o the, maybe, 347 people on this earth who don’t know the difference between Harry Potter and Harry Truman, the publication this summer of the last of author J. K. Rowling’s seven books about the young wizard will go by with little notice. For, apparently, everyone else, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, will mark the end of an epoch.
Notwithstanding the centrality of dangerous occult themes,the power of this phenomenon can be described only in astronomical numbers: thus far more than 325 million copies of the first six books worldwide; the first printing in the U.S. alone for Deathly Hallows, 12 million. After grossing more than US$3 billion worldwide, the first four film adaptations of Rowling’s books is followed up with the release on July 11 of the fifth: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. More than a handful of the faithful are expected to show up for the premiere.
Sales of the soundtracks exceed 1 million copies, and Harry Potter is central to a video game and the 2010 opening of a theme park in (where else?) Orlando, Florida.
When Rowling submitted to publishers what would turn out to be the first Harry Potter manuscript, a tale of sorcerers and witches and spells and magic,she’d intended it as a book for children. After several rejections elsewhere, in 1996 she received an advance of $4,000 from Bloomsbury Press and the cautious counsel that she should not quit her day job. But soon after Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone hit the book stores in 1997 (re-titled Sorcerer’s Stone for U.S. readers), it became evident that this was something that had broad appeal—to adults as well as children. At one point, the first three Potter books swept the top positions on the New York Times’ bestseller list.
This kind of worldwide popularity catches everyone’s attention. What is it about the sinister and spiritualistic world of Harry Potter—and, for that matter, other works of science fiction and fantasy like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings—that so captures the imagination of countless millions? Are these phenomena nothing more than the “cunningly devised fables” that Peter wrote about in his second epistle? (1:16, KJV).
In commenting on so-called “cultural phenomena,” critic Neal Gabler observes: “When something has staying power, it’s because it strikes some kind of fundamental chord.”1
Actually it probably strikes more than one fundamental chord. What does the staying power of Harry Potter tell us about ourselves?
First, the series is, by all accounts, a compelling story, and we, as human beings, are drawn in some elemental way to narrative. This is borne out in Scripture as well.
Nathan, one of God’s Old Testament prophets, blew King David out of the water with what could be characterized as nothing less than a cunningly devised fable: “ ‘There were two men in one city; the one rich, and the other poor . . .’ ” (2 Sam. 12:1, KJV).
And Jesus knew enough of human nature to couch much of His teaching in the form of story:
“ ‘A certain man had two sons . . .’ ”
“ ‘There was a certain rich man who had a steward . . .’ ”
“ ‘A certain man gave a great supper . . .’ ”
Yet, as organic as narrative is to Scripture, too many of us Christians have lost our sense of story in our obsession with facts and rules and lists. We feel that we must explain everything, “to capture the whole truth of a thing, rationally and scientifically.”2 We have intentionally discarded our sense of mystery. It’s as if we believe in salvation by information.
“Narrative is necessary for Christians. . . . We do not profess to be saved by cycles of nature or by a timeless ideal or abstract principle.”3
Even so, in the natural human hunger for narrative, consumers of popular culture are drawn at times to stories that can be dangerous or destructive just as surely as they sometimes seek to satisfy physical hunger with foods that are harmful to health and wellbeing. Many of the principles of media consumption are much the same as those of food consumption.
A second reason for the popularity of the Harry Potter series is that, because of its emphasis on the trappings of the spiritual world, many seem to have found it to fulfill an essential human need for myth.
A quick definition would probably be in order here. “myth: (noun) traditional story concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social phenomenon, typically involving the supernatural.”4 As a literary type, myth seeks to answer some of the searching questions that occur to the human mind: Who am I? Where have I come from? Where am I going? The fascination with the supernatural in popular culture today suggests that readers and viewers are reacting to the systematic way in which Western culture has sought to dispel myth as mere superstition.
In many respects, then, Christians today have more in common with those in our culture who believe in the supernatural than with those who don’t. “We wrestle not against flesh and blood;” writes the apostle Paul, “but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness” (Eph. 6:12, KJV).
Whether or not Christians engage in the Harry Potter phenomenon that pervades our culture of the moment, the two worldviews have more in common in mythic qualities than it may at first appear.
1http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20070630/ap_on_en_ot/potter_the_phenomenon_1;_ylt=Arfaia3JoItiq3wfef0ssgcE1vAI>, accessed June 30, 2007.
2Matthew Dickerson and David O’Hara, From Homer to Harry Potter (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2006), p. 23.
3Rodney Clapp, Border Crossings: Christian Trespasses on Popular Culture and Public Affairs (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2000), pp. 38, 39, emphasis supplied.