A handful of books about Harry Potter: finding the gospel in Harry Potter

Someone perhaps unaware of the ongoing conversation said tentatively to a friend recently that it seems like there are some Christian symbols and Biblical allusions in Harry Potter.  Could that be, she wondered.  It’s a good insight and she may be surprised to know that there is a virtual cottage industry of recent writing, reflecting on the deeper meaning of the wonderfully-crafted fantasy books.  As our own local newspaper’s religion writer observed, not too many years ago conservative Christians accused Rowling of witchcraft and Satanism, but that is changing.  (We lost more than one customer and even a friend a decade ago over our display of that first HP.)  Oh, how times have changed. And as an impressive Christianity Today piece argued, Harry Potter is here to stay.  It gives this old bookseller a bit of hope.

And so, I’ll skip the movie tonight and write about the books about the books instead.  That’s my thing, you know, telling you about books.  What fun!  Buy ’em here if you want, and if you even think about going you-know-where to buy instead, I’ll have Draco Malfoy stupefy you. And, of course, if you don’t have the actual HP books, and your library is out of them, we’ve got the whole set.

br_gospelhp.jpgThe Gospel According to Harry Potter: The Spiritual Journey of the World’s Greatest Seeker Revised and Expanded Connie Neal (WJK) $14.95  I mentioned this one first because Ms Neal was the first to suggest, after the first Potter book caught on, in a book published by a theologically conservative house, that maybe, just maybe, evangelical parents should read these books with some discernment so they could converse with their neighbors about it all.  Not a bad Acts 17/Mars Hill sort of strategy, but she paid for it.  Mrs. Neal even told the story of how some neighborhood kids who were all reading Potter then agreed to join her to read Narnia.  I guess the point in that early brave book was that this stuff isn’t that bad, but Lewis was better.  Later, on a different, more open-minded Christian publisher, she happily explored the Christian themes that are within the Potter series, and she wrote with great confidence, clarity and joy, giving us one of the best books about the Potter series.  This newer, expanded version of that second book includes an examination of all 7 of Harry’s exploits. It is a fabulous resource, a fun book to read, and highly recommended. Ms Neal has another book, by the way, called Wizards, Wardrobes, and Wookiees: Navigating Good and Evil in Harry Potter, Narnia, and Star Wars (IVP; $15.00) which, as the title suggests, looks at these ubiquitous themes in these three classic epic sagas.

9780312308698.gifGod the Devil, and Harry Potter: A Christian Minister’s Defense of the Beloved Novels John Killinger (St. Martin’s Griffin) $12.95  Dr. Killinger is a good writer, a thoughtful theologian and literary scholar, and has been on a kick recently to expose the dangers of fundamentalism.  He wrote a memoir called The Other Preacher From Lynchburg: My Life Across Town from Jerry Falwell we he contrasts his work at the liberal Congregational church with the more famous ministry in Lynchburg.  So this is not only a delightfully playful appreciation of the Potter cycle of tales, which it really is, but it is also a bit of a smack-down to those that think these books are wicked.  He makes a good case that these stories don’t corrupt children, but can influence them towards being followers of Jesus.  

full_17494.jpgOne Fine Potion: The Literary Magic of Harry Potter Greg Garrett (Baylor University Press) $19.95  This is an astute study of the literary influences upon which Rowling draws, some good insight about the stories themselves, and a clear example of uniquely Christian literary criticism. He has a section showing, for instance, how the Three Unforgivable Curses are like Tolkien’s Machine.  Greg  Garret is a great writer, and has himself penned a novel, a memoir, a book of insightful film criticism called The Gospel According to Hollywood, and a really great one called Holy Superheroes that is a must-read for fans of that genre. He says (and he is not alone) that reading Harry Potter made him “want to be a better person.”  Garrett is from Austin so some of the book was written in the Hill Country, but he notes that much of it was written in England at the Canterbury Cathedral.  Pretty sharp!

14660224.JPGLooking for God in Harry Potter (updated, second edition)  John Granger (Saltriver) $12.99 This came out in 2004 so it doesn’t explore the final parts of the saga.  But you should know that this author may be the most significant Potter expert on this side of the Hogwarts School.  He happens to have a beard down to his knees–or he used to, almost—and is active as a leader in the Orthodox faith.  So he’s kinda weird himself, if I do say so.  And he is–no doubt about it–a genius, a Biblically-literate genius, and a very  helpful writer.  He has a batch of books on this subject and this is the standard intro.  I recommend it.   Granger does, by the way, wisely address the questions about new age mysticism and the dangers of the occult.  Like most of the faith-based, pro-Potter authors, he agrees with the breath-taking statement of C.S. Lewis: “You and I have need of the strongest spells that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness”  Granger helps us see that Potter may just be that kind of a spell to awaken us from our naturalistic enchantment.

br_unlockinghp.jpgUnlocking Harry Potter: Five Keys for the Serious Reader  John Granger (Zossima Press) $19.99  If you are a fan of the books or even the movies, this will keep you absorbed, wanting to read it over and over. He uses his “considerable talents and reservoir of language and literary expertise” (as one reviewer wrote) to helps us understand and appreciate the layers of the stories.  Serious fans will love it as it delves pretty deeply, offering very important observations out of his coherent vision of what the stories are all about.

Harry Potter’s Bookshelf: The Great Books Behind the Hogwart’s Adventures  John Granger (Berkley) $15.00
  I told you this Orthodox psalte (ordained reader) was obsessed with all things Potter.  He is a great literary critic and researcher and a passionate teacher so it is only natural he wants to share his findings.  Why do these HP books so appeal to so many people, of all ages? Granger things there are universal themes that are presented, ideas portrayed in the greatest of Western literature.  Did J, K. Rowling knowingly weave pieces of Jane Austen’s Emma or Charles Dickens approach to class struggle or insights from the gothic romances like Dracula and Frankenstein?  Can you pick up the influence of Dorothy Sayers, Tolkien, and, yes, C. S Lewis?  This pop culture phenomenon just may have a very surprising and rich pedigree, grounded in more fine literature than you ever knew.  Even if Granger is reading into things a bit much (which I doubt) there is no doubt he makes a very, very good case, book by book by book.  Tolle legge!

Harry Potter and History  edited by Nancy Reagin (Wiley) $17.95  You probably have heard of the large series that combine pop culture studies with philosophy (and, yes, there is a Harry Potter and Philosophy.)  Here we have a similar volume, with world-class historians and history professors weighing in on questions like “How do the Malfoys compare to Muggle English Aristocrats?  Were Voldermort and the Death Eaters similar to the Nazis? (See the chapter: “Death Eater Ideology and National Socialism”)  Who was the real Nicholas Flamel? There are chapters like “Beastly Books and Quick-Quills: Harry Potter and the Making of Medieval Manuscripts” and “Why State Secrecy? Real Historical Oppression of Witches and Wizards.” There is one serious piece on the Spanish Inquisition, another on British boarding schools.   Know any eccentric history scholars who are real Potter fans?  This might be a surprising gift.

From Homer to Harry Potter: A Handbook on Myth and Fantasy 
Matthew Dickerson &from-homer-harry-potter-david-ohara-paperback-cover-art.jpg David O’Hara (Brazos) $24.00  I’ve long suggested this important and delightful book for lit majors or anyone seriously interested in fantasy.  From Arthurian legends to “Faerie” stories, from Greek mythology up to HP, this covers wisely a great amount of ground.  The fascinating Catholic philosoper Peter Kreeft says of it, “What adjectives describe this book?  Sound? Wise? Intelligent? Trust-worthy? Nuanced? Accurate? Enlightening? Genuinely Christian? All of the above.”

And, for those who want to complete their collection of weird Potter-esque texts, check out these two rare finds.

Who Killed Albus Dumbledore?  What Really Happened to Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince  edited by John Granger (Zossima Press) $14.99  This may by now be considered outdated, if you’ve read the final volume, but what a great, great bit of speculative literary sleuthing it was.  Six expert Harry Potter detectives examined the evidence.  Very close readings from the best fans in the world.

Harry Potter and the Bible: Harmless Fantasy or Dangerous Fascination?  Richard Abanes (Christian Publications) $11.99  This was the guy who taught about “the menace behind the magick” and has other books insisting that most fantasy literature is demonic.  As you might guess, we think this is pretty goofy, but yet,  two very well respected evangelical thinkers who professionally study the occult gave it an endorsement; that just baffled me, and I still think it’s pretty silly in its basic assumptions. It does make some nifty points about real wizard practices, which I guess we should know about.  We’ve got one here if you want to read it for yourself.

Here are just a few other random titles that caught my eye here in that section of the shop.

The-Narnia-Code.jpgThe Narnia Code: C.S. Lewis and the Secret of the Seven Heavens Michael Ward (Saltriver) $13.99  I noted this a half a year ago when one of our monthly reviews about C.S. Lewis resources.  This is a popularly-written, abridged version of the remarkable Oxford University Press volume by Ward, Planet Narnia.  The Times Literary Supplement says that Ward “has established himself not only as the foremost living Lewis scholar but also as a brilliant writer.”  How ’bout that?  This unlocks a secret about The Chronicles of Narnia that has mystified readers for over half a century… This is the sort of thing Granger might do with Harry Potter; what fun, what insight, how interesting!

Dark Matter: Shedding Light on Philip Pullman’s Trilogy His Dark Materials   Tony Watkins (IVP) $15.00  If Christian readers want to get in a snit about something, I’d suggest skipping the Potter pseudo-controversy and consider the wonderfully-written and extraordinary works of Philip Pullman, a child’s fantasy writer who has bluntly said “My books are about killing God.”  He “hates” Narnia, and hates the Christian God.  (And yet, son of Adam that he is, he bears the image of the God he hates, so he is able to produce great writing and compelling stories with beautiful lines.)  This is a balanced, thoughtful, and careful study of Pullman’s religious and scientific underpinnings.

20110519__20110522_E08_BK22SHELVES~p1_200.JPGTwenty-Five Books That Shaped America: How White Whales, Green Lights, and Restless Spirits Forged Our National Identity Thomas Foster (Harper) $14.99  I’ve raved about this author before and so enjoyed his How To Read Novels Like a Professor.)  This book is, like his others, fun and insightful, nicely written and very stimulating.  One reviewer says it will make you “think again about what it means to be an American.”  And, it makes me think of the power of books, the influential formative power of the printed page.  Those who fear that children reading about young Harry and Hermione will be drawn to the occult seem a bit silly to me, but this does show us how books do leave their mark, on the ethos of a culture as much as upon the individual soul of a reader.  I wonder why conservative critics don’t worry much about the worldview of Moby Dick or the influence of The Last of the Mohicans or Gatsby, for that matter?  Well, here, the witty Dr. Foster walks us through not only 25 classic books, but ponders their influence on the shaping of our culture.  Very interesting and, I’d think, pretty important for any of us who want to be critically engaged with the spirit of the times.  (By the way, I’ll come clean—I don’t doubt the good professor’s word on this, but there are, uh, more than one of these 25 that I’ve never even heard of.  I’m embarrassed.)  His final chapter is a short one where he says, “I have insisted from the start that this is not a list of the twenty-five books that will tell you the whole story. Decency commands tha
t I offer a few of the overlooked items.  Feel free to add or substitute a thousand others.”  And then he has a few insights about the elusive quest for the Great American Novel.  Too bad Harry Potter was written in England.

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3 thoughts on “A handful of books about Harry Potter: finding the gospel in Harry Potter

  1. Glad to see Matt’s book on your list – he was our ivcf faculty advisor at Middlebury!

  2. Thank you for the kind comments about several of my Harry Potter books as well as those about me!
    Three comments and corrections:
    (1) ‘Looking for God in Harry Potter’ was re-written, updated, re-titled, and re-published as ‘How Harry Cast His Spell’ in 2008. It includes Deathly Hallows updates. ‘Looking’ is out of print.
    (2) Zossima Press has published my magnum opus on the series finale, ‘The Deathly Hallows Lectures,’ with discussion of the literary alchemy, Florence influences (especially Snape’s death as a big hat-tip to Dante), and the predominant eye imagery in the book about ‘transformed vision.’
    (3) I’m an ordained Reader (psalte) not a lay reader, my seven children and wife of twenty-five years assure me I am not a monk, and I am currently sans whiskers. Other than that, though, your description was spot on!
    Thank you again for the kind reviews.

  3. John, Thanks for your kindness, your helpful corrections. I will promptly adjust this review, at least to indicate you aren’t really a monk. We’ve ordered your new book on Twilight, too, by the way….very thoughtful work. Your comment here means a lot to us. Thank much.

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