Sunday, July 29, 2007
The Gospel According to Harry Potter: A Sermon on Colossians 2:6-15
“The Gospel According to Harry Potter”
July 29, 2007
Canterbury Cathedral is one of the most famous sites of Christian history in the British Isles. More than 1500 years old, it can claim as its first archbishop none other than Saint Augustine, and is known as the site where another archbishop, Thomas Becket, was assassinated by knights loyal to the king. It provided the inspiration for Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” a collection of stories shared by people traveling to the cathedral on pilgrimage, thus providing a bane in the life of many a high school freshman, required to memorize the prologue in Middle English. In 2000 representatives of Time Warner motion pictures approached the Dean of the cathedral with a request: might some part of the first Harry Potter film be shot there?
The dean said, “No,” explaining that it was unfitting for a Christian church to be used to promote pagan imagery. Fortunately for fans of the movie, representatives of Gloucester Cathedral had no such anxieties, and so certain shots of Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry have been filmed at Gloucester ever since. In fact, the Dean of Gloucester loves Harry Potter. He says, "I think [it’s] a marvelous traditional children's story and excellently written. It is also amusing, exciting and wholesome, and is just the sort of story families should be encouraged to read." (1)
And there you have it, from both sides of the cathedral aisle: the Harry Potter books, promoters of paganism versus the Harry Potter books, wholesome family entertainment. And I would like to say at the outset that I think it is good for people to be concerned about the content of what their families read or view online or play on their Xbox 360’s. There are messages out there that are harmful to our children and to ourselves, and we have to do a lot of homework to be able to sort the wheat from the chaff. We have to know what is good, wholesome and life-building and what is dark, dangerous and death-dealing.
This is precisely the issue that concerns Paul in today’s letter to the Colossians. This particular letter has been the source of much intrigue over the years—over the centuries—because it is clear Paul is battling something that scholars call the “Colossian heresy.” Something is out there, causing people to fall away from faith in Jesus Christ and to place their confidence instead, in something Paul calls “philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.” [Col. 2:8]. Paul is urgently warning the people of this community against something that is already snatching their hearts and their souls away from the body of Christ. The question is, what is it, exactly? What was the Colossian heresy?
Here’s what one of the most trusted books in my library, the New Interpreter’s Bible, has to say about the possibilities: “In the past, scholars looked to a Jewish form of Gnosticism or to Jewish mysticism or to Hellenistic mystery cults or to neo-Pythagoreanism or to a syncretistic mix of some of these…” (Try saying that three times, real fast.) Some have mentioned “middle-Platonism.” Some have even mentioned a “general framework of magic and folk-religion.” (2) You probably are getting the idea that we just don’t know. That’s exactly right. The options are many, and the truth, most likely, is lost to us modern readers. But Paul gives us the heart of his concern in that phrase I’ve already quoted to you: it’s a philosophy, packed with empty deceit, according to human tradition, and not, in his view, according to our calling in Jesus Christ.
As with so much in scripture, our understanding is limited if we don’t look around, and take into consideration the context of what we’re reading. And just prior to our selection from Colossians is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing in the New Testament. It’s a passage whose lyricism, even in translation, grabs our attention and tells us a story: first, it was a hymn, used by the early church in its worship. It is a hymn to Christ, praising his role in creation and his role in redemption:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. ~Colossians 1:15-20
“In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” Paul says. This is the foundation of the witness of the early church: in Jesus of Nazareth they encountered the Christ, the Anointed One of God, the fullness of God’s presence on earth. This was a presence that rejected divine power to stand in solidarity with frail humanity, that stood for radical inclusion, and that stood up to the earthly powers and principalities. Christ was a presence that confronted evil, in fact, did battle with evil for our very souls. And that leads us back to the beginnings of our passage. Paul says, “therefore, as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him…” [Col. 2:6-7a]. Paul is asking the people in Colossae to do something vitally important to the strength of their faith: he is asking them to root themselves, to let themselves be built up, in the faith they have already been given. Paul is asking them to remember that their true foundation is in Christ.
And here, in 2007, our task is exactly the same: to remember that our foundation is in Christ, that we are rooted in him, that he is the source of our life. And if that is true, then what do we make of these books, whose subject is, frankly, a world if witches and wizards? Is the world of Harry Potter comprised of those misleading philosophies Paul is warning us about? Do these books or films pose a threat to us?
The Harry Potter books depict a classic confrontation between good and evil, with a young boy at the epicenter. On one side of the battle, we have the evil Lord Voldemort, a brilliant but dark wizard who comes into conflict with young Harry. And we have his followers, known as Death Eaters… people who are willing to do literally anything to advance the cause of their dark Lord.
One thing I love and admire in the Harry Potter books is their willingness to name evil, to see it for what it is. And there are essentially three hallmarks of evil in the books: 1. The desire to amass unlimited or virtually unlimited power to one person; 2. The desire to enforce a kind of racial purity (the dark wizards seek to destroy non-magical people and even wizards who have non-magical relatives); and 3. The willingness to kill and torture in the name of accomplishing these objectives. Outside the realm of fantasy novels, to name evil can, of course, be complex and treacherous. But I believe these characteristics of evil hold up to real world scrutiny.
They were certainly present in Jesus’ day. Jesus was unfailingly critical of the Roman Empire, that great entity that saw its mission as becoming ever larger and more powerful. Remember that Jesus was considered such a threat to the empire that he was executed for sedition. Jesus broke boundaries of racial exclusivity again and again; remember the Good Samaritan. Remember Jesus healing the child of the Canaanite woman and the servant of the Roman soldier. And Jesus stated in no uncertain terms that the response to evil is not, cannot be further evil and violence. This is hard for us, in an age of terrorist threats. This is hard in the Harry Potter world—no one is a pacifist when face to face with a Death Eater. In telling us to respond to attacks by turning the other check, Jesus articulated as close to a pacifist stance as exists in the ancient Near Eastern world.
On the other side of this epic battle we have Harry. Orphaned at age one and left on the doorstep of his non-magical relatives, Harry grows up with no awareness of his wizard’s abilities or pedigree. When he finally learns the truth about himself, he is told a chilling tale: that his parents died trying to protect him from Voldemort, who wanted him dead. But for some reason, Harry survived the attack, with only a lightning shaped scar on his forehead as a reminder.
Harry is told, when he is still fairly young, that his parents were murdered, and so it might seem natural that he spends the remainder of the books fighting against the murderer. But Harry’s choosing sides is not so easily explainable as all that. Harry learns early on that each of us is capable of both good and evil… he learns that he, himself, with his great talent, his great ambition, and his great anger, is vulnerable to a certain kind of invitation to evil. But he resists, he persists, even when tempted to do otherwise, in saying no to evil and fighting on the side of good.
At the end of book 1, a nearly twelve-year-old Harry asks his wise, powerful and good headmaster, Professor Dumbledore, to explain what has been protecting him from the evil one. Why couldn’t the powerful Voldemort or his followers kill him? Dumbledore replies,
“Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign… to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin.” (3)
Love: a force so powerful, that it marks us forever. The kind of love that gives itself fully… even to the point of death… marks us forever. With that as its fundamental message, Christians have nothing to fear from the Harry Potter books. We recognize that kind of love. We have been loved with a love that is stronger than death, a love that gave everything for us, and that kind of love marks us forever.
Harry’s task is, in many ways, the same as the task Paul gives to the Colossians, and it’s our task too: to be rooted and built up in the love that gave itself for us. To remember that love, and carry on in the light of it. To resist philosophies (whether human-manufactured or wizard- manufactured) which allow anything else to take that love’s place in our hearts. Love: a force so powerful it marks us forever. Not every book gives us this message. Thank God for the ones that do. Happy reading. Amen.
(1) Wikipedia articles on “Religious Opposition to the Harry Potter Series” and “Canterbury Cathedral” contributed to these opening paragraphs.
(2) Andrew T. Lincoln, “The Letter to the Colossians: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000), 561.
(3) J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1997), 299.