The Gospel of Harry Potter
Home church is a new prospect for many of us. Maybe your whole family sits reverently while you read from “Come Follow Me.” Maybe you are a congregation of one and are trying different ways to engage in the gospel. Maybe your family is like mine and the variety of ages, interests, and degrees of commitment to Mormonism make it hard to agree on any kind of service. One of the few things we can all agree on is that sourdough is the best bread, and the Harry Potter series is amazing (but whether or not Cursed Child is cannon is another story altogether). If you are looking for some Hogwarts theology to spice up your Sunday home service, I offer up a few suggestions. Brigitte Madrian gave a fabulous BYU devotional all about the Boy Who Lived. “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text” is a lovely podcast by two Harvard Divinity School grads. And finally, below is a talk I gave in sacrament meeting a decade ago.
Four Gospel Lessons I Learned from Harry Potter
Growing up in a household of hardcore readers, I often heard the following: “Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (Doctrine and Covenants, 88: 118). My parents took this to heart and, in addition to studying scriptures, they also strengthened their minds and faith by reading vast quantities of books and encouraged us to do likewise. It has been a blessing for me to pass this truth on my family. As a mom of four kids ages 12 and under, the books I have spent the most time with in the past decade have been the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. I have been amazed by the spiritual discussions these books have inspired. My daughter Georgia (now ten and on her second round with the series) and I agree that there are four gospel lessons that stand out for us. (I will avoid any spoilers!)
1 .Charity Never Faileth–Especially a Mom’s
For those unfamiliar with the Harry Potter novels by J.K. Rowling, they tell the story of a young wizard and his adventures battling evil and championing good. His nemesis is Voldemort, the Supreme Evil Being who seeks to kill baby Harry. Harry’s mother, Lily, dies trying to shield her young son, and this act of sacrifice creates a protective charm on the boy that Voldemort cannot penetrate.
Albus Dumbledore, who serves as a mentor and friend to Harry, explains it this way: “Love as powerful as your mother’s for you, leaves its own mark. . . . To have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. (Book 1, pg. 216)”
We are buoyed up by the prayers and love of those around us, especially our mother’s. Speaking of the Harry Potter novels, Jeffrey Holland echoes this: “But fundamental to the message of the books is the idea that children don’t — indeed, can’t — fight their battles alone. In fact, the one gift that saves Harry over and over again is the love of his mother, who died protecting him from evil.” (“Let There be Light,” May 2006)
In Harry Potter, as in the Gospel, we are not only blessed and protected by the love of those around us, but also by our ability to love others, according to the second great commandment. Dumbledore is repeatedly reminding Harry of this: “You are protected, in short, by your ability to love! . . . The only protection that can possibly work against the lure of power like Voldemort’s!” (Book 6, pg. 511). “That which Voldemort does not value, he takes no trouble to comprehend. Of house-elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing. That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped.” (Book 7, pg. 709)
The apostle Paul knew that all abilities pale in comparison to the gift of reflecting Christ’s love: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. . .Charity never faileth.” (1 Cor. 13)
To love, and be loved, is a powerful gift.
2. Agency Rocks
Another important theme that Rowling explores is the importance of choice. As Mormons, the two stories we tell about our beginnings center on our agency. The War in Heaven was a battle over two plans. Satan’s version guaranteed our compliance with the Gospel. This plan would have taken away our ability to choose wrong. But if one can’t make a bad choice, then one can’t truly choose the right either. In contrast, the Savior’s plan allows us to learn and grow and hopefully make the decisions that will bring us back to our Father.
Likewise, our creation story also centers on the blessings of choice, even when they bring us pain. I love Eve’s testimony of agency in Moses 5: 11: “And Eve, heard all these things and was glad, saying: Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient.”
In the Harry Potter novels, Rowling explores the idea that our choices greatly define us. When Harry is discouraged by the limitations of his magical knowledge, Dumbledore wisely assures him, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” (Book 2, page 333)
Even with Dumbledore’s advice about agency, Harry is haunted by a prophecy that declares Harry to be the Chosen One and pits his life against Voldemort’s. He is often resentful of what he feels is his foreordained lot. But over time, he comes to understand that he always has a choice. He may not be able to choose his circumstances, but he can always choose how he reacts to them. By the end of the sixth book in the series, he knows what he needs to do, not because it was prophesied, but because he chooses to act. He has agency, and it brings him courage as he envisions doing battle with the Dark Lord: “It was, he thought, the difference between being dragged into an arena to face a battle to the death and walking into the arena with your head held high. Some people perhaps would say there was little to choose between the two ways, but Dumbledore knew—and so do I thought Harry, with a rush of fierce pride, and so did my parents, that there was all the difference in the world.” (Book 6, pg. 512)
On this idea of agency, let me add the advice Dumbledore shares with Harry and the other students in Book 4. Difficult times lie ahead. Soon we must all make the choice between what is right and what is easy. Even with this good advice, we sometimes choose wrong, which leads me to my next point:
3. People Deserve Second Chances
Rowling’s novels, like real life, are peopled by imperfect souls in need of redemption. There’s Lupin, the gentlest man around, until the moon is full; the Potions teacher Snape, who is haunted by an act of disloyalty that caused the death of his truest friend; Hagrid, the game keeper who can’t quite keep a secret; and Slughorn, who is desperate to never share his. These are but a few of the troubled souls to whom Professor Dumbledore gives second (and third and fourth) chances. Even Draco Malfoy, Harry’s classmate nemesis, is offered compassion, and when his actions take him down a dark path, Dumbledore is willing to make great sacrifices to ensure that Draco does not make mistakes that will damage him permanently. In the final novel, we learn that Dumbledore himself, the great dispenser of fresh starts, is not without flaws and knows the value of forgiveness because he is also looking for grace. Like good people everywhere, he has learned to grant others what he most desires.
Another subheading for this section could be “I believe in the Atonement.” I love reading the New Testament. Just about every person that Jesus comes in contact with needs healing in one way or another. He heals the lepers, raises the dead, and forgives the sinners. He gives second chances to those that ask—and those that don’t. I love these stories, yet I must admit there are recipients of his forgiveness that I begrudge. The soldiers who seem to take pleasure in Christ’s suffering don’t deserve forgiveness. But they need it. The truth is we are all of us saints and sinners, wizards and werewolves, and in need of second chances.
4. Don’t Leave Anybody Behind
Anyone who has read the novels or seen the movies knows that though Harry is the title character, his friends Ron and Hermione are indispensable to the stories. When Harry is literally locked into his room by his uncle and aunt, Ron and his brothers arrive to break him out. When Hermione has hidden in a bathroom because the boys hurt her feelings, they defy teachers’ orders and battle a mountain troll to go after her. Friends stick together. It’s hard to imagine Harry accomplishing much without the aid of his friends.
In every book there are instances where characters risk their safety to go back for someone in need. What touches me most is that many times the person they go back for is a stranger, and, sometimes, even an enemy. I love in the fourth book when Harry is willing to risk losing the tournament to go back for Fleur Delacouer’s sister, whom he has never met. We learn in the third book that James Potter saves his enemy Snape from a werewolf. And when a dark wizard refuses to let his house elf die for the Dark Lord, I got a little teary. Rowling’s novels remind me that loyalty and sacrifice are important and that no one should be left behind. Nothing justifies turning one’s back on a fellow human being (or Kreacher, as the case may be).
This idea that we are responsible for each other pervades the novels. In speaking about the invisibility cloak that Harry inherited, Dumbledore reveals that its “true magic…of course, is that it can be used to protect and shield others as well as its owner.” (Book 7, pg. 716) I learned about the importance of taking responsibility for others while on a study abroad in Israel.
We were climbing Mt. Sinai in January in the middle of the night, trying to get to the top in time to watch the sunrise. The early risers and fast climbers were already at the top; the rest of us were scattered up and down the steep mountain. I didn’t start out caring if I made it in time for daybreak, but as I climbed I changed my mind and started to kick it into gear, determined to see the dawn. As is often the case, when the terrain got tough, I started to pray. The trail got steeper and when I looked behind me to see how far I’d come, I was surprised to see so many of my classmates behind me. It was early in the semester, so most of them were just faces to me at that point. We were all cold and tired and trying to get to the same place. My heart swelled and as I resumed my climbing, my prayer shift-ed from “Help me make it” to “Help us make it.”
That small shift in pronoun, from the singular to the plural, transformed my ascent. I felt revived and started to make some real progress as the sky went from black to pink. But my own desires didn’t mean as much to me now. I turned and started to pass on words of encouragement to the people below. We started a relay of advice: “Rocks loose on left, stay to the right.” or “Watch out for the ice on this spot!” And sometimes simply, “Keep going!” The sky brightened as we literally crawled our way to the top. I made it up with time to spare and several of us helped the last climbers make the as-cent. Twenty years later, I can’t recall the sunrise from Mt Sinai. I’m sure it was beautiful, but not as beautiful as the faces of my new friends. We are all dependent on one another.
Sometimes I feel a little bit guilty that my family does not take as much pleasure in reading the Book of Mormon as it does in reading Harry Potter. Over the years during scripture study, nobody has ever said, “Come on Mom—just one more chapter, please!” But as the Thirteenth Article of Faith proclaims, we are to seek out the things in life that are virtuous, lovely, and praiseworthy. And I know that in our discussions on charity and repentance and agency and inclusion, we have learned more about being Christ-like, bonded as a family, and strengthened our testimonies. It’s been like magic. Only better.