Harry Potter and Religious Pluralism

(Spoiler Alert) Inspired by Julie Clawson’s Sojourners post, Harry Potter and Social Justice, and still captivated by the recent movie release (which, yes, I did see at 12:01am), I sit here to write what this story has to offer our conversations. If you are unfamiliar with the plot, you can read about it here; but, essentially, it is a story portraying the power of self-actualized love against the evil sprung from self-obsession. That this love does not stem from or readily deny any particular religious or philosophical tradition is significant. Interestingly, while the Harry Potter series, in so many ways, promotes a reality of inter-religious equality, this is often ignored in religious circles.

Similar to how C.S. Lewis may have used his personal beliefs in the Chronicles of Narnia series, there are many who claim J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter as a Christian allegory. Clawson herself has written elsewhere of how the series has strong allegorical ties to the Christian story, but does not claim the story exclusively Christen. Contrary to what some have augured, I find more evidence that this series introduces a literary landscape where one religious perspective is not privileged.

J.K. Rowling uniquely employs themes, motifs and symbols to ambiguous purposes when they are traditionally used to promote Christian ideals. The tension between the snake and the lion, and the strong connection between Harry and Voldemort are examples of this.

Six years ago, as a senior in college, I was in the midst of a yearlong thesis project to determine if Harry Potter was a uniquely Christian narrative. This project played a major role in my formation as a religious pluralist. Then as now, the idea that Harry Potter is Christian fiction existed widely. Since the seventh book came out, where Harry allows himself to be sacrificed, this idea has only grown. Is Harry a Christ-like figure? Perhaps he is simply another figure within a vast canon of literature devoted to re-telling the story of the cruxifiction and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. I would strongly disagree with this and would argue the series breaks away from this trend.

Through my research, I discovered a more fundamental argument against this idea, or the idea that any one religion may have inspired the philosophy behind the series. My argument that went beyond analysis of symbol, theme and motif: Harry Potter’s power to overcome Voldemort ability came from self-awareness, not divine revelation. Within the Christian tradition, inspiration comes from the divine, not the self: one is usually is growing in relation to the triune God. Harry has inspiration, but it is all leading up to the realization that he has finally understood himself, not some a divine power that is guiding him. In this way, the series departs from the classic narrative with the sacrificial Christ-like character that exists frequently elsewhere.

As a Christian, this research project helped me realize how easy it is to presume familiar stories are inspired from the foundations of my religion – even to the point of appropriating narratives that are not my own. Harry Potter is more complex than many would give it credit: the series isn’t an allegory for one religious tradition, but is inclusive of a landscape that allows for multiple belief systems. J.K. Rowling even claims to have done this intentionally, and I am grateful for this. My point is to not say that it is wrong to identify Christian values within the series, but to explain that the values found within the text cannot be reduced to one religious tradition.

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9 thoughts on “Harry Potter and Religious Pluralism

  1. Enjoyed reading your post, Honna. As a Rowling, Tolkien and Lewis fan myself, I would say that each of these writers, to varying degrees, is largely shaped by their Christianity, and that Christianity enjoys the most pervasive presence (to various degrees) but not exclusive religious influence or imagery within many of their writings.

    Narnia is probably the most thoroughly and overtly Christian of these, and while Narnia contains influences from Greek myth and so forth, I still characterize it as primarily a Christian themed work. To a lesser degree I would say this with Harry Potter. Making this observation in no way denigrates other faith traditions, anymore than than saying Rumi, for example, is primarily Muslim, even if Christian mysticism also exercised some hold or influence over him.

    Keep up the good work! Sincerely, Ben

  2. I’m also a huge Potter and Tolkien fan (although I’d take Pullman over Lewis any day). Perhaps we should do a viewing sometime?

    I find it useful to consider these works in terms of broad heroic narratives that appear in all storytelling traditions: versions of the monomyth, in Campbell’s terms. Heroic fantasy is almost defined by having the structure of the Hero’s Journey.

    One of the fascinating things about reading the Harry Potter series, for me, was that despite growing up in a Christian culture with a strong grasp of Christian mythology, I never saw any Christian imagery in it at all. Perhaps I have an excuse to read them again…

  3. Your research sound very intriguing, Honna – I wish I could read more.

    The fact that many readers readily see the Christian metaphors at play and miss the others probably has a lot to do with the fact that they know quite little about other traditions. To regard the relationship between Dumbledore and Harry as an allegory for the relationship between Krishna and Arjuna, for example, is probably something that most readers just wouldn’t be able to see, having little or no knowledge of the Gita.

    Many thanks for the reflections. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but when I do (hopefully soon!) I’ll keep an eye out for religious symbols from other traditions – or, at least Hindu symbols, since that is what I know best.

  4. Brad, good point. I read an article once that did an overview of the Hindu symbolism within Harry Potter, but couldn’t find it again for this piece. As I remember, there was more Hindu symbolism than Christian symbolism.

  5. I’d love to hear more details about your research Honna. In my reading I have to say I was never convinced that the self-sacrifice made it inherently a Christian allegory, but I don’t know if I would have called it self-actualization or self-awareness either. It seemed to be of a piece with many narratives that emphasize that there are human values and experiences worth dying for, that death’s power must not be overestimated, which in this case were inflected with the Christian and Anglo heritage of the author but could be found across many cultures and traditions. My senior year in college I wrote a paper on Voldemort’s inheritance of the vampiric tradition, so there are clearly a lot of different paths to follow here….:)

    1. Hannah – not sure how I didn’t reply to this earlier. We should exchange research!

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