If I were to tell you about a hero who embraced outsiders, was marked as special from birth, died to save the ones he loved and returned from death to give hope to others...who would you picture?
As Christians we picture Jesus, but the above description also applies to a fictional character - Harry Potter. That the 'boy who lived' holds common ground with the Messiah may shock you, but it's unsurprising when you consider that JK Rowling wrote her bestselling books from a faith perspective. The author was baptised, and is the only member of her family to regularly attend church services.
As a Potter fan with a Christian faith I have always found the morality and goodness embodied by the characters hugely comforting and faith affirming, so when I was asked to investigate the podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text I was suitably excited.
And then I was worried.
What if the show used the literature I love to mock the Bible and Christian belief?
The podcast’s hosts are both graduates of Harvard’s Divinity School. Vanessa Zoltan is a humanist chaplain at Harvard, and Casper ter Kuile is training to be a minister for the non-religious. Each week Vanessa and Casper read and discuss a new chapter of the series. They explain, "We will read Harry Potter, not just as novels, but as instructive and inspirational texts that will teach us about our own lives...We explore a central theme through which to explore the characters and context, always grounding ourselves in the text. We’ll engage in traditional forms of sacred reading to unearth the hidden gifts within even the most mundane sentences”.
The text in and of itself is not sacred, but is made so through our rigorous engagement
The programme seems to have been a hit, rating highly in the iTunes Religion & Spirituality podcast charts since it began. The themes explored in the series are ones which will resonate with all readers, religious or not: loneliness is engaged with through Harry’s desolate early years with the Dursleys, and fear through the bullying figure of Draco Malfoy.
At first the show seemed merely a critical reading of a moral text. Were the presenters reading ideas into Rowling's books that were not within the Hogwarts walls? Perhaps, but books have always been analysed at levels that authors may not have originally intended, so this is hardly unusual.
Yet the duo go further, using sacred practices such as Lectio Divina (Latin for 'divine reading') to explore each chapter of Harry’s adventure: "By reading the text slowly, repeatedly and with concentrated attention, our effort becomes a key part of what makes the book sacred. The text in and of itself is not sacred, but is made so through our rigorous engagement."
This is where my concerns grew. To believe that a text can be regarded as 'sacred' based purely on the method of reading it seems a hollow and highly subjective approach. I don't believe the Bible is sacred because I treat it so, but because it is inspired by God.
I plugged in my headphones and, after my initial excitement at hearing my favourite character’s names discussed in a scholarly fashion, my concerns appeared at first to be well founded. Their spin on the practice of Lectio Divina seemed wildly misapproriated. Choosing passages at random they meditated on what meanings they held for the reader narratively, allegorically, and in relation to our own lives.
The ethics of flattery is discussed in depth on the basis of a throwaway line in chapter one. The significance of the number 36 in chapter two is investigated. I felt as though invisible agendas were being forced upon the tale.
Then something strange happened. In episode nine their sacred reading practice was changed to 'Ignatian spirituality', where readers imagine themselves in the scene and try to fully experience the text, to see what can be learned from it.
I got goosebumps. Their exploration of the physicality of fear was a powerful meditation, one I found myself mulling over days later. Why did this spiritual reading resonate with me when the first did not? I’m still unsure, but it did change my feelings about the podcast. Maybe some spiritual practices work better than others to explore the ideas in these tales?
Their exploration of the physicality of fear was a powerful meditation, one I found myself mulling over days later
Many Christians take time to meditate on passages from the Bible in a regular "quiet time" that they find important for their spiritual walk. Can the same be done with Harry Potter? On one level yes, since God is perfectly able to speak to and inspire us through all kinds of literature. But there is also a risk of idolising fiction, and using it in ways it was never intended.
While not all of their adaptations of religious reading are effective, the creators are careful not to use their Harry Potter podcast to bash other religious texts, such as the Bible. And it may even be that atheist ands sceptics who listen may learn something about why the Bible is so important to Christians who find spiritual sustenance within its pages.
Rowling’s work has some strong Christian overtones, from the gravestone of Harry's parents which reads "The last enemy that will be destroyed is death" (1 Cor 15:26) to its support of faith and belief in that which we cannot see, as illustrated through Dumbledore’s reassurance to Harry: "Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?"
I was left feeling that a deeper analysis of such a text through a critical or even 'sacred' reading isn't something to be worried about, but could even be something God uses in an unlikely way to be a power for good in the lives of Potter fans like me.
Hannah Cooper is an entertainment journalist
Photo credit to http://biblicalpaths.files.wordpress.com/2009/09/harry.jpg