Sermon preached by
The Reverend Charles Royden
22nd December 2001
Throughout history Christianity has not been known for having an open mind. We often have a fear of our own culture and we are renowned for criticism and repression. Christians have in the past often deeply misunderstood literature. Even when it comes to Christian writers, C. S. Lewis and Tolkien have been accused by Christians of dabbling in the occult. The word ‘censorship’ and ‘Christian’ have been synonymous, yet of course the Bible itself is full of graphic violence, sex, stories of greed and of course sex.
It is a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit to pretend that secular writers are incapable of expressing deep spiritual truth. What we discover of truth and beauty in literature in our world, should be welcomed by Christians and encouraged, we should not retreat into our spirit of skepticism and cynicism which is so often pervasive. So is there truth and helpful material in the books of Harry Potter
Like the Narnia stories of C. S. Lewis, The Harry Potter books of J. R. Rowling have been accused by Christians of being involved in the occult. In the same way that in the past Christians have caused women to be burned as witches, there are many who condemn Rowling. So it makes sense to reflect upon what the Harry Potter books are about and I hope to do so with open minds
As Harry the bespectacled orphan sat in his bedroom or cupboard under the stairs at number 4 Privet Drive, he knew nothing of
- Playing a sport called quidditch while flying on a broomstick.
- He had never worn a cloak of invisibility
- befriended a giant
- fought a troll
- or helped hatch a dragon.
All Harry knows is a miserable life with the Dursleys, his horrible aunt and uncle, and their abominable son, Dudley. Harry had never been allowed presents or a celebration of his birthday party in eleven years. But all that is about to change when a mysterious letter arrives by owl messenger. The arrival of the letter leads Harry to discover that his parents were not killed in a car crash as he had been told, but rather that they were magical people who had been killed in the fight against evil, personified in the ghastly Voldemort.
The letter is an invitation to a wonderful place he never dreamed existed, Hogwarts an English Public school for the training of young magicians. There he finds not only friends, aerial sports, and magic around every corner, but a great destiny that's been waiting for him.
People have loved it, there are 9 million books sold. We love the world of enchantment where magic becomes a way of life. We have a need for enchantment, and the lack of its presence in our culture. Our parched souls are literally dying for a dose of a magic! G. K. Chesterton claimed that his own journey to Christian faith began with his childhood absorption in fairy tales. From fairy tales he learned that the world is precious but puzzling, coherent but mysterious, full of unseen connections and decisive truths.
We have successfully stripped our culture of all fantasy. So empirically minded, so given to logic and linear thought, so caught up in facts and figures and explanations and answers, we are the poorer for living in a world all but devoid of spirit. We are all in danger of becoming what the book calls ‘muggles’ people who cannot comprehend the magic of life.
And so a poor single mother on a train had an idea for a book, sat in a café where she could just buy a coffee and sit down and conceives of a world in which evil is overcome by the sheer power of goodness. She thinks of big questions and tries to answer them in her book
- can I really change?
- am I free to do what I want?
- is the battle between good and evil still going on?
- how much do friends matter?
Christians did not cope well with a book which had more to do with broomsticks than baptism. Canterbury Cathedral turned down the chance of being a location for the film Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone because of fears that the story's pagan imagery might upset worshippers. The Dean of Gloucester, the Very Rev Nicholas Bury, was also criticised by some local Christians after the cathedral authorities gave permission to Warner Bros to shoot the £85 million film there.
Yet the books are full of theological themes such as self-sacrifice, mercy and the redemptive power of love. Far from amounting to a denial of the Gospel, the Potter series - through its morality, implicit theology and metaphysics - opens a way to encourage children and adults alike to move beyond the books themselves to ask questions about truth and reality.
Harry Potter can open our eyes to the spirituality in all of us. Sacrifice and redemption are strong themes. The books recognise the very real existence of evil in our world, yet evil is always defeated by the personal sacrifices of the characters as they follow the higher power of good. Virtue is rewarded.
There are evil and frightening things in the books, like the three headed dog Fluffy or the real life chess set, where life size pieces figures smash each other to bits. But children are aware bad things happen in our world. They're afraid of war and environmental destruction just like all of us, even the youngest children have seen what none of us should ever have seen, aircraft flying into buildings full of people, people jumping out of windows to their death. We all know that evil is real. We know people who have died or who suffer from cancer, even children know that none of us is going to last forever.
It is important for us to recognise the existence of evil in our world. We often try to pretend that evil does not exist, but once we have admitted the existence of evil we have opened up the need for God and redemption. This is in direct threat to our materialistic view of the world.
There are encouraging things in the books also. The sacrifice made by Harry’s mother is the only thing which has given Harry life. She resisted evil and sacrificed her life for Harry. The deepest source of virtue in the world is the willing sacrifice of oneself for another. This is the only way that evil can be defeated. Creation fall and redemption are in the books. Her voluntary sacrifice gives protection against evil.
The predominant message of the first book might be described as the power of love. The personification of evil, Voldemort cannot harm Harry, because he has been blessed with a power. It is not a magical power, a potion or the ability to cast spells. Yet it is a strength that is as important as magic -- the power of a mother's love. As Dumbledore tells Harry: 'Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing archenemy Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn't realize that love as powerful as your mother's for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign ... to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever.
Our world is a place full of evil and danger and like Harry Potter "Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:10- 11). This world may be a frightening place and this year perhaps more than for many years before we have been confronted with evil on a global scale. Yet we, like Harry, have been loved so deeply that we are provided by God with protection.
So are you a Muggle or a Magical ? Among the magical kids at Hogwarts School for witches and wizards, some have been born to magical parents, like Harry’s friend Ron. Others, however, were born with mixed blood, like Harry himself. And some, like Harry’s friend, Hermione, the very best student at Hogwarts, are the children of Muggles, people who want nothing to do with magic.
The lesson is that you can be a wizard, you can be magical, whether you have it in your blood or not. How we live our lives depends on how well we use our gifts, how well we love and how we make choices in the world. When Harry Potter risks his life to save his friends, or when they risk theirs to help him, it isn’t because they are caught in a web of magic. That is precisely not the point. It is because in the largely loving, encouraging world of Hogwarts, this neglected child and his friends learn that nothing, not even life itself, is more important than the people and causes to which we bind ourselves in love and honour. The Harry Potter books build myth, they are fantasy stories which teach us deep truths about how to live in the world. This myth is about the power of free will and how we can transform our lives, even in their most miserable moments, by exercising the courage to make choices.
Like all the other students, when Harry Potter first reaches Hogwarts, he must ceremoniously don the Sorting Hat. Reading everything in his mind, the Hat will decide and announce which house of the school he will live in. The Hat tells him, silently, that he could do well in Slytherin. The graduates of this house, we know, are the ones who most often turn their back on good and become corrupt. Harry would rather go to Gryffindor, the house which produces the most honourable wizards of all. In the end, to Harry’s great relief, the hat sends him to Gryffindor, but the memory haunts him, particularly when he begins to hear that he shares some characteristics with evil characters.
At the end of the second Harry Potter book, The Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter has met Tom Riddle who is really an incarnation of Voldemort, the Lord of Darkness. Tom Riddle has told Harry that he is much like him. This disturbs Harry to no end. He brings this up to Dumbledore, the Head of the Hogwarts school. Dumbledore points out that Harry may have had some of the same gifts and qualities as Tom Riddle and the others in the house of Slytherin, but he had chosen not to be of that house. Dumbledore continues "… which makes you very different from Tom Riddle. It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities."
The Christian Gospel tells us that like Harry we are all loved by a love of great power. It is stronger than evil, stronger than anything else in the universe. It is the sacrificial death of Jesus which is stronger than our worst enemy, death itself. At Christmas time we sing carols which remind us that we are all loved by the magical love of God, shown to us in a baby in Bethlehem. It is magic because it is surprising, beyond scientific or rational explanation, told to us of virgin birth. That the God who created the stars in the heavens over the stable, which shine in our sky tonight loves you and I, is inexplicable in human language, it can only be expressed to us by angels.
At Christmas time like any other time of the year we can choose to be like ‘muggles’ we can deny the power of God which he seeks to work in our lives. But how much more wonderful is life when we open our lives to the power of that magical love of God. It was the sacrificial death of his mother which gave Harry his power. It is the sacrificial death of Jesus, which Christian believe to be of so much greater power than any evil in our world. The next step for us, like Harry Potter, is a question of choice. Will we choose to follow Christ in God’s magical power of love?
Charles Royden December 2001