The Gospel According to Harry Potter
On Jan 28–30, I gave lectures on Christian themes in Harry Potter at Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky. When I read the first Potter novel, I saw these themes, and could not figure out why some Christians feared the stories. Since then, I have mentored one Honors thesis on Christian images in the series, given talks in local churches, and taught a religious studies course at St. Edward’s University in Fall 2009, 2010 and will teach again this fall. Last July, my friend Joe, the pastor of HBC, asked if I would be willing to come give a lecture over a weekend.
When I arrived in Louisville, I felt very welcomed. The church went all out—posters could be found all over town, there were two radio spots, one NPR story and information about the upcoming lectures in the parish newsletter and website. Their young adult minister also did a series of preparatory sessions.
I focused on two themes: Christ figures/symbols, and Alchemy and spiritual transformation. Not only are there Christ figures such as Dumbledore and Harry’s mother, but also a number of very traditional Christ symbols: unicorns, gryffins, white stags, and goblets (the Holy Grail). The most important, for my purposes in Louisville, was the Philosopher’s Stone, called the Sorcerer’s Stone in the American edition. This led into my second major theme.
The Philosopher’s Stone was the goal of alchemical seekers: a substance that balanced opposites, that could “turn lead to gold,” which symbolized transformation of the human person from base matter to a union of spirit and matter. In the Christian Middle Ages, the Stone was Christ, and the red elixir made from the Stone, the Blood of Christ. Alchemy helped “speed up” the transformation already happening through the Sacraments.
Alchemy involved numerology (e.g., 7 stages/7 Quidditch players; 4 Elements/4 Houses). Medieval alchemical drawings show an androgyne (uniting male and female principles) standing atop a winged golden sphere: a snitch. Two opposite substances were used to produce the Stone: sulphur (associated with yellow bile) and mercury (associated with phlegm). Ron Bilious Weasley and Hermione Granger (Hg–mercury) must reconcile in order to transform Harry, the Seeker, into the Philosopher’s Stone, the balance of energies who can destroy evil (imbalance), and reunite the four archetypal elements — the four Houses — restoring balance to the magical world.
There are often ancient treasures hidden in modern guise. I see my job as helping people discover the keys to unlock the treasure house.
Ed Shirley is a professor in the School of Humanities and has been teaching at St. Edward’s University for 25 years. He is also the area coordinator of Religious and Theological Studies.