Critics of the Harry Potter films have noted that Harry and his friends are often rewarded for lying and breaking the rules. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince should put such fears to rest. The Harry Potter books and films are not sequels – a new story coming along just because the first one sold well. They are, all together, a single story. Critics ought to be careful about making hard and fast claims before the entire story is in. The books are finished, but the films are still being crafted. And, as the characters now are on the verge of adulthood, they discover that actions that may have been winked at in the past begin to carry heavy consequences.
The storyline in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince opens just moments after Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix ends – with the local paper speculating on Harry Potter as “The Chosen One” after his momentous battle with the Deatheaters and Lord Voldemort. Harry’s “reward” for all of his struggles is greater responsibility. Professor Dumbledore must show Harry some frightening things, and even put him in great peril, because the task set before them is a battle to the death.
With the stakes of the conflict clearly revealed, and the urgency to act demonstrated by a direct attack on London by the Deatheaters, Harry has to transition from bull-headed adolescent to battle-ready young adult. The most important lesson he must learn is to obey. The film reveals the punishment that accompanies disobedience, why obedience is so terrifying to us, what it takes to submit oneself to a higher calling, and why circumstances we can see are less important than outcomes we cannot.
Unlike in the past, Harry’s penchant for bending the rules leads to disaster rather than reward this time. When Harry attempts to use his invisibility cloak to do some snooping to uncover the truth about his rival Draco Malfoy, he discovers that his opponent has grown up, and is no longer so easily fooled. Malfoy detects Harry’s intrusion and makes him pay. Were it not for the fortuitous arrival of the off-kilter, yet goodhearted, Luna Lovegood, Harry might not have made it to Hogwarts this year.
Lesson unlearned, Harry happens to get a heavily-notated textbook for his potions class. The scribbled additions to each chapter enable Harry to outperform every other student – including the brainy Hermione – so he trusts the book, even though he has no clue as to the identity of the original owner, known only as the Half-Blood Prince. When Harry finds himself in the midst of a magical fight with another boy at school, he uses one of the penciled-in spells from his book, marked only as “for use against enemies,” but with no idea as to what the results might be. Instead of stunning or knocking the other boy down, the result are shocking and life-threatening. Harry has had enough of corner-cutting.
People are meant to grow up, to take responsibility for what they do. Actions have consequences; the more adult the actions, the more significant are the consequences. This film really marks Harry’s transition from boy wizard to adult warrior. Frequently rescued in the past when his desire to fight exceeded his abilities, he finally recognizes what he does not know – an important step toward full maturity – and he is now ready to take his place in the battle. Even though he is “the Chosen One,” he understands that, while he has a part in the fight, he is not the general in charge. Placing himself under the leadership of Dumbledore, Harry is ready to listen and obey.
Harry’s newfound attitude is so at odds with contemporary western culture that it is noteworthy. There are countless films recently released in which parents have to learn valuable lessons from their children, or in which kids appear never to grow up, and reject even the suggestion that they need to. Thomas de Zengotita, in his book Mediated , remarks on how our culture is uniquely and incessantly flattered by the media. From childhood, we are told that we can be and do anything that we want. Kids in sports receive trophies just for showing up. Years earlier, Daniel Boorstin warned of this as a problem in The Image . Boorstin wrote that the media created “extravagant expectations.” Mark Bauerlein, in The Dumbest Generation , explains that, generally, far too many of the under-30 crowd have tremendous self-esteem, but little practical knowledge or ability to back it up. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince refreshingly refuses to pander to its youthful audience. Harry can’t do everything himself – while he is brave, he is not yet sufficiently skilled. Before he can succeed, he first must submit. As the Apostle Paul taught, moving into adulthood requires that we assess ourselves with sound judgment, and put away childish things (Romans 12:3; 1 Corinthians 13:11). Harry’s decision to abandon short-cuts and take on more difficult and meaningful tasks is a welcome message.
Recognizing the need to grow up and accept authority in order to mature is not easy. There are always vestiges of pride vying for control of our will. Particularly when we are told to do things without being able to fully understand the reasons or to foresee the outcome, there comes that insistent inner voice that tells us that we know better.
Before Harry is allowed to accompany Dumbledore on a very dangerous mission, Dumbledore firsts exacts from Harry a promise to obey. Dumbledore clarifies that no matter what is asked of him, Harry will do it. Harry gives his word and off they go. Harry could not have imagined, when he agreed, the terrifying obedience he would be called on to perform. It is one thing to promise to obey, and quite another thing to make good on that promise. The Bible is filled with examples.
When Israel’s King Saul was instructed to wait for Samuel before going into battle so that sacrifices could be made, Saul waited for awhile, but when he saw that his followers were scattering, he went ahead and offered the sacrifices himself, in violation of God’s law. Surely, he must have reasoned with himself, the important thing is making the sacrifice. But no sooner had Saul completed the act, than Samuel arrived wondering what Saul had done. Obedience, the act of bending one’s will to God’s regardless of the outward circumstances, was the true test of character. Similarly, the Galatian church was instructed in the hope of the Gospel, that salvation was by faith, not works. But over time, they were convinced by others that their faith in Christ was insufficient to save them. They must have thought salvation to be too costly to be purchased for them by the blood of another. Surely they must have to do something to earn it. In both instances people had committed themselves to the right way, and they abandoned it when they could no longer make sense of the promise in light of their current circumstances or concerns.
In a speech before the assembled students at Hogwarts, Dumbledore says, “Attacks come against these castle walls every day. Their greatest weapon is you.” If the enemy can get you to abandon your commitment to do what is right, that becomes the surest road to infiltration and overthrow. This is another area in which the fictional world of Hogwarts carries over into the real one. The principle is true. You are a weapon. The side you serve is dependent on who you obey.
Trust and Obey
Real obedience is reliant on trust. Trust is based on the proven character of its object. Dumbledore has earned Harry’s trust over the years. It is Dumbledore who is responsible for rescuing Harry from his dreadful Aunt and Uncle and bringing Harry to Hogwarts. Dumbledore has mentored Harry, and saved his life on numerous occasions. He has always had kind and encouraging words for Harry. In many ways, since Harry has lost both of his parents, Dumbledore serves as a father figure. So when Dumbledore asks for Harry’s trust, Harry has good reasons to give it.
But while trust is a function of faith in its object, obedience is a personal discipline, a matter of practice. Harry has failed in the past to observe the words of his mentors. But now, obedience becomes crucial. On more than one occasion in the film, every part of Harry’s being must be screaming at him to disobey. The price for obedience seems to be too high, the consequences too dire. Surely Dumbledore did not mean for Harry to obey even in these circumstances? What sets this film apart from earlier episodes is Harry’s steadfast obedience in the face of every conceivable inducement to disobey. There is no way that Harry could foresee the outcome of the acts that he and Dumbledore are forced to endure. Harry knows that Dumbledore can see the endgame in ways that Harry cannot. And because he rightly trusts in Dumbledore, it gives him the courage to carry on. He is learning to become disciplined.
The concept of discipline is lost in a culture where people to expect everything to be easy and to be instantly understandable. Salvation is the free gift of God; our response to salvation is the commitment of our life. But the idea that we might have to sweat and sacrifice to gain maturity in the faith, the concept that some spiritual truths are discerned only after others are mastered, flies in the face of the “easy believism” that infects the minds of so many Christians. Compare that attitude to Paul’s description of the Christian life. Paul explains to Timothy the foundation of his belief, “For this reason I also suffer these things, but I am not ashamed; for I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day” (2 Timothy 1:12). Paul also describes for us his response to this trust, comparing it to the discipline endured by Olympic athletes: “Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:25-27). How many Christians enthusiastically embrace the kind of dedication that they admire in Paul? One of the positive signs that this trend may be turning is the appearance of a book by Alex and Brent Harris, Do Hard Things , which challenges people to avoid the tyranny of low expectations by accepting the challenge to do (not merely attempt) hard things. For those who find Harry’s fictional exploits admirable, there is real work waiting to be done in the real world. Perhaps many are simply waiting for the challenge.
Even when things appear bleak on the outside, it does not dismiss us from the need to soldier on. We have to trust that God sees what we cannot, and that knowledge provides us with the strength to obey. A fiction film may appear, at first glance, to be an odd place to look at imperatives to obey God, but despite their flaws, the Harry Potter series is filled with allusions to spiritual warfare. The novels are the most widely read children’s literature in this generation. If we Christians were more adequately doing our job by taking the transcendence of the spiritual life seriously, pursuing holiness, and not trying to degrade Christian life into nothing more than being nice and engaging in social services, books like Harry Potter might not be so voraciously read. If we were more concerned with the adventure of doing justice, defending the innocent, and battling evil in the real world, people would not so desperately seek that experience through fiction. What we can do is take those elements that people find so appealing in Rowling’s stories and show how a real world awaits, with a true and trustworthy Father, and a battle to be fought. It is time we told our own story.