I have been reading and rereading the Harry Potter books since J.K. Rowling started publishing them. I can’t say I got my copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone the day it was released, but from very early on, I’ve immersed myself in the world of the Boy Who Lived.
As I’ve read and reread these books and listened to the audiobooks (and, yes, even watched the movies), I’ve been impressed by not only J.K. Rowling’s story-telling, world-building, and character-developing abilities, I’ve been struck by her theological astuteness.
The first thing that struck me was the way she integrated magic into a seemingly non-magical world. Half a century ago, the theologically liberal Rudolf Bultmann tried to “demythologize” the Bible, suggesting that angels and demons and miracles and even God himself are merely extensions of the human psyche as we try to understand our world and our place in it. Rowling does exactly the opposite.
There is a world that is hidden to the veiled eyes of most of us who think we live in the so-called “real” world. This larger, deeper world isn’t just the stuff of fairy tales and made up mythologies. It is every bit as real as our day-to-day lives. But because we don’t see it, we live as if it doesn’t exist.
This coincides with what Eugene Peterson has said elsewhere. That the word “biblical” doesn’t so much refer to a book as to a world, the world of God. And when I open the Scriptures, I step from my small, squeezed down world of Me and into the large, expansive world of God.
Where C.S. Lewis envisaged this stepping into a larger reality as a passing through a wardrobe or a painting as a door between worlds, Rowling envisages it as the opening of the eyes to a reality that isn’t elsewhere but is all around us, a reality that Harry becomes aware of when he reads a letter. In many ways, I prefer Rowling’s opening of the eyes to this hidden reality to Lewis’ passing from one reality to another. And I love that it’s a letter — a very persistent letter — that is what marks Harry’s enlightenment.
The Scriptures are our letter, opening our eyes to the already existing, ever-surrounding world of God. We don’t need to leave where we are to enter into this world. It is always with us, even if we don’t see it much of the time. And church is something of a Hogwarts, an odd and ancient and mysterious and wondrous gathering of a community seeking to live fully in this larger, deeper world.
Though magic is everywhere in Rowling’s world, not everyone has access to it. Muggles are non-magical people. They can become aware of the magical world around them, but they cannot participate in it. Likewise, squibs are non-magical people born into magical families.
There is an elitism to this magical-muggle divide that bothers me, smacking of gnosticism and of a hyper-Calvinistic predestination that is more like determinism. (But it does help explain to wand-waving kids who are devoted fans of the Potterverse, longing for their letters from Hogwarts, why they can’t do magic.) This divide plays out in the seven-book series in a number of ways. It creates an elitism among ancient magical families who find muggles to be inferior and less than human and therefore able to be mistreated and even killed without much though. It also creates tension in Harry’s own family. Harry’s mother, being magical, goes to Hogwarts and enters the magical world. But Harry’s aunt, being a muggle, is so heartbroken about not being able to go to Hogwarts herself that she becomes something of a magical atheist and an angrily abusive one at that. As much as this shines a fascinating light on the psychology of many atheists, it removes the potential for choice. Either you’re foreordained as a member of the magical world or not. No amount of desire or pleading is of any value.
While this division is an important element in the Potterverse, I prefer to focus on the unawareness and/or rejection of the magical by muggles. They either don’t know about or refuse to live in this larger, deeper world that is all around them. Even though it messes with the world Rowling created, I prefer to think that everyone receives a letter from Hogwarts and that it is up to us to receive our invitations, to open them, and to accept our enrollment and participation in this dangerous and magnificent world that beckons to us.
In the Potterverse, the magic is everywhere. Just accept the invitation and it’s yours.
In this real universe, God is everywhere. Just accept his invitation and be a muggle no more.