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Divination and Prophecy in the Harry Potter Novels (Part 3)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling, cover artThis is the third and final article in a series about J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels.  To read from the beginning, click here for the first article, “The Harry Potter Controversy”.  In this third installment of the series, I try to answer some objections that might arise in relation to the place of divination in the Harry Potter series.

Harry Potter: Divination and Prophecy

At this point in the series, someone might object that while I have dispatched the general problem of magic in these children’s books—magic is just Rowling’s metaphor for spiritual power—there is still the whole issue of divination, which the Bible explicitly forbids (as I noted in “The Harry Potter Controversy”). After all, Harry and his best friend Ron take divination class for several years from the divination teacher at Hogwarts, Professor Trelawney. How can this not be worrying for Christian parents? Doesn’t it cast the occult in a positive light?

There are several reasons I think parents should not be worried about the place of divination in the Harry Potter novels. First, divination is portrayed in an explicitly negative way in the books. Professor Trelawney is cast as a bumbling fool whose “art” is in fact quite useless. She consistently makes doom-and-gloom predictions—particularly about Harry—that never come to pass. Harry and Ron successfully get through divination class by inventing dream interpretations, faking their tea-leaf readings, and making astrological predictions off the top of their heads, thereby making a mockery of this “academic” subject. Moreover, Hermione Granger—the steady voice of reason in the novels—and even Dumbledore (the God figure) are highly skeptical of Trelawney’s practice. Thus, divination is cast in a consistently negative light in the books; if anything, the Harry Potter novels raise a welcome warning about the value of divination.

It is interesting to note that while Professor Trelawney’s words are generally portrayed as so much hot air, there are times in the Potter series when she does successfully foretell the future. However, when this happens it is never the result of her conscious practice of divination—indeed, on such occasions her words erupt out of her without her knowing, in a voice not her own, suggesting that their source is not the same as that of the superstitious garbage she usually spouts.  Moreover, Rowling explicitly puts these episodes not in the category of divination, but rather in the category of prophecy. For example, Trelawney’s foretelling of the conflict between Harry and Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Book 5) (pp. 840-841) is prophecy, not fortune-telling or divination. Thus, Rowling’s children’s books even mark the clear biblical distinction between genuine prophecy and divination, i.e., false prophecy.

Someone might still worry that it is a diviner that delivers the prophecy. Might the books not suggest, then, that it is, after all, the fortune-tellers and diviners that deliver genuine prophetic words, even if they do so inconsistently? Surely this is still something to worry about: Christian parents do not want their children seeking fortune-tellers for the odd prophecy.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. RowlingIn reply, I would say that, in fact, this issue is not a worry. Rowling’s overwhelmingly negative portrayal of Professor Trelawney and her art sends a clear message: diviners and fortune-tellers are not the place to look for prophetic wisdom. However, the fact that Trelawney does end up speaking prophetically at times suggests a subtle biblical teaching that should not be lost in all the worry: sometimes God uses unlikely—and even ill-intentioned—characters to speak words of prophecy. For example, in Numbers 22-24, God speaks prophetically through Balaam (a gentile seer who apparently practices divination; see Num. 22:7) and, stranger still, through Balaam’s donkey! The inadvertent prophecy of the high priest Caiaphas in John 11:49-52 is another example: God spoke prophetically through a man who was actively trying to kill Jesus. If the bible tells us that God can speak prophecy through a gentile soothsayer, an ass, and a wicked high priest, then I don’t think we should worry too much that the bumbling Professor Trelawney speaks the odd word of prophecy in the Harry Potter novels.

Harry Potter: Christian Parable

For all I’ve said to defuse worries about occultism in the Harry Potter children’s books, one might still wonder why Rowling chose to package her allegory in such controversial terms. Why not choose a non-magical parallel for spiritual power that would be less controversial?

Here I would say two things. First, I think the magical metaphor is gripping for the young imagination, and so her choice is a very effective one: what child—Christian or otherwise—has never dreamed of having magical powers? Having magical power has been a staple of my children’s imaginations since they were very young, and this has had nothing to do with parental prompting.

Second, the Christian reader should be reminded that Jesus often packaged his allegorical teachings—commonly referred to as parables—in highly controversial terms. Indeed, it was often the controversial nature of his parabolic images that snapped his listeners to attention. For example, consider Jesus’s parable of the unjust steward in the Gospel of Luke (16:1-9). Although the interpretation of this parable is controversial (see what I mean?), it seems that Jesus’s point is to use a cunning steward who looks out for himself by cheating his boss as an example of financial shrewdness. Should we keep our children from reading Luke 16 for fear that they might end up cheating their superiors? Surely not. What we ought to do is to see past the shocking package—which effectively piques our interest—to the wisdom and truth that lies beneath.

My final suggestion, then, is that the Harry Potter children’s books amount to a controversial theological parable on the order of (though perhaps not with the same authority as) Jesus’s controversial parables. If Jesus told controversial parables, why can’t Rowling do so? Christian parents ought not to get hung up on the outward packaging of the Harry Potter novels—on the contrary, I think they should enjoy the magical packaging as interesting and fun.  Rather, they should grasp the symbolism of the stories for what it is, and enjoy the familiar yet rich theological message that lives beneath the surface.

My general aim in this series has been to remove obstacles to these books so that Christian parents and children can enjoy them together, profit from the positive spiritual messages they embody, and appreciate the literary and developmental qualities of the books. If you would like to read the books, I encourage you to find them in your local library, or to purchase them through the links in this post or in the Children’s Books and Reviews Online Bookstore to support our work.

If you have thoughts on what I’ve written—whether you agree or disagree—I would love to hear them. Leave a comment below, or on the Children’s Books and Reviews Facebook Page!

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6 Comments

  1. […] In the third and final article in this series I will respond to some possible objections to my argument thus far.  Specifically, I will take up the issue of divination and its role in the Harry Potter novels.  Click here to read “Harry Potter: Christian Allegory or Occultist Children’s Books? (Par…. […]

  2. kfenton says:

    I had a short conversation with a mom at my kids’ school regarding the Potter books. I haven’t read them and neither have my kids, but I know they are very controversial in Christian circles. She, like you, thinks they contain Christian principles.

    My question is: Has the author professed this to be the case? Is Ms. Rowling a professing Christian? (I have no idea, but thought you might) If she is not, then how can there possibly by Christian principles in her writing?

  3. Aaron Mead says:

    Good comment, and good question. In fact, Rowling is a professing Catholic–though her relation to her faith is not without struggle, as I assume it is not for most any believer–and has stated plainly that one of her aims in the Potter books was to illustrate or parallel the Christian story. The article “Harry Potter Author Reveals Books’ Christian Allegory, Her Struggling Faith” says as much, and quotes her.

    However, even if she were not a professing Christian, it would be possible for her writing to reflect Christian principles, or at least the Christian story, in some way. Many have said that there are only a limited number of stories one can tell, and that all of these are found in the Bible. If this is right, in some sense every story told is mirroring some aspect of the biblical narrative. Moreover, you might think the redemptive story of Jesus in the New Testament is best kind of story one could tell–redemption and the defeat of evil seems to resonate with all of us, regardless of faith–and so that someone might just want to tell that kind of story because it is a great story, and not necessarily because it is the Christian story.

    However, for all that, Rowling is a Christian, and telling that story was indeed her explicit ambition (though she kept quiet about it so as not to give it away, or perhaps to turn unbelievers off).

    Thanks for your great comment!

  4. Elizabeth says:

    Very interesting article! I do have a question, though. Recently, Rowling has come out to say that the character of Albus Dumbledore is gay. How would that fit into the allegorical God archetype? Could she be trying to combat the growing theories that her books are based in Christian theology? Or maybe she herself hasn’t quite realized just how much her books reflect that theology?

  5. Aaron says:

    This is a great question. I didn’t realize that Rowling’s thought had been that Dumbledore was gay. Nevertheless, I don’t think this fact need threaten the theological interpretation I’ve given. There are several possibilities. First, Rowling could simply take a liberal interpretation of Christian ethical teachings and think there is nothing about Dumbledore’s sexual orientation that conflicts with her conception of God. Or, second, she could just think the parallel between Dumbledore and God is not to be a parallel that affects every aspect of the stories and character. In other words, the parallel might just show up at certain points in the stories and is not meant to be a tight parallel that holds throughout. So, perhaps allegory is too strong a word. Maybe there are just times in the stories where the parallels are strong, but that they are not meant to govern the character in its entirety, in which case differences between Dumbledore’s character and her conception of God need not disturb the parallel. Or, third, perhaps I’m just wrong about Rowling’s intentions. Even if this is the case, however, I do think there are moments in the stories where Dumbledore seems to take on a God-like role. Given what seems like an (at times) undeniably Messianic role for Harry, this parallel between Dumbledore and God does not seem too much to posit.

  6. snape says:

    great article…simply ILLUMINATING.It is true that many parents object to their children’s reading of Harry Potter because of relegious (particularly christian) issues. but the fact is that they are quite ignorant about the contents of the books which is the reason for their fear just as we all fear what we do not understand. if someone say that on a certain day he kneel at the foot of an ancient instruement of torture and consume ritualistics symbols of blood and flesh, we may fear that person but if we want to joint him in his rituals, all we have to do is to go to a church or a chapel on sunday and kneel before the crucifix, and take Holy Communion (courtesy of D.Brown)…Open YOUR MINDS and shed your ignorance and try to understand that beneath the magical or supernatural level (useful for enhancing readers and to acquire more consumers) it is the basic human values which govern the book. Whether Harry is in the magical world or “muggle” world it is the basic human values;respect for elders, teachers, loyalty,love and many more which are the teachings of Christ that controls and governs the novel.

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