconnected from God. Any God. There’s no ultimate being, no one who determines that Harry lying is good because he’s the good guy and Voldemort lying is bad because he’s the bad guy.

    So again, there doesn’t seem much value in trying to uncover Christian themes in Potter. The best point that seems can be made for them is that people like them not because they explicitly and implicitly contain Christian themes, but because they’re generally well-written stories about teens getting to go to magic school. How cool is that!

    • Thanks, Brian.

      I agree with you that the HP series certainly doesn’t flawlessly present Christian themes. I mentioned this in my first post: “e.g., the protagonist and his friends tell lies without negative consequences.”

      But Granger makes a very strong case that J. K. Rowling filled it with explicit and implicit Christian themes. If you get a chance to read Granger’s book, perhaps you could leave another comment with your thoughts.

  5. I don’t think Rowling intends any of her characters to be perfect role models. She takes them, rather, to be like what real people might be like, and she often has their idiotic behavior lead to bad consequences. If Harry had only told Dumbledore about his hearing the snake’s voice, things might have gone very differently. If he’d told Snape of the dream in Goblet of Fire, and if he hadn’t shirked his lessons with Snape, he might have averted Sirius’ death.

    That being said, I do think Harry has plenty of virtues. He’s not Hermione, but once he becomes more serious about learning magic he does excel at most of his subjects. He manages to figure out the horcruxes mostly by himself. He finds the Chamber of Secrets by himself.

    As for lies, Harry and his friends often use them in the same way biblical figures appropriately and morally use them, such as when the Hebrew midwives lie to save lives, when Rahab lies to save the spies’ lives, when God commands Samuel to lie about why he’s in Bethlehem (he tells him to tell Saul he’s there for a sacrifice, when he’s really there to anoint David as king), when David lies to the priests about his mission in order to save his soldiers’ lives, and so on.

    Harry sometimes lies to save his own skin when he was doing something he shouldn’t have done, and he doesn’t always reap immediate consequences for it, but that’s just Rowling being faithful to reality. She certainly has the kids getting caught doing things they shouldn’t do, even when they mean well, and they have detentions for it often enough. But she also has them breaking official rules when the circumstances warrant it, because something more important is at stake, and that includes general moral rules like the moral prohibitions on lying and controlling innocent people with the Imperius curse. I would be prepared to argue that even the latter was completely justified in the case when Harry uses it to get to a horcrux that was needed for bringing Voldemort down.

    Harry, like all kids, grows in his moral maturity as he gets older, and he develops various virtues as he does so. The idea that he has no Christian virtues at all is simply false. He spares Wormtail. He saves Dudley’s soul from the dementors. He’s clearly merciful. He even offers Voldemort a chance to repent, and he insists on calling him Tom as he does so. He comes to amicable relations later in life with both Dudley and Malfoy. Rowling’s main virtue is love, and while she does include romantic love she doesn’t focus mainly on that. Harry’s mother’s sacrifice is a prime example, as is Dumbledore’s willingness to take the blame for Dumbledore’s Army. And there’s no question that he’s courageous, which is the virtue of the Gryffindor House. That’s hardly lacking in virtue lists in the Bible.

  6. Andy and Jeremy, I concede that I might have been prejudiced through the series by my perception of Harry formed at the beginning. A rereading may show me more “character” development than I’m giving him credit for. But I’m still skeptical it’s as good as you’re seeing.

  7. Brian,I’m interested in your thoughts after (if) you read Granger’s book.

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