Initial Impressions of “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text”

by Emily Strand

sacred-text-1I once had a professor who hated those little bracelets everyone was wearing at the time: the ones that said “WWJD.” In case that moment in history passed you by (no great loss), “WWJD” stood for “what would Jesus do?” The bracelets were meant to remind Christians every day, in every moment, to conform their actions to those of Christ.

My prof hated the bracelets because he was a virtue ethicist. In his approach to Christian ethics, moral character is more important to living a good life than mere adherence to rules or the fear of negative consequences. He also claimed inspiration from something called narrative ethics, a branch of virtue ethics. Narrative ethics points to certain guiding or “master” stories as roadmaps, as it were, for living a moral life. For Christians, the most important “master story” is the Gospel.

The “WWJD” bracelets annoyed my professor, and eventually me, because, according to the virtue/narrative ethics traditions, the phrase they bore signifies a wrong-headed approach to moral decision-making. They put the individual actions of Jesus Christ at the center of our understanding of how to live as Christians: “What would Jesus do?”

Now everyone knows actions are important. What one does matters. But narrative ethics teaches that we need to take the whole story of Jesus Christ into consideration, not just his individual actions, as we attempt to conform our lives to his, and to make his story our own. In our devotion to Christ, we don’t rush around with a basin, washing people’s feet, because that’s what Jesus did. Rather we attempt to see particular actions of Jesus in the context of his overarching mission to bring about the Rule or Kingdom of God: a kingdom of caritas, or the kind of radical, self-sacrificing friendship which transcends the bonds of sin and death. This way we’re not brought up short when we can’t find a corresponding action of Jesus to guide the particular decision before us. We can look to the overarching story for meaning, instead of scouring it for analogies to our modern life, which it may or may not contain.

The folks producing a new Harry Potter podcast, Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, seem, at first, to be taking a narrative ethics approach to the subject. The podcast’s tag line is “Reading something we love as if it was [sic] sacred.” This means, explain the creators, they will read through Harry Potter not simply for entertainment, but looking to the books “as instructive and inspirational texts that will teach us about our own lives,” that is, as identity-shaping narrative.

sacred-text-2My first reaction to the podcast’s stated intent is: if that’s all they plan to do, they are a bit late to the party. You see, there’s this thing now. It’s called Harry Potter Studies. College campuses around the country offer an array of Potter-focused academic courses. And many podcasts, like our friends at Mugglenet Academia, already consider the books as far more than entertainment, bringing top-notch minds together to analyze the books for their meaning and artistry. So in terms of approach, the Sacred Text podcast is not the first to aim at Taking Harry Seriously.

But the folks at Sacred Text are doing something significant with the books we love, and in a more intentional way than I’ve seen. They’re taking them as scripture.

I don’t suppose this means that the creators of the podcast illumine their copies of Harry Potter with intricate marginal designs in gold leaf, or carry the books in procession, accompanied by lights and incense, the way we do with scripture in the Catholic tradition. Rather, the website clarifies on its methodology page that “The text in and of itself is not sacred, but is made so through our rigorous engagement,” and later, that “Scholars of religion explain that what makes a text sacred is not the text itself, but the community of readers that proclaim it as such.”

If you, like me, are a religious person with any degree of devotion to your own scriptures, you may feel the need to pick your chin up off the floor about now. But why should this shock us? Shame on us religious dupes for being surprised at Sacred Text’s substitution of Potter for scripture. Mircea Eliade told us this would happen – was happening – in the late 1950s. Eliade assured his readers that non-religious human being (who, some studies show, could make up 15% of the global population), new though he is in the history of humanity, is an inheritor nonetheless. He descends from a religious species, whether he likes to or not. Indeed, “he continues to be haunted by the realities that he has refused and denied.” (The Sacred and the Profane, 1959) Eliade said a whole volume could be penned on the different ways in which non-religious humans express their deep-set, inherited religious instincts: “the mythologies camouflaged in the plays that he enjoys, in the books that he reads…” So the idea that, when folks encounter books steeped in mythology, and it triggers in them a mythological response, such as a desire to treat the text as sacred when it’s really a kid’s story made-up by a lady in Scotland, should not surprise us.

What is striking to me about Sacred Text’s approach is their claim that certain texts – particularly, the ones which they choose to engage with rigor, in community – are sacred. Their thoroughgoing, logic-defying relativism in claiming the potential for some kind of universal significance in a particular text, simply because readers choose to engage with it rigorously, is what I find baffling. Because, according to their methodology, if I wanted to engage Fifty Shades of Grey or Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs with enough rigor and in community with others, those texts, too, would become sacred scripture. For me and my little community. It sort of evacuates the words “sacred” and “scripture” of their traditional meanings. But maybe that’s the point.

So my old professor’s complaint about those “WWJD” bracelets is something of an analogy forbracelet-wwjd my initial impression of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. The bracelets encouraged wearers to look to the individual actions of the person of Jesus Christ as authoritative, instead of the Master Story from which all those actions flow with integrity: the Gospel. And this new podcast looks at Harry Potter – which, at its core, is an expression of and reflection on the story of Jesus Christ – without regard for its most influential source material: the Gospel. But the podcast goes beyond disregarding this source material (which plenty of others have done as well), attempting to replace the scripture story on which it’s based, with Potter itself becoming the “sacred text”.

So WWHD? In my next post, I’ll look at the first couple episodes of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text to discover whether the podcast, with its hyper-individualized notion of what counts as sacred, reveals anything new or surprising about our favorite books. Or whether it simply reveals stuff about us.

Stay tuned, and feel free to add your impressions of Sacred Text in the comments below.

Comments

  1. Thank you, Prof Strand, for this important and urgent examination of the faux faith growing up around popular phenomenon like Harry Potter. We need to have bright line distinctions between the use of the Eliade Thesis — that fiction serves a mythological or religious function in a profanized world and those texts delivering the greater self transcending experience will be the most popular — and the attempts of the Religious Studies professoriate to sacralize these texts because of said experience. The latter are only reflections of the core beliefs in relativism or subjectivism which is to say “in nothing,” that allows the equivocation of YA fiction and revealed scripture.

    Again, my thanks for this important and urgent response to the category and thinking errors of ‘Harry Potter as Sacred Text.’

  2. wow… I mean I shouldn’t be surprised, but yet… to see it actually exhibited like this?

  3. I really have mixed feelings about this new podcast and the idea of Harry Potter being a sacred text. My jaw dropped as well when reading Professor Strand’s article as my initial thought was: how on earth could Harry Potter be considered holy? However, if a more secular definition of ‘sacred’ is applied: something “highly valued and important; deserving of great respect,” it may not be all that surprising. Considering the debates about canon and the fervent views that even JKR herself cannot add to the 7 book canon, we already ‘bear witness’ to the elevation of the text to something beyond the ordinary. Great debate! Thanks for the post!

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