Thursday, March 1, 2012

Why You Should Read Harry Potter, If You Haven't Already

Allan Bloom in his book The Closing of the American Mind as well as E. D. Hirsch in his book Cultural Literacy argue that we no longer have a shared text. Thus, we no longer have a shared body of knowledge or of references that we all understand that allows us to communicate with each other. Pockets of people here and there do, but nothing that transcends these pockets. This is, according to Bloom, the great legacy of postmodernism. And it makes us all, in some way, relativists. Even we who think we know better. And this is because we have nothing that binds us together with a common understanding, a common way of looking at the world and our place in it.

Consider for a moment the majority of arguments either for or against contemporary worship or liturgical worship. They tend toward relativism. This is why Formula X is such a favorite of modern Lutherans. It lets us do what we want.

Clearly, he was right. But I think that J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter offer a way out. Almost everyone knows of this, has read them, or has watched the films. It's darn near ubiquitous. And by knowing this, by being conversant in the language and storyline of Harry Potter, we have access to a line of communication with everyone who's read the books, heard the story, or watched the films.

Rowling isn't just writing a fun story. She's making an argument--an argument against relativism and prejudice and radical feminism, and an argument for sacrifice and courage and love. Thus Rowling also gives a way of branching off from Harry Potter. Because Harry Potter, while great reads in and of themselves, tell the story that we preach every Sunday. They tell the only story worth telling. And so Harry Potter invites you to read beyond them, to look for references in other writers, in ideas and imagery from other places.

One example just came to my attention recently. Here's the quote:

St. Cyril of Alexandria (5th century) makes a peculiar comment regarding those who hear these words, and will “leap like a deer”. He says “those who formerly did not keep to the straight and narrow, but had a limited mentality, will bound like deer, meaning that they will be agile and nimble (in a spiritual sense, that is), and furthermore become snake killers, and fluent speakers. What does he mean by the term “snake killers”? In the ancient world, deer were known for two peculiar things. Firstly, it was believed that they ate snakes. And partially because of this diet, they were also known for having an insatiable thirst for springs of water. Just one example of this from antiquity is seen in another of St. Cyril’s comments on Isaiah, where he likens the disciples of God to deer saying “Now they are very rightly compared to deer, an animal that kills snakes and is habitually fond of springs of water; this is the way with everyone devoted to God and appropriately equipped to do away with the spiritual dragon, by overthrowing his eminence, and rendering powerless and ineffectual the venom of his innate malice (pg. 269 vol. 2).”

For this reason, it is fascinating to find that there are numerous ancient baptismal fonts from the early centuries of the Church still in existence that contain images of deer with snakes in their mouths.

Many of you, who have read the Harry Potter books, will recall what animal Harry shows forth in his Patronus, an image which has the power to disperse the evil demon-like creatures, the Dementors. As was the case with his father before him, his Patronus figure is a stag, a male deer. The stag was used as a symbol for Christ in much of ancient and medieval literature. If you have read the seventh book of the Harry Potter series, perhaps you will recall how when all hope and direction seems lost, Harry is led one night by a doe, a female deer, to a frozen pond. In the bottom of the pond, in the moonlight that is shining through the ice, Harry can just make out the image of a silver cross. In homage to C. S. Lewis, and the baptism of Eustace Scrubb by Aslan, in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Rowling has Harry break through the ice, and descend into the freezing water to seek the cross (which is actually a very special sword, which is used by someone else later in the book to cut off the head of a very large snake!). Harry does battle in the waters with an evil burden that he carries, and dies a figurative death. He is pulled from the waters by a friend he thought he’d lost, and upon his emergence from the water, everything has suddenly changed, and he now has direction. His purification through each of the seven books leads him to this moment, where he now knows that he can go forth and defeat the evil Lord Voldemort, who is more snake than man.

Read these books. They're great reads, but in doing so, you will find a shared text, something in common with the people in your pews and in the houses next door. This gives access to all who read them and allows you to open their world to that greater text: the Word that became flesh to save us from the serpent.


  1. I resisted Dr. Stuckwisch's advice in this regard for far too long, and finally got around to reading the books (actually listening to my wife read them aloud to the whole family) last year. I wrote about here some time back. They are a marvel, and as good an entry point for attachment to the Biblical world as one is likely to find in the modern world.


  2. I agree completely, but ironically, Allen Bloom hated the books.

  3. Allan Bloom, the author of The Closing of the American Mind, should not be confused with Harold Bloom, the literary critic who made a name for his harsh critique of Rowling's Harry Potter.


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