As the new Harry Potter film marks the close of a series that has brought much controversy to our new millennium, it seems only fitting to reflect on what lessons might be learned by our journey with Harry. To echo reader response theorists Louise Rosenblatt, Donald Graves, and Constance Weaver, reading only results in meaning when we transact with the text and bring our own unique experiences to it. So in reflecting on Harry Potter, I share the meaning that I have found in Harry Potter as an educator, parent, and Christian.

As an Educator

Harry first caught my attention as I began my graduate work because he had an entire world reading. Young and old stood in line together swapping theories of what would happen in the next Harry Potter adventure. They dressed in costume and presented at conferences. They scribbled theories on walls about whether Snape was good or evil and if Harry would marry Hermione or Ginny. Communities grappled with this new phenomenon and argued about how the series might affect our youth. Some found it evil and decided to ban it from libraries—along with other classics like Huck Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, and Gone with the Wind.

Intrigued by the phenomenon, I read the books and in bringing my own experiences to it I found the Christian message of love. In transacting with the story—my knowledge of Scripture and Christianity collided with the tale of Harry Potter.  I also found it to be an invitation to reflect on my own struggles and challenges in life, and as I discussed it with others we found shared meaning. It became the topic of my thesis, a shared conversation with my children, conference presentations and a published book. Some found my work evil—but others found it deeply inspiring and found healing and fellowship. Importantly, I could reinforce to my students (and children) that reading leads us to understand ourselves and others--and also to write!

As an educator, I realized the true power of reading. The story of Harry is not really about magic—it is about good and evil, identity, healing, the power of community, friends, family, and ultimately about the power of love! Magic doesn’t solve any problems—love does. And there are many problems (much like our own): a struggling (and sometimes abusive and corrupt) education system, death and loss, tragedy, anger and rage, abuse, bullying, poverty and so on. In Harry’s journey, we find our own.

This is where I really grew as an educator. When we invite our students to read, we must also invite and encourage them to find themselves in the reading. We can do this by facilitating meaningful discussions and assignments that allow for students to transact with the texts. When we do this, we help them find meaning and purpose in their reading. That is why the story was such a success worldwide; Harry’s struggles with free will and fate and search for identity in the battle of good and evil mirrored the eternal questions of humanity. Thus, the storyline became a springboard for dialogue and learning among communitiesand in the classroom.

Yet . . . when educators attempted to use the books solely for comprehension checks and reading rate assessment, reading once again lost its luster (ex. Accelerated Reader programs). The lesson: reading is a powerful learning tool when it invites inquiry and sharing—but less appealing when it is used only as a measure of assessment. Learning is active and social—and so is reading. To have meaning, it must have intrinsic, student-centered purpose. For example, think of the difference between Professor Umbridge and Professor Dumbledore? Which professor would you learn most from? Which would you prefer for our children? In reflecting on these questions, you have just meaningfully and actively transacted with the text of Harry Potter—and hopefully took away some type of understanding that might be shared with others!

As a Parent

As I read the books aloud with my children, I discovered much of what I discovered as an educator. The books served as a springboard for discussion and sharing. While we read about the story of Harry, we often stopped and began to share about our own experiences. Since my children were in school and close to the age of Harry, they often found opportunities to share with me what they were experiencing in school—and thus I was also able to share my own experiences from when I was in school. In this way, Harry brought us together, and I learned much more about my children’s lives than if I had merely asked them the questions: “How was your day? What did you do?” -- which almost always received (and still does) the responses “Good. Nothing.”

Our discussions often grew to theological discussions about good and evil, God and Satan, and our Christian faith. Harry Potter may be dark at times—but so is life. Together, we faced many of life’s toughest questions and found windows for talking about what we believe as Christians. I talk about many of these discussions and offer resources for parents to facilitate these discussions while reading the Harry Potter books in my book A Parent’s Guide to Harry Potter (InterVarsity Press, 2005).

Now that my children have grown to teenagers, I have found the sharing relationship that we developed while reading Harry Potter has continued. My children have learned that they can share openly with me and trust me to help guide them. Granted—I realize they don’t share everything with me. I am not delusional in believing all is perfect—but I do know that we have a relationship of trust and sharing. And, they have shared much with me that I don’t think they would have shared had we not begun the Harry Potter journey together. Just last night, my son and I discussed the significance of the resurrection stone, how Harry was not meant to be Christ but rather to show our own call to be like Christ, and how the Deathly Hallows might be symbolic of the Trinity.

As a Christian

From book one, I found the themes of the Christian faith. Harry in the battle of good and evil was saved by love -- not magic. This theme continued to intrigue and inspire me. And as this theme continued throughout the series, many also came to find the power of the message. Soon, Harry Potter was not so controversial. Now—that many have finished the series by either reading the last book or watching the second part of the movie—the Christian message might become an even more powerful tool for faith sharing. Thus, the most important phrase of the series, “I Open at the Close” becomes ambiguous. As the series comes to a close, I believe it may “open” eyes and hearts and become even more popular and powerful (as hard as that may be to believe). Much like the Narnia series, I believe that Christians will now begin to see Harry Potter as evangelical tool for sharing about the Christian faith as they realize that Harry Potter was saved by love—and as Christians we believe that God is love. Here are just a few of the themes that might lead to powerful Christian sharing and dialogue and invite Scriptural reflection:

Original Sin

When Voldemort attempted to kill Harry and gain immortal life, he left a scar on Harry’s forehead and unknowingly left part of himself in Harry. This mark might remind us of our own original sin and the ashes that are often put on our foreheads during Lent. It might also cause us to reflect on the Genesis story and the origin of sin and our own constant battle with sin. During the final battle, Harry meets Voldemort in the Forbidden Forest. Might this be symbolic of the Garden of Eden and the forbidden fruit? Might the seven horcruxes represent the seven deadly sins? Or the seven books each reflect one of the seven deadly sins? (See my article “What Harry Learned: The Significance of Seven and the Power of Love”)

Free Will and Fate

Throughout the series, we are called to reflect on free will and fate as Harry makes choices, wins battles, and becomes angry with what he sees as his fate. Dumbledore reminds Harry in book five that it is our choices that define us. In the Deathly Hallows, Harry chooses to deliver himself to Voldemort. His choice to end his life results in the saving of his life and others. Even Voldemort in his attempt to shape fate—causes his own demise. In interpreting the prophesy, he disregards Neville and goes after Harry. In not taking Neville seriously (even after Harry is believed to be dead), Neville is able to grow into the adversary that kills Nagini (the final Horcrux).

It is also intriguing in the final book to see how all of the previous lessons and battles prepare the characters for the final battle. Also, the characters must work together to win the battle against evil. Each character brings something to the victory. All of the choices and learned lessons were necessary. We also realize why Dumbledore had been absent at times or had not shared essential information. This reminds us that wisdom often needs to come in small degrees and that we must be patient. Our struggles may lead to something powerful and meaningful if we allow them to and are patient in waiting for understanding.

We also realize that all is not what it seems. Snape was never really evil—he was keeping a cover in order to protect Harry. Again, love saved Harry. Because Snape had loved Lily, he chose to protect the part of Lily that remained—Harry. He also chose to follow Dumbledore’s wishes and be the one who killed Dumbledore in order to be part of a bigger plan. All of these decisions, cause us to reflect on our own roles and choices? While it may seem at times that our fate has been determined (as Harry often felt), God gives us the ability to choose. And, we are not in our struggle alone.

This also brings up the question of Dumbledore. Is he intended to resemble God? I don’t believe so. I see him as fellow struggler with much wisdom—more like a prophet or saint. Remember, Dumbledore in his early years desired power and control. He sought the Deathly Hallows and as a result caused much pain and suffering for his sister and brother. God would never have these struggles, for he is perfect. In the end, Dumbledore learned what he inscribed on his sister’s head stone: “Where your treasure is . . . there will your heart be also” – a direct quote from Matthew 6:19-24. And in learning this lesson, like any good teacher or prophet, he passed it along to Harry and his friends. We see this when Harry is holding the Elderwood Wand and thus possessing the power and control sought by many. Remembering the lessons of Dumbledore and Voldemort, Harry chooses to break the wand and to turn his heart to other things—like love.

Death and Afterlife

Throughout the entire series, we are called to reflect on death and the afterlife. Harry mourns the loss of his parents and yearns for them in the Mirror of Erised. When Serius dies, he seeks him in a broken mirror and also wonders what is behind the curtain where dead people seem to be conversing. In the Deathly Hallows, Harry is surrounded by his deceased loved ones as he walks to hand himself over to Voldemort. His loved ones reveal that they have always been with him. After Harry dies, Harry goes to a cleaner Kings Crossing where he converses with Dumbledore and wonders if it is all in his head. Dumbledore tells Harry that of course it is in head—but that doesn’t make it any less true. And when it is announced that Harry has died, Neville (not knowing Harry is alive) pronounces that it does not matter because our loved ones never leave us when they die. They remain with us in our hearts. All of these moments give us a chance to reflect on our own questions about death and the afterlife—to mourn our losses and heal. As Christians, we can share our questions, experiences, and beliefs. And when we (like Harry), wonder if it is all in our head, we can remind each other that: “Of course it is in our heads. But that doesn’t make it any less true!”

Trinity

What I love about literature is that it awakens my imagination and whisks me off to new places often out of touch with the normal senses. In that realm, I often find God. Many of the mysteries of my faith cannot be answered by the senses or science—they require me to believe in what cannot yet be explained. This means that I must imagine. One of these great mysteries is the Trinity. In the Deathly Hallows, I found a chance to ponder that mystery. What if the Elderwood Wand represented the power of God? The invisibility cloak might be like the Holy Spirit? cloaking us with powerful gifts that are often invisible yet present? And what about the resurrection stone? Isn’t that the gift of eternal life that Jesus gave us when he died on the cross and resurrected? And so, with these three gifts don’t we also receive the power through the gift of Jesus to also be saved from death?

So, rather than seeing Harry as Jesus, couldn’t we see Harry as ourselves? Struggling in the battle of good and evil and choosing to sacrifice himself in love of others and as a result being saved? What if we were to do the same? Do we believe that we will “open at the close?” And if so, where might the Deathly Hallows lead us . . . with our choices as educators, parents, and Christians?

Gina Burkart is an Assistant Professor of English at Saginaw Valley State University. She is also the author of A Parent’s Guide to Harry Potter (2005, InterVarsity Press), Finding Purpose in Narnia: A Journey with Prince Caspian (2008, Paulist Press), Finding Meaning in Narnia: A Voyage on the Dawn Treader (2010, Nimble Books).