A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

Biblical Themes in Harry Potter

My daughter, a college senior, saw the new Harry Potter movie at midnight last night.

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She sent me an email this morning, shared with her permission:

while i was watching harry potter i got fixated on the biblical imagery presented in relation to dumbledore. i don’t remember if you ever read the harry potter books but dumbledore is the man in charge of the school and the “good” wizard to the “evil” wizard trying to take over the wizarding world.

at one point, dumbledore is standing on a rocky precipice creating fire with his wand over this big lake and i thought to myself, “wow if this isn’t god/moses i don’t know what is.” the irony that wizardry which is stereotypically pagan still manages to have christian undertones in today’s society or something like that.

When I read this, my first thought is, “wow, that’s my daughter.”

The second is how challenging this comparison would be to those who have criticized J. K. Rowling’s popular books for promoting dangerous anti-Christian ideas.   I remember vividly a conversation with a seminary student several years ago who adamantly protested the inclusion of the Harry Potter books in the local school  library.

The third is to reflect again on how biblical imagery has become a set of signs that can be used in multiple ways. Moses on a mountain top becomes archetypal, a way of communicating a power that transcends ordinary existence, even in non-religious contexts.  In that regard, it doesn’t matter if the imagery comes straight from the Bible or via Charlton Heston’s portrayal of Moses.

moses-nokia

Harry Potter fans out there:  what biblical themes do you see in these books/films?


8 Responses to Biblical Themes in Harry Potter

  • Well, my first thought is “wow, that’s my step-sister!” What a keen eye she has.
    Have you read The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo? (you know her as the author of Because of Winn-Dixie most likely) We did this book as a literature study with our third graders this year and I was amazed that no one else saw/heard/recognized glaringly obvious religious themes in this “children’s” literature. It would be worth checking out, it will take you all of 40 minutes to read the whole thing, and add it to your collection of popular children’s literature that pulls from Biblical stories.

  • Thanks, Brianne.
    I’ll look for the DiCamillo book.
    And I’d love to hear about other children’s books with religious themes.

  • Just wait until you get to the seventh book, where Harry decides to sacrifice himself, bringing about his triumph over the evil lord voldemort.

  • I can’t wait to see this movie! I have heard it is pretty close to the book, but the christian theme can also be seen in some of the other Harry Potter movies/books – there is an excellent reference early on in book 7 (The Deathly Hallows) that seems to be a direct reference to a passage in Luke or Acts (I forget where exactly it is unfortunately) and I was watching The Order of the Phoenix (book/movie 5) the other night – there are some amazing references in there too.

    Some references stem from the initial book and Harry’s first encounter with the Sorting Hat where he say “Please don’t put me in Slytherin!” and the hat asks him “Why not? You’d be excellent in Slytherin!” Dumbledore reminds Harry either at the end of book 1 or 2 that it is often our choices that can determine who we are & how we live our lives: The spiritual implications in the exchange between Harry and Dumbledore is quite powerful.

    Great blog entry Julia!

  • Julia,

    I actually gave a paper on messianic themes in the Harry Potter series at the annual meeting of the American Comparative Literature Association last spring. I’m happy to share it with you if you’re interested. 🙂

    There are definitely lots of familiar images and themes in these books!

  • I have always wondered how conservative Christians can have so much trouble with Harry Potter. Book 7 is by no means the first time that Harry is willing to sacrifice himself for others and Harry is alive because his parents gave their lives to save him. It is quite clear that he lived because Voldemort simply could not understand or overcome Harry’s parents’ love for him. But perhaps their unease is because the hero who has magical powers is someone who is prepared to put his life in danger time and time again for the sake of others (his friends, his family, his schoolmates who are not specifically friends)? Perhaps they are uncomfortable about the comparison between Jesus who performed miracles and Harry who casts spells/performs magic to save people?

  • About two years ago I taught a class at my church on the Harry Potter series as a part of my ongoing series “Modern Mythologies”. My series focuses on contemporary stories that use mythological elements as gateways to discussing myth, morality, religion, and philisophical themes. Harry Potter definitely does all of these – I recommend John Granger’s books (start with Looking for God in Harry Potter) for those interested in Christian elements in the HP series.

    Half-Blood Prince, as a movie, was both a joy and a disapointment. It was a joy because I love the actors, the stories, and getting to see fun things from the books make it onto the big screen – anytime Luna Lovegood appears its a great time! I’ve really enjoyed reading HBP because Ron shines a lot more and it was great seeing it on the screen (Rupert’s expression when he’s had Rumilda’s love potion is just priceless!).

    I was disappointed on a number of levels…there is no doubt that the filmmakers have been influenced by the success of Twilight – fully half of the movie is spent on the teenage love sub-plots as opposed to the books nearly three-quarters on the history of the dark lord. While the love story is great fun (the Hermione/Harry scene was very touching) HBP is really about Voldemort. I didn’t feel the movie offered me anything more than I had from the previous movies (though the two scenes of flashback were absolutely chilling). Also, the Infieri (undead) at the lake looked like Smeagol rather than the Resident Evil image I got from the book.

    Which reminds me…someone was watching Lord of the Rings while making this movie…While Dumbledore’s fire-wand-apocalypse at the lake could be seen as a Mosaic image it is really a Gandalf image – I was waiting for the Balrog to show up! I’m not saying that’s a bad thing – Rowling was clearly influenced by LotR. But between the Smeagol Infieri and Gandalf theatrics, I felt a bit disappointed.

    And there’s the ending. Meh. The conversation between Dumbledore and Draco was well-done but I always pictured Dumbledore’s plea to Snape as a little more – intense. And there is of course the total lack of a battle at the end of the movie – there is quite a fight in the book – Harry pursuing Snape through the Hogwart’s grounds throwing everything at the Betrayer (including Unforgivable Curses), not to mention fights between other characters. The overly easy retreat of the Death Eaters was frustrating. Overall the end was over-rushed (no funeral? the fate of the wand not hinted at ?!?!?!?) but I suppose the movie-makers felt Dumbledore’s death was a lot for the audience to absorb.

    Having said all that I enjoyed HBP – I went to see it twice, and will likely buy it when it comes out. But I was a little disappointed.

    As to the series itself…I don’t want to take up any more space (sorry Julia!), but let me say there are good reasons some Christians have problems with the HP series (real-world occult appearances via Trilaney’s Diviniation class etc) and real reasons to love the story as a Christian tale (Harry’s sacrifice of himself in all seven books climaxing in a Messianic death in Book 7). During my class I presented the difficulties in HP and an Apologia for Fantasy…the end result being that I feel the HP series is a great morality tale that teaches its readers about making hard choices and about self-sacrifice. Rowling has created quite a myth and I believe it will be “enchanting” :-p readers for a long time. 🙂

  • Thanks to Jacquie Lingelbach for this link on your Facebook, Julia:
    [i]Interview with J.K. Rowling on the Christian Imagery
    http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1572107/20071017/index.jhtml%5B/
    From the interview:
    “Indeed, at its most simplistic, Harry’s final tale can in some respects be boiled down to a resurrection story, with Harry venturing to a heavenly way station of sorts after getting hit with a killing curse in Chapter 35, only to shortly return.

    But if she was worried about tipping her hand narratively in the earlier books, she clearly wasn’t by the time Harry visits his parents’ graves in Chapter 16 of “Deathly Hallows,” titled “Godric’s Hollow.” On his parents’ tombstone he reads the quote “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death,” while on another tombstone (that of Dumbledore’s mother and sister) he reads, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

    While Rowling said that “Hogwarts is a multifaith school,” these quotes, of course, are distinctly Christian. The second is a direct quote of Jesus from Matthew 6:19, the first from 1 Corinthians 15:26. As Hermione tells Harry shortly after he sees the graves, his parents’ message means “living beyond death. Living after death.” It is one of the central foundations of resurrection theology.

    Which makes it a perfect fit for Harry, said Rowling, who was talking about those quotes for the very first time.

    “They’re very British books, so on a very practical note Harry was going to find biblical quotations on tombstones, Rowling explained. [But] I think those two particular quotations he finds on the tombstones at Godric’s Hollow, they sum up — they almost epitomize the whole series.”

    There are biblical references all through the series. Rowling is a member of the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian.) Her education, secular and spiritual, is sprinkled liberally throughout all the books. I was so proud of myself when I figured out that Filch’s cat, “Mrs. Norris” got her name from a character in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. My college tuition was not wasted ;D

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