Harry Potter and his best friend Hermione Granger arrived in the magical town of Godric's Hollow on a snowy Christmas Eve.
Carols drifted out of the village church as they searched its graveyard for the resting place of Lily and James Potter, who were murdered by the dark Lord Voldemort. First, they found the headstone honoring the family of Albus Dumbledore, the late headmaster of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The inscription said: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."
Then the Potter headstone proclaimed: "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death." Harry was mystified. Was this about defeating the evil Death Eaters?
"It doesn't mean defeating death in the way the Death Eaters mean it, Harry," said Hermione, gently. "It means … you know … living beyond death. Living after death."
For millions of religious believers who embrace Harry Potter, this pivotal scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — book seven in J.K. Rowling's giant puzzle — offers new evidence that the author is, in fact, a Church of Scotland communicant whose faith has helped shape her work.
The first inscription is from St. Matthew's Gospel and the second — stating the book's theme — is a passage in St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians about the meaning of Christ's resurrection. Is this part of what Dumbledore had called an all-powerful "deep magic" built on sacrificial love?
Nevertheless, for millions of Rowling critics the presence of scripture in this final book will not cancel a decade's worth of wizardry, magic and what they believe is vague, New Age spirituality. And besides, Potter clearly didn't recognize the unattributed Bible verses. Right?
Religious battles commenced soon after Rowling released Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. It didn't help that "Philosopher's Stone" — a term from medieval alchemy — was replaced with "Sorcerer's Stone" in U.S. editions. After the sale of 325 million-plus books worldwide, there are now at least three camps of Potter critics in these theological debates and three prominent camps of Potter defenders. The critics include:
Some who insist these books are secular or subtly anti-religious: Writing in Time, Lev Grossman has argued that Rowling shares more in common with atheists like Christopher Hitchens than with J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis, whose books were rooted in Christian faith.
"Look at Rowling's books," says Grossman. "What's missing? If you want to know who dies in Harry Potter, the answer is easy: God. Harry Potter lives in a world free of any religion or spirituality of any kind. He lives surrounded by ghosts but has no one to pray to, even if he were so inclined, which he isn't."
Conservatives who think Potter-mania can lead to the occult: Some even oppose fantasy novels by Lewis and Tolkien — which contain references to wizards, magic and demonic powers. The key is a Deuteronomy passage:
"There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or daughter pass through fire, or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells. …"
Focus on the Family's James Dobson responded to Deathly Hallows by saying: "Magical characters — witches, wizards, ghosts, goblins, werewolves, poltergeists and so on — fill the Harry Potter stories, and given the trend toward witchcraft and New Age ideology … it's difficult to ignore the effects such stories (albeit imaginary) might have on young, impressionable minds."
Believers who see mixed signals: Evangelical activist Chuck Colson, for example, praised the books in 1999, noting that they contrasted good and evil, while the main characters displayed courage, loyalty and self-sacrifice. "Not bad lessons in a self-centered world," said the founder of Prison Fellowship.
But Colson's latest statement warned: "Personally, I don't recommend the Potter books. I'd rather Christian kids not read them."
Soon after that Colson commentary, however, current Prison Fellowship President Mark Earley gently praised Rowling's books and, above all, the role fantasy novels can play for readers numbed by modern life.
"The popularity of these books — and, yes, even of the Harry Potter series — reminds us that the yearning for hope, for good to win and evil to be vanquished, is no infantile desire," he said. "Rather, it is one of the deepest and most important parts of our nature, placed in us by the God of all truth."
Coming soon to a parish near you: Sunday school with Harry Potter.
This could happen if your congregation buys the new "Mixing it up with Harry Potter" study guides from the Church of England. The goal of the 12-part series is to use scenes from these omnipresent books and movies to help children discuss big issues such as death, sacrifice, loneliness, fear, mercy and grief.
"Jesus used storytelling to engage and challenge his listeners," said Bishop John Pritchard of Oxford, speaking on behalf of the curriculum. "There's nothing better than a good story to make people think, and there's plenty in the Harry Potter books to make young people think about the choices they make in their everyday lives."
In his introduction, study-guide author Owen Smith addressed the concerns many believers have voiced about J.K. Rowling's books. As most residents of Planet Earth know by now, more than 325 million copies of the seven Harry Potter novels have been sold so far.
"The magic in the books is simply part of the magic that J. K. Rowling has created, in the same way that magic is part of the world of Christian writers such as C. S. Lewis," said Smith. "To say … these books draw younger readers towards the occult seems to me both to malign J. K. Rowling and to vastly underestimate the ability of children and young people to separate the real from the imaginary."
At least three kinds of critics have knocked Rowling's work, when it comes to religion. Some say the books are secular and contain no theological content at all, while, on the other side, many others insist that Potter-mania may lead to interest in witchcraft. Some simply say the books send mixed signals and should be avoided.
However, there are also at least three positive schools of thought about Rowling's take on faith.
Like the Church of England educators, some supporters say the Potter books can — at the very least — be mined as acceptable sources of stories to help teach young people about faith. One early evangelical book making this case, "The Gospel According to Harry Potter" by Connie Neal, was blacklisted in many Christian bookstores.
While Catholics have debated the merits of Rowling's work, a Vatican voice on culture has said the novels portray clashes between good and evil in a manner consistent with Christianity. Speaking in 2003, Father Peter Fleetwood noted that the author is "Christian by conviction, is Christian in her mode of living, even in her way of writing."
Rowling has confirmed that she is a Christian and a communicant in the Church of Scotland, which has Presbyterian roots. In one oft-quoted interview, she told a Canadian newspaper: "Every time I've been asked if I believe in God, I've said, 'yes,' because I do. But no one ever really has gone any more deeply into it than that and, I have to say that does suit me."
Thus, this group of Potter supporters argues that Rowling is a Christian — perhaps one with liberal beliefs — who has chosen to write mainstream books containing Christian symbols and language. In other words, she is a Christian who writes books, but not "Christian books."
Some go further and find elements of overt Christian storytelling — especially in the new "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows." They may, for example, see parallels between Potter's willingness to surrender his life to save others from the evil Lord Voldemort and the redemptive sacrifice made by the Christ figure in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by Lewis.
There's more. In a pivotal baptism sequence, Potter dives into deadly waters to recover a sword — described as a "great silver cross" — required to destroy evil treasures. Finally, there is a vision of life after death set in a heavenly "King's Cross" train station.
Literary critic John Granger of HogwartsProfessor.com has been making this argument for years. He thinks Rowling must be considered a "Christian artist," yet one who faces her own doubts and struggles.
"The Gospel messages and allusions in the series finale were so transparent and edifying, surely, I thought, the Harry Haters must be having second thoughts, if not regrets about things they have said with such conviction the past 10 years in print and from the pulpit," said Granger. "I haven't seen any sign of this. Have you?"