For a decade now, we have read as a family J.K. Rowling’s magical Harry Potter books aloud to one another in beds and cars and cottages. A bookstore friend mailed us the first, which caught and held with our two girls. Except for the last, which she never saw or heard, the subsequent volumes served for us as a therapeutic backstory to my wife’s struggle with cancer. Here was a lively gift of diversion and delight that we increasingly read as rich in themes both biblical and Christian. It was as if the Oxford Inklings (C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, and Charles Williams, among others) had hoisted a pint and admitted a new voice to the table.
That itself was an irony beside the early uproar in certain evangelical communities against what was taken to be the books’ witchcraft-laden, dark, and cultic assaults on the faith. Night-fears that the kids in backyard play would lay down their guns and take up wands.
Last summer’s release of the final film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, and the expected Christmas release of the DVD boxed set, brings down the curtain on this 10-year pop culture love affair with Harry and Hogwarts. Now it seems the burgeoning industry of theological commentary upon it will only grow.
In times such as these, with crises rife and death on the planetary prowl, one pauses deep before spending comment on popular culture. Unless they are all connected.
By my lights, in the final film, J.K. Rowling gave away the gospel store. I say this presuming Rowling had the ability to hold its center through the twisted turns of assorted screenwriters and directors, not to mention commercial powers. (Who knows? I may be wrong there.) But here’s what I mean. In the final volume, of both book and film, after a long wilderness testing (with a portable tent and a light, no less), the more messianic themes come to a head.
As an infant Harry survived Voldemort’s herodian attack to become “the chosen one.” On Christmas Eve, Harry and Hermione visit the site of that attack and his parents’ graves, which are marked with a passage (unidentified) from 1 Corinthians 15:26 (KJV): “The last enemy to be destroyed shall be death.”
When the climax of series and story nears (spoiler alert), when Harry moves inexorably to his face-off with Voldemort, he meets the Dark Lord with a gracious freedom to die. And die he does, for the sake of his friends, for the sake of the struggle, because he is called to.
And yet. Passing through a conversation with his mentor in the shadowless white light of King’s Cross railway station, Harry rises to another encounter.
Here’s the main point. In the books, Harry never kills anyone. He scatters dementors with his patronus charm; he stuns opponents; he walks into danger with deceptive incognitos. Once he wounds his student nemesis, and once in anger he causes torturous pain. But Harry never kills. In fact, he is so quick to use the disarming jinx “Expelliarmus” that it becomes his signature spell.
In the final moment, on which everything turns, Voldemort shrieks the death curse “Avada Kedavra,” and Harry “yells to high heaven” his disarming charm, which brings the Dark Lord’s wand tumbling through the air toward Harry.
Or so it goes in the book.
In Deathly Hallows: Part 2, the film, it appears that Voldemort does not die by his own rebounding curse. The film’s final battle scene is greatly extended. Voldemort’s immortal power is lost when his last revivification talisman—the snake Nagini—is destroyed. Harry sees his adversary fall, vulnerable, and readies his next spell. Silently, Voldemort casts one more curse at Harry—the deadly green sparks flow—and without a word, Harry counters. The two spells collide, but this time Harry forces the Dark Lord’s curse back until the death-telling green seeps through the wand and engulfs Voldemort. He shatters apart.
The sparks may differ, red and green; the wand may fly through the air, but deep difference has been silenced: Neither wizard utters aloud curse nor spell. We have no “Avada Kedavra” vs. “Expelliarmus.” It is not the curse of death vs. the nonviolent disarming of the opponent (in the book with a humanizing invite to remorse, repentance, and transformation). It is just plain Might and Right become one. Voldemort dies at the hand of a stronger wizard with a more powerful claim on the wand. Which is to say, finally Harry kills. The real victory of death.
I DO UNDERSTAND what it takes to turn a gorgeously written 700-page novel into a screenplay, even two. I am not among those who lament long over treasured characters or dialogue lost to a tighter narrative path. Granted, I didn’t understand why the final movie scene wasn’t in the Great Hall with the truth-unveiling conversation, but let the expository details go. Nor may I like it in the least, but I even understand why they are building theme-park rides into the plot and multiplying the pyrotechnics for the 3-D crowd.
But when it comes to the genuine crux, as it were, the heart, the center, I counted on Rowling to fight for the life of this thing. “Live like Harry!” I say. Stand the ground.
At the turn of the millennium, Walter Wink wrote about the myth of redemptive violence. “In short,” wrote Wink, “the Myth of Redemptive Violence is the story of the victory of order over chaos by means of violence. It is the ideology of conquest, the original religion of the status quo. The gods favor those who conquer. Conversely, whoever conquers must have the favor of the gods. The common people exist to perpetuate the advantage that the gods have conferred upon the king, the aristocracy, and the priesthood.”
This is the myth built into the narrative structure of popular imperial culture, the repetitive story that “might makes right,” that violence creates and redeems and justifies. It is the order of the day among the crises that prowl our planet. It is the main Hollywood script. The military press release. The corporate commercial. The story we are all impressed into serving and buying and living. It is the plotting that bought or bullied its way into the final installment of the Harry Potter films. It is also the gospel story hijacked and inverted.
This is a constant of the domination system, including its Hollywood minions. I remember my similar dismay more than a decade ago when The Matrix brilliantly transposed the Jesus story, politics and all, only to have it turned on its head (with death and resurrection still to come), pivoting on one decisive line from Neo: “Guns. Lots of guns.” And the killing began.
IN DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 2, can so small an omission in the Harry vs. Voldemort face-off bear such pivotal weight?
In some ways that’s the very point. In a subsequent closing cinematic scene, Harry considers his rightful claim on that Elder Wand—the most powerful wand in his world. It is like one of the three great temptations of Christ—and Harry resists. He breaks it and throws its parts into the abyss. Good that. But one can’t help thinking the wand is destroyed, but the myth of redemptive violence survives. Even prevails, aided and abetted.
It is this myth’s survival that undergirds forward bases and targeted drones, the endless trillion-dollar wars, oil spills and “fracking,” budget stand-offs, mass incarcerations, and more. Popular culture will not merely divert, but back it all up.
Perhaps I’m unfair to Rowling. Perhaps her authorial role to stand against the powers and hold the story’s heart was long since spent. But if she has any remorse, I hope she will declare it. We need a different ending than the one now playing out in the theaters of history. We need the one in The Book.
Bill Wylie-Kellermann is a United Methodist pastor who serves St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Detroit, Michigan.