Let’s begin with enchantments.
In 2013, Westmont College in Southern California hosted an intriguing lecture entitled, “The Baptism of the Imagination.” The topic was the Harry Potter series. The speaker surveyed the heavily constructed symbolism of Harry Potter, showing it to be rooted in Alchemy. Please view the lecture to consider this premise.
The most common thing I hear from Potter fans is that they are on their seventh re-read. What makes a book so worthy of a re-read? What makes it possible to re-read Harry Potter and continually find new things (something I am commonly told)? Perhaps the inter-locking symbolism gives the series a considerable amount of depth.
However, the phenomena of HP is not only that it is brilliantly crafted, but that its message is housed in spiritual symbolism & that it is being received with global praise.
Here’s a headline from the academic world on the unique status Harry Potter has achieved (derived from this article):
Harry Potter Replaces the Bible as the Shared Text
The author describes his orientation week at the University of Chicago:
” [The Professor’s] question for us to begin our search for the fount of our ignorance and unconsciousness was, “What books do you all have in common?” He asserted that our grandparents’ great-grandparents…had had close to a memorized knowledge of the Bible, Pilgrim’s Progress, and Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.
He asked if any of us could say he had read all three of those books and had facility with the names of the major and minor characters in each. This was a pretty nerdy lot of teenagers but, of course, none of us could say yes.He explained that this was a tragedy… if left uncorrected. In a nutshell, we had no texts in common that could shape public discourse or guide our conventions. Bereft of a base in Scripture, literature, and history, we were a lost generation.
Five Cheers for Harry.
With the advent of Harry Potter, of course, this failing has been corrected in a way that wouldn’t have been conceivable fifteen years ago. …[Even those] who hate Harry hate him in large part because they fear the depth of influence he will have on young hearts and on the culture they will grow up to shape. Like it or not, we now have a shared text.”
Here is a stat to put a number on this claim:
“Having sold more than 500 million copies worldwide, Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling is the best-selling book series in history.”
(By comparison, The Lord of the Rings has sold 150 million copies.)
As a shared text, Harry Potter has created a platform for shared values on the basis of alchemy. This makes the works stand out among the crowd of fiction across time.
I am personally inspired by the precedent J.K. Rowling has set of master-minding a series that is not merely a metaphor of the overarching themes of her spiritual belief system, but a deeply logical work, built on an intricate symbolism, which then incarnates the spiritual journey of her belief system. I infer from her work that she is passionate about the transformation of the soul through the process of alchemy. I resonate with this passion, holding the same conviction over the transformation of the soul through the power of God.
Rowling has stirred this provocation within me: If my beliefs represent Objective Reality, then in turn, Christian symbolism should speak more powerfully than Alchemy’s, and prove to be more powerful unto transformation.
So here was the challenge: Could a Christian, using strictly Biblical symbolism write a response to HP, on the basis of what Harry Potter actually is, (not merely a fantasy series, but a symbolic system coded into story) and it be just as (or even more) profound?
I was compelled to give it a shot. I started by looking at Rowling’s structure, which is a chaism (All seven books mirror one another: book 7 mirrors book 1, book 6:2, book 5:3 and book 4 is the pivot. Its like a “V” with book four at the bottom). I asked myself a very subjective question: Is HP’s success, at least in part, owing to its chiatic structure? In essence, is chaism a powerful story-telling technic? If so, did God architect the Bible this way?
Thus, I reverse-engineered a theological question from a literary one. I concerned myself with the nature of story-telling, bridging from Rowling’s success of having her books read both broadly and deeply (over and over). I went out on a bit of a limb by postulating this to be the way God has spoken from the beginning. Then I went and tested the Scriptures to see if they naturally yielded a chaism, not a set of chaisms, but a meta-narrative of symbolism housed in chaism. Five years later I was looking at that Story, having found it to be perfectly situated, extremely precise, and this without doing any violence to Scripture and without theological gymnastics. It was simply there for discovery all along.
I now see the Bible as founded upon symbolism, to the extent I would say that it has a root system connecting its primary salvific message through symbolism. It is my hunch that symbolism is the only way of viewing the Sciptures in their native form, and of accessing their power on a primary level.
I welcome you behind the curtain of that personal journey and all of its surprising outcomes. This blog series is an attempt to shape a connection between Symbolism & Spirituality in order to awaken a deeper intimacy with the Christian Scriptures & their Person (Jesus). I am not going to unfold the symbolism I discovered of the Biblical Narrative, but instead invite you to consider what it means to begin thinking according to symbolism and rightly embrace its significance.
This knowledge becomes a tool enabling us to posit truth in a symbolism-embracing generation, corrects our fault as materialists in downplaying the spiritual value of things that we do not understand – such as a spiritually functioning work like Harry Potter, and enriches our faith – providing an unshakable foundation for our theology.
We have some interesting ground to cover in the coming posts. For now, since I’ve brought Harry to the forefront, I’d like to spend the rest of this post explaining why a word of caution is due him.
What is Alchemy & How does it work in Harry Potter?
Alchemy began in ancient times. Its development took off in cultures which lacked securing promises regarding the afterlife. Alchemists pursued health/medicine, immortality and riches. Their endeavours were the origins of modern chemistry. Alchemists paved the way for what we know about elements and metals and how they interact. In the first place, their goal was to create the Philosopher’s Stone which was a substance that gave a person the power to turn ordinary metal into gold.
However, as an alchemist worked, “out here,” with their hands to obtain the Philosopher’s stone, the process had a corresponding inward affect. The transmutation of metals became a craft of symbols. As the literal metals were transmuted, the inward energies were being changed. It was a process through which a person overcame their base nature and ultimately death.
This is all a pretty clear example of witchcraft, with the enticing outcomes of enlightenment, internal purification and everlasting life.
To flesh this out even further, here are the spiritual goals of alchemy:
“It begins with a longing for God, then the birth of a new soul that leads the old person in the process of transfigurement. The old person is gradually replaced with the new man. Eventually, there is a new mind & a new body as the soul reaches a perfected state and eventual immortality. In essence, the individual breaks up their earthly self to create the new person from scratch. Its a death of self-sacrifice, and then a joyous resurrection” (my paraphrase of this post).
Now, in Harry Potter, the protagonist, Harry obtains the Philosopher’s stone in book 1 and continues through the subsequent phases of alchemy until he is purified and overcomes death in book 7. How does this vicarious journey work on the reader? Well, Harry is your newborn soul who is leading you through the spiritual phases you need in order to purify yourself of your base nature and overcome it. You follow him through the story and he brings you through the inward battles, showing you by example how to overcome.
Here is what an alchemist had to say about it:
“The aim of this website is to show those who have an open mind and a heart thirsting for the truth that Harry Potter is a road map to liberation. It can lead every true seeker to discover himself and the world we live in, and to help him begin the exciting and immeasurable journey back to God.” (For the full article, showing both the nature of Alchemy and how it is the basis of Harry Potter, read this post).
As I see it, the path of alchemy is extremely layered as well as compelling. The promises align closely with Christian tradition while being entirely based on self. As a result, alchemy is rapidly joining hands in syncretism with Christianity (this explains how the author, J. K. Rowling can be both a part of the Church of Scotland and an alchemist without any cognitive dissonance). Its important to call this out as syncretism and recognise Alchemy as a form of pagan spirituality.
Symbolism a Fresh Quest
As a bi-product of its success Harry Potter has created a surprising opportunity for Christian theology. If someone has written a pagan work so tantalising that it is venerated around the world, so profound that its readers nearly memorise it, which also makes spiritual offers, and which has supplanted the Christian Scriptures, then what is the Christian response to that work? And if the Scriptures are more brilliantly composed than Harry Potter what will their impact be on a Bible-illiterate generation (not to mention a syncretistic & relativised world)?
This subject provokes timely and healthy questions. We’ve got to dive in somewhere – how about at the most basic level:
How do symbols even function on a spiritual level?
Come back next time as we consider how seemingly innocuous symbols actually impact us in The Magic of Symbolism.
I leave you with C. S. Lewis…
“Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as inducing them.” -The Weight of Glory: and Other Addresses, 31.