What Hogwarts Can Teach Us About Friendship

Why were the Harry Potter stories so wildly successful? What was it about them, as opposed to hundreds of other “young adult” novels, that embossed onto the consciousness of a generation? Why are we celebrating the 20th anniversary of their US publication with the same kind of enthusiasm as if the books were published last Christmas?

Here’s one theory. The Harry Potter books have become cultural touchstones because they are not really about magic, or heroes, or even good vs evil. They are really about friendship.

Friendship is the rosebud of American culture. Its the thing universally acknowledged as necessary and good, and the one thing that every mechanism of our daily life in a flat, atomized society violently resists. Particularly for readers of Harry Potter who were the first to grow up in a culture shaped by the internet and social media, the friendships depicted in the novels seem almost like a shameless daydream. Hogwarts is the epicenter for a kind of intimacy and interdependence that, for many of us, exists only in such fairy tales. Friendship–the kind that ties together Harry, Ron, and Hermione– is rare.

Not long ago someone asked me if I could recall the happiest period of my adolescence. I didn’t have to think long. The ages and the years are fuzzy (I was homeschooled, so all grades run together in my memory), but I could instantly remember a season of life where I was surrounded by friends from church. Though I couldn’t tell you what kind of Bible teaching impacted me then, nor most of the books that I loved, I could readily paint a mental picture of what it felt like to be tied into a group of others who cared about and looked out for me. It was a season that the college years destroyed, since most of the kids in the youth group went to different schools, and a large number used the opportunity to drop out of church altogether. When the rhythm of student ministry life was gone, so were the friendships. And the same is true for most of us, whether the rhythm is from church, or school, or neighborhood. Mobility cuts through friendship like a scythe.

Except at Hogwarts. In the Harry Potter universe, there’s no choice necessary between friends and “the next step.” In fact, as the mythology of the tale unfolds, it becomes clear that the friendships are part of the triumph of the good. The final victory over evil demands love seasoned through the years. Every time that Harry tries to accomplish by his own strength, even if his motivations are noble (like keeping his friends out of harm’s way), Ron, Hermione, and others intercede on his behalf.

This is the kind of spiritual friendship that cannot be adequately described in a context that sees shared hobbies or mutual ambitions as the extent of belonging. It’s a spiritual neighborliness that is hard to find in many churches, as ruthless age-segregation and perfunctory programming bring people together just long enough to send them away again. This liturgy of loneliness is one well-learned by many adults, especially men. In J.K. Rowling’s universe we get a vivid depiction of male friendship and compassion, as a stark contrast to our own disenchanted time, when many young men are isolated and many older men are pathologically lonely.

The Potter novels charm so many because they are an unembarrassed confession that friends matter, and that despite the best efforts of technology and consumerism, we human beings simply cannot get over the fact. That is perhaps one reason why an aggressively self-determining, self-authenticating Western audience somehow feels at home in a fantasy that clearly hearkens to a more standardized, more ritualistic experience of life. Our time has moved past antiquarian boarding schools or formalistic liturgies, but you wouldn’t guess it by looking at the bestselling novels of the modern age.

All to often, Christian voices do not challenge the relational damage of modernity. How many evangelical parents are willing for their children to explore alternatives to a far-away university? And how many youth ministries set up programming and structure that incubates young adults from the rest of the church, reinforcing the idea that the goal of life (even the goal of faith!) is to assimilate as long as possible into your assigned demographic? It’s ironic that many evangelicals were more worried about readers of Harry Potter becoming wizards and witches than they were about their becoming atomized, self-reinventing American dreamers, anxious for Rob Bell to teach them what it means to be spiritual.

If Christian communities cannot offer friendship, what can they offer? Part of believing the gospel at all is believing that it wasn’t given to individuals, but to a church. There’s much conversation right now about recovering a biblical ideal of church membership. Good! But a body part that never responds to the other body parts is probably dead, even if it’s still attached. Friendships weren’t created by God to disappear as quickly as they tend to. Covenant membership means friendship if it means anything.

Perhaps the best thing evangelicals could do to learn this is to put down the church growth manuals and the target demographic research, and read some Harry Potter.

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Why Do Liberals Love Harry Potter?

My favorite read of the day is this article on understanding why progressives, especially millennials in the Obama to post-Obama era, are so in love with using the Harry Potter stories as metaphors for America’s current cultural moment. The author has an interesting theory, one that I (mostly) agree with: American liberals love Harry Potter because of Hogwarts. To be specific, they love the idea that schools are reliable bastions of legitimate authority.

Excerpt:

High school movies of the 80s were obsessed with the illegitimacy of schools’ authority; Matthew Broderick hacks into his high school’s computer in both Ferris Bueller and Wargames, to make a mockery of the so-called permanent record, and John Hughes’s movies in general are always focused on the improvisatory genius of children and adolescents and the dull brutish obsessions of school personnel…

This is a remarkable contrast with the Harry Potter films, which (partly due to the superfluity of British acting talent available to the various directors) often make Dumbledore and the various Hogwarts teachers far grander and more impressive than the teenage protagonists…

From an outside perspective, Harry Potter is a funny fantasy for liberals to cohere around. Going off to centuries-old boarding school where your mum and dad were Head Boy and Head Girl, where tolerance and broadmindedness consists of admitting that  lower-class Muggles can occasionally have the same genetically-mediated gifts as the gentry, where the greatest possible action for a woman is to let herself be slain so her son can grow up to revenge himself on her killer…all sounds more reactionary than progressive. But if contemporary liberalism is the ideology of imperial academia, funneled through media and non-profits and governmental agencies but responsible ultimately only to itself, the obsession with Harry Potter makes a lot more sense.

This is an interesting take, and I think the author rightly connects the romanticism of Hogwarts to the self-perception of the educated, technocratic progressive class. Hogwarts is attractive to liberals not mainly because they desire the world it depicts, but because they sincerely believe the world it depicts is the one that they (via the university) have created. The contrast the author draws between the cruel, dimwitted authority figures of the 80s high school comedies and the near saintlike teachers at Hogwarts is perceptive. Cynicism toward established authority was once considered a liberal rejection of conservative social order. Now, reverence toward the academy–and those who work it–is non-negotiable.

But I have another theory. In John Granger’s indispensable book How Harry Cast His Spell, Granger persuasively demonstrates how Rowling’s Harry Potter novels appropriate the most important narrative traditions of Western history. The 7 books tell a unified hero story that deliberately evokes Western mythology (I’m using that word to mean both fairy tales and historical narratives, such as Scripture, that become significant literary developments in Western thought). The gospel, the Odyssey, Camelot–these and more myths are the narrative mold around which the Potter stories are formed.

As the author of the blog notes, much about the Harry Potter series seems conservative. Harry Potter is culturally conservative in ways that don’t seem to bother liberal presuppositions. Voldemort and his followers are enemies of diversity–that much is clear. But it’s also true that Hogwarts is not exactly a factory of self-determination. Everyone gets sorted into houses–notably, students can desire a particular house, but they do not determine it–and these houses impose a preexisting shape of life onto the students. This doesn’t seem to upset the modern progressive reader, perhaps because in the course of the story, the students who most stridently do their own thing end up consistently being the biggest heroes. What gets lost in the glorification of the Boy Who Lived is the fact that he lived because of the actions of another (his mother!!), and that his heroic journey is empowered not by self-authentication, but by the wisdom and traditional forms of his mentors (Dumbledore chiefly).

So why do liberals love Harry Potter? I think it may be because Harry Potter is a reminder, however dim, of what a world that ennobles human aspiration without the shadow of the sexual revolution would look like. The American Left is deeply mired in its own self-destructive contradictions. Its aspiration for a truly self-authenticated existence is eviscerated by its insistence on cutting the legs out from under community and tradition. Rowling’s tale is a of a world where this tradeoff is unnecessary.  What’s true of Hogwarts is true of Harry Potter as a whole: This is a place where people and choices matter, where you really can be a hero–just not alone.

Rowling In the Deep

“Fantastic Beasts” may be good entertainment, but it comes at a cost.

I have plans to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them later today. Before I do, though, I want to reiterate a version of something I’ve said several times before in this space: Regardless of how good Fantastic Beasts is, and how much I enjoy it (which, based on reviews from people I trust, may be quite a lot), I think its existence is, for the most part, a mistake, and something that sincere fans of J.K. Rowling’s work will regret in years to come.

Right now, American pop culture is absolutely trapped in a hyper-nostalgia. There are plenty of reasons to be concerned that this isn’t just a fad or a phase. Rather, it looks more like a philosophical shift in how culture makers produce stories, and how we as an audience consume them. As A.O. Scott has written, so much of our film, TV, and literature appeals to childlikeness–not childlike wonder, mind you, but childlike sense of identity. Critical conversations about meaning and narrative are being thrown aside in what Scott has called the “ascendancy of the fan,” the transformation of mainstream pop culture into a mere collection of constantly rebooted brands: Marvel vs DC, Star Wars vs Star Trek, Bourne vs Bond, etc etc, ad infinitum.

I’ve said all this before, and I’m not going to restate my many comments here. But I want to very briefly apply these concerns to Rowling and to the Harry Potter universe. I have two reasons. First, I love the Potter series and have an especial affection and admiration for it. Second, I think what Rowling is doing with her legacy is the most glaring example we have of the danger of the reboot nostalgia culture.

The Harry Potter series (books 1-7) will, I’m convinced, be read widely with delight centuries from now. A few days ago I drew the wrath of Twitter when I declared that the Potter books were, taken as a whole, better than Lewis’s Narnia series. I stand by that. That’s not a dig at Narnia, either; I just believe that the Potter series is that good, and that its genius will only be greater appreciated in the years to come.

Part of that genius is in the story’s ending. I won’t spoil it (if you haven’t read the series, I envy the joy you will take in reading it for the first time), but the best way I can put it is that Rowling ended her tale with a beautiful and poetic symmetry that brought her characters a genuinely satisfying closure. At the last turn of the page in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, there is an eschatological joy in seeing good triumph over evil in a final, authoritative way.

What Rowling has done in the years since Deathly Hallows is more than marketing. She has sought to open up her mythology in a way that keeps the story going eternally. This was the point of Pottermore, a website that put users into the wizarding world through interactive content–content written by Rowling (as the ads for Pottermore made a point of repeating over and over again). Rowling’s involvement in Pottermore was clearly a pitch to fans that the story hadn’t ended, that the world was still being written and that by signing up for the service, they could be part of the new stories.

Rowling’s intentions became even more clearer with the publication of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Officially, the hardback copy that was sold in Barnes and Noble was simply the published script of a stage play, based on the Potter series. *Unofficially* (and again, in marketing), it was quite obviously the 8th book of the series. I never read the book, but my wife excitedly did. She was extremely disappointed, telling me that the characters of Cursed Child spoke and acted like fan fiction creations, not the heroes of books 1-7. Several reviews I saw echoed this sentiment.

The reviews for Fantastic Beasts have been much more positive, and I fully expect to enjoy it. But the pattern that Rowling has established thus far seems clear. The world of Harry Potter has been reopened, and its mythology has broken out of its original fate and is being written, and rewritten, and written again. It is, for all practical purposes, now a piece of fan fiction.

Fan fiction exists to let fans live inside their favorite stories. But one of the defining marks of all great stories is the way they live inside of us. What I fear is happening to Harry Potter is that a wonderful, beautiful piece of literature is becoming a cultural artifact to our inability to let stories teach us about this world and this life. The lessons we can draw from Harry, Ron, and Hermione are in danger of becoming lost in the constant reinvention of their world. By not letting our favorite stories end, we turn them into tools rather than teachers–objects that authenticate our childlike desire to not let go, to not courageously follow Harry outside the safety and comfort of our magical world, and into a dangerous, wild place where we have a job to do.

I want very much for succeeding generations to know the Harry Potter series as a brilliantly told, biblically haunted epic, not as another resource for Dungeons and Dragons devotees. My fear is that even in well-made films and interesting books, Harry’s lessons are lost, and we will be entertained and distracted at the cost of something precious.

Quote of the Day

A plea to J.K. Rowling.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is no such work. As other countless fans have pointed out, the writing of the work is mediocre, at best—full of clichés and halfhearted character development, with a plot that is absolutely riddled with holes. Many of the original characters (especially Hermione) are not true to their original selves, serving as two-dimensional copycats.

So what does the book do? Well, it keeps the Harry Potter series alive and in the limelight. It serves to inspire new fans to return to the original books. And it definitively makes money—lots of it. But that’s the extent of its virtues.

I caution you, because I think there’s a point at which truly excellent authors know how to say “enough.” Their fans can content themselves with the simplicity and beauty of a finite offering (be it one book or seven). Limiting the scope of a fictional creation enables it to stay mysterious, enchanting, and delightful. Limiting the scope of Harry Potter serves to inspire and foster the imagination of its fans more than coughing up another 20 volumes ever would.

-Gracy Olmstead, in an “open letter” to Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling that also doubles as a disappointed review of the published play, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”

Olmstead gets to something important here: Churning out low-quality work, merely for the sake of keeping a franchise in the news, is not just bad for the franchise, it’s bad for the reader. No matter how many superfans will wait in line at Barnes and Noble for your newest offering, there is something in this kind of hyper-nostalgic, never-say-die mentality that robs future generations of the literary richness that comes from having some of the story untold.

Did Gandalf Rescue Evangelicals?

Yesterday afternoon I was watching the live stream of the 2016 ERLC National Conference. Specifically, I tuned into a panel that discussed how evangelicals could engage with art in a gospel-centered way. In the course of the conversation, one of the panelists, Alissa Wilkinson (a film critic that you should read), remarked that, in her view, evangelical attitude toward art has notably improved over the last 10 years.

I agree with that. Having grown up in conservative evangelical culture my entire life, I absolutely have noticed a change in how many pastors, theologians, and those in Christian circles have talked about film, literature, TV, etc. There just seems to be a greater interest right now in talking about art from a Christian perspective than there was when, say, I was in junior high, and buying the “kids versions” of the Left Behind books and the albums of rock bands that were openly marketed as “mainstream alternatives.”

But Wilkinson’s comment got me thinking: What changed? What happened with evangelicals roughly 10 years ago that set these trends in motion? Here’s a theory: Peter Jackson happened. The Lord of the Rings film trilogy is, I believe, the most influential factor in the renewal of American evangelicalism’s interest in art.

The Fellowship of the Ring premiered in December of 2001. The timing of that release is important, because just a few weeks before FOTR, the first film version of the Harry Potter novels also premiered. Up to this point, Harry Potter was the most significant literary event in the world, and evangelicals had spent most of their time and energy debating whether it was even permissible to read/watch. There was precious little “engagement” with the biggest book of the century; it just fell, like so many other things did, into trenches of evangelical “Do or Don’t” war.

But when Fellowship debuted, evangelicals were flummoxed. Here was a PG-13 adaptation of a novel written by a traditional Catholic in the latter half of the 20th century. I had never heard of J.R.R. Tolkien when I saw the movie in December 2001, and neither had most of my family or friends. But enough Christians knew about the books to herald the coming of the movies as a significant moment for believers and Hollywood.

There was, of course, an irony here. Many of the influential evangelical publications that had urged believers to avoid the wizardry of Harry Potter took a starkly different approach to Gandalf. The dissonance was unmistakeable. World Magazine, which had studiously criticized the Potter books, preemptively advertised Fellowship as a “family-friendly blockbuster” that Christians should be interested in (and so too with the next two Lord of the Rings movies). Plugged In (Focus on the Family’s media review publication) threw red flags all over Hogwarts, but saw Tolkien’s “Christian themes at work” in Jackson’s films. The difference was, of course, that Tolkien spoke openly about his Catholic faith, while in the evangelical world, you could occupy your day reading chain emails with conspiracy theories about J.K. Rowling’s intentions. Unlike the Potter phenomenon, a lot of believers saw in the Lord of the Rings movies an opportunity to see their “values” on the screen.

The effects were immediate. Lord of the Rings was an enormous financial success, of course, fomenting new trends in cinema and a wave of religiously tinged “prestige pictures.” But more than that, the movies started something in evangelicals. Suddenly it seemed that Reformed Christians everywhere were putting fantasy books on their favorite lists. Shortly after the Lord of the Rings movies my own Bible college made the books required reading. Even Hogwarts started to fare better, with later installments of the film series getting positive reviews in many evangelical outposts. It wasn’t that evangelicals’ convictions had changed, necessarily; it was that Jackson’s movies had broken down barriers between faith and imagination that many American evangelicals didn’t even realize had gone up.

Just a theory, but this does seem to match my own experience as far as when I noticed a new evangelical engagement with popular art. It’s just not possible for me to imagine a round of Christian think pieces on something like Netflix’s “Stranger Things” 15 years ago. Now, it seems so inevitable that it’s actually good parody. Something had to happen for that to be the case.

In my view, Gandalf happened.