SERMON – Stretching the Imagination – “The Wild and Wonderful World of God” Harry Potter sermon series, #1
I want to welcome you this morning to a special realm where almost anything is possible. This is a place where giants roam and unicorns play. In its pages we come face to face with dragons, the mighty leviathan and the behemoth monster. This is a land where donkeys talk, where water breaks forth from rock and a man is able to stretch his hands out over the waters and watch as throughout the night the Red Sea parts. In this Kingdom, people walk on water, a wise man is given a ride to heaven in a chariot pulled by horses of fire, and locusts that look like horses with human faces set upon and torture those who aren’t marked with the seal of God on their foreheads (Rev. 9). And sometimes, in this wild and astonishing world, people are even raised from the dead.
Never has a book been written or a movie with glorious special effects made that can begin to compare with the mystical, dangerous and awe-inspiring world we encounter in these pages. And I haven’t even gotten started on all that should shock and amaze us as we read our Bibles. For example, have you heard about the Nephilim mentioned in Genesis and Numbers – the offspring of angels and humanity (Genesis 6:1-6; Numbers 13:30-33)?
It is super easy for us to forget how fantasmic the Bible is. Many of us have grown up on these stories and we’ve heard it all so often, it almost sounds ordinary. Or maybe certain aspects of scripture make us uncomfortable or a little embarrassed and so it’s easier for us to pretend they aren’t even there. Or maybe there are little bits of scripture we didn’t even know about. For example, I didn’t know there were unicorns in scripture. That would be because they’re never mentioned in the NIV or the NRSV, the two translations I typically rely on. But the King James translation mentions the word “unicorn” nine different times. Numbers 23:22 in the King James reads, “God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of a unicorn.” The original Hebrew word for unicorn is “re’em” and scholars disagree on what this word meant. The likely theory is that it referred to a one-horned wild ox already mostly extinct by 250bc when Greek translations of scripture first appeared using the word, “monokeros” meaning one-horned. So likely, by the time the first Latin translation of scripture was written in around 400ad, this one-horned ox was as mythic as the fabled unicorn and the Latin translation simply used the word, “unicornis” (beliefnet, “Are There Really Unicorns in the KJV”).
This morning we’re going to begin taking a four-week journey through time-worn but still critically important and foundational understandings of God. Today we’re talking about imagination and its intersection with faith. Next week we’ll try and catch a glimpse into the nature of God. Week 3 we’ll spend some time thinking about the existence of evil, darkness. And our final week we will look at resurrection. These certainly aren’t new topics. I’m sure you’ve heard sermons on all of them before. But sometimes a fictionalized adventure comes along that helps shake some of the dust from our imaginations, lets us flex our minds and spirits in ways that leave us a little sore but nonetheless, help us grow stronger. All of you who survived the first week of summer weights should be able to really appreciate that particular analogy!
And this imagination flexing is exactly what happened when between 1917 and 1949 J.R.R. Tolkien was writing the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. A whole generation of people read these books and were able to grasp transformative truths in a whole new way. Of course, these books had a lot to say about mythology, mysticism and also religion, theology. Which makes sense, as Tolkien was a devout Christian. And these books ended up bringing many people closer to God. One of those people was C.S. Lewis. Tolkien and Lewis were colleagues and good friends at Oxford University. It was at a time when Lewis was really struggling with his faith and ready to retreat back into atheism that he read through an unpublished rough draft of a portion of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and spent much time talking with Tolkien and another friend and somehow there was a transformation that happened within those days and Lewis walked himself right back into God’s arms (Newsweek, “How C.S. Lewis Helped Encourage Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’”). Lewis, also a devout Christian, wrote the Narnia books from 1950 to 1956. And just as the Tolkien books served and continue to serve as a gateway for many into deeper exploration of the Bible and faith, so too did and do the Narnia books as many of us have personally experienced. One of those people is J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books. She has talked about how important the Narnia books were to her as a child and has also spoken about the ways Lewis’ books influenced her own (Wikipedia, “Harry Potter influences and analogues”). Rowling is also a devout Christian. She has talked about how she thought Christian influences, images, ideas were very clear in her writing and so was a bit taken off guard by the early backlash by more conservative Christians. Despite this, another generation is being raised on these books, and these books are also serving as a creative and imaginative gateway to God.
I will admit, when these books first appeared on the scene, I was leery. Only a few years out of seminary, I had been very captivated by and had done a lot of reading and talking about deliverance ministry, aka exorcism, with some of my professors. So I wasn’t so sure about the whole witches and wizards thing. One of my parishioners, who was thoroughly enjoying the books with her daughter as they came out, took issue with my opinion and asked me to read them for myself. I didn’t take her up on that offer right away, but waited until years later when the series was complete and I had Jonathan who was expressing interest. And then I did read them. In fact, I devoured them.
I have read my fair share of books that I felt exuded darkness. Stephen King anyone? Almost as if the books themselves were conjuring something evil. That was not my experience with Harry Potter. Rather these books felt like a force of good, something I wanted my kids to read and appreciate. And I left things at that more superficial level of analysis in the midst of a busy life. Then a couple of years later it was Becca’s turn and I read them all again and this time around I started seeing more depth. More lessons. More real-life applications. More pointers to God. And again, it was all good.
This third time reading the books over these last few months, I have been simultaneously reading several books by authors far smarter than I am, who actually dissected the books from a theological perspective and gave me keys I needed to unlock a whole world of commentary on faith, on Jesus, on God that I hadn’t consciously apprehended before. And a small portion of that is what I want to share with you in these weeks ahead so that maybe some of you, our younger you’s in particular, might be able to consciously wrestle more meaningful faith lessons from Harry Potter and his adventures than I was able to my first two times around.
But first, the whole piece about witches and wizards needs to be directly addressed because the concern is legitimate and deserves an explanation. And I’m going to be relying on some of John Granger’s insights to help me. Granger is a conservative Christian, who like me was initially opposed to the Harry Potter books and when his 11 year old daughter was given the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, he didn’t let her read it because he did not want her exposed to occult influences. Instead he elected to read the book so that he could then offer her more concrete examples from the book that would explain his reservations. He too, then, ended up devouring all that had been written to that point. Unlike me, however, Granger, who has degrees in classical studies and has taught Latin, was able to see beyond the surface story to a rich depth of Christian imagery that I certainly had not noticed on my own, but had only intuited. Granger has gone on to become somewhat of a Harry Potter expert and speaker on the topic. He has also authored quite a few books about the Harry Potter series ranging from literary to theological.
Here is his reasoning in a way too brief of a nutshell. Granger outlines the difference between invocational magic and incantational magic. Invocational magic, also known as sorcery, is the calling in of evil spirits, or demonic principalities and powers to come to your aid in your quest for power. Invocational magic is strictly forbidden by scripture. We want nothing to do with it.
Incantational magic, in contrast, is magic that at its best, attempts to “sing along with” or serve good or truth. Quoting now, “Incantational magic is about harmonizing with God’s Word by imitation.”
He illustrates the difference using an excerpt from the book, Prince Caspian, in the Narnia series in which Prince Caspian uses a magic horn given him by Queen Susan as an example of incantational magic. But Nikabrik, the dwarf, uses invocational magic instead when he tries to conjure up the spirit of the White Witch to come to his aid.
In the Harry Potter books, good and bad characters alike, use only incantational magic. How can bad characters use incantational magic? Well, they have free choice just like we do, to use our God given gifts and abilities for good or bad. But over and over again in these books we see the characters who make bad or even evil choices pitied, scoffed at, and in the case of Death Eaters and Voldemort, abhorred. And when questionable or evil characters use incantational magic for bad, in the end, it always seems to backfire on them and go wrong. Consistently, the heroes of the books, those characters held up to the light, who use incantational magic for good, while not perfect, are those who protect and defend the vulnerable, the lowly, the innocent – those who consistently strive to be Christlike in so many different ways.
And this is, I think, an important distinction to understand because so much of children’s and young adult and even adult fiction is populated by the magical and mystical. I’ve already named three examples. We can add the Wizard of Oz series, Mary Poppins and all the Percy Jackson books, just to name a few. But what sets the Tolkien, Lewis and Rowling series’ apart is the way in which the authors place pointers to Christ along the way through these fictional worlds they have created. However, we can only uncover these pointers if we are willing to let go of some comfortable assumptions and use our imaginations.
To be a person of faith takes imagination. In order for the Israelites to gather up all their splinters of faith and follow Moses out of Egypt, they had to be able to imagine a world, a time, a God that was greater than anything they had literally ever known. Most of the Israelites had never traveled more than a few miles in any direction. What they and their parents, and their grandparents and their great grandparents knew was slavery, was drudgery, was hardship and suffering. That’s what they knew. God didn’t send plagues of frogs and gnats and flies…God didn’t turn the water into blood in order to convince the Egyptians. He actually didn’t convince them with any of those particular plagues. God sent those plagues to resurrect the imagination of a people who could no longer see beyond their captivity.
So that when the call came, yea even with fear and trembling, they would be able to answer God’s call to follow Him. Where, they knew not. They simply traveled through parted Red Sea waters in faith with a prophetic imagination restored.
In much of the writing by the Old Testament prophets, we find things moving in the opposite direction. Life is good for these descendants of the 12 tribes of Israel. They’re landed gentry and they act the part. And so when the prophets come to exercise the peoples’ imaginations, they want nothing to do with it. Because the pictures painted are grim. The prophets use broad and bold stokes to cover the canvas in shades of nightmare. And so the people predictably refuse to listen. They reject the invitation to imagine along with the wise men and into devastation and exile they go.
Once in exile, the prophets step into action again and begin to ask their people, to ask us, to imagine a reality still unfolding. And this is a reality I mention often from the pulpit. A time coming when the lamb and lion lie down together. When the cow will eat with the bear. When the baby will play near the hole of the cobra with no fear. When death will have passed away. When sorrow will be gone. When a child shall lead us. If we’re talking about the fitness level of the imagination, well we’re at the advanced level here. You have to have a robust imagination for these beautiful scriptural images from Isaiah and Revelation to take hold. But here’s the thing, before something can become reality, you must be able to imagine it. And this is one of the characteristics of Christ we don’t talk about nearly often enough. Jesus channeled this holy imagination into his life and into his teaching. The Beatitudes? Yeah, lots of imagination required there.
One of the obstacles people often face in their faith is the inability to let go of the black and white, the safe, the known, even the scientific and grab hold of a world where a young boy slays a giant and a flood covers the earth, where Jesus calms the storm and communes with dead prophets in a blazing cloud of light, where a donkey speaks and people are raised from the dead. I had a college friend, a guy born and raised in a Christian family, tell me that unless he saw God do something equally miraculous in his own life, he wasn’t going to believe. Does that sound like a disciple we know by the name of Thomas? Both Thomas and my friend lacked imagination.
Interestingly the books which most feed and nurture our imaginations, other than the Bible, are stories written for our children, whose imaginations so often are already supple, flexible and strong. The adults are the ones who need this faith work out. And so I invite you, both young and old, to come along beside me these next few weeks into a slightly different world. Where giants, squibs, and muggles walk the streets together. Where Quidditch and Bertie Bott beans and Pygmy Puffs delight. Where Ravenclaws, Hufflepuffs, Slytherins and Gryffindors learn how to get along. But most importantly, where imagination is awakened, faith stirs and all signs, magical and otherwise, point to Christ.
 Looking for God in Harry Potter by John Granger
 Looking for God in Harry Potter by John Granger
Children’s Story “Animal images of Christ in Harry Potter”
Today, what I’m sharing with you, I really want all of us to hear. And some of this inormation you might not entirely understand. But hopefully some of this will make sense and maybe you can talk about this more at home with your parents too. How many of you have read a Harry Potter book or watched a Harry Potter movie?
What did you think? It’s kind of a fun place to visit in our imagination.
The author of these books, J.K. Rowling, she has an amazing imagination, she’s also very smart and she’s a Christian too. And one of the things she’s done in these books, other than write a really great story, is she’s created kind of like a treasure hunt. She’s hidden these clues and she’s trusted that a few readers will also find these clues, kind of like how Harry finds secret passages and rooms in Hogwarts. But these clues she’s hidden are all about God and Jesus. And I think her hope was that some of the readers who found these clues would then tell other people about them and the word would spread. And that’s exactly what happened. So in these books we find a lot of secret passageways to God. And one of those passageways where Rowling hid clues was in the animals in her story.
Today we have a few symbols for Christ and the church. Here’s one of them (the cross). Here’s another one (fish symbol).
A long time ago there used to be a lot more symbols that Christians knew about and used and there were a lot of animals that were used as symbols for Jesus. Several of these animals are found in the Bible. The eagle, the lamb, the ram, the pelican, the lion and the stag. All of these animals, because of what it says in the Bible, were thought of as images or symbols for Jesus. So if a painter had a stag in his picture with a cross in the antlers, you knew that deer was supposed to be representing Jesus. Now two of the animals I named we also find in Harry Potter. The stag, which plays a very important role in two of the books. And the lion is the animal that’s on Griffindor’s flag (show picture).
But we have three other animals on the banner and the communion table today. What are they? Unicorn, Phoenix and Griffin.
Griffin – The griffin is a Christian symbol for the two natures of Christ: the eagle, which is lord of the sky, reminds us of the divine nature, while the lion, which is lord of the earth (the king of beasts), reminds us of the human nature. Together, they remind us that Jesus, who was completely God and also completely human, is the true King heaven and earth. (Academy of Classical Christian Studies).
The griffin appears in Harry Potter as the name of the one of the four student groups at the Hogwarts School, Gryffindor. And it also happens to be the group that who is in?
Unicorn – Christian symbol and allegory for life of Christ
Legend that only way to catch a unicorn was to have a virgin woman sit in a field. Eventually the unicorn would be drawn to the woman and even put its head in her lap. In this way the hunters could capture or kill the unicorn as its horn was said to have miraculous healing powers.
So in the church, they kind of re-interpreted this story. They said the unicorn coming to the virgin woman in the field was like Jesus coming to the virgin Mary. The hunters stood for sin. The killing of the unicorn was when Jesus died on the cross. The healing and saving power of the unicorn’s horn represented the crucifixion and resurrection. (from Preaching Symbols). The unicorn also represents purity and innocence. In Harry Potter unicorns are in the Forbidden Forest and Hagrid brings a baby unicorn to his class to help teach his students about unicorns.
Phoenix – “The phoenix was a mythic bird of great beauty which lived in the Arabian wilderness. Its life span was said to be between three hundred and five hundred years. Periodically, it burned itself upon a funeral pyre; whereupon, it would rise from its own ashes, restored to all the freshness of youth, and would enter upon another cycle of life. The phoenix was introduced into Christian symbolism as early as the first century, when the legend of this bird was related by St. Clement in his first Epistle to the Corinthians. In early Catholic art, the phoenix constantly appears on funeral stones, its particular meaning being the resurrection of the dead and the triumph of eternal life over death. The phoenix later became a symbol of the Resurrection of Christ, and commonly appears in connection with the Crucifixion. In another sense, the phoenix stands for faith and constancy.” (catholictradition.org)
Where do we see the Phoenix in these books? Dumbledore has a phoenix named Fawkes. And it’s this phoenix that comes and saves Harry at the end of the second book, kind of like how Christ saves us.
We’re going to talk more about these images next week. But for now, I just want you to know that God’s world is very big. It takes a good imagination to try and understand God. And God’s world has room for things like unicorns and griffins. Keep your imaginations healthy and strong. That’s really important. (Pray)