Friday, April 6, 2007

J.K. Rowling, a Christian?

The following piece was featured on Travis Prinzi's Sword of Gryffindor and even John Granger responded and wrote that he will send his “future correspondents here [referring to the article] for the best short course on why ‘the Christian reading’ of Harry Potter may just be ‘the intelligent reading’”. I am very grateful to them both. Enjoy.


When I first started reading the Harry Potter series, the idea that J.K. Rowling (hereafter JKR) was a Christian escaped me. Maybe I was too distracted by the storyline to notice any deeper themes in the first four novels. It wasn’t until I was browsing the Literary Criticism shelf at a Barnes & Noble that I discovered she was. The book was The Hidden Key to Harry Potter by John Granger. Glancing at the back cover, it laid out Granger’s thesis that JKR was “ironically writing the most charming and challenging Christian fiction for children since Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia”. What ultimately made me purchase the book, however, was the following statement on the page opposite the table of contents:

“I believe in God, not magic.” In fact, Rowling initially was afraid that if people were aware of her Christian faith, she would give away too much of what’s coming in the series. “If I talk too freely about that,” she told a Canadian reporter, “I think the intelligent reader – whether ten [years old] or sixty – will be able to guess what is coming in the books” (Michael Nelson, “Fantasia: The Gospel According to C.S. Lewis”, The American Prospect, vol. 13, no. 4, February 25, 2002).
I was shocked when I read that. It was one thing for Granger and others to see Christian themes in the Harry Potter novels but an actual statement by JKR herself? That was amazing. I had to read the whole article by Michael Nelson to see what he was getting at. I also needed the full quotation if there was one. A cursory look of the article at American Prospect’s website revealed that I would have to do some digging and detective work. I had to find out the name of the Canadian reporter, the publication, and the actual article. Checking the sources in my case was instinctual since I was a Journalism student at the time. Eventually I found out that that quote was from an article by Max Wyman of the Vancouver Sun on October 26, 2000. I scoured the computers at Queens College (located in Flushing, NY) hoping to find a full text article on Lexis-Nexis but to no avail. I even visited the Vancouver Sun website and I was prepared to pay for a photocopy of the original article. It was not long before Quick Quote Quill (now Accio Quotes) of Harry Potter Lexicon, posted the article in its entirety in their archive. Here is the quote:

“Yes, I am,” she says. “Which seems to offend the religious right far worse than if I said I thought there was no God. Every time I've been asked if I believe in God, I've said yes, because I do, but no one ever really has gone any more deeply into it than that, and I have to say that does suit me, because if I talk too freely about that I think the intelligent reader, whether 10 or 60, will be able to guess what's coming in the books.”
Now JKR’s famous (at least to those who see Christian virtue in the novels) statement was in response to a simple question. “Is she a Christian?” She answered in the affirmative and took it a step further by saying that she has not elaborated on her faith because it will reveal key plotlines in the later novels. Richard Abanes totally disregarded this bit of evidence in his discussions with Travis Prinzi of Sword of Gryffindor by saying that JKR “has never defined God” and the “term Christian has been so overused that is some senses it has become almost meaningless without clarification”. Abanes wants a bonafide confession and that is simply not fair. Whenever someone asks me if I am a Christian, I simply answer yes and that would be the end of discussion. We are on a slippery slope if we require everyone who claims to be a Christian to prove they are Christians. We should take JKR at face value and simply believe her. Only God knows for sure and I might add, that goes for any Christian.

Numerous times we see articles that mention the fact that she is a member of the Church of Scotland and a Presbyterian to boot. In a Washington Post article (“Charmed, I’m Sure,” October 20, 1999), we learn that JKR belonged to a congregation at Edinburgh and even had her daughter, Jessica christened there. An elderly woman named Susan who attended the same church would watch Jessica while JKR worked on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. This is quite possibly the same Susan whom in Goblet of Fire, JKR devotes a portion of the book’s dedication to, “…and to Susan Sladden, who helped Harry get out of his cupboard”. In an earlier article Joanna Carey writes that during her interview with JKR, “she speaks of some of her beliefs and inspirations – including her involvement with the Church of Scotland… (“Who hasn’t met Harry?” Guardian Unlimited, February 16, 1999). Notice how the article does not elaborate further on these beliefs as if either the reporter did not deem them important for the subject matter of the article or maybe it was the wishes of a woman protecting her storyline.

Hesitation and carefully worded responses are the norm with JKR, especially in regards to her faith. Take for instance her interview with Lev Grossman. Grossman goes out of his way to present JKR as a rebel and one who is at odds with C.S. Lewis. This flies in the face of everything she said about Lewis before, namely that he is a genius and that she cannot stay in the same room with a Narnia book without reading it. But take a close look at what Grossman wrote in his article, “Interestingly, although Rowling is a member of the Church of Scotland, the books are free of references to God. On this point, Rowling is cagey. ‘Um. I don't think they're that secular,’ she says, choosing her words slowly. ‘But, obviously, Dumbledore is not Jesus’ (Time Magazine, July 17, 2005). Another example, and more compelling I might add, is her interview with Evan Solomon:
ES: When you talk about dealing with death and loss in the books, does this come out of your own - you've had loss with the loss of your mother - did it come out of a personal spirituality? I mean, are you are religious person? Does your spirituality come from a certain place?

JKR: I do believe in God. That seems to offend the South Carolinians more than almost anything else. I think they would find it…well that is my limited experience, that they have more of a problem with me believing in God than they would have if I was an unrepentant atheist.

ES: You do believe in God.

JKR: Yeah. Yeah.

ES: In magic and…

JKR: Magic in the sense in which it happens in my books, no, I don't believe. I don't believe in that. No. No. This is so frustrating. Again, there is so much I would like to say, and come back when I've written book seven. But then maybe you won't need to even say it 'cause you'll have found it out anyway. You'll have read it (CBCNewsWorld: Hot Type, July 13, 2000).
This above quote is in the same category as the famous Vancouver Sun quote. The context for JKR’s frustration is the “South Carolinians,” who were the first to protest the reading of Harry Potter in the school classrooms due to the supposed “violent and occult themes” in them (Farber, Celia. “Harry Potter's Toughest Foe,” Sunday Herald (Glasgow), October 17, 1999). This frustration is deeply rooted in being misunderstood and having to say time and time again that she does not believe in magic, real or imagined. Constantly JKR is being asked if she believes in God and to reiterate on her beliefs and this is unsettling to a person protecting her storyline while trying to defend them at the same time. JKR’s response is yes, I believe in God but wait till book seven to learn more. JKR is saying that she wants to say more after book seven comes out but then again maybe book seven will do the talking for her. Amazing, indeed. It is worth noting that when asked afterwards if she was a churchgoer, JKR replied nodding, “Mmm hmm. Well I go more than to weddings and christenings. Yes, I do”.

JKR spent much of her childhood living at Tutshill, a small village near Chepstow in the Gwent county of Wales, finding residence with her family in a church cottage near St. Luke’s Church and the Church of England Primary School of Tutshill. This does not prove that she is a Christian but it does show that she grew up around a Christian environment. I mentioned elsewhere that one of the sources of inspiration for the interesting names of her characters was from “medieval saints”. Mind you, these are Christian saints she is referring to. And her favorite painting? “Perhaps my favorite painting is Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus when Jesus reveals himself to the disciples having risen from the dead. I love it. Jesus looks very likeable – soft and rounded – and the painting captures the exact moment when the disciples realize who this man is, blessing their bread” (Lindsay Fraser, Conversations with J.K. Rowling, Scholastic, 2001, pg. 30-31). Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s painting is based on Luke 24.13-35 but more specifically verses 30 and 31, “When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight”.

This article sought to show through JKR’s statements that she is in fact a Christian. It is often the case that people question whether she is one and going so far as seeking bonafide creedal statements of beliefs and more from her. And this is simply not fair to JKR. The Scriptures tell us that we will know them by their fruits. Now what are JKR’s fruits? Well she has said many times that she is not a witch nor does she desire to be one. JKR has been blessed with riches through the sales of her novels and as a result she has donated great amounts of money supporting multiple sclerosis and cancer research, helping one parent families, and promoting children’s literature. She is very much philanthropic and is following the Christian principles of giving that Christ laid down for us. We will do well to reserve any judgment until the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows comes upon us. Perhaps the final novel will address and put to rest people’s fears of JKR’s use of magic in the novels and reveal her true intentions and beliefs; that of faith reflected in a Christian worldview.

8 comments:

Christina said...

Excellent article. I've spoken with so many people who are offended at the mere suggestion that the Harry Potter books contain Christian symbolism. A good book isn't spoiled if it alludes to religious beliefs that aren't identical to the readers'. I have a good friend who is an atheist who loves the Narnia series and takes little offense at the Christian undertones, and yet I meet Harry Potter fans who dislike the idea of there being Christian meaning in the series all the time. Ah, well. Again, great article, and I hope you continue to update! :)

tedsherman said...

Good summation of the facts. I've been teaching a course, titled "The Appeal of Harry Potter," in London every other year since 2003, and I've been saying since before then (teaching the books at my own university, Middle Tennessee State University) that these books are full not only of religioius symbolism, which they are, but also of belief. I've been telling my students that they (and all those who have been saying horrible things about Rowling and the influence her books have on children) are going to be very surprised, based on where I think she is going. Her Christianity gets more and more palpable in each novel. "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" is really going to surprise people, and not in the way that Sirius's and Dumbledore's deaths did.

Richard Corfield said...

I wonder how the belief comes in for a Christian? I tried to work it out looking at Book 7, but in the end found more for Buddhists than Christians in my reading.

OK the world model in the books has the concept of soul - I don't think I'm giving away spoilers here as the idea of a Horcrux is defined in the earlier books. Any clues to what happens after death although discussed seem to be usable by people of various religion. If you're an atheist you can just take it as part of the book's world along with the magic.

Maybe what you find in there in terms of religion depends on what religion you are. There's strong morality in the books and all the religions relate to this. I think they all aim to solve similar problems and come up with similar solutions. If you're a Christian you'll find Christian themes. If you're a Buddhist then you'll find plenty of ideas you're familliar with too.

POA said...

"Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

One of the best quotations in the Bible. :)

Anonymous said...

I love it! I love the series and to find out that the author is a christian herself! Amazing.

msberry75 said...

I as my honest opinion don't think that she is a christian cause why would u write books about magic and wizards and other "demonic" ungodly things! attracting little kids and ppl to read these books when they r pobley christians thinkin that it's okay to practice magic! and be wizards when it's not okay! sooooo....yeahh

Maxis said...

this is gr8! im so happy to find tht rowling is indeed a christian! my mentors thot she wasnt and told me i mite hav to abandon hp if i were to fully exp christ, but i c tht tht isnt so. thnx a thousand!

Doreen Attuah said...

Lies. Open your eyes. There is nothing Christian about harry potter. Just because someone claims to be a christian doesn't mean that they truly are. If she truly was a christian don't you think she would write to glorify the Lord? And teach Christian values? All she is doing Is romanticising and promoting witchcraft and magic.