I’m a fan of the Harry Potter books. There. I said it. Whenever I visit a bookstore I can’t resist a walk through the Young Readers section, where my heart flutters at cover illustrations of dragons and detectives and ghosts and kids dashing across fantastic landscapes. I’ve always loved those stories, and many times I take the books from the shelves and, with chills running up and down my arms, thumb through them. Sometimes I even smell them. (There. I said that, too.)
Years ago, on one of my trips through the kids’ section I noticed a book called Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It looked cool, and the jacket indicated that it had won a few awards. A year or so later I saw the second book, this one on display. By the time I spotted Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban on the shelves the buzz was loud enough that I decided to buy the first book. I read it, and although it had some great moments, I wasn’t hooked. But at the time I was writing On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness and was learning so much so quickly about writing, I already knew North! Or Be Eaten would be a better book. I desperately hoped my readers would stick with me through my first faltering attempt at fiction because I had a much bigger story to tell.
So I decided to give this “J.K. Rowling” person the benefit of the doubt, as I hoped my readers would do for me. I read Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and liked it better than the first book. I began to get glimpses of the scope of this story, sensed a gigantic framework beneath its surface, and bought Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban as soon as it released. That was the book that did it. Rowling was no longer messing around. She convinced me with that book that she could tell a story, that Harry, Ron, and Hermione were characters I cared about, and I realized that she had created a world I adored. I’m as enchanted by Hogwarts as Rivendell. At the end of each book, when Harry found himself stuck again at the Dursleys, I grieved with him, because his time there was like my time waiting for the next story, waiting for Hagrid to show up and sweep me away into a magical world again. Opening the first page of a new Harry Potter book was like boarding the Hogwarts Express. I’m being totally serious. Well, after reading book three, I was one of the first in line to buy each new one.
Then one day about ten years ago, when I was on tour with a singer/songwriter named Fernando Ortega, I spent a few hours at a Barnes & Noble in Oregon (I think) and a guy in a bowtie was giving an author talk to a smattering of people. I slipped into the back row and listened as he lauded the virtues of the Harry Potter books, and even—gasp!—went so far as to argue that they were distinctly Christian in theme. I was fascinated, especially in light of the rumblings and grumblings I’d heard about the books from Christians. It helped me to understand why my spirit seemed to tingle when I read the books. That day I met John Granger, bought his book The Hidden Key to Harry Potter, and was even more hooked than I was before. He pointed out so many interesting themes, archetypes, alchemical nuances, and even direct quotes from Rowling herself about the Christian content in the books that I became more frustrated and mystified than ever by the outcry from Christians against the books. As weird as it sounds, I felt bad for Rowling. She was working hard, telling a great story, lighting up my imagination like few authors ever have (I’ll let you guess which), and she was being demonized by the church I love–the church of which she was supposedly a part. I kept wishing there was a way I could send her a message that said something like this:
Dear Ms. Rowling,
I think it’s remarkable what you’ve done. I love your imagination. I love your characterization and your sense of humor. I love that you’re telling a story about choosing the right thing, even when it’s hard. I love that you’re telling a story that is full of wisdom, a story that reminds me how evil Evil is. Most of all, I love that your story reminds me that light is stronger than darkness, that the best way to love is to lay your life down, and that Death will not have the final say. By the way, I’m a follower of Christ, and I see him in your story. I don’t know if that’s intentional or not, but you should know that he’s in there. In fact, it wouldn’t be a huge stretch to say that reading your books has helped me to praise him even more for his courage, his sacrifice, and his strength to conquer the hosts of hell to save us.
I don’t think the Harry Potter books are perfect. I don’t think they’re the greatest books ever written. Whether or not they stand the test of time like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings remains to be seen (though I suspect they will). But I was swept into the story in a way that very few books have ever done for me. When Ben Shive and I were touring in Sweden I actually heard him crying in the next room as he finished Half-Blood Prince. (Don’t tell him I told you that.) Some of you may have heard me tell this story, but for the sake of those who haven’t: when I finished Deathly Hallows I was opening for Fernando again (this was years and years after the tour I mentioned earlier–creepy how this all revolves around Fernando). I read the last, bittersweet pages of the book and was deeply moved. But it wasn’t until later that I broke. I finished my opening set that night and settled in to listen to Fernando. He was playing piano along with a string quartet, marching through a stirring arrangement of “Crown Him With Many Crowns”. In the back of the dark, crowded room I sang,
Crown him the Lord of life,
who triumphed o’er the grave,
and rose victorious in the strife
for those he came to save.
His glories now we sing,
who died, and rose on high,
who died, eternal life to bring,
and lives that death may die.
I couldn’t get Harry’s story out of my head. I doubled over in the back of the auditorium and sobbed with gratitude to Jesus for allowing his body to be ruined, for facing the enemy alone, for laying down his life for his friends–Jesus, my friend, brother, hero, and king–Jesus, the Lord of Life, who triumphed o’er the grave–who lives that death may die! Even now, writing those words, my heart catches in my throat. In that moment I was able, because of these books, to worship Christ in a way I never had.
Let me be clear: Harry Potter is NOT Jesus. This story isn’t inspired, at least not in the sense that Scripture is inspired; but because I believe that all truth is God’s truth, that the resurrection is at the heart of the Christian story, and the main character of the Christian story is Christ, because I believe in God the Father, almighty maker of heaven and earth and in Jesus Christ his only begotten son—and because I believe that he inhabits my heart and has adopted me as his son, into his family, his kingdom, his church—I have the freedom to rejoice in the Harry Potter story, because even there, Christ is King. Wherever we see beauty, light, truth, goodness, we see Christ. Do we think him so small that he couldn’t invade a series of books about a boy wizard? Do we think him cut off from a story like this, as if he were afraid, or weak, or worried? Remember when Santa Claus shows up (incongruously) in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? It’s a strange moment, but to my great surprise I’ve been moved by it. Lewis reminds me that even Father Christmas is subject to Jesus, just as in Prince Caspian the hosts of mythology are subject to him. The Harry Potter story is subject to him, too, and Jesus can use it however he wants. In my case, Jesus used it to help me long for heaven, to remind me of the invisible world, to keep my imagination active and young, and he used it to show me his holy bravery in his triumph over the grave.
C.S. Lewis had some strange theological ideas. I still read and love his work. George MacDonald was a universalist. His book are still instructive and beautiful. Tolkien had his own theological failings. After watching the fiery debate over the Harry Potter books, I wonder if any novel, Christian or otherwise, could withstand the theological nitpicking that’s been inflicted on Rowling, either in the work itself or the author’s worldview. Of course the books aren’t perfect; of course, in a seven-volume saga, there will be inconsistencies, theological inaccuracies, moments of inconsistency; of course Rowling’s worldview isn’t going to align perfectly with yours. If you only read books that met those criteria your list would be short indeed.
But listen: we’re free to enjoy the good and the beautiful, even from the most unlikely places. We’re free—and this is huge—to look for the light in people (and things!), to give them the benefit of the doubt, to laud their beauty, to outlove unloveliness–in short, to love as Christ loves us. That includes billionaire authors like J.K. Rowling. She didn’t grow up in the Bible Belt of America; she grew up in England. And yet, in defiance of a culture that tends to snub its nose at Christianity, she wrote a story that contains powerful redemptive themes, stirs a longing for life after death, piques the staunchest atheist’s suspicion that there just might be something beyond the veil, and plainly shows evil for what it is—and not just evil, but love’s triumph over it.
As for the witchcraft debate, I heave a weary sigh. No, God doesn’t want us to practice witchcraft. Of course he doesn’t. I’ve read arguments on both sides of this, and believe we could spar for days without doing a lick of good. (By the way, no debate is raging over Glenda the Good Witch of the East in The Wizard of Oz. Most Americans have probably seen that film and/or read that book, and didn’t start conducting seances on the weekends—though the flying monkeys have creeped me out for years. And Oz, when compared to Potter, is practically bereft of Christian meaning.)
I have a lot of friends who have quite different theological opinions than I do, but we extend each other grace in matters of baptism, communion, predestination, etc. We do our best to love each other well, and celebrate Christ’s lordship over our differences. Life works better that way. They’ll know we’re Christians by our love–for each other and for famous authors. If I have to choose between grace or law, there’s no question where I’ll make my home. It’s possible to win an argument and still be wrong, just as it’s possible to lose an argument and be right. When I got out of Bible college I thought I knew it all. I thought my calling was to be a watchdog for my faith and the faith of those around me. I thought Scripture was for prooftexting, as if 1) I was smart enough to nail it down and 2) it could be nailed down at all. Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad there are systematic theologians out there. Theology is important. But so is poetry. Math is important. But so is painting. Truth is important. So is grace. We should be people of both. All truth and no grace is no better than all grace and no truth. That means we keep our discernment and wisdom, but we do so without fear or anger. In all things, love. In all things, Christ—who is full of grace and truth.
So in my post-Bible college years, after getting into a few humbling (and humiliating) debates over doctrine, I realized that my calling wasn’t to proof-text or to argue. I washed my hands of it. “What is truth?” asked Pilate. Jesus himself was the silent answer. So in my music and my writing and in my daily life, I want to learn to let Christ’s very presence—the fact of it—be my answer. His last promise before the Ascension was that he would be with us, to the end of the age. That promise gives me a great deal of peace. What have I to fear?
Early on in the Rabbit Room I decided this wouldn’t be a place for negative reviews (Thomas’s occasionally negative film reviews nothwithstanding—though those are usually for the sake of saving you money and/or brain cells, or, let’s face it, making us laugh). That’s not just so we can be touchy-feely and nice. It’s because, of the millions of websites in the world, I want this one to be about beauty, truth, and goodness. It’s a site dedicated to finding those things in the unlikeliest places, and praising God for the infinite reach of his Word, the tremors of his death and resurrection shaking the foundations of the universe so that the dead (like us) climb out of their tombs and walk around. For us in the Age of the Church on earth, we get the privilege of proclaiming his story, of looking for its glimmers like men hunched over a river and panning for gold, pointing it out, whooping for joy, glorying in the grace of the King.