Harry Potter and the Truth in Good Stories

As I sat in a Barnes and Noble for hours, awaiting the release of the final Harry Potter book, I wondered if we would ever experience this phenomenon again.  Hundreds of people, mostly kids, waiting for a book that will be released at midnight?!?!  Lots of people attend midnight showings of movies.  But I imagine this will be the only time in my life people line up for a midnight book.

I remember when Harry Potter was much more controversial than it is now, though there are certainly still some Christians who oppose it as evil.  Aside from all other arguments in Harry Potter’s favor, I just had trouble encouraging kids to NOT read a book.  If a ten or eleven year old kid wants to read a 700 page monster, get out of his way!  I also thought that if Christians were so concerned then maybe they should write a better book (temptation to take a shot at Left Behind series…moving on).

The final Harry Potter movie recently hit theaters.  While the Harry Potter movies have been mostly enjoyable, they are nowhere near the epic Lord of the Rings adaptations.  I thought the first two were fun and faithful to the books, but a little stiff as if the filmmaker was afraid to take artistic license and make it his own.  A successful film adaptation of a book requires both the director being faithful but also making a good movie that can stand on its own.  Lord of the Rings was successful because the movies are as much Peter Jackson’s as they are Tolkien’s.  I thought the Harry Potter series came closest to this with the third film or perhaps the two-part seventh film.  By far the fourth film was the poorest, for many reasons.  One of which was that Hermione, one of the three central characters, did nothing but stand around the whole time.

I believe  Harry Potter succeeds as a story because it grips something deep inside of us.  There is a reason why so many great stories are similar, for they are echoing something deep within our humanity.

Jesus of Nazareth’s life, death and resurrection brings the story of scripture to its climax.  This story, beginning with creation and moving on through many ups and downs, rights and lefts, is one epic, long story.  Christians believe that all that came before, the Old Testament, is fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth.  Once again, Jesus completes the story.

What is cool is that the early Christians, those who lived about 100 years after Jesus, saw something similar when they interacted and dialogued with Greek philosophy.  Justin Martyr (103-165 AD) in his Second Apology:

Socrates…cast out from the state both Homer and the rest of the poets, and taught men to reject the wicked demons and those who did the things which the poets related; and he exhorted them to become acquainted with the God who was to them unknown, by means of the investigation of reason…no one trusted Socrates so as to die for this doctrine, but in Christ, who was partially known even by Socrates (for He was and is the Word who is in every man… (Second Apology, 10)

Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD) wrote in his Stromata:

Accordingly, before the advent of the Lord, philosophy was necessary to the Greeks for righteousness. And now it becomes conducive to piety; being a kind of preparatory training to those who attain to faith through demonstration…For this was a schoolmaster to bring ‘the Hellenic mind,’ as the law, the Hebrews ‘to Christ.’ Philosophy, therefore, was a preparation, paving the way for him who is perfected in Christ”(Stromata 1.4)

The idea is that just as the Jews had the scriptures to prepare them for the coming of Christ, so the Greeks had philosophy to prepare them.  The principle here is simply that all truth ultimately points to Jesus, or to put it another way, Jesus completes all the stories.

The same thing is seen in the fictional stories we love.  In fact, this is one of the primary things that led CS Lewis to embrace Christianity.   He had abandoned Christianity as a youth because he was convinced it was just one myth among many that humans invented. In 1931 Lewis had a long conversation with J.R.R. Tolkien (and Hugo Dyson).  Tolkien responded to Lewis’ critiques that myths were not lies, instead they were the best, and sometimes, only way of conveying truth. Tolkien argued that since we are created by God the stories we write, though they contain error, reflect a fragment of the eternal truth that is with God.

Lewis came to agree and later wrote: The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact…The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. The story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened”

Lewis’ Narnia stories are famously allegory, with Aslan clearly being the Christ-figure.  Tolkien was not a fan of such allegory and thus there is no character who exactly parallels Christ as Aslan does in Narnia.  Yet we still see things that point us to ultimate truth.  In Lord of the Rings Frodo is a hobbit and as a hobbit has little to attract people to him, for hobbits are not big or powerful. Frodo carries a heavy burden. While so much action is going on with Gandalf and Aragorn, the action of kings and battles, the things that we tend to think make a difference in the world, we remember that the real battle is being fought elsewhere. In the same way, while historians focus on the Caesars and other powerful people, Jesus fights his battle in the periphery.  Finally, for all the ways Frodo is similar to Jesus, in the end Frodo fails. Frodo cannot throw the ring into mount doom.

Just as Jesus succeeds in the wilderness temptation, reminding us of the many ways God’s people had earlier fallen into temptation in the wilderness, so Jesus succeeds where Frodo failed.   It is where stories diverge from Jesus that we understand they are incomplete.  Frodo fails to destroy the ring, for he is a flawed and imperfect creature.  Jesus alone can accomplish the victory over evil.

Like other characters in great literature (and film), Harry Potter has some Christ-like qualities and in other places, like Frodo, falls short.  In light of the final movie coming out, many articles have appeared on the faith of JK Rowling and Christian themes in Harry Potter (here and here and here.).

Finally, the stories of Greek philosophy, Frodo Baggins and Harry Potter are similar to our own life stories.  My life story consists of some truth, some good that can be affirmed by my Creator.  But my life story is also one of brokenness and failure, yet it is these things which are taken up into Christ as I am transformed.  Perhaps there is a lesson for Christian witness here: every person and culture contains some truth which points to the ultimate truth in Jesus but also falls short in some places (or as Andrew Walls calls them, the indigenizing and pilgrim principles).

Writing this makes me yearn for the next great story…its certainly won’t be A Song of Ice and Fire, Dance with Dragons was disappointing!

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