Our weekend sermon comes from Dr. Tammie Grimm. Enjoy the text below or listen to the attached audio file.
Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still. For they must needs be present, that love and live in that which is omnipresent. In this divine glass, they see face to face; and their converse is free, as well as pure. This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal. ~ William Penn, More Fruits of Solitude
This quote, from seventeenth-century Quaker William Penn, serves as an epigraph on the opening pages of the seventh installment to J.K. Rowling’s wildly popular magical wizarding series, Harry Potter. Like it or not, a major reverberating theme throughout Harry Potter books is death. For those of you unfamiliar with the details of the story, or who may be only vaguely aware that earlier this summer there was a midnight book release party to celebrate this fictional character’s birthday as well as the premier of a Harry Potter play in London, death plays an important role throughout the story.
From the opening pages of the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone for the original UK audience) to the final chapter of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and even the latest installment, Harry’s journey is punctuated by death. He arrives to us on the pages of the first chapter as an infant, who has miraculously survived a killing curse that leaves him an orphan left to be raised in the home of his awful Aunt Petunia, Uncle Vernon and with their equally horrible son, Harry’s cousin Dudley. Living in a muggle family (non-magical people) who disdain him and his magical kind, Harry never really fits into the Dursley’s family life and believes his parents died in a car crash. It is not until the fateful day when a letter arrives inviting him to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry that the truth is gradually revealed. Both his parents were killed at the hands of the evil, self-proclaimed Lord Voldemort, who is his archnemesis. The whole series of seven books—even this latest theatrical installment, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, in which Jo Rowling collaborates with playwrights—centers on Harry and his loyal friends, Ron and Hermione, continually thwarting the escalating attempts of Voldemort to completely vanquish Harry in Voldemort’s quest to “conquer death.”
For those of you wondering if the imaginary, magical world of Harry Potter is even appropriate to discuss in a Christian sanctuary, be not afraid! Though I have been known to dress up as Hogwarts’ transfiguration teacher Professor Minerva McGonagall—complete with witch’s hat, robe and wand for the last two book releases—I have not forsaken my Christianity to become a witch in any supernatural sense of the term. You see, the plain truth is that my Christian formation and worldview, my understanding of the Bible and theological education, both in the local congregation and in formal graduate studies helped me fall in love with Harry Potter in the first place. It actually was not until my final year of seminary, when the fourth book came out, that I became aware of who Harry Potter was and what a cultural sensation author Jo Rowling’s story had created. The copies I originally read were owned by a friend, my former Director of Student Life at Asbury Theological Seminary, who graciously allowed me to borrow them to enjoy as a reward for myself at the end of a busy semester. Over the years, it has been with other Christians who know the biblical story with whom I have enjoyed the most analytical and animated discussions about our hero, his friends and the significance of particular lines and descriptions Rowling crafts in the telling of her story.
From a literary point of view, Harry Potter is not allegory like Hinds’ Feet on High Places or Pilgrim’s Progress in which the story has hidden meaning. Nor is it like The Chronicles of Narnia which C.S. Lewis referred to as being a “supposal” as he was not out to write allegory. His intent was to “sneak past watchful dragons” by writing a story in which he “supposed” if there was a world like Narnia that needed redemption much like ours, what might it look like with talking animals and creatures of fairy tales and folklore? Those of you who read that series in a summer book club with me five or so years ago, know religious overtones were abundant and many of you were quickly able to recognize that the lordly lion Aslan was a Christ figure in the ways he overcame death, created Narnia and offered forgiveness.
But Harry Potter, despite being “the boy who lived,” is not really a Christ figure, or at least he is not in my opinion. He has neither power over death nor does he ever vanquish death himself. It is when he is invited to take his place at Hogwarts that he discovers his parents died trying to save him. And eventually, we readers learn along with Harry that it his mother’s choice to try to prevent Voldemort from killing her baby, by sacrificing herself, that cast a protective charm onto her child because her actions amount to the ultimate sacrifice of love that any person can offer another—to give their life for another. His mother’s action is a Christlike sacrifice to be sure, but its magical power in Harry’s life falls woefully short of the miraculous power that Christ affords to all humanity—for those who choose to accept his life-giving gift. Throughout his years as a Hogwarts’ student, Harry is time and again confronted with the forcefulness of death. He learns of its suddenness and savageness and discovers what it is to be horror-struck by its violence and viciousness. The loss of life is never easy for Harry, just as it is seldom easy for us mere mortals.
Yet, Rowling’s story points to life beyond death. In as early as her first book, Rowling comfortingly hints at and then progressively works (throughout the series and in this summer’s play) to assure Harry and all her readers, young and old alike, that death, in its simplest form, is merely the other side of the coin to life. At significant junctures along the way, she indicates that there is an appropriateness that all earthly life must come to an end. And, furthermore, she demonstrates that there is a tranquility associated with death that awaits those souls as they let go of their hold on this life. In counterpoint, to deny the reality of death we all face, Rowling indicates this is not necessarily so for the witches and wizards who choose to haunt the halls of Hogwarts. In a poignant scene at the end of the fifth book, after losing a cherished link to his parents, Harry questions a ghost named Nearly Headless Nick about death and the afterlife. In response, Nick says,
“I was afraid of death. I chose to remain behind. I sometimes wonder whether I oughtn’t have…Well, that is neither here nor there…In fact, I am neither here nor there…” He gave a small sad chuckle, “I know nothing of the secrets of death, Harry, for I chose my feeble imitation of life instead.”
It is Hogwarts’ beloved headmaster Albus Dumbledore who typically helps Harry grapple with our limited understanding about the afterlife. “It is the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness, nothing more,” or when he tells Harry that, “to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” Yet this lesson of accepting the inevitability of death and the mystery of an afterlife is as hard for Harry to comprehend as it can be for any of us. Harry’s childhood was largely bereft of love. As Harry grapples with a profound sense of loss and bewilderment at all he has missed, Dumbledore tenderly prods him, “You think the dead we loved ever truly leave us? You think that we don’t recall them more clearly than ever in times of great need?” This idea echoes the sentiments of William Penn’s passage that the living and the dead share a communion that persists even though persons exist on either side of the veil drawn between death and life.
As Harry matures into a young man, he is finally able to visit the grave of his parents. There, carved into their headstone, he reads the inscription, “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” This verse is not some made up line of the author’s invention, but a direct quote of I Corinthians 15:26. As Harry struggles in the enormity of this moment to comprehend what it could mean, his friend Hermione gently helps him. “It means…you know…living beyond death. Living after death.” For the Christian reading, as Hermione speaks those words aloud, a verse further down in the same chapter of Corinthians comes to our hearts and minds. “Where, O death, is your victory, Where, O death, is your sting?” For those of us who struggle with death and loss it is the Gospel story—our story— that teaches us the truth of love, death and life. Life triumphs over death and death does not have the final say. Death for us is just a mere portal through which we will pass in order to fully celebrate eternal life with God.
Eternal life. It is the requirement to inherit eternal life that prompts the lawyer in the Gospel of Luke to inquire of Jesus. And the response is the repeated refrain of what we refer to as the Greatest Commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
For those of us who are already fans of this series, the presence and power of love is something of which we are readily aware. We run out of fingers and toes to count up the references to love in the Harry Potter series. Lily Potter’s sacrifice for her son is borne of love, and her love magically protects Harry until he is seventeen and leaves his aunt and uncle’s home for the last time. Love is regularly commented upon by Dumbledore. Love, he admits to Harry, is what blinded him and caused him to be predictable and act “exactly as Voldemort expects…fools who love to act.” And love is an ever present thread in the friendship of Harry, Ron and Hermione, and it is the driving motivation in this summer’s play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
Our scripture lessons this morning help demonstrate that it is by knowing the biblical story that we can see more into Rowling’s story. The Greatest Commandment is not just about love—it is about loving holistically, loving things whole—integrating the very aspects of our being, heart, mind, soul and strength and becoming whole in who we are and who we love. To love God with our whole heart, whole mind, whole strength and whole soul and to love our neighbor as ourselves is to inherit eternal life.
What can stand in starker contrast of loving wholly than Voldemort’s hatred for humanity and his attempt to attain eternal life by splitting his soul into seven pieces? Voldemort is not just the nemesis—the evil villain of the story. For Christians reading the story, he is the very antithesis of how we are called to live. Our lives are to be made whole and patterned after the example of Christ, one whose life and the manner in which he lives is emblematic of the death he died on the cross of Calvary; whole, complete and filled with the love of God and love for neighbor.
For those of us who know the biblical story and read Harry Potter, countless situations and conversations become more significant and carry deeper meaning. One line of dialogue between Harry and Dumbledore illustrates this when Dumbledore tells Harry that the sad tragedy of Voldemort is that he “never paused to consider the incomparable power of a soul that is untarnished and whole.” (Another favorite Dumbledore quote is when he says, “It is our choices, Harry, that show us what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” Indeed, I think a sermon on Wesleyan theology and the decision to accept God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit working through us is hidden in that little nugget.)
Please do not misunderstand me, Rowling’s intent was not to write a Christian story, like that of Pilgrim’s Progress or The Chronicles of Narnia. Harry’s purpose for existence is not to introduce the reader to Christianity nor is his story written as a moral tale really intended to make people better Christians. Rowling makes it clear Hogwarts exists in the context of many faiths and is not a religious school. Yet, her Christian understanding is present. It is her intent to weave Christian parallels into her writing even as she incorporates ideas from world mythologies and folklore. Therefore, when we read Harry Potter with a Christian worldview and understanding of the biblical narrative we see so much more of the story than what Rowling has very ably written.
The story of Harry Potter from the first installment written 21 years ago to the play that debuted in London last summer is captivating literature. They are wonderful stories of a magical world that is fun to enter and to enjoy, whether you dress up for special events or wear a t-shirt proclaiming the name of the house into which you’d be best sorted or even if all Harry Potter remains for you is just a story that can be pulled off the bookshelf and returned to from time to time in order to escape the real world.
The wizarding world is not real. Storybooks are the stuff of fiction that enlivens our imagination and brings us pleasure. But it is the biblical story, or as a friend of mine so eloquently puts it, “The Story of God, the Story of Us” that enlivens our very lives! Our story is not simply the Gospel texts, but extends back into the Old Testament, beginning with Genesis and read with the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament to which faithful Christians testify. It is our story in which we read the truth of this world, indeed of all creation. And it is this truth that enlivens the Christian disciple’s imagination, heart, mind, soul and strength to allow us to see further into other storybooks that we love and cherish and read and re-read.
It is our story, the Gospel story, that is a story for all ages, young and old alike, yesterday, today and tomorrow, in this age and the next. This is the story that we are called to live day in and day out, 24-7, 52 weeks a year, all our life long. The real life of Christian disciples is a choice to live fully and completely, integrating all our love for God, heart, mind, soul and strength, sharing that love with our neighbor. It is the Christian’s choice to live into God’s calling to be wholly and entirely like Christ, made possible by the power of the Holy Spirit. Nothing in part, segregated, walled off or closed up and returned to a shelf when real life enters in. The Bible lives and breathes through us, loving us and others through life and in death. Strictly speaking, the biblical canon contains 66 books, but our Christian story is one that continues for eternity—long after we turn the final pages of a storybook and read the words, “The End.”
Listen to the audio file here: