By Sarah Palmer
Harry Potter has captured the imagination of readers since the first book was published in 1997. He is the “Boy who Lived,” a young wizard with round glasses, jet black hair and a lightning bolt-shaped scar on his forehead. Along with its immense popularity, however, the series has sparked controversy among the Christian community.
As the movie series, which began in 2001, comes to a close with the first installment of the last movie, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1,” fans look back at the 13-year journey of the books, the movies and the controversy. The movie opens in theaters Nov. 19.
Dr. Hal Poe, Charles Colson professor of faith and culture, said he became interested in the Harry Potter series in the late ‘90s when he saw all the media attention that arose around the book. The books, which deal with wizards, witchcraft and magic, were released at a time when Wicca, a modern form of ancient European witchcraft, was on the rise in society. One of Poe’s areas of concern is religious cults, including the occult, so he said he initially read the books in order to warn people about them.
Much to his surprise, Poe said he realized they were Christian books, which intrigued him because no one, including the author, had said anything to that effect. He said he thought it may have just been a fluke, but as he continued to read each book as they were released, he realized that was not the case.
After the last book was released in 2007, author J.K. Rowling announced at a press conference that all of her books were, in fact, about Christian doctrine.
“It gave me a great sense of relief to hear her say it after I had been defending her throughout the entire series,” Poe said. “She had been viciously attacked by a number of Christians, who I think were well-meaning, but apparently hadn’t read the books with much understanding.”
Rowling is, in fact, a self-proclaimed believer and an attendee of the Church of Scotland, Poe said.
Mary Annis, senior digital media studies major, has read the books since she was in elementary school. Annis went to a Christian school while she read the Potter books and would take each book in her bag with the dust jacket removed so as not to offend anyone.
“Basically, my philosophy, and what my parents held me to, is I know it’s not real, as much as I love it,” Annis said. “As long as I could distinguish the fact between fiction and reality, they were OK with me reading it all the time.”
Poe said the type of witchcraft prohibited in the Bible is the kind of witchcraft Rowling dismisses in her books. The Bible prohibits the occult in terms of contacting the dead and achieving immortality.
He said this kind of magic is “actually the form of magic that Rowling makes fun of and calls illegitimate and not valid, and in many different ways young readers are warned against it.”
Poe said the kind of magic Rowling does talk about, besides the fanciful and wondrous such as flying on broomsticks, are reflections of miracles in the Bible, such as multiplying food and transfiguration, which is even a uniquely biblical word.
“What we see (Rowling) doing is actually making a case for the reasonableness of the miracles of the Bible,” Poe said. “It’s very subtle.”
Poe said Rowling presented three Christian doctrines in her books: atonement and substitutionary death, resurrection and revelation.
Poe said the author describes atonement with the same terminology that C.S. Lewis did in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” by describing a “deeper magic” — a sacrificial, substitutionary death motivated by love and something more powerful than anything else.
Resurrection is especially shown in the last book, Poe said. A biblical quotation on a tombstone reads, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death,” and comes from 1 Corinthians 15:26.
Hermione explains that it is not a magical preservation, but an idea that there is life after death.
The last doctrine shown is revelation — what is prophesy and how does it work? Poe said Rowling alludes to the fact that there must be some source for the prophesy.
“She talks about … how free will and prophesy are conflicting ideas or mutually exclusive, and she does a very good job of that, one of the best I’ve seen by any theologian,” Poe said.
However, Poe went on to say that like the works of Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, the books are not Christian theology, but merely contain ideas that point to and are fulfilled in Christianity.
“What she’s doing is making a case for the reasonableness of those ideas because that’s all you can do with fiction, is implant the suggestion of the reasonableness of an idea,” Poe said.
Annis said she thinks Rowling’s books are more controversial than those of Tolkien and Lewis, though they both deal with wizards and magic, because in Harry Potter the central focus is wizardry. The entire plot of the book revolves around a school for witchcraft and wizardry.
However, Annis said she still enjoys the books.
“It’s a fun escape from everything,” she said. “Yes, there is bad stuff going on in the books as far as evil goes, but it’s always contained at the end of the book.”