Over the past few years I have often been caught off guard by Christians who wonder why we should engage with cultural artifacts such as movies, music, novels and art. Isn’t God’s Word all we need? This experience has challenged me to consider why it is important for Christians to engage with the things in culture that capture the imagination and interest of the people around us.
What is culture and why is it important? Theologian John Frame writes that, “Creation is what God makes by himself, and culture is what he makes through us” (Doctrine of Christian Life, 854). While the popular definition of culture describes someone who is “with it” in terms of social trends, culture is not only for the “elite” or those “in the know” but is part of our everyday lives and is created and engaged in by everyone. Culture includes everything human-made – it is what our neighbours care about when they develop a new hobby, create a special dish or watch the latest sci-fi movie. Culture provides common ground for the things that matter to us; it is how we view the world. From Netflix to Facebook, we don’t have the option to step away, for culture is the very air we breathe. It is the stage for the daily drama of our lives. I haven’t met a student who doesn’t want to make a just world, a place of flourishing and higher purpose. Whether that reality is God or mere transcendence, we are all embedded in a story that we can’t escape; individually and collectively we have decisions to make concerning justice. When some of my students struggle with the Bible and Christianity, introducing Harry Potter, Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings can serve as a bridge for dialogue. And Harry Potter is always at the top of the list for my classes and students. When addressing the big questions of life, they are never afraid to approach cultural issues through the lens of the question, “What Would Harry Do?”
No longer abstract
Using Harry Potter as a cultural lens has helped in applying biblical principles to a challenging situation. For example, I was recently in conversation with a non-religious student who didn’t understand why the biblical name Jezebel is avoided because of negative connotations. I made a key connection when discussing her friend’s stuffed doll, named Jezebel, when I asked, “You wouldn’t call your child or pet Voldemort, would you?” On a more global scale, how could the Harry lens help us to address the issues we face in our daily lives? How can it help us break down the us vs. them mentality that is so deeply embedded in international tensions? Is it truly a global world or simply a more sophisticated tribalism?
How can we bring abstract concepts such as injustice to bear on our mundane existence, on real issues, on the struggles we face? Can we engage with our diverse neighbours through cultural stories such as the Harry Potter series, in which we see imperfect people engage with evil and injustice?
Our Common Story
We often approach the biblical narrative as a story with four acts: creation, corruption, redemption and restoration. We can find these acts in our own stories and also in the world of Harry Potter. In the novels we witness the beauty of Creation, where Hogwarts begins as a beacon of learning and delight. A great evil regains power and grows in strength in a world filled with corruption and brokenness. By laying down his own life for his friends, Harry defeats evil. We also live in a world where we are often surprised by the redemption we see in every book of the Harry Potter narrative, where the main characters somehow always survive, despite the odds. Finally, in a world hopeful for restoration and recreation, the unfolding Harry Potter narrative points to a world without Voldemort. A world where You-Know-Who is defeated. This is not a galaxy far, far away, nor is it Middle Earth. In J.K. Rowling’s world, regular humans (Muggles) and those endowed with magic live in close proximity. Harry’s story is a mirror to our own world.
Through this lens we learn how to engage our own injustices. Like the mirror of “Erised” (desire), when we look at Harry Potter we long for a world where the boy who lost his parents and was forced to live in a small room under the staircase is able to overcome evil, despite the odds. In many ways, this is our story.
Harry indirectly teaches us to put our faith into action with our neighbours. While we may struggle to argue politics in our own world, we can authentically explore our views when we discuss the Ministry of Magic, whose behaviour typifies our own politicians. When we read of the marginalization of the Muggles (non-magic people), we can easily see parallels to everyday injustices closer to home. Harry’s story can help us address many issues in our culture.
Harry and Jesus
Some might ask, “Why not directly talk about Jesus, skip Harry, and go right to the centre of the biblical Story?” Given the many interpretations and theological discussions of Jesus, this can be difficult; not everyone is interested in or capable of a nuanced theological discussion. In my work as a professor and chaplain, in Harry Potter I find a cultural faith ally who allows me to ask, “What Would Harry Do?” This helps me explore the reality of the One who overcame “the last enemy to be destroyed . . . death.” Perhaps you will be positioned to engage in similar conversations by asking questions that connect this rich fictional world with ours. I would love to hear what happens next.
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