Saturday, 13 August 2011

From The Church Times Vault: Harry Potter & cultural theology

Theological college had many highlights: the chance to be formed in a creative way, the opportunity to test out wild ideas, and the experience of training in a lively and vibrant setting. However, the real highlight – for a film nut like me – was the opportunity, one Saturday, to turn the college common room into a cinema and watch all three ‘Lord of the Rings’ films back to back. It was fun, intense and emotionally draining. Now I am about to do something equally ridiculous and wonderful in a parish setting: on the weekend of the final film’s release, I shall be having a Harry Potter ‘octothon’: seven films back-to-back followed by an immediate trip to the cinema to watch the final adaptation.

There is no doubt that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has been a true international phenomenon. Whatever one feels about its literary merits, it has become a compelling series for children and adults alike. This was achieved on such a grand scale that books were marketed with both children’s and adult’s covers. The film adaptations – whilst of varying quality – have been so successful that they rank among the world’s biggest grossing films.

The series’ impact fascinates me. For its success with both kids and adults goes beyond literary or cinematic merit: In literary terms, Harry Potter might reasonably be called ‘Mallory Towers with Magic’ –  that is, a bunch of kids go off to boarding school and get to do exciting things with magic. And yet, as the critic Lev Grossman notes, its world has ‘... a freestanding internal integrity that makes you feel as if you should be able to buy real estate there’.

It is easy to dismiss Harry Potter’s appeal to adults as nostalgia fodder – nostalgia for the lost magic of childhood. And there is truth in this. Nostalgia for lost youth is an abiding motif of many adults’ lives. Equally, as the spiritual writer, Alan Jones, notes, there is, in the modern world, ‘an underlying and constant anxiety about the future’. In this context, it is unsurprising that adults might take flight into comforting fantasy and images of a lost, and fantastical, childhood.

However, something spiritually more significant is going on. In an age when, in the UK and Europe at least, most adults don’t go to church and most children aren’t significantly initiated into faith, Potter and its ilk act as both reminders of and initiators into big spiritual and moral ideas. For example, Harry Potter is famously both an orphan and the victim of child abuse at the hands of his horrific cousins, the Dursleys. His school, Hogwarts, becomes his home and his friends his family. For Harry, the magical world represents a kind of ‘homecoming’. We are invited to participate in and identify with this sense of ‘homecoming’ and ‘emergent identity’ as we read.

In a world which is genuinely fast-moving and complex – a world which many of us feel utterly caught up in and alienated from at the same time – the story arc of Harry Potter provides a kind of calm port. We want to climb in and live there. Clearly the Potter universe is imaginative fantasy and yet it feeds our alienated, orphaned minds with a vision of homecoming and belonging that, post-faith, many feel they have lost.

Understandably many will say that, if this is even half-true, it is desperately sad: if a children’s fantasy story is giving adults a sense of place and connection to something greater than themselves, we are very lost indeed. Once, religion fulfilled that role and any person of faith, including me, will want to open people’s hearts to the Christian reality.

Yet we – as people of faith - are dismissive at our peril. The imaginative power of Rowling’s work says something revealing about what our everyday religion can lack. And that, of course, is wonder and, in a very real sense, ‘magic’. This is not about childish fireworks (great as they are) but about a sense of living in a world thoroughly alive with the power of God’s Spirit – a world of possibilities in which our imaginations are dazzled and fed. Church life, with its over emphasis on keeping the show on the road, can so readily be stripped of imagination and wonder. If we are to offer folk a genuine sense of homecoming it needs to be one based not on getting folk to maintain the organisation, but on feeding their sense of possibility.

Equally, we risk losing sight of the imaginative complexity of Rowling’s world. Harry and his friends are presented with genuine and real decisions – decisions which are personally costly, risky and sometimes questionable. Harry’s friendship with his best friends is tested again and again, especially in the later books as adolescent hormones kick in and he deals with adult questions about exactly who he can trust. In other words, Rowling’s universe, fantastic as it may be, is very like our own. Clearly the author has a very real sense of good versus evil, but these are characters who are not acting out according to a set moral menu. They make real decisions which have difficult consequences. By the end of the Potter novels, several key characters lie dead, others are brought face to face with the dreadful consequences of their actions and Harry and his friends witness the effects of standing up to hatred and violence – death and pain.

When we combine that costliness with the work’s mythic sense of belonging and homecoming, it is not hard to see why adults and children alike find this a potent and easily accessible re-presentation of ethical and spiritual truths – sometimes more potent than those offered in our culture’s truly great book, The Bible. So, for example, the defining spiritual truth of the Bible is the transforming and saving power of sacrificial love. Yet Rowling’s story restates this truth in a way that is both moving and readily understandable and, for many, more comprehensible than the Bible: Harry’s very survival, as a baby, is due to his mother’s willingness to sacrifice herself for his sake. Indeed, it is constantly reiterated throughout the series that it is Harry’s capacity for love, and nothing else that will enable him to defeat the embodiment of evil, Voldemort.

And, ultimately, inscribed in the heart of the Potter books is the single greatest myth of Western culture: the willing sacrifice of the one for the salvation of the many. Given how potent the Christ story is, it is hardly surprising that Rowling found it unavoidable. Her writing gifts – sometimes simple, sometimes delightful and winsome (and occasionally long-winded) – bring that myth alive in ways which people who may never darken the door of a church can comprehend. Indeed, perhaps it is the very artlessness of her writing that makes her so successful. She is, in terms of craft, no match for the likes of Phillip Pullman, but skill is rarely a measure of impact. The simplicity of her sentence structure makes her novels accessible across a huge variety of age ranges and makes the novels a delight for adults to read to kids. Equally, her tendency to spell everything out in minute detail appeals to many children and adults who prefer not to have too much imaginative work to do. Crucially, her work has an ‘ageless’ quality: in an age when children’s fiction is carefully categorized into age groups, the Harry Potter series transcends easy categorization. The combination of this with a compelling story arc is seriously potent.

When the lights finally come up at the end of my Potter ‘octothon’, I know there will be tears in my eyes: not only because I will be saying goodbye to characters who have become part of my own story like friends, but because the myth of the one who dies and lives again will have been beautifully and simply re-presented once again.

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