Sunday, August 12, 2007

Faith in Potter

Having read the latest (and final) installment of the Harry Potter series, I was struck , not just by the books (which is overall a good read, by the way, despite a rather slow and drawn out middle section), but by some of the furore in the Christian press over the whole series, and this book in particular. Some are still denouncing the whole thing as demonic - others see in it a powerful Christian allegory. It seems that the only reactions for some Christians are either outright denunciation (a common, and usually self-defeating reflex), or appropriation as a Christian tract.

And (without giving too much away), the last book in this sequence does have elements that a superficial reading could easily give one over to either conclusion. There is a lot about Dark magic and special magical devices that supposedly allow one to cheat death, and a lot about self sacrifice, and the power of atoning sacrifice to defeat evil and even death. But to take a fantasy that does not deal with the real world and blame it for increasing an interest in the occult among children (for which I have seen no evidence), or that because of the themes of death and rebirth and good defeating evil, this must mean that Rowling is a "secret" believer, and is using her books to push a "secret" Christian message is taking things far too far.

Rowling is merely drawing on the wealth of the Western literary tradition, and the deep Jungian archetypes that in our culture have been shaped by nearly 2,000 years of Christianity - ideas like self-sacrifice, and moral courage overcoming evil are deeply embedded. And indeed, these are values that pre-date Christianity - they are there in the Graeco-Roman traditions as well.

Another example is the reaction among some Christians to the last episode in the current series of Doctor Who. Here the Master is defeated not by a secret anti-Time Lord weapon, but by the collective belief of the survivors of Earth that the Doctor could save them - a collective belief that regenerates the Doctor who then proceeds to forgive the Master for his crimes. The Biblical imagery is very strong for all who want to find it, but to then assume that Russell T Davies is a believer would be a serious error. Davies is the writer of "The Second Coming", a drama (also starring Christopher Ecclestone) in which a young man in Sheffield discovers that he is the final incarnation, and that God’s final testament to humanity is that He must die, but with no resurrection – leaving humanity to make it’s own way without God.

That Davies is an atheist (or at least, an agnostic) does not preclude him from understanding the power of forgiveness and belief to transform situations – these are deeply embedded values in our culture. Likewise, when Rowling quotes form the Bible in the “Deathly Hallows”, she does so without citing the origin, but uses the quotes in a highly appropriate context. But most readers would not recognise the quotes as from the New Testament.

Whether she has a faith or not is not salient to the books – they are full of values that Christian and atheist and agnostic alike would recognise – friends matter, truth is vital, and evil is always weaker than good because it is blind to the things that make the world worth living in. In that sense I can celebrate the writing in Harry Potter, Doctor Who, Phillip Pullmans’ explicitly atheistic “His Dark Materials”, CS Lewis’s explicitly Christian Narnia books, the Le Guin’s explicitly Taoist “Earthsea” books. They all take values that I celebrate as part of my faith, and I can take from them what I bring to them.