Pottermania Part III: Prayer and Other Defenses Against the Dark Arts

Back in 2007 I preached a series on "the gospel and Harry Potter." This series coincided with a huge cultural moment among HP fans: the release of the seventh book and the fifth film. Before I left for Collegeville, and in honor of the final chapter of the saga hitting theaters, I threw them up here on the blog. This last sermon was preached just a few days before the last book was released, and contains speculation about Harry's fate. I guess I was half right.



“Prayer and Other Defenses against the Dark Arts” Romans 7:14-25

Last week we talked about the nature of sacrificial love and the idea that there are some things that are worth dying for. “No one has greater love than this,” Jesus said, “than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Whether you’ve read the Harry Potter books or not, you have surely not missed the debate over whether Harry Potter is going to die in his final confrontation with Lord Voldemort. This debate has even filtered into betting pools around the world! Will Harry lay down his life as a sort of martyr against the evils of the Dark Lord?

There is reason to argue that Harry’s death might be required to destroy Voldemort once and for all—the two characters are linked to one another in ways I won’t get into here. However, even though last week was all about love and sacrifice, I am going to go out on a limb and say, Harry is NOT going to die. Harry will live on. You heard it here first!

I have no doubt, however, that Harry will come to the point of being willing to sacrifice his life. Because Harry knows that this is a cosmic struggle between good and evil, and in the midst of such a battle, the stakes are high. The Dark Arts, as they are called, are powerful, and fighting them has grave consequences. We have already lost beloved characters, and J.K. Rowling has admitted that major characters might lose their lives in the final book; in her words, “We are dealing with pure evil here.” (from the Wikipedia entry for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows)

The New Testament writers, too—particularly Paul—saw themselves in a similar conflict: they were the war reporters on a cosmic battlefield. Good locked in a struggle against evil. God’s grace vs. the Powers and Principalities. God’s Holy Underdogs vs. the Big Bad Empire. We know who’s going to win the war, but there’s still a lot of battle to be fought. This was the worldview of the first-century Christian.

We in our day tend to be suspicious of good and evil language, mainly because it has been so misused. Good and evil get reduced to a bumper sticker, a rallying cry. Americans are good; those who oppose us are evil. Or is it we “infidels” that are evil and the Islamic fundamentalists are good? I can’t keep track of whether it’s the Palestinians who are good (after all, they just want peace and a decent pocket of land to live on) and the big hulking Israeli Goliaths who are evil, beating up on those terribly oppressed people. Or is it tiny Israel, surrounded by countries that barely acknowledge its right to exist, who is good, and the big bad Arab nations that are evil? Who can say?

This good and evil business gets murky. And I guess I want to say that if it’s going to be murky anyway, then we might as well wade all the way into the murkiness and admit that there aren’t too many two-dimensional characters in the real world—very few perfectly good sheriffs with the white cowboy hat and the spotless silver badge fighting the perfectly bad outlaw with black hat and the stubbly beard.

No, the forces of good and evil do battle in the hearts of each and every one of us. Even Paul, war reporter on the cosmic battlefield, understood this. The good I want so much to do, I cannot do. And the evil I deplore, I still do.

There’s a fascinating device stored at Hogwarts School called the Mirror of Erised. Erised is “Desire” spelled backwards, and when Harry stumbles upon it, he peers in and sees himself standing with his parents, who died when he was an infant. He returns to the mirror again and again, spending longer and longer in front of it, gazing at the family he never knew. Listen to the warning he receives from Dumbledore about the mirror’s power:

[Play clip in which Dumbledore cautions Harry not to “waste away” in front of the mirror as so many others have, driven mad by their desires.]

There’s nothing wrong with Harry wanting to see his parents again. And not every desire of our heart is evil! But Dumbledore’s warning is Paul’s warning as well. When we let our own desires hold us “captive,” until that is all we can see, then sin has gained a foothold in our lives and, to quote another New Testament writer, “we are strangers to the truth” (I John 1:9).

Our goal is to live a life that is congruent—to align our will with God’s will. Like the man who looks in the mirror and sees only himself, we strive as much as we are able to have our reflection match up with the reflection of the person that God has created us to be. And the way we do that is not to lose ourselves by gazing into the mirror of our own desires, but to spend time losing ourselves in God’s Word, gazing into the face of God in prayer, seeking to see Christ reflected in people we would normally ignore or even despise, and then to be Christ’s hands, feet and hearts in return.

We know, of course, that we will never do this perfectly. This journey toward congruence takes a lifetime of work. But we make the journey. And our choices along the way do matter.

Harry realizes this early on when he struggles with his own abilities. There are four houses at Hogwarts. Most of the wizards who turned to the evil ways were members of Slytherin house. Harry was sorted into Gryffindor, a house known for bravery and valor, but he doubts whether he really belongs in Gryffindor. He can feel the conflict between what is noble in him and what is ambitious, greedy, self-serving. Maybe he should have been sorted into Slytherin, he thinks. The good he wants to do, he often cannot; the evil he wants to avoid, he often does.  Dumbledore puts his concerns at ease when he tells him that it is not our abilities that make us who we are; it is our choices.

The cliché goes that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I disagree. I think intentions matter a great deal. As Thomas Merton says in his classic prayer, “The fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.” Merton makes a choice to strive to please God and to trust that that is enough for this day.

Paul makes a choice too, right here in Romans. It feels very abrupt: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

In the midst of this conflict raging within himself, Paul makes a choice to turn toward Christ and acknowledge him Lord and the ultimate victor in this battle. Paul shifts the focus for us. Yes, there is an internal struggle, but, “All praise to God in Jesus Christ!” Paul’s faith in Christ is what saves him from despair and paralysis. In some sense it’s the only viable option—away from despair and towards a grace that surpasses our understanding.

This is the move that we make, by the way, whether we are confronting the evil within or the evil that lurks in the world at large. Because no matter how uncomfortable we might be with good and evil as categories, we cannot ignore that evil exists. We can tiptoe around it like the wizards do, who call Voldemort “You-Know-Who” or “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named,” but such euphemisms do not serve us. Refusing to acknowledge the darkness only increases its power.

But when we face the darkness, we know we are not alone.

Throughout the Harry Potter story, the characters learn tools to defend themselves against the so-called Dark Arts. Two of the most powerful tools are explored in the third book, which also happens to be my favorite of the series (I think it is the most theological!).

One tool is used to defeat the dementors, which are dark ghost-like beings that feed on a person’s joy and happy memories. The dementors’ power lies in their ability to suck all life and happiness out of a person, forcing them to relive their worst memory again and again. (I have friends who have struggled with depression who have resonated very deeply with the image of the dementor.) There is only one defense against a dementor, and that is to conjure a patronus. Watch as Harry does this:

[Clip in which Harry conjures the patronus and the dementors flee]

As you can see, a patronus is a powerful figure made of light, a protector and shield. And though the dementors are absolutely menacing to their human victims, they are no match for the patronus. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it” (John 1).

I think it’s no accident that J.K. Rowling, who is herself a Christian, named these protective beings using the word patronus, whose root in Latin means “Father”… and that she made the incantation “Expecto patronum.”

When we’re faced with the darkness—when we are confronted with evil—do we expect that God (the Father) will be there with us, lighting the way? Isn’t that the nature of faith? To see the darkness swirling about and to still be expectant of the glimpses of grace that will come?

Now notice what Harry does—the patronus goes before him, but he can’t turn his back; he must stand, and stand firm. God gives us the strength to confront the evil, but make no mistake—confront it we must. We must stand firm in the truth of God’s grace and mercy and say to the darkness, “You have no power here.”

The other tool of defense against the dark arts I want to share is a personal favorite. It is a defensive tool against a sort of bogeyman character called a boggart. A boggart is a shape-shifter—it takes the form of whatever the person fears most, which means that the boggart looks different to every person.

The incantation against a boggart is the word “Ridikulus!” But while one is saying Ridikulus, one must imagine something funny, something that makes the person laugh. Watch as a professor teaches a student how to do this and what happens to the boy’s boggart as a result.

[Play clip in which Neville confronts his boggart—the feared Professor Snape advances, but with the word “Ridikulus!” is shown to be wearing Neville’s grandmother’s clothes and carrying her handbag]

What could possibly make someone laugh in the midst of the fear? How can we stare into the face of what terrifies us and see it as something absurd rather than frightening?

We can do this if we know that, while the fear is very real to us, it is not ultimately true. What is true is what Paul will write to the church at Rome just one chapter later: that there is nothing, not death, nor evil, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor dementors, nor boggarts, that will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, who has already and will again declare victory over all the darkness and evil we might experience or concoct.

Just last week I heard a story about the city of Atlanta during the civil rights movement—how the Ku Klux Klan would often march down Auburn Avenue, which was the African-American center of town. Each time the people would see the Klan coming they would draw their shades, lock their doors, and cower in their homes until that parade of evil was over.

Until civil rights started to take hold.

Just when the tide was starting to turn, when people could finally see justice on the horizon, the Klan marched once again down Auburn Avenue. But this time the people lifted their window shades, threw open their doors, stood on the sidewalk and laughed, and laughed, and laughed… and the Klan never marched down Auburn Avenue again. (from a sermon preached by Tom Long at the 2007 Festival of Homiletics)

They looked evil in the face and said, Ridiculous. Because they know what is ultimately true. Evil may be real, and we dare not pretend otherwise.

But only God’s grace is truly... True.