Reader Response to Harry Potter in Israel and Iran

Here’s a different take on the spiritual understanding and underpinnings of Harry Potter from Israel. It turns out Harry is not a Christ figure, which makes sense in a way; but who would have thought that Jesus would be cast as He-Who-Must-Not-Be Named? Talk about variance in Reader Response…

And how about Harry Potter and Barbie as the vehicles of demeaning Western values and materialism? A note from Iran says a leading cleric there is concerned about the purity of the Revolution… I guess this is a big step up from denouncing Harry as a “billion dollar Zionist project.”

Where is Daniel Nexon when you need the Poli Sci perspective on the Global Harry? I’m not sure that exploring the spiritual underpinnings or postmodern themes of the novels is the best way to get at the heart of these news stories from the Middle East. Don’t look for Harry Potter to be on the Israeli or Iranian equivalents of A-Level Exams anytime soon.


  1. For the American Evangelical version of this kind of Reader Response, see Hog’s Head Tavern today and the Rolling Stone article on a Texas fundamentalist’s brain/soul washing exercise — with a bizarre Harry Potter exorcism of sorts.

    Amazing stuff.

  2. You can’t make a moral equivalence between some Jewish man making a (selfironic) joke about Jesus = He Who Must Not Be Named – and some ayatholla in Iran trying to be Islamic versions of Berit Kjos or Richard Abanes.

    There are light years of difference between the intellectual freedom and cultural openness in Israel and the lack of that same thing around the ayathollas.

    Remember that there are typical Jewish names at Hogwarts. She wanted us to observe the multiculturality of that school. And remember she said in that court of justice of the previus post that she was sorry, but she would not be able to write a book about Talmudic aspects of the Potter world. She meant that to be said out of respect to Talmud and Judaism.

    Odd Sverre Hove
    (Bergen, Norway)

  3. The commentary on Jesus as he-who-must-not-be-named is exceedingly ironic. It is not a suggestion that Voldemort and Jesus are related in any manner other than that in good Jewish households, Jesus is literally not named.

    As one Jewish comedian kavetchingly put it many years ago, “Jesus, the one Jew who really made it Big, and we can’t even talk about him! Jesus, a Jew with instant name recognition……except to Jews!!!”

    Hope that makes the humor and irony a bit more accessible Odd!

  4. BibleSpice says

    Actually I think you could make a pretty good analogy if you were looking exclusively at the Gospel of John, where Jesus goes on and on about himself.

    As a Christian, I tend not to think that Jesus was quite that self-aggrandizing, but pointing beyond himself instead.

    Now, you can make an excellent case for the Church as analogous to the Death Eaters. Even the name raises questions about Eucharistic themes and the quest for Eternal Life.

  5. Well – I’ve been wondering for two days whether to respond, John, because I don’t want to (1) start a flamewar or (2) cause any controversy, really. But:

    Of course, Voldemort is not Jesus. That’s a joke, I’m sure, and thanks to Inked for explaining it. All the same, to claim that Harry is Jewish makes more sense to me than to claim he is a Christ figure. After DH, I cannot find any Christian message in the “Potter” books. At least, they don’t mesh at all with my faith and my understanding of the Christian message. But, that said, I do think Rowling believes she’s written Christian books. An online commentator called Daniel Hemmings had an interesting explanation of this apparent dichotomy; his essay is called “Harry Potter and the Doctrine of the Calvinists”, and the link is here:

    There is some rude language in the comments, as I remember, but I just reread the essay itself and it is one of his more courteous ones, and very interesting, at least to me.

  6. BTW, Biblespice, I just wanted to add that I, too, had noted the analogy between the Death Eaters and the Church, and it made me very uncomfortable. Family members had noticed it, too.

  7. globalgirlk says

    Interesting article. I was very disappointed in the last book. Harry and company did some rather disturbing things. I’ve always thought of Harry as an everyman. I don’t see the “Christ story” in the books but I see him, as a character, making choices and the consequences of those choices. The last book just does not fit with the other six. I didn’t quite get the thing with the Death Eaters and the church although I did notice in the movie that the Death Eaters resembled the KKK. That scared me. Mary, the article was good and it did hash out some of the things that I thought were not right. I’ve always thought of myself as Slytherin simply because I’m redeemed. To me Gryffindor will never be the best house as they seem to have an issue with pride. Much better to be a Hufflepuff or Ravenclaw or Slytherin.

  8. Sayf Bowlin says

    I could not let this one slide. Whereas I am quite deficient in my literary savy, I know my faith. In reading the articles and the comments here, I have the following to say: (caveat – my fervor and time constraints will make these quite pert and apparently tactless; I am in no way attacking the person(s) who I am reacting to, but I will also be defending the truth):

    – There are a few arabs who were living in the Holy Land before the state of Israel was founded who might disagree with you on how “culturally open” they are. And if you blindly fly to Israel’s defense without knowing the whole story, then you’re no better than the Ayatola.(and I’m speaking here as a Semite myself)

    – The only person that Jesus points beyond to is the Father. And He does that quite a bit in the Gospel of John (count how many times he says “Him who sent me”). We need to be careful projecting the ideal of a follower of Christ onto Christ Himself. He can actually say, “Why yes, I am God.” and not be arrogant in the least. After all, it really is about Him.

    – I am struggling to apply charity in my response to a comparison between the Church and the Death Eaters. Of course, I could just be defensive because when someone says “The Church”, I assume they mean the Roman Catholic Church. But even if they mean the total of all Baptized followers of Christ, that doesn’t make it much better. I think that that kind of comparison requires a bit more articulation. Unless, of course, you are referring to the unwaivering devotion to our founder, in which case we are guilty as charged.

    – In a period when Christians are slowly coming under more and more persecution and our society is becoming less Christian by the day, even jokingly comparing Jesus to Voldemort is inappropriate. You have to be responsible in your public comments (like this?) and that was not responsible. Of course, discriminating against Christians is the last acceptable prejudice, so I’m not surprised. The minute someone compared Mohamed or Abraham to Voldemort they’d find their posterior in court. The more we put up with this…stuff, the worse it will get.

    Thanks, Inked. That was enlightening and funny!

  9. Sayf Bowlin, thank you for your response. I do not make the comparison between the Church and the Death Eaters at all lightly. And, as I said, after DH, I cannot find any Christian content in these books at all. As a livejournal friend, Anne Arthur, said, there is a great deal of Christian symbolism, but no actual Christian content. I’m presently working on an essay which will explain why I think this, and I intend to post it on my blog when I finish it, but, for now, I’d like to give you a little of my reasoning. Please feel free to argue with me when I am unclear, or, in your eyes, incorrect.

    To me, the message of Christianity is Jesus’ love for all the world, and all people. He redeemed us by his life, death and resurrection, and gave us the Sacraments to strengthen us spiritually and enable us to follow his example – right? And I think of the prodigal son, of the parable of the good shepherd, of the woman who lost a coin and then swept the whole house in searching for it, of the calling of Matthew, the tax collector, of the Canaaninte woman and the Samaritan woman at the well –

    Didn’t Jesus say that he had come for the sick, not those who were well? Didn’t he say that there would be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner redeemed than over 99 righteous? Are we not all sinners?

    Who, in the Potterverse, would seem to be the sinner redeemed? Isn’t it Severus Snape? Yet, in DH, it is very clear to me that Snape is *not* redeemed. He repents his sins and “returns to the father”, but is treated with anger and scorn, not a welcome. He works for years to correct the wrong he has done, but never gets to see Harry victorious. On the contrary, Rowling makes him the Serpent’s prey. The symbolism could not possibly be clearer. There is no rejoicing over the return of this sinner; on the contrary, he merits no thanks, no portrait, not even a funeral. The message is crystal clear. If you are a Slytherin, you are condemned to Hell from the age of 11, if not before. Nothing you ever do can change this, because you are not one of the elect. And that is not my idea of Christianity. No one and nothing is redeemed in the Potterverse. Slavery is not abolished. The wizarding world remains a nasty apartheid state, the sort of place, as I said once, that would tend to breed Dark Lords as a rotten log breeds mushrooms. And yet “all is well”. As for Harry, he never rises above the level of a virtuous pagan, if, indeed, that far. He lies, steals, brainwashes and tortures, and yet he never has to apologize for anything he’s done, and never has to thank anyone. That, too, to my mind, is not Christianity. It seems to me that the natural mindset of a Christian should be gratitude and awe towards the Creator and Redeemer of the Universe. But those attitudes are not found in the “Potter” books – as they most certainly are in Narnia and Middle Earth. Instead, Harry Potter is self-satisfied and self-righteous, and never repents of anything, though, being human, he, too, is a sinner.

    Have you read Dan Hemmen’s essay? If not, I’d urge you to take a look. Because there is a sense in which these books could be considered at least culturally Christian. But it’s not a sense I particularly agree with. And that’s why I’ve been absent from this board for so many months.

    I absolutely don’t mean to be offensive or to step on anyone’s toes. I’m just trying to explain how and why DH offends me. Thanks again for your courtesy and especially for your explanation of Jesus’ words in the Gospel of St. John.

  10. I read an article refrenced by mary above: “Harry Potter and the Doctrine of the Calvinists”

    I then wrote a cogent response, I then deleted said response by accident, so you will have to take my word for it.

    That said, if anyone takes the time to read the article I think that they will find it to be a rather smug and unpleasant piece of ‘Skeeter-esque’ character assassination based on incorrect facts, faulty ‘straw-man’ logic and unpleasant judgemental comments such as “JK Rowling self-defines as a Christian” !!! You have been warned.

  11. Inked wrote:
    «Hope that makes the humor and irony a bit more accessible Odd!»

    And I answer:
    Yes, thank you very much!


  12. BibleSpice says

    I’d like to be clear that I in no way think that Voldemort *is* Jesus or that the Death Eaters *are* the church. I am a Christian and faithful member of my church and I hope that my life of faith is not driven by an egomaniacal drive for world-domination.

    I do, however, think it is legitimate to discuss literary themes and analogy. In some important ways, the way the Death Eaters are presented (without too much depth I might add) has some analogies with the institutional Church (of any and all denominations) over the course of history. We ignore this at our peril.

    -Our sense of being saved can lead and has led to extreme exclusivism and horrific violence.
    -We have been known to self-aggrandize in the name of someone regarded as incomparably powerful.
    -The hope for Eternal Life can be and has been perverted so that evils means to that end are justified.

    So I think there may be something useful for people of faith to consider the analogy.

    I also think the “Death Eaters as Church” analogy also raises some interesting theological questions that need not be a matter of moral judgment.
    For example:
    -What do we mean by Eternal Life? The Gospels do not agree on what this means, and we would do well to consider this question for ourselves. One wonders whether the DE ever really thought about what it might mean to sign on for life eternal with Voldemort.

    As far as the VM as Jesus analogy, I was speaking of literary represenatation, not making a judgement on Christ. Jesus talks about himself and his mission and his power about a million times more in John than in the other gospels, where he is more focused on the Kingdom of God and what is required of us to attain it. I assume the Jesus of history did a lot of both. My point is not Christological, but literary. If there is a moral lesson to be learned from it I would say it is to be sure to read all the Gospels with care, and not fixate on any one text.

  13. Arabella Figg says

    Please allow me to drag the discussion back to how Jews (and others) might see Harry Potter in light of their faith. I found this touching article in August of 2003; it was one of the first online articles I read. I always meant to send it to you, John.

    It’s called Harry’s Magic Changes Jewish Child’s Perspective by Naomi Sable (you can also just Google her name, the article is the first hit:

    I find it interesting how other faiths perceive and recieve Harry Potter and don’t denigrate them for it Yes, we understand the Christian symbolism; others, though, may have surprising takes, at least surprising to us. It’s typical to filter story through our own lenses.

    Thudders and Big-Eye Foody are fighting over a kibble…ack!

  14. I want to offer a few thoughts in response to Mary’s difficulty in seeing the Christian content/themes in DH. In reading her more detailed response to Sayf Bowlin I began thinking about my own understanding of things like perfection and redemptive suffering. Oftentimes those who are redeemed become so through the sacrifice and suffering of others. Snape suffered, repented and continued to suffer throughout his sacrificial offering of himself as a double agent. These actions would, in at least some Christians’ minds, be proof of his ultimate redemption regardless of the manner or timing of his death. Others were redeemed and received the benefit of Snape’s suffering in “this life.” Snape’s reward would be seen as received in “the next.” Harry and company clearly benefit in “this life.” We don’t know what they receive in “the next.” Another important consideration as Christians is that no one is perfect. We will not be so this side of Heaven. Though we rightly strive for perfection we will never reach it. Snape was imperfect, Harry was imperfect. However, they both accepted suffering willingly (like Christ) and their suffering had redemptive value not only for themselves, but for others. We often do not see the fruits of our labors. Should we then toil less?

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