What Would Jonathan Edwards Say About Harry Potter?
[WARNING: SOME PLOT SPOILERS.]
So there we have it. The most engrossing imaginative world created at the start of the 21st century is essentially pagan. Don't get me wrongI like the Harry Potter series. I've read all of the books. And I'm sure Jonathan Edwards would have done so, too.
Edwards was acutely aware of the cultural movements of his time. He said in "Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival" that he made it his practice to take light from wherever it came. Of course, reading John Locke and the like is not quite like reading books designed (originally) for children.
It's hard to imagine that Edwards would have remained ignorant about what has become such a powerful phenomenon of our time. He immersed himself in the cutting-edge Enlightenment thinking of his age, and his book list and letters reveal a breadth of reading anything but narrow. No doubt Edwards would have mined the Harry Potter series for insights into the predominant spiritual atmosphere in which we live.
Edwards neither ignored nor capitulated to the Enlightenment's materialistic/mechanistic view of life and the universe. Instead he "re-formed" the Enlightenment on specifically biblical terms and constructed intellectual bridges to cultural attitudes, along which the orthodox gospel could more readily transverse.
Or you could imagine his engagement with Enlightenment thinking as sending Trojan horses full of gospel truths into contemporary minds. He carefully used "sense," "idea" and "light"Enlightenment buzzwordsin sermons and his more erudite works, and he invested those terms with biblical material and content.
The latest and last of Rowling's Potter series (though she leaves it tantalizingly open to sequels, despite her reported refusal to contemplate future workperhaps not Potter, but maybe a return to Hogwarts?) is all about death. In case the title didn't make that clear ("the Deathly Hallows"), the frontispiece has two quotations referring to death. There is a sense in which the whole seven-volume series has been about death.
Even Dumbledore (beware: spoiler) seems to have tinkered with the less-than-salutary sides of this fascination. Also, there's Voldemort, with his evil determination to avoid death at the cost of others' lives, and Harry, dear Harry, who with his purity and bravery manages to cheat death again and again, even finding himself at one point in a sort of cosmic waiting room with the dead Dumbledore.
What does this tell us, Edwards would have wondered. He would have discovered that we live in an age that is fascinated by the transcendentand the paranormalbut that, while intrigued, is totally confused about that realm.
Edwards would have seen that the essential question of spiritualityWhat happens when I die?is a great vacuum that culture is looking to fill. The series also tells usand this no less importantthat if Rowling's world is expertly reflecting the light our world can shed on these matters, true understanding is at a pretty low level.
That doesn't mean I shouldn't read it. Nor does it mean that Edwards would disapprove of us learning from it (light from wherever it comes), but (borrowing from more recent intellectual heroes like Lewis or Tolkien) it does mean that if the world's imagination is captured by Potter-esque versions of the afterlife and the transcendenta less-than-Christian way of looking at the worldwe have work to do. The imagination is a hairbreadth away from the soul.
I believe Edwards would also look from Potter to us and say, "Who's going to tell a more compelling story that sheds true gospel light on the transcendent?"
Josh Moody (PhD, Cambridge University) is senior pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Newhaven, CT, associate fellow of Jonathan Edwards College, Yale University, and the author of The God-Centered Life: Insights from Jonathan Edwards for Today.
Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is available from Amazon.com and other retailers.
For more articles on previous Harry Potter books and movies, see our full coverage area.
Christian History and Biography has an issue on Jonathan Edwards.