J.K. Rowling and the Extraordinary Life (Part 2 of 2)

by Claire E. White
The Internet Writing Journal, August 2005
Click Here to return to Part 1 of the J.K. Rowling feature.

Harry Potter and Religion

Jo Rowling has stated that one of the most irritating results of the books' success has been the criticism from some Christian groups that the books are un-Christian and promote the occult. Those groups infuriate the author, who is has said in interviews that she is a Christian, she believes in God and that she attends church (she belongs to the Church of Scotland, which Americans would call the Presbyterian Church). She has said that "the books aren't really all that secular," before clamming up on the subject. And, it is fun to explore some of the imagery and symbols from classical sources that Rowling has hidden throughout the text, like little Easter eggs for scholars, who do enjoy a nicely buried obscure reference. Scott Moore writes:
Cover of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
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"For instance, in the second book, Harry must fight a great serpent (the historic symbol of Satan) and he realizes he cannot do this alone. In his weakness, he calls for help, and a phoenix (a Christ symbol in the Middle Ages -- the bird who dies and rises again) comes to his aid by bringing him a double-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12)."

"The phoenix assists Harry in his struggle. Though Harry ultimately defeats the serpent, he is badly wounded. The phoenix then comes and weeps in Harry's wounds, restoring him to health."

"By book five, we've learned that the little band of faithful believers who are united in their struggle against the dark wizard lord call themselves 'the Order of the Phoenix.' They are a symbol of the church, and we're not surprised to discover either that the powers-that-be want to root them out and destroy them or that some members must heroically sacrifice themselves for the good of the Order. Greater love hath no man than that he lay down his life for a friend." 10
The former Archbishop of Canterbury is a fan of Harry Potter, noting in his 2001 newsletter:
"And that, believe it or not, leads me to this young man. Yes, he's made his mark in Canterbury too. Like many people, I found the Harry Potter film great fun. But like most good fantasies, it also asks some very real questions, including questions about the true source of power in our lives. At one point, young Harry is told: 'There is no good and evil. There is only power and those too weak to seek it'. Well, as Harry goes on to prove, that's nonsense." 11
"Harry and his friends cast spells, read crystal balls, and turn themselves into animals - but they don't make contact with a supernatural world...[It's not] the kind of real-life witchcraft the Bible condemns." -- Chuck Colson, conservative Christian evangelist
The Vatican under Pope John Paul II described Rowling as "Christian by conviction... Christian in her mode of living, even in her way of writing." In 2003, a Vatican spokesman said Pope John Paul II approved of the Harry Potter books, saying, "They help children to tell the difference between good and evil." The Vatican under John Paul II regarded the books as children's fiction, not theological treatises. The current Pope Benedict XVI may not be a fan, however. Before he was elected Pope, Joseph Ratzinger wrote a letter to a friend noting the "subtle seduction" of the Harry Potter books which "distorted Christianity." The letters have never been authenticated, however, and it's far from clear whether Pope Benedict has even read the books. Since he was elected Pope, he has made no statement about Harry Potter. Amazon.com has reported that it has shipped a number of copies of the books to the Vatican over the years, so someone there is reading them.

In 1999, Rowling talked to the American Library Association about the criticism that her books deal with the occult:
"If this subject offends people, that isn't what I want to do, but I don't believe in censorship for any age group, and this is what I wanted to write about. The book is really about the power of the imagination. What Harry is learning to do is to develop his full potential. Wizardry is just the analogy I use. If anyone expects it to be a book that seriously advocates learning magic, they will be disappointed. Not least because the author does not believe in magic in that way." 12
In an interview with The Vancouver Sun, Rowling reaffirmed that she is a Christian, and revealed that she was starting to get impatient with those who criticize the books without even having read them. She also made a decision to stop talking about the subject so much.
Cover of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling
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"Yes, I am [a Christian]," she says. "Which seems to offend the religious right far worse than if I said I thought there was no God. Every time I've been asked if I believe in God, I've said yes, because I do, but no one ever really has gone any more deeply into it than that, and I have to say that does suit me, because if I talk too freely about that I think the intelligent reader, whether 10 or 60, will be able to guess what's coming in the books." 13
That interesting comment by Rowling has led to at least one book by a pro-Potter evangelical Christian: Looking For God in Harry Potter by John Granger (Tynedale), a strict father and devoted student of classical literature who bought the first Harry Potter book to show his daughter why it was so evil. But when he started reading, he said he was startled to find so many classical references to the gospels and to the Christian faith. The more he read, the more he believed he has discovered the secret to what Rowling is doing: under the guise of wizarding, she is sneaking in the gospels: he believes the series is the greatest stealth Christian literature since the Narnia books. His book is a scholarly examination of each of the books, exploring the recurring themes of resurrection, the power of love over death and the fact that Harry always must ask for help from a higher power when he is most in trouble. Critics have been struck by Granger's work, although some think he is reading too much into the books.

Clearly, the millions of children and adults who have bought the books aren't terribly concerned about the controversy: as Rowling herself has said "One of the nicest things about writing for children is that you don't find them deconstructing novels. Either they like it or they don't like it." But it is a mark of the impact that the series has had on popular culture -- and on children -- that so many articles and books have been written on the subject. Many Christians who notice the issue felt it was put to rest when the Archbishop of Canterbury and the late Pope John Paul II (who looks to be well on his way to beatification as a saint) put the seal of approval on the books. Surely that should be enough reassurance for concerned parents who, frankly, should be a more focused on the fact that their child is actually reading a lengthy book about good versus evil and the choices that a young man must make in his life rather than partaking in the plethora of other, less wholesome activities that are available to today's youth.

The Place in the Pantheon

The sixth book in the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was published on July 16, 2005. The next film in the series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, will be released in December, 2005. Rowling is a planner. She has always known that there would be seven books, and has already begun the last book in the series, although no publication date has been set yet. So, what will she do when the last Harry Potter book is finished?

And when the seventh book is published, what then? Rowling tells Time magazine's Lev Grossman:
Cover of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling
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"I'll be so sad to think I'll never write a Harry-Ron-Hermione sentence again," she says. But her feelings aren't entirely unmixed. "Part of me will be glad when it's over. Family life will become more normal. It will be a chance to write other things."

"We'll have to see if it's good enough to be published. I mean, that is a real concern, obviously, because the first thing I write post Harry could be absolutely dreadful, and, you know, people will buy it. So, you know, you're left with this real insecurity."

"It will be a very different kind of book," she says, "because I kind of cue up the shot at the end of six, and you're left with a very clear idea of what Harry's going to do next." "And," she adds in an uncharacteristic moment of hubris, "it will be exciting!" Then she immediately retreats into self-deprecation. "You don't know! You might read six and think, Ah, I won't bother." 14
Somehow, that seems most unlikely.

**You can read our review of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince here.

**You can find many more resources on The Harry Potter Fantastic Links Page.


1 Schoenberger, Chana R. and MacDonald, Elizabeth, " The 100 Most Powerful Women." Forbes, 28 July 2005.

2 Rowling, J.K. Website Autobiography, June, 2004.

3 Rowling, J.K., "I Miss My Mother So Much." MS Matters, 2001.

4 Dunn, Elizabeth. "From the Dole to Hollywood." Electronic Telegraph, 2 August 1997.

5 Bourne, Brendan. "JK Rowling Marries Her Doctor Friend." Sunday Times of London, 30 December 2001.

6: Rowling, J.K. J.K. Rowling Website Autobiography, June, 2004.

7 Weir, Margaret. " Of Magic and Single Motherhood," Salon, 1999.

8 Ibid.

9 Id.

10: Moore, Scott. " Harry Potter Fits in Fine With Christianity" Waco Tribune-Herald. 24 July 2005

11: Carey, George, The Hon. Archbishop of Canterbury (Ret.) "Archbishop of Canterbury New Year Message." 31 January 2001

12: O'Malley, Judy: "Talking With J.K. Rowling." Book Links, July, 1999.

13 Wyman, Max. "'You can lead a fool to a book but you can't make them think': Author has frank words for the religious right," The Vancouver Sun (British Columbia), 26 October 2000.

14: Grossman, Lev, "J.K. Rowling: Hogwarts And All." Time, 17 July 2005.