J. K. Rowling tells the truth in her fiction. Her twitter feed is another matter. Perhaps the limitations of the genre don’t allow her to communicate the nuance, sensitivity, and charity that characterize her fiction. Whatever the case, there’s a chasm between what she writes in her novels and what she tweets.
In her fiction, Rowling treats even Voldemort sympathetically. She takes nothing away from the evil he chooses to pursue, nor does she make the reader delight in his wickedness. What she does is put the reader in position to understand how Voldemort got to be so bad. She shows us the way he was wronged, helps us understand how needy he felt, and traces the steps he took—wrong steps, selfish steps, willful steps—that led him down the path of cruelty. Voldemort is evil, but Rowling presents him such that her readers understand the choices he made even as they hope for his demise. We feel sad that Tom Riddle chose so poorly, even as we love the good things he seeks to destroy. He’s the villain pure and simple, but still it can be said: J. K. Rowling loves Voldemort and respects him. She treats him with the honor and dignity due to a human being, even one who has literally dehumanized himself.
Perhaps, in spite of what she tweets, she has a similar understanding and sympathy for those whose politics differ from her own.
It seems to me that the twitter feed has led to some mistaken impressions about the meaning of the literature. Ross Douthat takes the Harry Potter stories as an allegory about the ruling elite’s struggle to deal with flyover country. Hillary Clinton thinks they instill progressive values in the young. Others have referred to the Potter stories as “secular” and suggested that their worldview is thin.
In what follows I want to argue that J. K. Rowling’s Christianity comes through profoundly in her fiction (the Cormoran Strike novels included) in a way that subverts the worldview of the political left and softens callused hearts on the right. The deep meaning of the stories, however, transcends today’s political streetfights, tells the truth about the world, challenges the secular premises of our age, and insures that these novels will stand with the greats of the western literary canon.
A Secular Age?
Charles Taylor has described the “buffered self” and the “expressive individualism” of the “exclusive humanism” of our culture. These terms describe the way many in our culture try to explain the world without any appeal to the divine or the transcendent (exclusive humanism), the way people live for themselves rather than for God, nation, or family (expressive individualism), and the way people think they are not vulnerable to influences beyond what they can see (buffered self).
Who embodies these secular perspectives in the Potter stories? Well, the Dursleys refuse to believe in magic, even after they have the pig’s tail removed from Ickle Diddykins, and Lord Voldemort lives only for himself, to extend his life however many people he must kill, however he must rip his own soul to shreds. J. K. Rowling is not exactly lionizing the progressive ideal.
The Potterverse is not the kind of place where everything that exists can be explained by scientific analysis, naturalistic evolution, and materialistic determinism. The Hogwarts saga is set in a world full of magic, a world not so much different from one in which, to borrow from N. D. Wilson, “Apple trees turn flowers into apples using sunlight and air.” J. K. Rowling’s world is full of magic, just like the one we inhabit. (By the way, the magic in the Potter stories is just like the magic in Narnia and Middle Earth. This is not the kind of magic the Bible condemns, which seeks to manipulate demonic powers. Rather, people who do magic in these stories have gifts, abilities, and they choose to use their gifts for good or bad causes).
Charles Taylor also spoke of the “cross pressure” people feel when the divine and the transcendent foist themselves on those trying to live in a world without anything like God. J. K. Rowling’s stories are saying to all such people, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
The Progressive Worldview Subverted?
If there is anything that characterizes the left, it’s the idea that government can and should address the world’s problems. With the right people in power, the correct values imposed on the populace, and the best political system enacted, just outcomes can be insured for all people. Well, at least all the people the government deems worthy of justice.
If there is anything that characterizes the Harry Potter stories (and the Cormoran Strike novels), it’s the idea that no one should look to the government to fix anything. The government in the Harry Potter stories is worse than just neutral, it’s populated by fools and supporters of the Dark Lord, pursues cruel and wicked policies, and eventually becomes Voldemort’s own tool. In the Cormoran Strike novels, the authorities bumble along drawing wrong conclusions, resisting the force of truth, and impeding the course of justice.
Are these kinds of stories we expect from someone who believes the government can fix everything? For the left, the government replaces God, and politics replace religion. Not so in J. K. Rowling’s fiction. In her fiction, the government values itself, not the people. What the government seeks to do is make itself look good and maintain its own power not make life better for the people. And when things finally do get better in a Rowling novel, whether it’s the downfall of Voldemort or the solving of a crime, the achievement belongs not to government but to individuals who love truth, goodness, and beauty and risk their own lives for things that matter more than their own safety.
For progressives, the media—newspapers, journalists, talking heads—are looked to as a source of truth. People look to the news to find out what is happening and for help in processing how to respond. Information, values, opinions, and feelings are all shaped by those who do the reporting.
For J. K. Rowling in her fiction, the media are a pack of self-serving wolves preying on the populace. They live under the thumb of the government and are easily manipulated by anyone with power or money. In both the Potter and Strike novels, the press is mainly interested in clickbait, not truth. The Daily Prophet won’t, or can’t, report what is really happening. It opposes the good guys and shapes the opinions of the public in favor of Lord Voldemort against Harry Potter. The press in the Strike novels are bloodthirsty paparazzi and reporters who delight in ruining people’s lives.
Most people in the Potter stories and the Strike novels are treated sympathetically by J. K. Rowling. Not so with government officials or members of the media.
Whatever might be concluded from her twitter feed or other public statements she makes, in her fiction J. K. Rowling teaches that no one should expect help from the government, and no one should expect truth from the media.
Softening Hard-Hearts on the Right?
Have you read the Potter stories? Have you re-read them? (You can thank me when you’ve done so.) Have you noticed how your sympathy for different characters deepens as you encounter and re-encounter them? You sympathize with a werewolf, you lament that Tom Riddle’s mom didn’t love him the way Harry’s did, you see how Hagrid’s optimistic devotion tames Grawp, you feel the force of what Hermione says about house elves as you come to know Dobby and Creature, and you rejoice at the way Harry Potter honored two of the bravest men he’d ever known, headmasters of Hogwarts, one a vampire, the other outed by his author as gay.
Having said all this, it must be said again: in no way does J. K. Rowling provoke an appetite for evil. She shows what evil does, it gets people killed, people we love, people we know are needed by characters we care about.
In the Potter stories, love is the greatest magic. So Rowling said she always thought of Dumbledore as gay. He’s a celibate, single, wise old man who repeatedly refused the post of Minister of Magic (because he didn’t trust himself with power, and because government never does good). Dumbledore never gives any indication that he wants to redefine morality, and he even takes steps to protect himself from becoming too attached to his students, in the process protecting them from his own weakness. If I may be allowed to put it this way, Albus Dumbledore looks like a man who embraces traditional Christian morality who is struggling well against same sex attraction.
The reader who sees all this will grow in understanding, sympathy, and have his hard heart softened. But nothing in the Harry Potter stories or Cormoran Strike novels redefines morality, promotes a sexual or moral revolution, or advocates government takeover.
Telling the Truth about the World
If this has not been controversial enough, let me suggest that in Career of Evil, under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith, J. K. Rowling has subverted the premise that undergirds all things Trans—transgender, transable, transracial, transwhatever. She accomplishes this through the fact that the main character of the stories, Cormoran Strike, lost half a leg in the war in Afghanistan.
In the course of an investigation, Strike comes into contact with people from the “transabled” community dealing with “Body Integrity Disorder.” These people want to have parts of their bodies amputated—working parts of their bodies.
The people Strike encounters have heard lies about Strike. They have been told that Strike was not injured in the war but is like them, someone who “needed” to have a working part of his body removed. As if a human “needs” to be disabled. The audience naturally sympathizes with Strike, and Rowling rehearses how as he recovered in the hospital he saw so many men who had been disabled, men who would have preferred to have been whole.
Strike’s reaction to the transabled is bracingly real. His assessment is that such people do not need help having body parts removed, they need mental and emotional help.
I submit that this fictional account argues that people should not seek to remove body parts or alter their sexual or racial identity but embrace what God has made them to be.
So much more could be said about these novels and topics, but I will conclude by echoing the sentiment of the Dean of Harry Potter Scholars, Hogwarts Professor John Granger: J. K. Rowling is the Charles Dickens of our time, and Harry Potter is the “shared text” of the 21st century. As of May 2013, the series had sold more than 500 million copies worldwide, making it the best selling series in history, and there is no indication that it’s losing steam. Go to your local bookstore and note the many prominent displays of Harry Potter books.
From open to close, the series is about the greatest kind of love, the kind where people lay down their lives for others. Moreover, there is an alchemical undercurrent of meaning that lies below the surface of the gripping stories. That undercurrent is all about Harry Potter being refined in the fires of testing until he has been transformed from base metal to pure gold. The pure gold is Christlikeness, as Harry Potter’s furious desire to live takes the form of his readiness to die.
I love these stories. I talk about the Harry Potter novels all the time—to my kids, in my teaching and preaching, and with friends, and I’m eagerly anticipating Book 4 in the Cormoran Strike series. If you’ve not yet read Harry Potter, you are in for such a treat. These books will make you better: better at loving, better at living, and better at worshiping God the Father through Christ the Son in the power of the Spirit.