Harry Potter, Martin Luther, and Martin Marty…

If you’ve never been introduced to the fascinating world of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, then you’ve been shortchanged a chance to read some of the most engaging reflections on the confluence of theology and culture, religion and politics. The Marty Center publishes an online journal of occasional essays, many of which are written by graduate students from the divinity school. The internet journal, entitled Sightings, “reports and comments on the role of religion in public life via e-mail twice a week to a readership of over 5,000. Through the eyes, ears, and keyboards of a diverse group of writers—academics, clergyman, laypeople, and students—Sightings displays the kaleidoscope of religious activity: a reflection of how religious currents are shaping and being shaped in the world.”

Today’s column, Severus Snape and the Transparency of Evil, is authored by Elizabeth Musselman, a graduate student in theology. Her brief characterization of the moral tensions raised in the bestselling Harry Potter series is worth reading. I reproduce the article here with permission from the Marty Center:

On July 21, children across the country will stay up all night reading as the narrative of Harry Potter draws to a close. Many adults will also stay up all night reading the final chapters in J. K. Rowling’s imaginative epic of teenage wizards negotiating the forces of good and evil. Perhaps if Martin Luther were alive today, he too would find himself drawn into the textual world of Harry Potter — for Harry’s world bears some striking resemblances to Luther’s theological realm. Appearances are deceptive, and human reason is not to be trusted; spoken words carry the power to defeat danger; and the ongoing struggle between good and evil finds no easy resolution.One of the most contentious questions in the online world of textual interpretation (blogging, fan fiction, and the like) concerns the moral status of Severus Snape, Harry’s “Defense Against the Dark Arts” teacher. Snape is the only character whose moral status has remained unknown through the series: while this greasy-haired teacher appears on the surface to be more evil than good, by the end of the sixth book the reader is still left questioning Snape’s motives and disposition.

Perhaps this is why in February Borders/Waldenbooks offered customers who pre-ordered the final Harry Potter text a choice between two bumper stickers: “Trust Snape” or “Snape is a very bad man.” Posters in stores pose the question: “Severus Snape: Friend or Foe?” The moral status of Snape has turned into an extravagant marketing campaign, and helped launch Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to the top of bestseller lists months before its publication.

But the mystery of Snape’s moral status is more than a clever marketing strategy. In the face of our cultural discourses regarding good and evil, the answer to the Snape question matters deeply. If Snape’s story ends as a narrative of redemption — a narrative pattern that Northwestern University psychologist Dan McAdams believes most Americans seek in the face of the contingency and tragedy of human existence — it will serve as a reminder that the human condition is marked by moral ambiguity rather than the Manichean flatness of an axis of evil; that goodness and sin exist simultaneously in all of us; and that the post-9/11 American predilection toward regarding evil as utterly transparent is unrealistic in light of the noetic effect of sin. If Snape’s story concludes as a narrative of pure evil, it may provide hope that in the end, with much struggle, evil can be defeated by good. But it will fail to reflect the struggle that each individual faces between sin and redemption in this post-Fall world.

The fact that so many people are so profoundly invested in the Snape question also matters deeply. Many of us desperately want Snape to be good not only because we believe that fiction has the power to reflect and to shape reality, but also because we hope on some level that people have the capacity to be better (as well as worse) than they appear; we know that the legacy of sin hanging over us calls for humility in our assessment of what is good and what is evil; and we believe that we will live less dangerously and more ethically if we acknowledge this fact.

Of course, the text has already been written, and Snape’s final moral status has been determined once and for all — it only remains for readers to discover in the early morning hours of July 21st. This reader is hoping that Severus Snape will, in the end, be trustworthy even in the face of his status as a very bad man — that he will, like all of us, prove to be, as Martin Luther put it, simul iustus et peccator, at once righteous and a sinner.

18 thoughts on “Harry Potter, Martin Luther, and Martin Marty…

  1. Thanks for posting this insightful commentary on the Potter cultural phenomenon and the larger theological issue of good and evil coexisting within the human heart.

  2. Now you’re adding witchcraft and sorcery to your little den of iniquity. I pity your poor lost soul.

    Ever consider an essay comparing your public persona to that of Snape? Think about it: a reputation as a “very bad man” but a slim chance for a heart of righteousness after all. You’re like the Severus Snape of the SBC, with better hair, of course. Just a thought…

  3. Very interesting indeed. I have read none of the Harry Potter books, but the same interpersonal tension between good & evil which Ms. Musselman examines in her excellent article, is given a cinematic interpretation in M. Night Shyamalan’s film “The Village.” (Of course for me, watching any movie is like examining a Rorschach ink blot; I see what I want to see. Others might see something else, or nothing at all.)

  4. Actually I think that was Hermione – she must’ve gotten into the Polyjuice potion again and nicked a bit of hair from dear Emily.

    There has been another debate running rampant among Potter fans: who will be the two main characters that die in the end? Up until reading this article, I couldn’t decide who the second would be (Ron is first on my list of two). As I read, however, I wondered if perhaps Snape will be the other. And perhaps he would die saving Harry Potter, in a very heroic and obviously sacrificial manner. That would freak most Potter fans out and really cause us to take a second look at him.

    Most of us who have read all the books (multiple times) have a struggle with Snape. As this writer points out, he does appear evil more times than not. As the books unfold, however, it becomes obvious there is also goodness in him; that he struggles with his own dark side and that it intices him more than even he would like to admit. And it repulses us as readers.

    Perhaps we see too much of ourselves in Snape and don’t like what we see. The outsider, the weirdo, yes. But more importantly, the one who seems to play both sides, perhaps far too comfortably and convincingly; and the one who struggles most with his own humanity. We’d rather be like one of the other characters. But while we admire Dumbledore, always wanted to be Harry, felt more like Ron, all knew a Hermione (some of us are her) and a Neville (again, some of us were), it’s in Snape that we see ourselves and our true humanity the clearest.

    My own dark side intices me more than I prefer anyone to know. I struggle and fight with it, but it wins more than occasionally. And I have, in my life, played both sides (good and evil) quite convincingly, so that each camp thought I was “with” them 100%. I speak words that have the power to kill, and I do things at times that are awful because of a sticky situation and a decision that seemed harmless at the time but ultimately proved quite cancerous.

    I so want Snape to be all evil so I can hate him and say, “you see. I’m nothing like that.” It would be so much cleaner and neater that way. But there’s also a very deep hope I have that he will be redeemed in the end. Because then, if Snape can be refeemed, maybe there’s hope for me too. Perhaps Jesus can redeem the darkest parts of me as well.

    I realize that as a follower of Jesus that last paragraph may seem ridiculous. But think about it a minute. Don’t you ever, in the most honest places of your heart, wonder if God can truly redeem the ugly, evil, dark side in you? Don’t you sometimes need to grab some hope of redemption from wherever you can?

    And as a PS — if you need reminders of our hope of redemtption, think how much more those without Jesus need it. What a perfect conversation starter this topic would be to introduce that Hope.

  5. Girls and All
    I don’t think any of the Harry Potter books or the Author of these books brings any Glory to GOD. Any serious Christian would not subscribe to reading of watching Harry Potter Stories.

    In His Name
    Wayne Smith

  6. This is a great post. Great point Lu about this being a conversation starter. Many movies are, we just don’t always use them that way. Star Wars, Matrix, Evan Almighty, Bruce Almighty, the list goes on.

  7. Ben,

    I think the article was a very good one. One of the things that we lack is sometimes using the culture to talk about a point. That means that we will have to look at materials that we may not agree with. Also, Mr. Smith There is a lot of stuff out there that does not bring glory to God. There needs to be line somewhere but I do feel that there is some gray areas. IF we drew that line then THe Lord of the Rings would fall with Harry Potter. We need to talk with out kid’s about the dangers of witch craft and that would be a valid issue.


    I found this video that has nothing to do with the subject but I thought it was funny.


  8. Dear Wayne,

    If I’m Miss McGonagall, I’m quite certain that I’m not a “girl.” I believe Maggie Smith is in her 70s. And, I’m truly sorry you don’t think we’re “serious Christians.” Forgive me for hoping you are wrong.

    Grace and peace,


  9. I’m a serious Christian, been one for 24 years. Believe it or not I also pastor a Southern Baptist Church. And I love the Harry Potter novels. They are not perfect. But they are rich in mythology, and as such have a tremendous amount of Christian symbolism in them (Remember what C.S. Lewis said–that Christianity was “True Myth” the story to which all other stories point). I have used the Potter books and movies to explain aspects of the Gospel to my children (I have four). You may not like Potter and that is your perogative. But please don’t question the faith of those who do.

    For those interested in the Christian symbolism of HP I suggest the following books–“Looking for God in Harry Potter” by John Granger; and “What’s a Christian to do with Harry Potter” by Connie Neal.

    Bryan E. Ready

  10. Ben,

    Neat article, thanks for sharing it.

    For what it’s worth, I suspect that the entire series turns out to be a rather involved Christian allegory. I’ve never understood how Tolkien gets a pass as a fantasy writer, but Rowling gets attacked.


  11. All,

    I wish you all would read how smooth the evil one is working in our churches.

    Research about Dr. Peter Jones and you will find that he knows of That of (WITCH) he Speaks.

    Dr. Peter Jones says in NewsCWiPP is a newsletter in which Dr Jones examines the effects of the New Pagan Spirituality on our culture today

    Here are the facts. Since 1980 church attendance in Great Britain has declined by a third to now 7.9%. In the quintessential English town of Kendall in the Lake District, the home of William Wordsworth, church attendance since 1960, except in one instance, has dropped by 50% while the town’s population has increased by almost 50%. At the same time, the “holistic milieu” has grown 300%. A Church historian states: “Britain is showing the world how religion as we known it can die.” The churchman, Peter Brierley, says: “we are one generation from extinction.” The demise of Christianity and the rise of pagan spirituality in Great Britain is called a “major spiritual revolution.” The proof? In Great Britain only 23% believe in a personal God while 44% believe in “some sort of spirit or life force.”


    In His Name
    Wayne Smith

  12. All,
    There was another Author who could not find a publisher for his book which written for His Children and all of us to Read to our Children.
    So he being a Man of God started His own Publishing Company called Tyndale House Publisters. His name was Kenneth N Taylor. You might also read how all of this came about, to God’s Glory. This Book is great for reading from and teaching your children. The name of the book is the HOLY BIBLE NEW LIVING TRANSLATION.

    In His Name
    Wayne Smith

  13. Wayne,

    I’m quite familiar with how the evil one is at work in our churches. I spent some time a few weeks ago doing battle in prayer with a good friend over the demonic influence in her home and family. But, I reserve the right to disagree with you that such evil influence is tied to Harry Potter.

    Since we’re offering quotes, I would like to present this one from Frederick D. Huntington. I think I’m more inclined to see the evil one at work along these lines, rather than in a series of fantasy novels:

    “It is not scientific doubt, not atheism, not pantheism, not agnosticism, that in our day and in this land is likely to quench the light of the gospel. It is a proud, sensuous, selfish, luxurious, church-going, hollow-hearted prosperity.”

    Wayne, I appreciate your conviction and the seriousness with which you take this issue. I hope you can appreciate our prerogative to disagree and act accordingly. Believe it or not, I do love Jesus and want to see his kingdom come. But, I also enjoy Harry Potter. If we are being deceived, I would appreciate your prayers for our enlightenment.



  14. Wayne: I know you from comments you have made in the past on my blog and the short correspondence we have had. I too appreciate your sincerity but this is truly an agree to disagree issue. I love stories such as Harry Potter and as you know this is another issue of debate among Christians which would put it under the “it’s a matter of conviction” category. There are many strong well known Christians who feel as Emily and I do such as Chuck Colson for example as well as one of the professors at Dallas Theological Seminary who is both a Harry Potter fan and a Lord of the Rings fan(which I am as well). It’s like Christmas trees, Halloween and many other things that are don’t matter debates among Christians.

    I respect your conviction, truly, please respect mine. It does not make me less of a Christian or less holy because I choose to read HP.

  15. Great blog & article. Thanks to her for letting you post it. Snape definitely is an interesting character. I think he’s an excellent example of great character development. Can’t wait to see how the series ends. Shame on those who are so closed minded to argue against a book you’ve never read.

  16. Poor me, I had thought that the Harry Potter book series was no longer the anti-flavor of the month among church folk. Guess I was wrong.

    You state that people should not read Harry Potter, because it is not glorifying to God. This reminds me of a fellow I once worked with who said all of the music and films I watched were sinful, because according to him, Jesus said, “If you’re not with me, you’re against me.” Aside from the fact that this over-zealous person had paraphrased the exact quote and taken it way out of context, the fact remained that he, like all people, do things everyday that do not specifically glorify God. The following is a list of things most Christians do that have a neutral or lesser value when it comes to the glorification of God:

    5) Poop. We all got to do it, and it has nothing to do with glory unless you have eaten a lot of fiber.

    4) Pay car insurance. After all, the goodly Ned Flanders believes paying house or car insurance is a form of gambling. In a roundabout way, I guess he’s right.

    3) Watch football. What’s funny here is that churches will even cancel Sunday night services to honor the Superbowl. Also, the fictional kid-wizards in Harry Potter have a greater sense of character and morality than most of the gridiron steroid monsters of today.

    2) Barbecue. Considering the ammount of animal flesh some people consume at these things. I would dare say they border on what I would call a gluttinous orgy.

    1) Celebrate anyone’s birthday besides that of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. As far as I am concerned, there’s only one birthday worth partying for. Maybe the Jehovah’s Witnesses are on to something.

    What’s funny is that the people who hate Harry Potter usually have no problem with The Wizard of Oz or Marry Poppins. They also tolerate the Lord of the Rings.

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