(Spoiler alert: If you want to avoid learning anything significant, finish the book before you read this column.)
J.K. Rowling gets the last laugh on the dwindling number of conservative Christians who have attacked her “Harry Potter” saga over the past decade: The most important plot point of the seventh and final book is unambiguously Christian.
Ms. Rowling cleverly scattered so many red herrings amongst the loaves and fishes in the previous books that she made it difficult to see the trail clearly except in retrospect. The Potter story is not a linear Christian allegory, no modern day Pilgrim’s Progress. And Harry’s World is insistently devoid of explicit religion, right through the final chapter.
But Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows finally reveals plainly what the author had said for many years: that her Christian faith undergirds her fictional creation.
Let’s build some suspense Rowling-style by first laying out the religious stuff that is not a part of Harry’s World.
There is no mention of God, gods, Heaven, or Hell. There’s no prayer. Deathly Hallows includes a wedding, a funeral, and the announcement of a birth. Any one of them offered Ms. Rowling the chance for a snippet of religious ritual or sacred language. None appears.
As with every other book in the series, Deathly Hallows includes Christmas with its traditions of decorations, gifts, and songs. But there is no mention of Christ – not associated with this holiday nor anyplace else in the books.
The practice of magic continues to be as un-occult and mechanical as, say electrical engineering. Dark Arts are dark because of their effects, not because they draw from a power source that’s different from the White Arts. (But Ms. Rowling never explains where the power for any magic comes from.)
There’s no universal fallen-ness in need of divine redemption. After death, souls “go on.” And good and evil committed in life may be linked to what happens next. But we have no more than the tiniest hint of what “next” might be.
Almost every character is revealed by the end of the final book to be a mix of good and bad, but equipped with the free will to choose a side. (The most notable exception is the totally evil Voldemort. But he’s more Hitler than Satan.)
Most of the themes in Harry’s saga are common to many faiths: loyalty, love, friendship, courage, maturity, sacrifice, moral judgment. Ditto for many of the symbols laced through the books. The phoenix and unicorn, for instance, were borrowed by Christians from much older cultures.
But in Deathly Hallows, the religious identity of Harry’s family is made stunningly and suddenly explicit. He visits the grave of his parents, on Christmas Eve in a church-side graveyard, and reads the inscription on the headstone: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.”
While Deathly Hallows does not say so, that’s a quote from 1 Corinthians 15:26 (KJV), from a passage where Paul is discussing the resurrection of Jesus.
Much more essential than a New Testament quote to the Christian nature of the Potter saga, however, is a theme that Ms. Rowling introduced in the very first book: The greatest power in Harry’s World turns out to be the substitutionary sacrifice of one’s life, when offered only for love, and with no hope of survival.
In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (bowdlerized to Sorcerer’s Stone in the American editions), we’re told that Harry survives because his mother, Lily, sacrifices herself for him. The act somehow confers magical protection on her infant son. But Harry’s father, James, is murdered first. Why didn’t his death protect his wife and child?
In a 2005 interview for two fan Web sites, Ms. Rowling explained that James was forced into a futile attempt to battle Voldemort. “But the caliber of Lily’s bravery was, I think in this instance, higher because she could have saved herself.”
In Deathly Hallows, the murder scene is replayed in great detail.
“Take me,” Lily begs Voldemort. “Kill me instead.”
This theme – the transcendent power of the freely given supreme sacrifice– is the fulcrum upon which the final battle in Deathly Hallows turns.
Harry believes that only his demise will save his friends. Like his mother, Harry is willing to choose that death without fighting. The final battle includes death and resurrection, spiritual power carried by blood, and an apparent total loss followed by ultimate victory.
Distinctly Christian? I’d say so.
As Albus Dumbledore explains to Harry in Deathly Hallows (he remains a lively presence despite being dead): “The true master does not seek to run away from Death. He accepts that he must die and that there are far, far worse things in the living world than dying.”
Ms. Rowling has been asked many times about her faith and the religious themes in her work. She said that she is Christian but “if I talk too freely about that,” she told the Vancouver Sun in 2000, “I think the intelligent reader – whether 10 or 60 – will be able to guess what is coming in the books.”
That may overstate the case a bit; her plotting was far too knotted for easy guessing. And her strongest Christian critics will probably not be mollified.