My book One Fine Potion is a reading of the Harry Potter novels and films that explains why so many people are drawn back to the stories over and over again. C. S. Lewis, a great reader as well as a writer, once wrote that we return to great stories because they give us something far deeper than plot; plot, he said, is the net in which those compelling things are caught.
In Harry Potter, the net is snagging the power of love and compassion, the spiritual necessity of community, the true nature of heroism, and the truth about hope for the world to come. I wanted to write a book that would let us claim these things consciously and cultivate them in our own lives.
As a writer, teacher, speaker, and preacher, my daily work varies wildly. On an average day when I am not teaching, I might be speaking in a church or at a university, working on the behind-the-scenes labour of authorship, writing essays for my blog (theotherjesus.com) or my weekly column on religion and politics at Patheos (patheos.com), grading papers, doing exegesis for preaching, preaching, preparing lessons for my Baylor classes, or travelling.
Several months out of the year, I step away from that life completely, to write books in places like Canterbury Cathedral, or St Deiniol’s Library in Wales, or Ghost Ranch in the high desert of New Mexico. I spend those days largely at the computer. That is the hard and sometimes lonely work that prompts most of my other activities.
I teach at Baylor University, the oldest university in the state of Texas (founded in 1845, which should remind you how new the United States is in comparison with Britain). It was founded by Baptists, and aspires to be a great Protestant university, just as our Notre Dame and Georgetown are great Catholic universities.
I love being able to address ultimate questions, and still hold students, and myself, accountable to high academic standards.
I interviewed U2 very early in both our careers, and long felt that their music inspired me to live a more engaged, compassionate, and courageous life. Shortly after 9/11, at a time when I was already suffering from life-threatening depression, and wasn’t sure I could go on any longer, their song “Beautiful Day” came on the radio and helped me through a particularly bad day.
I’ve never forgotten the power of art to, in effect, save someone’s life. So We Get to Carry Each Other was my attempt to note the important things that U2 sing about, and the great themes caught in the net of melody and rhythm.
I am a singer and guitarist, and since the book appeared, I’ve gotten to preach or play at a number of U2charists — communion services set to U2 songs — and have been amazed at the powerful response, even from people who don’t think of themselves as Jesus-followers. Jesus and U2 are talking the same language.
I knew that something truly magical was at work in J. K. Rowling’s epic. The final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, confirmed the Christian connections I had long been tracing.
They’re particularly valuable stories in the US, because they offer a compelling counter-narrative to the myth of rugged individualism and self-made men and women that has always shaped American understandings of life. Perhaps we needed a British author to do that for us. Harry Potter is a brave and determined hero, but he is also shaped and supported by community (Hogwarts School, Gryffindor House, Dumbledore’s Army, the Order of the Phoenix, Ron, Hermione, and Dumbledore). Without those mentors, teachers, encouragers, protectors, and friends, Harry could not succeed at the tasks set in front of him. Nobody is ever really self-made, and, in today’s world, no nation can stand alone.
A certain kind of religious person worries about the use of magic in a fictional story. I gave an interview a few years back with a British Christian radio station whose interviewers didn’t mind my writing about the movie Pulp Fiction, but were quite incensed about my liking Harry Potter, because of the presence of magic.
To imagine magic as the defining element in the story is to misread it badly. Magic is a tool for characters, like a screwdriver or delivery truck, an element of the fantasy setting. Harry is a hero not because he can do magic, but because he is brave and loyal and generous.
Rowling herself has claimed her own Christian faith since the outset of the controversy. “I don’t believe in magic,” she has said. “I believe in God.” And at the launching of the final book, she went so far as to say that the two verses from scripture that appear in The Deathly Hallows are the thematic core of the whole story.
So, although this story was not conceived to save souls, I do think of Harry Potter as a Christian epic, retelling the gospel story of a noble and self-giving life, a courageous and sacrificial death, and a miraculous and world-changing resurrection. Anyone who suspects that Satan is lurking about should read the books carefully.
I doubt that the Potter epic is a repeatable phenomenon. What Rowling did seems simple, but isn’t: she wrote a series of books that grew in maturity as her intended readers grew, she created characters that both represented the best of what we’re capable of, and wrestled with the human problems of teens and young adults, and she tapped into the biggest and most beautiful themes of literature and life. Her books convince us that there’s a reason behind the randomness of our everyday lives, a consolation for our heartbreaks, and a hope that, the world will be redeemed.
I’m a true lover of Britain. My family is largely Scottish, Irish, and English, and Canterbury is my spiritual home as an American Anglican. I also have several dear friends in the UK that I love to see. So I expect to be visiting the local, eating gooseberry fool, and sweating out summer days on the Underground for many years to come.
Most of my life seems to have been determined by choices I haven’t made, but I’d say the one blessed choice I prayed about, listened for, and worked toward was my decision to attend seminary a few years ago. My preparation didn’t lead to the priesthood, as I had imagined, but it did lead me to new ways of thinking and writing.
When I suffered from depression, I was slow to get treatment, slow to go to counselling, reluctant even to admit to myself that what was happening to me wasn’t just normal sadness. Severe chronic depression is often hereditary — it runs in my family — but I was afraid that if I admitted I had it and needed help, it would make me seem weak. Depression almost killed me. It did destroy my marriage, and not until I entered treatment, took anti-depressants, began counselling, and found a supportive faith community did I begin to get better.
One of the people who has most strongly influenced me has been Martin Luther King, the writer, pastor, and activist who changed my nation and taught me about authentic Christianity. During the long years when I didn’t want to have anything to do with faith because of the people I saw representing it, there was the witness of Dr King, always confronting me with his cool intelligence and beautiful phrases.
My all-time favourite place continues to be Ghost Ranch, in northern New Mexico. It is in the high desert surrounded by painted mesas, and it’s the landscape that the painter Georgia O’Keeffe painted over and over.
Joshua and Judges are my least favourite parts of the Bible. My favourite current passage in the Bible is Jesus’s discourse on life in the faithful community, in Matthew 18.
I have been angry recently because so many Americans have been displaying such ugliness toward people they don’t like or with whom they disagree. I’ve been upset at those who want to burn Qur’ans, at those who want to prevent Muslims from building worship centres, and at all of those on whatever side who believe that the opposing side is not just wrong, but evil.
I am happiest in the woods or mountains. I also love to be inside a beautiful church or chapel. Of course, a forest and a nave are pretty similar when it comes down to it.
I do Celtic morning and evening prayers written by my friend Philip Newell. In addition to his words, I pray intercessions as they’re found in the Book of Common Prayer. I spend a lot of time in thankfulness: I didn’t expect to be alive today, didn’t expect to love life, didn’t expect to have this success as a writer and teacher.
I’d enjoy being locked in a church with the sexton, if he would tell me the story of his life. I’d dearly love the chance to talk fiction and faith with P. D. James. And I’d like to talk with Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela about forgiveness and reconciliation.
Greg Garrett, Professor of English at Baylor University, Texas, was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. One Fine Potion: The literary magic of Harry Potter is published by DLT (£14.99; Church Times Bookshop £13.50; 978-0-232-52839-8).