Saturday, 16 July 2011

The Gospel according to Harry Potter


Last night I saw the eighth (were there really that many?!) and final Harry Potter film: "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows". The film has its moments but there's a strong sense of too much being packed into too short a space and over all it feels rushed and disjointed. There are one or two quite clever twists in the plot, but the film doesn't unfortunately do them much justice. However - my main aim in writing this post is not to provide a critical review of the film, but to discuss some of its contents.

An atheist friend with a highly sceptical view of the Christian faith recently made a comparison between the Bible and the Harry Potter books - the implication being that the former was perhaps no more truthful than the latter! After seeing the last of the Harry Potter films last night though, I found myself wanting to make a comparison in the other direction.

To summarise the plot very briefly, the evil and powerful wizard Voldemort, who threatens to destroy all that is good, has hidden parts of his soul in seven different places called "horcruxes" - thus making himself almost impossible to kill. Harry and his friends have the task of finding and destroying these horcruxes before Voldemort kills Harry and takes over the world. When the sixth and penultimate horcrux has been destroyed though, Harry learns that there is in fact an eighth: When Harry was a baby, Voldemort tried unsuccessfully to kill him, but was prevented from doing so by Harry's mother who gave her life in his defence. As a side effect of this attempt, a part of Voldemort's soul became accidentally lodged within Harry himself. The result is that now, in order for Voldemort to be killed, Harry himself must also die!

Challenged to confront Voldemort, and threatened with the death of all the other good wizards if he refuses, Harry accepts and faces him, knowing that he will be killed in the attempt. Harry has learned that he must be killed by Voldemort if the horcrux within him is to be successfully destroyed.

Voldemort kills Harry and thinks he has won, but Harry finds himself in some sort of spiritual limbo world where he meets Dumbledore (his mentor, killed in one of the previous films) and is given the option to return. To cut a long story short, he does so, there's a big fight with Voldemort, the final horcrux (located within Voldemort's pet snake) is destroyed and Voldemort is finally killed.

Having seen the previous seven films and having had some idea where the plot was going, Harry's self-sacrificial death didn't come as a big surprise, but I was surprised by just how closely this climax seemed to mirror the central message of the Christian faith.

The Christian gospel is all about Jesus, laying down his own life so that others could live free from the power of evil, but the parallels don't end there. Harry doesn't just die - willingly, as Jesus did - he is also similarly resurrected. And why does Harry die? Because the source of evil is within him, and so it is only by his death that evil itself can be destroyed. Similarly, the Bible teaches that Jesus took on sin for us - the language used is that He "became sin" (2 Corinthians 5:21) - so that through His sacrifice the power of sin (evil) could finally be destroyed. When Harry dies and is resurrected this isn't the end of the story, but Voldemort has been fatally weakened, and in true Hollywood tradition it is now only a matter of time before the victory Harry has gained by his sacrifice is realised, and Voldemort is finally destroyed. This too (deliberately? - I don't know) mirrors the Christian story - Jesus has died and been raised, but evil has not yet been fully vanquished. It is only through faith in Him and perseverance to the end that His victory is worked out and finally becomes complete in the lives of those who follow Him.

Of course, the films and the Christian story are not a perfect match!  There is a clear Christian influence but they don't serve as entire and perfect allegories. They do contain many other parallels however. For example, another central character is Dumbledore - the apparently all-wise good wizard who acts as Harry's primary mentor. He is not of course completely infallible, but in terms of his wisdom and the comfort and re-assurance he provides to Harry and the other good wizards he often came across to me as the God-figure within the story. He is the closest thing Harry has to a real life father, but it later transpires that Dumbledore knew all about the "horcrux" within Harry, and has in fact "set Harry up" to sacrifice himself - knowing that it is the only way to kill Voldemort. Snape - another central character - thinks this is deeply callous of Dumbledore and other characters also question his motives. In the same way, many who are critical of the Christian faith seem to feel that it was deeply callous of God (if indeed He did such a thing) to wish such a terrible fate on Jesus, His only Son. The ultimate message of the film though, seems to be that death is not the end and that there is a greater good to be gained. It is significant as well, that Harry makes the sacrifice of his own free will, regardless of Dumbledore's intentions. Dumbledore's character - as it is portrayed in the film - seems to be such that one could not imagine him having wanted it any other way!

As another friend has already pointed out to me, many of the themes that come through the Harry Potter story are universal and are not confined to the Christian faith, but I had to wonder how closely Rowling was influenced by Christianity and how deliberate, or otherwise, some of these parallels were.

So I did a little digging and came up with this Wikipedia article. Apparently, Rowling has had a Christian upbringing and despite her many (primarily evangelical) Christian detractors, does have a faith of sorts. She freely admits that this was a significant influence on the books, but also admits to struggling with her faith and says that these struggles are also reflected. Perhaps the parts about Dumbledore that I've mentioned above are one example of these struggles, where in the end Rowling comes out in favour of the Christian version of events?

1 comment:

  1. Went to see HP7 part 2 last night and was impressed. I'm a fan of the books and not so much of the movies. Each book has contained so much that it is impossible to create a movie that does it justice.

    By splitting Hallows into two the director was able to keep most of the important plot elements and pt 1 and pt 2 flowed far better than the earlier ones.

    But, yeah, even then I can't say they were wonderful movies ;) I was impressed though because... 7 pt2 had everything I have loved in the books: three friends who have fought and struggled against terrible odds and by working together have survived; characters I can believe in and relate to; action and comedy; heros; a story... and in the end that was enough. It wasn't the best movie in the world but I suspect like many people, I went into the cinema rooting for Harry Potter and enjoyed the jokes, suspended belief at some of the dodgier special effects, enjoyed the action and related as much as I could to what was going on.

    I see Christ and biblical themes throughout the Harry Potter story and that is a huge plus for me. Sacrifice; resurrection; prophecy; betrayal; suffering; hope; trust; faith and love.

    Taken altogether, it is an epic story which has been wonderfully thought through, planned and executed. And that last statement could apply equally to the story of Harry Potter or the life of Jesus Christ.


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