Thursday, August 11, 2011

Of Horcruxes and House-Elves: A Sermon on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

My plan for late July and early August was a four-week sermon series called "Beach Reading," featuring sermons inspired by novels I've been reading (or, in this case, re-reading). The first one was supposed to be preached July 17, but that day I was in Atlantic City with my dad in the hospital. He is now doing rehab in a nursing home in the town where I live, which is a great blessing and relief.

This was actually preached July 24. The rest to follow....

Sometime in the fall of 1999 I received a package in the mail. It was from my mother, a lover both of books and of her grandchildren. It contained the first three Harry Potter novels, two in paperback and the most recently released one in hardcover. There was a note, which read, “I have been reading all about these books. I thought the children might enjoy them.” And, oh, we did, all we children. We embarked on a five-year-long project of reading aloud, every Harry Potter book, complete with distinctive voices and sound effects, which lasted clear until book six came out. By that time, we were all so frantic to know what happened, we ended up stealing the books back and forth from one another until we’d gotten to the ending, teary-eyed and breathless.

The story begins as all good and wondrous tales do: with magic and mystery. A little child is left on a doorstep, a modern-day Moses in the bulrushes of county Surrey, England. The boy has a scar just above his eyes shaped like a bolt of lightning, and a mop of black hair. He isn’t old enough yet to know the hard truth of his life: he is an orphan. His parents have died offering their bodies as his protection against an evil wizard, and he will now live harsh childhood years as the unwelcome guest of spiteful and non-magical relatives, people wizards would call “muggles.” But we the readers know: this is Harry Potter, and we the readers suspect: he will grow up to be a good wizard. So the story begins.

To enter the world of Harry Potter is to find your way into a place both familiar and entirely new. There are families, parents and children, and pets, and schools and schoolbooks and classrooms, and bullies and wonderful, lifelong friendships. But the families mostly carry wands and do magic, and the classes are named things like ‘Defense Against the Dark Arts’ and ‘Potions,’ and they take place in a grand magical castle, Hogwarts’ School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There are pets, yes, cats, but also owls, and toads, and magical creatures—centaurs and dragons and goblins, oh my.

It would be impossible, foolhardy, to try to tell you the entire story of Harry Potter—it is a story that takes more than 4000 pages to unfold if you were to read the books, or nearly 20 hours if you were to watch the films. The chances of my being able to make sense of the whole thing in these few minutes are slim. So, instead, let me tell you about just two characters, characters on whom the plot turns, and whose actions reveal, to me, so much of the brokenness and beauty, the evil and goodness, that are reflected in the story.

“He who must not be named”: that’s how we first hear of Lord Voldemort, and the pure fear behind that name tells us much we need to know. This powerful and evil wizard has a bottomless, unquenchable thirst for power and domination. He thinks nothing of cruelly torturing or murdering anyone who stands in his path. He initiates a campaign of separating out pureblood wizards from half-blood or muggle-born (in the Harry Potter books, muggles occasionally produce magically gifted children). He recruits like-minded witches and wizards to aid him in his planned conquest. And the person he pursues with single-minded fury is Harry Potter, because Harry was identified in a prophecy as being the one wizard who was a match for Voldemort’s power.

And, though he is just about evil personified, Voldemort is still a fully fleshed out character. We learn about his painful childhood, growing up in an orphanage. Yes, he and Harry are both orphans. We learn of his schooldays, his isolation, and the way in which he turns to dark magic to feel more powerful. Still, his turn to evil is a choice: he rejects the goodness of those who try to help him. We witness his cruel brutality, his sadism. To put him into a modern, understandable category: his psychology is that of a serial killer. We learn that the thing that most disgusts him is human mortality—he regards death as a pathetic weakness. And so we learn that the evil wizard has intentionally created seven horcruxes. Horcruxes, in the world of Harry Potter, are magical objects that function as containers for the soul, and they can enable their creator to attain immortality. But in order to create a horcrux, one must commit an act of supreme evil that literally rips the soul apart: one must commit murder.

“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” [Luke 12:34]. Jesus tells us that it matters, those things to which we commit our souls. There is no human project more guaranteed to rob us of our humanity than the urge to dominate and subjugate others to our will. And there is no human project that has done more damage than the effort to identify and demonize and weed out those who are not like us. And it’s not only Voldemorts and Stalins and Hitlers who take on such projects. We read daily reports of the horrors inflicted by those who cannot tolerate difference. We all have it within us to become little dictators, whether of our children or our co-workers or our spouses or even our parents. We all put our souls at risk when we try to stamp out the “other.”

In his campaigns against the “other,” and against that ultimate “other” reality, death, Voldemort sacrifices his most precious treasure: his soul. He boxes it up in little trinkets, which he hides like a furtive schoolboy with secret stashes of candy. Voldemort is single-minded, but he is far from whole-hearted. He is just the opposite. His is a heart in shreds.

“Where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.” The Harry Potter books, “Deathly Hallows” in particular, issue an invitation to us to learn what it is to be whole-hearted, to be alert to the things that threaten to fragment our souls. They remind us to store up for ourselves the true treasures, those that will build up and bind together and mend God’s creation, rather than tearing it apart.

The second character I want to talk about is Dobby. The magical world of Harry Potter is not a perfect world. There are aspects to it that are disturbing, even aside from Lord Voldemort and his evil plans. In the second book the reader becomes aware that there is a servant class in this world, a class of beings who are responsible for the appearance of all the yummy foods on the enormous tables at Hogwarts, and for the upkeep of the students’ dormitories, and even for the maintenance of the homes of older, wealthier wizarding families. This servant class is comprised of house-elves, and their lot is not all that different from that of slaves. House-elves are tiny creatures, no more than two or three feet in height. Instead of clothing they wear discarded pillowcases and tea towels. In order for a house-elf to be freed, his master must present him with an article of clothing, which most wizards try to avoid doing at all costs. Despite their slave status, house-elves maintain a code of such strict loyalty, even to the most evil of masters, that they will physically punish themselves for any acts that smack of disloyalty.

Here’s the thing about house-elves, though: they have their own powerful magic, abilities that wizards and witches don’t seem to recognize or value. They have their own sense of right and wrong, which may be at odds with the families they serve. Dobby the house-elf makes his appearance at the beginning of book two to protect Harry from evil doings, an action that puts him in opposition with his master, a devoted Voldemort groupie. So every time Dobby does something to help Harry, he must punish himself for his disloyalty. At the end of the second book, Harry tricks Dobby’s cruel master into passing him an old, smelly sock, thereby freeing him.

Dobby’s kindness to Harry is repaid with deep devotion. In the end, the outcome of all the books turns on Dobby’s complete loyalty to Harry. Dobby places himself in danger in order to save the lives of, not just Harry, but five other people as well. For his pains Dobby receives a deadly wound.

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…” [Philippians 2:5-7a]. The mind of Christ, the one who had access to all the glory and power of God, was the mind of a servant, a slave. The mind of Christ is shown in the actions of Harry Potter’s parents, who face Voldemort unarmed and beg for mercy, not for themselves, but for their child. The mind of Christ is illustrated in the actions of Dobby, who binds himself to Harry in a bond of love and devotion, and who offers himself and his gifts, whatever the cost. And the mind of Christ is in Harry himself, who learns from Dobby the incalculable value of certain actions, and who, in mourning the loss of Dobby, comes to understand how, at last, to empty himself.

After Dobby’s death, Harry spends a great deal of time digging Dobby’s grave, and in that time, his mind is focuses. In the end, Harry, too, walks unarmed to face Voldemort, offering no resistance, because he has come to understand that a greater power than magic, a far, far, greater power, is that of self-giving, self-sacrificing, self-emptying love.

When the Harry Potter books first became popular a fury erupted. There were some who were gravely concerned that Christian children ought not to be reading about witches and wizards. In their focus on the specifics of the content, the details of the storytelling, these critics entirely missed the power of the message. In fact, the Harry Potter series belongs in the category of books that demonstrate what it is to walk the path that Christ walked. We follow along with one who is willing to die in order that others might live. We come to love one who spends himself in order that others might be free. We are witness to the whole-heartedness of one who understands and faithfully follows his calling. It is hard to imagine any Christian walking away from these books with a faith that is weakened. My experience was just the opposite.

When we open a book and allow it to inhabit us, we are taken on a journey. The journey of Harry Potter is one that contains magic, yes, and fantasy, and a marvelous roller-coaster-ride of a story. But this journey also shows us love, and devotion, and courage, and trust. This journey leaves us eager to find that calling about which we can be whole-hearted. And then, this journey brings us home again, to the One whose whole-hearted goal was our life, and our wholeness, and our salvation. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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