A Great Writer. But - Christian?

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Title: A Great Writer. But - Christian?
Creator: Fabio P. Barbieri
Date(s): January 8, 2008 (between Deathly Hallows and Beedle the Bard)
Medium: online
Fandom: Harry Potter
External Links: A Great Writer. But - Christian?
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A Great Writer. But - Christian? is a 2008 Harry Potter essay by Fabio P. Barbieri.

The author's summary: "An analysis of the religious and philosophical ideas that underlie JK Rowling's Harry Potter novels."

It was one of fifty essays posted to HPInkPot, a section of FictionAlley.


A great writer. But... Christian? Joanne K. Rowling and Christianity

The defining feature of a Christian is faith. A Christian takes a certain number of propositions as true - not just in an abstract way, but as true as the nose on your face or that water is wet. And that is not really surprising: it is the defining feature of any religious or philosophical identity, from Platonists to Mormons to Buddhists to atheists. Christianity, however, places a strong underline under it, , by making faith itself into a positive virtue. Most other religions do not do that, and you will find that those that do - Islam, Mormonism - have a historical connection with Christianity.

Christianity, that is, is not just another word for decency. There can be no doubt that if a Christian lived out the full implications of the doctrines he or she believes, he or she would live a morally very impressive life; but it is perfectly possible, according to Christian doctrine, to be a Christian scoundrel, and not impossible to be a Christian and damned. (The letter of St.James, which is part of Scripture and authoritative according to every Christian body, makes the point in tight and memorable language: Faith without work is dead...€Even the demons believe, and tremble!)

Without going into the thicket of how or why, which is beside the point here, let us just note the basic point: Christianity is a doctrine, not a rule of behaviour, and a Christian is a person who accepts that doctrine, not a person who behaves correctly.

Which is why I was astonished beyond telling when, years ago, I was informed that JK Rowling was supposed to be one. A great writer - of course; and this I will defend in the face of all the snobs who think a simple style and a popular subject matter signs of inferiority. The bearer of a set of attractive, indeed noble, attitudes and moral teachings; yes, indeed. A Christian? Why? How? There was no sign whatsoever in any of her writing, of any understanding, let alone acceptance, of any properly Christian doctrine. In my mind, I had already placed her with the admirable heathens, a race by no means extinct today - especially in Britain.

(I had already defended her against the silly attacks on her use of witchcraft, made on her in the name of Christianity and even, alas, of Catholic doctrine. But that did not mean that I considered her a Christian - only a noble writer and nothing like a Satanist. At any rate, the Satanists I read are mostly dreadful writers.)

Once I found out that the information was true, I decided I would wait for the end of the saga (which looked within sight at the time, though it would take more than two years to come) before I made up my mind. And now it has finally come. And it has brought plenty of evidence about Mrs.Rowling's philosophy and beliefs.

It is agonizingly easy to imagine the retorts that some people are already working up. Who are you to decide who is a Christian and who is not? Well, I am nobody; but I have a mind of my own, and as much right to make up my mind as the next person. I have, and what follows are my views. If you don't want to know them, don't read them.

JKR's attitude to death, though noble in itself, is built on much less impressive intellectual foundations. Death is to be accepted and courageously faced; all well and good, though, again, pagan rather than Christian. Socrates said it better: And now we all go, I to die and you to live. But which of us has the happier lot, only God knows. And when her imagination raises the possibility - hardly inconceivable in a world where the Law of Non-Contradiction is abolished! - that a man may become the Master of Death, the response her intellect comes up with is weak in the extreme. It is nothing but a restatement in different terms of the old necessitarian doctrine that the acceptance of what is inevitable is true liberty. The master of Death is he who can look death in the face and accept it.

I find it amazing that there are readers, and adult and intelligent readers at that, who can find this a satisfactory statement; yet this is the place where the original version of this essay drew severe criticism. I do not change my mind. Quite frankly, I think that, here, JKR is escaping the consequences of her own imagination; or, rather, failing to find a real answer to the questions it asks, and escaping into a common and unthinking attitude. The issue, remember, is that of mastery of death; and to make "master of death" mean no more than "a person unafraid of death" is to change the meaning of words. Minerva McGonagall is not the mistress of Transfiguration because she surrenders to Transfiguration, is she now? Everywhere else in the novels, and in ordinary English, mastery means control, not acceptance. Here, it means acceptance. Even worse, it means a complete surrender of the possibility to know. Besides control, the word mastery means, in normal English, profound and correct knowledge; but there is no indication that the Master of Death in the Rowling sense of the term knows anything more about death than anyone else. At no point in any of the seven novels are we told anything about its nature and what makes it so terrible (given that the one thing we are told is that the mind survives - and if the mind survives, what is there to fear?).

There is a writer - and one, at that, from whom we do not expect such intellectual daring - who has faced the issue, presenting, however briefly, a thinking being who is master of death in the commonsense view of the expression. Stan Lee (of all people!) once wrote, after Jack Kirby had left, a truly splendid THOR story, drawn by John Buscema, in which Death stalks Thor, and Odin, to prevent his son being killed, kills Death. The death of Death is real and effective, and its effects on the world are shown briefly but with remarkable power: the swift increase in living creatures, especially insects, turns the world into a kind of hell. It becomes clear that Death is necessary, and Odin must countermand his own command, resurrect Death, and condemn his own son to die. (I do not tell you how the story ends. Go and find out. This is a favour I am doing you: it is one of the finest superhero stories ever written, and by far Stan Lee's finest moment.)

Patriotism, in fact, is a virtue wholly unknown in Harry Potter's world. It is replaced by provinciality. Nobody has to worry about the fate of Britain as Britain, or of England as England and Scotland as Scotland, because the world beyond them barely exists. The only danger known is internal; for all we know, Voldemort is active exclusively in Britain. Foreign policy is, quite literally, not required. Where foreign relations are mentioned, it is with shallow and uncomprehending hippy talk about unity and friendship which, if quoted, would sink Dumbledore's reputation as a sage. One gross failure of imagination shows how alien the whole concept is to JKR: the monument to the fallen in Godric's Hollow, which magically disguises a monument to the Potter family. Now, it does not take a PhD in history to know that the monuments to the fallen in Britain - indeed, all across Europe - were built within a few years of the end of World War One, to commemorate, on all sides, the unprecedented effort and loss of a whole generation. As everyone knows, every British village has one, because every British village lost men. But the Potters did not die in 1918. So what is the story here? Did Godric's Hollow, implausibly, have no Monument to the Fallen until the local wizards raised one to the Potters, presumably some time in the eighties? Or did such a monument exist, and then get magically transfigured, or even destroyed and replaced, for the one to the Potters? That would have been sacrilegious, an outrage to the dead. Either way does not make sense, and shows clearly that, where patriotism is concerned, JKR does not bother to think. It would have been easy enough to deal with this topic without being offensive, too: just add, at the end of the inevitable list of the village Fallen in World Wars One and Two, the two names, James Potter, Lily Evans Potter, in letters readable only by wizards. That would have placed them where they deserved to be: among the honourable list of those who gave their lives for freedom and for their country. And that is not because JKR does not feel the value and honour of dying for a good cause: to the contrary, it underlies her whole narrative. It is because, to her, history is at best a joke and at worst a nightmare. The mere fact that she had the all-wise Dumbledore allow the hopeless Binns to go on teaching it - with the certain effect that dozens of successive generations would leave Hogwarts full of ignorance laced with contempt for the subject - says all that needs be said about her views. (As a historian, I find them appalling. I had once planned an article on JKR's view of history, but I gave it up as too depressing a subject.)