Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Want to Change the World? Read Harry Potter.

In the past year and a half, I have encouraged friends, siblings, students, co-workers, secretaries, teachers, near-total strangers, and my fellow priests to try out the Harry Potter series.  It's been fun to watch as fascinated commentary comes back by text, e-mail, or phone. A friend who is kind of a big deal in the home offices of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), called me up last Christmas Eve, bursting with awe and excitement as she finished the series. We talked for two hours...and then an hour the next day. A priest who had been somewhat of a naysayer about the series has been filling me up with his insights as he completes each book.  Last month, he had planned to finish the chapter on the Third Task of the Tri-Wizard Tournament in The Goblet of Fire, and go to bed early. He texted me at 11 PM, having read another hundred pages beyond that point before he could find a place to stop. People who "don't like fantasy" get taken in; people who only read philosophical or religious stuff ponder these books for days; people who don't like to read, read these.  

Many may say to this, "This is all very nice. Thank you, Father, for sharing your little 'passion' with us. But the world needs some serious fixing. It's a mess." I agree, and that's why I advocate Potter. What will save the world? If Dostoyevsky were sitting here now he would say, "Homer, Shakespeare, Tolkien, and Rowling—that will save the world," (being too modest to mention himself). Many of my fellow Christians may object, "Only Jesus can save us." Sitting at table with my three best friends over Christmas break this last week, I had made the common lament about us all being screwed until people start thinking more: "Getting people to reason is the key!" A friend had countered, "But doesn't it all really begin with relationship? Doesn't transformation begin with meeting the person of Jesus?" To which I said, "Maybe. Unless the person has up some serious roadblocks to that personal invitation or against faith in general. A lot of people have never had that path opened, many have had it opened and found it wanting, and some would like to have parts of it, but find the whole untenable. Where do you start with them?" 

Dostoyevsky would say, "Give them beauty." Shakespeare would say, "Give them truth." Victor Hugo would say, "Give them justice." To that trio of giants, C.S. Lewis would add, "Show them all three; they may well find Christ through them." And J.R.R. Tolkien would reply, "Yes, and even if they don't, they will find at least find their humanity."

Part of me wants to veer off right now and write about how great literature shapes us as people. (I'll do that later and link it here.) Part of me wants to continue this essay diplomatically appealing to both religious and non-religious types alike, hitting the Christian points of insight here and then bouncing over to show the moral-but-not-religious crowd that Potter is good for agnostic ethics too. While I believe both are true, that would be like trying to ride to town on two horses at once. And as it is, I am a Catholic priest, and the majority of my audience are Christians, and while someday I may write on the superb natural morality and humanist structure of Potter, my current task is plain. I must answer the question: "Why, with all there is to read, would you want the world to waste its time studying Harry? Why not Jesus? Why not at least read fiction with a religious bent or from openly Christian authors?"

That's the whole point. The Harry Potter series is not religious; it's not Christian. Which is good, because the world isn't either. If there is a knock on J.K. Rowling's fictitious world, it's not that it's a non-Christian world, it's that it's a post-Christian world. The series takes place in the country that St. Augustine of Canterbury converted in the 6th century, and the story begins in Anno Domini 1991. You will find the words "soul", "monk", "Saint", "church" "curse", and "hallow" in it, but not "God", "Christ", or "Christianity". It's a world where people still take Christmas and Easter holidays, and name Godfathers for their kids, but there is absolutely no Christian content behind these. But guess what? That's where you live too. Nearly every acre of the world you inhabit is either non-Christian or post-Christian. You want to change that world? You can start by reading it the epic tale of "The Boy Who Lived". 

Christians love Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien's Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. They read them for their own edification and suggest them to others. I do that too. (I am through Lewis' series three times, Tolkien's maybe ten.) But while Aslan and Gandalf can find some success, they don't have the impact with non- and post-Christians that the Believers who recommend them would like. Why? Because either Non-Believers sniff out the evangelization and say "Hey, I like it for the story, but I'm not looking for that", or the allegories and analogies are well-enough hidden that the uninitiated readers neither see them nor get excited in the way the Christians do. CoN suffers more from the first plight, LotR is more likely to have the second befall it. This is because they are different works with different approaches. Narnia is direct Christian allegory in children's book form, and so it can feel heavy-handed. Middle Earth is human formation from a virtue-based worldview, and so requires expounding. (Dante poured himself a goblet of wine after he figured out how to show the Scholastic thinkers' philosophy of man using poetry; Tolkien lit up his pipe after figuring out how to show the same thing using hobbits. See The Fellowship of the Ring, Ch. 2 "The Shadow of the Past" for illustration.) Long story short: To "get" the full depth of Tolkien and Lewis, you need to be at least semi-Christian already.

So what good is Potter? If the world is post-Christian or non-Christian, and so is Potter, but Tolkien and Lewis require at least some Christian thinking, why not just get going on preaching the Gospel straight up? Then we can eventually give them the Christian-rooted literature and skip Ms. Rowling's stuff altogether. Why not? I will tell you why: Because we have forgotten what makes a pagan convert. We think that Peter and Paul were preaching to greedy, selfish, lustful pagans. They weren't. They were preaching to greedy, selfish, lustful literary pagans, and that made all the difference. The Roman knew he was cowardly because God gave him a conscience, but he knew he could be more than a coward because Homer gave him Hector. The Greek lady recognized she was flirting with infidelity because she had moral instincts, but she knew she could resist infidelity because she also had Penelope. Paul found a world humbled by Oedipus's pride, yet hopeful, like Orpheus, to escape eternal death. Literature readied their hearts. When Boniface and Ansgar went to convert the North, they luckily went to convert greedy, selfish, lustful poetic pagans, and that epic poetry made the barbarians sing of battle and sacrifice and service. In 1956, Jim Elliot and four companions were killed by the Ecuadorian Waodani tribe they were trying convert. The natives were greedy, selfish, lustful heroic pagans. They knew heroism; they sang of it; they recognized it in the martyrs' deaths. 

This is what we call pre-evangelization. It comes in many forms. Some wise person once pointed out: "You can't hear the Gospel on an empty stomach". This means if you are looking to preach to the poor, you better be prepared to feed them first. Pre-evangelization is something natural that prepares hearts to hear of the supernatural. It's Peter Claver's jug of water and it's Mother Teresa's cot and pillow. But it is also for the mind. Greeks like Plato and Aristotle may have given Christian theologians the tools to discuss person, substance, and nature, but far more importantly, Homer and Euripides got the average Greco-Roman person ready to hear the story of Jesus, the teacher and the tragic hero. If you want true Christians, start with true humans. True humans aren't perfect ones, but they are those who want courage and love and truth (even though they fail at them) and who hate pain and evil and death (even though they can't escape them). Great stories till up the earth of the heart so that the evangelist can sow the seed. The Iliad humanizes; the Gospel divinizes. The fourth-century Cappadocian Church Fathers understood this, especially St. Basil (whose feast we celebrate today, Jan. 2). In Basil's To Young Men, On the Right Use of Greek Literature, he writes: "Just as dyers prepare the cloth before they apply the indeed, if we would preserve indelible the idea of true virtue, must we also become first initiated in the pagan lore, [and] then at length give special heed to the sacred and divine teachings." Catch that? Basil the Great says if you want the most boing for you Gospel buck, "become first initiated in the pagan lore". What did Tolkien do all day? He read Beowulf and the like. What story haunted Lewis all his adult life until he could retell it—still as a pagan story—in Till We Have Faces? The story of Cupid and Psyche.

This brings us back to J.K. Rowling's seven-book series. Catholics in America forget that most First-Worlders don't follow the Pope. Christians worldwide forget that most of the planet doesn't read the Bible. You also won't find a lot of the world reading Homer anymore. But do you know what this planet does read? Harry. Blooming. Potter. There are almost a half billion copies of Potter floating around this planet. Now, does that mean that people should just latch onto, or try to Christianize, whatever is popular? Surely not. Fifty Shades of Grey is quite popular, and it's about the last thing I would advocate latching onto (though it may be so bad that you could use it as a counter-example). Most popular stuff is middling—neither great nor awful—and so we may enjoy it or use it, but it isn't exactly the next Odyssey. But that's the thing: Rowling could be the next Homer. In its own way, Potter can size up with Tolkien, Dickens, Dante and the Bard. Like Othello and the Iliad, you can draw out a vast structure of natural virtues and morals. Faramir and √Čowyn and Sydney Carton and Miss Havisham welcome Rowling's fascinating characters to the pantheon of "The Timeless". On natural merits alone, Potter would be something to read and study, and inasmuch as the world reads Harry, so should the Christian who wants to be conversant in modern topics.  

But I did not sit down to write an overly-long blog post about the next great piece of literature. Rather, my claim is that Harry Potter is the single best pre-evangelization tool available today. This is not merely because Rowling does what all good literature does: reflect the human condition and make us know ourselves better. No, it is because the entire Harry Potter series is a 4,200 page meditation on death, sparked by Rowling's mother's death when the author was only 25. And this is what the world needs to think about. We have forgotten, skipped, sanitized, avoided, and denied what dying means. We don't care for our dying family at home anymore. We don't bathe and clothe our own deceased. We don't host wakes in our homes. We don't hang around until the casket is in the ground and covered with dirt—no, we leave and go to the luncheon. We have bought the lie that it is ok to not visit the dying in their last days because we would "rather remember them like they were: strong and healthy." We have lost the true pain of death and its potential for beauty. And like Hamlet, Rowling says: Come and sit you down and do not budge till I have set you up a mirror where you can see the inmost part of you. Like that same Prince of Denmark, she wants you to know two things: 1) Death is certain and irreversible, and 2) How you face the death of yourself and others is the key to everything.  

Can you begin to see how this is pre-evangelistic? If our world won't even look at the whole-hearted and honest ancient horror of death, then why should it care if Christ is "Victor over death"? The beautiful antiphon at the Vespers that closes Holy Saturday and awaits the Easter Vigil says: "Death, you will die in me; Hell, you will be destroyed by me." That's the Good News, baby, but only if you have been honest enough to hear the Bad News of life first. Otherwise, it's a nice bumper sticker. Even Christians have lost this. We don't just need a pre-evangelization, we need a re-evangelization—starting from death. Priests at funerals want to wear white, and talk hope and joy and resurrection, and invite a "celebration of life" at the very moment that every other heart in the church is finally looking death straight on. Father, those things above are fine, but at least give us five minutes to be honest with the pain, or please spend the wake telling us how gosh darn awful this is and how it's ok to hate it and how this pain is the right response to our loss. Then, and only then, are our hearts ready—like Martha's was after she sobbed at Jesus feet that her brother was dead.  

In another post I will address some of the common objections to Harry Potter. In another post I would be happy to show the path from Homer to Chesterton to Tolkien to Lewis to Rowling. In yet another post I will show how Rowling's work differs considerably from Tolkien's but deserves to stand beside his as the best work of the last hundred years in English. But for now I want to summarize the three reasons why you (and everyone you know over 13) should read Harry Potter.

1) It is both the "work of the moment" and "Iliad of the contemporary world". It is what people today read and think and discuss; it is the characters and situations that they know. As a schoolboy in 200 AD needs to know Virgil to be conversant, and in 1800 he needs to know Shakespeare, today he needs to know Rowling.  And she is a lot more enjoyable than Fitzgerald or Hardy or Camus.

2) Like the best pre-evangelizations of old, Rowling tells great stories, while weaving together intense short books within a giant narrative that whups all challengers. Leaving aside any other benefit, like the best of the Greeks and Romans, like the whole of Shakespeare, there is inside the Potter corpus a whole world of morality, of virtue and vice, of comedy and tragedy. Whether or not a soul gets closer to God from it, those who read it will walk away bettered.

3) While never bringing in Christianity (and without any strictly Christian types or allegories) and perhaps because she never brings it in, Rowling gives the most perfect pre-evangelization to Christ's Gospel. The world longs for friendship, sacrificial love, loyalty, forgiveness, assistance, and courage. Potter stirs up the longing for that. But above and beyond what any other epic literature does, it reminds the modern reader—be they post-, anti-, or semi-Christian—that death is real, and it hurts, and that that's ok. It reminds a world which tries to negate death that death is natural, but also that we do feel it is ever-so-not-natural. Does this directly lead any person to Jesus? No. Does it prepare the heart to understand what Jesus came to be apart of and to fully answer? Yes. 

That is the definition of pre-evangelization.

[PS: I'm tempted to offer some non-spoiler "Best Of" quotes, but gosh I just want to go to sleep right now. Maybe tomorrow.]


  1. This. Is. Fantastic. Thank you for this :)

  2. Excellent blog, Father. I look forward to the next one!

  3. Thank you so much for this blog post Father! It is so good, and it gives me a lot to think about! I better go pick up the whole series again! ;-)

  4. Brilliant. I'm so glad you've posted this. Thank you!

  5. Well stated! Thank you, Father!

  6. Thanks very much for this post. I'm a pretty big Potter fan, but the bit about death was especially poignant and great to read.

  7. Father, that was incredible. I will certainly be returning here. I read the first HP when I was 6, I think. Kinda stopped enjoying them after the events of Book 6. Will be checking in on this.

  8. Harry Potter is my favorite story. When I get a time, I read the book. Thanks for share the post about Harry Potter.

  9. Great post Father. Question: did you just realize this, or is this a realization from years before that you just started to write down now?

    1. I can honestly say that these were my reflections as I went through Harry Potter the first time, but lest that seem something quite precocious, I should explain that I only read the series for the first time in 2009, when I was 30 years old and was starting my fifth year of being a priest and a high school teacher.

      Oh, and I had read years before in one of my mother's Multiple Sclerosis support group magazines an interview where JK Rowling explained how much her mother's death (from MS) had been the catalyst for the series. So, I had a bit of help in perceiving the life/death reflections and some of the other deeper topics before I got wrapped up in the tale.

    2. Supper cool! It looks like we have the same view on the Harry Potter books.

  10. Thank you for your post. This is excellent information.
    zoe sugg in harry potter

  11. I would argue that your #3 is incorrect. A careful reading of the Harry Potter series shows us a great deal of Christian symbolism and typology. For a much more learned opinion than mine, see Haow Harry Cast His Spell by John Granger. Other than that, I believe you are spot on.