[Patheos; July 15, 2011]
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, the eighth and final film in the Harry Potter series, opens today in a blaze of special effects: castles burning, bridges collapsing, dragon-fire blasting, stone knights clunking stiffly to life, giants whacking smaller figures off the earth like tiny golf balls. This is not the first fantasy-action film to suffer under a Disproportionatus Curse, in which whatever profound themes exist in a book are obliterated, in the film version, by spectacle. This is a two-hour movie, and one hour is devoted to the battle at Hogwarts. What adolescent boys think of as “the good part,” and headachey adults as “the noisy part,” is delivered with exuberance and excess. Many young fans are looking for exactly that, and the film will fulfill all their hopes.
But there are other elements of this book, the last in the J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series, which have been glossed over in the movie. They’re the elements that have to do with faith—specifically, Christianity. The reason may not be censorship. Things which are conveyed, in print, through a character’s inner thoughts, are hard to communicate onscreen—not without voiceover, subtitles, or broad, bad acting. A moving picture may be worth a thousand words, but a thousand moving words can sometimes communicate things that, in a movie, would look like a person just standing there, thinking.
Here’s a recap of the Potter storyline, for those who have been bunkered down and vainly trying to resist. There are seven fat novels in all. In the first six, Rowling showed us Harry learning that he comes from a wizarding family, and in fact is the subject of an important prophecy. He grows at the rate of a year per book. We seen him attending Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and learning the ways of a magical community that lives, undetected, among ordinary humans. Hogwarts’ kindly headmaster, Dumbledore, leads Harry to understand that his mission is to vanquish the evil and powerful wizard Voldemort. To do so, Harry will have to find and destroy the horcruxes, magical objects in which Voldemort has concealed pieces of his soul. Only when the last horcrux is destroyed will Voldemort ultimately die.
[SPOILER ALERT, though you already know the following if you have read the book; you could guess much from just watching the trailer.]
The first half of the vast, 759-page seventh book, which was filmed as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 and released last November, shows the wizarding world descending into chaos. Harry and his friends Hermione and Ron are on the run, racing to locate horcruxes and destroy them. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, opening today, is based on the second half of that book. In it comes a truly shocking revelation: the final horcrux is Harry himself. On the night long ago when Voldemort killed Harry’s father and mother, leaving the toddler with a lightning-shaped scar, a fragment of Voldemort’s soul was lodged, unknown, in Harry.
This means that the last horcrux to be destroyed is Harry. He must die so that others may live. He will give his life to save the world from the power of the evil one.
If any of that sounds familiar, you might be a Christian.
Over the years that the books were published there was a bit of reader speculation along that line. Rowling affirms that she is a Christian (raised in the Anglican Church, now a member of the Church of Scotland); in a 2000 interview she told the Vancouver Sun that she was glad that people didn’t ask more questions about her faith because it would tend to give away the plot. “If I talk too freely about that, I think the intelligent reader, whether 10 or 60, will be able to guess what’s coming in the books.” After the seventh book came out, in 2007, she told MTV.com that life after death is “something I wrestle with a lot. It preoccupies me a lot, and I think that’s very obvious within the books.”
It’s obvious in the books, but not always in the movies. Let’s look at some examples.
—The Dumbledore family gravestone inscription. In the first half of “Deathly Hallows,” Harry and Hermione visit the churchyard where his parents are buried. While searching for their grave, he discovers the tombstone of Dumbledore’s mother and sister. In the book, but not the movie, he sees that it bears “a quotation: ‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.’” The quotation, actually, is from Jesus (Matthew 6:21). It comes during the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus warns against valuing anything on earth above heaven.
Harry knows Dumbledore must have chosen the verse, but he doesn’t know what it means. We later learn that it expresses Dumbledore’s repentance, after his teenaged fascination with another boy, and their plans to rule the world, led to the death of his sister. The quote would express Dumbledore’s determination to stop seeking earthly power and focus instead on the things of heaven.
(There’s been some squawking about Dumbledore’s homosexuality—Rowling confirms that her character is gay—but he turned away from his crush at this point and there’s no mention of any other partners. So far as we are told, he lived chastely, which would place him well within classic Christian morality.)
—James and Lily Potter’s gravestone inscription. When Harry finds his parents’ grave he sees an even-more-explicit inscription: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” Harry doesn’t know how to take these words, and finds them somewhat creepy. Hermione explains that it means “living beyond death. Life after death.”
Harry doesn’t say so out loud, but he rejects the idea. He thinks of his parents’ bodies decaying underground, and concludes they neither know nor care that he has come.
This time, the quote comes from St. Paul; he told the Corinthians that, at the end of time, Christ will conquer all earthly powers and “put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Then Christ will submit everything to God the Father, “that God may be everything to everyone” (1 Corinthians 15:24-26, 28).
Perhaps these lines were omitted from the movie because they open toward some theological complexities. Still, Rowling told MTV that these inscriptions “sum up—they almost epitomize the whole series.” In other words, if you want to understand the Harry Potter saga, you have to understand these words.
Still, it’s a surprise to come across lines from the New Testament in a Harry Potter novel, quotations chosen by characters who practice magic. Readers might have assumed that the religion of these witches and wizards is witchcraft. But the characters don’t treat these magical powers as if they had spiritual significance; there is no awe or deference, no invoking of deities or supernatural powers. When they practice magic it is done simply, matter-of-factly, as if it were merely a skill they had acquired, like using a remote control. (Conversely, they might find the ways of ordinary humans fascinating; Ron’s dad collects electric plugs, trying to discover the means of their mysterious power.)
If these characters have any religion, the leading candidate would be Christianity. These family members are buried in a churchyard; they must have had some connection with the church. Sirius Black is Harry’s godfather; the two must have participated in some kind of rite. Harry conceals the remains of a fallen comrade beneath a tree, then carves a cross into the wood; that symbol must have meant something.
Let’s look at some more examples:
—Hermione teaches that the soul survives the body. In both book and movie, Hermione explains to Ron and Harry that the bit of soul hidden in a horcrux dies when its container is destroyed, and in that way a horcrux is the opposite of our bodies.
“Look, if I picked up a sword right now, Ron, and ran you through with it, I wouldn’t damage your soul at all.”
“Which would be a real comfort to me, I’m sure,” said Ron.
“It should be, actually! But my point is that whatever happens to your body, your soul will survive, untouched,” said Hermione.
—Encounters with the departed. In both book and movie, as Harry walks toward his final encounter with Voldemort, he discovers the Resurrection Stone, which can restore the dead to the presence of the living. There in the woods his parents and friends appear, “less substantial than living bodies, but much more than ghosts.” With this, Harry’s last doubts about life after death are resolved.
He asks, “Does it hurt?” and his godfather Sirius replies, “Dying? Not at all. Quicker and easier than falling asleep.” Sleep is frequently used in the New Testament as a metaphor for death, indicating that it’s not an ending but a transition to a different kind of life. Harry’s companions promise to remain with him till the last, echoing the experience of Christian saints and martyrs who saw at the end that they were “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1).
—Repentance for salvation. In the book, but not the movie, at the moment of their final encounter, Harry suggests to Voldemort that he “Think, and try for some remorse.” Voldemort is more shocked by these words than by anything else Harry has said. But Harry has had a glimpse of the state Voldemort is headed for after death. “It’s your one last chance.” Harry tells him. “I’ve seen what you’ll be otherwise. ..Be a man…try…Try for some remorse…”
In Christian theology, all sins can be forgiven; no one is beyond redemption. But you have to ask for it. You have to be sincerely repentant, humble enough admit your wrongs and accept God’s love. Voldemort’s pride has placed him beyond this possibility; it is even beyond his comprehension.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is sure to be a hit, and would have been one whether or not it was a good movie, whether or not it was faithful to the book. At some points, the movie actually improves on the book, by thinking through better dramatic action. At others, there is a loss of emotional depth, when the shell of characters’ outward behavior remains but inner reflection is missing.
Still, the biggest missing piece is the spiritual dimension that J. K. Rowling herself formed for the story—Christian belief in life after death, the transforming power of repentance, and the victory won by one who went voluntarily into death and then destroyed its power.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, we sing hundreds of times in the weeks following Pascha (Easter), “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tomb bestowing life!” That exultant, grateful cry is the real background music for the entire Harry Potter story. You’ll understand that story better if you listen, beyond the roar of giants and dragons, for that joyous melody.