Stories of Hope
Five ways to use Harry Potter to have better conversations.
Have you ever heard someone, after reaching an impasse in a conversation focused on politics, religion or entertainment, conclude by saying, “Well, that’s your interpretation”? With this statement, all argument is expected to end. But should it? Does this statement concede too early? Perhaps the conversation was simply about an opinion, such as the best actor, movie or ice cream flavour. But what if the person is negatively pushing the envelope, being racist or bigoted? Do we leave the conversation in the realm of moral relativism? Is there a way to bridge gaps, find common ground and speak the truth in love? Rather than give in to the polarities of absolutism or apathy, I propose we develop our dialogue skills through interpretive lenses.
If you have engaged in online conversation, you likely know that there are often roadblocks to authentic listening and communication. In a prior article, I suggested that the Harry Potter series can help us overcome cultural barriers (“The ‘Harry’ Lens,” Oct. 22, 2018). I now want to consider this in more detail, exploring five specific interpretive lenses. I will once again draw on examples that connect to both Harry Potter and Scripture. These lenses overlap with sources of Christian hermeneutics and are not technical terms for scholarship, but they could be useful as frameworks for teaching and learning.
1: THE SCRIPTURAL STORY LENS
The first lens, which focuses on the Scriptural story, has roots in the 1700s and also includes contemporary authors such as Tim Keller and N.T. Wright. This lens interprets events by focusing attention on the Biblical narrative, looking for examples of creation, corruption, redemption and restoration.
In my previous article, I wrote, “In the Harry Potter novels we witness the beauty of Creation, where Hogwarts begins as a beacon of learning and delight. A great evil regains power in a world filled with corruption and brokenness. By laying down his own life for his friends, Harry defeats evil. Redemption is seen in every book, where the main characters somehow always survive, despite the odds. That world is hopeful for restoration and re-creation pointing to life without the evil of Voldemort. Thus Harry’s story is a mirror to our own world.” Rather than starting with a verse or passage from the Bible or Harry Potter, we begin by looking at the overarching Biblical narrative and connecting points.
2: THE LITERARY LENS
The remaining lenses use an adaptation of the four-fold interpretation of the ancient church (quadriga: literal, allegorical, tropological and anagogical), drawing on Booker’s “Seven Plots” and Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” motifs for literary lens elements. These are accessible engagement tools for anyone who wants to delve deeper into the Harry Potter series and also relate well to the Biblical narrative, which includes many plot twists and hero journeys.
When we apply the literary lens to Harry Potter, we can compare characters like Daniel or Esther to Harry or Hermione, exploring their hero journeys, or considering how their stories relate to literary plot elements, such as defeating the monster or completing the quest. For example, Harry overcomes Voldemort and his minions, finds a trusted mentor in Dumbledore, and experiences the numerous cycles and pitfalls of the hero’s journey. Similarly, Daniel overcomes the monster of empire, gains favour with a king, and has an adventure in a lion’s den, where his faith is tested. Harry has an adventure related to prophecy; Daniel makes a puzzling prophecy.
3: THE SYMBOL LENS
When using the symbol lens, a reader considers how the author uses a character symbolically. Do they help us understand our own world? For example, Harry could be a symbol of the struggle of a broken justice-seeker, battling his own weaknesses. Esther, with her triumph over oppression and demeaning treatment, can symbolize hope for a MeToo world. The Battle at Hogwarts, symbolizing the battle between the forces of good and evil, can be compared to the Exodus events, where the injustices of Empire are confronted.
4: THE ETHICAL LENS
This lens must be carefully framed in order to help people to flourish graciously and avoid becoming moralistic. The ethical lens seeks to explore and identify appropriate and active behavioural change. For example, when Harry engages in his antics, he often falls into an ends-justifies-the-means mentality. Rather than simply pointing to this flaw, we can unpack the causes rooted in his past history, empathize because of our own ethical failings, and also look ahead to other parts of the story where he overcomes these failings. Grace ultimately prevails. In the same way, when reading Scripture, we read the text through our own brokenness and our need for the healing grace of God through Christ.
5: THE HOPE LENS
Arguably, the most powerful lens in interpreting Harry Potter, the Bible and our own lives is the lens of hope. This lens can be seen in Fred and George’s behaviour in The Order of the Phoenix, when they cause havoc and subvert the system by flying away in the middle of the wizardry exams. Their actions provide hope in the midst of the darkness brought on by the moralistic and power-based leadership of a cruel headmistress. Like Fred and George, no matter how much injustice we experience, we can also find ways to resist, subvert, counter and look beyond the present to a world that still has hope. Harry shows this time and again as he thwarts Voldemort’s plans. The biblical narrative is also filled with hope: of a deliverer who will crush the head of the enemy and set slaves free, and who begins a day when the wolf will lie down with the lamb, ultimately culminating in a new heaven and fulfilled hope, where, as Harry and Paul remind us, death, the last enemy, will finally be overcome.